Tag Archives: book reviews

Everybody Is a Critic–And That’s the Problem

When I think about how I react to criticism of my writing, an image comes to my mind. It’s a fish I saw once at an aquarium—the porcupine fish, or puffer fish.

Porcupine fish are armed with key survival equipment. They have the ability to inflate their bodies by swallowing water or air, thus reducing the range of predators to those with bigger mouths. They also possess sharp spines, which radiate outward when the fish is inflated.

I wish my defense mechanisms were as effective. The truth is that criticism hurts. There’s no way around it. And it hurts emotionally. Our writing is personal. We invest our emotions in what we write. So when a critic trashes a book by leaving a one-star review, accompanied by vitriolic words strewn across cyberspace for the world to see, the pain is palpable. I’ve heard stories of authors who were so shaken by a bad review that they couldn’t write for months. We take criticism to heart because all good fiction writing is personal.

But there are two types of criticism. There is well-intentioned, honest, and specific criticism. The critic is knowledgeable about literature and renders an informed opinion of the story’s shortcomings and backs it up with specific examples and constructive suggestions for how the piece can be improved. Writers should welcome and encourage such criticism.

Then there is the other type of criticism—mean-spirited, vague, venomous, and hurtful. This type of criticism is usually penned by anonymous individuals. I can only speculate as to their motives, but my theory is that many of these critics have low self-esteem and leaving a bad review makes them feel superior to the defenseless writer.

During the recent Writer Unboxed Un-Conference, a highly respected professional critic led a session entitled, “Criticism. When to Listen. What to Hear.” Porter Anderson, a veteran professional critic who is a Fellow in the National Critics Institute, made a distinction between consumer reviews and literary criticism. Writers should ignore emotional testimonials (“I loved it,” “I threw the book against the wall”). Anderson has no use for ratings, either (thumbs up/thumbs down, four out of five stars).

Likening consumer reviews to a mixed cocktail, Anderson said they tend to consist of:

–Three parts instruction (read it or don’t read it),

–Three parts dumbing down (how many stars), and

–Three parts emotion (“This book stinks!”)

“Most reviews benefit readers and customers,” he said. “What authors want are reviews that tell them something about their work.”

He advised writers to:

–Scour reviews for specificity,

–Ignore emotional reactions (positive or negative),

–Duck “buy” or “Don’t buy” messages,

–Pay as little attention as possible to the symbolic ratings (how many stars), and

–Watch for consistent reviewers, readers who turn up to review more than one of your books.

Reviews should offer feedback that is specific, identifiable, and actionable, he said.

And, lastly, he cautioned authors to never engage the critic. “Bullying by reviewers and of reviewers is not new,” he said. “It’s been going on for years…Anger and hostility shouldn’t be happening. As an author, don’t engage the bully critic.”

Several hours after Anderson’s session on criticism, something extraordinary happened. There was a planned session after dinner in which authors in attendance were invited to read aloud the worst review they had received. I expected to be staring at an empty podium. On the contrary, author after author strode to the podium to gleefully read poorly written, grammatically incorrect, and often incoherent reviews of their work. I couldn’t imagine doing that. It took unbelievable courage for writers to stand up there and read these reviews. There was an element of pettiness to nearly every bad review. I couldn’t help but think that these reviews reflected more on the reviewer than the author being reviewed.

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7 Lessons from a First-Year Blogger

This month marked my first anniversary as a blogger. While my stats are hardly impressive, I have 111 posts and more than 5,000 views to my credit. In the process, I’ve learned a lot and would like to share seven key lessons:

1. Keep doing it. The blogosphere is littered with bloggers who started out fast and flamed out. If you are going to start a blog, you must make a long-term commitment. Take the long view. Are you really passionate enough about the subject to keep going back to it again and again. Do you have enough to say? Do you have enough time? Which brings me to my second lesson.

2. Your writing comes first. I have not found the right balance yet. I admit I have sacrificed my writing time in the interest of keeping up my blog and that’s a bad habit. I need to work on that.

3. Read other blogs. Bloggers must stay current on what is being written about their subject. What are the hot stories? What are the trends or books people are talking about? Writing books doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Writers are part of a vast world that includes traditional and self-publishing. Besides, reading other blogs will give you topic ideas.

4. Build your online community. My philosophy is to focus on making a few meaningful connections. This is best done by faithfully reading blogs you like and leaving comments. It also involves being nice to other bloggers, reading and reviewing their work and sharing tips and insights. It takes time, but it’s worth it.

5. Twitter is your best friend. I resisted Twitter for a long time, but a friend persisted in touting its benefits. Once I realized what it was all about and what it could do for a writer, I was hooked. Again, Twitter is about sharing and giving, not about self-promotion. If you follow the right people, you can get all your news about your subject of interest through Twitter.

6. Branch out. My blog started as a resource for new writers. All of my posts were focused on helping the novice writer. I wrote with an eye toward giving advice I would have found most helpful when I was starting out. I always knew it would morph into something more. I have added Author Spotlights on authors I admire and Book Reviews. I realize I am not only a writer, but an avid reading and reading is just as important to me as writing.

7. You own it. Fiction writing bloggers tend to write about the same topics, but what I find fascinating is that every writer’s perspective on these topics is so different. We all see writing through our unique prism. And that’s what the individual blogger brings to the table. Share your insights. Share your journey. Give knowledge to others. You will find it most rewarding. Now I need to go and spend some time on my Work In Progress.

What lessons have you learned as a blogger? Have you figured out the balance between blogging and writing fiction?

 

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