Review Unto Others

Writer networking and support is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? I’ve arrived here via free fiction-writing communities, where I meet writers through reviews. I don’t have any previous relationships with these writers. I like that. It keeps my feedback real. In the free novel-writing world, it’s perfectly fine to leave a glowing review on a rough draft version of a story. The writer is just beginning. The potential’s there, but the story has a ton of mistakes. My review may mention a few, but it would be pointless to dissect the whole thing in the initial stages. (Sometimes I’ll try to talk the writer into letting me beta, my fingers itching to dispel the distractions I see in an otherwise great story.)

Now I’m stepping through the looking-glass to find… basically, the same review setup, only now it involves money and literary integrity. These new eBooks on Amazon, perched on virtual shelves, call to me at 99 cents. The summaries are often appealing. If there are reviews, I will read them. I’ve read a few where readers have commented with something like,

“There were grammatical errors, but this writer is new.”

“I admit I was hoping for a more rounded understanding of some of the other characters besides the main character.”

“I didn’t always relate to the main character. When events happened in the story that called for a strong reaction, there wasn’t really one.”

That’s pretty important stuff there. And some of these reviews come with four and five-star ratings. That’s not helpful. It’s like looking for a good cookie recipe, finding one with a 97% approval rating and 50+ reviews, and making a flour-heavy, tasteless dessert.* It’s a waste, and not just for other readers. It’s a waste for a writer who has talent and needs to hone his/her craft!

Why aren’t these reviews telling the whole story? Putting myself in the reader’s shoes, if I were given a free book and told, “All you need to do is review this when you’re done,” I’d think it was a great idea, initially. Free books! Yum! And, please, let me give you my opinion. What about further incentive from a writer-friend to swap books and review? I see the benefits of back-scratch reviewing, but I think the review itself is synthetic. The pressure to be kind will taint the whole experiment. It’s some mad twist on the golden rule. Whatever I say can no longer be entirely genuine. Think of little Fred, the poor fellow who volunteers to take a dose of Uncle Harvey’s Cure-All Old Indian Remedy, while Uncle Harvey rattles on about all the amazing things that the ‘elixir’ is going to do for headaches, gout, tuberculosis, freckles, abscesses, and hair loss. Little Fred sees the hope in the townspeople’s eyes; he’s aware of their breathless anticipation as he tilts the bottle for a swig. Is Fred going to say what he’s expected to say, perhaps physically convincing himself of the positive outcome?

As a reviewer, I think a published work should be held to a certain standard of quality. Should I praise a book with poorly structured sentences, underdeveloped characterizations, plot holes, dangling story threads, orphaned paragraphs of information, lost and wandering commas, etc.? The story can have incredible potential, but it hasn’t been placed in a comparable environment. Shouldn’t I address those issues? Shouldn’t my rating reflect the difference I see between it and the surrounding literature?

I don’t think a reader has to analyze the plot structure, tallying the arc points and subplots, to know if a story is the real thing; but there are some things that can be expressed objectively that I’d like to know as a prospective reader:

1. Grammatically speaking, is the book well-written? Could it use some work?

2. Is the pace of the story comparable to others of its general genre (adventure, mystery, horror, romance, etc.)? Exception: There are some works that employ eclectic pacing, but the skillful writer knows how to use it without losing the interest of the reader.

3. When contemplating what to write in the review, are there any negative aspects that are automatically ‘forgiven’? What are they, and why? For example, some stories speak to a reader through personal life experience, so one might overlook what the narrative lacks.

Finding any of these means the book probably needs a good going over.

With the book industry turned on its head, the readers are the ones to come to the rescue. Yet, reader/reviewer influence declines when the information in the reviews becomes overwhelmingly unreliable. That’s why it works against every writer to misuse the review system for unwarranted self-promotion, or to flatter in a weak moment; no one will trust the comments or ratings. It benefits everyone to use the power of the review to distinguish the works of merit. It really is about being kind and genuine. By ‘reviewing unto others,’ you’re really doing yourself a favor in the long run.

