Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Short Reviews Are People Too

EDIT: I've changed the title of this post. Originally, it was "The Longest Review is the Worst Review" after I discovered that, while eye-catching, it probably wasn't the most accurate portrayal of the post -- or my thoughts. Carry on.

I've been sharing my books and stories with readers for a while now. As a writer, it's both hard and gratifying to get a review. Like books themselves, sometimes the reviews are a rave, sometimes they are luke warm, sometimes they are downright mean and hurtful. But, unless they are written by clueless dummies, we nearly always appreciate them.

My question is, why are readers so reluctant, or even fearful of sharing a review?

Now, I'm not talking about the rating of a book: those arbitrary stars, usually out of a total of five, that readers slap on a book or a movie or song at sites like, and iTunes. We're obsessed with star ratings, as a culture and don't want to waste our time with something that routinely gets a one out of five. It's against our nature to spend time on something that others didn't like, even if we ourselves might like it just fine. Sure, those numbers provide an overall sense of how much the reader generally liked or disliked the story, the execution, the characters, the feeling they had when they absorbed it.

But the written part of the review is much more subjective, and to me, much more important about telling me whether I'll like something or not. This review is an opportunity for the reader to tell the writer --and, most importantly-- every other potential reader what they bring to the table in reading it. And, what they took away. Now that's counter-intuitive, isn't it?

But think of it this way. A reviewer gives a book one star then explains, "I stopped reading this book because the profanity was so excessive." If I don't much care about profanity, or want to make up my own mind about what I feel is excessive then I can probably go on to the next review, by someone else who read the whole thing and wasn't bothered by the four letter words. Maybe I'm not either so this next review will have more to do with me. If, on the other hand, I have a thing against profanity too, well, maybe I file that in the back of my head and say, "Naw, this one ain't for me, mister." Then I try another book and look at its reviews.

So, in essence, a review is an opportunity for one reader to connect with another, based on their own experiences, biases and level of openness to a new book. It's almost outside the writer and his influence. He had his chance with the jacket, his other books and the synopsis, book trailer and other marketing. He can put forward reviews that he thinks are really good, or well-put or touch on what he feels are the strong points of the book. But he needs, to some degree, to get out of the way and let reviewers and readers connect. Granted, of course, that they are not clueless dummies. Then he can, as I do, track them down and kill them in the middle of the night.

But back to the topic at hand. Reviews --even short reviews-- can be a great opportunity for very specific language about the story and how it touched (or didn't touch) the reader. Or, it can be a squandered moment where we don't learn anything.

I've given it some thought and I have a few ideas about why readers don't share more reviews after they've read a book, a short, or a collection.

First. So many readers think they need to recap the book in their review. 

They've read book reviews in the newspaper or on websites by professional writers whose job it is, is to fulfill a word count. They have it in their heads from book reports in the fifth grade that a plot re-telling is a requirement and, well, they just don't have it in them for five paragraphs of this. I don't blame them. I read for pleasure, not to spend my life giving Cliff's notes for everyone else so they can cheat.

I know that some will disagree but I hate seeing a plot re-hash. It's the writer's or publisher's job to give a good synopsis that spells out enough of what the book is about to draw me in. After the fact, the reviewer's job, whether at the New York Times or on a fansite, is to explain whether those goals were met, not to tell me how they were met.

As a reader, I want my reading to unfold for me as the storyteller intended. I don't want to know that, two thirds through the book, the main character's sister dies of cancer. Then it becomes more than a spoiler. Then it's just plain mean.

Second. Readers believe reviews need to be long.

Uh, no. They don't. Two or three sentences is perfectly okay. Tell me that it was exciting and just exactly the kind of book you'd like to read on a dreary Sunday when you can't go out and about. Tell me it was heartfelt because the characters felt like people you know. Tell me the themes touched you because you recently went through a divorce and you could relate to the nagging feelings of the main character.

