Seeing Stars–and Red

I’ve written quite a few posts in my Audrey the Contrarian persona, questioning the validity of some writing rules advice. You know what I mean–don’t use certain words, including “was,” avoid dialogue tags other than “said,” don’t write prologues, etc. and etc. I admit it–as soon as I perceive a wagging finger, my defenses go up.

gargoyle grumpy
“Sez who?”

Well, I’ve had a bit of an epiphany about this recently, in the form of a multi-author, themed box set of more than a dozen novels in ebook form. I acquired it more than a year ago but didn’t start reading it until recently.

So far, I’ve read six of the novels. All were previously published and most are parts of series. Several of them were probably #1 Bestsellers at some point. All begin with pages of the usual gushy blurbs (which I always skip). At least two of them so far are really good reads, well-written and interesting, but it’s the others I’m concerned with here.

One of these books begins with a prologue. That’s okay with me; I’m not opposed to prologues on principle. This one must have been designed to give the reader a jolt right from the start, and it did its job. But neither the characters nor the situation ever appear in the story that follows, with the exception of a single fleeting reference in the first chapter. Otherwise the story was fairly good, until it was spoiled by plot chasms, unnecessary references to events in other books in the series, and twists that failed my credibility test.

I don’t usually skim and skip when I read, but another of these books was so mushy-gushy, I ended up doing that. In the first chapter, the main character describes a person in minute detail, complete with a mini-backstory, fashion choices, and incredible devotion to said m.c. That person never appears again. The story is told in first person point of view, except for the occasional paragraph in third person. And no, those third person paragraphs are not deliberate stylistic devices, but errors. Finally, the m.c.’s personality and background are completely wrong for her profession, which severely strains the story’s credibility. Not only that, but the reader is treated to a detailed description of every emotional blip and bump the m.c. experiences.

A third example is a clunky sandwich of two different genres–the beginning and end are one genre, the filling in the middle the second. It doesn’t work well, but what really annoyed me was all the murmuring. Even the bad guy murmurs a typical bad guy command. “Drop the gun!” he murmured. Every time I pressed the next page button I made a bet with myself that someone would murmur on that page. And most of the time I was right. One more thing–the name of the m.c. changes between page 1 and page 2. I read those pages a couple of times, wondering what happened to X, before I realized he was actually Y.

Out of curiosity, I looked up these books on Goodreads to see what other readers might have said about them.

Guess what? All three had many 5-star ratings and rave reviews! A few reviews mentioned some of the problems I had noticed, but they were a tiny minority. It’s possible, of course, that some readers abandoned the books partway through and did not post reviews.

So now I wonder why, when we writers are told repeatedly that readers will not tolerate problems like the ones I’ve described, reviews and ratings don’t bear this out. Here are a few theories:

  1. The reviews are biased, either because the individuals who wrote them are doing the author a favour, or the reviews were paid for, or some other suspect reason.
  2. These particular readers/reviewers just happened to be exceedingly uncritical.
  3. Readers of genre fiction don’t care about many of the things writers are advised to care about.

Extrapolating from #3, I think there are two kinds of readers (well, there are probably more than two, but bear with me while I make my point). There are casual readers who just want to whiz through a story as light entertainment. As long as the plot holds together, they don’t notice details. Then there are critical readers who notice stuff like the above. In the latter group are writers, authors, and editors–in other words, the folks who write and read those blog posts telling you not to commit those sins.

So what is a writer to conclude from this?

Cynical me says don’t sweat the rewrites and proofreading. Forget the advice and bang out a plot-driven story every three months with the expected elements for your genre. Then put your real efforts into cultivating your readers and marketing. Writer me says striving to perfect my writing is a worthwhile end in itself even if no one reads it. Which makes sense, as I’m a dismal failure at marketing.

What say you, fellow writers and readers? Have you noticed this apparent disconnect between reviews and writing quality?