*Yes, it happened to me. And, yes, it was bad. I tweaked it into a great cheesecake crust, though.

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The One Where My Heart Bleeds When It’s Broken

I truly thought it was the real thing… not like last time. My heart went pitter-patter. I daydreamed of the conversations about the future we would have, the promises we would make once things progressed. I felt prepared this time. I felt like I’d really straightened up a lot of issues beforehand. I approached with confidence, but with a clear sense that I should be completely open to what might happen. I allowed myself to be vulnerable… and I was rejected.

I invested a chunk of time into that query letter!

(Sigh.)

Okay so, looking back, I made some mistakes.

It was a big mistake not to write my letter in the same style as my story. The query was proper and respectful… and rather infested with that childlike transparency that screams, “I’m an amateur!”

I had also decided not to rely on great hooks, which are part of my style, as well. Somewhere I got the impression agents and publishers want the black and white of the story, not the hype and talk up. It was painful, and my sentences came out haltingly. I smoothed them over to the best of my ability. Still, it wasn’t me. Why did I send the query out knowing that? I really thought that’s why query letters were so difficult to write.

“There’s vulnerability in sending a query letter.”

I remember reading something to that effect; and I certainly felt vulnerable, sending letters that seemed to be dressed in a dull brown interview suit with the lapels severely pressed just so.

In the midst of my morose state, I happened upon an article where an expressive agent included her description of a good query. And I realized… *gasp* Agents are people, too!

I know, I was shocked. You mean, when an agent is perusing a list of books and summaries, he/she wants the info to persuade him/her that the rest of the story is just as appealing? Wait; I do that, too!

You know that request some agents make to include, “where you are going with your story”? I think this is misleading. Think of the boy in Princess Bride, who stops the grandpa to ask, “Is this a kissing book?” Notice, the grandpa never answers. The boy doesn’t really want an answer. He’s just skeptical. He’s afraid he’ll be pulled in; he might actually like the story, kissing and all. We’re all cynics, callous to the age-old archetypes. With the myriad, dry bones queries an agent digs through, it has to be desensitizing. Poor things, those agents. It must be a merciless existence, day in and day out, looking for that one… or two… or two hundred. Now I will take a moment to sympathize. (Cue violin music.)

As you can tell, I’m working through the phases swiftly. The shock was short-lived. I’ve had a visit with denial and moved on to anger. You can see the “clouds in my coffee” dispersing as I make pathetic jabs at agent-kind with my quill.

Now what?

Well, I’ve scrapped my dull brown suit approach and written what I’ve wanted to say all along. It took a couple of minutes, as apposed* to the two months it took me to write that second query. It’s direct. It’s appealing. It’s alot like my story.

I also went back to my novel and scrutinized the beginning again. One thing that has haunted me is the pace of the prologue. It’s a brief series of journal entries. I wanted it to be meandering, like a journal usually is. Meandering is not the way to begin a story in the present fast-food fiction climate. I had a genius moment and chopped up the beginning to follow a new angle that is more concise and spirited. (Click here if you’d like to see the old version. I haven’t updated it to the new, improved version yet, so feel free to ‘tsk-tsk’ over it.)

Voila.

I think my heart has healed enough to search for my shining agent again.

 

*Btw, why is WP telling me this word is spelled incorrectly? The two months are not ‘opposing’ the couple of minutes, right?

This *is* the Manuscript You Were Looking For

After looking over client lists of agents to get a taste of what literary agencies are endorsing, I’m thinking it’s time I learned the Jedi mind trick. Have you read some authors’ bios lately?

