Let’s be honest: Negative Reviews

writing-1024x692Negative reviews are a bit of a hot-button topic for book reviewers. The topic tends to be polarizing in the community, and can be a bit complex if you haven’t been faced with the decision to leave a negative review before. Though every reviewer is different, and there’s no real wrong answer when it comes to leaving reviews (after all, reviews are only opinions when you get right down to it), I’d like to take a minute to shine a light on the matter.

For the most part, there seem to be two sides of the issue (though again, things are a bit more complex than that). There are those reviewers who leave negative reviews, and those that don’t. Though there can be any number of reasons for a reviewer to avoid posting negative reviews, the most common seems to come down to this: As reviewers, we feel bad leaving negative reviews.

It’s not necessarily that we feel bad complaining about a terrible book—because believe me, we all know how to complain quite loudly about our pet peeves when it comes to terrible literature. No, it’s that we feel bad for the author. As book reviewers, many of us are authors too—and even if we aren’t, we know a lot of them. We spend a lot of time getting to know various authors and helping them get the word about their books out there and into the public eye. So, when we are faced with the decision of writing a negative review, sometimes we chicken out.

We know how hard it is to write a book. We know the dedication it took, the time and planning that went into every chapter, and we know how much it hurts to have someone tell you that all that time and effort you just spent putting together a story you love like a child, was wasted. Many reviewers won’t leave a review if it’s less than 3, even 4 stars—because we know that leaving anything under 4 stars is basically handing an indie book a toe tag. Asking someone to read a book is the same as asking them to hand over hours of their lives, and readers don’t want to do that if a book isn’t good.

That’s not the only factor weighing down our decisions though. Negative reviews—even exceptionally polite, well-written reviews—are often down voted on sites like Amazon by customers who don’t share the same opinion. It’s a sad truth that customers don’t use the voting process correctly. Reviews are downvoted by agreement or lack thereof, rather than by whether the review was helpful and honest, or not. We reviewers often depend on our “helpfulness” rating on Amazon and other sites to make sure that publishing houses and authors are tempted to send us books for review, and if our “helpfulness” rating is low… well, as you can imagine, we don’t get many review requests. Tempting the angry hordes of readers by posting a negative review is an intimidating prospect for some.

… So why do I personally leave negative reviews? Because it is my personal opinion that reviewers who cave to these fears, who refuse to post negative reviews for the reasons listed above, are doing themselves a disservice.

To me, reviewing isn’t about selling books. That’s not my job—that’s what marketers and publicists are for. My job is to read a book, and then share my opinion with potential readers so they can make informed decisions about whether a book is something they want to read or not. The author doesn’t factor into it—and if they did, I’d never have the courage to leave a review.

It isn’t my fault if an author chose to publish a book before it was ready (and believe me, many do. Please, please, invest in a professional editor.) All I can do as a reviewer is do my best to give an honest opinion—even if sometimes that isn’t easy, or triggers negative consequences.

In my opinion, reviewers who refuse to post negative reviews are perhaps hurting themselves more than they realize, as well as reviewing as a whole. If the only type of review you ever post is positive, then your opinion loses its sense  of unbiased honesty. How can a reader trust a reviewer who only ever leaves positive reviews? Though it may not be true, it makes it seem as if the reviewer was paid off for their opinion—and in this business, if your opinion can’t be trusted, fewer and fewer authors will ask you to review their work, and the ones that do, are probably dishonest.

I want to make it clear: every reviewer has the right to decide upon the type of reviews they want to leave. We aren’t paid to review (and if we are, we truly are dishonest). We share our opinions because we love literature, and we want to share that love with other readers. I’ve never once met a reviewer who didn’t love what we do… but if you’re a reviewer who is in the midst of deciding if you’re okay leaving negative reviews or not, I’d like to leave you with a little bit of food for thought:

If we reviewed any other product rather than books, would we feel bad about leaving negative reviews? Probably not. We see other products for what they are: products, and those that distribute them as companies trying to market those products. Literature shouldn’t be any different. Do you think the people working for the other companies don’t care about their product? Do you think they spent any less time developing, marketing, and distributing their product? No. The reason we feel bad about it is because we know for certain that the author will see our reviews, and it’s hard to say something negative to someone’s face, particularly when you know the negative impact your review could have on the sales of that product.