93 comments

  1. I have a few theories of my own, Audrey. I think it’s only writers who will read a book and notice all the ‘mistakes’. I also think that the majority of reviews are submitted out of loyalty to the writer, which is fine, but this usually means the reader won’t criticise anything. Add to this, the restrictions to actually posting a review are becoming silly…

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I don’t think there are two many casual readers who read really closely, which means writers to cater to them don’t have to be as fussy about some things. Trouble is, it’s hard to tell just how sloppy you can get before readers notice. As a writer, I think it’s best to have high standards for your work rather than figure out what you can get away with.
      Thanks for reblogging this, btw!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Once I commit to a book, I tend to keep going. It has to be abysmal for me to skim or not finish reading. And as for marketing, I consider it a more daunting challenge than writing novels. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Janet!

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  2. What matters to me is the clarity, how everything is smooth and easy to read, with the story lending emotion to the journey they take as they read. I dream, of course, and keep working on it.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. From what you described, I am astounded the books got published. (Maybe they were self published.) As you said, I can’t wrap my head around so many five-star reviews. Maybe the author is a social media influencer or some other kind of star. Yeah, I think it’s better to write GOOD books, prose and character development that you’d be proud of.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I do believe some of these books were self-published, but I was surprised at all the rave reviews. And there were dozens, not just a handful. One of those mysteries of writing, publishing and reading, I suppose.

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  4. I do get frustrated when I see badly written books that are topping the charts. I often wonder why I bother to pay editors and proofreaders and take notice of my beta readers. I guess modern readers don’t care? Or they don’t know any better.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Education (at least in the U.S.) has become so degraded that many readers have never been exposed to great literature. Once you’ve discovered the pleasures of reading a truly great novel or short story — or almost any well-written piece of literature — you have no interest in the pathetic schlock that is most of what gets published these days. I liken it to people who have never tasted good food because they were raised entirely on junk food, so to them junk food tastes fine.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. That’s just it, Lucinda! It seems irrational or unfair, but then the world of writing and publishing does seem that way. We writers just have to maintain our personal standards and carry on. At least we have this forum to share our thoughts about this stuff. Thanks for contributing yours!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Well, Audrey, I’d say “All of the Above.” I’ve experienced the same thing, though I don’t get past the free samples…

    My theory is that ebook readers are a special breed of readers, especially when it comes to self-published books. Paper book readers may read ebooks, when they travel, or as commuters, but their reads are probably traditionally published ebooks. Most of the self-published ebooks that are read, seem to fall within the best selling genres. And they’re consumed by avid readers; readers who burn through a hundred or more books a year. You can’t be a critical reader if you consume books at that rate. And, as you say, they are story/plot-driven readers; readers who expect their favorite story beats and tropes in every story they read. Perhaps all they need to enjoy a story is to see how the author dresses up and rearranges those familiar tropes and story beats. And maybe they have very active imaginations that just need prompts to create the story in their head, rather than having everything spelled out elegantly or even correctly.

    All of which suggests that if you are writing something out of the mainstream genres & subgenres, ebooks are far from the ideal venue for reaching readers. Sadly, ebooks are also about the only venue for most of us have to reach any readers at all.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you’re right, Chuck. People read with certain expectations in mind, and intending to pay only a certain amount of attention. Writers who cater to this readership don’t have to be as meticulous as those who are hoping to be traditionally published, or who are writing outside of the standard genres. The downside, as you say, is the uncritical readers are often bored or alienated by books that don’t fit their expectations.
      The attraction of ebooks is their relatively low price (at least indie-published ebooks) and compactness. I have read some excellent books in ebook form that I would not have discovered otherwise.

