Reviewing reviews

I’ve written about reviews before, but I thought I would go a little deeper into it from a writer’s perspective.

When you put your writing out in the public eye, you invite feedback.  Some will be good and some will be bad.  Don’t believe me?  Check out Amazon and the reviews for your most favorite author of your most favorite book.  There will be negative reviews.

Part of whether a review is good or bad for any given work has to do with personal preferences.  I have a friend who adores certain books/movies/music, and while I agree with some of it, others of her favorites I dislike or feel ambivalent about.  Personal taste.  It doesn’t make either of our opinions right or better than the other, they are just different perspectives.

There are also trolls out there.  We see them all the time on the Internet.  Their sole purpose in life seems to be going around actively bashing anything and anyone, usually in the rudest possible manner they can muster.  Ignore them.  They are not worth anyone’s time or energy, either to read what they’ve written or bother responding.

There may be other shades of types but we’ll group most of the remainder into people expressing a well-meaning review (admittedly some are less well-meaning than others).  They are trying to give honest feedback, and they may or may not accomplish it.

Trouble is, some of them don’t/can’t express themselves very well, so it gets lost in the translation.

Others, give “feedback” that says very little: “loved it”, “great story”, “this is amazing”.  While they’re being honest, and it may make us feel good, it isn’t particularly helpful.  What did they love?  Why was it a great story?  What is amazing about it?  Do they think the characters are brilliantly realized?  Do they consider the storyline utterly fascinating?  Is this the most original and unique story they’ve read in a long time?  What was it they particularly liked?  Writers need some idea of what it was they did right.  Similarly, they need to know what didn’t work.  “It was great for the most part” doesn’t give me much idea of where I need to improve.  What is wrong with the ‘non-most part’, and what in particular was it?  Did I put the characters into a completely unbelievable situation, but it was brief and you forgive me and just ignore that part?  What?  Details and specifics can help.  Examples can help.  Vague praise or criticism doesn’t do me much good.

The other sort of feedback that I see a lot of in fan fiction is quite specific (though sometimes presented a little nastily).  You can tell me you didn’t like something without being nasty about it.  Try really, really hard – you can do it!  Some of what they express is on-the-nose accurate.  Yes, I did mess up that part.  Yes, the story did fall a little flat in that part of chapter two.  Yes, I could have done more with that character.  But writers – DON’T take the reviewers’ words as gospel.  I’ve had people tell me I’m wrong about something when in fact they were the one that was wrong.  I’ve also had them express an opinion – but it WAS an opinion and not based in anything concrete.

If they offer criticism, examine what they are saying and try to honestly determine if they are right.  If you believe they are, then take it to heart and try to do something about it in your future writings (or fix the current one if that is possible).  If they are wrong, thank them for their input and ignore it.  I’ve seen some reviews and I’m curious about the person who wrote it so I go to see what they have written.  Many times it turns out that they haven’t written/posted anything, or what they have written is so poorly written that I wouldn’t even read it all the way through.  That being the case, why would I (or anyone else) listen to their criticism of someone else’s work?  But if I find that they have published stories and they are extremely well written, then I sit up and take notice.  They know whereof they speak.  I can learn from them if I will.

For those of us who post online in a format that allows making changes, we have the option of fixing things if we wish.  Hardcover or paperback books don’t have that luxury.  Any errors must remain until the next printing, and even then remain unless the book owner buys a new copy that fixes the error.  Since I write in the Lord of the Rings universe, and it is a huge, rich universe, there is a learning curve.  Early stories have detail errors that I only discover later.  I don’t necessarily go back and fix them if they are a major part of the story, I just don’t repeat them in the future.  Other things are trivial: I had given a male horse a certain name that someone pointed out would actually be a feminine name in Tolkien-verse.  That was easily changeable and so I made the correction.

But only once did I rewrite a scene after a reviewer said they felt someone acted out of character.  I agreed with them after reading their very specific comments, and it was easy enough to replace that scene in the story, so I rewrote it to try to bring it back into line with the character.  They were astonished, not expecting me to do that, but it was my choice not to leave that error in the story.

So, bottom line, take all reviews with a grain of salt.  Honestly examine what is said and try to fix what you can, either in the present or in the future.  And while you’re at it, try to leave constructive reviews for others, the kind of reviews that you would like to get.  There likely will never be a “best writer ever”, but we can all be better writers collectively, and help others toward that goal.

Book Review: the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan

First a disclaimer:  if you’ve seen either or both of the Percy Jackson movies PLEASE do not judge the books by that.  The first movie was marginally tolerable, but the second not even worth seeing.  Between the two of them, they veered so far from the books as to be virtually unrecognizable.  And, as usual, the books are infinitely better.  It’s a shame, too, since this could well have been the “new Harry Potter series” for movies, if they hadn’t trashed them from the outset.

