Thursday 29 April 2021

Ten Thousand One-Stars!

This is a ramble on criticism of writing in its many forms and on the ideal thickness of skin for a writer.

The title references my guestimate at how many 1* ratings my books have had. Actually on Goodreads the total is 7,126 but if you lob in the Amazon results etc the guess was pretty close!

A writing critique or a review are both form of criticism, both carry the potential sharp edge of criticism whether it's a negative opinion at the story level, or a technical observation on the mechanics of the writing on the small scale.

There are a variety of different levels on which criticism takes place and each comes with different advice on how much attention a writer should pay to it.

Broadly though, it boils into three main categories: "solicited", "unsolicited-general" & "unsolicited-direct".

Solicited: You sent your work to someone, and asked them to give you feedback. They give you some.

Unsolicited-general: Your work is out there (on sale + you may even have sent it to a reviewer). They broadcast their reaction to the world in a review.

Unsolicited-direct: Your work is out there. Someone reads it and contacts you directly with their thoughts.

There are of course middle grounds between these various categories - if someone tags an author in a review on Twitter that's kinda direct, but less so than emailing them your thoughts privately, or cornering them at a convention.

And there is of course a big difference within each of these cases when the review is positive. I don't know of any author who would object to someone emailing them on their publicly available email address to say they loved the book. Emailing them to detail why their book was rubbish ... rather different thing!

In a sense one might label all criticism of a published author as solicited since they put the book out there, or perhaps even sent copies to reviewers. But I'm going to label the criticism by readers and reviewers as unsolicited since the clear intent is that the general reader or reviewer direct their impressions at the wider world rather than at the author. 

So, my own personal policy on these cases:

Solicited (positive): Hooray!

Solicited (negative): Honesty can hurt but it's a hugely valuable resource. More thoughts here. Always remember that just because someone is being honest, it doesn't mean they're correct. You're going to need skin that's thick enough to stop the criticism damaging your wellbeing, but thin enough that important lessons can get through. It's a fine judgement. And if you can't achieve that balance then such critique is something you're better off managing without.

Unsolicited-general (positive): Hooray! That's a great service to any author. Very much appreciated.

Unsolicited-general (negative): It goes with the territory. I don't read it any more. I used to.

Unsolicited-direct (positive): Hooray! I love getting an atta-boy email. I try to reply to them all. 

Unsolicited-direct (negative): Deleted immediately that I see what it is. 

If I want it I'll ask for it. There's really no difference here between an email saying "You're a terrible writer!" and an email carefully breaking down all the perceived mistakes and suggesting how to improve. One might be intended to hurt and the other could possibly be a genuine attempt to help. Neither should happen. If in the latter case the person really did want to help, then at least ask first - but ideally the thing to do would be to sit on your opinions and wait to see if the author calls for such help, or to publish them to the world and then the author can find them if they want to.

Note: this last category has happened to me very rarely, on literally two or three occasions in 10 years. Though I hear that some authors (only female ones that I know of) have a significantly higher incidence of it. 

I think all of the above is commonsense really. If you go looking at reviews of your own books in the wild west of the internet then it's a gamble - you might see something that upsets you - someone might have slapped your baby. They're entirely at liberty to do so. But people shouldn't bust into your house and slap your baby where you can see it!

Want more control? Go on Goodreads and just filter for 5* reviews! 😀

Or just wait to see if someone will tag you in a positive review on Twitter.

There was, in the dying stages of this year's SPFBO contest, some discussion of the tone of some reviews, with the suggestion that they were insufficiently kind/positive.

I should point out that the blogs that are good enough to volunteer their time to review and score for the contest are entirely independent, and I would never try to influence how they do their reviewing - they'd just tell me "no" even if I wanted to. Hypothetically, if a blog reviewed in a manner counter to the ideals of the contest then I would thank them but not invite them back. I've never had to take that step.

My feeling is that since all of the books in the contest are published, the blogs could have independently chosen them to review, and done so however they like. Moreover, entering the contest is an act that solicits reviews from the blogs.

The reviews are not then directed at the authors, just put out there. An author could - should they wish to - enter their book and never again look at the contest, simply waiting to hear if they've won.

The contest exists to promote the best that self-publishing has to offer and to generate reviews of books that might otherwise struggle to get reviewed on high-profile blogs. That act of promotion would be less effective if it became apparent that the bloggers were treating these books differently to the others that they reviewed. If potential readers came to think that these SPFBO books were getting gentler treatment than books that just caught the blogs' attention ... then they would set less store by the positive things that were said in them. It's a case of needing contrast. Honesty must be demonstrated so that when unalloyed praise is given it has an impact.

The glowing reviews of our champion can be taken at face value because we know that many other books (even some of the finalists) faired less well. We know that when Fantasy-Faction gives The Lost War 9* and my latest book 8.5* it is because they thought it was a better book, not because they were giving The Lost War a free pass because it's self-published.

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1 comment:

  1. Hi, first of all, i'm a cuban fan of your work and loved The Broken Empire Trilogy, and i'm sure that i'll like your others books.
    After my Unsolicited-direct opinion, thanks for share your thoughts about criticism of writing. I have a blog of fantasy literature diffusion but until i read this, i had never thinked of my reviews as a form of criticism. Mainly, because i admit that my opinion about a book is subjective and that if i don't enjoy reading it, it don't mean that the book is bad. But, ultimatelly, i criticize the book, although trying to be imparcial.
    PS: Pardon for any grammatical error.