I’ve been thinking about critiques and reviews recently, and had been even before the Magical Words How-to received this latest review from Black Gate. See, I’m currently working on the galley proofs for The Dark-Eyes’ War, the third book of Blood of the Southlands, which will be coming out in paperback in December. There’s been quite a lag between the hardcover release of this book (January 2010) and the mass market paperback re-release, and so it’s been a long time since I last read through this book. Talk about giving oneself some distance from a novel!
Let me pause here to say that I no longer place much stock in reviews. Yes, it’s nice to get a nice review, particularly in one of the big trade magazines (Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal). But just as I try not to let a bad review get me down too much, I don’t give myself the luxury of basking in a good review for very long. I have been panned by PW and Kirkus, and I’ve had great reviews from them both. To this day, I can’t figure out what draws one kind of review and what draws the other. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it.
And that’s what has had me thinking this week as I read through Dark-Eyes’ War. Reading it again, I realized that I love this book. I feel that it did a really nice job of tying up the various plot threads of the series, that it completed not only my story arc, but also my various character arcs. It moves quickly, it has lots of fun battle scenes, some romance, a few surprises, and some very powerful moments. Thing is, though, the critics didn’t like it. They didn’t hate it — no one said that it sucked. But, for instance, Romantic Times, which gave four stars (out of five) to The Sorcerers’ Plague, and four and a half stars to The Horsemen’s Gambit (the first two volumes in the trilogy) gave only three stars to this book. Similarly, Publisher’s Weekly liked the first book, loved the second, was lukewarm about the third. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why.
Once again, I’ll pause to say that I’m not looking for support or reassurance here. I’m not saying that I’m hurt or upset — those reviews were published ages ago, and they are what they are. But the contrast in critical responses to books that are, to my mind, of very similar quality, just brings home to me the wisdom of something that we’ve discussed here before: no matter how good something we write might be, we will never please all of our readers. My very first book, Children of Amarid, had this said about it by Kirkus Reviews: “This hardworking if glum and unambitious debut might just — but only just — keep a nostril above the flood of mediocre fantasy currently sloshing about.” Yes, I can recall that one from memory, mostly because it might be the best backhanded compliment I’ve ever seen in any review. (And, of course, Tor used the phrase “Above the flood of mediocre fantasy currently sloshing about…” on one of my promos!) Library Journal, on the other hand, called it “elegantly written.” Same book, different reviewers. When Neil Gaiman’s American Gods came out in 2001, it was a huge success, critically and commercially. It won several awards and got terrific reviews. And I have to say that I love the book. I know many professional writers, whose work and opinions I respect, who hate it.
There are bestsellers out there that have been panned critically, and brilliant books that received broad critical acclaim that didn’t sell at all. There are books that receive tons of 5 star reviews on Amazon, and that also receive lots of one and two star reviews.
So what are we to do with this information? Not as readers — we can figure out what we like to read and what we don’t; I don’t need a reviewer for that. I mean as writers. What do we do with all the divergent feedback we receive on our work? In fact, never mind reviewers — what do we do when two of our beta readers hate our latest draft and two others love it? How do we deal with criticism and praise when all of that feedback is inherently subjective? I have a manuscript that I’ve just completed, and I need critical feedback on it. I know, though, that I can find people who will love it, and I can find those who will hate it. Does that mean that the feedback I receive is useless?
No. And this is where the difference between criticism and critque comes in. Reviews serve their purpose in the publishing world. It’s not just about getting a good review or a bad one. Every writer in the business will tell you that they would rather receive a bad review from Kirkus or Publisher’s Weekly than no review at all. The review itself is free publicity, and for every published review that pans a book there will usually be another that offers some praise. That’s the nature of the business. That’s why once we’re published, we can’t worry too much about one bad review or take too much pleasure in one good one. Again, you can’t please everyone.
Beta readers, though, are different. Critiques are different. With a bad review I can howl at the moon about the injustice of it, but there is little I can do to benefit from it in any meaningful way. But when I receive a critique from a beta reader, I can ask questions, I can delve into issues that they raise or even ask about plot points and characters and passages that they didn’t bring up in their initial critique. Whenever I recommend that aspiring writers give their work to beta readers, I tell them to choose people they trust. And trust in this case means more than relying on their discretion, or their ability to offer feedback without crushing the writer’s spirit. Trust means believing that they will be totally honest, that they will tell you what works and what doesn’t. I would add to that, though: when you go to a beta reader, you need to do more than say “Please read this.” You should have specific things in mind that you want to know about your book. I recently gave that manuscript I mentioned to Faith, and I asked her to pay attention to certain aspects of voice, character, tone — things I am concerned about, things that might or might not work as currently written. When I hear back from her, I’ll pepper her with questions about these and other issues.
This is the difference between criticism and critique. The former is what it is; the latter is interactive, it is a tool. And because of that, it is as useful and productive as we make it. We have to be proactive in making the most of the feedback we get. And in addition to trusting our readers, we also have to understand them. I have one reader who tends to look at a fair bit of my work. This person is great when it comes to plotting, to the inherent logic of a narrative, and is also very good on character and voice. Stylistically, this person is less reliable. But I have another reader who is great with that stuff. I’m not suggesting that you find one beta reader for one aspect of your writing and another for some other aspect, though that might be a fine strategy. I’m merely suggesting that just as you should know market when you submit work to a publisher or agent, so should you know your readers when you send out a manuscript for critique. The feedback we receive IS subjective, but that doesn’t mean that it’s useless. We just have to understand the predilections of those who are reading for us.
Critique is an interactive process. Sending a manuscript out to a bunch of people and saying “read this and tell me what you think” is probably not the best way to make the most of our beta readers. Ask questions, understand the tastes of those who will be doing the reading, follow up with directed questions that will allow you to make the most of the feedback you receive, subjective though it may be. Later in your career, reviews won’t really help that much; but critiques will always have as much or as little value as you give them.David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net