The single pull quote that has stuck with me the most from the Algonkian Conference I went to last November is this one:
A one-star review means that the wrong reader has found your book. —David Cole.
(I think I have the attribution correct.)
If you think about it, it’s quite profound.
With a book, you signal expectations with:
- Any other copy on the front
- Blurb on the back if it’s a physical book
- The book’s opening or sample
If someone hasn’t figured out what to expect from the book by that point and they get something different than what they expected, they will be disappointed. And, at its heart, a one-star review is a failure to meet expectations. (Save the “I read 50 Shades knowing I’d hate it because everyone else read it” sort of reviewer.)
So, working backwards:
- Does the cover correctly lead the reader to grasp the genre and feel of your book?
- Does your title signify the wrong genre and prose expectations? Look, if I’m going to pick up Cum for Bigfoot (which I have not read), I’m not going to expect scintillating prose. If I get scintillating prose on top, I’ll give it a better review.
- Does any other front/back copy support same?
- Does the book’s sample actually lead the reader to expect how the book resolves? Or is it, like Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio was for me, which I would give a one-star review to? As one of my grad school colleagues put it, “It’s like a hard SF novel and a romance novel had a violent accident.” That. So much. Look, I like most of Greg’s books (haven’t read them all) and like him as a person, I just hated that book. It happens. But, hey, it won the Hugo award and the Nebula award. Clearly I’m in the minority. (At the time I read it, no sequel had been announced, and it was my understanding that it was intended to stand alone. I still would have disliked it, but if I’d known it wasn’t the whole intended story, I’d have felt differently.)
It must be “ask Deirdre advice” month, as several people have asked me similar questions about getting a critique from a better-known author in their genre. I’ve been to a fuckton of workshops where I’ve gotten that, so I’m going to tell a tale first.
When I was at Clarion, there were a few days when we had two writers (the anchor team) and an editor giving critiques along with the sixteen of us plus the author being critiqued. For this particular story, the writers-in-residence were Tim Powers and Karen Joy Fowler and the editor was Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor.
So the story being critiqued was, at its heart, a black Conan pastiche. And, well, I hadn’t read Conan because it really isn’t my thing. As a group, we were pretty horrible about the critiques.
Then it got to PNH, who said he liked the idea, pointed out that Tor published (at least some) Conan books, and I remember him particularly admiring the “strenuously operatic dialogue.”
I remember a particular line of Karen Joy Fowler’s about this piece. Or maybe it was about my own attempt to branch out. “An interesting failure is much to be admired.”
I’ve secretly wondered since then if Greg wasn’t smarter than all of us. Sure, the piece wasn’t ready, but he was trying something really different.
Point is: a writer knows how to make their writing their writing, only better (via self-editing). An editor’s job is to know how to make your writing your writing, only better. These are not the same thing.
Does that mean that paying a writer for a critique of your work is a bad idea? No, it does not.
If you’re going to pick someone like that, you want to know that the writer you pick likes the same kinds of things you like. Just because you like their writing doesn’t mean the opposite is true. Don’t expect them to love your book. Don’t expect them to blurb your book when you do sell it, though they might.
So, my advice is: choose wisely.
Overworking Your Piece After Critique
When I read slush, I saw a lot of pieces where the prose had simply had been overworked after critique. That’s particularly true of openings, where critiquers are likely to say things like, “I can’t see this.” So the writer tends to counteract by overexplaining, slowing the opening down.
First, you should read this entire piece by David Mamet even though it’s in all caps. I’ll spare you the caps in the section I’m requoting below.
Yes but yes but yes but, you say: What about the necessity of writing in all that “information?”
And I respond “Figure it out” any dickhead with a bluesuit can be (and is) taught to say “make it clearer”, and “I want to know more about him”.
When you’ve made it so clear that even this bluesuited penguin is happy, both you and he or she will be out of a job.
The job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder what happens next. Not to explain to them what just happened, or to suggest to them what happens next.
Any dickhead, as above, can write, “But, Jim, if we don’t assassinate the prime minister in the next scene, all europe will be engulfed in flame”
We are not getting paid to realize that the audience needs this information to understand the next scene, but to figure out how to write the scene before us such that the audience will be interested in what happens next.
So when you get your critique, remember that it’s an opinion about your work. You get to decide what to do about that opinion. Up to a point, a reader wanting to know more about a character than is on the page is a good thing.
Also remember that you can bend reality good and hard. Nalo Hopkinson was talking about one of her pieces, “Whose Upward Flight I Love,” once. She said, “In this story, trees fly. Deal with it.” She never explained why trees flew. It wasn’t important to the story.