Good morning and a happy Tuesday to you all. Today’s blog post comes to you courtesy of the letter R. (This is beginning to sound a bit like Sesame Street, isn’t it?) Like yesterday, I had a list of words that I was going to talk to you about, but I realised I’ve already more-or-less covered them. For example, I’ve already told you a bit about the Romantic Novelists’ Association, haven’t I? In case you missed that post, you can find it here.
I’ve also mentioned the perils of research, and how you can find yourself down the rabbit hole, going off at a tangent and spending all day gathering bits of useless information. You can find that post here.
So, today I’m just going to touch on two subjects that I think are quite important:
I know it probably seems obvious. Writers love books, and more than likely they’re voracious readers, and have been since childhood, right? Well, the thing is that, firstly, I’ve heard of some writers who never read other people’s books and have no interest in doing so. Secondly, as writers, it’s easy to get so busy with creating our own fictional worlds that we have no time or inclination to visit other people’s. And thirdly, sad but true, I know of some writers who’ve lost their love of reading because they’re too busy working out the plot twists, and thinking about how they’d have written a certain scene differently. I’ve heard writers say they no longer enjoy reading for pleasure, so rarely pick up a book these days.
Well, the thing is, although I understand all that, I still believe there’s no better way to learn to write than to read a lot. I also find other people’s books inspiring. I don’t mean I think, “Ooh, that’s a good story. Think I’ll use that for my next book.” I mean, other people’s writing fascinates me, and I’ve often found myself re-reading various sentences or passages and thinking how extraordinarily good they were, and what a gift the writer has for language. That inspires me. It inspires me to try harder, to be a better writer.
There’s also nothing wrong in looking at the subject of the book and thinking, “How would I have done that differently?” It could start you on a whole new journey and lead to a creation of your own that bears no resemblance to the one you were reading. There is no copyright on ideas, after all. There’s no need to be afraid of this. Let’s face it, you could take the same idea and give it to ten different writers and get ten entirely different books. There are, after all, a limited number of plots when you get right down to it. You can read about Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots here. Please note, the idea is up for grabs: copying the story scene by scene is not!
Having said that, you may want to avoid reading something in the genre you’re writing while you’re actually writing a book. This is because some writers find they start to pick up another writer’s “voice”. I don’t think it’s a problem as you get more experienced, because as time goes on you find your own voice and are so comfortable with that nothing much affects it. Certainly, though, in the early days you can find yourself changing tone without even meaning to, just because you’ve been so influenced by another’s fabulous writing.
I write romantic comedies and uplifting women’s fiction, and I do read widely in that genre. But when I’m writing, I tend to avoid it. Not so much for the above reason as, by now, I’m fairly confident in my own voice, but because I like a change sometimes, and, although I’d never write some types of fiction, it’s a good time to explore them through reading.
I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember. I can still remember learning to read! I have a strange memory of sitting beside a teacher, looking at the pages of the book, and all the squiggles on the page suddenly moving around to form words I could understand. It’s very odd, and may have been a dream, I don’t know, but I do know the excitement I felt when I began to read and could discover stories for myself without having to wait for a grown-up to read them to me. I was very lucky because reading came easily to me. I flew through the reading syllabus at school and could never wait for the next book. Story time was my favourite part of the school day, and I was very young when I started asking for books as presents.
Now, maths was a very different kettle of fish. I struggled massively with that subject and was often in tears, trying to understand, which is why I have every sympathy for people who struggle to read. It’s a hard road when other people seem to grasp something so effortlessly and it makes no sense to you, no matter how hard you try. It’s why literacy schemes are so important.
The good thing, of course, is that people who have difficulties reading, for whatever reason, can listen to stories through audiobooks. There are so many to choose from these days that a good story should be easy to find. I’ve just signed up to Audible myself, because by the time I’ve finished writing my eyes are tired, and I don’t want to strain them even more by reading. I wasn’t sure audiobooks would work for me, but it seems they do! Yay! I’ve heard some strange people say that if you’re listening to a story you haven’t actually read it. All I can say to those people is, huh? And that’s all I have to say on that subject.
