Monday, June 26, 2017

Critiquing books while you're querying

I run a blog where I analyze books from a writing perspective to find a lesson, of sorts, for other writers. Mostly the posts show what a book did right, but occasionally they highlight where (I thought) the book went wrong. How careful do I need to be about highlighting negative aspects? I'm passionate about what I read, good or bad, and that (should) show in my writing. But I don't want to alienate a potential agent if I disliked a book they repped- especially since the main point of my posts isn't to review a story, but to learn from it.
You're right to know this is squishy territory. I am very fond of my clients, and the books they write. However, I do not confuse that fondness with the idea that all the books they write are perfect.

A judicious post, pointing out what worked or didn't, is generally safe ground.

What ISN'T safe is drawing any kind of conclusion about how the book got that way. To wit "the author phoned it in" "the editor was asleep at the wheel" "the agent lost her mind when she signed this one."

You have no way of knowing what went on behind the scenes creatively or editorially.

Focusing on the book is your best plan.

You should also remember that if I love your work, and sign you as a client, all my OTHER clients will be skulking around your blog to learn about you. A lot of my clients are in a mutual admiration society, which I strongly encourage.

What that means for you is:  Make sure the author of the book you're talking about will recognize it as a thoughtful, well-written piece, not some sort of hatchet job (at least after the first read!)

What you're also not going to do -- EVER --  is tweet or link to the author or editor or agent about this review.

It's one thing to know there are critical reviews out there; it's another thing to have someone put a reference to it in your timeline.

Your very hesitation on this tells me you'll err on the correct side of caution.

And remember; all the books I sell are AMAZING!


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Oh that our Queen were my armor again the slings and arrows of those who profess to know more about what and how I write than I do. Oh wait, they probably do know more.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Yes, amazing books all. Our Queen's clients are masterful writers. Such good books.And a few of them were written by Jeff Somers' cats. He probably doesn't realize this. Whisky is like that.

Morning all. Monday, blah!

Colin Smith said...

It has been my practice in the past to notify authors when I have reviewed their books. My reasoning is that I generally post favorable reviews, and I want them to be encouraged. HOWEVER, taking Janet's point, I will cease and desist from this practice. :)

Speaking of Janet's AMAZING authors' AMAZING books... the release date for Gary Corby's latest is just around the corner... :)

Sam Hawke said...

Colin, I don't think any authors mind being @ed for positive reviews! But no-one wants negative ones shoved under their twitter noses shouting 'look at me! I hate you! Acknowledge meeeeee!!!!' Heh.

Donnaeve said...

While I'd have no problem whatsoever if someone wanted to dissect what I'd written for the purpose of learning what worked or didn't work, the very first thing I thought of was a statement made on this blog in the past, something to the effect of, only you can write your story.

And again, we beat on the subjective drum, because this is OP's opinion. If others can take a lesson away, all fine and good.
And besides, everyone can have an opinion about a work once it's in the public realm.

That said, yes, I can see how it would be a very fine line to walk in order to do commentary on the negative parts, especially if OP is looking to become published themselves.

MA Hudson said...

As a writer, I imagine if you give someone's book a negative review you'd forever lose the chance of camaraderie with that author. From what I've gathered, published authors seem very supportive of each other and help spread the word on each other's books. Why burn bridges so early in the game, or at any time really.

John Davis Frain said...

As a writer, you come to the page differently than the next person. You'll write a scene different. That doesn't make one version right and the other version wrong, it makes two different ways to approach a particular scene. SO MUCH can be done differently, from POV to dialog to description.

You sound like, in your post here, you'd be a deft handler of explaining that difference. To my ears, that sounds more like a lesson or a discussion than a negative review. I think you'll be fine.

Do yourself a favor though. See if you can put yourself in the shoes of one of your critiqued authors and see how you'd react. On the first read!

Claire Bobrow said...

By coincidence, I read a blog post this morning introducing a debut picture book author and her upcoming release. I checked out the author's website and she had done something similar to what OP is discussing, using Blake Snyder's Save the Cat "15 Beats" as a template. Her posted reviews, or breakdowns really, were excellent and highlighted all the major components that made these particular books work. She only selected picture books that she loved, so they were also uniformly positive.

