Criticism versus Reviews

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What any writer dreads the most are attacks by members of the public, often with an axe to grind…

In days gone by every writer knew that the only individuals who offered opinions about their work were journalists working for leading newspapers, in the guise of literary critics. Back then they encapsulated the essence of a new work of fiction in one line of carefully chosen words taken from the text in question. Never once did their newspaper’s editor allow them to speak harshly against a given work. Instead, they chose to beguile future readers with the use of a single sentence from the book in question as an enticement like the following:

“A dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing, and leaves the sleeper where he lay down, but I wish you to know that you inspired it.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

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Sadly those days are no more. Today, every reader has the freedom to criticise by writing whatever they believe is a review, knowing that they can get away with blue murder, then posting it on book sites such as Amazon. Most are not true reviews at all. Instead what you will see are endless examples of critiques, or far worse! The vast majority believe it is their god given right to tear apart any and every book, in particular ebooks by both traditional and indie authors.

It isn’t! All you are doing is showing your ignorance to the world at large. Some, not all, make it their business to harangue the author of the work they have just written about. A small number will insist that they could have made a far better job of writing the story!

To all of them I ask this – how many of them have ever written anything longer than their own signature I wonder? Have any of them ever had a book published? How would they feel if the boot was on the other foot? Would they feel outraged about the product of all their hard work being considered rubbish by hateful individuals? These people who go on the offensive are too cowardly to use their own name, preferring instead to remain anonymous by hiding behind a pseudonym.

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It’s Research Time Once Again

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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

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I’ve just finished editing my old mate Derek Haines’ dystopian WIP, at the moment entitled God’s Gone Fishing, yesterday (Friday 18th March). Now at last I can turn all of my attention to beginning my research into the man pictured above, starting today with Desmond Seward’s book, Caravaggio – A Passionate Life.

For a long time now, (decades in fact) I’ve wanted to write a fiction loosely based on his relatively short, often violent, life. For anyone who has absolutely no clue whatsoever about him, let me just say that as far as I’m concerned Caravaggio was one of the most brilliant artists of his age, when he wasn’t being accused of murdering someone, thanks to his fiery temperament. Or spending time under lock and key, as he did when he got into trouble on the fortress island of Malta.

Extensive research on my part is absolutely necessary to do justice to the story. I need to glean all the known facts and fallacies about Caravaggio for the crib sheets I will need for background detail.

Here are just two of the fifty original works (not including versions he painted) that quiet clearly demonstrate his talent to anyone with an appreciation for fine art at its zenith:

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The Calling of Saint Matthew

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Judith Beheading Holofernes

Wish me luck. I’m going to need it! Why? To keep the anal retentives and other asssorted tosspots out there from attacking the end product if I get anything factually incorrect.

To this day, they never let me forget for one moment that in my best seller back in 2012, The Seventh Age, I misspelt the name of Gobekli Tepe, a neolithic site still being excavated by archaeologists to this day in South Eastern Anatolia (Turkey). To hear them complain, anyone would think that the world had ended because of one honest spelling mistake on my part. Did I ever go back to correct it? Hell no. Never acknowledge any mistake you make on Amazon, unless you have a death wish!!!

See what all you aspiring writers out there have to look forward to… 😉

With all the months of reading/research ahead of me, I can’t see myself writing word one this year, let alone whether or not the end product will prove good enough to offer to one of the big five publishing houses. If it doesn’t come up to their exacting standards, I’ll simply publish it in Kindle form along with the ten other’s I’ve written so far…

PS – back in 2002 while on the one and only proper holiday I’ve ever had in my entire life, I actually climbed down a rickety ladder into the freezing cold underground cell Caravaggio was briefly incarcerated in on Malta.

PPS – for the less computer savvy among you, if you click on any highlighted (coloured) word on this or any other blog post of mine, you immediately gain access to pertinent information for each post. Just thought I’d mention it. One less than intelligent individual a long time ago asked me why some of the words in my posts are different colours. Needless to say they went away red faced. I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand idiots…

Book Reviews Versus Critiques

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Since sites like Amazon gave the general public the opportunity to review any book they have read, what many still fail to understand, or indeed appreciate, is the difference between writing a review and what amounts to a critique.

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Here is a typical example of a professional newspaper review:

The Secret History of the Blitz by Joshua Levine, review: ‘tunnels behind clichés’.

