(Note: I’m posting this as a rough draft. It’s almost midnight and I’m tired, but I don’t want to wait until tomorrow to post this. If I need to revise it, I’ll revise it tomorrow.)
There are over 3,500 Kindle books on my computer. (The Kindle itself will only hold about 1,500.) I need to start doing something with them.
Most of them are freebies. I’ve told you before that I’m not wealthy, and I’m going to take advantage of offers of free reading material when they’re made. This means many of the books on my Kindle account are public domain classics. Many others are author-published novels. I make no secret of the fact that I cruise through the Amazon free listings on just about a daily basis, and although I don’t download everything in my chosen genres, I do download a lot.
Not all the classic reprints are well formatted, and this makes them difficult to read at times. But in most cases the writing is competent. The stories and styles may be dated, but for the most part reviews will be based on the reviewer’s personal preference and response rather than objective problems with the writing.
The author-published material, however, is another story altogether. A lot of it is, to be blunt, utter crap. These are the books that honest reviewers tend to give ratings of zero to 0.5 stars, and often express the wish that there were an even lower rating. Another large portion of it is one step up from utter crap, in the 0.5 to 1.0 star range. These two categories probably cover at least 90% of the author-published original fiction offered free on Amazon. Maybe 95%. Maybe more.
Why is so much of it so bad? I suspect there are several reasons, but the primary one is that the writers have never taken the time to learn the craft. They don’t really have any clue what goes into the building of a novel (or novella, or whatever). We know how buildings are built because we’ve seen them under construction. We know how cars are made, we know how coal is mined, we know how airplanes are flown. We watch athletes develop from a young age through their professional careers and then into retirement (and broadcasting, politics, movies, or obscurity). All of these processes go on around us where we can see them.
Writing isn’t like that. It’s not even llike painting or sculpting, where there’s a visible progression from idea through finished work. Writing goes straight from the brain to the page. Or so it appears.
As a reviewer, as a reader, as a teacher, as a writer, I’ve been through the full experience and I know just how much more really goes on. I’ve felt for several years, since beginning to read and then participate in the online reading and reviewing community, that many reviewers of author-published books, and almost all of those authors themselves, have completely failed to recognize the value of the one-star (or less) review.
It’s true that writers need to develop thick skins. They need to be able to take criticism without going into high dudgeon, without lashing at their critics and calling them names and accusing them of ulterior motives. A critic is neither a troll nor a bully; and a book is not a baby. But how does a writer develop this kind of immunity to the sting of criticism?
By getting criticized. I hate to say it, but there is no other way to do it. It’s painful, yes, sometimes very painful. But there is simply no shortcut, no easy road. You’ve got to gird your loins and take it.
If you’re too sensitive, then you had damn well better not show your writing to the world. Show it to friends and family members who will love it the way they love you, and you’ll be very happy. You won’t sell many copies, and you won’t get rich and famous, but you won’t have to deal with the soul-crushing agony of having some total stranger tell you, “This sucks.”
Because that total stranger is probably correct.
Most of us went to school as children and learned the rudiments of our native language. We learned to read and write, and if we advanced much beyond the primary grades we achieved some reasonable level of competence in written communication.
And most of us never took it any further than that. When it comes to writing a novel, however, the ability to write a coherent excuse for why your son missed school yesterday or compose a thank-you note to Aunt Agnes for the Daffy Duck dish towels she gave you for Christmas is not enough. It’s not even close. Yes, it’s just words on paper (so to speak), but it’s so very much more than that.
Let’s start with the writing itself. The basic writing skill set that a writer needs goes way beyond just being able to string lots of words together. They have to be the right words, and they have to be put together in the right way. A good writer is an absolute master of the mechanics of writing. Not just spelling. Not just basic grammar. All the nuances of punctuation, especially punctuating dialogue. All the conjugations of the irregular verbs. Proper use of pronouns and antecedents. Making sure modifiers are in the correct place relative to whatever they’re modifying. Don’t know when to use who or whom? Which or that? Do you know the difference between despite and in spite of? How ’bout infer and imply? Affect and effect? Eminent and imminent? Do you know how to avoid using two conditionals in the same sentence? What about gerunds and present participles? Can you define subjunctive? Do you know why there’s no such thing as a passive verb?