OP, I understand your passion for reading, but to me, focusing on the positives and what works are the most useful takeaways. If you feel you must highlight where things "went wrong" in your opinion, my advice would be to proceed with caution, and kindness. It sounds like you tend that way naturally. Good luck going forward with both your blog and your writing projects.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

The Mutual Admiration Club™ of Janet's particular shoal would not be difficult to reciprocate; those folks are socks knockers!

I tend to avoid reviewing books. I did a few times when approached, when I was still running the dog blog, and even when I like the book apparently that doesn't necessarily come through in my review? Unless I expressly say "I really liked it. This book was good." and I think I thought "show don't tell" also applied in the review setting. I did livetweet my friend's book a few months ago as I read it and she seemed to get the message that way, so I guess I learned my lesson?

Stacy said...

I won't even rate a book on Goodreads anymore unless I can give it four or five stars. (It's my understanding that not rating the book neither hurts nor helps that book's overall star rating.)

A reader's rating automatically gets fed to Twitter and Facebook. You can opt out, but when I search for a title on Goodreads, I have to rate it to get the book on my "My Books" list and enter the rest of the information (date read, etc.)

Anymore, I just want to keep a "do no harm" policy.

Lennon Faris said...

I hate the thought of an author (who probably put a lot more work into it than is apparent) seeing a review I wrote and feeling bummed.

I do love reading a well-written review, though.

I think it can be done, just... carefully. Like everyone else is saying.

Susan said...

As a reader, I love to critique books--privately or openly. Critical analysis was my favorite part of reading when I was in school because I loved the discussion it provoked and the subjectiveness of taste. More than once, someone made me see a book I hated in a new light, and while I once loathed an author because the books made no damn sense to me, I learned to appreciate the genius in what they were trying to convey (yep, I'm looking at you "my mother is a fish" Faulkner).

As an author, I similarly appreciate a well-thought out analysis, and if someone provides a negative critique, as long as it's explained, I'm generally okay with it. That's where the beauty of opinion comes in. What I can't stand are the critiques that critique just to be negative. What I can't stand is snark for snark's sake. What doesn't help anyone are the reviews that say "this book was boring" (true review I received). I feel like a teacher: explain your answer. Tell us why you felt this way. Show us what led to this analysis. Help us understand your critique so that we can understand you and where you come from.

I'm of the opinion that everything we do, say, write is an extension of who we are at our core. When we share opinions, we're sharing parts of ourselves because there's thought and experience behind those opinions. That's why critical analysis that is true analysis--showcasing both the positive and negative aspects in a work--can be enlightening.

That said, I'm completely onboard with OP's analysis of books, especially since their intentions seem true and they are passionate about the work. But I can also see how it might bother others. I just think that if it's thoughtful and intelligent, critiques can really add to the discussion of a book.

Then again, I'm admittedly naive. What do I know?

RosannaM said...

My first thought when I read this was, it's like telling someone their baby is ugly and then asking what they think about yours. And then being surprised at the less than enthusiastic answer.

Books and movies resonate with people differently because of our past experiences, and even hit us differently at certain points in our lives. I would hate to blame the writer for that.

And it is so easy to be an armchair quarterback, telling how something should have been done. Things are not crystal clear when you are in the midst. All sentences do not spring forth dressed in red carpet finery, some remain dowdy despite your best efforts to pull off their sweat pants and paint-stained t-shirts.

Panda in Chief said...

I grew up in the age and land of snark. Critique sessions in my college art classes often left people in tears. I usually tried to keep my head down so as not to attract fire, but then was left with the feeling, "what? My work is so boring that it doesn't even attract insults?" I have to admit to making snarky comments about other artists over the years.

Fast forward um...40 years and I am a kinder, gentler sort of panda. I think there is a place for well thought out, constructive criticism, pointing out both what works and what doesn't. One would like to presume that if a book made it to publication, there must be SOMETHING good about it, even if it isn't perfect.

I don't generally write book reviews on my blogs, (unless I'm completely over the moon crazy about something and think that everyone in the world should read it.) and I only write reviews on Amazon if I can give it an honestly positive review. If I knew an author and they wanted my review and I didn't feel I could write them a positive one, I might write to them and tell them why, if they really wanted to know. Otherwise, I think it's better to let sleeping pandas lie.

Ardenwolfe said...

When in doubt? Don't. The bridge you burn today may be the one you need to cross tomorrow.

Beth Carpenter said...

