Monday, June 15, 2009

Writers' Rants

Last Friday I posted readers' rants as they answered the question, "What annoys you most when reading a novel?" Plenty of readers responded. The list, although obviously representing personal opinions, is helpful to writers as we see what readers are thinking. Over the weekend I decided to flip the question and posed this one to writers: "What annoys you most about reader feedback (via e-mail or review)? I posted this on Twitter/Facebook and through an e-mail loop of published novelists.

Writers weren't so quick to respond. After all, we love our readers and find constructive criticism and insightful reviews helpful. And we certainly understand that no book is going to be liked by everyone. No author wanted to sound ungrateful or defensive. However, given a chance to answer anonymously, quite a few authors ended up responding. As writers learned from the readers' rants, I hope you readers will find something helpful in this list, even if you don't agree with all the comments.

"What annoys you most about reader feedback?"

E-mails that criticize without spelling anything right or showing grace.

As long as it's thoughtful and well-reasoned, nothing people say bothers me much. People have their own opinions. The only time I was ever really annoyed was when a reader classified me as pacifist because one of the main characters struggled with using violence, even when it seemed the only upright answer. That reviewer was not thoughtful about the character's motivations, which were fairly complex. And clearly he had no business making assumptions about the author based on that one character.

When they get more upset about animals being hurt than people (esp. children).

I'd have to say it's the ones who seem to have nothing better to do than rip apart an author or a book. They nitpick and insult then say they'll never recommend you to another living soul. If you hated it that much, why tell the author? Then, there are the ones who didn't really read the book but they were somehow involved in a tour of it and post to say the author didn't stand a chance with them because they don't read "those types of books." Again, why are people so quick to spell out the negative and hesitate when sharing something positive or constructive? Readers, we LOVE getting feedback, even if you disagree. Just please be respectful. We're people too and having feelings.

When [the book] isn't "Christian" enough.

If everyone likes my books not enough people are reading them. Still, it seems if someone loves my work then they send a private note, and if they don't like it, they post it online somewhere. So more sharing the good stuff publicly wouldn't hurt ;)

Comments directed at my character's allegedly wrong motivations. I do try to see if I can find something worthwhile when a reader makes a negative comment, but in the case of character motivation, since I created her, I think I understand her motivation better than anyone else.

When reviewers read outside their preferred genre, then don't "get" it.

When school kids are doing their school reports on me, and expect me to do their homework. They'll say, "I'm doing my class project on your books. Please tell me about yourself, how you became a writer, how you write your books, and what your books are about. My project's due next week." All of that is available on the internet or in my books, and I don't have time to write their report for them. I have deadlines of my own!

I find it frustrating that some readers seem to expect all books to be written for them. They either don't understand preference in genre and style or they don't care. Is it a slow plot line or simply a slower paced genre? Is it too much internal monologue or a genre that is given to this style of writing? I agree that flat characters are abhorrent, but an action adventure is more plot than character, and a wise reader understands this. A wise reader selects her books carefully and is saved much of the frustration mentioned in the comments.

When they write very long emails that tell me things about their lives that have no relevance to the reason they're writing me. Short and concise gets answered most quickly.

I think what cuts the most are the reviews from so-called fellow writers. Whether they are self-pubbed, e-pubbed, pubbed with traditional publishers or not pubbed at all, just the fact that a fellow writer would say awful things and discourage readers from picking up a book. I don't expect everyone to say pretty things all the time about my stuff, but gee whiz use a little tact. I read a twitter update the other day from a reviewer who touts herself as "edgy" and she absolutely hated a book by [a certain writer] because of the edginess of the book. She trashed it and she admittedly wasn't even finished with the book. That bothers me so much. If I don't care for another writer's book I might not glow about it, but I would find something good to say. We reap what we sow whether we want to believe it or not.

I think we can't possibly understand the baggage our readers come to books with -- I remember in high school the venom I felt reading The Bell Jar. I HATED the author and being immersed in that dark place for so long. Over time I've come to see I can't be in dark places, it's against my nature, so I don't like anything about the Holocaust (haven't seen Schlinder's List), etc. But I really did blame Sylvia Plath for taking me to that place I didn't want to go. (Understanding now she committed suicide, I still wonder why we have to read the book of a madwoman in high school.) I've been accused of being anti-adoption, not understanding the plight of infertility or the pain of losing a pregnancy (been there, done that) and that opened up my eyes that people are angry. And if you touch that nerve, you will suffer the wrath. It has nothing to do with you usually. It's the emotion you stirred. Feel proud. : )

When reviewers criticize some element of the story without thinking through how changing that element would change so many other elements in the book. Sometimes it seems reviewers just go from the gut--"I didn't like that"--without any real insight as to how many other plot points, character motivations, etc. (that they did like) intertwine with that element and would fall apart without it. I suggest they go through an exercise: if they don't like a part or some technique of the book, how specifically would they have changed it? Would that change indeed make the book better, or would it unravel other necessary parts? So many reviews just seem to skim the surface. Reviewers don't like it when they think we're writing shallowly. Yet often their critical reviews are just that--shallow.