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  6. I think there is a lot of manipulation of reviews on Amazon. I have ready a number of books that I have been hard pressed to finish and that have frankly been fairly trashy. Some of these were through Goodreads challenges I participated in [there are some great books in these challenges, but a lot of iffy ones too]. When I go onto Amazon I find 50 5 star reviews. It is disappointing and misleading. Sometimes it is frankly discouraging for me in my capacity as writer. I know Amazon is very strict about reviews with some authors, but others seem to get away with reviews from friends and even paid for reviews. There is something very strange and bias about their system.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’ve found reviews, both numbers and quality, to be a bit of a mystery, Robbie. I don’t know if they represent the subjectivity of readers, or some sort of algorithm effect. But finding all those 5-star ratings and enthusiastic reviews for books that really weren’t very good has made me think. I do believe I have to get beyond this weird phenomenon, and live up to my own standards for my writing.
      Thanks for contributing your thoughts to the discussion!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think we’re seeing rating inflation akin to grade inflation, by which we need to justify giving anything less than five stars/an A. I think assigning a numerical rating to a book the same way you would assign a numerical rating to a vacuum cleaner is where the whole book review weirdness started. The vast majority of book reviews on Amazon and Goodreads aren’t book reviews at all. They’re product reviews.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I think there is one rule only to writing, Audrey – sit in front of your sheet of paper or computer screen – and write. Write and write, revise and edit to your heart’s content until you yourself are happy with what you’ve said and with the manner in which you’ve said it.

    Don’t write in order to please others. How would you know what they like and want – even if they’ve told you what they like and want? They may like and want something different tomorrow.

    Don’t write for the pundits. Language is alive, moving, constantly changing. Remember Doctor Johnson, who had complained of the English language that “…there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulatedโ€™ and had set out initially, in compiling his famous dictionary to do the disentangling and regulating. Then having discovered that language, due to its ever-changing nature, was impossible to fix, had abandoned the attempt and turned his attention instead to recording the language of the day.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Jeff. Ideas like yours are behind some of my problems with so-called writing rules. I don’t question that writing should be comprehensible and show some sort of aesthetic at work. What I dislike are those who set themselves up as authorities and condemn specific words or plot devices as inherently bad.
      I think we writers must deliver a worthwhile reading experience to our readers. The mystery is the difference between how readers define and recognize such experiences.
      As you say, “they may like and want something tomorrow.”

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      1. Audrey – sure, we must try and deliver a worthwhile experience to our readers. But as none of us is in a position to know what is and what is not such a thing to any reader, it surely is a waste of precious creative effort to attempt it. Concern yourself instead with delivering what you feel you would see as a worthwhile experience were you yourself reading this for the first time. And when you’ve done that and are happy with it, you just have to hope there are enough people out there who will read it and feel the same about it as you do. You have no way of guaranteeing that. But that’s life, isn’t it? Tie it down and put it into convenient little boxes and you stifle the very thing you’re trying to produce.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s pretty much the way I’ve proceeded with the books I’ve written and published. A few people have read and liked them, and took the trouble to say to in reviews.
          But there’s always a lot of room in the creative life for self-castigation. Reading articles that say one should do this and shouldn’t do that can supply ammunition for beating oneself up in bad moments. Which is why I like to question those declarations sometimes.
          I’m grateful that it’s possible now to put our creative efforts into the public arena with relative ease. And it’s up to us to produce creations of excellence, however we define that.

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          1. I agree with you Audrey. I think it’s good to ‘question those declarations’ from time to time, if only to know part of what’s going on in the writing world. But if we allow those declarations to – as you say – “..supply ammunition for beating oneself up in bad moments” – I think we’re then allowing something that has nothing to do with our writing to get in the way of our writing. All seriously creative people have, in my experience, well-entrenched self-doubt – it is, I believe, a powerful driver of the creative effort. But if the writing of a literary pundit pokes a stick into old wounds – the only effect of which on one’s own writing is going to be negative – then the best thing the writer can do is to avoid such writing.

