Showing posts with label review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label review. Show all posts

20 March 2017

Bad Review Blues

by Steve Liskow

Many years ago, when I could fit my theater resume on a matchbook, a local director asked me to produce his next play. He had years of experience so I thought I'd learn a lot from him, and I was right. Alas, when the play opened, we received a review that shredded the show inch by bloody inch. when I calmed down enough to read it with an open mind, I realized that the critic pointed out several bad choices we had made--updating the play made the mindset of the characters anachronistic, for example--and supported his opinions with facts and quotes. I learned more about theater from that bad review than I'd learned in the past year from friends and family telling me how wonderful I was.

Jump ahead thirty years...


A few months ago, someone on a writing group list complained about receiving a bad review for one of her books, and several other members of the group commiserated. They suggested reasons for the reviewer's bad opinion ranging from stupidity to prejudice about the genre to anger about the results of the November election. I didn't read the book, and what's even more interesting, I didn't get the impression that any of the dozen or so people who responded did either.

Even though I didn't read the book, the review struck me as possibly accurate because it included specific examples and passages. It also reminded me of a comment Chris Offutt made at the Wesleyan Writers Conference when I attended it: A hand-holding group is not really a group. It's a club.

You can learn more from a bad review than you can from a good one--assuming the review is legit and you're willing to polish your craft, both of which I admit are iffy.

Long-time agent Peter Riva wrote in Publisher's Weekly a few months ago that Amazon reviews are useless, and I'm willing to agree with him. If you're interested, here's a link to the article:


I get few reviews on Amazon so maybe this whole discussion is moot, but bad reviews aren't the end of the world. It that's all it takes to ruin your day, you need to get out more often. Let's look at the whole pie.

If you're a writer, you are selling your books. You're no different from a baker, tailor, carpenter, car mechanic or anyone else who provides goods or services for pay. If someone buys your product, they have the right to expect quality and also have the right to complain if they don't believe they got it. You should look at their complaint and learn why they're dissatisfied. Maybe their reasoning is weak or they misunderstood something, but you need to make sure. If they do have a reasonable case, you need to do better next time.


Restaurants come and go, and there are only three reasons for this: bad location, bad food or bad service. The first one is unalterable, but the others can be fixed. If many people say the fish is overcooked or they waited a long time for someone to take their order, the restaurant needs to do better. If they don't the word will get around and people will go elsewhere for that fish. It's the same with clothing, plumbers, tune-ups or books. Critics--the few who remain--are supped to help people spend their entertainment dollars wisely, so if they don't like a film, play, CD or book, they will say so. They should explain why (not), too.

This is where writers miss the gifts in a bad review. What they do well will never keep them from succeeding. When someone points out something they (read, "you") do poorly, they're doing you a favor. They're showing you what you need to fix. 

Granted, Riva's comments about useless reviews are easy to support. No one-sentence review is worth the second it takes to read it. No review that lacks details or examples can tell anyone anything. The more details and examples, the more valuable that review might be. 

Ignore the five-star reviews. That's easy for me, and you already know you're wonderful. But if you get a three-star review or lower, read it and see why the person gave you that score. If there's no reason or it doesn't match their details, ignore it. But if they offer details, maybe even quoting a passage or discussing a character, they're showing you how to improve your writing.

Don't worry about the idiots who give you one star because you write romance and they don't like romance. That just means you shouldn't offer more free downloads. Ditto if they don't like profanity and your characters curse a lot. That's their effing problem, not yours. 

But if someone points out that your character's behavior is inconsistent or hard to explain, maybe you should think about it. If they say they can't follow your plot because the events don't seem to lead from one to another, consider that, too. If someone says that she's never heard anyone speak the way your character does (Clockwork Orange is an exception), you need to write better dialogue.

Put simply, a review is a beta reader. It comes too late to help this book, but if someone points out something you do poorly, you owe it to yourself, your craft and your future sales to do it better next time.

When I send an MS to a beta reader, I tell them "I don't care what you like. Tell me everything that bothers, confuses, or upsets you, no matter how minor, even down to the type font. If they say something positive, I skim over it because I don't need to fix it.