When they report errors on a fifteen-year-old book. If the book is newly released, I'm always happy to get those reports so we can fix them. But if they got an old copy of a first-printing book with an error that was fixed in later printings (a decade and a half ago), I get a little irritated. It's frustrating having to answer those same questions over and over again.

When a person writes to me asking a favor (will you read/endorse my manuscript, will you recommend me to your agent, will you write me a treatise on how to get published), when they've never read one of my books. Why do they expect me to do all that for them, when they haven't even taken the time to familiarize themselves with what I do?

When the reader takes an issue with something in the book, and it was something the editor made me write that way. GRRRR.

When people leave snarky, they-know-better comments. If they know better, why didn't THEY write the article?!?

Reviews that border on insulting.

People who dis a book based on a title or cover in the name of piousness—without even checking into the message or what the book is about or the reputation of the CBA (Christian publisher) imprint that put it out.

Those who are really looking for sermons or Bible studies rather than a novel. And then admonishing readers of even Christian fiction to use great discernment in choosing books, as even Christian fiction may not be truly Christian. I wish readers like that would simply examine whether or not they are suited for fiction—some people aren’t.

Reviewers who critique the cover and/or back cover copy--which many times I have no say in. One review was absolutely scathing about an alleged mistake in my nonfiction book, saying I'd made an outlandish claim that couldn't possibly be true. I couldn't figure out how the reviewer got that--I never said what I was accused of. Then I realized the claim came from one poorly worded sentence in the back cover copy that could be read two ways. I didn't write that copy, and had never even considered the meaning of that sentence that so set off the reviewer.

Readers who spend more time trying to look for what’s wrong (theological or otherwise) with a book rather than trying to give the story a shot. Or who assume authors approach their stories frivolously, or without great investment emotionally, financially, mentally and spiritually.

Reviewers who tell too much of the story. They should tell no more than what's on the back cover copy. Good reviews are about reader insights, not a telling of the plot. Other readers deserve to be just as surprised at the plot twists as the reviewer was allowed to be. When a reviewer gives away too much of the story, he cheats the reader!

When a reader finds something he/she doesn't agree with in the story or is offended by, then shuts the book in judgment, not trusting me enough to keep reading to see WHY I used that plot point, and how it may play out in the faith thread of the story. It's not fair to judge a book unless you've read ALL of it.

Readers who attribute the beliefs of a character (including the protagonist) to the author. Then take us to task for our wrong beliefs.

Reviewers who attack the author personally. Some of these online reviews also are very generic and could fit just about any book. Makes me wonder if this person just hates Christian fiction and hasn't read my book at all.

Readers who want CBA stories to happen in a sterile vacuum—no violence, wars, divorces, gay people, etc. etc.—and shame on writers who reference any of these items even in passing. I’m always concerned for these folks when they open their Bibles—Holy Writ must burn their retinas.

A family member who doesn't like romance read one of my manuscripts, then said pretty snottily: "teenagers would love it," as if all romance is inherently shallow and immature. I really try to write romance with substance and realism. Had I known she didn't like romance, I would never have agreed to let her read it.

Someone liked my novel and said it was authentic and fresh, but then suggested changing all its authentic, fresh elements to make it fit a tight formula.

A couple of readers who are not very good line editors tried to give me line edits. I love line edits from good editors with a grasp of prose style. I'm irritated by bad line edits from people who don't know what they're doing.

I think there’s some armchair quarterbacking that happens out there—the sense that shortcomings in the author’s work are so obvious to the reader that the reader feels they could have avoided or overcome them. The thing about quarterbacking is that it’s much easier from the armchair than the field.

I hate reviews in which a little editing knowledge proves to be a dangerous thing. The reviewer may tout himself/herself as an editor, yet can't spell and does not understand such fundamental issues as deep character POV.

