Let’s talk about book reviews on Amazon.com.

I’ve published two novels, both of which have been reviewed around twenty times each on Amazon, and I’ll be the first to admit that most of those reviews were written by people I know. The reason I know this is because I asked them to write the reviews. In some cases I begged. The idea being that perhaps I could somehow influence the purchasing decision of the odd person who happened across one of my novels online.

Then again, any cogent book reader probably knows we authors do this. If your novel boasts twenty five-star reviews but checks in as Amazon’s 454,361st best-selling book, some of those reviews were probably written by your sister or your mother or friends who are also writers. So who knows how much this fakery really helps?

I just tallied the reviews of those two novels, removing the biased ones, and arrived at an average of 3.4 stars. Actually, that was the exact result for each book, so I’d say, even considering the small sample size, 3.4 out of 5 is a fairly accurate assessment of my novel-writing skill as of book #2. Which I realize isn’t quite passing. It’s a grade of 68 out of 100, and I can do better. In the intervening time, I have done better. At least I think I have. Most of my manuscript-reading friends also think so. But these are the same people who flooded my Amazon pages with those dubious five-star ratings, so maybe they are full of shit.

I always tell people I’d rather know what doesn’t work in a book than what does. Which sounds honorable, but it’s not entirely true. When I’m having a bad day, when I’m ready to throw in the towel and move to Brazil and sing Portuguese love songs to underage girls, I like to pull out the glowing reviews so I can soak them up like sunshine. They give me hope. They motivate me to keep writing. But in the end, if I’m going to produce a book better than the last, I have to understand what I’m good at what I’m not. So please don’t pull punches. Tell me what you didn’t like. I can take it.

But wait. I was just on Amazon a few minutes ago, checking out a novel I might want to buy, so naturally I looked at the reviews. It’s not the sort of thing I would normally read, but in this case I thought it would be helpful for research. And, like most books on Amazon, the lion’s share of reviews are positive. But…


Take a look at the titles of some less-favorable reviews:

“Good idea, bad writing.”

“Absolutely Awful.”

“A Waste of Money!”

Hard to believe prose this inept could be published.”


“Put it down.”

“If you like clichés.”


“Waste of time.”

And that’s just from the first page of 1-star reviews. Here are some quotes from the actual reviews themselves:

You wouldn’t think that a book about [premise] would be boring and unreadable but if you read this book you’ll change your mind. The scenes are like ones from a [subject] comic, the characters never seem real or interesting and the writing is so bad that at first I thought I had somehow downloaded a joke version. No proofreaders or editors touched this book!

And then the first time I came across the phrases “could of”, “must of” and “should of” it was so jarring I couldn’t believe it escaped the editor’s notice. But then, being generous, I thought perhaps it was the writer’s way of demonstrating a local dialect. Except every character used it, including the narrator. Bad editing!

The writing style is so sophomoric that it boggles the mind to think that anyone would consider this a well-written book. I am half-way through book and about to give up. The writing style reminds me of books I used to read as an early teenager. However, this subject matter is much too important to be presented on this low level of writing.I cannot recommend it for any occasion – not for airport reading, bathroom reading, nor especially for anyone who wants to take it seriously. The clichés run rampant and the characters are cardboard.

I’m not passing judgment on the book. Maybe it appeals to one type of reader and not another. What I want to know is how you can wake up every morning and make a cup of coffee and then watch people take your work apart at that level of detail.

The book was a moderately successful bestseller, so I suppose the way you live with it is by cashing the royalty checks. Or you could just not read reviews at all. But when I scrolled through pages and pages of commentary, I noticed the author spends a lot of time responding to the negative reviews, defending himself as an educated man and the author of over forty books. He also blames the egregious grammatical mistakes on an assistant editor who was fired.

Clearly the author cares very much about what readers think about his work, especially the ones who hated it. And yet he defiantly plugs away, enduring the criticism, confident his naysayers have no clue what they’re talking about. You have to respect a guy fortified with enough built-in insulation to take that kind of daily beating. I’m not sure I could.

You know, come to think of it, he kind of reminds me of Wade Phillips.

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RICHARD COX is the author of The Boys of Summer, Thomas World, The God Particle, and Rift. He can be reached on Facebook or at his personal web site, www.richardcox.net.

121 responses to “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”

  1. I can totally respect a man setting out to set the record straight, as he sees it. I’m also very curious to see what happens as a result of this post being tagged ‘underage Brazilian girls’.

  2. Matt says:

    Rule #1 of dealing with an internet comment board: DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS. Even if you’re the one who went and served them a scrumptious meal in the first place.

    Because the fact stands, even if you write a brilliant book, it’s not going to please everybody, and you just can’t spend your time trying to put out every fire someone lights, especially on the internet.

    While it might in fact be an associate editor’s fault, my personal take on this is that the writer in question shouldn’t have been relying on the editors to correct everything. It’s his name that goes on the cover of the final product, not theirs.

    Like Simon, I too eagerly await what happens with the Brazilian girls. Especially your attempts to sing to them.

    • Richard Cox says:

      All I could think about was if Dan Brown sat at his computer and responded to every negative review for The Da Vinci Code. Judging by the reviews, that’s a love-it-or-hate-it novel, and he would still be responding.

      I just bought a book on Portuguese. I’ll let you know how the language learning goes. From jail.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Matt — Well put. Agree on all points.

      Richard — It’s not love-it-or-hate-it. It’s hate it or not know any better.

    • Gloria says:

      Very well said, Matt.

      People who have made up their mind about something should just be left alone, unless they’ve made up their mind to launch a nuclear war, which is almost never the case.

  3. zoe b says:

    I think you SHOULD move to Brazil and sing songs to not-quite underage girls. You can still write in between duets. Besides, the Amazon is there too, no?

  4. Greg Olear says:

    More later, but I love the Wade Phillips joke.

  5. I don’t know that I’ve ever read the Amazon reviews. They’re so far down the page. I usually see the title, read the editorial blurb mid-page, read the first page or two of the book in the excerpt, and then go from there. Usually “go from there” means “buy it for a penny from the marketplace.” Unless I know the author, somehow, in which case I skip over the editorial blurb and excerpt parts but not the penny bit.


    Because I mistrust both the good reviews and the bad. I mistrust the good reviews not because I think they’re gamed by the authors’ friends but rather because I generally don’t trust the taste of the general public. The bad reviews are usually full of bad grammar, spelling errors, and egregious typos, but so are the positive reviews. Add to that the fact that most people disparage my taste as too frivolous in the first place, mainly because I prefer stories in which stuff happens, and really, whose opinion would I trust anyway?