Next is an example of a critique by an individual who quite simply failed to appreciate the book they read:

A second weakness in Frankl’s writing is in the assumptions he sometimes makes to prove his point. He makes overarching generalizations several times in his book, making statements that, although may have been true for himself and those around him, might not have been true for every prisoner in every concentration camp during the Holocaust. For example, in one instance, he says, “The prisoner of Auschwitz , in the first phase of shock, did not fear death” (37). It is very bold to say that no prisoner of Auschwitz, one of the most well-known and deadly concentration camps of the Holocaust, did not fear death, as death was all around them and was a very real threat in their daily lives. Although he might have not feared death during his phase of shock, it is impossible for him to guarantee that no prisoner was at all fearful of death in this first psychological phase, and for him to make overarching assumptions like this is a weakness to the overall quality of his book.

Finally, Frankl sometimes becomes too technical and verbose in his writing style, which makes it very hard for the average reader to understand. One example of this is as follows. Frankl states, “I remember an incident when there was an occasion for psychotherapeutic work on the inmates of a whole hut, due to an intensification of their receptiveness because of a certain external situation” (102). This sentence, which is overly wordy and complicated, makes it difficult for the average reader to understand exactly what he is saying. A reader can easily get frustrated when trying to decipher the author’s meaning due to overly complicated language, and this is a third weakness of Frankl’s writing.

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Now do you understand? Unfortunately many people still fail to grasp the fundamental difference!

Reviews are short and to the point without criticism, or for that matter, the need to tell the author how you would have preferred to have seen certain passages written, deleted or expanded in the book in question, while also giving away the plot!

Whenever I read any critique masked as a review, I tend not to the read the book in question. Why? Because you have already told me all about it. Like millions of other readers, I far prefer to find out what’s going on in the story for myself.

Think long and hard before you feel the need to offer a critique rather than a review in the future. No one is in the least bit interested in how you want the book written, especially the author!

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All Writers Crave Feedback

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When it comes to meaningful dialogue with our readers it rarely if ever happens, more’s the pity. We writers need the connection. All a review ever tells us is that the individual responsible for it either loved or hated the book in question.

Most writers like myself have a blog like this one where you can leave comments below a post, and a Facebook page where you can voice your thoughts in person on any book written by us, should you choose to do so. Or if you want, we can just chat about something else entirely. The point is that by chatting, we get to know each other, hopefully forging a lasting friendship.

Like you, every writer is plagued with the typical faults, passions and emotions that all human beings share. Some are known to hold strong views on varying subjects. Don’t let that necessarily put you off talking to any of us. We’re not ogres.

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Now a word to the wise, so please pay attention!

With book sites like Amazon, we are well aware of the inevitable one star reviews, often written by other writers hiding behind pseudonyms. And so, unless you have just landed on planet Earth within the last half hour, by now you will have noticed that my latest offering is now in its second free Kindle download giveaway day.

Here’s the rub. I fully expect it to gain endless one star reviews as a consequence. That always happens when a book is given away in any promotion. To that end I would remind anyone who has taken advantage of the offer, that you did get it for nothing. Therefore if you feel the uncontrollable urge to write a cutting review of your free copy, don’t! No one likes an ungratful smart-arse. Peversity on your part will hardly endear you to others, now will it. For the majority, please feel free to write your reviews and post them on whichever Amazon site you downloaded it from.

Lastly, I’m well aware that there will be errors. All books have them. Once the promotional period is over I will take it down temporarily to search them out before uploading the corrected version.

As they say in America – have a nice day.

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As a writer, sooner or later your editor will let you down!

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Face it, some editors only really care about how much money you are paying them. It is not until you become a writer yourself that you not only notice the errors that editors miss in any given book, but also how many there are. I’m not just talking about incorrect spelling, but the use of totally wrong words; things like missed spaces between a fullstop (period) and the capital letter of the next sentence, as well as either a lack of punctuation or far too much of it.

Let us also remember that some editors see nothing wrong with a book’s pages becoming nothing more than solid blocks of text with no break to make it easier to read. To give you another example, some editors in cahoots with certain publishers plead the old chestnut ‘house style’ as their excuse to cover a multitude of sins, like which type of quotation marks they prefer – single, or double.

It matters little that the book you are reading was self-published, or produced by a small press or one of the traditional big five publishers. More and more these days, with each book I pick up, I’m finding endless errors, which any editor worth their salt should have picked up on long before it went to print. If they were threatened with the sack, or were told they would not be paid for allowing those annoying mistakes to slip by, maybe all editors would be more vigilant!