A request to reviewers: Don't write anything in a review that you wouldn't say face-to-face to the author at a booksigning, or when you met them at a conference. You don't have to say you liked the book if you didn't, and we wouldn't want you to. But you also don't have to eviscerate the author in public either. Believe me, we do enough eviscerating of ourselves in private. I'm not saying a reader has to lie and say they loved a book if they didn't. I've had readers write me and say they "liked my latest book okay, but not as much as the one before," and that's a very fair statement. Shoot, there are characters I've written that I liked far more than others. That's the nature of the beast.

I really really wish reviewers wouldn't give away the ending of a story or a major plot turn. That ruins the enjoyment of discovery for the next reader. I heard a "professional reviewer" say she never tells anything that happens beyond chapter 3. I think that would be a great practice for all reviewers. If you know the end, why read the book?

I always lift verses I use in my books right from the NIV at I've had readers [of another version] point out to me that I got a certain verse wrong. One woman in particular accused me of changing God's Word.

(1) Don't review a book through the lens of certain denominational doctrines. Fiction is just that, fiction. It's to uplift and entertain, inspire, not teach, preach or define theology. If it lines up with the whole of the Word, let it be. Not every thing Christian has to be a sermon. (2) While it's not fun to read that my work is mediocre, I like honest reviews. If the book was slow in the middle or if the characterization sagged a little, let me know, but be nice. Writers are fragile people. Don't tear the book down because it was imperfect. Look for the good. (3) Read the story for what it is, not what you want it to be. If the ending isn't Happily Ever After, can you see the author's intent and purpose with the characters? Take time to think and ponder the story before tapping out a negative review. (4) Make the review match the number of stars given on Amazon or other sites. It's frustrating as a writer and reader to see a book with a glowing review, but only have three stars. What didn't work about the book for that reviewer? (5) Remember, you're one person. A book you don't like may inspire others. Don't knock another reviewer to get potential readers to see your side.

I remember being so annoyed back in the 90s, when I read [a certain book] that I almost wrote a scathing review on Amazon. My complaint wasn’t about the subject matter, which is rough enough to take—I was annoyed by her exhausting overuse of metaphor and simile, and by golly, I was going to give it to her good. Now that I’m a published author, I’m so glad I didn’t post my review. Now I know, as others have said, that she put her heart and soul into that book, and she never set out to annoy anyone. She set out to move them. As a writer friend of mine said, “Do they even realize we’re real people?” It’s the finger-wagging, head-shaking condescension (“Ms. [Author] should know better than to . . .”) that gets my goat. I don’t think that kind of reviewer even begins to think outside herself.

When a reader tells me she loved the book and then sends me pages and pages of Bible verses to prove that I'm wrong about something that our faiths view differently. Most often it relates to things like a woman dating a divorced man (secondary character) or a divorced main character, or something like saying in a prayer "God if it's your will, please. . . ." Usually my response is to say I'm sorry if we can't see eye to eye, but I hope that you can forgive me for the difference as Jesus instructs us to do, and I let it go. When I get another letter with a new list of Bible verses, I don't respond. I'm not writing to argue scripture.

My number one annoyance with reader feedback is the assumption that if I didn't do it the way they would have, I did it wrong. Most of the things that can be changed about fiction writing are optional. Fundamental issues such as POV, diction, syntax, grammar, character voicing, narrative tone, etc, are multi-faceted creatures, and there is almost never a clear winner among all of the choices that have to be made. The assumption that my way was wrong because it wasn't the reader's way is frequently found in conjunction with the assumption that the only reason a writer puts his or her work in front of another is because the first writer can't get it right, and the second writer can help make it better. Maybe all I wanted was to know if you liked it or not. Readers don't seem to have this problem, only writers. If I craft a novella told only from one carefully controlled POV, violently beating down every other voice that tries to sneak in, and then I'm told (by a writer who has read exactly nothing else of mine) that "you will stagnate as a writer until you learn to handle multiple POVs," that's not helpful or useful. If you didn't like the tightness of the POV, say so! Don't just assume that I don't know any better! Assume that I made a choice!

I wish readers understood how many things are out of the author's control. I don't get to write every book I want to (so please don't get upset with me when a sequel isn't forthcoming), and I don't print them in my backyard (so I can't make sure they find one on the shelf when they go to their local bookstore). Those kinds of questions make me feel as if I've let them down somehow. I know that's not the intention, but I feel that way anyway.

Reviewers who have an agenda and personally attack authors for "violating" that agenda.

