Writing is easy. Good writing is hard. Reviewing is harder.
Learning to write, until recently, was taught in schools. Reports, essays, even poems. I’m not sure it’s still taught, which would be too bad as writing is a discipline, it makes your thinking clearer and more logical. The requirements of written communication force you to look at things, with any luck in new and different ways. It requires focus, clarity and concentration.
But writing fiction is not the same as writing a report or an essay. When you decide to write fiction – unless you write solely for your own amusement, which I understand some people actually claim to do – you enter the gauzy, glittery, treacherous world of entertainment. In this world, there is one overarching rule: do not bore your reader. The late, great Elmore Leonard put it nicely: “I try to leave out the parts people skip.”
There’s a saying writers use: Kill your babies. We’ve all written passages we absolutely adore: a phrase, a paragraph, (hopefully not) a chapter. We sit back with a happy sigh and think, “This is beyond perfect.” Oh boy, you’re in trouble. But if you’re writing only for your own amusement, it doesn’t matter.
Which brings me to critiquing. There are a lot of ways to critique. The most obvious one, and one which a “for-myself-only” writer may never consider, is peer critique. Giving your baby out for evaluation by someone who doesn’t owe you anything. A critique group can be as many as dozens; I belong to a group that meets every Saturday for member readings, each followed by critiques, and we can have up to forty people in the room. The underlying motif is Do No Harm. Start with a compliment, then drill down a bit for what didn’t work. Suggestions for correction are not encouraged. That’s the writer’s job.
The beauty of this kind of critique is that it is face to face. You’re looking the writer in the eye and there are witnesses. You may be outraged by the subject matter but the delivery is what you’re focusing on. You keep it neutral. Presumably the writer takes it in and considers if the advice is germane to the work.
Where it can get sticky is if you’re critiquing from behind a monitor. About five years ago, I began a book review blog, mostly to keep track of what I read, and what I might recommend to friends, who are all big readers. As I only review books I’ve read, and I’m the only reviewer, there’s only about 650 books there (more every week; I don’t watch TV), but it’s a good range of genres and a lot of authors nobody’s ever heard of but ought to. But never think I’ll challenge Goodreads or Library Thing.
I use the five-star rating system that’s so popular. Early on, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t review a book that deserved one or two stars. I’d read a few of them – mostly self-published on Amazon although several were touted as coming from NYTimes Best Selling Authors – and they were pretty bad: sloppy motivation, unrealistic action, self-indulgent ranting, mis-use of words (does anyone except Amy Bloom know the difference between trouper and trooper?), typos, incomplete re-writes, inane dialogue, boring or trite plot, cardboard cut-out characters, heroines too stupid to live, vile punctuation.
I respect someone who has actually finished a book, a novel or novella. Even a short story. Lame or not, it’s their best effort. We all know how tough it is to get it right, we’ve all been shot down by a critique group or a beta reader. And if you’re far enough along in your writing development, you’re collecting thanks-but-no-thanks from editors and agents (those noble souls who still retain the courtesy to actually get back with you). You think, I’m busting my ass here, opening that vein to let the blood gush out, ignoring my family/job/best friends/life. I’ve learned to kill my babies; I never use was, almost, nearly or –ly words; I use action verbs; I start in medias res; there’s more hooks in that damn ms than a fly-fisherman’s workshop, and you say it’s not good enough? That’s traumatizing.
I actually wrote a couple of one- and two-star reviews and, afterward, they were painful to read. Putting myself in the author’s shoes, I decided I had no right to say the endeavor sucked. Several were hardcover; somebody professional, some gatekeeper, had to have liked the ms, if only to keep the pot boiling. Pointing out their errors would do no good. It was too late. Plus, maybe it was me who was having the bad book day.
And then I thought about a one or two-star review of my own work by somebody I’d never meet, and I was ambivalent. Maybe they’d have something to say that I ought to hear. Maybe they’d be a troll. Maybe they had chops, maybe they didn’t. But, at any rate, it would be too late. The book would be out there (I’m doing novenas to make that happen), it’s a done deal.
In the 650+ reviews on Nuts4Books, most reviews are four- or five-star. In the beginning, I used five a lot more than I do now. There’s maybe a dozen three-star, one of them recently on one of my favorite authors. I guess she – or her editor – just had a bad day. Besides, if you have twenty-odd best-sellers out there, should you give a damn?
I think I would. I’ll let you know when I get there. But don’t hold your breath.
Lee Summerall, unpublished but hopeful, is current president of Pinellas Writers, a critique group in Pinellas County (St Pete) Florida. She’s a Finalist in the 2015 Daphne duMaurier Writing Contest for a romantic suspense novel titled Game Face. Her book blog is www.nuts4books.com.