I’m glad you’re here! The connection between us is a special one. A writer exposes him or herself when they write. Who was it who said that no-one ever wrote a novel that was not autobiographical? Having a stranger read your work is a bit like letting them into your bedroom to rummage through your drawers. This post is meant to help our relationship by looking at what writers do, what readers do, and making a few suggestions so we can continue to enjoy each other’s company.
Do we need readers?
It seems odd now, but when I started writing I wasn’t much bothered whether anybody read my work or not. Yes, it would be nice to turn out a blockbuster that won prizes and topped the best seller lists, but really it was that I wanted to see if I could complete a book. I’d done a degree in English, when I’d dissected and studied plenty of novels. Could I write one myself? Could I sustain a story and develop characters over three hundred pages or more? I tried, and when I’d finished my novel it suddenly became important to me to have people read it. And of course, I wanted to know what they thought.
Family and friends always like what you write. I mean, they’re not going to tell you your baby’s ugly, are they? So for objective opinions pretty soon a writer has to go further afield. That means your book has to be put in public places where readers can get hold of it and leave their judgments – which are also public.
Ratings ratings ratings
The first thing browsers will see is how many people have rated it and the average number of stars they’ve given it. Thank goodness, the ratings system is skewed towards the positive. Of the 5 stars available, only one option, a single star, means the readers thinks the book awful. The others range from 2 stars (OK), through 3 (enjoyable), to 4 stars (great) and 5 stars (brilliant). Most readers, bless ‘em, award 3 stars or more. Their responses are honest, impartial and show the reader’s reaction to the work, and that’s helpful.
Reviews are important
Even more helpful than ratings are reviews. Like all writers, I’m very grateful to those readers who take the time and trouble to write something about my work. That includes those who don’t give me as many stars as I think I deserve(!). An author’s job is to communicate. Nobody sets out to write rubbish, so if a reader responds negatively it means that communication has failed. The author has failed to get across the ideas/views/impressions/effects they were aiming for. It’s essential for a writer to know when this happens, and even better if the reader/reviewer can give some pointers as to why. Similarly, when things work it helps the writer to know what they’ve done well. I write reviews myself, which appear on my Goodreads page, on Amazon, and also here on my website.
Suggestions for readers/reviewers
- Please don’t assume that what a character thinks is the same as what the author thinks. For example, one reviewer took me to task because in Paradise Girl one of my characters (Kerryl’s mother) says that Muslim women wear the hijab because ‘their religion makes them do it.’ Now I know that’s not true – head covering is a cultural thing, nothing to do with the Quran. I was writing what the woman I’d created said, not what I think, because that remark was consistent with her character; in fact it was based on an actual conversation I overheard. That’s not the same as expressing my own view. It’s surprising how often this happens
- Please don’t base your judgement of the book on whether you like or dislike a character. I recently read a book where the heroine is a total bitch (The Girl Who Cried Wolf). I didn’t like her and couldn’t find any saving grace in her. I was tempted to lower my rating, but Bella James, the author, had drawn her very well – consistently and convincingly – and the book was well written. So I gave it 5 stars, despite it’s obnoxious protagonist. Please concentrate on the skill (or lack of it) with which author has portrayed the character. I mean, you wouldn’t dock stars from The Merchant of Venice just because you don’t like Shylock, would you?
- Please do put your review aside for a day before posting it. Sometimes a hasty judgement works in the writer’s favour, sometimes not, but things often seem different when you come back to them and it may be a more honest (and therefore more helpful) view after a bit of reflection.
- Please do contact the writer if you have questions or if there are things you’d like to have explained. Almost all writers can be contacted through Goodreads, and many of us have websites and publish our email addresses. You might have to wait a long time for a reply from one of the big names, but the rest of us aren’t so busy (!) and we love discussing our work with our readers.
Memos to self – lessons for a writer
- Paradise Girl came out last February. I waited on tenterhooks for my first ratings and reviews. The opening bunch were overwhelmingly positive – 4 and 5 stars – in fact I’m pleased to say they still are. However, there inevitably came a day when I got a 2 star review. I felt as though I’d been kicked! It seemed that all the great reviews didn’t matter and it was just this one that counted! The first lesson, then, is to remember that you can’t please all the people all the time, and some people either just won’t get what you do, or if they do they won’t like it. Look at some of the big hitters, writers you admire. You’ll be surprised how many low ratings they’ve been given.
- The second lesson is ‘don’t answer back’. Soon after that 2 star rating another reader criticised my book. I didn’t agree with what she said (obviously!) but I thought she’d made some interesting points that were worth discussing, so I messaged her on Goodreads. Another reader (not the original reviewer) took umbrage at this and castigated me, saying I had no right to reply and doing so I’d ‘broken the contract between reader and writer’. Well, if I had it’s a contract that’s been broken at every literary festival I’ve attended, which surely exist partly so readers and writers can talk together. However, better to be safe and avoid responding, even if there seems to be something worth exploring.
Every writer is flattered and honoured when people take the time and trouble to read their work – or they should be. Even more so if the reader takes the trouble to write a review, either praising the book or helping the author by suggesting things they could have done better (and sometimes a bit of both). So thank you, readers. Without you most of us writers wouldn’t exist.