    Then again, I’m also the author of a self-published collection which has done the rounds, so I know from both sides. The reviews it’s gotten have ranged from better-than-glowing to condemning-with-faint-praise to damning-without-the-praise-part, while the comments have ranged from fawning to outright hostile. People have set up fake profiles across several different sites. But me? I just try to keep writing, keep my eye on the ball and my head in the game, and usually that means the next story/book/essay/project.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Well, yes, how can you trust any review? Including the professional ones? All you have to do is look at some highly anticipated but horrible bestsellers to know that a lot of those reviews are suspect.

      Regarding the book I wrote about above, I must say the negative reviews are by and large well-written. Far more so than the positive reviews. They’re also more self-aware about literature in general. And there is a sense of real anger that an author (or publisher) would insult their intelligence by expecting the public to pay for and read what they considered unprofessional drivel.

      As for your taste in literature, you and I have gone around and around about this since the heyday of MySpace. I used to have pretty much the same take on this as you, a point of view I took directly from Stephen King, which is “Fuck you, snobs!” That said, once I began reading more of what could be considered contemporary “serious” literature, I began to understand my own work better. You would likely say I peaked with Rift, but I far prefer my writing now to then. The problem is, when you’re trying to grow as a writer, to write a little more seriously while retaining the suspense you’re already fairly good at, you might go backward before you go forward. Consider this quote from King:

      “When I was young, I used to think it should be easy to wed popular fiction with literary fiction. But as time went by and I got older, I began to realize how difficult it really is. I began to realize how many people are so set against it.”

      And they aren’t just set against it. It’s hard. But it can be done. They are plenty of respected, serious works of literature “in which stuff happens.” You just have to lower your defenses a bit to see them.

      • “You would likely say I peaked with Rift

        Oh, Heavens no. I mean, I liked Rift, yes. Loved it, in fact. But I still liked The God Particle a whole helluva lot for its ambition; it really sought something.

        Regardless of both, however, I expect many more great books from you, Richard. And can’t wait to read them.

        All that said, I see your point re: fiction and King and etc. I’ve never thought popular and great were mutually exclusive; I always loved Crichton and early King and early Koontz. I grew up never realizing there was such a thing as genre besides really cool books and not-so-cool books, and I’ll admit most of the books I thought weren’t so cool I saw as boring. Since then my tastes have changed and I’ve broken away from my comfort zones, and especially since I’ve started to read more writers who try harder to accomplish more.

  6. Slade Ham says:

    I’m not sure how you could NOT read your own reviews. I can’t take my eyes off anything they write about me, good or bad. It’s a drug. Ignoring them is a noble goal, but anyone who says they do is lying.

    We’re artists. I claim constantly that I don’t care what anyone thinks about anything I do, but I know at my core that that’s total bullshit. I won’t admit that anywhere but here though. Like Will, I try not to put too much stock in the good or the bad, but I HAVE to know what they’re saying.

    It’s contradictory. I want everyone to fall in love with what I do, yet I am completely conscious of the fact that I despise just about everything the masses enjoy.

    I have a thousand psychological tricks I play on myself when I get dissected by anyone, especially the public. I have to. It’s the only way I can talk myself into continuing to throw myself out there. As far as who I will listen to – I have an inner circle of people I put my pride aside for when it comes to where I fall short, and all of them are far better than me at what I am trying to do.

    To get me to listen you have to have already jumped the hurdle you’re judging me for not having cleared.

    • Richard Cox says:

      I know what you mean. Even though I write what I would like to read, topic-wise, and plot-wise, I know my total skill set as a writer doesn’t live up to what I expect to read. Though you already said it more eloquently than me.

      Messed up, isn’t it?

  7. sheree says:

    Maybe some of those distasteful reviews were written by people who also make snide remarks to telemarketers. Just a thought.

    I enjoy your posts here. Unfortunately i’m not interested in the subject matter that you write about in your novels. By all means that doesn’t make you a shitty writer. Novelists rarely ever write a book that pleases the personal tastes of all readers.

    Hope I don’t sound like too much of an ass for saying that.

    • Richard Cox says:

      How rude. I mean, really, Sheree?

      Haha. Of course you’re not an ass. I write much differently on this site than what you would find in my first couple of books. I’ve learned a lot by reading and posting here.

      The next one is somewhat more like this and less like a science thriller. It’s still high concept, but also much more intimate. We’ll see how it goes.

      Also, maybe those distasteful reviews were written by the author’s ex-wife. 😉

      • Gloria says:

        Ha! My ex-husband (and current co-parent) has not yet discovered that I write on here, but I’m bracing for the time that he does.

  8. Greg Olear says:

    The important thing about the Amazon reviews is to have as many as possible, good or bad. Even the one-star drive-bys help, because they are obviously not written by friends of the author. I think once you reach a certain number — and I’m not sure what that number is — it confers a sort of legitimacy on the book. That’s how I perceive it, anyway. In the case of Amazon (and B&N and Goodreads), it’s quantity, not quality, that matter.

    I don’t think it cheapens it to have your friends, or people you know, post reviews. After all, those are the people who will initially read the book. And their opinion is, at least in my experience, representative of a lot of other people who don’t post theirs. For every four- or five-star Amazon review I’ve received, I’ve had at least a dozen people drop me a note on Facebook, or send me an e-mail, or even tell me at the receiving line at my grandmother’s wake how much they enjoyed the book. These are not necessarily my closest friends, and in many cases, they are people I know vaguely (or virtually, through this wonderful web site). They are sincere, in other words. Why should their opinion not count because I went to high school with them, or worked for the same company, or met them through TNB?

    As for bad reviews, well, someone said that Totally Killer was the worst book she’d ever read. Which, I mean, come on. (I posted that on my Facebook fan page, actually, because the only thing you can do in that kind of situation is find the humor).

    Finally, guess who at TNB has the most Amazon reviews of a book? I would have guessed Tao Lin, but no — he has the same 29 that I do (which makes me suspect that the Amazon reviews are probably not all that, because he of all people could run that number up if he so chose). Evison has 49, Brad has 35, but the winner, with an astonishing 84…Ronlyn Domingue. (What we draw from that is that the NYT can be very, very wrong). Ronlyn, in a word, wow. Well done.

    • Totally Killer the worst book this woman has ever read? Has she not read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees? Holy mother of pearl that novel is horrible and apparently it has a sequel… which involves going on the Oprah show, according to my former professor who made us read this book in her seminar.

      Totally Killer is totally killer. Anybody that says otherwise, well, they probably don’t know the lyrics to “American Music” by Violent Femmes or “Backwater” by Meat Puppets either. And you know what I say to those people? I have no idea. Somebody help me out.

    • Irene Zion says:


      The person who wrote that bad review has no taste.
      I have taste.
      I loved “Totally Killer.”
      Nuff said.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Your point about the number of reviews is valid. I bet you could work out a fairly accurate equation to guess a book’s sales by its number of reviews, assuming a certain threshold of reviews. And it’s true that you can’t simply invalidate the reviews of people who know you. I chose to do so in this case to examine what a completely unbiased view of my books might look like. But even then, there could be biases I’m not aware of. It’s mainly a thought experiment.

