Anonymous Question Submission: On Reviews

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane
 




Paraphrasing the question submitted to TKZ anonymously: What do you think of “online bullies” who post mean-spirited book reviews to discredit the author when they don’t even read the novel.
 
If someone has clearly not read a novel yet writes a review, why should I pay attention to that at all? (I’ve spent too much time already talking about this, so I will move on to my thoughts on reviews, in general.)
 
Recently I heard an actor talk about paying attention to reviews and how it could affect his performance—whether the reviews were good or bad. I find words of wisdom and encouragement in the creative arts–like filmmakers, actors, musicians—because they know what it takes to create something from nothing with passion. So when I heard this actor speak, I could relate his words to my own thoughts. He believed reviews, whether good or bad, detracted from the work in the moment or for the next performance. If a reviewer believed the actor’s performance was emotional and touching in a particular scene, those words would stay in the actor’s head the next time he did his job, when maybe the scene (on page) didn’t call for the same emotion. Negative reviews can act in the same way and cultivate self-doubt (which none of us need).
 
In applying what he said to writing, a good review can sway an author to manipulate the writing to “fit” what the reviewer wrote about the work. It could affect every book in the future in the same manner. Bad reviews can make an author overly sensitive to whatever harsh criticism was written, whether deserved or not. The author could overcompensate and alter their growth. Chasing after reviews, whether good or bad, can detract from a writer’s instincts on storytelling. They can make an author doubt the story telling talent that got them published in the first place.
 
I also heard it said, long ago in my energy industry career, that if you don’t value (or know anything about) the credibility of the person giving their opinion of your work, why should you care what they think or say? Easier said than done for some, but I’ve embraced this sentiment.


As an author, I tend to value Publishers Weekly to give me a sense of a book, but it doesn’t stop me from buying it if the book gets a marginal PW review. If the story interests me, I make my own decision. Any reading experience is subjective for everyone. Because I understand how difficult it is to tell a story on page, I am much more appreciative of an author’s style or voice or plot structure. I love reading many types of books and I try to find “gem takeaways” in an author’s writing, rather than me bristling for the opportunity to reject their work and show how brilliant I can be at “snark.”
 
As a new author, I paid attention to reviews. I don’t anymore and haven’t for a long time. It’s my choice and it’s freed my time so I can spend more hours on writing and honing my craft.  Like the actor I mentioned, I don’t want to be swayed by opinions whether the reviews are good or bad. It’s human nature to sift through many good reviews, but become totally obsessed over a negative one. Snarky reviewers are the worst. They tend to “believe their own hype” and love having the reputation for overly harsh reviews they think are clever. Their reviews tend not to be about recommending good books or encouraging literacy, they become about how unkind the review can be in degrading the work. Fortunately not all reviewers are like this. Most are not.
 
If someone wants to be critical of a writer’s work, I issue a challenge. Write your own book. Cut open a vein and bleed on the page with an honest story and deal with the critics (or note) afterwards. Authors must be willing to tell their stories, without fear. There will always be negative opinions, but my focus has been on my own growth and striving to tell my stories, my way. I want to be the best Jordan Dane I can be and I keep writing.
 
As for sites where readers congregate (like Goodreads, Fresh Fiction, Just Romantic Suspense, Amazon, B&N, and many other review sites), I appreciate their value for readers to talk about books. That’s great. Goodreads, Fresh Fiction, and Just Romantic Suspense in particular are reader communities that promote literacy and they encourage reading (in general) by giving followers a place to focus their interest in books. A lovely thing.
 
I have a profile presence on some of these sites. I RSS feed my blog posts to my author profile, respond to comments, and do giveaways to raise awareness of my projects. Other than that, I don’t sift through reviews, whether they are good or bad. It’s a detractor of time I could spend writing. There will always be one-star reviews, even on noteworthy critically acclaimed books.
 
For discussion:
Readers: How much attention do you pay toward reviews? Do reviews sway you to buy or avoid a novel? Have you ever read really bad reviews on a book you liked? If so, did it change how you look at reviews?
 
Writers: How do you deal with reviews (good or bad) on your work?

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How to Write a Novel Readers Won’t Put Down

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A friend alerted me this past week to an interesting “infographic” posted on Goodreads. The subject: Why readers abandon a book they’ve started. Among the reasons:

– Weak writing

– Ridiculous plot

– Unlikable main character

But the #1 reason by far was: Slow, boring.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? As I’ve stated here before, there is at least one “rule” for writing a novel, and that is Don’t bore the reader!

