QUESTION from the e-mail: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Recently I finished my first book and got it published. Like most, I tried to promote it by getting book reviews. I got several three and four-star reviews, but many of the reviewers had a lot of negative things to say, too. Sure, they praise my story. They all like the action and suspense. But then they complain about my commas, and my “point of view,” and my characters all talking alike. I went to college. I got good grades on all my term papers, so I ought to know a little about how to write. This negative stuff is hard to hear. Half the time, I don’t even know what they’re talking about. How can there be “too many semi-colons?” You use them when they’re needed, right? Maybe I should just forget about this whole thing.
ANSWER: Good reviewers almost always talk about both the positive and negative aspects of a book. If they don’t, they are usually friends of the author who go and place a glorious, 5-star review just for friendship’s sake. So first thing I know from what you said is that these are “good, honest, unbiased” reviews, not the kind you pay for. They looked for things to pick on as well as nice things to say. That’s “fair and balanced” and tells folks right away that your reviewers are being honest with their praise. Every first novel gets hit hard by reviewers. You should look up some of the early reviews on people like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Having said that, no less an authority than Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., has advised fiction writers to avoid semi-colons. He says they’re “just showing off,” and he may be right. In term papers, the goal is to sound “scholarly” and authoritative. In fiction, the goal is to create a vivid experience for the reader. One of the best things any writer can do is not to let the words get between the reader and the action. I read a submission recently where the writer had used every fancy word he could think of — almost as if he had gone through the thesaurus and picked out every fancy synonym he could find. It was distracting. Worse, one became so preoccupied with the words (I picked up the dictionary more than once), that the story got lost. From what you said above, you have done well with the suspense and action and the reviewers all enjoyed the experience you created. So don’t let the negative stuff get to you. Instead, think maybe they were trying to tell you something and learn from it. Look at the grammar guide in the back of your dictionary and read the section on commas. Look up some articles on viewpoint. If you have a writers’ group, bring these things up for discussion. And when you listen to their advice, remember they are all still learning, too. I taught writing for more than 20 years. No one learns everything there is to know, and then starts out to write. It’s a lifelong learning experience. The more you do it, the better you get at it. Simple as that. Also, the rules for fiction are definitely different than for exposition. In fiction you need to write dialogue, and write it so it sounds like people talking back and forth — not stilted or preachy, or awkward. It’s okay to use poor grammar or cliches, in dialogue, if your character does. The character’s word choices are part of who he is. Using vernacular was widely condemned by reviewers when Mark Twain first did it. They ridiculed him up, down, and sideways. They assumed because Huck Finn said, “We was fishing,” that Twain knew no better. In later editions, he put a disclaimer in the beginning of the book, just so they’d know it was done on purpose. Later, vernacular became a popular device and was widely overdone in the years between 1920 and 1950. Readers, today, don’t have the patience to fill in all those missing g’s and such. But the rhythm of the speech may very well be different with characters from different places, or different levels of education, or different backgrounds. Viewpoint was the hardest lesson I ever had to learn as a writer. I have posted on my blog about it before. It was doubly difficult because many best-selling authors — authors whose books I admired — ignored that rule altogether. Once I understood it, I found that some of them changed viewpoint in the middle of a sentence. First, you learn the rules, then you decide when to break them. The main thing is not to do it unintentionally. Many new writers drop the viewpoint ball a time or two. I know I did. The good news is readers won’t notice. The bad news is, good reviewers always will. So my advice is to cut yourself some slack. If there are things you don’t know yet, then make it your business to learn about them. With writing, as with anything else, practice makes perfect. Don’t beat yourself up because of the criticism. Go write another book.
[Editor’s note: Need help finding 1-star reviews of classic literature? Ed McNally’s got a bunch for you right here.]
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Arline Chase became a publisher at Write Words, Inc. on Jan. 1, 2000. She is an award-winning author, journalist, teacher, and mentor to authors all over the world. Arline is a long-time member of the International Women’s Writing Guild and has led workshops at their conferences as well as workshops and panels at Malice Domestic and other writers conferences. She is a member of the Author’s Guild, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of American and the Eastern Shore Writers’ Association. You can learn more about Arline on her website and her Amazon.com Author’s Page.
A version of this post appeared on her blog at Write Words/Arline Chase on January 31, 2012