Reviewing books takes a lot of courage. Being  honest?—it takes even more.

Four Reasons I Didn’t Finish Your Book

 

What makes a reader throw your book across the room? Well, I can’t speak for everyone out there, but I’d like to give you a little insight.  Lately I’ve been reading quite a few books, and a shameful amount of them have been rated with 1 or 2 stars—most of those reviews will be coming out on my blog shortly, so keep your eyes peeled!

I hate 1 and 2 Star reviews. Let’s get that straight right off the bat. A 2 Star review means that I literally couldn’t find a single positive thing to say about a book. A 1 Star review is the kiss of death—it means that a book was so awful that I couldn’t push myself to finish reading it.  I try not to let these reviews happen. If I dislike a book, generally I’ll set it aside for a few days and come back later. Sometimes this is procrastination in writing those dreadful 1 and 2 Star reviews, but I tell myself that it’s because I want to be sure that I’m not rating a book badly just because I’m tired, or not into reading at the moment. Occasionally, this works and I can pick a book back up and finish it, but usually my first impression stands. Sometimes books are just bad.

Giving 1 and 2 Star reviews makes me cringe. I write, and I know a lot of authors, so giving low-score reviews feels like I’ve just told someone their literary baby is ugly and stupid. I don’t enjoy doing it—but I pride myself on being an honest reviewer, and sometimes that means calling literary babies ugly and stupid. Sometimes they just are, and the absolute worst thing about that, is that the author never expects it.

So, after writing yet another 1-Star review last night, I decided to come up with a list of reasons why I may give someone a low-score review and give you a bit of a check list to look over. Maybe it will help someone avoid the painful blow of the unexpected 1 and 2 Star reviews.

Technical Errors

The number one reason I’ll throw a book across a room is technical errors. You need a professional editor. Hands down. No exceptions. It’s not okay to publish your book at a point where I can open it up and find more than one glaring error per page (and I’m being generous here). If you cannot construct a complete sentence, you have no business publishing. The last book I threw out had 80 (yes I counted) comma issues in the first chapter. I wish I were kidding. They were misused, and left out in almost every sentence—and a misplaced comma can change the entire meaning of what you’re writing. It drove me nuts.

Bad Dialogue

You cannot write your dialogue as if it were narrative. Think about it for a moment before you nod your head and agree with me—because most people don’t realize they’re doing it. People don’t speak like narrative. They speak in stilted half-sentences with pauses, fumbles, and stutters. They don’t speak in long monologues (because people would interrupt them!), and they don’t speak in poetic, constructed sentences. It’s not realistic! Take a minute, and put quotation marks around this paragraph. See what I mean? It’s awful. If I were to turn this into dialogue, it would go something like this:

“You can’t write dialogue like narrative. Seriously—quit shaking your head. Stop!” I held up a hand and let the moment hang until I was sure I had the audience’s attention. “People ramble and screw up, and…well… whatever, you know what I mean. We aren’t perfect,” I said. “Monologues are something cartoon villains do, not real people.”

Dialogue is personal… familiar, and usually thrown around in it’s simplest, most direct form. It’s full of emotions, actions, and personality—and while you can argue that narrative too should be full of emotions, actions, and personality, it isn’t the same as dialogue. Dialogue breaks the grammar rules, and that’s okay!

You should always read your dialogue out loud when you write it to make sure that it sounds natural. If you can’t get through a bit of dialogue without cringing, you’re doing it wrong. The side effect, of course, is that your characters will start to sound silly—and not in a good way. Silly isn’t good when you’re writing a paranormal thriller or a murder mystery.

Weak Writing

You’ve heard it, but I’m going to say it again: Show, don’t Tell. It’s a hard thing to master, and I’ve written articles about it before—so click the link, I’m not going to reiterate—but the general gist is: I don’t want you to tell me how your character feels, or what they realize. It’s boring. I want your character to react to how they’re feeling and realizing. Example:

Suddenly, I realized that this was it–the end—last chance. I wasn’t going to get another opportunity to tell him how I felt. I’d pined over Cole for the last four years, and now I had four seconds to condense that all down into something audible. I told myself I could do this. I had to. I took a deep breath. “Cole—“ It had taken me so long to speak, that by the time I said his name, he was gone. I’d stalled too long, and the four seconds had passed.

