On Reviewing Books
I’ve been thinking about book reviews lately for a number of reasons. Until recently (historically speaking) the vast majority of book reviews were—for lack of a better term—professional reviews. Meaning the critic (frequently a professional journalist herself) had extensive knowledge of not only the author’s previous work but of much of the other works in the genre, and could place the work in question within a broader context, both artistic and historical.
Now the field is more democratic, ranging from the weekly NYTBR to the grumpy bastard on Amazon who gives your book one star because it arrived with a bent cover. And everything in between.
Much of “everything in between” includes reviews written for blogs, book-based websites, and sometimes pieces generated by retailers who wish to give their customers the value-added experience of booksellers, longtime book bloggers, etc. (These can also be in audio or video form—podcasts, FB, YouTube, Insta, BookTok, etc.) And these are often written by book lovers for book lovers.
All to the good. And far be it from me to say what someone can or cannot do. As I always say, you do you.
But somewhere along the way, a disconnect seems to have occurred between the writers of some reviews* and the purpose of the review.
[*Full disclosure: I don’t review books in public. For one, an author reviewing books is like a restaurant owner penning the food column for the local paper… there’s a potential conflict there. For another, I’m too aware of how incredibly hard it is to write even a “bad” novel to stand up in the public square and pontificate about what I think might be “wrong” with one. I occasionally mention recent reads on social—with a brief description of what I liked about them—but I only post about books I feel are worth recommending.]
One common disconnect is some people seem to think a book review is simply a point-by-point re-hashing of the plot, like a book report from a third grader who wants to—understandably—bang out their homework so they can go outside and play. Not even really getting into the actual story itself (separate from the plot in that it concerns the character’s journey), let alone any discussion of the themes contained within. To say nothing the emotional impact the work had on the reviewer. (Which, in the end, is what really matters, right?)
Another fairly recent phenomenon is people using reviews to point out what wasn’t in the book but “should have been.” They’re essentially reading with the book in one hand and a checklist in the other, making sure the book covers all the right issues (in the opinion of the reviewer, of course) and mentions none of the wrong issues. In other words, they’re not reading the book for the story itself, but for any agenda contained within (or missing from) the book. And they’ll be sure to highlight these in their “review” of said work. (As Roger Sutton once said—you need to review the book in front of you, not the one you wish the author had written.) It’s sad that we’ve come to that level of divisiveness, but… well, here we are. All I can say is there are plenty of books expressly on political issues and current policy for those people—on both sides of the aisle—to pontificate upon, instead of turning the act of reviewing a novel into a diatribe on the reviewer’s personal views. (Not to say that politics aren’t necessarily germane to novels… they certainly can be. Just not your politics.)
A close cousin of this is people reviewing books based strictly on their own personal likes and dislikes, with zero consideration as to whether or not the book succeeded as a work within its intended genre and audience. (IOW, the statement, “This book had vampires and I don’t like vampires—one star!” is a content-free proclamation whereby the “reviewer” is just showing his ass.)
[*This is related to the phenomenon of people conflating “I like it” with “it’s good,” and “I don’t like it” with “it’s bad.” See the final point of this post. I try—not always successfully—to keep these things separate in my mind.]
Then there are those who somehow feel the overarching goal of a review is simply to find “problems.”
The job of reviewer is not that of a teacher, grading someone’s homework. The fallacy here is that within a school setting the teacher typically has expertise in the subject they’re teaching, and can tell the students what they did “wrong” (a word that doesn’t really belong in any discussion around art, regardless). But when reviewers apply this reasoning to novels written by experienced, professional authors, there is an implied instructor/student hierarchy at play which rings false. (I could review a concert by The Rolling Stones, but if I listed the places where I thought Steve Jordan’s drumming could have been better, I might need to check my head.)
Along with this we have the “claw sharpeners”… those who seem to exhibit the attitude that finding a problem with someone’s work is equal to creating the work itself. (Pro tip—it’s not.)