Initial. Initial. Smarmy was terminally ill from the age of two, which explains much of the philosophical trauma he endured as a child. In his teens, he established his own business, ‘Nightshade Window Treatments,’ from which a friendly cult began, dedicated to educating others about the advantages of poisonous vegetation. A part-time volunteer for the Association for the Beautification of Carnivorous Reptiles, he paints abstract portraits on crocodile teeth to help raise funds and awareness. He has a pet platypus that travels with him to book signings because ‘Curby’ won’t sleep unless he’s wrapped in Smarmy’s silk scarf. Smarmy always wears this scarf; it marks his triumph over his 14-year addiction to Ace of Base.

Okay, I would love to read this in a real bio. My own will include my short stint as a bad fortune-teller and my award for being the worst slob at camp. But I can’t compete. Padawan training, you are my only hope.

Oh, That’s How You Spell ‘Kreativ’!

I’ve been nominated for the Kreativ Blogger award from Limebird Writers. Thank you to Beth and her fine feathered friends.

The rules:
1. Share 10 things about yourself that readers might find interesting.
2. Pass the award onto 6 other bloggers (be sure to leave a comment on each of the blogs to let them know).

Because I’m so ‘kreativ,’ I’m starting with rule 2.

6 Picks – And Why I Chose Them

1. twistingthreads – For me, this blog exemplifies the candid, analytical writer. I like tracing the path of her thoughts in her journal posts. It may seem random, but the ‘thread’ is always there.

2. booktopiareviews – This blogger researches awards given to books, what those awards entail, and, often, who backs them. She’s a teacher and an obvious bibliophile. Can’t beat that.

3. Discovering Ireland – I have no idea how I found this little treasure. It’s a school project that relates simple questions and answers about Ireland. Being a Gaelic folklore and fairy tales enthusiast, I find this blog entertaining and easy to peruse.

4. Ayesha Schroeder – In her own words, what makes this writer unique? “Her experience growing up in a mixed family gives her the unique viewpoint of both the Pakistani immigrant and the American struggling to find and define their culture.” From my perspective, she has a knack of sharing her views instead of expressing them, making her thoughts relatable to any reader. I’m not from Pakistan, nor do I pick up works purely for their cultural aspects. I’m going with my intuition about this author’s potential to win hearts from all walks of life.

5. Novel Girl – It’s a blog, but it’s more like a condensed writing class. Rebecca takes the writer’s craft seriously and packs her posts full of helpful advice, tips galore, and lovely analogies. I feel like every entry is a personalized gift because she seems to put so much into it.

6. Kristin McFarland – Aspiring fantasy writer with lots of passion and determination. Need I say more?

 10 Things You Were Just Dying to Know About Me

1. I’m left-handed. Inigo would have so pwned me.

2. Okay, I don’t even know how to handle a sword; Inigo would have pwned me anyway. But… “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.” – Lady Catherine de Bourgh

3. Don’t give me knives or scissors, either. One time I cut myself, instead of an orange, while babysitting. I decided to make it a learning moment to remind the kids of the importance of using a cutting board. This lesson occurred while a copious amount of blood was being dealt with. The children were enthralled, but for some reason I was never invited to baby-sit those kids again.

4. I’m a chain tea-drinker and partial to tea-drinking writers I meet online.

5. I have a tendency to cross the bridge, plan for ulterior ways to get around the bridge, and prepare to scale the bridge, if necessary, before I get to it.

6. Pet peeve: I despise when the bookstore locks all the doors fifteen minutes before closing. Yeah, I’d do the same thing if I were working there, but still. My first instinct is to bang on the door, scream, “Help me! I’m trapped!” and drool like a maniac on the glass. Haven’t done that yet.

7. I lost part of my right earlobe to frostbite when I was 9. It grew back in the shape of a three-leaf clover.

8. My favorite colors are lime, kelly, and sage green. I’m now the proud owner of a kelly green velour blazer. My wardrobe is complete.

9. Number seven is purely fiction. You knew that, didn’t you? See, I’m honest.

10. I don’t normally do chain letters, chain emails, chain fb statuses, etc. This feels somewhat like that. At least it doesn’t come with a guilt trip if you don’t do it.