But the beta reader who told me that Run Straight Down had "too much description and teacher routine in the first chapter" saved me from a bad review saying the same thing. Explanations and back-story belong later, after the plot and conflict gain some momentum. The Night Has 1000 Eyes made one beta reader say, "I wonder if this scene would have more impact if you put it in the other character's point of view."

Those comments helped me make the books better. What could I have done with "Gee, this is really great and I love your writing"?

Yeah, good reviews make us feel good, but they don't spur us to improve. I think I know my main weakness and I'm still trying to make those less visible, but someone has to remind me about them, preferably beta readers instead of reviewers.

If you don't want to get better, why are you writing in the first place?

04 October 2014

Voyage of Strangers

by John M. Floyd

Writing this week's column was a special treat for me--mostly because it required me to first read the new novel by my friend and former Saturday blog-sister Elizabeth Zelvin. I've read many of Liz's short stories--I even included one of them in a mystery anthology for which I served as the editor several years ago--so I already knew her stories were outstanding. Now, I'm greatly pleased to report that this novel is excellent as well.

The following is a review I plan to post at Amazon.com next week, and I hope it adequately conveys the pleasure I got from the novel and provides an incentive for others to enjoy it also. Well done, Liz!

A journey of discovery

In her latest novel, Voyage of Strangers (Lake Union Publishing, 2014), Elizabeth Zelvin has done the seemingly impossible: she's written an educational and often factual fictional account of early searches for gold and trade routes in uncharted lands while providing nonstop suspense and entertainment throughout. It's sort of a pleasant cross between the textbook-like historical knowledge of a James A. Michener novel and the edge-of-your-seat thrills of an Indiana Jones adventure.

At the start of the book, young Diego Mendoza is one of the members of Christopher Columbus's 1492-1493 expedition to discover and explore the lands across the ocean to the west. He is thrilled to have been included but is also a bit terrified by the perils of this unknown world. (Who wouldn't be?) Soon after Columbus's fleet finds the Indies and begins building settlements there, Diego accompanies Columbus back to Spain, where Diego and his twelve-year-old sister Rachel face dangers as grave as those he saw across the sea: they are both Jewish, and this is the time of the Inquisition. As Columbus prepares for a second voyage, Diego realizes that the only way to protect his impulsive and sometimes reckless sister is to watch over her himself, and when the expedition finally sails Rachel comes along, disguised as a cabin boy called Rafael and serving as a scribe to Admiral Columbus. New threats await them, of course, both at sea and in the jungles and newly-established outposts of what Columbus has named Hispaniola.

One of the best things about this book is that it's not the New World discovery story that we learned about in school. This time the noble Columbus shows a dark side, in that his most important goal is to fill the coffers of his king and queen with the treasures he's certain he will find in these unspoiled and primitive lands. As a result he allows the enslaving and brutalization of the native Taino tribe. Since we readers witness all this through the eyes of Diego and Rachel, we see the cruelty of the Christian invaders and the terrible plight of the conquered as well as the stunning beauty of the area now known as the Caribbean.

What makes this book so outstanding, though, is not its setting or its realism or even the lessons it teaches. Its main strength lies in its wonderfully complex characters. Some of them, like King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, are real historical figures, but the most memorable come from Zelvin's imagination: Diego, Rachel, their aunt Marina, the evil Cabrera, the islander Hutia, and many others among the priests, natives, and seamen. These are people you'll remember long after you finish the novel. My favorite by far is Rachel, the delightful, fiery, compassionate young lady who longs to see the world and then realizes that in order to survive she must change and adapt--and grow up quickly.

I have a theory about why the novels and short stories of Elizabeth Zelvin always include such interesting and believable players. It's because she is herself a psychotherapist, and has probably seen every character quirk possible. She doesn't have to imagine some of these things, as most authors do; she's seen them and knows firsthand what makes people act the way they do and say the things they say. The application of this kind of knowledge and experience has never been more evident than in her new novel. Voyage of Strangers is a winner.