So if I may channel my favorite commercial character, The Most Interesting Man in the World:

Find out the things readers don’t like, then . . . don’t do those things.

I thank you.

Okay, let’s have a closer look.

Weak Writing

This probably refers to pedestrian or vanilla-sounding prose. Unremarkable. Without what John D. MacDonald called “unobtrusive poetry.” You have to have a little style, or what agents and editors refer to as “voice.” I’ll have more to say about voice next week. But for now, concentrate on reading outside your genre. Or read poetry, like Ray Bradbury counseled. Simply get good wordsmithing into your head. This will expand your style almost automatically.

Ridiculous Plot

Thriller writers are especially prone to this. I remember picking up a thriller that starts off with some soldiers breaking into a guy’s house. He’s startled! What’s going on? Jackboots! In my house! Why? Because, it turns out, the captain wants him for some sort of secret meeting. But I thought, why send a crack team of trained soldiers to bust into one man’s suburban home and scare the living daylights out of him? Especially when they know he’s no threat to anyone. No weapons. No reason to think he’d resist. And why wake up the entire neighborhood (a plot point conveniently ignored)? Why not simply have a couple of uniforms politely knock on the door and ask the guy to come with them? The only reason I could think of was that the author wanted to start off with a big, cinematic, heart-pounding opening. But the thrills made no sense. I put the book down.

Every plot needs to have some thread of plausibility. The more outrageous it is, the harder you have to work to justify it. So work.

Unlikable Main Character

The trick to writing about a character who is, by and large, unlikable (i.e., does things we generally don’t approve of) is to give the reader something to hang their hat on. Scarlett O’Hara, for example, has grit and determination. Give readers at least one reason to hope the character might be redeemed.

Slow, Boring

The biggie. There is way too much to talk about here. I’ve just concluded a 3-day intensive workshop based, like just about everything I do, on what I call Hitchcock’s Axiom. When asked what makes a compelling story he said that it is “life, with the dull parts taken out.”

If I was forced to put general principles in the form of a telegram, I’d say:

Create a compelling character and put him in a “death match” with an opponent (the death being physical, professional, or psychological) and only write scenes that in some way reflect or impact that battle.

The principle is simple and straightforward. Learning how to do it takes time, practice and study, which you can start right now, today.

So what about you? What makes you put a book down? And related to that, do you feel compelled, most of the time, to finish a book you start? I used to, but now I don’t. Life’s too short, and there are too many books on my TBR list!

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Amazon and Goodreads, Sittin’ in a Tree…


I do not visit Goodreads as often as I should. There are readers out there who spend hours on it, and yes, I probably should as well, but I am one of those people who is good socially only in small doses, whether in person or in cyberspace. I only

use Facebook to wish folks Happy Birthday; I text better than I talk, but never instant message; and I rarely visit Goodreads. Part of the reason for my lack of use of the latter is that I cannot keep up with my reading of those books of which I am already aware; if I discovered, say, an entirely different genre — such as redneck noir, to name but one — it might send me entirely over the edge that I am already toes up against and leaning forward.





I as a result have only a (barely) working knowledge of the site. I know that it is very user friendly; the opening page treats me with more respect than do my children. It does a wonderful job of pretending that its happy to see me. Maybe I don’t visit often because I know that if I did I might never leave. It is just as well, for I discovered today that Goodreads loves another, a suitor known to its friends and detractors as “Amazon.” They haven’t set a date for a nuptials, but a ring has been proffered and accepted, and a dowry promised.

I’m thinking — and I cannot stress enough that I am stating this from a position of ignorance — that, as with other marriages arranged for the purposes of uniting dynasties, this one could result in offspring good and bad. I was amused to read that one of Goodreads’ co-founders asked its users “…what integration with Kindle would you love to see the most?” I was sorely tempted to respond “Kindle. From behind” but felt that such would perhaps be inappropriate. No one asked how the friends of the parties felt about this coming together, however (though that hasn’t stopped Scott Turow from weighing in). 

Until now. I am asking you: how do you feel about Amazon purchasing Goodreads? What do you see as advantages or disadvantages for authors, publishers, readers, and the entities themselves? Is this a good thing or a bad thing, overall? Should Amazon maintain an editorial firewall, if you will, between itself and Goodreads? How will we even know? Ready, steady, go!

