Category Archives: Reviewing

Throwback Thursday: Self-Editing and Humble Pie

(First published on my blog 14th August 2013)

I can honestly say that I’ve never left a scathing, personal review for a book. (Occasionally I have left a harsher review if I feel the author has cheated the reader or propagated something harmful with their words.) That’s not to say I haven’t thought personal comments, I just haven’t felt the need to shout about it. I may be being too laid back, but I feel that the only times to speak up on the review front are when you have a genuine complaint or something has totally knocked your socks off. That said, in the right company with a group of trusted friends I have said some very catty things about certain books – never without cause but still. Was it necessary?

I’ll get my usual tangent in early here; the origins of the phrase ‘humble pie’ dates back to the middle ages when serving folk and the upper crust (another good phrase) all ate at the same board in the same hall. How well to do you were depended on how high above or far below the salt cellar you were seated. Anyway, the nobility hunted for a past time and when successful, deer and other kills were given to the kitchen for preparation. The off cuts, the bits no one really wanted, eyes, ears, intestines etc were known as ‘umbles’. These, in true waste not want not fashion, were mashed up and made into pies to feed the servants – who were sat significantly below the salt cellar. As the English language progressed those who could read and write dictated how English was to appear written down. They developed a curious propensity for adding ‘Hs’ onto words beginning with a vowel. ‘Umbles’ became ‘humble’ – hence ‘humble pie’.

I really hope you’re still with me.

How does this tie in with my statement about book reviews? That’s where the self editing comes in. While publishing houses and agents, if you are lucky enough to have a contract with either, do provide some editing still, nowadays it is far less than it used to be. You want your book to be as good as it possibly can be before submitting it for two reasons; one – it’s far more likely to get picked up if it looks like it needs less work done to it .(Editing is expensive) two – the more you do yourself, the better condition you get your book into, the better prospect you’ll appear to be long term. You can be trusted to make necessary changes.

This is all well and good. Editing, you say? I can do that. I mean I wrote it so how hard can it be?

Very hard. Excruciatingly painful. Brain meltingly, head achingly, tooth grindingly bad. Soul rending at times.

Here’s the big secret fellow writerly folks; Editing your book and doing necessary re-writes is ten/ twenty/ a hundred times harder than writing it. Writing the jolly little begger is a walk in the park by comparison.

I’ve got to the stage where I know what to do and I went on a fabulous self edit your novel course which taught me how to do it. At the moment I’m putting it into practice. It is difficult. Major understatement.

I’m roasting my prime haunch of venison, hopefully it will fall mouthwateringly off the bone, smothered in butter and herbs…but I won’t be tasting it. I’m preparing it for the consumers I hope will be drawn to the table by the aroma. Meanwhile I do have this unappealing but substantial pile of off cuts stacking up beside me. Umbles you might say. The bits no one else wants. They do say nothing in writing is wasted…guess I’ll be making me a pie then.

It is shockingly hard to write a book. I don’t have a sufficiently strong verb or adverb, not even amongst my umbles, for how hard editing that book is. Yes, crap does get published. Yes, you or I may be better writers who could have done it better. No we don’t have the right to go nuclear with our slanging – not on a public forum anyway. I’m not the thought police. Neither though, am I the arbiter of literary crapness. One person’s excrement is another persons golden read after all.

So what have I learned from around this juicy, bitter mouthful of umble pie? Criticize constructively and honestly. But don’t ever fall down the rabbit hole into being cruel or judgemental. Authors do read reviews – wouldn’t it be great to give useful feedback rather than tell them it’s donkey dung but not why? You don’t have to lie and say you like something when you don’t but remember how hard creating a book is, and how easy judging someone’s book is by comparison.

I’ll be bearing that in mind from now on. If I survive this self edit.

One day the book on the firing line might be yours. Think about it.

Readers’ Block: How to write a review

Why Write a Review;

If you’re a writer, then you may well have no trouble coming up with an insightful, clear, entertaining and thought provoking review of whatever you have just finished reading. Well, maybe anyway. Ok some of the time. Er occasionally…? Because let’s face it, unless you are in good practice, writing a review is actually hard.

If you’re not a writer how much harder is it to put yourself out there? You’re not used to stringing your thoughts together and editing them for people to read. Professional writers have enough trouble with this so it’s hardly surprising if you baulk when presented with the ‘what did you think’ dialogue box on the review section of Amazon. I book-blog and I still gaze blankly at that little white rectangle. So first let’s look at why you might want to leave a review;

– You want to support the author; perhaps you know them or perhaps you don’t, but either way you     think more people should be reading this book. It needs exposure.

– You agreed to review the book in exchange for an ARC (advanced review copy – not the biblical kind).

– You just loved the arse and balls off the book. It was awesome. You don’t know anything about the author, you just want to share your love of this amazing book.

– You hate the book. It made you so furious you flung it at the wall. You felt insulted by it. Really, it was personal.

– You just like reviewing things and sharing your opinion. In which case this blog is probably not going to teach you much 😉

What gets in the way of writing a review;

Perhaps you know or vaguely know the author. You want to be honest but you also want to be kind; to leave a review that will help. Unfortunately you really didn’t like the book. Perhaps it just wasn’t a good fit for you or maybe you felt there was something fundamentally wrong with it. Perhaps you actively disliked it or you couldn’t even finish. If it was a book you had to read for a book club or because you agreed to do so in exchange for an ARC or even as a favour, then this can be quite a sticky situation.

 

Or maybe you really loved the book but all you can think of to say is that it’s great, people should read it. I mean the book has really said it all. What is there left for you to add?

