Writer Wednesday: Rethinking Reviews

There’s been a lot of fuss lately, on blogs and forums, about book reviews. Some writers feel reviews should be all about constructive criticism of the book. Others feel reviews are strictly for readers, to help them decide whether to read the book or not.

As a writer, reader, and reviewer, I firmly believe reviews are for readers. If an author gleans some nugget of helpful information from my review to help her make her next book better, so much the better. But my primary goal when I write a review is to share my thoughts about the book with potential readers. I’ve been fortunate in that all the authors whose books I’ve reviewed have been very professional and classy in their responses. Not all reviewers are so lucky.

Reviewer School?

Reviewers are coming out of the woodwork lately – far too many for authors to begin to keep up with all the reviews. Multiple reviews of the same book can be a good thing for readers, making the decision of where to spend their book $$ a little easier. But so many reviewers also means that not all reviews are created equally, to the consternation of some.

One writer recently accused a reviewer of not being ‘professional’, and not knowing how to write. Since when are reviewers required to be professional? How do they achieve that status? Is it some kind of correspondence school, or a degree at a major university?

Seriously, reviewers are readers. Nothing more. Some are highly educated professionals, some never finished high school, and everything in between. They’re all readers. Some have a great deal of sway over other readers, and within the publishing industry, while some influence only a few people, but they’re all still just readers. They won’t like some books. They’ll love others. It’s a fact of life.

Reviewers Behaving Badly

Most reviewers write tactful comments, and find something positive about even horrid books. They are simply sharing their reading experience, not trying to hurt the author’s feelings. But a few reviewers seem to take perverse pleasure in tearing out authors’ hearts. They find the snarkiest ways possible to criticize every aspect of a book, and if they can elicit an emotional response from the author, so much the better. Even better if that response (more about this later) is public and makes the author look bad. Thankfully, that kind of reviewer is rare.

Writers Behaving Badly

We’ve all heard of authors, some of them well-known and prominent, who spouted off at what they considered bad reviews. They’ve launched tirades against Amazon reviews, blogs, and newspaper/magazine reviewers alike. Anyone says something bad about their baby… uh, book, and they jump to its defense.

As a writer, I would be hurt if someone trashed my work publicly, especially in a hurtful way. But I’ll be damned if I would justify that kind of thing by responding in kind. To publicly argue with a reviewer, or any reader, is to magnify any attention their comments may already have drawn.

Those outbursts make authors look unprofessional, at best. Some, not content to leave well enough alone after the initial response, insist on dragging it out. Whether the reviewer responds or not, they fire volley after volley in defense of their work. And end up looking like a petulant child, a speshul snowfwake who must be handled with kid gloves.

Some readers will buy the book, just to see what all the fuss is about. I think the majority will just stand by and watch the train wreck, while they re-assess whether or not to buy any more of that author’s books.

The Bad Publicity is Better Than No Publicity theory might work for that one book, increasing sales. A few people who wouldn’t have otherwise bought it, will like it, and buy more of the author’s work. Most, though, are just curious, rubbernecking as they pass the pile-up. Those ‘sensation’ sales might not make up for the loyal readers who refuse to buy anything else by the author, because of her childish behavior.

So, what’s the correct response to a bad review? NONE. At most, a friendly “I’m sorry you didn’t like it”. The best advice I ever read about responding to any kind of review was really simple. DON’T. If politeness compels you to respond, a simple “Thanks for reviewing my book” will do. Anything more, and you run the risk of looking petulant in response to bad reviews, or like you asked your friends for a good review. Neither is a flattering view of an author.

Great Expectations (I know, I know, just couldn’t resist.)

I expect constructive criticism from my critique partners, beta readers, and, when the time comes, my editor. All before the book is published. I expect criticism from at least some reviewers, some readers, but not all.

If I (and my critique partners, beta readers, and editor) have done my job, my writing will elicit some kind of emotional response within my readers. Some readers won’t like the feeling they get from my writing, while some will. That’s what makes writing so satisfying. Every piece means something different to every reader.

Since reviewers are readers, some aren’t going to like how my work makes them feel. I expect that. I expect them to tell everyone if they dislike it. If they also tell everyone they do like some parts, so much the better. It would be great if they could tell me why they did, or didn’t like it, but I don’t expect that from them.

What I also don’t expect is for them to tell me how to do a better job next time. Figuring out how to improve my work is up to me, with the help of my critique partners, beta readers, and editors. If readers want to offer suggestions, fine, but I don’t expect them to do my job for me.

What do you think? Should reviews always offer constructive criticism? How should writers respond to reviews?

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Writer Wednesday: 4 Questions to Determine How Many POVs

I know you’ve seen them. Maybe even sailed a couple across the room. Those books. The ones with so many POV characters you feel like the guy in the old TV show Quantum Leap. You’re never with one long enough to get to really know them before the author tosses you into another one.

It’s difficult to understand why the author would choose to the POV of even the shopkeeper’s wife, detailing her affair with the baker’s daughter, when none of the three have a significant role in the story, and the affair doesn’t cause or resolve conflict for the main characters.

Sure, it’s tempting to show the reader every aspect of the story, to make sure they understand all the undercurrents and motives. If you’re like me, you put  a ton of work into your characters, even the minor ones. I’m even proud of the unnamed hotel clerk Kiellen questions in BLOOD DRAGON. I think he comes across really well. But I didn’t use his POV to show the reader that the reason he’s so surly is because he doesn’t sleep well because of the nightmares replaying his brother’s death every night. The reader didn’t need to know that, even though it would have added some interest. It didn’t move the story forward, so it didn’t belong. So the surly hotel clerk didn’t have a POV.

How do you decide how many POV characters?
Recently, I noticed several people on a message board discussing how to know which POVs to keep in one of their finished drafts. To decide which POVs my book absolutely needs, I ask myself several questions:
  1.   How many POVs are absolutely necessary to tell the story?
  2.  Is one (or more) of the POVs showing events that another POV character already knows? If so, that POV probably isn’t really necessary.
  3. Is the primary reason for one or more POVs to show development of that POV character? If so, it can most likely be shown through another character’s POV. Intimate details might not be necessary, or might be shared with another character in order to show them. As a reader, I don’t want intimate details from every single character, only from the protagonist(s) and antagonist, and possibly one other pivotal character.
  4.  Is the primary reason to show a character’s ‘side of the story’? Is that side of the story necessary, or redundant? Does the reader absolutely NEED to know that side of the story in order to understand the story? If so, is it possible to show the necessary information from one of the other POVs?

Every POV character we add is another complication for the reader to understand, so the minimum POVs that are absolutely required to tell the story makes it easier for the reader to understand the entire story. At the same time, we have to trust the reader to understand, without every single dot being connected.

As a reader, I prefer 3rd person, but will sometimes read 1st person if it’s well done. In 1st person, if there are more than 2 POV’s, it’s really unlikely I will read the book. In 3rd person, that magic number is 3.Of course, there are books with sweeping, multifaceted plots that simply can NOT be shown in 3 or fewer POVs, particularly if events are taking place in two or more separate locations, with no overlap in characters. I’m okay with those, too, as long as there are no extraneous POVs. IMO, unnecessary POV characters is usually the sign of a beginner, or lazy writing – not always, but often. Writers strive for clarity in their writing, and additional POVs just muddy the waters.
What do you do to determine how many POV characters a story needs? Do you plot it out ahead, planning which character will show which parts of the story? Or do you play it by ear? Or some combination?