And finally, a review of a current or recent book absolutely shouldn’t contain major spoilers. This should go without saying—and you might think it’d be limited to user reviews on Amazon—but I saw this just today on a supposedly legit book blog. It’s hard to say how long a book needs to be available before we can safely assume most people who want to read it have read it, but unless it’s a well-discussed classic, you’re doing any potential readers a disservice by giving away major plot twists. (Duh… but again, apparently some people didn’t get the memo.)
When you boil it all down, the overall question you want to answer in a reader’s mind is: Would I enjoy reading this book? Not: Did the reviewer enjoy it? Because if that’s the only question, you can simply say “Liked it!” or “Didn’t like it!” in your review, and you’re free to go play outside. But it doesn’t help the potential reader make up her mind about whether or not to give the book a try. So we need at least a medium dive into why the reviewer found the book enjoyable, so the reader can decide if those same aspects apply to her, which helps her decide if she might also like the book.
Life is short and there’s probably enough negativity floating around already. If you have a choice between reviewing a book you didn’t care for and one you found enjoyable/valuable/insightful, it might serve your readers better to discuss those books you think might actually be worth their time.
On Using Betas
As always, when discussing writing we need to remember that this is an art, not a science. So rule #1 here is: Do what works for you. Period.
Which means my thoughts on the matter are exactly that—just my thoughts. Not a prescription for you or anyone else. (IOW, I’m saying “This worked for me and some people I know, it might work for you,” as opposed to “This is the one true way!”)
So with that out of the way, the first thing to consider regarding betas (before even selecting them) is: Do I want to use beta readers? If you follow any writing groups on social it seems like using betas is widely considered an automatic must-do, but it's really more of a personal choice than a requirement—I know authors who use them and authors who don't.
Which sort of begs the question—what do we expect to get out of a beta reader?
Here’s what not to expect: someone who will read the book and tell you how to make the story stronger, better, tighter, more resonant. The person who can do that is a professional editor, and even then, expect to do most of the heavy lifting yourself once they shine a light on some areas where you might improve it.
A beta reader is exactly that… someone who can read the manuscript and tell you how they felt about it… as a reader. That’s it. They can tell you where something didn’t work for them. But not how to fix it. (That’s your job.)
I’ve heard the different levels of feedback described as symptom/diagnosis/cure. You might mention your symptoms to a non-medical-professional friend, but you probably wouldn’t depend on your friend providing a scientific diagnosis. And you probably wouldn’t take their advice regarding which meds to take w/o consulting a doctor first, either.
With a beta, you want them to tell you what didn’t work for them. But if you simply get “I didn’t like it,” that’s not much value unless you can dig a little deeper (without getting into the whole diagnosis/cure aspect). Try not to lead the witness, but attempt to at least get some generalities about why they didn’t like it. (“Too much dialog” is a far cry from “too violent,” right?) And if they can’t tell you in a short declarative sentence what they didn’t like about the scene in question, you need a different beta. (The two most common comments when friends/family read something--“I loved it” or “It wasn’t really my cup of tea”—are equally lacking in constructive value.)
So the first realization is: the right beta (for your work) is going to take some work to find.
And the second realization: the wrong beta is worse than no beta.
Right off the top, they should be very conversant with the genre you’re working in or it’s just general advice with no deep connection to the work at hand.
Because what you’re looking for is: a representative member of the likely group of readers for your work… who can also clearly articulate their feelings about the manuscript in question.
An SF fan who doesn’t really grok what you’re trying to do is of little value to your emotionally-driven science fiction novel, even though he knows the genre. And a longtime reader who has no experience with young adult literature since “The Outsiders” probably isn’t going to provide actionable feedback on your contemporary YA novel, even though she’s highly literate outside the genre.
You need both qualities, although the “able to articulate their feelings about the manuscript” is probably the more important aspect.
And finally, they need to understand that a discouraged writer is a bad writer. Which is why you don’t want someone who will tell you ‘the unvarnished truth.’
First, there isn’t much objective truth in art. It’s subjective. It’s emotion. It’s opinion. (If you revise your work in a panic every time someone gives you a differing opinion of it, you’re going to have a hard time maintaining the steady authorial vision required to finish a cohesive work.)