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Mistakes Authors Make

by Michelle Gagnon

I recently read an excellent post by Rowena Cherry on some of the cardinal sins writers commit, and it really struck a chord, probably because in the past I’ve been guilty of most of them.

So here’s my advice on how to to make blatant self-promotion (aka BSP) less blatant…

  • Mailing lists: only add people who actually agree to be added. I’ve opened my inbox to discover newsletters from people I served on panels with, people I helped out by reading their manuscripts, and people I’ve never even heard of. As it is, I receive a few hundred emails a day- the last thing I want is more to sift through, UNLESS I signed up independently. The irony is that some of these newsletters I probably would be interested in, but being added without my permission is such a turn-off, it puts a black mark next to that writer’s name for me.

  • Newsletters: Send them out occasionally, and as John so aptly said on Friday, only when you have real news to report. If I’m getting a newsletter from someone on a weekly basis, I tend to delete it without opening, or to unsubscribe. Not many of us have exciting news occurring on a daily basis (I’m lucky to have one exciting thing happen a month, actually). I tend to send out newsletters 4-6 times/year, mostly clustered around release dates.

  • Newsgroups: A large portion of those hundreds of emails that I receive originate from various newsgroups and listservs. And invariably, on almost a daily basis, there’s a post that starts, “If you like reading such-and-so, you’ll love my new thriller about…The best way to get people interested in your book is not to push it every time someone starts a thread about Lee Child. Participate: if you enjoy those author’s books as well, say so. Be an active member of a listserv, not just popping out of lurkdom to announce the release of your latest opus. Because unless the other participants have some familiarity with you, chances are it will do more harm than good. As you build up a presence, then you can-OCCASIONALLY- mention your next book. Better yet, just include the title and release date as part of your signature. As members start to recognize your name, they’ll most likely become curious about your work, too. Anything else smacks of tooting your own horn.

  • Groups like GoodReads, 4MA, Shelfari, Dorothy L, and many others exist mainly for fans. I remember one time when the author of one group’s monthly read discovered they were discussing his book. He joined the list, and popped up with all sorts of explanations. And the conversation promptly shut down. Because the truth is, sometimes fans are thrilled to have an author participate in their discussions- but if that’s what they want, they’ll usually invite you. If you show up unannounced, you become the equivalent of a party crasher. They clearly were not about to say anything negative about the book when the author was reading every word (after all, some of these fans have their own manuscripts tucked away in a drawer, and wisely didn’t want to annoy someone they might seek a blurb from down the line). If you’re going to take part in these groups, do so as a fan. If you want to directly promote your book, take part in GoodReads giveaway program, or buy advertising with one of the sites targeted to readers of your genre.

  • Likewise, if all you do on your Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter pages is post updates on your own work, everyone outside of immediate family will probably rapidly tire of it. It’s the virtual equivalent of the guy at a cocktail party who won’t stop talking about himself. Instead, post links to interesting articles you stumble across, writing-related or otherwise. Respond to people who take the time to comment on your links. Answer messages people send. The trick is to have a real dialogue, rather than perpetually shouting the title of your book from the rooftops.
  • Poking, hugging, and otherwise molesting social network friends: personally, I find the deluge of emails inviting me to join fairy kingdoms, battle mobsters, or start a farm annoying. I barely have time to maintain my ongoing feud with the Petriarca family in real life, for Pete’s sake, never mind planting green beans that I could actually eat. Now, I know there are people out there who love those aspects of Facebook and MySpace; but don’t assume that others want to participate. That checkbox, where you can invite all your friends? I recommend avoiding it. Same goes for virtual hugs, flowers, postcards, angels, and whatever else is out there.

Now, what you can do…

  • Make it easy for people to sign up for your newsletter, and to friend you on the social networking sites (in other words, clear and user-friendly website design is crucial). Also make sure to keep the information on your website current.
  • If you see that someone has read your books on Shelfari or Goodreads, extend a friend invitation- then it’s their choice (this works better with people who liked your books).
  • Keep your author pages up to date across all social networking sites, focusing mainly on the ones you have the time and inclination to maintain.
  • Bring a notebook to any and all author events, making it clear that people only need sign it if they want to join your newsletter mailing list.
  • When you craft a newsletter, keep it short, to the point, and interesting.
  • On the newsgroups, follow my Southern friend’s “ABC” rule- Always Be Charming. Getting into a spirited debate is fine, but there are people on the listservs who quickly become notorious for abrasive or obnoxious posts. That sort of behavior definitely won’t help sell books.

