Reviewing Responses to Reviews

Novels

(I wrote this some while back, and then vacillated about posting it for fear of giving offence.  However, on re-reading, I don’t see why it should.)

A question for any writer, obscure or world-famous, relates to responses to reviews.  What would you assume the consensus on policy is?  Respond?  Argue? Remain aloof?

I had always believed that it was ‘bad form’ to reply in any way.

Recently expressed opinions, however, reflect that this is not so, but nevertheless the most frequently offered ‘definite no-no’ is responding in any way to awful reviews. There, the argument goes, one cannot convince anyone who is heavily bigoted, and will merely come out of the exchange looking petulant. One-star on Amazon?  Ignore. ‘The most putrid lump of garbage I have ever read’ ? Ignore. Of course, with such reviews, it is a good idea to pretend something like a handy pillow or punch-bag is that reviewer, and treat it accordingly …

Amazon actually encourages writers to respond to all reviews, though, and some comments there indicate that it is even possible to turn around the unreasonable one-starrer. ‘My book took two months to get to me’ given as a reason – as if that is the writer’s fault, or has anything to do with the book content? If you don’t choose to ignore it, rather not give that response, though. ‘Can I send you the next one free by courier?’ is an expensive way of building goodwill, but one that seems to work!

As another general rule, I can now see no good reason for writers being ‘above’ responding with thanks to a mainly approving, good, or glowing review. One is happy the book has been read and enjoyed. One is happy that the reviewer has announced the fact. So why not say so?

A trickier decision comes where there are aspects of a review which reflect a certain point of view, and where one is tempted to add one’s own to balance it – and to test a more general opinion.  A case in point was a review I had from BestChickLit (Young Adult Reviews) on Forest Circle Quest in June 2014, which was gratifyingly complimentary on the whole.  I had no problem with the fact that it was assumed that I was a female writer (maybe I wouldn’t have been reviewed, otherwise!) but I was slightly disappointed at less complimentary comments relating to complexity of plot, length, and the novel’s constant reference to the girth of the protagonists. I looked carefully at all three aspects with a view to changing them in need, but found myself not in agreement. Still, I held my peace.

Perhaps I can now use this as a cavy inserted into a pond – er, I mean, as a guinea-pig to test the water – toward giving a more proactive reaction?

Firstly, I would have responded by mentioning that the plot needed some complexity, development and red herrings if the mystery was to be maintained. Those on the quest know they’re on a quest, but it takes them ages to work out what they are actually questing for. That, I thought, was a large part of the fun of it. If one provides a number of real surprises during the course of a story, one needs some convolutions in the plot to bring it off.

The book also goes into some deeper levels of philosophical analogy, if one chooses to follow them. Even if taken only at face value, I think they do add to the substance.

The second point, on length. This is a hot potato, which I should perhaps drop lest I get burnt. Instead, I propose sticking a fork into it and hanging on:
Sorry, but the idea of getting a decent read at forty to eighty thousand words just doesn’t gel with me.  It does need more than that if a tale is to be fleshed out decently. (The exception is where it is expanded or dealt with further in sequels.) Otherwise, it leads to these ghastly habits of pruning anything that isn’t absolutely necessary for the plot.

‘The food at the banquet was all perfectly presented and delicious,’? Doesn’t matter one way or the other to the story, so leave it out.

Why?  It adds flavour!

‘”I think I’m falling in love with you,” he murmured hesitantly,’? Oh, horrors!  Adverb!  Chop it! ‘Murmured’? No, no, no! Just keep an unending string of ‘he (or she) said’. You can do without the ‘I think’, too. Throw it away. Now we have: ”‘I’m falling in love with you,’ he said.” Perfect.

Why? All of the rest adds another dimension to the declaration. And if ‘murmur’ perfectly describes the tone, who cares if it has become clichéd?

My latest fantasy is even longer and contains all the above sins. Perhaps I am committing writers’ hara-kiri that way.

The third point:  (I am surprised the reason wasn’t obvious.)
Part of the momentum of this novel comes from concern at a generation of unnecessarily overweight children in the more privileged parts of the world, and the idea was to plant ideas in young minds about going on strenuous and hideously dangerous fantasy adventures – or, at least, moderating food intake and getting some exercise – to combat that!

