Reviews Are Mixed. How To Deal by Arline Chase

Go Down, Moses

Go Down, MosesQUESTION from the e-mail: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Recently I finished my first book and got it published. Like most, I tried to promote it by getting book reviews. I got several three and four-star reviews, but many of the reviewers had a lot of negative things to say, too. Sure, they praise my story. They all like the action and suspense. But then they complain about my commas, and my “point of view,” and my characters all talking alike. I went to college. I got good grades on all my term papers, so I ought to know a little about how to write. This negative stuff is hard to hear. Half the time, I don’t even know what they’re talking about. How can there be “too many semi-colons?” You use them when they’re needed, right? Maybe I should just forget about this whole thing.

ANSWER: Good reviewers almost always talk about both the positive and negative aspects of a book. If they don’t, they are usually friends of the author who go and place a glorious, 5-star review just for friendship’s sake. So first thing I know from what you said is that these are “good, honest, unbiased” reviews, not the kind you pay for. They looked for things to pick on as well as nice things to say. That’s “fair and balanced” and tells folks right away that your reviewers are being honest with their praise. Every first novel gets hit hard by reviewers. You should look up some of the early reviews on people like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Having said that, no less an authority than Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., has advised fiction writers to avoid semi-colons. He says they’re “just showing off,” and he may be right. In term papers, the goal is to sound “scholarly” and authoritative. In fiction, the goal is to create a vivid experience for the reader. One of the best things any writer can do is not to let the words get between the reader and the action. I read a submission recently where the writer had used every fancy word he could think of — almost as if he had gone through the thesaurus and picked out every fancy synonym he could find. It was distracting. Worse, one became so preoccupied with the words (I picked up the dictionary more than once), that the story got lost. From what you said above, you have done well with the suspense and action and the reviewers all enjoyed the experience you created. So don’t let the negative stuff get to you. Instead, think maybe they were trying to tell you something and learn from it. Look at the grammar guide in the back of your dictionary and read the section on commas. Look up some articles on viewpoint. If you have a writers’ group, bring these things up for discussion. And when you listen to their advice, remember they are all still learning, too. I taught writing for more than 20 years. No one learns everything there is to know, and then starts out to write. It’s a lifelong learning experience. The more you do it, the better you get at it. Simple as that. Also, the rules for fiction are definitely different than for exposition. In fiction you need to write dialogue, and write it so it sounds like people talking back and forth — not stilted or preachy, or awkward. It’s okay to use poor grammar or cliches, in dialogue, if your character does. The character’s word choices are part of who he is. Using vernacular was widely condemned by reviewers when Mark Twain first did it. They ridiculed him up, down, and sideways. They assumed because Huck Finn said, “We was fishing,” that Twain knew no better. In later editions, he put a disclaimer in the beginning of the book, just so they’d know it was done on purpose. Later, vernacular became a popular device and was widely overdone in the years between 1920 and 1950. Readers, today, don’t have the patience to fill in all those missing g’s and such. But the rhythm of the speech may very well be different with characters from different places, or different levels of education, or different backgrounds. Viewpoint was the hardest lesson I ever had to learn as a writer. I have posted on my blog about it before. It was doubly difficult because many best-selling authors — authors whose books I admired — ignored that rule altogether. Once I understood it, I found that some of them changed viewpoint in the middle of a sentence. First, you learn the rules, then you decide when to break them. The main thing is not to do it unintentionally. Many new writers drop the viewpoint ball a time or two. I know I did. The good news is readers won’t notice. The bad news is, good reviewers always will. So my advice is to cut yourself some slack. If there are things you don’t know yet, then make it your business to learn about them. With writing, as with anything else, practice makes perfect. Don’t beat yourself up because of the criticism. Go write another book.

[Editor’s note: Need help finding 1-star reviews of classic literature? Ed McNally’s got a bunch for you right here.]

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Arline Chase became a publisher at Write Words, Inc. on Jan. 1, 2000. She is an award-winning author, journalist, teacher, and mentor to authors all over the world. Arline is a long-time member of the International Women’s Writing Guild and has led workshops at their conferences as well as workshops and panels at Malice Domestic and other writers conferences. She is a member of the Author’s Guild, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of American and the Eastern Shore Writers’ Association. You can learn more about Arline on her website and her Author’s Page.

