Tuesday, July 18, 2006

How To Write Competent Reviews

Disclaimer: I don't think I'm the bestest review writer ever. Hell, most days I fall in the marginally good category, and that's if I'm lucky. But given that everyone is talking about Amazon reviews again (seriously, who reads these?) I thought now would be a good time to offer Wendy's Helpful Hints of Reviewing. Oh, and you authors who like to bitch about Big Fat Meanie Reviewers? Pay attention, I'm spelling it out for you.

In Order Of Importance (as I see it):

1) The Characters. If you have time to kill and cruise around my TRR reviews for books that got less than stellar ratings 99.9% of the time you'll notice I harp on the characters. Seriously, they make or break a book for me. In fact I would say a good 90% of my enjoyment of a novel hinges on how the characters are working for me. Is the heroine a dumb ass? Is the hero a Neanderthal jack ass? I'm going to hate the book. Just am. No amount of fantastic plotting, delicious word play or superior editing is going to help one iota.

2) Plotting. Really all I'm looking for here is how the story flows. Does it bog down? Is it too frantic? Are there gaping holes you can drive a city bus through? That said, if I love your characters, I am kinder on the plot.

3) Writing. I know, this should probably be higher on my list. I like my writing clean. Give me show, not tell. And for cripes sake, I hate purple prose! Silly sex euphemisms and flowery description make my eyes roll back in my head. I did not pick up your novel to read 25 pages on a beautiful rain storm. I picked up your novel to read about the characters and conflict.

4) Editing. I barely notice this, which I'm sure would lead many readers to burn me at the stake. The only time editing in a novel becomes in issue for me is if I'm having obvious issues with 1, 2 or 3.

5) Packaging/marketing. At this stage in the game I try not to let cover art influence me. I've read great books with shitty covers and crappy books with fantastic covers. Marketing gets me a bit more. A good example of this would be last year's In Deep Voodoo by Stephanie Bond. I'm sure Avon pushed it as a romance because that's where Bond built her audience - but I really think the book would have been better served had they concentrated on the cozy/humorous mystery market. It worked a lot better as a mystery than it did as a romance. It's my job to tell the reader - well the romance is lackluster but the mystery is very good. Then of course it's up to reader to make the ultimate choice. Seriously, I still think Avon dropped the ball on this one. Is this Bond's fault? Of course not. It's a fun book. Just targeted to the wrong market in my ever so humble opinion.

You'll notice nowhere on this list do I mention the author. This might wound some egos, but frankly authors are a nonfactor me. I think about authors the same way I think about the Wizard of Oz. Please don't pay any attention to the man behind the curtain! The novel is there for me to consume. I don't think too hard about the guy who makes my cheeseburgers (unless the health department shuts him down!) I know authors are people to, but thinking about them gets in the way of my entertainment value. So rarely (if ever) will I mention in author in a review other than to say, "SoAndSo's latest for Harlequin puts a new spin on a well worn plot device" or "SoAndSo's sophomore effort features a petulant heroine determined to prove her Daddy wrong." I won't say, "SoAndSo wouldn't know her ass from a hole in the ground, her politics suck monkey balls and her children are ugly." Why? Because chances are I've never met SoAndSo. Maybe she does know her own ass. Far be it from me to make sweeping statements.

Also, authors really need to get off this kick that Big Fat Meanie reviewers are all frustrated writers who couldn't hack it. Not all of us have aspirations of getting published. Frankly that shit is hard work and a lot of us are too lazy. I can appreciate that it is very hard to write. It's even harder to get your work in print. I know you all worked very hard on that book. Doesn't mean I have to like it though. Just another joy of living in a democratic-based-consumer society.


Karen Scott said...

Wendy, I couldn't agree more. I read the review, and actually, I didn't think it was that bad, I believe I've written worse things.

As far as I can tell, this is just a good excuse for authors to bash at a reader, (some may call it payback) and because this one happens to be an aspiring author, I think they feel almost justified in cutting her down publicly.

The thought that an editor would refuse a book, even if they thought it was going to be the next big seller, just because the writer once wrote a scathing review, strikes me as being very petty indeed.

No matter how you look at it, this can be construed as bullying, and only adds to the reader vs author 'debate'.

sybil said...

I don't see it as a reader vs author thing as much as a author vs author. A 'you will never eat lunch in this town again' if you don't play by the rules.

I get it to a point, you don't trash your employer on the internet without taking chances regardless of the business you are in.

It is the way it comes across, the bullying and threats that make me shake my head. So much for peer reviews eh *g*.

I have to say editing is low on my list as well and if you grab me with your characters I can forgive tons of things.

Bev (BB) said...

The only thing I'd change on your list, Wendy, would be to put plot before character. That's only because to me plot is the story foundation that can either be action or character oriented, which leads us naturally to character next for most stories. The rest, though, pretty much right on target.

Course, I don't reveiw so what do I know . . . :D

Wendy said...

I don't disagree with your opinion - I can totally see your point! But I know from my own experience, I've "forgiven" some lackluster plot points because I've loved the characters. That's not to say the author gets a free pass. I'll mention the offending plot point in the review, but then say something like, ", but with such likeable characters it was easy not to dwell on the secret amnesiac baby who wanted to grow up to be a Navy SEAL."

Turn that around, I've read books that had very imaginative plots - but the characters set my teeth on edge. Frankly, I tend to notice this sort of thing the most in paranormals. The author gives me great world building but then populates that world with characters that leave me cold.....

Colleen Gleason said...

Very well said, Wendy.

One point in particular I think is well-taken: that the author has little to no say as to how the book is packaged and marketed.

Case in point: Jennifer Armintrout's debut The Burning has been shelved and marketed in romance, although it's not technically a romance. Mine will be as well.

It's the publisher's marketing department that determines best how to position and market a book, and may not be as the author envisioned it.

I think it's perfectly appropriate for the reviewer to share thoughts on how the book is positioned (without giving away the plot), and whether it works (or doesn't work) for the reviewer.

Tara Marie said...

Great points, though I see plot and characters being equal in importance, but that's me. And I totally agree with the concept of clean writing, I just finished one with a frantic feel to it and after the first 50 pages it gave me a headache, but that's the author's style. Market it correctly !!

And, you know what, it's okay to be a Big Fat Meanie if the book sucks, authors need to realize that not every book is going to work for every reader and every reader is entitled to an opinion.

Ack--this whole thing has turned into a witch hunt and thats wrong.

Wendy said...

I'm not sure how much the average reader (by that I mean, not online!) understands that a lot of that stuff is out of the author's hands. I mean, I'm sure Nora carries quite a bit of clout with marketing, publicity etc. But your debut or midlist author? Not so much.

And marketing Armintrout's debut as a romance is just wrong. I haven't read it yet - but from what I understand it's a dark vampire story with quite a few bloody bits. Sounds intriguing though!

Suisan said...

For me, it's character plus dialogue, then plot.

If plot is great, I can get past the first two, but that's a BIG hurdle.

But I know that if the dialogue stinks then it reflects on how well I like the characters. Thanks for the post.

Kate R said...

good one. I put it in my Thursday How To list. . .