So, I like to read a fairly wide range of books. I’ll always love a good romantic comedy or a heartwarming contemporary romance, but I read sagas, too. I enjoy some literary fiction, love many nineteenth-century classics, psychological thrillers, and cosy mysteries. Agatha Christie, Daphne Du Maurier, Phil Rickman, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Sue Townsend and Jilly Cooper are just some of the authors whose books I love.
Unfortunately, I have no talent for poetry, but I do love to read it. Some poems bring me to tears, they’re so beautifully written. I admire the way a good poet can arouse so many emotions, and encapsulate so much of human experience and understanding, in a few short lines. What a gift! My favourites are Shakespeare’s sonnets and the poems of William Wordsworth. They’re so beautiful. Years ago I had Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, but I have no idea where that ended up, sadly.
But I also have collections of more modern poets which I enjoy, too. For example, I own a hardback edition of some of John Betjeman’s poems. I love Christmas. It’s one of the few poems I can quote from, because my memory is terrible! I can quote the odd line from some of the sonnets, or a verse or two of Daffodils. One poem that always brings me to tears is Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. Then again, you could just as easily find me absorbed in one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories, or one of my favourite childhood pony books. The other week I read Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, and it was just as gripping as it had ever been.
My advice would be to read, read, read. Try not to worry about comparing yourself with other writers. Don’t get too caught up in working out the plot, or figuring out how the writer has used certain language to create a mood, or how he or she has used foreshadowing or how they’ve set red herrings or whatever. Enjoy the book! Enjoy the story. Get lost in someone else’s fictional world. Then, when you’ve finished, you can have a think about it. That’s the time to analyse the writing. Did you enjoy it? If yes, what made it so compelling, so joyous, so gripping? If not, why not? And what would you have done differently? But read it for pleasure first. Stories are such a gift. Don’t waste them!
At some point, if you put your book “out there” for people to read, you’re going to get a review. Hopefully, you’re going to get lots of reviews. And, even more hopefully, they’ll be mostly good ones. I say, mostly, because very few books, if any, get a one hundred per cent approval rating. There is always going to be someone who doesn’t like your book and, the fact is, you’re going to have to learn to deal with that.
It can seem very unfair when you get a one-star review but never, ever be tempted to answer back. I’ve heard horror stories of authors engaging in the most heated arguments with the reviewer, and believe me, it doesn’t end well. The fact is, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, and even if you think – even if you know – that the review is desperately unfair you just have to suck it up.
I’ve had a one star review because the book didn’t arrive on someone’s Kindle. Not a lot I could do about that, but it pulled down my overall rating for ages. I’ve had a review that simply states, “Absolutely dire”. I’ve also had a review that criticised my spelling of a certain word and told me to use spellcheck. Well, I’m afraid spellcheck wouldn’t have picked that up, anyway, but actually, for the context in which I’d used that word, the spelling was correct. I checked in several dictionaries! It took me a long time to accept that it wasn’t worth engaging in an argument, and I’d just have to hope other readers would know the difference. In the end, though, it bugged me so much that I removed the word in case other people thought the same. It still rankles, but that’s life.
What I had to accept, and you must, too, is that reviews aren’t really for us writers at all. They’re by readers for other readers, and it’s probably best all round if we keep out of the whole business. That said, if we’re lucky enough to have our books reviewed on a book blog, for example, then a thank you should always be given, and the post shared. Of course, you may not know about the review unless you’re tagged in it on social media.
That’s another tricky one. There was a huge debate on Twitter not long ago, when an author told reviewers that they should never tag a writer in a review. That sparked a massive argument. Some writers insisted they were happy to be tagged in reviews, and were grateful to the reviewers for doing so. Others pointed out that it’s fine to be tagged in a positive review, but if it’s a bad review then tagging the author is just bad manners. Surprisingly, though, some authors agreed with the first writer, insisting that no author should be tagged in any review.
