Writing Life: Reviews and Critiques — Dealing with One, Making the Most of the Other

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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

 

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23 comments to Writing Life: Reviews and Critiques — Dealing with One, Making the Most of the Other

  • I tell them to choose people they trust.

    You’re so right. It’s easier to accept the critique from a position of trust, whether the critique is positive or negative. Changes are easier to consider if the person making the suggestion seems to have your book’s best interest in mind. In fact, I find that positive criticism from someone I don’t trust is worse, because I can’t believe the person means what he says, and I start second-guessing myself.

    And speaking of that, where’s that story you were going to send me?? Don’t you trust me? *grin*

  • When it comes to reviews of my work I generally find the best reviews come from the shrewdest, most perceptive readers, while the pans and the lukewarm shrugs come from the giftless, incompetent hacks. And so I get through another day.

  • Misty, yeah the scond-guessing just sucks. And the book may be coming your way sooner rather than later…..

    A.J., well put!

  • Once I really, truly, genuinely figured out that there is nothing I can do about anything reviewers say–good or bad–about something I’ve written or an issue of IGMS that I’ve put together, I pretty much stopped reading them. Critiques on the hand are something you have to pay attention to, but by the same token you can’t live and die by them either. If one beta readers says she didn’t like Character X, you can ask questions and then decide whether or not you want to do something about it. But if six beta readers all say they hate Character X (and Character X is supposed to be anything but your villain), you have a problem you need to address promptly.

  • I would love to say “I’m with Ed on this one” because his sounds like a balanced and logical way to think of things. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that – if I do get published – I’m going to have a hard time not taking reviews from PW or KR, or the blurbs from other writers, to heart.

    Critiques, however, I adore. Even when critiquers disagree on a character or point, it’s that resulting conversation and analysis of *why* that I find the most helpful. Chatting with my roommate about one of my characters’ motivations completely changed his relationship with another character (from caring to resentment)and ended up helping me find the theme of the book.

    I tweeted this, that more might partake of the wisdom. :D

  • I find it’s also a tad easier to go into the critique process if you’ve got the mindset: “My story is good but flawed. I just need help identifying the flaws so I can fix them.”

    I still get a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach that first time before I open an e-mail where someone has critiqued my work. In the story I’m working on now, I clicked the e-mail (so far, almost all of my beta/critiquing has been via e-mail) with that thought firmly in mind. I even had an idea of one specific thing that was flawed, but yet no plan on how to fix it. The first bit of critique was great: it started strongly with a “here’s what I liked” then followed up with “here’s what I didn’t like, and here’s why I think I didn’t like it.” It confirmed my suspicions on one of the story’s major flaws, but the critique went into further depth on the issue, and it inspired me with some thoughts on how I might fix the problem. Later critiques by other readers continued to confirm the existence of that major flaw.

    A good critique can do that: give you the creative energy to tackle the problems of a manuscript and fix them, strengthening the story. But, for myself, I still always find that I have that little fear of “what if they didn’t like it?” With critiques, repeating that mantra to myself helps overcome that fear.

    With reviews… well… I’ve never had to crack that particular nut, really. I’ll just have to do my best to ignore them, I guess.

  • Edmund, I wish I could be that mature about reviews. I can’t. I’m too thin-skinned. I’m better than I used to be, but reviews still get to me. Your point about critiques is a good one, and part of the reason I try to think in terms of “beta readers” plural. If one reader responds badly to something about which I’m unsure, I might well take that person’s comments into account; otherwise, I feel that I need to get a similar response from a couple of people before I make any substantial changes.

    Lauren, see above. I’m like you on the reviews thing. And like you, I find a good critique enormously helpful and creatively stimulating. Thanks very much for tweeting the post. Much appreciated.

    Stephen, I know that feeling in the stomach all too well. It sounds, though as if you’re coming at the critiques from a good place — recognizing that the story can be both good AND flawed, and understanding that the critique is going to make it better. Sounds basic, I know, but you’d be amazed by the number of people who struggle with this.

  • David said And the book may be coming your way sooner rather than later…..

    Yay!