I'm a bargain shopper, so I understand the excitement of finding a good price on something I want. But since I make my living from the sales of these books, it doesn't make my heart go pitter-pat to know they found my most recent release on a bargain table. That can stay their little secret. lol

When readers attack my Christianity because of something in my book that they misunderstand or disagree with (or sometimes because of something I didn't include, like a salvation or baptism scene). I don't mind theological discussions when they disagree with something, but scathing attacks say much more about them than their letters say about my books. Criticism should stick to specifics about the book, not personal insults about me.

Finally, these two humorous answers on the e-mail loop:

I hate it when somebody hasn't read my books. Heh.

If there are any readers you guys are done with, I’d appreciate it if you’d pass them on to me.


Rel said...

Thanks so much, Brandilyn, for posting these comments. As a reader and reviewer, I think it only fair authors have the opportunity to have their voice heard on these matters, too. My experience has been that authors are some of the most gracious people about.

Ausjenny said...

I second what Rel said.
I love the comment about if you wouldn't say it face to face dont say it.
thanks for this insight.

Andi said...

Thanks so much for posting this Brandilyn. I for one as a reader and reviewer sure don't want to say or do anything that is going to be hurtful or degrading to any of the authors. In the two years I have been reviewing I have found the authors to be the most pleasant and receiving people around.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for posting this, I'm just getting into doing reviews and this helps me so much!

Tracy said...

Thanks Brandilyn, for posting this. There's lots of good info here. Though I'm fairly new to reviewing, I find that I really love doing it. And I'm happy to say that I've never given a scathing review. I try to imagine how I would feel if someone didn't like what I wrote. I've found that I can be honest without being hurtful. And, many of the books I review, I really do love!

A said...

Hear, hear. I'm not an Amazon published author, but I hate going on Amazon & reading back copy flap reviews. I can get that from B&N, I want real people reviews (& not Harriet Klausner - note to authors: if Harriet's reviewed, feel free to ignore. 9 times out 10, it's back flap copy, and often quite wrong).

Check your ego at the door and tell me, dear reader, what about this book might interest me, fellow dear reader. Is that not the point of reviews, to help your dear reader friends discern so-called good books from so-called beach reads? (So-called being the mind of the beholder...)

Unknown said...

I find Christian writers take negative reviews far more personally than non-Christian writers. Perhaps because they're agenda or M.O. is for a higher purpose.

That being said, Collins is correct that scathing reviews without proper execution or reason come across as ignorant and mean. On a slightly related topic, I am always surprised at the lack of negative reviews----by authors of other authors and readers--- of Christian fiction.

I feel Christian readership holds back from being truthful because it IS Christian fiction and they do not want to come across as negative.

Books are a very subjective medium and they deserve close scrutiny. In fact, the best, most thought-provoking books will ellicit a balance of negative and positive reviews. I find that testament to the writer's skill.

I think to own up to Collins' stark truth (for which I applaud her )readers should, in turn, be truthful---in an informed and reasonable way.

I would love to read more blogs which critique books written by Christian authors. We OWE it to Chrisian authors to treat them in the same way that we treat secular fiction....after all, they would expect that and respect it as writers regardless of genre.

Thoughfully critical reviews are expected in the literary world and are not personal---personal attacks are quite a different thing.

Authors should have a fairly thick-skin as a result of their agenting out their work to numerous places and perhaps undergoing several rejections.

Whilst some publishing companies are known to edit fiction far less than others, some editors I know take a ruler to each sentence---they can withstand that too!

I appreciate this "rant" because I agree with Collins' statement that readers need to write informed reviews--- she has taken the time to put her craft on the table and it deserves careful and thoughtful appreciation and or critique.

My own rant is to encourage Christian readers to speak out: in their blogs, on amazon.

Not every Christian novel deserves a four or five star average on popular book websites. We don't do it for secular fiction and Christian fiction ( if, as it tries to be , an equal craft ) deserves the same.

Paula Wiseman said...

I appreciate the not only the tips on how to write an effective review, BUT how to handle unfair criticism with grace, dignity and professionalism.

Pattie said...

This was interesting reading. Thanks.

Jason said...

Boy, I try hard not to give away the whole plot in a synopsis. That is its own skill.

I agree that there needs to be quality review and critique in the Christian fiction world. As many authors stated though, it does no good to scathe a book or show off one's own literary mastery in blasting a book.