And that's it. You don't need much more. You could even get away with less if you're pressed for time. In all honesty, when I'm reading reviews, unless I'm already enamored with the writer, I'll probably glance at the long reviews, skip over the bulky parts and try to get to the gist of whether the reader liked it or not and what they had to say about that. For me, the longest reviews are a stumbling block and I look for shorter or mid-length ones that are well-written.

Third. Readers believe they owe the writer.

Well, this one's tricky because I feel that if you liked a book or any work of creativity, you could probably find three or four minutes to share that you liked it. It's nice. It's pleasant. It's helpful. But it's not a requirement. This goes both ways, of course. If the story was awful and the writing was bad, maybe you want to ward off others from wasting their money or time with it.

But, hey, you've bought the book (presumably). It's yours. You paid for the right to read it or not to read it. You've also paid for the right not to share your opinion if that's your gig. You don't really owe the writer a darn thing. As Stephen King has said, paraphrased of course, "You bought the book. I hope you like it, but you can wear it as a hat for all I care."

True. Though, he's in a much more luxurious position than many writers. Those of us without millions of copies in print would still love your review. Short or not, we live for them.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Fill the Frame With People

Ever notice the number of photos snapped at a picnic, a family vacation or the Christmas party that show a giant, gaping backdrop but small, badly framed figures?

I get irritated when someone emails or sends a hard copy of a picture from their trip to the local fishing hole and there's this giant background of some blurry water and then, in the mid-ground there are two people with grainy faces holding up a fish. Or a shot from the Christmas party. They've taken pains to get the whole christmas tree in the shot, but the people are tiny and miniscule. One of them has his eyes closed.

I guess we can sorta make out Bill's expression.
Don's profile is hard to read though...
And I think Beverly is smiling
What's the deal here?

I know that these photos are taken by amateur folks with amateur cameras. I'm not asking them to be an auteur when it comes to snapping simple family shots intended to capture a moment in their lives and share it with their loved ones.

That's fine. No problem.

But I approach writing a story about people the same way I approach taking pictures of people: fill the frame with people.

When it comes to photographs of the people I love, I try to fill the allowable space of the shot with as much cheek, forehead, hair, eyes, nose, smile and personality of the subject as I can. In twenty years, I won't much care what shade of blue-green the lake water was. In five years, I'll only have a passing glance at the decorations on the Christmas tree. I'll want to remember how Lily's hair looked or what she was wearing. I'll want to know that she was happy that time we went to the Grand Canyon on summer holiday.

Look at the joy.
You won't necessarily know that they were rafting
at the canyon, but you might not care because
it's a great and happy moment.
There'll probably be enough collateral in and around my friends and family members' faces for me to remember and say, "Oh yeah! That was us rafting at the grand canyon in 2011!" If I want a unique, earth-shattering image of the Grand Canyon, I probably shouldn't turn to my point-and-click for it...and probably wouldn't need my little sister and her boyfriend in the shot.

Likewise, when I read a short story or a novel, I want to know about the people. Sure, backdrop is important. We need to know where they live and what the weather is like, but do we need three paragraphs about what they're wearing in each scene? Do we need a page and a half explaining how Diane got from the train station to her office tower? Unless she met a member of an alien race at the hot dog stand halfway between point A and point B, probably not.

What I want to know is: What was Diane worried about on the walk to work. Is she tired? Does she like her job? Did she have a good time last night at the party? Or was her ex-boyfriend there, effectively ruining the fun time she thought she'd have? Now, are there tulips poking their heads up in the flower boxes outside her building? And do they remind her of the ones that grow outside the apartment she once shared with that ex boyfriend?

There's a basis for a scene.

When I write, I try the same approach. I've been guilty of using three paragraphs to describe a winter scene in uptown Toronto but I do this kind of thing with character always at the forefront.  It has to either advance the plot or inform who the characters are. I ask the questions to make sure that the point is character driven. In other words, what does the winter scene mean to the characters? How congruous with the overall point of the characters is the description of a big city conjoined with a small one, the big one grey and imposing, the small one, flat and colourful. In this case, I used it to draw comparisons between an overbearing father and his timid son. For me, it worked. And when I read the descriptors, I see the boy and his dad.