  • I agree with most of the remarks above. I tend to think of Reviews as a necessary part of the marketing frenzy. For critiques I go to people I trust personally–like my sons, both writers and avid readers of Fantasy, and to friends who
    I know will give me honest opinions and advice. To me the point is to please readers, not to give reviewers another venue to express their carefully crafted online literary personae. Charles Hall

  • David, To be really frank, I’m equally thin-skinned. That’s another reason why I stopped reading reviews. Who needs to carry that kind of baggage around for days (or weeks or months or years)? And I seem to do a much better job of holding on mentally to the bad ones than I do to the good ones…

  • So I’ve been beta’ing for the last 3 weeks (1 novella, 1 short and a novel) One thing I’ve really noticed with each one (even the 2 by the same author) that there are different things that need to be focused on in each story… but one thing I always work on when doing it is pointing out the good things they do along with the bad.

    I also notice I now attempt to beta job postings and emails. I was highly critical of the interview question worksheet I just went through too (though was inspired for a writing exercise with it).

  • MW is acting up. I’ll try once more!
    David, I too stopped reading reviews after Gwen’s that said, “It made me feel slimy.” Book was set in a bayou in summer. Sigh….

    Critiques, OTOH are valuable. The best on was from Kim Harrison’s hubby, when I told him I needed help and he read an early draft of Skinwalker. His analysis of the character made all the difference in the world!

  • Ugh. I am *very* thin-skinned with feedback. The best I can do is get over it quickly, like the five stages of grief Misty was talking about a few weeks back.

    Honestly, my biggest problem right now is trying to find someone willing to read through and give me back on the whole piece. The MW beta group is fantastic for feedback on the first few chapters, but we only really do bits and pieces there, not entire works.

  • :) Misty

    Charles, I agree with your take on reviews. It sounds as though you have good betas, which is invaluable.

    Edmund, I am totally the same way. I can get five great reviews on a book; I’ll remember the one poor one.

    Axisor, as both a reader and a receiver of critiques, I agree that giving positive as well as negative feedback is crucial. As authors we need to know what works and why, as well as what doesn’t and why it falls flat. And, it just feels good to have someone say “Hey, you did this really well.”

    Faith, was that Blackwater Secrets? If so, the reviewer is an idiot. Fabulous book. And yeah, a good critique is like gold. Hope the rewrites are going well.

    Laura, feedback is not always easy to hear, but it is essential to good revision. Finding readers to take on an entire manuscript is hard, because it is an imposition; we’re asking a lot of our readers. That’s another aspect of the trust thing.

  • David> Great posts. I’ll do my best when I’m published to stay away from reviews. I’ll fail, but you know, I’ll try. I remember the horrific terror at opening “critiquing” emails from my director on my dissertation. Eventually we parted ways, but hers were personal, nasty, and I think deliberately cruel. Boy was it a crash course in what NOT to do in critiquing. On the other hand, my beta group for my diss was GREAT.

    Axisor> Oh, I feel your pain. I wince at some of the emails I get from people. :)

    I like critiquing. I like helping folks make their work better, and I work hard to be honest, but not cruel. I had one beta reader long ago (no one in MW) say something incredibly harsh, nasty, and useless. They then said “I may be a [female dog] but I’m being honest.” The worst part, by far, was the fact that the comment was useless. I had no way of taking it and making my work better from it. If it had been useful, then I wouldn’t have been so hurt. The truth about my work at that time is that it needed a tremendous amount of revision, (you know you don’t need 15 exclamation points on a page?) but it was still way too harsh. I wish I had more time to critique, actually, because I find it helps me with my own work. The editing that I do has been really useful, too.

    Faith> Are you sure that “it made me feel slimy” wasn’t a compliment? I mean, like, it was so vivid that it left a physical feeling? (For example, I felt physical pain in my leg when I read Misery by Stephen King when I was in jr. high. When Annie axes off his leg, I actually twinged with pain!)

  • David, that was Betrayal. But thanks. Blackwater Secrets is Gwen’s fave book.

  • Pea Emily, if the reveiw was intended as a compliment, it sure didn’t come across that way!