 

Or the book as made you so angry you are almost rabid and can’t form a coherent thought let alone write it down.

 

Or maybe, just maybe, you feel that you can’t explain yourself properly because literary terminology and knowledge of plot structure etc just isn’t part of your skill set. You might think you’ll look silly if you do post a review or maybe you’re worried about other people disagreeing with you and you don’t want that sort of hassle.

 

A Fact about Reviews;

Whether an author reads them or not (and the received wisdom for authors is to NOT read reviews of their books), reviews are helpful. Every review counts. So yes if you see one author has 400 reviews on a book you might think that they don’t need yours. You might even be right. Most people when reading reviews rarely read more than two or three. They won’t read all 400 before they decide whether to buy the book or not. So why does your review matter? Well it’s like voting except that books have proportional representation – each voice counts, whether what is being said is explicitly heard or not. Reviews help people to decide whether to buy a book; reviews and the amount and quality of reviews, sell books; selling books helps authors, who then are able to write more books. You would be surprised at just how much effect you can have on an author’s career merely by recommending a book to someone in passing. Reviews are word of mouth for the digital age and there is no greater marketing tool.

 

What to do if you really hated a book;

– don’t review it. Simple. Unless you have a reason to of course. Either you’ve agreed to in advance or you really feel the author has cheated the reader.

– if you know the author, weigh up whether or not to give them the option of you posting a review or not. If you decide to go ahead and post a negative review (and you have every right to do so) if the author is a friend it might be an idea to give them a head’s up. Writers are not known for their thick skins and while such an action from a stranger may cause grumbles, from a friend with no warning it could be  lot worse.

– that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t post negative reviews. They can actually help sales. You reviewing a book and giving it one star, explaining why, can mean that someone else, on reading your review, thinks that actually the things you didn’t like are things they look for in a book. A negative review can also cause a flurry of more positive reviews as people who disagree with you rush to protect the book. (So the people who were unsure about leaving a review because they felt self conscious rush in!)

– be constructive. Saying a book is shit is not constructive. Not acknowledging that you are only putting forward your opinion is not constructive. Pointing out plot holes, saying you couldn’t connect with the characters or that you felt the writing was rushed – those sorts of things are constructive. I’d be wary of swearing in a review anyway – try and keep it polite. By polite I don’t mean lie about how you feel but calling something trash helps no one; it’s much easier to destroy than create and even easier to criticize and complain than  to  compliment. Bear in mind that it’s easy to get carried away.

How to Write a Review;

It really doesn’t have to be onerous. You’ve read the book. You have an opinion. All you have to do is share it and that can be done in a short, concise paragraph that still conveys everything it needs to. Perhaps you find yourself able to write peons of praise or fully de-construct the book for analysis. Great. But if not here is a quick guide.

 

– a review should be at least four lines long. Five to ten lines is brilliant but you can cover it in four. One line reviews are worse than useless.

 

– Give your overall impression of the book.

 

– Say what worked for you and why.

 

– Say what didn’t work for you and why.

 

– Mention a character or idea you especially liked/ disliked and why.

 

– Say who you would recommend the book to and possibly add whether you’ll read the author’s next book.

 

That’s it. It is that simple. You may well find that by just following those guidelines that you remember other things you want to mention and the review grows. That’s fine too. Just don’t give away any spoilers – at least not without warning the reader of the review that your review includes spoilers. If you have any sort of relationship/ friendship with the author you don’t have to declare it but for the purposes of an honest review you probably shouldn’t conceal it. Finally, be honest.

 

So, simple really, huh? Not quite so painful as you’d think. It’s a lot easier to support your favourite authors and incidentally get them to produce more books than you might imagine.

 

A couple of Don’ts;

-Some authors will take a review, negative or positive in their stride and be unaffected. Most will be moved or upset privately depending on what they took away from the review. Some may send a brief thank you message. And some totally crazy authors may, just may, pick a fight with you over a review. I’ve  heard of it happening although I don’t know anyone it’s happened too. While there are a lot of people who like to troll authors, there are a few authors who can make themselves quite unpleasant in defending their work. Don’t engage. Don’t get into an argument. Walk away. If someone demand you remove a perfectly reasonable review, you decide. I’d be inclined to leave it and not buy any of that author’s books again but that’s my take.

 

-Don’t praise something when you really don’t like it. Don’t talk something down if you do.

 

– Don’t be any more catty or snarky than you can help in your review. Yes I’ve left negative reviews and there’s always been a good reason for them being negative, however I try very hard not to indulge in bitchiness over books – if you are that annoyed by a book wait until you are in a better mood before reviewing.

 

– Don’t leave a review without finding at least one genuinely positive thing to say. Actually that’s not a bad perspective to apply to life in general…

 

Reviews that Don’t help;

– one line reviews like ‘this was brilliant’ or ‘i really liked this.’ This tells the person reading the review nothing and it looks like the author has rounded up a few friends who haven’t read the book to say nice things about it.

 

– ‘just buy it, you have to read this’ this might be genuinely enthusiastic but if it’s not presented carefully it looks like hard sell and readers do not like hard sell.

 

– negative reviews that don’t explain why the reader didn’t like the book.

 

– positive reviews that don’t explain what was great about it.

 

– reviews that start ‘I wanted to like this’ and then go on to say that really it was the author’s fault not the reader’s that they didn’t like the book. It’s a cop out start anyway. Own the fact you didn’t like a book and take it from there. It’s not a crime to dislike a book. Just be constructive.

 

 

So in a nutshell that is a simple guide to leaving a review. Now go to it – your writers need you 😉