A fellow author, Rose Montague, author of Jade, posted an open query yesterday on one of her social media pages concerning reading other writer’s material. Since making a brief post on that thread yesterday I’ve been giving the matter some additional thought.
Let’s start off with a qualification. Writers may seem the natural sort of person to approach for feedback on something you have written but if you submit your manuscript to an author for review be sure you have a thick skin. You see, your fellow writers can be brutally honest sorts. Also the more experience we have in dealing with editors, the more little quirky things we pick up and hone in on. In other words, be prepared to be told your baby is ugly. That manuscript you have labored over for the past weeks, months or even years may need some cosmetic surgery before it is ready to put out there for the world to see.
Over the past few years I have acquired a disproportionate number of authors as friends (not exclusive to social media) when compared to non-authors. I suppose the birds-of-a-feather thing may prevail there. More likely I’m drawn to other creative people because I seem to have a number of friends who are artists. That’s not a problem. I like being around creative people. The rub comes when one of the authors asks me for a professional opinion on something. Most of my friends know me well enough by now to expect some frank feedback. Those who have never asked before I warn in advance. I will not publicly post a bad review of something, though, unless the author is aware of it. I offer feedback directly to them. And I always qualify it with a general understanding that I am not a professional editor or book critic.
Here’s the problem writers have with other writers reviewing their stuff. We are creative but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are attuned to the same creative flow or our muses speak the same language. In other words, I may or may not get the message, the point or whatever about your masterpiece. That doesn’t mean it is not art or worthwhile as a piece of literature. It means simply, I didn’t get it – nothing more than that. It happens. I like what I like and I tend to write in a few genres with which I am comfortable. I may venture outside of my comfort zone to read a good book, but generally I read sci-fi and fantasy. For some reason, over the course of the past couple of years, I have read several paranormal novels and some romance, mostly historical.
It is the bane of being a writer to be asked to read something for comment. I do some of that too, approaching my friends with a new manuscript. Some will read it others will not. Many will post reviews when a book is published, some won’t. Sometimes a review isn’t posted for the simple reason that writers do not like trashing the hard work of others in a public forum. Privately, well, that’s another matter.
I hate assigning stars to reviews as a means of rating. It is a way of quantifying something that is subjective and therein is the rub. My 3-star may be someone else’s 5-star. Why? We key on different things. So there really isn’t any standardization for the ratings unless one considers the source. Even then, do you, as a reader, pay more attention to an author who has reviewed another author’s book than you do to someone you don’t know – and for all you know they might be the author’s uncle or best friend? Would it be best to focus on what other readers say about a book as opposed to a writer? Each reader and potential buyer must decide who to listen to and perhaps once you find a reviewer who seems to share your interests in books you follow that person’s reviews in the future.
Star ratings are particularly misleading when one considers this: Amazon.com, the largest domestic venue for buying books online, considers 1, 2 and 3-star reviews ‘bad’ while 4 and 5-star reviews are ‘good’. Amazon will headline the most popular ‘good’ review directly next to the most popular ‘bad’ review to give some contrast for the reader to make a buying decision. The glaring inequity of this is when a ‘book troll’ posts a purposefully negative review for no other reason than to trash an author and his or her work. All an author can do is post a complaint to Amazon but it is almost impossible to get Amazon to remove the unfair review. After all, a review is just an opinion. Everyone has one.
Also, readers who look only at the star ratings without reading the content of the review do not understand that in the mind of the reviewer the star rating equates to a specific point on the following scale: bad=1-star, fair=2-star, good=3-star, very good=4-star, excellent=5-star. Some reviewers offer a rare 6th star – meaning outstanding. I have also seen a couple of reviewers assign a 0-star rating meaning awful.
Knowing the system at Amazon I refuse to post a ‘bad’ review without the author’s knowledge. My 3-star review means I liked the book but there are things that could be improved that would have made the book more appealing to me. I will never post a 2-star or 1-star review because I know what that does to an author’s overall rating. There may be something I don’t like about a book that is just me and totally because I am a writer. If I rate something lower because of something the average reader wouldn’t notice then such a rating would not be fair. However, I will provide feedback to the author concerning what I did not like about the book and what I think could be done to improve it.
Having said all that, there are professional reviewers, bloggers and critics out there who rarely give 5-star ratings. Their rationale is persuasive, though. They consider the highest rating reserved for a book that truly exceeds expectations, an instant classic, or something so cutting edge that it will set a new standard for everything that follows. Some use established, best-selling authors in a category as a benchmark, pegging their work as 5-star and measuring every book against that. I don’t have a problem with this method except that so many others do not do it that way and so the value of a 5-star rating has been diluted to the point that an honest 4-star from a critical reviewer – which is a very good review – makes a potential reader think there is something wrong with a really good book.
For a couple of years I actively posted on a writer’s website called Fanstory and found it most helpful to receive almost immediate feedback on my writing. Receiving the opinions of ten or twenty other writers was beneficial, especially when they spent the time to mention things that worked and didn’t work for them as a reader. The problem I had with the site was that they also used star ratings. And, just as with the Amazon.com situation, there was inflation of the ratings rendering them meaningless in most cases to the point that an honest reviewer’s critical rating would severely impact the author’s overall ranking. That is one of the reasons I no longer post there. However, I do read and comment on the submissions of authors I have followed for a few years, now. In the process of belonging to the site I have learned that there is a wide variance of opinion on whether something is or is not good.
It’s hard to take criticism but it is absolutely essential that you learn to do so if you intend to become a professional writer. Your goal must always and ever be to improve you craft and the quality of the work you produce. Even if you don’t agree with what a critic says you need to pay attention and determine whether it is valid and might make your story a better reading experience. The reader is the ultimate critic for every writer. And so, it becomes moot whether a critic liked your story or even how you feel about your work.
#writing #criticism #reviews #authors #Amazon