Before any editor reading this has an attack of apoplectic rage brought on by what I’ve just said, if you are truthful, you know deep down that in all likelihood you have never ever turned over a totally error free manuscript for publication in your entire working life, due to time and business constraints. That being the case, the editor’s credo should be more haste, less speed. Maybe you need to stop thinking about how many other writers are waiting for your services, along with how much money you charge and concentrate on presenting a quality product for publication instead.

Why am I bringing this to your attention as editors and writers? Simple. When a member of the general public reads and reviews a book, their opinion (which is all any review is when you think about it) won’t necessarily be about its content or subject matter. More than likely these days what it will be about are the mistakes the reader found, or thought they had.

Quite often anyone who is not an American writer will be taken to task for what some Americans see as misspelt words. To them I will only say this – apart from American English there is also the original, English English, together with Canadian, South African, New Zealand, Australian and Indian English. To my knowledge they are the main branches of the language. Each form of the language tends to spell some words differently.

Getting back to the general public – will they blame the publisher for any mistakes found in any given book? No. To the average reader, publishers and their editors don’t make mistakes, which is total baloney! They’re human just like the rest of us.

Instead you will find that to the reader’s way of thinking, the fault lies wholly with the writer. Once again many readers cannot seem to appreciate that all you did was write the story, employing someone to edit it for you. If you as the writer are to be blamed for anything, it’s thinking that once you have written the manuscript – that’s it, job done. Wrong! Never let your editor get away with too much by not picking them up on those inevitable mistakes. Like you they’re not infallible. Between the two of you, errors should be eliminated.

Here’s a thought – if you want to improve your image as a writer, learn to edit. While your at it, employ beta or copy readers. Personally I do both. With each book I write, the number of errors has dramatically reduced. For instance, my novella Cataclysm, written last year, literally only has one very minor error – a space between quotation marks and the first letter of the first word in a sentence. If I can do my level best to eliminate all errors as a self-published writer, so can the editor you are employing.

Am I going to fix it? No. That way the author hating internet trolls, grammar nazis, literary snobs, and other assorted self proclaimed experts such as pedants and armchair critics will still be able to appear smug when writing their inevitable caustic reviews of it. You just can’t please people like that. So don’t even try. Don’t be put off over attempting to edit. It’s not that difficult. Like anything else, all it takes is time, patience and application, as well as a damned good command of the English language.

Remember this – It doesn’t matter what we do as writers, if we make use of professional support and it is less than satisfactory, we’re sunk!

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When writing some types of fiction, how accurate do you have to be?

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Unlike some genres, when it comes to pure science fiction, if you as the author prefer a quiet life, the answer is – extremely!

If you want examples of wild inacurracy, look no further than the many sci-fi films and video games churned out by Hollywood and others. Accuracy means nothing to them, spectacular sound effects do. For instance, while it may be acceptable to have music playing in the background via a speaker system when you see a space ship travelling through space, what isn’t acceptable to the pureist is the sound made by the ship’s engines. Or far worse, the sound of any weapons being fired in the depths of space; bearing in mind that it’s actually impossible to hear sound in a vacuum. On the other hand, it is perfectly acceptable if what you are hearing is happening during a scene filmed inside the said space ship. But you just try pointing out that fact to the producers and directors responsible. They couldn’t care less. Nor could most movie goers and scifi gaming fanatics.

In that case, why is it that when it comes to a pure sci-fi book, if you as its author have the effrontary to say something about a particular phenomena that flies in the face of what is currently accepted, or when you are referring to a specific celestial body, that the nerds and others who endlessly obsess over minutiae will immediately take you to task. I can give you a ‘for instance’. I had one individual have a go at me here on my blog several months back, maybe a year, I forget exactly, when I called the Earth’s satellite a planet in one of my recent scifi books – The Next Age, after he had read it.

While learned gatherings of academics like the International Astronomical Union are emphatic that it is not, as seen here in an extract taken from one of their interminably boring papers –  A planet is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit, other academics argue that the science behind their reasoning is sloppy at best.

In other words, the jury is still out. Maybe I was correct, maybe the nerd was. In the end, what does it matter? If you want peace and quiet, trust me it matters. Nerds, or anal retentives as I have come to think of them, can’t accept the simple fact that your book is just a fiction. To them anything like that has to be correct, fiction or not! In that particular nerd’s case, as far as he was concerned, what the IAU said on the matter was sacrosanct, not to be flouted by a successful mid-list scifi writer like myself!