I felt for the bloggers who were thoroughly confused and bewildered by this debate. Many admitted to feeling deflated by it, and as if their efforts were being thrown back in their faces. I can’t speak for anyone else, but if a reviewer has given me a glowing review, I’m delighted to be tagged in it, and I’m happy to share the post, too. It’s good publicity for my book, and also for the reviewer’s blog. What I would agree with, though, is that if you’ve written a negative review, please don’t tag the writer. What is he or she supposed to say to that, really? It’s unnecessarily cruel, so please don’t be that person.
I’m one of those people who remembers every negative review line for line, and gives them far more weight than I should. I was once left a review on my own author page. I woke up one morning and there it was. Paragraph after paragraph of seething resentment and righteous condemnation. I won’t say which book it was, but it was a fairly early one and my confidence was even lower then than it is now. The reviewer raged at me for setting a bad example to her children, for my condoning of adulterous relationships and casual sex, my use of bad language and my general all-round lack of morals.
I was a bit bewildered by this. Anyone who’s read my books knows I hardly write erotica, and as for being a bad example to her children … She said I had a moral responsibility to them. How? Why? It wasn’t a children’s book. If she was going to let them read it, that was her irresponsible behaviour, not mine. It really shook me up badly, though a conversation with sane, rational people helped me get over it pretty quickly. I removed the post and blocked the person. Not because she hated the book (and made it quite clear she’d never read another one of mine – thank goodness) but because she’d given away almost the entire plot, scene by scene! I mean, why?
And that’s another thing to be wary of. Some reviews do contain massive spoilers. I have a friend who was devastated to discover a new review on one of her books which basically just told the entire story. You can try to get it removed by appealing to Amazon, but chances are, they’ll do nothing. It would have to be pretty abusive for them to remove it, as I understand it. You could try appealing to the reviewer, but that could just make them dig their heels in.
It’s tricky. Obviously, if it’s not on Amazon, but is on a book blog, for example, you could contact the reviewer personally and hopefully they’ll amend the review, though in my experience, most book bloggers are very careful not to give away too much of the plot, so it’s more likely you’ll find spoilers on Amazon or Goodreads. Although the review in question may scream at you every time you go near it, chances are, most people will never read it. And those who do read reviews sometimes only read them after they’ve read the book, to see if other people agreed with their own opinion. So, it’s probably not as big a deal as you think it is.
And finally, what you should bear in mind is that all reviews are useful; the more reviews you have, the more books you’re likely to sell. Verified reviews are important to Amazon. They do something to the algorithm which kickstarts them into promoting your book (although don’t ask me to be more specific about this as no one seems to really know what Amazon’s algorithms do. There used to be a belief that if you got fifty reviews some sort of magic dust would be sprinkled over your book, and Amazon would do more to promote it. That, however, has been debunked by a speaker from Amazon).
What is true, though, is that if you want to do a book promotion on a specific site, such as Bookbub, they will look more favourably upon it if it has a lot of reviews on Amazon. Some sites may even specify that you must have a minimum number of reviews to be eligible for a slot. So you see, good or bad, reviews do matter. Also, bear in mind that readers can be highly suspicious creatures, and if they a see a book that only has large numbers of five star reviews, they may think there’s something dodgy about it, and that all the reviews are from family members and friends of the author! What a strange and cynical world we live in.
Amazon watches reviews like hawks and many, many writers have had reviews removed because, for example, they’re friends with the reviewer on Facebook. It doesn’t seem to occur to the mighty ‘Zon that writers often accept friend requests from readers on Facebook! It doesn’t mean we know them personally. *Sigh*.
STOP PRESS! I’ve just seen that Joanna Penn’s fabulous book, Successful Self-Publishing: How to Self-Publish and Market Your Book is currently FREE on Kindle. I have no idea how long this offer will last, so grab it while you can.
Anyway, that’s my post for today. I’m going to spend the day reading – hopefully in the garden if the sunshine lasts. Whatever you’re doing, have a lovely day, and stay safe.