And finally, remember that the most important thing is to achieve a balance. Don’t spend so much time discussing other people’s books that you neglect to work on your own.

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Social Networking Showdown

by Michelle Gagnon

At Left Coast Crime a few weeks ago, I was part of a great panel on utilizing the Internet to market your book. This is a bit of a double-edged sword: now that much of the marketing burden falls on authors’ shoulders, being able to reach people without an insanely expensive direct mailing is invaluable. However, online networking can also become a tremendous time suck, drawing valuable hours away from what writers should primarily focus on: their manuscripts. Today I’ll discuss which sites I’ve found most valuable in a head-to-head match up, as well as sharing how I stay on top of them without losing my mind.

facebookFacebook vs. MySpace

I confess to being one of the “old people who joined up and ruined Facebook.” I now have more than a thousand friends, and probably post something to the page once or twice a week. I’m also on MySpace, but have found Facebook to be far more user-friendly to someone as technologically challenged as myself. (However, if I was working on a YA novel, MySpace would probably be where I devoted more of my focus). A couple of things to bear in mind when using these or other social networking sites:

  • Public vs. Private: I keep my pages public, and will friend anyone who asks. So anything that’s truly personal, such as family photos, etc, doesn’t get posted there. And if anyone tags me or mine in such a photo, I immediately remove the tag. myspace
  • In order to maintain my sanity, I go onto each site once a week (Facebook on Mondays, MySpace on Tuesdays). That’s when I accept friends, answer emails, and respond to comments. If I stumble across an interesting article online, I have the “share on facebook” tab incorporated into my browser, which makes it oh-so-easy to post it to my page (another clear benefit of Facebook over MySpace).
  • The cocktail party rule: I rarely post anything political on any of my pages. Again, this is a matter of personal preference, but I would rather discuss my books or interesting developments in publishing than who I voted for.

Shelfari vs. GoodReads

shelfari The trick to these is joining groups that read books similar to yours. I’ve generally found Shelfari to be more useful, although I do get updates from GoodReads discussions as well. The Shelfari groups just seem to more active, especially the “Suspense/Thrillers” one, which graciously invited me to lead a discussion of Boneyard last August. Every so often I’ll remember to log in and update my home page with the books I’ve read recently.

  • One caveat: if I don’t like a book, I don’t review it, period. Other authors have no problem posting negative reviews, so it’s largely a matter of personal goodreads preference. But I know authors whose feelings were hurt when one of their peers negatively reviewed their book on these sites, and figure it’s better to follow the, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” rule. The crime fiction writing community is a small one, filled with people who possess an encyclopedic knowledge base of how to kill someone and get away with it. Bear that in mind when you’re considering giving a book one star out of five.
  • I join in whenever people are discussing a book I really enjoyed, or an author whose work I admired. After all, I’m a reader as well as a writer.
  • Be careful in how you participate. When someone I’ve never heard of joins one of the discussions and proceeds to blatantly flog their own work, it’s a huge turn off. Probably better not to participate than to do that. This isn’t to say that you should never mention your book- but other members will be more receptive if you’re someone they’re already familiar with.

Twitter

twitter I’m not a big tweeter. I post links to my Kill Zone posts (and guest posts,) and occasionally link to articles or posts that I found interesting, but I simply don’t have time to announce what I had for lunch every day.

siamese Crimespace et al

I know other crime fiction authors love Crimespace, but I haven’t used it much. Most of the Ning circles (and I’m part of five) don’t seem very active to me. This could be my own failing- I find them challenging to navigate, and frankly my other pages are so easier I forget about these. Same goes for Gather, Bebo, Linked In, etc. You might have better luck. If you write books with a Siamese Cat sleuth, and there’s a Siamese cat appreciation group on one of the social networks, by all means take advantage.

Newsletters:

I have a pet peeve. Say we met at a conference and chatted about marketing. I offered to continue the discussion by email. Then, I find myself getting a deluge of newsletters from you, none of which I signed up for. Or worse yet, you mined my email address from a mass email sent by a mutual friend (note: always bcc people on those emails). This has happened to me more times than I can count. DO NOT add people to your newsletter unless they have specifically asked to be included. Have a sign up sheet on your website, and make it easy for people to unsubscribe.

And that’s my two cents. So what have the rest of you found to be useful? Any tips to share?

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