            And yes, I agree again that we should strive to produce excellence – but with the proviso that your or my ‘excellence’ may be someone else’s ‘insufferable’ or vice versa. So in the end the only genuine version of ‘excellence’ a serious writer can possibly achieve is his or her own version of it.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. 1. The only advice I ever give to writers is get a broad humanistic education, learn your grammar, and enjoy yourself. When writing stops being fun, stop doing it. And ponder those rules you read so much about, like never use anything but “said,” but be pragmatic and do what works for you, and (we can only hope) for your readers.
    2. Prologues: Sure, I’ve used Prologues, but they must have some function in the story. In The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, the Prologue is super important – the sight of that wounded eagle affects the entire course of Robbin Nikalishin’s life, and the pair of ornithologists that I introduced in the Prologue come back into our Captain’s life several volumes later. I could have done the Prologue as Chapter 1, but it takes place maybe 10 years before Robbie’s birth, so making it a Prologue seemed logical. In my Ki’shto’ba series, each volume begins with a scholarly essay or note from Kaitrin Oliva, who is translating the works. Makes sense.
    3. I would say that those writers you’re criticizing here either had an incompetent editor, or did a really poor job of self-editing.
    4. Finally, I have a confession to make. I have only recently become aware of how much I use exclamation points. I was never taught not to use them – I’ve only recently become aware of how much they seem to turn off some people. If someone says something emphatically, it seems natural to end the remark with an exclamation point. I’ve had only one review that complained about that usage, so i guess it doesn’t turn off everybody. Anyway, that’s my mea culpa for the day!!! Ha!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey, Lorinda! I totally agree with your first point. You’ve summed up my rule-quibbling perfectly.
      And I think prologues are perfectly fine, if they’re appropriate for the story. I was quite surprised to find a prologue that was totally disconnected from the book that followed. It’s possible it related to some other book in that author’s series; I noticed frequent references to previous occurrences as I read. But even as a somewhat dubious marketing device, that prologue was just weird.
      Exclamation points–I agree with you there too! (Ha.) If someone is declaring something forcefully, it looks strange not to end that sentence with an exclamation point. It falls flat. But in my books I use them only in those situations, and only one at a time. In blogging, though, anything goes!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. All of those things you found in those books would drive me absolutely crazy. I have occasionally found that reviews don’t match with my reading experience, but that’s not surprising. There’s something for everyone out there these days! I expect that those leading those glowing reviews for books we find major problems with are either (a) biased, or (b) left by people who don’t read closely enough to find the things we find.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s the disconnect between the advice to writers and the apparent results out in the world of readers that struck me. And those are readers who actually bother to write reviews. There must be many who either stop reading books that aren’t up to standard, or read all kinds of stuff without any intention to review.
      I wonder if any academics are researching these phenomena, now that publishing is a wide-open field.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As with everything, different people have different tolerance levels for these types of things. And based on my personal experience, other than the really popular indie authors, most of us are dependent on people we know for reviews. Which leads to the concern about bias in reviews. Do we overlook things when we are reading a friendโ€™s book?

        Liked by 1 person

  10. On the topic of reading bad writing, why? Why finish a story that’s obviously sub-par (writing, construction or structure)? Skip-reading, hell yes! Blah, blah, blah went the author about the back-story of the setting, characters’ history or self-indulgent world-building. Screw that! (I’d have abandoned reading it by now…)

    ~~~

    Back to rating systems are we?

    Who among you would ever rank a novel a “1” star?

    “Meh, it’s not a five, I’ll give it a three.”

    So, by giving a story (movie, candy bar, hotel, whatever) a mark right in the middle, you’re effectively not voting. If half the people love it and half the people hate it what would be the score? A three. A three tells me exactly nothing.

    So many people are afraid to rank anything as a NO, that the ranking system is polluted, rendered useless by all their spineless, vapid opinions.