Second, you want a little varnish. If your beta can’t find something motivating or validating or inspiring to say about your work, you have to wonder about their mindset, right? I mean, nowhere in the job description of a beta reader does it say: “Find and report every possible flaw you can discover within this piece of writing. Period.” People who look at reading a manuscript as this kind of challenge—and their name is legion—aren’t people you want looking at your early work, believe me.
Third, they should already have an affinity for the type of work in question*, or why have them read it? I mean, “a representative member of likely readers” sort of implies they like the genre. If someone says, “I just can’t get behind mysteries,” I might say, “That’s fine—read what you like.” But inside I’m also thinking, …but no freaking way am I letting you read my mystery!
[*Remember, the goal isn’t: “Let’s see what a random member of the public thinks of this manuscript.” Who cares? We want to know what a likely reader might think of it.]
All of which means, when you find an intelligent, genre-conversant, empathetic beta reader… treat them right! I’m talking ‘chocolates and wine’ right. Because they’re a rare and wonderful thing.
No Magic Bullet
Sometimes aspiring writers think having an author read their manuscript will give them a head-start on getting published. They may be setting themselves up for disappointment, for several possible reasons…
1. Just because someone is published doesn’t mean they have any special knowledge about what “the industry” is looking for. They submitted a specific manuscript which caught the attention of a specific editor. Good on them, but this doesn’t necessarily imbue them with special inside information regarding “who’s looking for what.”
2. It also doesn’t necessarily make them a reliable judge of good writing in general (whatever that means). Secret hint: writers frequently like writing similar to their own. Thus, asking one to read and respond to your manuscript can result in them critiquing your work into a junior version of theirs. (As discussed earlier.)
3. There may be a misconception that an author can somehow fast-pass your manuscript by giving it directly to her editor. Sorry, but 99% of the time it just doesn’t work that way. The few times I’ve seen an author pass a friend’s manuscript along to her editor, in every single case the friend was left waiting around for a response for as long—or longer—than if she’d submitted via the usual channels. Editors aren’t just sitting around waiting for good manuscripts to drop in. They’re inundated with them, receiving them daily from professional agents who actually know what a solid, commercial manuscript looks like. And of course they also receive manuscripts from their existing authors, who likely already have a track record regarding quality and/or sales. All of which isn’t to say “The odds are long so give up now.” Not at all. I believe a great manuscript will eventually see the light of day, with enough hard work and persistence. My point is, having an author say, “Here’s a manuscript from my friend,” is not a direct path to publication. (TL; DR: An actual agent who’s putting her professional reputation behind your manuscript will carry much more weight with an editor than a pass-along from “a friend.”)
4. If said author “doesn’t like” your work, what’s your course forward from there? Are you supposed to revise it to be more like their work? Are you supposed to throw it away and start over? Are you supposed to get depressed and quit writing altogether? (The real answer, of course, is: D, none of the above. You should probably let it go and move on. Unless their critique rings true with you, in which case revise accordingly and then move on.)
5. However, even if said author “loves” your writing, unless their last name is Patterson or Rowling or King they’re probably not in a position to offer you representation and/or a publishing contract. The people who can do this—whose opinions matter to you in the first degree—are agents and editors. These are the people you should be trying to get to read your manuscript. And the best way to make this happen, in short, is: (1) Have a great manuscript—finished, re-written, revised, polished, and totally-ready-for-primetime. Then, (2) contact an agent who’s represented published works similar to yours, using a brief, intelligent, non-sociopathic query letter letting her know what you’ve written and why she might be a good fit for it. Repeat until you achieve the desired result.
Note that this will require a little research on your part, but not an impossible amount. And don’t get too cute with the query. Remember, you cannot talk someone into liking your manuscript. You can only write them into liking it, by doing a bang-up job of actually writing it, and by not submitting it until it’s as good as it can possibly be. But you can easily talk them into not liking it. Hence not getting too clever with the query.