That was telling. This is showing:

Shit. No more chances. How do you condense four years of longing into four seconds?

Deep breath, Jamie.

“Cole—“  but four seconds had already passed.

Too late.

Word count difference? 65. Same message, but more direct, and with a lot more tension. I didn’t need those 65 words to tell you what was going on. Yes, weak writing pads your word count nicely, but it also sucks the tension out of your writing. It doesn’t matter how high your word count is if your readers get so bored that they put your book down in the first chapter.

Writing doesn’t necessarily need to be bare bones, but it shouldn’t spend 10 minutes meandering around before coming to the point. I want to know what’s going on, and I don’t want to spend an entire chapter figuring out that the whole point was to tell me something you could have said in one sentence. Be concise. Get to the point. Spend your word count on something more important than “I realized…”

Absurd Choices

If nothing else, your story needs to make sense. I’m not saying you can’t have crazy things in your novel. You want talking dragons? Fine. What I’m talking about is your character’s actions and dialogue. Their choices need to make sense. Now this doesn’t mean that every character in the book has to understand their choices, but your audience definitely should. I recently read a book where this was a problem. Let me set it up for you:

The main character was a princess who’s father, the King, had recently died. As the only heir to the throne, she needed to have a coronation. Unfortunately, the author chose to have the King’s funeral and the Princess’ coronation held not only on the same day, but in the same room, at the same moment. “Why? Why is this a thing?” I asked myself. I couldn’t help but think that this wasn’t normal.

If the King dies, you have a grand, stately funeral. Yes, you may throw a coronation the same day for the Princess, but you should give it a few hours. Let the Princess, and the kingdom mourn their King. The coronation should also be a grand ceremony… this is something that the people of the Kingdom are going to want to know about. Unfortunately, the author of this book choose to have no ceremony. The Princess signed a document, put the crown on her head, and then walked out of her own coronation/Father’s funeral.

I was shocked. I mean—really? She walked out? The series of events lead to too many questions and didn’t make logical sense. The direct result is that I shook my head and said “WTF?”

Another example is from another book that got a 1 Star rating. Growing up, the main female lead had been told by her grandmother that she should cut her hair. We’re talking years and years. Her mother too, was told throughout her life that she should cut her hair. It was odd. Whatever. As the story drags on, the main female lead learns that she is not entirely Human, and her hair gives off a smell that attracts Shifters to her.  She doesn’t want Shifters to find her—it’s imperative that they don’t. What does she do? She creates a complicated magical potion to mask her smell for a few hours.

Soak that in.

Why didn’t she just cut her hair like everyone has been asking her to? At one point she even says that she doesn’t particularly care about her hair, and will cut it off if she needs to…. but still uses the potion. *throws hands into the air*

Your character’s choices in action and dialogue should make sense.

Everything Else

Just about everything else that can be wrong with a book isn’t book-breaking. Yes, sometimes one-dimensional characters can be annoying. Stupid, impulsive characters can be annoying too—but rarely do these make me throw a book across the room. They may lower the star rating, but never into the 1-2 Star range. If you can master the four points above, you’re going to get at least a 3-Star review. If you can’t master at least two of the points above, you have no business sending your book to reviewers. We are tough critics. We read dozens, if not hundreds of books a year—if you think we aren’t going to notice these things in your writing, you are sorely mistaken.

I’ll read just about everything. I don’t care about the genre, the synopsis, or whether you’re an Indie Author or someone who’s got an agent and a publisher.

Couldn’t. Care. Less.

I just want to get through the first chapter of your book without wanting to throw your literary baby at your head. Low expectations.

 

Sometimes it’s hard to be a reviewer…

book-15584_640This is one of those things that I’m pretty sure any reviewer has experienced at one point in time. There are days when being a reviewer is very difficult. We often have to weigh our sense of responsibility with the practical sides of our nature. Today, I’m experiencing one of those days, and since I want to gripe about it anyway, I figured I might as well write up a half-decent post on the subject to share my frustrations.

As a reviewer sometimes people send me novels to review that I have to accept sight-unseen. I don’t get to look at the cover (sometimes they aren’t published yet!). Usually I just get a title and a very brief synopsis, or sometimes, just the genre. I’m pretty open to most books, so usually my first response is “sure! I’ll take a look at it!” and it’s only a week later when I finally get around to opening up the book that I wish I’d never said yes.

