Silly Writer! Reviews Aren’t for Craft

I talked a bit about this on Twitter, and on my podcast – First Cup of Coffee – but I said I’d loop back and discuss on the blog in more detail.

I admit it started with a subtweet. A few blogger/reviewers were posting about authors who were publicly shaming readers who gave them poor reviews. The tenor of the authors’ complaints were that the bad reviews were harshing their (or their friend’s) release day buzz. Which… that’s a whole other thing, but the TL:DR is that nobody owes an author a sparkle pony on release day. The operative word there is RELEASE. That means letting the book go, to sink or swim in the world. It no longer belongs to the author. Helicopter parenting it will only bring misery to the author and damage the book’s chances.

ANYWAY. This post isn’t about that.

What I subtweeted about was an author who weighed in on the thread with a “but, but, but” –  #protip: don’t do this – “But, but, but,” she says, “I just wish readers would *explain* why they give it one-star, so I can learn from it!”

First of all, not only does nobody owe you a sparkle pony, no one owes an explanation for a rating. Readers can rate books whatever they like, for whatever reason they like, and they don’t have to explain. They’re not in a relationship with the author, so there’s no obligation to tend feelings. They’re not writing teachers. They read.

Secondly, reviews are not for the author to read. Even readers and reviewers who take the conceit of appearing to address the author, aren’t really. They’re engaging with the voice in the book. It’s really important for writers to remember we are not our books. One of the very interesting outcomes of the Burnout Panel (and How to Maybe Avoid It Next Time) at Nebula Conference was that one of the key conditions leading to burnout is a person over-identifying with their work. A book is something we create (and RELEASE) and how readers react to it is about *them*. When someone reviews a book, it’s for other readers. It’s not a job performance appraisal for the author.

Finally, reviews are a TERRIBLE place to look to improve craft because the lens is so different. The experience of reading a book is totally different from evaluating it with an editorial eye. As proof of this, I point to the near-universal author experience of discovering that reading for sheer pleasure gets lost. Somewhere in the transition from being a person who only reads books to someone who also writes them, we develop that critical lens for evaluating the story creation. And it becomes almost impossible to shut it off again. This is bad and good. There’s some grief in the realization that the experience of reading a story without examining it is lost forever. But it’s good because, well, we *need* that ability. Every book and story a writer reads is an education – what works for us, what doesn’t, how the writer created certain impacts, where they lost the thread, etc.

Because of this profound difference in reading experience, however, reviews from readers tell us nothing about the craft of the story. Maybe a writer can glean some insight from which stories seem most popular – but most writers also will note that they can never predict which stories will “hit” and which don’t. It’s almost never our personal favorites. It often seems counter-intuitive. Many writers will say that their very favorite of their own work is the least popular with readers. Is there a correlation?

WHO KNOWS???

That’s the thing, and that’s my point. There is no knowing, which means that scouring reviews for information on improving craft is fruitless.

You know what does work? Read a lot (books and stories, not reviews). Write a lot.

Read. Write. Repeat.

Who’s Looking Over Your Shoulder as You Write? Appeasing the Fandom

One of my faithful desk companions – Isabel has little interest in the stories themselves, but she disapproves of my reaching for the mouse. Good incentive for me to keep typing with no backtracking!

Not as visible – and not as likely to claw me for reaching for the mouse – is everyone else virtually on my desk as I write. By this I mean my readers. And not just any readers – but those passionately invested in the stories, worlds and characters. You know who you are! These are the power readers, the ones who take time to give me personal feedback on how much they love what I write. 

And they have opinions. Sometimes strong ones. Again, you know who you are. 🙂

That’s our topic this week: Responding to the fandom – where do you draw the line? (e.g., not killing a character after all) Come on over to get my take. 

The Top X [Genre] books Every Y Should Read

CRSqSFWVAAA8mALI loved these words so much, I just had to Word Swag them. Batya Ungar-Sargon messaged them to me about my book, UNDER CONTRACT. We met when she took my workshop on consent at the RT Convention and then she asked to use that material for this terrific article she wrote on romance and feminism.

My favorite bit? “Graceful in its fealty to genre.” It’s a distressingly far too widely held opinion that writing romance is easy. The genre is derided for its highly defined tropes and inevitable happy ending. It’s true that romance readers have definite expectations – but that means it’s more difficult to write, not easier. Telling a good story, the story you want to tell, while adhering to the tropes is a delicate dance. Thus, “graceful in its fealty to genre” is one of the best accolades ever.

“Incredibly written” is pretty nice, too.

