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.

Penetrating the Heart of Darkness

Our topic this week at the SFF Seven is The Book You Didn’t Want to Read and Ended Up Loving. 

This was kind of difficult for me to answer, because most of the books that spring to mind when I cast back and try to recall which I didn’t want to read are the ones I ended up hating. If I ended up loving them, I kind of forget that initial pain. Like childbirth.

But I finally settled on HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad, which I had to read for AP English senior year of high school. The edition above is the one I read – and still have. I know a lot of you hate it, but come on over to find out why it was pivotal for me. 

 

Franchise Books and Why I Don’t Read Them

I lied a little in the comments this morning.

That’s what the comments section is for, right? Right?? 

Okay, no – I exaggerate. But one of my SFF Seven group-blogmates posted this morning about how much he loves the Star Trek franchise books, especially a particular set. We’re talking this week about books that people might be surprised we love. He certainly surprised me – and I commented that I’ve never gotten into reading any of the franchise books, meaning the books spun off movies and TV shows like Star Wars and Star Trek.

Which is largely true, but not precisely so.

See, I did try to read one, a long, long time ago, in a mall chain bookstore far, far away. It was not long after Star Wars Episode IV came out, which my parents took me to see on the big screen, dragging me along to their choice of movie as they always did, which then absolutely lit up my world. In the ensuing years – there were three years in real time between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back – I became addicted to Star Trek reruns on TV after school, discovered Anne McCaffrey wasn’t the only fantasy writer, and spent a lot of time and allowance money at that mall chain bookstore. Maybe it was a B. Dalton?

At any rate, I was dying to know What Happened Next in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back was YEARS away, and I spotted a Star Wars BOOK.

I tell you, angels wept.

I bought the slim paperback – I bet it wasn’t more than 200 pages – and eagerly began to read. What had happened to Leia, Luke and Han?? Well. The opening scene (or one of them) took place in some kind of pawn shop and culminated in a light saber (?) being thrust into a guy’s eye and bloody pulp flying everywhere. Then… I can’t even remember, but people were doing Wrong and Weird things. The characters weren’t like they were in the movie. It might have been that Leia, Luke and Han weren’t even IN it.

Angels were not amused.

This was long before I understood that a canon could be riffed upon. The book might have been written “in the world,” or – who knows? – might not even have been authorized. I have no idea now who wrote it or much more about it than the eye pulp flying everywhere.

Plus, that the story didn’t deliver anything like the movie had, and I was already well-aware that books are always better than the movie. 

So, I never read another. That one book filled me with such loathing that I wrote off all franchise books as anathema. Now I’m wondering what I’ve missed…

What about all of you – do you read franchise books like this? Are there any you LOVE that I should check out???

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!