Sunday, 16 December 2012

A tale of two reviews

I recently commissioned two separate editorial reviews, by two independent literary consultancies, of my forthcoming third science fiction book, Eden’s Revenge, to be published by Summertime in 2013. Both reviews came in within a few days of each other, the second a couple of hours before my three-weekly writers group meeting, so I took both reviews along to show the group. Like me, they found that the two reviews covered many of the same points, but the approach of the reviewers was quite different. Since I also do reviews for non-fiction books, this made me reflect about how reviews are done, and how they are perceived by authors on ‘the receiving end’. This blog should be of interest to authors, to reviewers, and to literary agencies themselves. I’m going to address the following points:

  • Why have a professional review?
  • Who are reviewers?
  • What does it cost?
  • What do you get for your money?
  • Styles of review
  • How to ‘take’ critical feedback

1. Who needs a review?
For authors who are not yet published, I’ve recommended in earlier blogs to go down this path, because there is nothing like a truly independent review. Even your fellow writers in your writing group, assuming you belong to one, are not completely independent, as they will have invested a lot of time in your work, whether they like or hate it. They often see it grow chapter by chapter, rather than as a complete work they have never seen before. In the case of Eden’s Revenge, quite a few of the two reviewers’ comments had been made at various points by people in my group (I am lucky to belong to such a good one), but the independent reviewers are able to take more of a ‘helicopter view’ and give more cohesive feedback over the entire novel. This is what is meant by structural feedback, because it can affect the entire structure of your novel. Scary, right? But if it works…

I’m not a first-time author: four non-fiction books and two fiction books published, with contracts for a new non-fiction book and the third and fourth Eden books, but still I feel I need these reviews. My fiction publishers (I have two, Ampichellis and Summertime) are small Indie publishers not specialised in science fiction, so I have commissioned such reviews for all three books so far, and they have been invaluable, and helped me to raise the standard of my writing to achieve the 4.5* Amazon ratings, get a six week run for both books in the top 100 SF ‘space opera’ category (at the height they were #1 and #3 respectively in the US charts), and more importantly, to gain fans waiting anxiously for the next book. If you are an author with a major publishing house (congratulations!), then you will have publishing house editors doing such reviews anyway, so will not normally need such a service.

2. Who are the reviewers?
The technical term is ‘readers’, and these people are usually professionals from the publishing industry, either published authors themselves, or freelance editors who formerly worked for publishing houses. They can also be called ‘book doctors’ J There are two main styles of reviewing: anonymous and named.

For two of my reviews of Eden books 1 and 2, for example, I had SF author Gary Gibson review my work through the Literary Agency called Writers Workshop. Gary gave me some tough feedback, which I needed at the time (still do, apparently), but he also made some encouraging statements (e.g. ‘A science fiction thriller with terrific images and revelations’) which ended up as a quoted endorsement on the back of the paperback versions and on the Amazon web-page (I asked him and he agreed to it). This is an advantage of having a ‘named’ reader, especially if they publish in your genre. One of the reviewers for the forthcoming book (this one via Cornerstones) also made some similar statements (e.g. ‘interesting characters and awe-inspiring aliens in an epic narrative written in lively and vivid prose’), before getting down to the ‘However, …’ part of the review.

An anonymous reviewer can still be very good, although not ‘citable’ as blurb for advertising a book. For my second book I had an anonymous female reader via Hilary Johnson’s Literary Agency. She went through Eden’s Trial and pointed out a couple of major flaws, including comments on relationship scenes and female points of view that were invaluable to me as a male writer (apparently I have learned this trick now, based on the recent review). She also pointed out that despite many point of view characters, and not having read the first book, she found it very hard to put down the book as it reached its climax. I mention this not to promote the book(s), but to make a point I’ll come back to later, that in any review, as in any writers group meeting, it is helpful to find something kind to say about the book. The aim of a review is to improve the book and the writers’ skills and popular appeal, not to put the author off writing for good by demolishing their work. Writing a novel is hard enough already.

When commissioning a review, don’t take just anybody, do some research if there are named writers. Are they writing in your genre? Little point getting a crime specialist if you are writing a memoire about growing up in India, unless there is a crime element. Even for anonymous reviews, you should be able to request a reader in your genre, being as specific as you can – mine is science fiction thriller / space opera – and other relevant details. For example, I have a lot of characters, and every single review of all my books so far says there are too many. But the feedback from fans is that they love this, it makes the books richer, and keeps the books working as page-turners. So I always ask upfront for a reader who is reasonably happy with multiple points of view, or else it’s going to get ugly from the outset.  

3. What does it cost?
Costs are usually based on word count. My third book is a little shorter than the first two, and is currently around 95000 words, and both reviews were around £400-470. There are different ‘levels’ of review, too. Mine was high level, with a report from each reviewer of 8-10 pages. It is possible to have more in-depth reviews with line edits etc., but these cost more because they take a lot more time.