      If you’re interested, Da Vinci Code‘s weighted average is 3.5.

    • Ronlyn Domingue says:

      As I read the essay, I wondered how many Amazon reviews of mine are by people I know. I remember being “encouraged” to solicit reviews from friends and how surprised I was that this was done. Not that it’s wrong or underhanded…I just didn’t expect it. Call me naive.

      Then, Greg, I saw your comment and was surprised to see my name. I got all neurotic and decided to check. I can confirm four of the Amazon reviews are from people I know personally. I think I’d get a “fail” from those who wanted me to get more. Thanks for your kudos. The horrible NYT review turned out to be a gift in the end. Who knew?

      And you are totally right—many people will tell you they liked your book but never post reviews. The personal notes and conversations are profoundly meaningful.

      For the record, congrats on your 29 reviews! Embrace!

      • Greg Olear says:

        You can’t fake 84, that’s for sure, and your average 4.5 star rating indicates to me that the Paper of Record pulled a Judith Miller with respect to your book.

        It really does have a life of its own. I still can’t wrap my brain around the fact that people I don’t know have read my book.

        • Richard Cox says:

          84 is awesome. I’d say that Times review helped.

          “I still can’t wrap my brain around the fact that people I don’t know have read my book.”

          They spent a few evenings entertaining themselves with words you sweated and agonized over for years, probably talking about it to their friends, maybe looking you up online if they happened to really enjoy it.

          Surreal, isn’t it?

        • Ronlyn Domingue says:

          Richard, “surreal” is the word I was going to use, too. Although the psychedelic quality has become more dreamlike within the past year or two.

        • Greg Olear says:

          I found out later that the person who called my book the worst of all time had read TK for a book club, where it was discussed (and torn to pieces) by the participants. For some reason, that made me feel better about the whole thing. My book at a book club? Wow.

        • jonathan evison says:

          so, greg, i’ve been doing one or two book clubs a week for a year– and for the first time ever last week, i had a group of haters . . .i mean, these women hated ME–it was terrifying . . . i drank all their beer and got the fuck out of there . . .couldn’t sleep that night trying to figure out why they hated me so much . . . but then, last night, i did a group of twenty of the sweetest little old ladies– they all hugged me goodbye . . . they had little pigs-in-blankets for me!

        • Greg Olear says:

          One or two a week? You amaze me, man. I sent out some feelers about that, but I don’t even know how to get started.

          But it stands to reason that somebody would hate you eventually. I mean, people hate Salinger. But at least you got some free brews out of it.

        • jonathan evison says:

          oh man, i needed those beers (they were bass, too–yummy) . . . i’m fortunate to live in an island community which has 30 book clubs . . .the word of mouth is rampant . . .

          . . . a few last notes on amazon: while amazon goes a long way in terms of creating consumer perception, kindle aside (and i’m loathe to believe they’re actually selling at 5 to 8– i’ll believe it when i see my royalty statement), amazon probably accounts for less than 5% of retail sales . . . let’s bump it up to 20% with kindle for the sake or argument . . . the real reason amazon has such a big market share is their long-tail backlist . . .they stock virtually every title ever printed, so there footprint is big . . . as for rankings, it’s pretty much statistical noise over 200,000, and nothing over 2,000 speaks to any substantial volume in terms of sales . . . when i first read this post last night, i checked my amazon ranking and it was somewhere around 431,000 . . . twelve hours later, right before i wrote this, i was at 69,000 . . .i probably sold two or three books, big deal . . .christ, i could do that myself, if i wanted (not a good strategy financially) . . . so, my advice to you amazon watchers, if your ranking is going down, buy two of your books, wait two hours, and you’ll feel better . . .

        • jonathan evison says:

          . . .and you know who probably bought those two or three copies? those sweet little old ladies from the book club last night who made me the pigs-in-blankets . . .

        • Richard Cox says:

          You’re absolutely right about the Amazon sales rank. The main thing I like about Amazon is the visibility. If your book does start to sell better, you can see it easier than waiting to hear from the publisher. And the direct feedback from readers, despite whatever jokes I made about it above, is great. But yeah, jumping from 450,000 to 200,000 is selling one copy.

        • jonathan evison says:

          see, i get bookscan numbers anytime i want, even regional sales breakdowns, weekly, year-to-date, etc. for any title i want . . . i’ve found that bookscan is great for tracking trends, but the numbers are a little whacky at times . . . neilsen claims that bookscan represents roughly 70% of retail sales, but in certain cases the percentage is much lower– like in the case with lulu, where she sold a ton in the hudson airport stores, who didn’t report to bookscan prior to jan 1, 09 . . . and they don’t reflect event sales or institutional sales . . . but you can certainly see trends . . . trying to track sales with amazon as a barometer is tough because of all the statistical noise . . . but the bottom line of course, is just to keep writing and try and stay in print . . . after that first 90 day retail window, you’ve gotta’ keep the heat on one book at a time . . .

        • Greg Olear says:

          I get my first statement in April. Very curious to see how it plays out…

  9. Gloria says:

    I’m totally going to read one of your books now.

  10. Kimberly says:

    In general, I very seldom read reviews about anything. I like to do what I like, despite someone else’s praise or disdain. And if I do, I’m usually only skimming for snark, which, come on, let’s face it – schadenfreude is one of life’s rare delicacies, to be enjoyed with relish!

    Put it in reverse, however, and the sad truth is, bad reviews, or even well-intended “constructive” criticism from the wrong person absolutely devastates me. And I assume very word of praise is a boldface lie. I literally have to physically prepare myself for potential annihilation every single goddamn motherfucking time, which is why so few people (save my trusted inner posse) read things I care about.

    So knowing that, I’m incredibly reticent to offer up a review. (I’m sorry Greg… you’ve flat out asked me at least four times to review Totally Killer, and as much as I love the book, I don’t write reviews. Just can’t do it.) I know what I have to go through when receiving one, and I don’t wish that on anyone.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Four times? Really?

      [hangs head in shame]

      This underscores my point, though — that it’s fine to get reviews from your friends. Because a lot of people have their own reasons for not wanting to do it.

      I know what you mean about the physical preparation business. There were certain reviews that made me sick to my stomach after reading — they tended to contain an overdose of snark, which is, sadly, what passes for criticism in too many places these days.

      A tacit rule of etiquette:

      It’s OK to hurl snark at Dan Brown, who is wealthy and famous, and whose sales will not be impacted by a snarky review. It’s not cool to hurl snark at a first-time novelist no one has heard of and whose future career hinges in no small part on press reception…it’s self-aggrandizing and mean. Oh, and to then take the snark you’ve composed for your newspaper, for which you were paid, and then voluntarily post it on B&N with two measly stars? That makes it personal, and one hopes the karma gods are watching, and that great woe is visited upon her (perhaps in the form of TNB’s resident martial artist, who lives in the same city as said reviewer)..