About the author:

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist and author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series, which started with Death Will Get You Sober and so far includes three novels, a novella, and five short stories. Liz's short stories have been nominated three times for the Agatha Award and for the Derringer Award. They have appeared several times in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (in press), and in a variety of anthologies and e-zines. Voyage of Strangers, her first historical novel, is the sequel to the Agatha-nominated mystery short story "The Green Cross." Liz's only explanation for how she came to write about the aftermath of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the genocide of the Taino is that her protagonist, the young marrano sailor Diego, woke her up in the middle of the night, beating on the inside of her head and demanding that she tell his story.


As well as fiction, Liz has written two books of poetry, a professional book about gender and addictions along with numerous professional articles, and an album of original songs, Outrageous Older Woman. She works with clients on her online therapy site, LZcybershrink.com. Her author website is elizabethzelvin.com and her music website is lizzelvin.com. She is currently working on the sequel to Voyage of Strangers, which takes Diego to the Ottoman Empire and to Sao Tome, a remote island off the coast of Africa.

Liz, thanks again for a great read. I can't wait for the sequel!

09 December 2012

The Woo-Woo Farm

by Leigh Lundin

save your life

trim your tree

kangaroo down

get you sober

help leave him

extend vacation
This past week, I've been reading Elizabeth Zelvin's Death Will Save Your Life, one of her Bruce Kohler Death Will… series. Not having read Elizabeth before, I wasn't prepared for the fast, snappy, almost furiously funny story.

Let me put it this way— If you're aware the three main recurring characters– best friends– are either recovering alcoholics or co-dependents and you know the author is a very serious top flight New York psychotherapist, those preconceptions may set you up for, well, sober expectations. And you'd be wrong.

Published by booksBnimble, the feel is witty with an ambience between cosy and chick-lit, at least if the latter allowed male main characters. Originally intended to be a novel, the author slimmed, trimmed, and streamlined the tale to novella length, enhancing its bright and light drollery.

The story takes place in what New Yorkers call 'the country', meaning upstate at a new age retreat named the Aquarius Institute but referred to by the cynical as the Woo-Woo Farm. Yep, I side with the cynical.
Crystal Mary

We interrupt this programming with an aside. An acquaintance, Crystal Mary, would fit in well with the farm. To outsiders, she's a strident psychic feminist lesbian, a Premie, a believer in all things paranormal, and a psychosomatic practitioner of new-age healing. Friends worry when she follows guru Prem Rawat to India and Australia without seeing the sights and that she spends too much on phony gadgets to ward off nasal scoliosis and electrical appliance radiation burns. Privately, she enjoys art, collects beautiful healing crystals, and confesses lesbianism isn't sealed in stone. Mary would fit right in the Woo-Woo Farm.

Underlying the humor, the author's command of dialogue is superb, possibly a listening skill developed in her psychotherapist profession. Zelvin's dialogue is at its best when she does banter. I especially enjoy the patter between the main characters.

And those protagonists are fun. Bruce prays the vegetarians haven't screwed up breakfast and his friends advise him to take the line to the right– the left one is all veggie. Just my kind of people.

Bruce's friend Barbara talks a mile-a-minute while driving, oblivious to the outside world. She seems to glide among other characters like an Indian scout through a forest. She makes us smile when she criticizes another woman for her 'thin shiksa thighs'. Husband Jimmy is her anchor in a positive sense.

The book slips in a wide variety of conversational detours from flowers and foods to subtle references of kinkiness. And for the romance-minded, the story, er, lays a foundation for that too.

The author manages to murder two victims, both with remarkably unpleasant dispositions. This follows the tradition of cosies where we don't much mind liquidating odious characters. If it weren't that good people could be falsely indicted, we might be willing to give the murderer a pass.

The detective on the case, while not a bad guy, isn't exactly a fine fellow either. Of course being a good guy isn't his job, but he gets under the skins of our three intrepid sleuths.

There are a raft of suspects– literally. The baddie– well, can't tell you that except to say you wouldn't want to swim with this perpetrator.

I've offered Elizabeth my own title in the series: Death Will Get You Laid (to Rest) That oughta sell!

Rating: lots of stars. When you're up for a light, fast and funny read, pick up Death Will Save Your Life by Elizabeth Zelvin. It will make your day.