Reviews – The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

amazon-5-star-review-2Reviews good and bad, are something every author is familiar with.  We beg for reviews because they help to sell our books. We cringe at the bad ones. We cheer at the good ones. If only all of them could be good…or maybe not.

Any author can relate with the bad review that makes no sense. It’s frustrating when the reviewer complains that the story is short when it was published as a short story. Hopefully other readers will be smart enough to see through those. But false good reviews can be just as damaging. Often when a bad book gets good reviews, we have to wonder if all the good reviews came from friends or family.

I recently came across a book for Kindle that caught my interest. First the cover attracted me, and although vague, the description grabbed me enough to look at it closer. It had 45 reviews with an average of 4 stars. I started reading the reviews, both good and bad. I rarely give much weight to reviews that don’t give enough information. I’m not convinced by comments like ” I didn’t like it.”  Books are subjective, so I need to know why the reader didn’t like it. In this instance, in the one star reviews the book received, I was seeing comments about punctuation, format, and story structure that gave me pause. So I clicked on the “Look Inside” link.

What I read was absolutely terrible.  The first page was enough to convince me that I didn’t want this free book to take up space on my Kindle.  The first thing that smacked me in the face was purple prose by the wheelbarrow full. What is purple prose? It’s when you use too many descriptive words. For example – “The glossy bird, black as midnight, soared like a jet across the cerulean blue sky dotted with opaque clouds, wispy and ethereal, as they drifted by.”  My daughter calls this word salad. When an author spends too much time with a thesaurus and dictionary and tosses in every word they can find, some words so obscure, the reader will need to keep a dictionary on hand to understand what they’re reading. There’s a fine line between quality descriptive narrative and overkill. To be honest – I have skirted on the edge of using purple prose, not to that extent thank goodness, but it’s something I try to keep an eye on.

The second issue that jumped out at me was punctuation. I’m not talking about a few typos. The only punctuation the author uses is periods and maybe a few commas. Even at the end of questions, he uses periods, not a question mark to be seen. There are no quotation marks for dialog.  Some of this author’s long, run on sentences are paragraphs. I can’t claim to be an expert at punctuation either.  My nemesis is comma usage, I either use too many, or not enough. But the absence of any other punctuation becomes confusing, and when the reader is confused it pulls them out of the story.

The third problem that I noticed were tense changes. The author switches from present tense to past tense and back again, sometimes within the same paragraph. This is something most authors have done at some point in an early draft, or early in their writing life.  I certainly have. But it’s something I have learned to be conscious of. Yes, I still slip up from time to time. That’s why I have my manuscript read by as many people as possible before the final draft.

I didn’t download the book, and I won’t leave a review. I feel bad for this author. These problems are not subjective. I ‘m not criticizing style, story line, or whether or not I like the ending. These are fundamental issues that this author will need to work on, if they are serious about being an author. I don’t think this is a terrible author. Perhaps he has some interesting ideas and creativity.

So which reviews are the bad ones? The painful one star,  negative reviews? No, it’s the glowing five star reviews left by well meaning friends and family.  It’s hard to tell a friend that you don’t like something that means a lot to them. Unfortunately, if we aren’t honest, and give wonderful reviews just because we don’t want to disappoint, we do more harm than good. It sets the author up for a painful fall. They believe the good reviews which make the bad reviews unexpected and painful.

I’m not saying all good reviews are bad, or all bad reviews are constructive, it can go either way. What authors need are honest reviews.  Why didn’t I leave a review, even though I think it would be an honest review? Because at this point, the author will use those good reviews as a shield. They are his reason to dismiss the bad reviews. Which in the end will hurt him, not just because they will be a dagger to his heart emotionally,  but because he may dismiss what they are trying to tell him.

What I’d like to do, is send this author a personal message. One with praise for the bravery to put himself out there, but also with the gentle advice that there are issues in his writing that need improvement. In the end all writers improve with every word written. It never ends, at least it shouldn’t.  However, it’s not my place to do so. It was the place of those who let him down, whether that was their intention or not.  He thought they loved his book. I shouldn’t make assumptions, maybe they did, but I don’t even want to go there.

So what do I want to say about all this? Be honest with those you care about. Do I think if you hate a friends book, you should plaster it on Amazon? No. Tell them before they get to that point, or if you don’t have that option, in private. Do it gently, and be specific. Balance it with what you did like.  For example, ” I love the dialog, but don’t understand why this character was introduced in the last chapter,” or, “This story is fascinating, but on page 48 I wasn’t sure who was speaking.”  If there are specific areas where there were problems, mark them and point them out, sometimes it’s just an oversight and the author is happy to know it was caught, and want to fix it. This type of critique is important and will help them to be what they really want to be, a good author.

Authors, if you don’t have the money to hire an editor, have as many people you trust to give you an honest opinion read your book before you publish. Not just close friends, but other authors who have been in your place at one time. Perhaps, like me, you have some friends or family members who have experience editing.

Read books about writing, read books in general, lots of books. In Stephen King’s book “On Writing,” he says if you don’t have the  time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Join writer’s groups, take writing classes and seminars. Surround yourself with as many people as you can who will not feel obligated to praise you. Try not to be defensive. I know it’s hard. This is your baby, and no one wants to hear that their baby has an unsightly wart on its nose. Sometimes when we see something everyday, we stop seeing it altogether. By the time we’ve finished a book, we’ve seen those words so many times, we aren’t really reading them anymore, and we can miss things that are glaringly obvious to others.

As for myself I find I have a knee-jerk defensive reaction, (I probably owe my editors an apology or two.) but if the criticism is good constructive criticism, I go back and take it to heart, and it inevitably improves my writing. I watch that my descriptions are well worded and not over-the-top purple prose, because someone, who did so in my best interest, told me.  I have editors that correct my punctuation when I mess up., and trust me, I mess up plenty. They also let me know if there are passages they don’t understand, or continuity errors. I don’t always have to agree with everything they suggest, but it makes me take a second look and ask myself if my readers will understand what I’m trying to get across.  Does this make me a good writer? It depends on each persons opinion, some reviews say I’m the next best thing out there, and some say I’m crap. What it does is make me a better writer. I will use everything I learn over time to continue to get better, for that’s all I can really strive for.

Addendum: While searching for an image to go with this post, I accidentally came upon a website that offers 5 star, compelling reviews for any kindle book for the price of $5.00.  Maybe I was wrong about the author above. I hope not, and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. All I can say is, if an author feels the need to buy positive reviews for their book, they aren’t really an author at all.

 

 

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