4. What do you get for your money?
An 8-10 page report, dealing with aspects of writing style, plot, characters, story-telling, etc. Usually there is a short section on the novel’s strong points, and then the majority of the report will focus on what needs to be fixed. For example, in the two recent reviews, both commented on the high standard of writing. One reviewer clearly liked the alien races and was pleased to see strong female characters and some gay ones too in a SF novel, and noted that the book made advanced technology seem ‘normal’, something we SF authors sometimes struggle to achieve. However, both reviewers had serious issues with the Prologue, suggesting it be cut, as it had a different tone from the rest of the book, and prevented the reader getting into the action and principal characters. One reader thought chapter one was strong, the other did not (reviewers will focus a lot on the opening chapters because they are so important). Both reviewers singled out one later chapter for ‘culling’, despite the good writing, because it confused the plot, and one of the reviewers gave useful ideas about re-ordering some of the earlier chapters to help readers who had not read the previous two books to ‘get into’ the characters and back-story easier. Both suggested a synopsis to help the reader new to the ‘Eden Universe’. Then both reviewers cut a little deeper…

One reviewer found the battle scenes in the final section of the book too ‘dark’, and felt the human story inside was not brought out enough. The other reviewer focused on the societal issues going on in the background between normal people and their genetically-enhanced offspring, and made excellent comments on how to develop this more and bring it closer to the surface of the novel. Both reviewers identified the main and secondary characters and suggested ways to give precedence to the former, to help the reader through the plot.

In previous reviews I’ve had comments on the technical aspects of the science fiction from Gary Gibson, which were invaluable, as they helped the ‘street-credibility’ of the books as science fiction novels. Another major comment from Gary for Eden’s Trial concerned a character who got killed off half-way through the book. He suggested I keep her alive till later. I did this, but altered her psychologically after the near-death experience, making her more conflicted, creating a great deal of tension in the story. Most readers want this character dead, but there is no doubt that her role is a central point of fascination and ‘pull’ for readers in these novels. That single comment more than any other led to a transformation of Eden’s Trial.

To a large extent it is the deeper issues that I pay reviewers for, as a writers group and a proof-reader can sort out much of the rest. The original intended first publication date for Eden's Revenge as an Ebook was Xmas 2012, then January 2013; I think now it will be March 2013 (it will be in paperback some six months later). Both reviews have given me pause for thought, and ways to improve it, and as a writer the aim is always to write the best novel you can, whether the first or third or tenth. 

5. Styles of review
I would classify the reviews I have had over the years as follows:

  • Brutal
  • Negative
  • Dispassionate
  • Kind

A couple of the early reviews when I was starting out with a virgin manuscript of book 1 (The Eden Paradox) were brutal. It doesn’t mean they are wrong. One reviewer clearly despised the protagonist, and had grave issues with some of my dialogue and point-of-view techniques. As an author, when you receive such feedback, particularly when starting out, and if there is no positive encouragement whatsoever in the review, it is hard not to give up and decide to do something else besides writing. Every writer, published or not, has self-doubts or periods wondering if they are wasting their time, e.g. ‘Will I ever get published?’ or, for published writers, ‘Have I lost my touch?’ It took about two months for me to start re-writing after those early reviews.

Sometimes a reviewer simply doesn’t like your style of writing, and it comes across clearly in the tone of their review. This can happen; reading is a subjective experience. There are well-known SF authors I simply can’t get into, no matter how much I can see how well they write. One of my recent reviews falls into this category, and my writers group noticed it too. It was quite striking. The two reviewers said many of the same things, but the tone was completely different. The other reviewer was more dispassionate and occasionally kind (and I believe liked certain aspects of the book, despite not having read the first two books). The first reviewer said that it was very well written, but…

I mentioned earlier that I do reviews for non-fiction books. Occasionally, I don’t like them. But I always find something positive to say about them, and try to make constructive criticism. I aim for dispassionate-with-a-sprinkling-of-kindness. If that fails, I use some humour to bring the message home, because that is what it is about: bringing the message home. The reviewer can try and ram it home, or else can light up the pathway. It’s a matter of reviewer choice and style, but as a writer I see so many writers struggling and working their asses off to get published, that I think we should offer each other a helping hand.

To me it’s okay, I can take brutal and negative, and see behind the tone to what the reader is getting at. I will certainly take onboard the comments – after all, why shouldn’t? I’ve paid for them, LOL. And I trust the judgement of these three Agencies I’ve used over the years.    

6. How to take critical feedback

  • Read the review 5-6 times over a week, and do not do any editing or re-writing. Let it sink in.
  • Remember that reviewers will always focus on what needs to be fixed – if you want lots of ego-stroking praise, there are places to go and pay for that. Positive feedback is nice, but doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement.
  • Remember that none of the criticism is intended to be personal – this is hard for writers to accept, since we write from the heart, but it really isn’t personal.
  • Ignore aspects of tone, etc., and see behind to the core issues which are hopefully brought out in the review summary anyway. Which ones resonate? Which ones make you think again?
  • Go through the review and highlight each point and make a plan – some points you may reject, but be sure about these. Others you will take on, but the ‘structural’ ones will be where the major work will lie. Your plan should then dictate which to tackle first. It is important to have a plan rather than just ‘having another go’, as you might end up weakening the novel rather than fixing it. Remember that manuscripts can also be edited to destruction.
  • The reviewer’s job is now done, the transaction between you as author and them as reviewer is over. Take control again of your work, ensuring it is your voice, and your own internal editor, that is guiding your hand. This is what I meant by saying that you need to bring the points ‘home’. It is not the reviewer’s novel, it is yours.
  • If there have been major re-writes, consider a second review, but go back to a different reviewer. You may groan at the prospect, because surely they will raise new issues? Yes, but hopefully fewer. You are writing for hopefully thousands of readers, not one single reviewer.

My writers group last night said that I got more than my money’s worth with both these reviews. I agree. The book will be delayed a couple of months, but it will be a better book that people will enjoy more. That’s all I want.

The Eden Paradox and Eden’s Trial are available on Amazon in paperback and Ebook. Eden’s Revenge is coming soon…

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