Focus on the people, who they are and why the do what they do. They're the most important part of the story and, without them, we probably won't give two hoots how pretty the Grand Canyon looks.

My writing advice? Give your details, set the stage. 

But then, make sure you fill the frame with the people. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Thank You Sony Readers!

Since September, my books and stories have been downloaded thousands of times. Many (most) have been freebies, but that doesn't change the fact that a whack of people have been reading and enjoying what I've been writing. As a writer whose job it is to entertain and inform and have people be satisfied with the book they've read, this thrills me. I'm filled with hope to keep producing stories and each time I sit down at the keyboard to fill my daily word quota, the fire burns a little brighter with each download and each review.

One group I want to highlight and thank today is all the wonderful readers who have found my stories at the Sony Reader Store. In all honesty, I don't know if my book was featured somewhere on the site or if it just picked up steam through word of mouth and my efforts on blogs and social networking sites.

In the last four months, Sony Readers have downloaded "On The Gathering Storm" and "Shed" and my two short novelettes "The Night Walk Men" and "Road Markers" several thousand times. And, since Sony partnered with, all of the great reviews for my books are getting shuttled over there and added to the in-house Sony reviews.

Have a look at my stories on Sony's Reader Store.

Thank you to these readers --to ALL my readers so far-- for your support, your reviews and for getting in touch with me personally. It is truly gratifying to know that my words have been a part of your life, even in some small way.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Help Support Local Charity for Abused Women

Here's what I'm doing: Until March 1st, my book, "On The Gathering Storm" is being sold at Amazon for 99 cents. Since the book deals with women's issues, and specifically violence towards women, ALL my profits from these sales will go to a local CHARITY FOR ABUSED WOMEN AND CHILDREN.

All of it. No question.

For the security of the women and children it benefits, the charity will not be named here but know that they WILL receive the funds.

How can you help? Tweet this post, drop it on Facebook or mention it to your friends.

Then buy the book.

Your cash, though a small amount at only 99 cents, will pool together and hopefully add up to a sizeable donation. Tell your sisters, your moms, your co-workers, your friends. Share the link with anyone you love or think would appreciate it.  I will be very excited to write out a check at the end of this with the pooled proceeds. Our collective effort might offer hope or support for even just one woman.

My thanks to all of you for YOUR support and a very special thank you to author Ann Mauren for the inspiration.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Something Borrowed, Something Blue

Well, the serial portion of THALO BLUE has come to an end. By the look of the stats, it was a raging success. The thirteen THALO posts garnered over 4,000 visits in December and January. I thank all of you for taking a look, sharing your comments and, well, reading the story as it began to unfold.

For those of you who are hooked, there are two ways to keep reading:

1. The book is going to have its official launch in the coming weeks but it's out at Smashwords and Amazon in the meantime.

2. I want to show my appreciation for my new followers and readers and supportive chaps by giving away two copies of the book to anyone who follows my blog. I'll hold off on drawing the names from the pool of followers until Friday, February 11, 2010 -- to allow any new followers to come on board. I'd love to see your name and picture on my home page; it makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

(Many of you are now wondering, "Is this guy capable of 'warm and fuzzy' after he killed ALL those people in THALO BLUE?!")

How do you do it? Click the "Follow" button near the top of the right-hand column, next to all those other little squares with peoples' pictures in them. You can use a number of credentials from your existing accounts. If you're on Blogger or have an iGoogle account, you can also follow from your Blogger dashboard by typing in

So, join up here at my blog, venture over to Amazon, or just chill with a cup of blueberry tea (that's what I'm doing at the moment).  And I'll see you out there in The Reaches!

j. //

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