What are your thoughts on the subject of review responses, and on these three specific points?

© February 2016 Leslie Hyla Winton Noble (WordPress)
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34 thoughts on “Reviewing Responses to Reviews

  1. http://vivinfrance.wordpress.com

    Reply to bad reviews? Don’t prolong the agony. I would correct obvious misunderstandings, if I ever got to the stage of having anything reviewed. Length? I’m reading and very much enjoying Ken Follet’s Fall of Giants, which has 850 pages – only disadvantage is the weight.

    But in my my own writing I find it very difficult even to reach 50K words. In poetry as in fiction, I say what I have to say, tell the story, and then stop. This makes my fiction just about unpublishable (see Anne’s Fortune on my blog – Chapter 1 here: https://vivinfrance.wordpress.com/fiction/annes-fortune-chapter-1/

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    1. colonialist Post author

      After reading the first chapter, I can’t see anything unpublishable about it – in fact, I am now committed to reading the rest asap.
      Length is a question of how far it needs to go to reach the end. Some journeys are shorter than others. Then, when the end is reached the question arises as to whether one wants to provide shortcuts for other travellers. If one still finds the scenery on the longer route attractive, then leave it.

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  2. gipsika

    I always thought it’s polite to thank the reviewer for the review. After all they did the effort of reading the book and then still writing something about it.

    In the case of a really stinky review, I guess one shouldn’t reply. Goodreads even has a “cool down” warning when trying to see who gave you that bad review. But also always remember that it was a bad review that propelled 50 Shades to fame, and I’m sure many bad reviews followed, driving it to always higher levels. Books that only have good reviews come across as not quite real (only been reviewed by friends and fam). I’ve been toying with the idea of offering to write bad reviews at a cost to struggling authors. 😀

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  3. disperser

    Not sure I’ve any authority when it comes to formulating an opinion on this subject as I am as yet unpublished. But, what’s the joy of having opinions were it not for the fact they are often uninformed and thus offer a chance to get schooled?

    All the better shared, I say.

    So . . . Let me start with a breakdown of the type of feedback I’ve seen.

    Negative reviews/feedback:
    1) Something like “I’ve seen better stuff come out of either end of diseased mongrel dogs” merits no response. I see no reason for anything generating such a visceral response from anyone . . . if they hated it so much, why read it? This type of feedback or review serves no purpose but to titillate the fans of the reviewer who expect precisely that type vitriol. You didn’t like the book; I get it. But, it was published, and that means someone liked it. This type of negative review deserves no response and gets none. It barely deserves a glance.

    2) Something like “I could not get into the book/did not gel with the characters/the plot was unbelievable/the writing left me bored” also gets no response. Trying to address this type of review reminds me of parents telling their kids that one day they will like the vegetables they currently decry. No, they won’t. Broccoli still sets my teeth on edge, and much of the stuff I was force-fed in my younger days has been, thankfully, forever banished from my diet. As a writer, I accept the realities I see as a reader. Namely, there are books I’m told are great, veritable masterpieces, the stuff of literary legends . . . which I can’t force myself to read and would hate were I to be made to read. I get it, lots of people love poetry, but the reality of it is that I can’t follow it, don’t get it, don’t like it even as I admire the mastery of it. So, again, no need for a response.

    3) Something like “I liked the book but found it lacking in plot/characterization.” This one is a maybe; if the reviewer goes into the “why” and “where” they found it lacking, and if those points have merits, it might rate a polite “thank you, I’d not considered that aspect and can see how it could be misconstrued.” Then, you write yourself a note to keep that in mind for the next project. If the reviewer got something wrong (people who occasionally comment on my stories sometimes miss certain events that would explain their confusion) perhaps a quick explanation along the lines of “this is where I was going with that particular plot point/character motivation and that was set up in this particular scene. Perhaps I should have made it clearer. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.” There is a problem with this as well . . . like with paintings, people sometimes get something different from them than the artist intended. It still has value to the audience, and I’m not sure attacking the basis for their value (correcting them) makes sense.

    4) I would respond to any reviews that ask questions. For example, they liked the book, but were unclear on certain points. The reason for responding is to increase their enjoyment of the book. Maybe.