There is something an author can do which may be more useful to the aspiring writer than simply reading their work, which is to pass along whatever small bits of wisdom they may have about writing and the publishing industry. I’m happy to speak with writers’ groups (and have done a bit of it, both on book tour and locally) and of course I also try to throw out helpful tips here, FWIW. More than once aspiring writers have contacted me and basically said, “Can I buy you a cup of coffee and pick your brains?” And—if schedules align such that this can actually happen—it can be beneficial to the aspiring writer, likely much more so than simply having someone read and comment on their manuscript. I recall one smart young guy who lined out the basics of his just-completed book, then asked, “What would you do next, if you were me?”, which led into a good discussion about how to (and how not to) go about acquiring an agent within his specific genre. When we were done he thanked me for my time and I thanked him for not asking me to read his manuscript.
He laughed and said this was a way better use of his time.
Writing Critique Groups
When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.
When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
~ Neil Gaiman
This is a large and complex subject with lots of issues for consideration. (What’s the difference between a critique group and a group of writers who get together to discuss craft and/or business? Does a critique group give you something beta readers don’t? Do betas have any advantages over critters? If you’re a struggling writer, can you realistically expect help from other struggling writers? If so, what kind? Problem identification…? Editorial help…? Moral support…?) And the list goes on—we could do a dozen posts on the subject. But I want to focus on one aspect of writing groups—the mindset of the critic, when giving (hopefully) constructive feedback.
Some context: I don’t belong to a formal critique group. But, as I’ll go into more below, I do belong to an informal, two-person writing support group which has been very useful for both of us, for years. Also, I’ve used a very limited number of betas—like two or three—who are all really intelligent people who (a) read widely, and (b) are good at putting their response to a manuscript into coherent thoughts. I don’t always use them, and I don’t think I’ve ever had all of them read on the same manuscript. But occasionally I’ll go to them for a gut check. What I mainly want is their emotional response to the story—what worked for them, and what didn’t. And sometimes, why something worked or didn’t, if offered. But I’m not looking for specific solutions from beta readers because—unless they can really get inside my authorial mindset—they may have solutions, but they’re very unlikely to fit my vision of what the story’s about.
And that’s what I want to discuss: the crucial difference between helping someone write their book as best they can, vs. telling them how you would write it. The first part (helping the author best realize their vision) may actually be easier for a non-writer to accomplish than a writer (who is much more likely to stray into second-part territory—telling them how you would do it). All of which can become problematic in light of the fact that a writers group is mainly comprised of, uh… other writers. All of whom have ideas about how things should be done (of course they do—they’re writers) and may put forth the details of those ideas regardless of the intent of the author in question.
Example: Let’s say our intrepid writer is working on a contemporary YA and part of her authorial vision for this particular project is having her characters talk the way many teens actually talk, multiple f-bombs and all. There are a couple of approaches the critic could take…
Critter: “Can you think of a way to say it without cursing?” Or: “What I do is write, ‘He swore.’ I’d recommend you try that.” Or: “A good writer could convey the emotion using better vocabulary.” Or: “Do kids really need to hear this language?”
Writer: “Shit.” [Hangs her head.] “Sorry.”
Critter: “What are you trying to do here?”
Writer: “I’m trying to convey what life is really like for a contemporary teen in high school. Like it or not, IRL this is how some teens actually talk, and I’m trying to authentically show that via realistic conversation.”
Critter: “Okay, got it. In that case, I thought scene X had more impact than scene Y, because…” [Explains why they liked X over Y]
Writer: “Thanks. That was helpful.”
It’s really just the old “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” thing. We have to recognize everyone’s coming from a different place, and we have to honor that when giving notes. In other words, help them tell their story—in their own unique way—as well as possible… not your version of it. Otherwise the writer’s work would ultimately read like the critic’s work, and who needs that? (This is similar to the over-simplified notion that one shouldn’t write about anyone with a different background than their own. See the earlier “Authenticity” post on doing the hard work to make your characters unique individuals instead of stereotypes.) So if you’re planning on doing more than pointing out where things didn’t work for you (which is really about 80% of good critiquing in the first place) then you need to get inside the author’s mindset and understand what they’re trying to do, and why. Otherwise it can become an exercise in “Write as I write.”