The problem is this: Not all books are written equal. Sometimes I’ll get a book and it turns out to be very different from the synopsis or the genre categories I was given. My expectations for that book aren’t met, and I end up disappointed. Other times the writing is just so awful I can’t stand it, and even more often that that, I just don’t like the book. It may not have anything to do with the book itself – but I just don’t connect with it. That’s the downside of reviewing books by request: I’m not picking them myself. I know what I like… but these authors don’t.

Of course, this leads me to a very difficult decision: do I force myself to read this book I really have no interest in continuing because I’ve given a promise to the author to do a review, even though chances are the review is going to be overwhelmingly negative… or do I throw in the towel and say “It just wasn’t my kind of book.” Personally, I feel really awkward about giving partial reviews when I know an author was expecting me to read their whole book… but again, the alternative is to waste a week forcing myself to read a book I know I’m not going to like. It’s a no-win situation.

I bring all of this up of course because currently I am “dabbling” in reading five books. I won’t post their titles or authors here, but you can clearly see them on my Upcoming Reviews tab of this blog. Here’s the thing: I am stuck at around 9-15% in four of them. In no particular order, let’s go through the books:

Book 1: This book is extremely well written. The narrative is colorful and descriptive, and I have absolutely no trouble getting pulled into the world building. The characters are well-written and entertaining… BUT it’s not my kind of book. It’s an epic fantasy where the main character is male. I read a lot of romance.  For me, it’s kind of boring.. not because it was ill-written… but it’s just not my thing.

Book 2: I had to close this book after the first page. The author included a prologue that basically gave me a ton of back-story for the main character (even though this is a series of short stories) that I really didn’t think was needed. It was an info dump and didn’t tell me anything I really needed to know in order to read the rest of the book. It irritated me because it’s poor writing. If the whole book is going to be written that way, I don’t want to read it.

Book 3: This book started off strong and interesting, but the farther I got into the story, the weirder it became. At one point the character is having a dialogue with two imaginary women living in her head (one of which is baking) while discussing the death of a man she refers to as “the pink man” because he wore a pink shirt… and… I just sat back and went “WTF am I reading?” It’s very distracting and hard to follow along even though I really liked the main character up until that point.

Book 4: I got through the first two pages, and closed it. Like the second book, it had a prologue where the ENTIRE history behind the book was written out in a huge info-dump just so when the story started I’d know what was going on. When has this ever been acceptable? It’s like the cheap way of saying “I don’t want to try to work all this back story into the narrative where it belongs so… here you go. Have a cheat sheet.” Blech.

Book 5: I’m fairly certain the author’s going to read this. Anyways,  I’m two pages in and I really like where this story is going. The voice it’s written in is very similar to my own in a way, so I’m familiar with it and it’s easy to read. The chapter starts out strong, and I like the main character… BUT I can tell that it hasn’t been through a set of beta readers, proofreader, or copyeditor. There’s a lot of what I’d call “weak writing” not bad, but a little redundant and wordy at times. I keep finding myself highlighting little bits and pieces as I go along, and it has me at the point where I almost want to volunteer to help copyedit the thing for free because I think the story has a lot of potential… I just don’t know if I can get through it without frustrating the crap out of myself with all the notes I feel inclined to place on it.

So I guess the question I have is this: At what point do you throw up your hands and move on to something you actually want to read? Usually if I find that I’m having a difficult time getting through a book I’ll set it aside, pick up a book I know I’m going to like (something fun, short, and romantic!), and then when I’m done with that book, I’ll go back and try again. This keeps me from putting down a book just because I’m having a hard time getting into it on that particular day. Sometimes I’m just tired and can’t get my head around a book. Sometimes I have other pressing things to do and I can’t concentrate—but eventually I go back and try again and only then, on the second attempt, will I put a book down if I still can’t manage to get through it.

I’m curious to see how others broach this dilemma. Personally, I feel guilty for accepting a book for review if I don’t finish reading the whole thing… but sometimes you just’ can’t. At what point do you give up and say “sorry. I just couldn’t get through it.” Do any other reviewers out there run into this problem, and if you do, how do you deal with it. Am I just being too sensitive towards the author’s feelings by feeling guilty about it? Let me know what you think!

Being a reviewer is hard sometimes.