    Positive reviews/feedback:
    1) Anything positive would merit a quick “Thank you. That’s very nice of you to say” (I learned that at the writing workshop.)

    Personally, I think I have an easier time dealing with negative feedback/reviews (I would ignore them) than dealing with positive reviews (do I now owe something to the reviewer? Do they want more of me? Is a “Thank You” enough?)

    Finally, these days publishers seem to want authors to be more involved and accessible to their audiences. I guess that, for me, that would be the overriding thing – if they want me to interact, I would (it means they probably don’t know me all that well).

    If I could publish anonymously and just let a few friends and family know, I would be happy . . . you know, provided I keep getting published.

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    1. colonialist Post author

      That is certainly a full and well-considered evaluation of the issues. On reflection, it would take an extremely good reviewer to query – with justification – the clarity of certain aspects, and that could certainly provide valuable input worthy of thanks and consideration.
      Some writers still remain cloaked in anonymity, but I feel that these days it does not advance their cause.

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  4. roughseasinthemed

    Okies. Here goes. Replying to reviews seems a waste of time apart from hitting on like. It’s like saying ‘good blog post’. No added value. When I write reviews, a like is a perfectly acceptable acknowledgement. I don’t need a meaningless thank you. Just let me know you’ve read it and liked it. Or didn’t in some cases, I guess.
    I agree, in some cases, a little PR doesn’t go amiss. Like you, I think offering a free copy might in some cases, at least look reasonable. Even if it isn’t the author’s fault. One of the authors I work for had a complaint and she offered a free copy of another book. Not sure it was ever taken up though. Some people just like to moan and be critical. (Me, for example).
    As I haven’t read FCQ I’m commenting somewhat in the dark, but:

    1) If it started to get tedious, from a reader’s perspective, then it’s worth listening to. ‘Taking ages’ and ‘philosophical perspective’ could = boring and slow pace. Don’t know.
    2) Length. Current trend is shorter. Depending on who you are of course. But under 100K is generally preferred. Short attention span huh? Best sellers can write 150–200,000. But a lot of authors do have unnecessary verbiage that just switches off the reader.
    I agree with both comments. So what about the food. Just, so what? Seems meaningless and irrelevant. You haven’t said anything about why or how it was delicious. Or why anyone would be interested in that as a significant part of moving the story on.
    Then, ‘murmured hesitantly’. Ugh. Groan. Surely you could have added a beat or two instead of relying on a tag plus adverb. I think the issue is whether you overuse this style in dialogue. And, having not seen the book, can’t say. A few times is acceptable. Continuously isn’t. Reading audiences are learning current fashions Col … and adverbs plus OTT tags aren’t fashionable.
    3) People don’t read books for lectures or health promotion. Simple as that.

    I did warn you.

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      1. disperser

        Wait just a cotton-picking minute . . . what do you mean “write it elsewhere first”?!

        . . . do it means I could written any wich way and somebod elsey commies in unt clears up my misstakes?

        . . . tusk, tusk . . .

        Oops, I forgot to edit this. Here goes. – Col

        … do it meanly I could of wrote any witch away an some bodes (say commies) in cu..(No, CENSORED) Clare sups my steaks?

        … task, task …

        Liked by 2 people

    1. colonialist Post author

      Yes, the ‘ages’ and philosophy could be killers, unless, as I believe I have managed, they are integrated into the action and dialogue in such a way as not to allow interest to flag.
      On the descriptions: as I read I like to get a fairly vivid picture of each scene. Much modern writing reminds me of seeing a monochrome and rather out-of-focus movie. Or of reading one of the classics in a Readers Digest condensed version (ever tried that?). You get the essential gist, but much of the richness is missing.

      On the other hand, some (surprisingly successful) fantasy writers still devote a couple of pages of description to, for example, a city which is being passed through and will not be revisited. There, one is living part of the journey of the protagonist but in unnecessary detail. One needs the happy medium. Exclude everything that isn’t driving the story, however, and you get blandness and, ultimately, tedium. Deliberate red herrings are also needed occasionally, just to keep the astute reader guessing.