The little two-person writing group I mentioned is comprised of me and my wife. We’ve both been writing professionally for over twenty years, and we’ve been each other’s first reader since day one. But we always take care to read and comment with the other’s writing goals in mind, not our own. Not too long ago we were discussing ways to up the ante—tension-wise—around a certain scene in something she was writing. I remember laughing and saying if I were writing it I’d just add an R-rated sex-and-drugs scene to show how far off the rails a certain character had gone, but I knew that was totally wrong for the book, the author, and the audience, so I offered a pack of bad ideas (as per usual) and we tossed things back and forth until something finally clicked. Because I knew where she was coming from. (For more thoughts on the benefits of “talking plot” with another writer, see this post.)
Try to keep your ego out of it and stick to the writerly aspects of the story in mind. The most helpful thing we can offer each other (besides encouragement, which is really #1) is simply pointing out where things might be unclear or unbelievable or not working for you in whatever fashion, and allowing the writer to decide how she might fix this. Additionally, try to use positive reinforcement rather than negative, because one of the most important things for successful writing is simply that the writer not feel discouraged. Believe me, nothing kills creativity faster than thinking your work is crap. So avoid making the other writer feel this. (Ex: If you find part of the manuscript exciting and part boring, point to the part where you were engaged and say, “I loved this! I’d like to see more of this during the other part.”)
And finally, keep in mind that a critique is simply one person’s opinion. It’s your job as the writer to weigh things as objectively as possible and try to determine if there’s some truth in the critique. (A good sign there might be is when you already had the vague feeling that something wasn’t right with the part in question… usually our own subconscious knows before anyone else. Another is when you get similar comments from multiple critters about the same part.) But in reality there’s no way everyone’s going to like a given story, even those who supposedly have skill in sniffing out good manuscripts: there are countless stories of professional editors passing on what turned out to be critically acclaimed books.
As I like to point out to other authors when they get a bad review, if you write a book and 99% of the public doesn’t care for it but 1% buys it and likes it, you have a runaway bestseller on your hands.
So… let’s hear about your critiquing experiences, either as critter or writer.
Critiquing the Aspiring Writer
As an author, you’ll occasionally have people asking you to read their manuscript and provide advice. (Whether or not you should do this is a topic unto itself. Some established writers have a blanket policy against it for valid reasons, including the fact that it’s bad business to work for free. Others are happy to do it when time permits, paying forward the help they received as beginners themselves.)
Often the person asking is an aspiring writer. Maybe a younger writer, or maybe a beginning writer—of any age—just learning the basics of the craft. Assuming you’re going to take on the task of reading their work and giving feedback, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Don’t step on dreams.
This is the equivalent of the primary Hippocratic concept, “First, do no harm.” There are experienced writers who feel anything less than ‘brutal honesty’ is somehow beneath them. They think some people simply weren’t born to be writers, and the sooner someone tells these poor schmucks this, the better.
Really? In reality no one actually knows who’s going to eventually—with enough sustained effort—become a decent writer. History is full of late bloomers who didn’t show much early promise. (The Big Sleep, anyone? Watership Down? Or how about Angela’s freaking Ashes—a first book that was published when the author was sixty-six?) And even if they never go on to become successful authors, they still receive the intangible benefit that writing gives everyone who puts pen to paper—the unique feeling of accomplishment in organizing their thoughts and setting them down in print. Some aspiring writers may never find success in publishing (however they happen to define it). But they may still get as much out of it—on a personal level—as a best-selling author. And on the Big Scale of Life, this might even outweigh the benefits of brutal honesty. Wheaton’s Law still applies.
2. Leave them wanting more.
A good question to ponder when helping the new writer: “What single activity is most germane to becoming a better writer?” (Spoiler alert: the answer is writing. Followed closely by reading.)