      That’s the other thing about bad reviews…those are the ones you remember. I’ll be 90 years old on my death bed and I’ll still want to kill that reviewer.

    • Richard Cox says:

      This is something I was going to address in the post but didn’t get around to it. I didn’t ask certain people to write reviews. I would just suggest to my friends and family in general, “Hey, it would be great if you could post something on Amazon for me. I need as many as I can get.” But hardly anyone would. In fact not one person in my family posted one, I don’t think. So then I wrote a blog on MySpace about it once, which was a joke but was also begging for a few other reviews. And still, almost no one did.

      The number one reason I received from people who wouldn’t write a review was that they were embarrassed by their own writing skills. As if I or anyone would critique their critique. Strange.

  11. D.R. Haney says:

    Like you, RichRob, I’ve begged friends to review my book on Amazon, if only because I was told that it would make the book appear “happening” or some such, but very few have complied. Others have posted reviews without prompting, which was, and is, a pleasant surprise. So far, though, no strangers have posted reviews, at Amazon at least. At GoodReads it’s a different story, and I got five-star reviews from most. I was bummed when I got my first three-star rating, though there was no accompanying explanation as to why. However, I clicked on five-star reviews by the same person to get a sense of what she liked, and that clarified a great deal. I would guess that she and Oprah would really get on, book-wise.

    I do read customer reviews for books not my own (as well as for movies and records), but it doesn’t influence what I buy; I read them more for the insight they provide as to how others think and express themselves.

    As to asking for honest criticism, I’m not sure there’s any such thing. Some people dress up the truth without their even knowing it, and others have interfering agendas (jealousy, say) of which they’re partially unconscious, and still others don’t really know what they think while believing they do. Also, one criticism is canceled out by another. I’m guided by a kind of consensus in the end. If I hear something three or four times, I figure it’s an issue, but even then I’m not sure how much there is to be learned from it. For instance, I’ve heard a few times that my book could have been shorter, and a number of readers have complained about disliking the protagonist’s romantic interest. But I like her, just as I like the book at the length that it is. I could’ve gone shorter, but I stand by my decision I made. And I’ve been told by some readers that they were sorry to see the book end, so, you know, who do you choose to believe?

    • Greg Olear says:

      I’ve found that the small flurry of bad reviews came well after the initial, much larger (but still not terribly large) flurry of good ones. So maybe there is some backlash involved.

      The one-star no-reviews on Goodreads…ugh. Remember, though, that the way Goodreads asks people to do the reviews, the stars are based on what they liked, rather than what they thought was good. And there is a distinction. I enjoyed BFL. I also enjoyed Michael Crichton’s Timeline, which is not as good as BFL. But I still enjoyed it. That’s how I’m able to swallow a drive-by on Goodreads. Not everyone will like my book, and that’s how it is.

    • Richard Cox says:

      No strangers? I wouldn’t have expected that.

      I’m the same as you, Duke, in that I look more for trends than I do specific feedback from any one review. Although, I will admit that I take something from almost every conversation I have with readers who have opinions. Even if I don’t change anything based on their feedback, I do learn a little about how other people perceive the work. Taken as a whole, from readers of different backgrounds and reading habits and preferences, you can really get a sense of where your work fits in the cultural landscape, and how you might improve/change the next time you write something.

  12. Becky says:

    Yes, well, why wouldn’t we listen to critic #2 when he’s armed with finely-honed barbs like”low-level writing?” Levels accusations about “cardboard” characters in a sentence that also criticizes an author’s use of cliches?

    See…this sort of thing…

    I’m always annoyed when I see reviews like this. This individual claims to know what good writing is, yet doesn’t seem to use any of the knowledge himself.

    He’s got the lexicon of a college freshman, but he’s trying to use the stilted tone of his stereotype of an art critic. I’m not sure if it’s the writer or the critic in me who is more offended.

    This kind of criticism makes Becky-the-merciless salivate. Becky-the-kind-of-nice-sometimes disapproves, but…this person…I can smell the fear; I can SEE the wobbly legs.

    • Becky says:

      Sorry. That was the third reviewer, I guess.

      • Richard Cox says:

        Now that’s an interesting thought, Becky. Are you not allowed to be offended by (or write a scathing review about) art which you cannot produce yourself? If you appreciate good (and bad) writing, are you not allowed to offer negative feedback if you are not able to effectively write yourself?

        Does this mean I’m not allowed to write a negative review about The Hurt Locker? Because I’m clearly not as good a filmmaker as Bigelow? Or does it mean I’m not allowed to make a film about how I don’t like THL?


        • Becky says:

          Not what I meant at all. Anyone who liked or didn’t like a particular book is perfectly qualified to say they didn’t like it and why and to have their opinions taken seriously, even if they are understood to be subjective.

          But that review in particular was sort of nakedly affected.

          Like, if you want to say, “cliches are rampant” and have that be part of your criticism, don’t follow it with a cliche like “cardboard” characters unless you’re trying to be funny.

          The reason, or the effect for me, anyway, is that it suggests you are using a word like “cliche” without having a very good idea what it actually means or how such a thing manifests in practice. Or that you suffer from an embarrassing lack of self-awareness, suggesting that the self you’re putting out there isn’t you at all.

          In this case, the authoritative voice is very much out of step with the writer’s apparent actual level of literary competence.

          It’s not “don’t criticize anything you couldn’t write yourself,” but “don’t pretend to be more competent than you are.” It’s not necessary, and people can SEE it…or maybe feel it. It’s palpable. It detracts from your credibility and defeats its own purpose. The need to put on airs suggests that you think your opinion isn’t good enough on its own. And if you think your opinion sucks, so do I.

          That sort of thing.

          I don’t think I’m explaining this very well.

          Basically, if you’re not a literary critic, don’t try to sound like one. The clothes don’t fit and you’re tripping all over them. It’s not necessary in order for your opinion to be valid, and you just end up sounding stupid.

          That said, I know so well because I have been guilty of the same thing. Particularly when I was younger and trying desperately to be “taken seriously” as a poet, a writer, and generally competent individual. It just smacks of insecurity.

        • Becky says:

          Also a clue:

          That reviewer hasn’t read anything so awful since he was an “early teenager.”

          My guess is this means s/he is now a wizened late teenager.

          If not, I can’t understand why s/he would make such a distinction. It would also explain why s/he is so affected. From what I can tell, except in rare cases, teenagers expend about 90% of their available energy trying to be taken seriously by acting like other people.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I think I get what you’re saying, Becky. The Amazon reviewer is hatefully attacking the author for not having the self awareness to know he sucks, when clearly the reviewer himself is not self aware enough to understand that his review reveals him to be uneducated and insecure.