If only he could have seen my instant reaction to his hissy fit when I read it. If memory serves, it involved the rapid upward motion of the extended index finger on my right hand, in conjunction with my tongue protruding from my mouth as a loud raspberry was blown in his general direction by your’s truly.

What? What’s wrong with that? Writers are no different from anyone else. We can’t stand total idiots either. We have feelings just like any other human being don’t forget.

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Yesterday morning I had just begun to write some more of my current WIP The Guardian, when I came to a grinding halt. I had just written a mini scene involving Lynne and one of the other characters – Cliff. In it I suggested that she had sensed something when the pair were exploring a part of Mars’ surface.

Bearing in mind that the planet’s atmosphere is 95.32% Carbon Dioxide, 2.7% Nitrogen, 0.13% Oxygen, 0.08% Carbon Monoxide, with minor amounts of water, Nitrogen Oxide, Neon, Hydrogen-Deuterium-Oxygen, Krypton and Xenon, I was about to say that she had heard it, when I wondered if that was possible. So I had to stop writing to research whether or not you could hear sound on the surface of Mars.

Eventually I came across this article –  On Mars, no one can hear you scream. According to the article the theory is that sound does travel through the CO2 rich atmosphere, but not nearly as far as in our oxygen rich one, which means that she probably could hear sounds extremely close to her, always providing her space suit’s communications equipment was tuned to the lower frequencies of the Martian atmosphere.

But just to be on the safe side, I have inferred that she felt vibrations brought on by a tremor, through the soles of her space suit’s boots, when she stamped one of her boots down hard, indicating a void beneath her. I don’t need any more nerds taking me to task over a minute detail like that after they eventually get to read The Guardian, now do I? Chances are though that one of these idiots will do just that, arguing over whether or not Lynne would feel anything like a tremor through the thick soles of her space suit’s boots.

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I’m not the only one in the firing line. I know of one well known writer of historical fiction, Michael Jecks, who also gets his fair share of flack from idiots who complain about all kinds of things in his books. Even my good friend Robert Bauval is constantly being taken to task about his knowledge of ancient Egypt. Lets face it folks, there’s just no pleasing some people.

Well, I’d better get back to it now I’ve found out how far sound travels in the Martian atmosphere.

PS – My ego was given a major boost yesterday when one young lady, Emma Paul, said of me in passing, “Jack Eason is a master storyteller.” It’s always nice to be appreciated. Thank you for making my day yesterday Emma.

That’s all for now folks. More later if your lucky.

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It Helps If You Are Completely Bonkers

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Vain, selfish and lazy? Speak for yourself Eric Blair aka George Orwell. Most writers I know are none of those things. These days the only people you will come across like that are certain editors and literary agents as well as some professional critics. The latter category, especially the odd one or two who write for newspapers and literary magazines here in the UK, can definitely be said to be vain and selfish. To those two unsavoury qualities I would add a few others – condescending, snobbish, scathing and vicious, particularly when it comes to one leading newspaper’s literary critic and his deep loathing of Indies. Compared to him, internet trolls are rank amateurs.

As for the rest of what Eric is quoted as saying – writing is a long exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness, he’s perfectly correct. It is. With a few exceptions, I seriously doubt that anyone who reads books has the faintest notion of what we go through when writing one. Blair was also right when he said that – one would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist, nor understand.

In my own case, what drives me to write is not so much a demon as the burning desire to share a story with you the reader. So the next time you read any book, whether you liked it or not, ask yourself what kind of hell did the author of this book put themselves through when he or she wrote this? How many sleepless nights did they suffer to bring the story to me? How many times were they afflicted with the one problem all writers suffer from on a fairly frequent basis – writer’s block?

As if all of that wasn’t enough for the writer to contend with, there are the endless attacks by internet trolls. In some cases they are actually disgruntled fellow writers who are seriously annoyed that people buy, like, and praise your work while shunning theirs. Some trolls are nothing more than malicious individuals hiding behind pseudonyms, thriving on hate while hoping that you will react, judging by their often incomprehensible one star reviews.

Do I still want to write for a living? Hell yes, even though it often drives me to distraction. Once you have been bitten by the writing bug, everything else in your life apart from writing posts like this, and chatting to readers and friends on Facebook, rapidly vanishes into the distance.

You heard it here first folks. It helps if you are completely bonkers with a masochistic streak when it comes to writing.

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