If any of those give you a hard time, you’ve not mastered the English language. The details may be different for different languages, but the rules are still there and you absolutely must know them. There are no excuses and there are no short cuts.
I was reading a sample of an author-published novel a couple nights ago, and I was immediately struck by a major flaw in the writing mechanics. Rather than quote the book, I’ll construct something with the same flaw, because this essay isn’t really a review:
Every evening after supper Jacob would go out to the workshop. Sometimes he would just look at the blocks of oak and maple and cherry and walnut all stacked neatly on the shelves. Sometimes he would take one or two of them down. He would hold them in his hands, feeling the smooth grain of the maple or the rougher texture of the oak. They would always feel good to him, strong and patient and waiting for the day when he would take the tools out of their box and start to work. First he would sharpen the tools, and only then when he was sure they were ready, he would start to carve.
Do you see what’s wrong with this passage? Do you see anything wrong with this passage? Do you know how to fix what’s wrong with it?
Readers don’t have to see anything wrong with it. By itself, this paragraph might not attract the notice of even a critical reader, but it probably would. And the critical reader would immediately suspect that the writer hadn’t mastered the language. Was she capable to putting together coherent sentences? Yes. But she hadn’t mastered the language.
Writers must be masters. To become a master, the writer must go through an apprenticeship. As with any craft, that apprenticeship involves learning, and learning involves making mistakes. The instructor will point out those mistakes, provide the instruction on the correct procedure, and the apprentice will move on.
No learning can take place if the mistakes aren’t pointed out, recognized, admitted to, and corrected. If they aren’t pointed out during the writer’s apprenticeship period, then they won’t be corrected, they’ll be repeated, and they’ll very likely be pointed out when the work is published.
And they’ll be pointed out in 1-star (or less) reviews.
As a writer, you have a choice. You submit your work to critics before you publish it and get feedback and fix your errors. These critics are your critique partners, your wattpad fellows, or anyone else with whom you choose to share your work before you publish it. You make sure that at least some of them are masters of the language, because you can’t learn from instructors who don’t know any more than you do. You pay attention to what your critics tell you, and you swallow your stupid pride enough to admit they may be right
Or, you write out the whole thing and publish it without any feedback, and then you rant and rave because people find flaws with it.
If you didn’t master the language in school, you have to do so when you begin to write. But mastering the language is only part of it. You also have to read.
If you set out to write genre fiction, you’d better have read at least 100 books in that genre published no longer ago than the past five years, another 100 published in the past five to 20 years, and another 100 published more than 20 years ago. Yes, that’s 300 books. Comic books don’t count, and movies don’t count. Neither do novelizations of movies. You need to read at least 300 novels in your chosen genre.
Why? Because you will pick up certain elements of storytelling by osmosis. If you don’t absorb these elements, it’s highly unlikely you have the native talent to write.
Not everyone does have that talent. Some of us can shoot 25 out of 25 baskets. Some of us are lucky to get one out of 25. Some of us can skate backwards; some of us can’t. Some of us have the talent to create original stories and write them into books, and some of us simply don’t. That doesn’t make us bad people or stupid or anything else. It just means we aren’t writers.
If you don’t like to read and consider 300 novels to be an unfair burden, then you’re not likely to be writer either. Writers read. And read. And read. And read.
if you’ve followed my various blogs and reviews and commentary at all, you know that I am a big fan of three how-to-write resources. In this essay I’m going to add the fourth essential text, and I seriously can’t stress enough how important they are. Two are short, two are long, and only one is hard to find.
The first short one is Josh Olson’s essay in the Village Voice, “No, I will not read your fucking script.” The second is Shelly Lowenkopf’s 1982 essay from The Writer titled “Creating the Rejection-resistant Novel.”