        • Becky says:

          Kind of. Yeah. I don’t know that uneducated is the problem so much affected. Being uneducated is not generally an impediment to offering an opinion, unless you’re determined to pretend that you are more experienced or advanced than you are.

          The use of “sophomoric” is ironic, since the word means: “suggestive of or resembling the traditional sophomore; intellectually pretentious, overconfident, conceited, etc., but immature.”

        • Becky says:

          Here, the reviewer seems to think it means something more like “remedial.”

          It’s just…

          What can I say? The whole thing is just ripe for ridicule.

          Short form: What’s funny about it is that there is no way the book was as poorly written as this review talking about how poorly written the book was.

        • Becky says:

          And I don’t know what “remedial” means, apparently.

          How about elementary? Facile? Abecedarian? he thinks it’s a synonym for one of those.

        • Without wishing to diminish from Becky’s point by making a counterpoint to something she didn’t actually say (see! I’m aware!), I remember hearing the case really well-made against the ‘If you can’t do it, you can’t comment’ argument, when someone said ‘I don’t have to have been in charge of Germany to criticize Hitler’s human rights record.’

          Obviously, that’s an extreme example, but, you know, extremes help us map the territory (I will be forever grateful to the anthropology lecturer who taught me that map-the-territory saying).

          But, again, that wasn’t the argument Becky was making. Quite the opposite.

  13. Irene Zion says:


    You have PUBLISHED two novels!
    We know how hard it is to be published at all.
    Then you sold zillions of books.
    Who cares what these sourpusses say?

    • Richard Cox says:

      I don’t care what the sourpusses say. The review that bothered me the most is someone who complained, “There’s not even a hint of authenticity in the manner in which science is conducted in this book. As a biochemistry student, “The God Particle” difficult to read without wincing.”

      That one stung a bit because I tried really hard to render the concepts and wonder of science believably and realistically to people who maybe don’t read as much about science. However, when you write a thriller, you are somewhat constrained by the need to have a forward-moving plot, and the incredibly tedious and slow progress of evaluating data from a particle accelerator does not make for a gripping story. So yes, I fictionalized that a bit, and this guy lambasted me for it. But it only hurt for a few minutes.

      I have published two books, and I’m immensely proud of them. But they have not sold zillions of copies. They’ve sold thousands, but not a lot of thousands. 🙂

      • Don Mitchell says:

        The biochemistry student’s criticism is totally chickenshit. It’s fiction! It’s fiction!

        I read that book, and I had no problem with any of the science. I read Science and Nature every week. Was The God Particle supposed to be a book-length monograph about Higgs and the ins and outs of nanosurgery and biochemistry? I must have missed that.

        In anthropology, we sometimes call this kind of criticism the “Bongo-Bongo argument,” as when somebody says, “But the Bongo-Bongo don’t do it like that . . . .”

        Still, it’s an interesting problem, isn’t it? If you’re writing about something for which there’s a body of knowledge, you have to be careful to find that line between the demands of fiction and the demands of scholarship. I thought you placed and honored that line appropriately and skillfully.

        I certainly have to be aware of that line when I write ethnographic fiction, because not only are there anthropology students out there, some of the actual people I write about are reading what I write, or having it translated and read to them. I feel a strong responsibility to render them and their culture as accurately as I can, but only when it’s appropriate to be careful with the ethnography. Otherwise, I don’t hesitate to take liberties because, damn it, it’s fiction.

        Year ago I got into “dueling reviews” with a geographer who studied the group next to the group I worked with. I reviewed his book favorably, taking note of the ways that geography and anthropology differ in their approaches. He reviewed mine semi-unfavorably by concentrating on how it wasn’t geography. No shit, Dick Tracy. My point is that you can get unfavorable reviews everywhere for stupid reasons, but of course you already know that. And, of course, that the anthropological approach is everywhere and at all times superior to the geographical approach.

        • Greg Olear says:

          One review harped on the fact that my narrator used the term “hipster.” That term, the review said, was not in currency in 1991. In fact, it was. Billy Corgan uses the word in its current way in “Cherub Rock,” released in 1993, written in ’92, and he didn’t just pull it out of a hat. Also, the narrator is writing in 2009, looking back on 1991, and thus is free to use whatever fucking word he wants. But, you know, I’m not allowed to rebut in a review. That’s the sort of shit that annoys me, rather than the liked-it/didn’t-like-it stuff.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          So you’re not allowed to comment, but that’s when you use your sock puppet.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Thanks, Don. I appreciate you reading and the kind words.

          I do have a thing for completely misleading readers regarding fact vs. fiction if you are using the fact to make significant point. Like in Da Vinci Code for instance. If I’m trying to bring science-like ideas to a general audience, I don’t want to make a bunch of erroneous claims in the process. That’s really an affront to science in itself.

          So I included a link to my web site, and devoted a section there to real science versus the made-up stuff in that book. And there’s a bit at the end of Rift about the dubious reality of a teleportation machine. It is fiction, but personally I think it’s a good idea to let your readers know where you departed from fact.

          Unless you’re writing something very obviously fantastical. Then play with reality all you like. There’s no inherent contract with the reader there. Everything is up for grabs.

        • Ah, sweet science.

          (not the sweet science. That’s Brin’s department).

          I think it depends on how grounded you’re trying to be, on how tightly strictured you need to be to the laws and principles in existence.

      • Irene Zion says:


        The biochem student was just showing off. the idiot doesn’t know the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Let it roll off you!

        Thousands IS zilllions! You just sold two more on kindle a minute ago!

  14. Reading reviews is a bit like facing the day when your bed is warm, the company is good and you just don’t feel like getting up. You know you have to peel back the covers and survey the surroundings. Hell, you may even have to actually get out of that snug cocoon. And when you emerge the day will certainly bring you joy – in small measure – and dung in probably a larger quantity — and it will also, if you are lucky, bring you the ability to do it all over again the next day.

    None of us write for the reviews. When people love our words it’s great — when they smear us it’s not so great. But the thing that matters is that we still do it. And Richard, you do it well. I’d say better than a 3.4 average… if we’re giving stars…..

    • Greg Olear says:

      Well put, Robin.

      One more thought:

      “A critic is a gong at a railway crossing clanging loudly and vainly as the train goes by.” – Christopher Morley

      • Becky says:

        Where does this leave critics who are also writers?

        Or critics of critics, as I have become, somehow, with reviewer #3?

        Am I the small child standing on the platform crying with my hands over my ears while the gong clangs and the noisy train goes by?

        Where do copy editors fit in this metaphor? Mechanics? Brakemen?

        • Greg Olear says:

          LOL. Good point.