I agree with Susan, analysis is helpful, snark for snark's sake is worse than useless. The most frustrating thing for a writer or a reader is a one star review with no explanation. I'm always left wondering if the reviewer truly hated to book, didn't understand the star system, or was just feeling mean that day. I've also seen reviews along the lines of "It deserves 3 stars, but has too many 5s, so I'm rating it a 1."

An analysis that says, for example, "The plot sucked me right in, but I sometimes got lost in all the details," I would find quite useful as a reader because I like books with lots of details. I wouldn't mind it as a writer, either. Tact is key.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ardenwolfe, your comment reminds me of...something I remember as...the toes you step on today may be part of the feet and legs, attached to the ass you have kiss tomorrow.

Unknown said...

I'm not saying writing bad reviews is EVER a good idea, but I do think there is some value to writing contraversial books that some people hate. The example that comes to mind in my head is Gone Girl. Some people passionately hate it. Some people passionately love it. Go figure. Passionate reactions are a good thing. It gets people talking about the book. And that gets people buying it.

roadkills-r-us said...

I used to review technical books for technical magazines and journals. Most of them would only publish positive reviews (4/5 or 5/5 stars). I think one editor would publish a review that was 3/5). I always tried to be tactful, and accentuate the positive when I could. But I hated the idea of anyone wasting their money on some of those books.
Those were technical books, however, and most of what I was doing was very objective. When I moved into the subjective, I was always careful to say so. With fiction it's a whole different ballgame. I personally have no problem with someone dissecting my work; I do expect them to make it clear that it's opinion, and to be specific wherever possible (for the bad and the good). Especially with the sort of work OP is referring to.
As for English teachers trying to get kids to understand what I was *really* writing about: Hahahahahahahahaaaaa!

Unknown said...

I still struggle with the existence of goodreads and amazon reader reviews. To my mind, a book is not a refrigerator. It shouldn't be rated like one. Reviews by critics whose actual, paid job it is to critique books are a different matter because for the most part they try to take their personal reactions out of the equation.

I agree with the posters who said that if you are going to dissect and analyze a book, it should be to show all the ways in which it worked. That's both good for the author and useful for writers.

Lately I've stopped leaving negative reviews about anything anywhere - not on facebook, not on twitter, nor anywhere. Not about books, not about movies, not about musicians. Artists put their minds and souls into their work and my opinion is only that. I will absolutely gush over something I loved, but if I didn't, I'd rather stay quiet.

The issue of being asked to review a book a friend wrote that I didn't like is difficult. I'm still struggling with how to approach that. In general, I try to find the few positives and leave it at that.

Anonymous said...

I don't have a problem with negative reviews and I think book bloggers are a great resource and perform a valuable service. I also don't think it's up to us (writers) to tell them how to write reviews, as long as they stick to the book itself and don't make personal comments about the writer. I'm fine with snark and lack of detail or explanation.

HOWEVER. When it comes to WRITERS doing reviews, it's a whole other thing. Because I expect writers to have a different perspective. I expect writers to know how tough it is to just finish a book, how vulnerable it feels to put work out there. I expect writers to realize that the first couple books are maybe not all that great and that writers improve over time. I expect writers to know better than to stomp all over their fellow writers and crush their dreams before they get to the point they've improved enough to earn great reviews. If you're a WRITER and you post negative reviews, I am going to (silently) judge you harshly.

And that's why I only post positive reviews of books I LOVED. Actually, I've pretty much stopped posting reviews at all because I got so many out-of-the-blue requests from strangers to review their books and trying to find a tactful way to say NO was exhausting. Tact is not my strong suit.

Craig F said...

When I took my first steps on this epic quest towards getting possibly published I looked to the internet. I searched out and read several online critiques of books.

There is value there and it helped me learn to read critically for myself. I think it is more important to be honest with the critique then if it is positive or negative. There is no reason to be snarky, just honest.

I also find it easy to distrust Amazon an Goodreads reviews when they are all positive reviews. No book is everything for everyone and there should be some who can't jump on the bandwagon.

The best review I saw for GONE GIRL was "strong plot and not one character you will like". It made the way I read that book different and, therefore, more productive for me.

LynnRodz said...

I mostly review books I love, but on a few occasions when I felt something could've been done better if only they had...I'll mention it, but I also let it be known that's just my opinion. It's still a review that's 85-90% positive.

Books I don't like, I don't review.