The third is Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print. Larry focuses on the structure of the writing process, and it’s absolutely essential to understand the process
Fourth is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Chris examines the elements required to take the reader on the journey through the novel. In order for those elements to be there for the reader, the writer has to put them there. No one else can do it
Again, if you are a writer, you have the choice to learn how to write, or you can skip it and wing it and hope to hell you got it right. Chances are very, very, very good that you didn’t. But you made that choice, and absolutely no one should feel sorry for you if your book gets ripped to shreds upon publication.
The negative reviews you get are nothing more or less than the lessons you should have paid attention to when you were supposed to be learning to write. Grammar sucks? That’s not teh reviewer’s fault. It’s yours. You’re the one claiming to be a writer and you can’t even properly conjugate to go! Or whatever other stupid mistake you made. And yes, it’s a stupid mistake if you write something like “James and his brother’s had went to the same school as their father, their uncle’s, and their grandfather.”
What’s truly disturbing to me, however, is to read the comments — whether on Amazon, Goodreads, Booklikes, a blog, a newspaper or magazine — from reviews who are also writers and who refuse to post negative reviews lest it hurt the author’s feelings. These are reviewers who are also writers who know the writing is bad. Whatever skills they do or do not have, they apparently believe they have sufficient skill to recognize bad writing, but they will lie (by omission) to potential readers rather than tell the author the truth.
What they may not want to recognize is that they are also lying to the writer. They are, in effect or in fact, telling her that her writing is wonderful even though they know it’s not. They are silently encouraging her to write more of the same, allowing her to make the same mistakes over and over and over even when they know she could fix them and write better. They’ve condemned her to remaining a poor writer.
If you are one of those writers, you probably think you are just being kind to a colleague. Wait, there’s no probably about it. I’ve read your comments and reviews and blog posts. You refuse to hurt the writer’s feelings because you know how much effort goes into writing a book. You would rather lie to potential readers, lie to other writers, even lie to the writer herself, than hurt her feelings.
Her writing sucks. You know it. I know it. Instead of helping her, you’re hurting her worse. You’re setting her up for further ridicule. You’re helping her deny the truth, a truth you yourself know: Her writing sucks. Her plot is contrived. Her characters are shallow and inconsistent. Her research is flimsy. Her writing sucks.
Do you think that by lying to her she will in turn lie to and for you about your writing? Why would you want someone to lie to you? Wouldn’t you want someone to tell you the truth so you can become a better writer?
The more I think about this — and I’ve thought about it a lot over the past couple of years — the more I’ve come to believe that most of the really bad writers out there know that they’re bad writers and they don’t care. They don’t want to be good writers, because they know it’s hard work to become a good writer. They don’t want to learn grammar and spelling and punctuation. They don’t want to read and analyze 300 novels or even 30. They don’t want to write and rewrite, outline and draft. They want to be published. They want hte fame, if not the fortune.
They aren’t really writers at all.
If you are, or if you have serious aspirations to becoming a writer, you should cheer every single one of those one-star (or less) reviews. Maybe, if there are enough of them, those writers will either quit and get out of our collective way, or they will wise up and learn their craft so they aren’t bad writers any more. Readers will benefit, and so will other writers, especially the self-publishing ones, who won’t have to cringe in shame at being lumped with all the sucky writers.
If you are, or if you have serious aspirations to becoming a writer, you should seek out those one-star (or less) reviews, and extract every bit of criticism you can from them. At least it’s not your book being ripped to shreds this time. Learn from someone else’s pain and suffering. Learn from their foolishness.
If you are a reader, don’t be afraid to leave a one-star (or less) review. Be honest with yourself, with other readers, with other writers, and with the writer of the sucky book. She can’t improve if she thinks she’s made no mistakes. If you owe her anything at all — and readers really don’t — don’t you at least owe her your honesty?
Don’t you owe yourself that honesty, too?
I wouldn’t be surprised if your answer is no. The past few years have taught me that there are a lot of people who do not care about the truth when it comes to their writing. They will lie, they will buy reviews, they will create sock puppet accounts to give their own books good reviews. They will join review swap circles, they will enter contests that guarantee awards. They will accuse their critics of lying, of jealousy, of bullying. What they will not do is learn how to write.
And that’s why readers need those one-star (and less) reviews.