          I think the quote is intended more for writers seeking solace from bad reviews than for the reviewers themselves. I just like the image, is all.

        • Becky says:

          I know. I’m just giving Christopher Morley (who is Christopher Morley?) a hard time.

          My favorite quote about the writer/critic dynamic is an oldie but goody. It’s actually about editors, but I think it is broadly applicable to the dynamic between writers and just about anyone who believes writers should do their writing differently:

          “I suppose some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.” -T.S. Eliot (of course)

          I mean, it’s essentially fair to all parties, I think, with maybe slightly more sympathy for editors.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Thank you, Robin. And yes, reviews aren’t nearly as important as the act of writing because you want to.

      A few weeks ago I printed a couple of manuscripts on Fedex/Kinkos online and the next morning I went to pick them up. The guy behind the counter says, “Hey, man. While I was printing and binding these, I couldn’t help but have a look at the first couple of pages. I mean, it’s hard not to when they’re right in front of you. And anyway, I don’t know if you’re trying to get this published or whatever, but I think you should.”

      So I say, immensely curious, since he’s the first person to read any of this newest version “Well, thanks. If you don’t mind me asking, how far did you make it?”

      And he says, “You want me to be honest?”

      “Of course.”

      “Because we aren’t supposed to do this. It’s against the rules. But I started reading this when I got to work two hours ago and I can’t put it down. It’s amazing. I’m almost halfway done and I’m waiting for the store to clear out so I can keep reading.”

      When a guy who doesn’t know you tells you something like that, especially when he has good reason not to tell you, he’s probably being honest. That made my day.

  15. Ducky Wilson says:

    I learned long ago not to read reviews. I asked my mother to keep track of them, she keeps them, and one day perhaps I’ll look at them. Not today.

    Good reviews, bad reviews – responding to them is an exercise in ego. This is not a monster I want to feed. It taints the work that is at hand. Better to focus on the work and not the results.

    However, that isn’t to say I don’t need/want feedback. Criticism is important to the artist. Critical. Perhaps art school beat it into me – how to navigate through the sticky territory of criticism, but I send my work to select friends and colleagues. I listen to their advice because I trust them. There’s no trusting Alphagirl2010. She could be a ten year old out for mischief. But I trust my family (my sister and brother tell it like it is – disheartening sometimes – but my rewrites always fare better because of them.)

    I think it also becomes a lesson in letting go. Once the art is out in the world, there is little that can be done to protect it. It’s futile to try. You have released it into the world, and now it must stand on its own. Warts and all. Kind of like sending your kid to the first day of kindergarten. There’s nothing you can do to stop Willie from biting your kid. You can have Willie reprimanded, or expelled, but you can’t stop the bite from happening.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Responding to them is definitely an exercise in ego. He’s responded so many times that I was tempted to write my own scathing review just to see what he would say. His need to be involved in the random commentary about his work was unnerving to me somehow.

      And I’m with you on the real critical feedback. I have a group of readers whose opinions matter a lot to me, and in this way the novel-in-progress is a collaborative thing. And then it becomes a lot more collaborative when my agent and finally the editor weigh in with their thoughts. The final product is of course mine, but it’s always far better after the feedback from these important others.

      I suppose the author I wrote about in this piece is akin to someone who over-parents their kids. He let the book out of his house, but he follows it around everywhere, suffocating it.

  16. Tawni says:

    Hey look, Richard! I actually noticed that you posted on TNB! I noticed! You didn’t even have to nag… I mean… remind me. Ha.

    And I am going to have to agree Mr. King on this one: “Fuck you, snobs!”

    I think people who write negative reviews are often only trying to make themselves seem superior. A little “blow out your flame to make mine burn brighter” action. It happens. There are a lot of insecure, unhappy people in the world. Their problems have nothing to do with you or anyone else at whom the negativity is directed. When I am able to remember this, the jerks don’t bother me anymore.

    In the musical world, these types often approached me after a show, rooster feathers ruffled and flaring, trying to make me feel small with comments about what I should be doing differently (or better) on stage. I found the best way to shut them down was to paste a big, innocent smile on my face, bat my eyelashes, and very sweetly ask them about their band.

    “Oh… you don’t have a band? Ohhhhhhh.”

    That usually did the trick.

    So of the writers of bitter, unnecessarily vitriolic book reviews lacking in constructive criticism, we might ask: “When is your book getting published?”


    For the record, I think all *three* of your books are incredibly original in concept, intelligent and well-written. Screw the naysayers.


    The woman who will someday break your ankle with a sledgehammer as you lie in bed recovering from a debilitating car accident.

    • Tawni says:

      Agree WITH Mr. King, I meant. Preach it, Uncle Stevie. 🙂

      • Richard Cox says:

        This is a bit like the conversation with Becky above. If I’m not a musician myself, am I qualified to offer criticism, or justified in flaming someone?

        I have strong opinions about films, because even though I am not a professional filmmaker, I am a storyteller, and I’ve watched enough films with enough variety to feel like my opinion is not completely uninformed. However, I couldn’t possibly be a professional film critic because I don’t have the education to provide the correct context to people more informed than me. With music, I know what moves me, but I’m even less informed about music.

        I think the delivery of the critique matters a lot. If you really don’t like something, there is a way to say so without being hostile. That being said, I have read prose that made me want to throw the book out the window. Poor, stilted prose, especially when the author clearly has a shaky grasp of the language of fiction, annoys the hell out of me. I’ve been tempted to flame authors for this before, but I don’t. Partly because I suspect my anger is borne out of jealousy that the offending author has probably sold more books than me.

        Also, I really appreciate your kind words about my work. However, I’m not sure I believe you, Annie, since you’ve probably been gobbling up more Codeine than me.

        • Becky says:

          As a critic, I don’t think any of you writers have any business telling us critics how to do our jobs.

        • Ducky Wilson says:

          Aren’t critics writers?

        • Ducky Wilson says:

          Not to be cheeky…

        • Richard Cox says:

          I’m not only the president, I’m also a client. I mean I’m not only a writer, I’m also a critic. Something like that.

        • Becky says:

          It was a joke.

          But not all critics are writers, no. I don’t think so.

          They may write things.

        • Tawni says:

          I don’t think you have to be a musician, writer or filmmaker to be qualified to offer criticism about music, books or movies. I don’t even think you need to be musical, well-read or have watched a lot of movies. You only need to be a human, and capable of feelings. Just don’t be a superior asshole about it. Like Vince Vaughn says in Made, “There’s a nice way to do that.”

          So I agree with you that the delivery of the criticism matters a lot. I think that before someone criticizes, they might want to ask themselves, “Is my criticism constructive, or am I just insecure and trying to make myself sound smart at the expense of another person’s creative output?”

          I admit that because I’ve put my soul out there, as a songwriter and musician, I may be naturally kinder with my opinions on the artistic works of others. They get instant points from me just for being brave enough to show that secret side of themselves to the world.