The books, though – that is another matter.  First of all, understand that there are two series, though they do connect.  The original 5 books fall under the collective title of Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  The second set of 5 is called Percy Jackson and the Heroes of Olympus.  All together, they only span about six years of real time – from about age 12 to about age 17 (similar to the Harry Potter books, though that is pretty much where the similarity ends).

In Percy, Riordan has created quite the smart-mouthed, irreverent hero.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Overall, Percy is a good guy, and loyal to his friends.  He just isn’t overly impressed with authority figures who are full of themselves – but, then, who of us is, really?

The initial books are set solely in the United States, though they range from coast to coast.  Riordan brings in familiar landmarks, but presents them in unique ways.  Some of these places, you will never be able to look at them in the same way again.  There is lots of fighting, but done in new and interesting ways each time so that it doesn’t become stale.  And because these center around “mythical” characters, battling of monsters can be done in very creative ways.

It does not take long to know these characters well and to love (or hate) them.  You root for the good guys and boo the bad guys.  And you are confused by some of the questionable characters – which side are they really on?  The final book provides an excellent and satisfying conclusion to the initial series.

With a “sequel” series, one tends to be a little leery.  Too often it means going to the well one too many times.  I can’t say that I liked this second series so well as the first – I felt it had more problems – but still I enjoyed it very much and do reread it.  In these stories, Riordan tries a new writing style.  We got the first series all from Percy’s POV.  This series changes POV by chapter (though sometimes there are multiple chapters in a row from the same POV).  While it is interesting to get a new take on this world and familiar characters as seen by others, it also introduced more of a stiltedness.  Some of the dialogue was too forced and felt uncomfortable.

For all that, however, the stories are good (mostly, the final book was a somewhat weak conclusion, in my view).  The beauty of the new series is all the new characters we meet and fall in love with, and then get to see interacting with the familiar characters.  One big thing in Riordan’s favor, in both series though more evident here, is the diversity of the characters.  We don’t only meet white male heroes – there are females, Chinese, black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, Canadian and so forth.  They aren’t all tall and good-looking – some are short, bad-tempered and unattractive to the eye.  Indeed, until the second series, one of Riordan’s weaknesses was in portraying the stereotypical “perfect” person.  That still lingers to some extent, but the second time out he lets them be more than just a pretty face with an empty head.

Just like Harry Potter, these books are aimed toward the middle-school crowd, but they can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

Riordan also did a three book series surrounding the Egyptian gods and is currently writing books in a Norse gods series (the second book is now published).  Additionally, he has a series entitled The Trials of Apollo which ties to the Percy Jackson books.  Only the first book of that series is currently available.  I won’t try to review the unfinished series at this point.  The finished Egyptian series, The Kane Chronicles, has some good stuff, but I didn’t find myself as drawn into that world.  I couldn’t see anything specifically wrong with the stories, so perhaps that was more due to my lack of familiarity with those legends/myths.  Others may enjoy them more than I did.

Percy Jackson books:  Recommended!

Book Review: The Cursed Child

(some possible mild spoilers)

Moments of it are good, but overall it was disappointing.

It is a pointless sequel/continuation (like so many movies/books, trying to keep the money train running).

Perhaps due to the script form, it is too cursory to really develop the characters and situations. Often I got lost trying to figure out why something was happening/done/said or even what was going on.

There is a glaring error in the fight with “what’s her name” (I forget and I’m too lazy to go look it up – the villainess).  She disarms Harry and he’s hiding.  Albus manages to pop up and distract her, and Harry attacks.  But there is never any indication of how or even that he got his or any other wand back.  Did he dive for it while she was distracted?  Did Albus send one flying into his hand?

After the great build-up of the series of Harry Potter books, this story/conflict resolution was too easy and simplistic.

At times, Harry seemed totally out of character.  Most of the others seemed reasonable, but particularly when he is giving McGonagall orders – not buying it.  Granted this is an older, stressed Harry, possibly even a bit jaded, but that sort of thing was just never in his character.  I didn’t believe it, even acting as a “concerned father”.

I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it.  Just “meh”.  Shrug it off as read, set it aside and likely never read it again.  (Whereas I’ve reread the original HP books several times.)

That’s not to say that I’m totally down on all additional things Harry Potter.  Fantastic Beasts looks like it is interesting, and could be very good.  If that proves true, the fresh take on this world will prove preferable than trying to re-energize a finished story in the original books with additional “sequels”.  The “snapshots” on Pottermore of various aspects of the wizarding world can be interesting and entertaining, but The Cursed Child just fell flat, in my opinion.  Still, others love it, so I guess it depends on individual taste.