I had to write a tough review this month because I didn't connect with the book. I explained that "to ME" it didn't work and tried to explain why, but I still gave the author props for really handling a plot twist well.

Very informative - both posts. Thanks BC!

Anonymous said...

What irks me is if a reviewer says something the author doesn’t like and then has his/her writer friends verbally attack that reviewer with comments on amazon. This single review was 95% flattering but raised a 5% valid objection. What followed was a horrible, very unchristian thing to behold. Just becasue of seeing that, this reviewer will never read any of the books by any of those authors.
On the other hand, I read some bad reviews given on another book by a different well known author. No attacks followed. This author's books are still hot selling.
I understand how important an honest and positive review should be - on the other hand, an author should respect a well thought out review that may not be to their liking. Respect needs to be on both sides.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

I agree with "Rachel" that Christian fiction needs the same kind of honest, valid reviews that secular books receive. We do get that some, as we're reviewed in Library Journal and PW alongside everyone else. On blogs maybe not as much. My theory is that those bloggers who are crowing about how great a book is really mean it. And if a blogger doesn't like a book so well, he/she simply chooses not to review it. This natural selection, or morbidity, if you will, skews the majority of reviews to look positive.

And Anonymous--yes. Respect on both sides is needed.

Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks. Lots of helpful advice on how to review, and you left me with a smile.

Rachel Hauck said...

I disagree with Rachel that Christian writers take their bad reviews more personally than non-Christians.

I'm a member of a group of writers where most write for the secular market. They take their bad reviews to heart and fire back -- often with venom. I first learned of TSTL from them: too stupid to live.

On the other hand, I've never heard a CBA author fire back with venom. Complain, sure, vent a little, but always trying to have a gracious heart.

People are people, writers are people (most of the time) and when someone attacks our work as if we spent NO time laboring over each work and plot point, it hurts. Pure and simple. It's like someone criticizing your kid.

There's always room for an honest review without being scathing or rude.

I think CBA authors expect a bit more from their CBA readers and reviewers. And it has nothing to do with their agenda or message. ;)

Anonymous said...

I personally can't imagine anyone not liking your books. Because as you know Katy and I absolutely love them. I know when I write something on them I have a real hard time not revealing anything.(I am also the kind who peaks at Christmas, so that fits). I just wanted to let you know that you are a fabulous writer. I catch myself actually holding my breath when I read your books.

Lynn Squire said...

After having accepted the opportunity to review a few books, I quickly learned that an honest review becomes near impossible to give. I found myself falling into the same dilemma: do I build up this novel that I wouldn't recommend to my friends to read; or do I write an honest review and risk hurting the writer's feelings & possibly ruining that relationship?

I am conservative in theology/doctrine. I have very clear ideas of what I would and would not read. But this seems to get under the skin of some writers, as though my opinions and views make me a horrible person. As I've grown, I've realized I can't write reviews unless I can give them a five star rating. Since I understand that anything negative can come across hurtful, I'm afraid I've chosen to do fewer reviews for fear of offending. But that doesn't change my opinion of individual novels - just means I'm not as free to express it.

pat said...

Kudos to you and all the other authors who wrote.

I only write for books I like, if I can't get into a book I put it down and pick up another one,it's not the authors fault as I can pick it back up at a later time and love it.

On the other hand I get tired of the same reviews over and over again, it makes you wonder if the person has even read you.

Allie said...

This has been interesting. I liked the comment "Don't say anything you wouldn't say in person" Which is so true.

I belong to several review groups. I try to not volunteer for books that I know going into that I likely won't like. There has been three times, two of them Christian fiction novels, where I've said very critical things. One of the first sentances on one of the reviews was "If you are the author, don't read any further." I couldn't stand her characters... at all. I tried to soften the review with the one thing I did like about the book and also recommended people check out other reviews as well. That book - not my cup of tea. The other critical review - why yes, I would have said what I said to the author herself. There were several lines in her novel that I believe should not be in Christian fiction, and trust me when I say there are a lot of things that aren't in Christian fiction that should be :)

I have been called out on both the reviews. On one of them the commenter and I had a very good exchange. On the second, I never heard back from the commenter - but I saw that he checked my blog just about every day for two weeks, which was weird.

But what was interesting - it was like I read here - was people coming back because they saw that I would be truthful and wouldn't hide what I thought.

If I get a book and can't get into it (apathetic about it vs not liking something) I usually keep quiet and don't say anything about it - usually I can't figure out why I didn't like it and in that case, I feel no need to warn people... LOL