Sunday, March 1, 2015

Writing Reviews

I belong to a number of writing groups and most of us are not shy about posting our views on any number of subjects.  But nothing brings a thread alive like the discussion of reviews!

Recently one of our new but reasonably successful authors posted a comment that she didn't think she could read reviews anymore because anything less than a five star review hurt her feelings.  So, unless every reader said her book was brilliant and they loved it her feelings would be hurt? I sat there and thought, "Wow - I wonder if she loves every book she has ever bought." But what surprised me even more was how so many authors commiserated with her.  They comforted her with the words that if she only had five star reviews people would think that it was just her close friends who were leaving reviews.  I personally didn't trust myself to comment because there are so many writers who would be happy to get any reviews, especially four star reviews.

Much will be written about how to write a review by other bloggers and by the admins of various reader groups, but whenever I have been asked to review a book my one condition is that I will be honest.  I have written over a hundred reviews for books and  there are a handful of one star reviews.  I shudder to think what the writer above would have to say if she got a one star review but I stand by those one star reviews, even though I regret any pain it may have caused the author.

I understand when writers say that some reviews are not helpful.  As a reader and an author there are reviews that I find irritating.  Someone who leaves a three star review and leaves the comment, "Not for me" is not helpful.  If books are too graphic, or not a subject that the reviewer finds interesting, say that.  "Not for me," is not a review it is an opinion.

But my post today is for those who say, "Well, unless a book is worthy of three stars I don't leave a review." They comfort themselves with the thought that they are sparing the writer's feelings and to some degree they may accomplish that but they haven't helped the writer much.  You see if a writer sees that their book has sold ten copies and there are no reviews they may be left with the understanding that everyone thought it was so bad that it didn't deserve one three star review.  That will also hurt their feelings. So, your options are, you can do no review and hurt the author's feelings or a two star review with an explanation of why they only got two stars. That review might hurt but it also might help them to become better writers. Of the two scenarios I would prefer the latter.

Now, for my fellow writers who may agree with me in thought, but their hearts are screaming no, let me explain how I as a reader review books. Not everyone will agree with me, but hopefully you will start to see your critics in a slightly different light.

1.  If you have a write-up that compares you to another great author, the bar has been set too high.  I purchased a book that said in the write-up that the protagonist was another Miss Marple. Let me remind everyone Dame Agatha Christie is the author of Miss Marple and she was given her title by the Queen for her contribution to literature! If your book write-up forces the comparison between you and Dame Agatha Christie, expect the reviews to be a little harsh if your book falls short of her standards. It is one thing if your reader makes that comparison but you should never make that comparison.

2.  I don't buy into the view that says write about what you know. I don't like to think of growing up without Star Wars and I am fairly certain George Lucas didn't "know" the galaxy that he wrote about. That said, I know absolutely nothing about law enforcement in Greece.  If I wrote a police procedural set in Greece, it is likely to lack credibility and the readers will end up feeling short changed and a little annoyed and I should expect a couple of stars to be removed for a book like that.

3.  Beware of your protagonists ego.  Anyone who is not a writer and reads that maybe thinking to themselves, "Well, you wrote the book, why do you have to beware?" Any writer will smile because there are times when it seems as though the characters have taken over the story and we are just there to transcribe. Many of us have the tendency to write our hero/heroine as all things brave, wonderful, brilliant etc etc and every one else around them, just a tad slow.  It is not easy to see when you are writing the book but a reader will lose interest if one character takes over the story completely.

4.  Always keep in mind you don't love every book you have bought so neither will your readers.  Some books you may not have finished but simply passed them on to friends who have said they are looking for something to read.  They may have loved it or they may have agreed with you.  As a reviewer I always try not to let personal feelings get in the way.  I may not have loved the book I am reviewing but if it is well written, characters well developed and the plot moves at a good pace, but it is just not my genre, I try not to let that affect my judgement.  I won't say that I am 100% successful but I do try to be fair.

Now, here are some of my "don'ts" when writing reviews. Don't attack the author, critique the book. Don't attack the sales of the book, Dan Brown used to be an unknown. Don't criticize views, beliefs or politics of the author because of a book they have written.  It's a book not a manifesto. Don't be petty, a few spelling mistakes or grammar errors doesn't destroy the whole book. They are telling a story - not giving a grammar lesson.  Editors are expensive and in the tens of thousands of words that are written, three errors is less than a hundredth of a percent.

Reviews are necessary in today's literary world.  Without reviews a book will sit at the two million mark on the best seller list.  But reviews should not only help the person or entity marketing the book, it should help other readers and hopefully the writers as well.

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