    Amazon stars? Goodreads Ranking? Outright disinformation. Every one of them is a lie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I would have given a few of these books a rating of 1 out of 5. Why keep reading? The plots did have some appeal, but I did skim and jump to the end of the one that was totally out of whack.
      I have to admit, I rate a lot of books at 4, if they’re decently written and fairly engaging. Three is the equivalent of Meh.
      Maybe only a yes or no would be really useful. Would you read this book again, yes or no? Of course the whole thing is terribly subjective, and on sites like Amazon and Goodreads there are the dreaded algorithms, not to mention deliberate obfuscations.
      Best not to think about that stuff. Just keep writing.

      Liked by 1 person

            1. Yes, I’ve heard about bad deeds on Goodreads. Haven’t experienced any myself, which shows how minor an author I am. Who would have thought that writing, publishing, and reading books could become such a dirty, ugly business. It also shows that those ratings, although numerical, are sort of meaningless.

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  11. Lots of thoughts because this is such an interesting post, Audrey.

    1. Screw the rules. That probably sounds humorous coming from a retired educator, but that’s my overall feeling. Telling us what we can and can’t do in any endeavor goes against what creativity is. Of course, some rules in life are necessary (Stoplights come to mind), but I don’t think that should apply to writing. If an author is happy with their choices, that’s what matters most.

    2. That said, some of those choices will bother readers, perhaps enough to either abandon the book midstream or affect any future purchases. Some of the things you observed in your boxed set are downright startling and would prevent me from buying anything else by that author, while others I’d characterize as merely irritating. I’d put the overuse of the word “murmur” in that latter category. “Drop the gun!” he murmured.๐Ÿคฃ However, if an author can’t keep track of their own characters’ names, that would be a dealbreaker for me. I’d also wonder, “How could an editor miss such a glaring error?”

    3. When choosing a restaurant, hotel, movie, etc., I look at reviews, but I also know that sometimes my opinion or experience will be different from others. I’m okay with that; I don’t always agree with the masses. Sometimes I’ve walked out in the middle of highly acclaimed films. I’d be more likely to choose a book with many five-star ratings, but that doesn’t mean I’ll feel the same. I read most reviews with a grain of salt.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. There are rules (like you must stop at the red light) and guidelines, such as “It’s usually better if you do it this way. But not always.”
      One rule for writers might be: always check your characters’ names. And I have to admit, I once published a short story as a one-off and misspelled the main character’s name on the cover. Granted, it was in a fancy font that wasn’t easy to read, and it was a series title, but still… (I have since unpublished that title.)
      I often find reviews with lower than 5-star rankings to be more nuanced and interesting than the sometimes overly enthusiastic ones that accompany the 5 stars. And I usually read reviews once I’m well into a book, just to see if my thoughts about it are shared by anyone else. I select books either because I already like that author’s work, or based on the book description. Also if they’re recommended by someone whose opinions I trust and value.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. When I start a book and by the third chapter am looking for something else to read, I generally go check out the reviews on Goodreads. But I read the 1 and 2 star reviews, not the 5-star ones, and generally find that the “bad” reviews accurately describe my own reactions. And the 5-star reviews seem generic, just hundreds of variations on “wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!” I wonder if these reviews are written because the reader was convinced by the ads that the book is “a five-star world-wide best seller” etc. etc. They believe the ads, which is why they read the book, and somehow they still believe the ads.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. There is a wide streak of the irrational when it comes to reading. Ads–you may be onto something there, Lea! If one selects a book because of the “buzz,” maybe it’s impossible for some to believe the book is less than wonderful.