      We may have to agree to disagree on ‘said’. I have never desensitized myself on endless strings of them. They jar me, particularly when the speech content does not give a clue as to whether uttered playfully, angrily, resignedly … and so on. It would be equally clumsy to try and tailor the words of each quoted speech to convey all the nuances which tone, expression, and body language give – hence the adverb and/or substitute verb. Does the reading public decide something is OTT? I doubt it. That is a writing-school-type construct.

      Even in these days, people go back to books which they have found gave them more than just an hour or two of passive recreation – at least, those with some cerebral activity do.

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      1. disperser

        As someone who enjoys (and writes) what I dub “focused writing” I must confess to still not having read every word of The Lord of the Rings. This, despite having read the work at least three times and probably more (I love redundancy in writing). I tried reading the Wheel of Time, the Thomas Covenant series, and a few others, but finally admitted to myself it’s not the kind of writing I like (meaning, the style not the subject).

        It will be interesting seeing (if I ever get published) how I will do when asked for sequels to anything I write – I don’t see myself as writing sagas, and I don’t see myself writing cat-killing (or Chihuahua-killing) books. In my case, it’s not a matter of age or training; my brain has always worked like that. When the language lacks economy, I naturally skip stuff, catching only what’s necessary to get the gist of things.

        Odd that, since I’ve fairly verbose in my commenting (witness).

        On the language structure issue . . . I think I fall in the camp of an author (or in my case, writer) having a fair amount of latitude with the writing. I can certainly see, and necessarily do so, as well as wholeheartedly agree that often including adverbs can occasionally hinder the reading flow. As for “said”, I truthfully hardly notice it when reading, but am acutely aware of it when writing. I constantly try to avoid it as I studiously avoid adverbs.

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      2. colonialist Post author

        How does a book come across to you? As words, or as actual ‘scenes’ in your mind? I formulate pictures, and the clearer the words the better the picture. This is why pared-down language is totally unsatisfactory to me.

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      3. disperser

        I visualize the scene when I read (and when I write). However, it’s a little bit like movies . . . I’m looking at the protagonists. The background is just background; I notice it, but don’t dwell on it. For example, if I’m told or shown that they are in a kitchen, I don’t need (or want) any more than that unless pointing me to something of importance to the characters or plot. (She entered the kitchen. Her eyes fell to the rare 18th century carving knife her aunt had given her as a wedding gift. The smooth handle gave her a moment of anxiety. She would need a good grip when plunging it into the eye of her husband. Luckily she noticed the textured silicone potholder next to the french terrine which had been used to prepare last night’s meal and had yet to be scrubbed. – – many words I don’t need unless wanting to introduce humor into the narrative.)

        There is something I recently learned making headway and pushed to writers; it’s something called (I think) ‘deep perspective’ or ‘deep POV’ (I might be naming it wrong). The idea behind it, as far as I can tell, is tied to showing-not-telling. So, don’t say the character is mad, show it by their action. That sounds simple, except many examples I’ve seen devolve into describing the minutia – showing taken to the nth degree.

        I just beta-read a supernatural novel for someone, and they described dang-near everything. Of the 78K words, more than half were wasted on nothing happening. It got tiring. Much time and words spent on lighting cigarettes, sipping on a drink, brushing hair from face, and a bunch of other things that I suppose were meant to convey a mood but did nothing but waste my reading time. There were two pages used to just describe the character’s bedroom . . . and then it was never mentioned again and played no part in the story. It also did not tell me anything more about the characters than her actions already did.

        Side note . . . I’ve not heard from the writer since I sent my feedback, so I doubt I’ll be picked as a beta reader ever again.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. colonialist Post author

    I wonder if your approach is a majority one? Yours is akin to a stage production with a minimum of props, all of which are used during the play. Mine calls for the full stage setting, filled with things that have no place in the action but provide an authentic and convincing backdrop.

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    1. roughseasinthemed

      Could be a majority one on your blog, as, though it galls me deeply, I tend to agree. I think very visually and vividly, but I don’t need the background, if I need some I can conjure it up anyway.
      But there’s a place for both types of production 🙂

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  6. Arkenaten

    Reader reviews are personal opinion. And thus, it is their right to hold it.
    I would never reply to a written review in an open forum.

    I would also never explain elements of the story for similar reasons.
    If the reader is not captivated by the story from the ‘off’ then explaining details will
    not likely make any difference.

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