          But I still think the critics offering flaming, unnecessarily mean reviews of others are often bitter, frustrated chicken-shits who are too scared (or lazy) to share the creative side of themselves. This opinion is derived purely from personal experience. If I had a dollar for every guitar-playing dude who came up to me after a gig and tried to belittle my performance and skills because he was too afraid/unmotivated to start a band himself… well, I’d maybe have one hundred dollars. But you know what I mean.

          “Show me how it is. Tell me all you know. I don’t really hear a word you say, but when you’re done, you’ll go. You’ll go. You’ll go away. (Chorus:) Can’t believe how great you are. Can’t believe what you can do. Can’t believe how smart you are. I am so impressed with you. I am so impressed with you. It’s true. (Bridge:) If you think you can do everything better than I can, why are you trying so hard to prove it? Prove it. If you think you can do everything better than I can, why don’t you go away and do it? Do it. Shut up and do it.”

          I wrote those sarcastic lyrics about a harsh critic at 4 in the morning after a gig at the Grand Emporium in Kansas City. I was pissed off and couldn’t sleep because it had happened yet again. A guy came up to me after our show, told me I was a lousy guitar player, and that until I learned to play an augmented sevenths chord, I wouldn’t be any good. So I went home, pulled out my chord book, learned the stupid augmented sevenths chord and used it to write a pissy song about him. It helped. 🙂

        • Richard Cox says:

          Is it possible any of the men critiquing you were perhaps attracted to you? I mean there aren’t that many lead singer guitar chicks out there. Maybe for some it was the only way they could bring themselves to approach the stage, and maybe they thought they could distinguish themselves by not immediately fawning over you? I know, it’s a stretch. Just wondering.

          In fact I’m picturing Ricky Slade sauntering up to the stage, thinking he likes this girl, and then starts in with his shtick:

          “Hey, gorgeous. I don’t know if you noticed it or not but you’re not playing that augmented sevenths cord. And I know you’re sort of talented, you’re giving it that good ol’ college try, but I really think if you want to, you know, get good at this whole Go Go’s thing you got goin’ on here, you’re gonna have to learn that sevenths cord. You think Charlotte Caffey is running around the country, not playing the sevenths cord? I mean it depends on what you want to do. You wanna be playing these gigs here all your life or do you want to take the whole show big time? Or maybe you could go solo. On second thought, you don’t want to be singin’ Heaven Is a Place on Earth for the rest of your life. Or Rush Hour. Do you know Jane Wiedlin tried the whole solo thing? Yeah, there’s a reason why the Go Gos are takin’ the victory laps these days. So anyway, get to work on the augmented sevenths cord. Maybe write me a song. Yeah, write me a song about why you’re gonna hit the big time. In the meantime, gorgeous, I gotta run. I got a date with the Red Dragon.”

        • Tawni says:

          HAHAHAHAHA. Nice Ricky Slade-ing. 🙂

          My entire life I’ve thought of myself as a tall, awkward tomboy and not really the kind of girl boys want to hit on. More like one of the guys. Maybe because I played with the guys in so many bands. I make “that’s what she said” jokes, curse, and laugh at belches. I’m always shocked when guys later confess to having had crushes on me. Even a few of the bandmates I treated like brothers have later told me such things. I’m apparently a pretty oblivious human. So, yes, it is entirely possible I was being ham-handedly hit on during such critiques. Good point, Richard.

  17. Darian Arky says:

    It’s probably more reassuring to be a mass-murderer than a writer. People don’t readily dispute the quality of your work, and no one just automatically assumes you want to be famous.

  18. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Good piece, Richard! Once a writer is really out there, on Amazon and whatnot, there are rites of passage no one warned him/her about.

    You noted, “What I want to know is how you can wake up every morning and make a cup of coffee and then watch people take your work apart at that level of detail.” What I want to know is what purpose this activity serves. If the writer you referred to really has published 40 books, why does he feel the need to refute poor reviews? He’s doing something “right” to get that many manuscripts written and out in the world. He’s not going to change the minds of those who didn’t like his work.

    As for getting constructive criticism, the typical reader review isn’t intended for that purpose. And besides, the book being reviewed is FINISHED. It won’t be changed.

    I had about 15 friends read drafts of my first novel before I sent it to agents. I chose them because I knew I wouldn’t get niceties—I’d get honesty. If it weren’t for them, I don’t think my novel would have become what it did.

    It’s fascinating to me how many reader reviews harp about poor editing. Sometimes, they confuse editing with proofreading, the latter being a glitch-ridden part of the process even with several pairs of eyes looking for problems. As for editing, that’s sooo in-the-eye-of-the-beholder. There have been books I’ve read that I thought needed a 200 page slash-and-burn, and others reveled in the lengthy scenes and prose.

    All you can do is your best, you know. That’s it. So you keep doing your own thing—put reviews out of your mind–and focus on what you have to share. I guarantee, there’s an appreciative audience.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Did you have any mistakes that were introduced AFTER the galleys? I did! I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know even know how it would happen, but it did.

      In this case I think the crack Amazon reviewers were using the word “editing” when they really meant “minimum quality prose.” Yes, an editor should have caught “should of” being used in place of “should’ve,” but really the author should of never used it in the first place.

      It’s wonderful to hear your book has done well in spite of (or partly because of) the NY Times review. You must be thrilled. I am thrilled for you.

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        Mistakes after the galleys, oh yeah. For example, around page 300 of the hardcover edition, there is a random exclamation point in the middle of a sentence. At least three people looked at the final proofs before it went to press–yet there was the boo-boo, along with other weird stuff. Some readers e-mailed ME to let me know what errors they found. I thought that was interesting…

        Thanks for the kind words. In turn, I’m thrilled you’ve published two novels. That gives me a little spark of hope that yes, indeed, I can finish my second, too.

  19. Reno J. Romero says:

    writing is a brutal game. and how you novelist guys can go long is simply amazing. i can’t. but i’m hardly a writer in the tradional sense if not at all (hell, i just like to dick around). i like the fact that that dude wrote back to his critics. whether epople like his stuff or not he knows he’s a writer. that’s not too shabby. when i was at UNLV there was this professor that knocked out a few books. a lot of folk liked his stuff. i even studied under this fucker. i found him a bore as a professor (the books we had to read were simply foul) and a perfectly shitty writer. but people loved him. he signed his books, took pics with fans and whatnot. so what am i saying, richard? i haven’t a clue. i guess what people like or don’t like is nor here nor there. i’m gonna check out your reviews right now see what the “critics” are saying. anyhow, keep writing. take care, sir.

    • Richard Cox says:

      You hope you get called to go long. Instead of a deep in where the quarterback overthrows the ball and you end up with cracked ribs courtesy of the strong safety.