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  13. Oh dear! I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to use the word ‘was’. Why ever not? If this is some hard and fast rule that must be adhered to I’d best throw out my entire manuscript now.
    As for writing I think a lot of e-books are published far too soon and many could do with a massive edit. At this point in time I’m writing for myself. I want to find out what motivates my characters and where they get to at the end of the story. I like the writing process so I work at expressing my ideas as fluently as I can. That does involve the use of the word ‘was’ so I guess I’ll never get a decent Goodreads review. Such is life. ๐Ÿ˜

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Was” is a pretty basic storytelling word, isn’t it? Some advice I’ve seen says it’s inherently passive, as in sentences like “The ball was kicked by Bob.” But really, who writes like that? The other objection is that it’s part of lazy writing and too much telling.
      I think every writer starts out writing for themselves, but some of us lose our way trying to follow too many “rules” without considering context. Writing is a skill one has to work at, but I don’t think it helps to turn it into a write by the rules exercise. I hope your current project continues to be rewarding.
      And I wouldn’t worry about reviews. ๐Ÿ˜€

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      1. The balance between showing and telling ties my head in knots sometimes. One thing I find impossible to write without telling is when a character needs go to from place a to place b alone. I’ve often wished written stories could be like old Disney cartoons and the character could sing a song as they walk while the pictures show where they are going.
        When online publishing was first talked about I thought that maybe it would be possible to write e-books that contained loads of photos, music videos, maps and diagrams. It would make the telling part a lot easier. ๐Ÿ™‚ I guess you could do that but uploading it to Smashwords or similar would be tricky.
        As for reviews – that’s the last of my worries right now. I’m still trying to get my character from a to b.
        Happy writing. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Just the post to wake me up out of my summertime Torpor and get back into WP.
    There is a wealth of sense in your post and the replies.
    Yes there is manipulation on occasions. It seems also a great deal of reading ‘for the genre’- so no matter how many times someone outside of that genre preference sees the same plot in umpteen books, and thinks (‘seriously?’) those who like the genre will be going there because they like and expect the same plot line but with different names and locations.
    Then we have ‘The Name’ which is allowed all sorts of mischiefs- something which occurs in the traditional paper as well as the e-world. Example – One my previously favourite fantasy writers had one normally severe character ‘chuckling’ every so often, I ended up convinced the character had some sort of nervous ‘tic’ of chuckle when stressed. I parted ways with the writer when during the first book of one trilogy the central character spent at least one chapter trying to get out of a cave, yes I get it was a difficult task, but an entire chapter, in detail???

    (Of course there are those irascible curmudgeons who inhabit the self-publishing Kindle world who mutter to themselves…’Ha! This will never gain a wide audience anyway so I’ll just write as I please….naayyyy!’…..adverb-adverb-adverb, reflexive pronoun, ‘that’ ‘was’ etc).

    Seriously very thoughtful and incisive post Audrey.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Thanks, Audrey, from the bottom of my heart. As a reader I’ve been baffled by this conundrum for years. There are some wildly popular Indie writers who are /brilliant/. But…there are so many more who aren’t.
    To me, it’s like reality tv. Some people can’t get enough of it. Others would rather pull out their eyes with a crochet hook than watch it. I’ll leave you to guess which group I belong to.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I share your conundrum, Audrey. I spend years writing and rewriting and release a new book only occasionally. I read about authors like Danielle Steele, Dan Brown, and the woman who wrote the Fifty Shades, books, and my writer friends and editors say they’re horribly written, however, readers love them. I’ve concluded that there are different types of readers, those who are read for the storytelling that leaves an emotional impact, and those who pay attention to language, how the story is told. At the end of the day, I have to write work that I would be proud of, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m far too slow and picky to ever make a living from my fiction. I’ve made my peace with that ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s pretty much what I’ve concluded, Debra. In the end, readers have a vast pool of books from which to choose, and I’d rather contribute to the carefully written part of that. Thanks for weighing in on this topic!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. There speaks the voice of wisdom! (My identical comment below got into the wrong slot somehow – not that I think you in the least unwise, Audrey, but it’s not in quite the right place there ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks, Jeff! I think Debra summed up the issues succinctly, and had the right attitude. Which I happen to share. I think a lot of elements have to coincide for any writer to write to a high standard and make a living from their craft. If making a living isn’t a factor, we should consider ourselves fortunate and write adventurously but well.

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