October 22, 2014

Reading the reviews – a writer’s POV

Filed under: Advice for writers,things I read on the internet — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 8:35 am

I remember the first bad review I got. It was lengthy, completely negative but I don’t recall any specific critique of the book. it ended with the advice “Don’t read this book until you want a bad time with a bad book that you will hate”. Or words to that effect. It’s been a long time now and didn’t save the link. I remember thinking the tone was so vituperative that I wondered if the reviewer had something against me personally. Was it someone who I’d annoyed in some way?

And then I moved on. My books had got plenty of good reviews and there wasn’t much to be gained from this one. It never occurred to me to stalk the reviewer and demand an explanation. They didn’t like my book and had said so with gusto. When I don’t like a book I’m much the same. in book group, on my blog, in my reviews for Strange Horizons – I to explain why I don’t like a book, exactly what I felt didn’t work and why. For the more professional pieces I try to cut back on the hyperbole and stick to the facts, in venues like book group we compete to find the most scathing critique. But in any venue my reviews are only as good as my opinion. If you like the books I like you’ll love ‘We Were Liars‘ and loathe ‘Twilight’. Probably. There are exceptions to every rule.

I still read reviews of my books. Sometimes they’re helpful. I’ve found comments that point out there’s a curiously dated quality to some of my contemporary fiction which may come from the fact my great influences include Mahy and Wynne Jones who I read in the 80s. Reviewers are also furiously divided on whether Bad Blood is frightening. Some readers can’t read it at night. Others are bewildered by what’s supposed to be scary. Reviewers have pulled me up for problems with pace, for naming of characters, for too much exposition and muddled action. I’ve also had praise but this isn’t about that.

I try to respect those reviewers and to learn from their critique. Some comments I can discard, confident that the reviewer didn’t get what I was going for or has made a mistake. One book was criticised as too derivative of one of my mother’s works – a book published five years after mine! Others I have to ponder. Was the action muddled? Could it have been improved? Almost certainly.

The thing is that you don’t get to rewrite an existing book. Love it or hate it, that book is done. The only possible response to critique is to address it in your next work. To work on your pacing or your endings or your sense of place and space. This is called honing your craft.

And although every writer knows the lure of procrastination and the terror of the empty page, obsessing over the personalities and identities of your reviewers is not a useful way to spend your time. If you find yourself being sucked into a dark place in response to critique use that in your fiction (Tim Dowling’s The Giles Wareing’s Haters’ Club is a good example of this) but back away from the internet for your own sake and sanity.

1 Comment »

  1. I never knew that about being challenged for copying a book I wrote later! Maybe they should have trolled me. I absolutely agree with all your points, except that I don’t think quality is just a matter of opinion. Even people who prefer reading Dan Brown to Shakespeare will probably admit that WS is the better writer.

    Finding out the difference between “I like it” and “it’s good” or “I hate it” and “it’s bad” is one of the things you learn in the study of literature. Unfortunately, may reviewers have not learned to make that distinction.

    Comment by Mary Hoffman — October 22, 2014 @ 8:53 am

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