A version of this post appeared on her blog at Write Words/Arline Chase on January 31, 2012

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11 thoughts on “Reviews Are Mixed. How To Deal by Arline Chase”

  1. This is very good and one I shall, as an editor, give the link to a few fellow authors. One thing we all have to remember is that no one is perfect and though practice makes perfect, we can all still learn to be better at anything we do. Hopefully I am leaning to better at my writing and editing. Thank you,

  2. Mixed reviews are better than bad reviews. At least it shows that your writing has some merit, even if there is room for improvement. I had my book reviewed in Kirkus, Forewords and the U.S. Review of books. Reviews were favorable but not devoid of criticism. I paid special attention to the criticism to see where I could improve. Praise is wonderful, but constructive criticism, I think, is the most valuable part of a review. There is always room for improvement.

  3. Very well put, Arline. And any writer who says "I ought to know a little about how to write" has a lot to learn. If a writer is not always learning the writing will never improve.

    1. Well everyone has to take English 101. But it teaches us to punctuate Exposition, not Fiction. Also many college classes use Strunk & White as their style manual, and they were British.

      Americna publishers use the Chicago Manual of Style. Brits and Americans can hardly ever agree on spelling and punctuation.

  4. Dear K.S, negative elements in a review make your stomach ache – I KNOW! However, when you self publish, it is a good idea to have a professional edit your MS before you go ahead and set publication in motion. A professional will help you avoid many problems.

    As for the other items they picked on. Creating individual "voices" for each character is a trick we all need to learn. Just as each of your friends and relatives have a style that's all their own,so must each of your your characters. Crafting those various "voices" by giving each character their own special style and quirks makes your overall plot more real and intriguing.

    I guess you also "head hopped" a bit to often for that reviewer's comfort. Changing POV often throughout a chapter can confuse some readers. A good way to deal with this is to split up the two main characters and let them tell their side of the story chapter-for-chapter. If you do change POV often, you need to make sure the reader knows exactly when the change occurs, and when it returns to your main character. Though sometimes this can make for clunky paragraphs.

    Going to college gives you a good writing foundation in the basics. Yet writing fiction is not like writing a dissertation. A writer has a passion to write. Not writing is unthinkable! If they did not have a college background they take writing classes to learn the writing ropes.

    It simply takes time, experience, and a few books under your belt to create your own "writing voice" or style. It often pays to treat your first book as a learning experience. Like wine, your writing improves with age and the experience of the vinter – YOU. You become confident in your ability to craft great stories with a style that is all your own. And if you want to break a rule or too – go for it! You now know the rules. All you must do to succeed is break them brilliantly!

    *Books for Kids – Manuscript Critiques

  5. I am less rigid about POV changes than some folks I've met over the years, although I still have my limits. Switching POV within a paragraph sets my teeth on edge. A POV change within a single sentence would probably prompt me to throw the book across the room.

    The key, I think, is to be cognizant at all times of which character's head you're in. That's something that comes with practice. So yes — keep writing!

  6. As a reader I want to be able to enjoy the story without having to stop constantly to work out who is saying what, or who is thinking what. So long as those things are clear I quite enjoy 'cinematic' pov changes.

    As a writer though I've had to learn to 'translate' the cinematic scenes in my head to a more structured flow of words on the page. As a general rule I keep 1 pov per scene. If that gets too clunky I rethink the whole thing on the basis of whose pov really /needs/ to be shown.

  7. Hooray! Now you have joined the process!

    There are two kinds of serious fiction writers. First, those who reach a financial pinnacle due to their associations, name or connections. They are very serious, especially about the money. The second kind become involved with the lifelong process of writing really evocative, well-paced, hard-hitting fiction. It is a hard, hard job, and it doesn't come quickly unless you are a literary genius. I for one, can't really read lots of the work of such geniuses. You are clearly in the second group. Congratulations on realizing that you are not an editor! Every writer that plans on sticking around needs to reach that point. Part of said process. By the way, you should see the reviews of my first book — seriously needed copy editing.

  8. Going to college certainly provides a wider range of writing experiences than the average reader, but only participation in writing workshops or classes in literary criticism will probably develop a deep sense of the author's craft. As an author it is necessary to learn the jargon of the craft and be able to successfully apply that knowledge to a story. If a reviewer discusses shifting POV or head-hopping then that author needs to learn what the reviewer means and ask themselves how they can apply that criticism to improve their writing.

    The average reader would not be likely to use such jargon, but they would still sense something was amiss with the story. If an author's style is done well, the writer won't even notice the effort that went into producing such great writing. There's a lot to be said for learning the rules and many self-published authors have not devoted enough to the study of crafting stories, and by that I don't mean completing an M.F.A. Anyone can draft a story, but many will never try. Then comes the arduous task of writing and re-writing and getting critiqued. That is the true test of calling oneself a writer.

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