I want to talk a bit today about the Top X lists. You know the ones I mean. “The Top 100 Best Books of the Century.” “The Top Ten Fantasy Books Every Woman Should Read.” Etc, etc.

They’re proliferating more than ever because of sites like Buzzfeed, Salon and Huffington Post, which thrive on numbered lists of all kinds. Lists get clicks. Numbered lists are one of the favored varieties of Clickbait out there right now.

Writers and readers are constantly encouraged to name their “Top Whatever” lists. Favorite book, favorite author, favorite book boyfriend. For writing guest posts and articles, making lists like this can be a fairly fast and easy way to go.

I, however, think they’re dangerous.

That’s what I said – and I don’t think I’m overstating. This is why.

To me, this is another exercise in the inevitable interview question posed to anyone who’s had a microphone thrust in their face: What book is on your beside table? (A phrasing I love because they’re not actually asking “What are you reading?” and – maybe this is just me – my bedside table is a kind of TBR pile purgatory, where books can languish for years, quietly gathering dust and sneering at my procrastination.) Equally inevitable, the person will respond with A Tale of Two Cities or some such. Seriously, I considered it a drinking game there for a while, how many celebrities, politicians and other interview-friendly folks cited reading A Tale of Two Cities.

Of course, maybe it’s that everyone *starts* the book, because we all feel we SHOULD read it, and then every last one of us ditches it in bedside table purgatory because the damn thing is so stiflingly dull. (Yes, I tried to read it. Stalled on page 121, marked with a 1992 bookmark. It’s back on the bookshelf, though.)

If they don’t say A Tale of Two Cities, then it’s Great Expectations or War and Peace or Moby Dick. Right? Because everyone wants to sound smart. No one is going to say Robin McKinley’s Shadows, which is the book currently languishing on my bedside table, or Molly O’Keefe’s Everything I Left Unsaid, which I’m currently devouring on the Kindle. At any rate, all of this is evidence of the ongoing conflict between what we think we should read and what we actually read.

These lists, then, tend to reinforce the “should read” side of things, which is to say, the surface, social version, rather than the reality. In fact, many of the lists include “should” in the title, creating an onus by their very existence. Worse, because people who compose the lists want to look smart and well-read, they all tend to include the same books. The ones everyone cites as being the ones to cite.

See how this cycle perpetuates?

Maybe saying this is dangerous IS putting it a tad strongly. But I do think it’s counterproductive, continues to elevate the same group of books – which creates homogeneity – and reinforces snobbery.

Read what you want to read!

Can Books Be Like Music?

B6sf4_dCQAAzIS-This time of year in Santa Fe, we can get gorgeously warm days. On Tuesday we ate lunch on the patio in shirtsleeves and the kitties stalked the restless gophers. Good times were had by all. Of course, today it’s cold, stormy and overcast, but I’m ensconced in my cozy chair with a teapot on the warmer and life is still good.

A funny thing – I use Tweetdeck to sort my Twitter feeds, to help manage the flow of information. I also have columns devote to searches for mentions of my name or of my book titles, so I can see when people are talking about them. A couple of my titles overlap with album titles – particularly THE TALON OF THE HAWK and COVENANT OF THORNS. I think this is kind of cool, that I title musically, in a way.

The upshot is I see conversations – and fan enthusing – about these, especially Talon of the Hawk by The Front Bottoms. I’d never heard of this band, but I impulsively bought the album so I could listen, since we have this serendipitous artistic overlap. I like it. And wow – do other people love, love, love this album! People tweet about it all the time, say how he listened to it over and over, sang all the song with her sister on a road trip and expressing all the love. They discuss how awesome this album is. And tons of them want to get tattoos of the knife on the album cover.

It just makes me think.

Readers do this to an extent, but not nearly so many and not to the same extreme. I think there are a few reasons for this. A lot more people listen to music than read books. In 2013, 76% of American adults had read at least one book during the year and the typical American reads five books a year. Compare that to the stat that the average American listens to four hours of music a DAY. An enormous difference, huh?

Also music is social in a way that books tend not to be. Listening to music can be a gregarious event, from singing while road-tripping with your sister to attending a massive stadium rock concert. Books, even if we discuss them at length, tend to be a fairly solitary experience with a huge internal involvement.

Still.

I clipped this quote from Kurt Cobain once, which I have not been able to find. It’s probably floating aimlessly around in some forsaken file folder. At any rate, it’s amazing because he’s talking to an author about how he imagines readings are like rock concerts, with screaming fans and a mosh pit. It’s kind of adorable, how mistaken he is – and also enlightening. I read it and thought, why CAN’T it be like that? Wouldn’t it be great if it was?

I dunno – maybe I’m dreaming. What do you guys think?