Wednesday, September 4, 2013

How to Criticize a Writer

Peg Herring writes the award-winning Dead Detective Mysteries, the critically acclaimed Simon & Elizabeth Mysteries, and the suspenseful Loser Mysteries. She lives in northern Michigan with her husband of many years, but they will travel with the slightest provocation.

We’d rather you didn’t. Our books are like our children, and while we might make mistakes along the way, we’d rather you viewed them kindly. Like child-rearing, book-writing is hard work, and it’s tough to get everything right.

We all criticize books in some ways. We don’t buy them if we don’t like the genre, the cover, or the blurb on the back. We buy some, try them, and give up. Too slow, too violent, too mushy. After fifty pages, we know it isn’t for us.

Then there are books we actually read all the way through. Now we feel justified in giving an opinion. We saw what the author offered. We took it in. We formed an opinion.

If you like a book, let the author know. A woman told me last week, “I started The Lady Flirts with Death at 7:00 last evening.”

“That’s good,” I said.

With a smile she added, “I finished it at 2:00 this morning.”

Now, that’s good!

Let’s say you don’t like a book. There are many things to criticize, language, plot, character development, exposition, dialogue, and so on. You might temper your criticism, knowing people like different things. There are award-winning authors whose work I find unreadable: ridiculous plots, wandering exposition, info dumps to fill pages, and so on. Guess what? It doesn’t stop millions of people from buying their books. My opinion is just that: an opinion.

When people ask if I like these authors, I try to be diplomatic. I never say, “It’s a terrible book,” or “He couldn’t write his way out of a well-lighted room.”

A friend who reviews books always puts her criticisms in terms of personal preference. “If you don’t mind a plot that doesn’t stand up to close examination, this book is fun.”

What if there are mistakes in a book?

It happens. I estimate that between editors, beta readers, and others, at least 14 people read the text of my first book and missed one misspelling of sandal (not to mention the dozens of times I read it myself!)

So do you tell the author when you find a mistake? If the book has been on the market more than a month, you can assume someone already has. There are people who looooooove pointing out mistakes, real and imagined. I had a reader write to ask me why I named a Tudor character Charles, since the name “wasn’t in use in England at the time.” Hmmm, what about Charles Brandon, Henry the Eighth’s good buddy? Another reader questioned my use of the word dollar, claiming it wasn’t a Tudor word, but a search of the dictionary reveals that dollar was a slang term for a crown. Lesson: Make certain you’re right before you start sending messages.

If a mistake is real, the author needs to know. There might be later editions in which it can be fixed. If you must mention it, be polite and don’t imply the author is an idiot because she missed it. Yes, it might make you feel really smart, but remember, our books are our children. We know they have faults, but we resent it when you make a big fuss about how ugly they are.


cncbooks said...

Ahh, mistakes, what a sticky wicket. I try to take the path of pointing out that "there are a few construction errors that didn't really affect my enjoyment of the story" because I don't want to make a big deal about it but believe I owe it to others to let them know in case they're true purists. I figure my mild complaint is better than the really nasty review such people might leave later if they've had no warning.

My real dilemma is wondering what to do when the book is littered with errors and it's not just a matter of spellcheck run amok. I'm angsting over one right now that could have been a strong story but all the poor editing caused so many distractions that I was constantly pulled out of the story. The worst of it is this is a friend who has multiple publications and he KNOWS better. I don't know how I'm going to handle this but I have to decide soon. Oh, woe is me.

Fortunately, Peg, I can't say that this has ever been a problem with your books ;-)

Lelia Taylor

Author Peg Herring said...

I don't envy reviewers for that very reason, Lelia! My sophomores, asked to edit each other's work, always found a spelling error or two and said something like, "Very good."
It isn't that simple for reviewers, who owe their readership an honest opinion but don't want to crush authors' dreams. Still, I've talked to many self-published writers at my workshops who wish they hadn't "put it out there" with so many errors. Better forewarned than embarrassed!