  • @David — I find some of the best positive feedback is simply a “lol :)” or the “I shuddered along with the narrator” — I’ve also learned to coach statments with “dearie” and “hun”, but i suspect that works mostly because I do have regular email correspondences with these folks

    @Pea Fairie — Oh, I don’t mind doing the edits and critics. One is actually the 2nd go around of that doc for me and it’s really exciting to see how she embraced my suggestions and ran with it. I am having more trouble with the novel, but i think that’s just because I’m afraid of getting sucked in. And they did ask before sending. i just find the irony of the timing humorous:) I whole-heart-edly agree about learning to improve writing by crit’ing other though :)

  • I love A.J’s reply best.
    Only the most clever and thorough readers provide good reviews.:)
    I read on this site once that each book (or series?) has a target market. That is a segment of the population for whom the book resonates. Some books hit a larger mark and others only one or two people (like my mum and wife). Good reviews mean you’ve found your audience, bad reviews means you missed. So those people for whom the book is good are your customers. Look after them, chase them and sell more to them. Don’t worry too much about the people who don’t like your book.
    I think I read that more or less on this site (my analysis added).
    My cousin (writes middle-grade books) gave my fantasy a full blooded critique and apologised for being too harsh, but in reality it was exactly the critique I was looking for. Previous readers had not been incisive enough to crack open the shell I’d wrapped around my work. The shell that hid the flaws from me. So I thanked her by ripping her fantasy novel to shreds :) (in a good way)

  • Emily, when I went to college I thought that I would be a creative writing major, and my first two years I was on track to do that. But then, second semester sophomore year I took a writing course that was led by a well-meaning but somewhat ineffectual TA who didn’t know how to facilitate crit sessions. The critiques I received in that course were so mean-spirited, so unhelpful, that I changed majors. Now, as it turned out, turning to history and getting my Ph.D. was a good thing (not least because I met my wife in grad school) but that experience did delay my writing career for a decade. So yeah, I hear what you’re saying about rude and ineffective critiques.

    Faith, thanks for the clarification.

    Axisor, yes, those moments when you can say in one way or another “This section here worked perfectly” can be enormously helpful to the person whose work you’re critiquing. I tend to stay away from “Hon” and the rest, but I think I need to as a guy. Writing workshops and such are filled with male writers of A Certain Age trying to coax aspiring female writers into bed, and I do not want to be confused with them.

    John, I think that approach works to a point. The thing is, in this market we have to expand our readerships just to keep our heads above water, which makes it a little harder to not worry about the people who don’t like our books, particularly if they have a forum for expressing their dislike. Emotionally your approach makes all kinds of sense; from a business standpoint it’s not quite as easy. Thanks for the comment.

  • Oh, I’ve definitely accepted critiquing feedback as a necessary part of the process. But I am *aware* that my first (kept to myself) reaction is generally going to be unpleasant. After I get over that, I’m ready to fix it. :)

    You’re right about it being a lot to ask of someone, and that has held me back from asking.

    @Surrey – I completely understand what you mean about the shell.

  • I suspect reviews can be helpful in defining the market for your work. People put a lot of their own baggage into opinions of anything, so trying to work out what their baggage is can tell you a bit about them (obviously.) You can definitely use that to learn more about who is the target market for your writing, and who isn’t.

    Heck, you could even use that to expand your market, if you determine what it is about those giving poor reviews that makes them different.

    As far as critiques, well, if two different people point out the same thing, I take notice. There’s definitely a flaw. Their analysis may not be totally accurate, but the fact that they both stumbled means there’s something that can be fixed.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Following Pea Faerie’s comment, I would like to add that referee reviews of academic work can be quite the interesting mix between the reviews you talk about here and actual critique. I love to get feedback on my papers because the revisions I do as a result make the end product infinitely better. However, I don’t think I’ve ever read a review for the first time and not wanted to rip the referee’s head off. Condescension has no place in a useful review but is far too often present. Amusingly, I had one referee repeatedly criticize my writing technique, even though his own writing was far from graceful and included at least one entirely made up word (a long made-up word, as though he were trying to sound smart) :-D