      I think you should go long, man. Write a book. Take pictures with your fans. And charge them for your autograph.

  20. Marni Grossman says:

    If any of us are honest, we’d admit that, on the whole, we’d rather hear praise than criticism. Yes, of course we want to grow as writers. But we also want to be able to get out of bed in the morning.

    If you ever need any more glowing Amazon reviews, you know who to call-

  21. Zara Potts says:

    I’ve written quite a few reviews for our Sunday newspapers here in NZ, and I am always very conscious of being fair. Even if I don’t like the subject matter I try and find something in the book that is worthy of praise. It’s all too easy to go searching for fault, but usually there is some gem that is waiting to be recognised within the pages. Lucky for me, I’ve yet to review a book that is total shit, I would feel like such a heel if I couldn’t find at least something positive about it.
    It always amazes me though, how influential a review can be. I’ve met so many people who have read books simply on the strength of a good review. People really do take notice of them.

    • Ducky Wilson says:

      Zara – I wish all reviewers had your optimistic approach to life. Hell, I wish all people had your attitude. Were you a hippie in a previous life?

    • Richard Cox says:

      Zara, how do you select the books to review? I’ve always wondered that. Is it your choice? I suppose you must receive many more books than you finally review. What do you do with them all?

      • Zara Potts says:

        No unfortunately, I don’t get to choose. They just send me the books and I review what I get. It’s kind of a mixed bag – sometimes fiction, sometimes non-fiction. I keep the books I like and give the ones I don’t like to friends!

  22. Lenore says:

    i love that when things get rough, you want to move to Brazil and sing Portuguese love songs to underage girls.


  23. George London says:

    I need to read your books again. I just bought bookshelves and so handled them both recently, even the annoyingly-dimensioned Rift (had to buy the hard-back instead of hanging around waiting for the paperback. I really don’t like hardbacks, I wonder where that comes from…) Also I should go buy Greg’s seeing as everybody likes it. (See! Reviews DO matter!!)

    I look at reviews when I’m downloading freeware or browsing-to-buy completely blindly – especially off the back of Amazon recommendations or “People who bought [thatthingyoujustbought] also bought [thisotherthing]” – then I find them really useful. I always take them with a healthy pinch of cynical-salt and I’m always impressed(?) with lots of reviews. They’re as valid as the reviews on the blurb. A few months ago I selected The Lovely Bones from the limited English-language selection at the even smaller Paderborn airport in Germany, knowing nothing about it. I looked at the reviews on Amazon after I’d read it and thought ‘Yeah, they’re mostly fair’, even though I didn’t have the same experiences I could see where they were coming from (I loved it and don’t care what THEY say.)

    I do follow the “people who bought this…” suggestions on Amazon for music too. I tend to add them to my basket and not necessarily buy, but the name tends to stick in my mind and I’ll end up coming across more stuff from them.

    Have no idea where any of this comment was going, but I wanted to say hi and will blame the rambling on Greenwich Mean Time.

  24. George London says:

    Oh – here’s something I wanted to ask all you Writer-types… how do you ask for that early feedback and what kind of feedback are you after?

    I ask because a few friends have recently asked me for my opinions on first-few-chapters of their first attempts at novels and I find myself kinda stuck with how to approach it. I was asked a couple of years ago by someone and I gave him a choice: give it to me now in an unfinished state and have me give all sorts of opinions, or give it to me when you think it’s finished and I’ll give you my opinion of the whole.

    Another friend actually asked if it would be OK to send me his first 5,000 words; knowing that his written skills are not as good as mine, but also knowing he has the ability of being much more creative than I, I felt I had to insist he lay out ground-rules of exactly what he wanted feedback on? He’s a senior teacher so I hoped that would make sense to him. He told me that the narrator is a 13 year old boy and so the language and syntax would reflect that, but to point out obvious mistakes, and that he wanted feedback on the concept and general flow.

    So now I know where I am and will read it in the next few days, in the knowledge that what he needs above any kind of constructive criticism right now (although I’ll be giving that cos… well cos I’m an arse and can’t help sticking my nose in…), what he needs more than that is support and encouragement on his first attempt at writing something that I find it hard to imagine anyone being committed enough to complete.

    So yeah… bearing in mind that as musicians who once worked together a lot, and as an old friend who is always honest with him, what ELSE should be part of my feedback?

  25. George London says:

    Oh and (can you tell I don’t want to go to bed yet?) Kinda in line with what Tawni was saying, I have learned never to give criticism AT a gig. If I didn’t like it, I’ll be encouraging if asked, or if I find myself in conversation with a band I just saw that I didn’t rate (or sometimes like, but not enough to fawn over), I’ll just turn it around and ask them how they thought it went and say they looked like they had a lot of fun.

    If there’s constructive criticism to give, I’ll always save it for another time. And if I loved it, I always try to find somebody in the band to tell them I loved it, because I know how great that is to hear. Someone once told me (after I’d made [I thought] constructive comments) that I should be careful how I criticise/praise because I have a tendency to speak with great authority and people listen and sometimes get hurt. I suspect that’s as much to do with my baritone as my body-language, but either way I try to be a lot more careful with both now.

    What’s ETA on #3 Book? I have space on my new bookshelves, but probably not once I unpack some boxes…

    • Richard Cox says:


      Regarding your friend who wants to send you the beginning of his first draft: You’re right, he does mostly need support. He’s in a shaky place where he could easily throw in the towel.

      There is so much work he’ll have to do in the future that, if it were me, I would just give feedback very generally, for areas where you see major concerns. As far as line-editing, unless he’s really bad at prose, I’d leave that alone. He’ll smooth it out over successive drafts.

      Book 3 is being digested by my editor. Or he’s ignoring it. I’m eager for it to be published, but there are still some months ahead.

    • Tawni says:

      I completely agree with the “never give criticism at a gig” rule, George. It’s so easy to be misunderstood in a loud bar, and you never know who is listening. The stranger drinking next to you at the bar as you band-bash might be the lead singer’s sister. Very easy to hurt feelings.

      In one of my bands, if we didn’t really like a band, we would reply, “Nice guys! Great gear!” if asked what we thought about their show. We knew amongst ourselves what this actually meant.

      This eventually became our official catchphrase for a bad musical experience.

      “How was the show last night at the Bottleneck?”

      “Nice guys. Great gear.”

      “Oh. Sorry.”

  26. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Ooh, too late to the party, but that was one heartbreaking entry, Richard. Oh my, I have to cry a little…then again, why didn’t he bribe the way other authors do it?

    • Richard Cox says:

      He has close to five hundred comments. About half are five stars and a quarter are four. So maybe he did bribe some folks. But you can’t bribe people you don’t know not to post. Ha.

  27. […] Admirer of Bewitched; debunker of Kris Kringle and the Amazon star system. […]

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