When my kids were young I signed up to coach my older son’s basketball team, along with one of the other dads. The players on our team were all good kids but were complete beginners. (And my buddy and I weren’t exactly John Wooden either.) We taught the kids basic b-ball skills as best we could, but during and after the games some parents would get down on their kids for not “doing better.” (Which is invariably fruitless. Everyone is doing their best in the moment with the tools they have. Which are not your tools.) In the end, I’d pull the more serious parents aside and bluntly explain the reality that our team was rather less skilled than the other teams, and my real goal for the year was simply that the kids enjoy the experience enough to want to continue playing basketball going forward. Because the only way they’re going to get better is to play more. A lot more. And for that to happen, they’re going to have to want to play.
Artistic skill develops over years, not weeks. This doesn’t mean you can’t get real benefits from a few intensive weeks of writing and study, but most people who do typically have years of practicing their craft behind them. Can you imagine taking a complete non-writer and throwing them into something like Clarion?
So the real objective here is simply to leave them wanting to continue writing.
3. Giving them a fish vs. teaching them to fish.
What’s your overall goal when critiquing an aspiring writer? If it’s “make this specific story better,” then I suggest you take a broader view. Making a beginner’s story stronger is usually pretty simple, as the flaws are generally apparent. (Blatant exposition, unrealistic dialog, over-use of adjectives, inconsistent characters, telling us how a character feels instead of letting their actions reveal it, etc.) If you just line edit the heck out of it, it’ll almost certainly be a stronger story. But will they have learned anything about the craft of writing? (And—if you really do a deep-dive edit—will it even be their story when you’re done with it?)
So consider helping more with overall craft than just working on specific story issues. I remember a friend coming to me with an article he wanted to submit to the local paper. One line he’d written was something on the order of “He was very, very tall.” Instead of simply slashing it and replacing it with “towering” or whatever, it was a great entrée into a discussion of intensifiers. Same deal with multiple descriptors. He was describing a woman who was “… warm, sweet, affectionate, and cheerful.” Instead of just cutting three of the four, I asked for an example of her behavior. He gave me one, and we talked about a way to fit it into the story instead of him just telling us how nice she was.
You want to leave them with interesting things to consider, as you show possible paths to their goal. (As always, you want to help them write their story as best they can, not show them how you’d write it.) So don’t default to only showing what’s “wrong”. Think about it in terms of giving them options, and showing them why one option may be stronger than another. (This is really all about the “why,” right?)
4. Stay within their skillset, while stretching them a little.
I’m a drummer, and occasionally give informal lessons to beginners. I don’t start by sitting down and demonstrating 4-way independence (where each limb is doing something different at the same time). That’ll either frustrate and discourage them or go over their head entirely. Instead I’ll ask them what they would like to be able to play on the drums, and I’ll give them something relevant to work on that they can’t quite do perfectly yet, but which is within their grasp.
Closer to home, you probably don’t want to overload your beginning writer with a rundown of the nuanced differences between limited third-person, objective third-person, and omniscient third-person points-of-view. Find out what they wish to accomplish with their story, and try to help them get there with understandable advice that speaks to their current skillset. Example: If they’re using close third and are unsure about the mechanics, they can probably benefit from something like, “It might help the reader feel grounded if you stay in one character’s head throughout the entire scene or chapter.”
5. Catch them doing something right.
This goes back to the concept of leaving them motivated to continue writing. It doesn’t mean being a cheerleader. It means striving to find some aspect of their work they honestly did well. If not in execution, then in concept. It could be a character that—at least at times—feels real and unique. It could be an interesting plot twist. It could be a bit of dialog that rings true. It could simply be a well-described breakfast at a funky little diner. Let them know you thought it was well done, and why. Encourage them to apply this technique to other parts of the story, if applicable.
Writers have strong and weak points. That’s universal. What’s not so universal—especially with beginners—is knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are. So do them a favor and let them know what they do well. If they’re wise enough to take it to heart and capitalize on it, it can really benefit their writing going forward.
And of course, hearing positive feedback about some aspect of their writing will only motivate them to keep trying. And that—sustained effort—is probably the biggest precursor to success of all.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.