Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Using Reviews to Write Better Books

Some authors advocate avoiding reviews. I am here to advocate using them. I'm not talking about hiring sock puppets to gin up some gush—I'm talking about using reviews to gain insight into how books succeed and fail. I try to use reviews to make me a better writer.

Before going any further, I need to mention that I am not a reviewer. I pulled the plug on my own Goodreads account a long time ago because I realized I wasn't contributing to the community there. I don't publish reviews on this blog, although I sometimes mention books that I find especially compelling and worthy of attention. I do read reviews though, and I respect those readers who spend time and effort thinking about books.

Black Helicopters has been out for almost a month, which provides me with a pool of data—it isn't deep or wide, but it is a pool. Now, personally, I find the 1-to-5 stars system offers me no useful information at all. The narratives, though, those are worth examination. How? Well, reading the reviews provides a gestalt, but I know it is inherently subjective. Ideas that pop are ideas that are significant to me. 

Still, I don't want to suggest the gestalt stuff is useless information. I gained a lot from it. 

I note that the issue of re-reading comes up often. I find that very positive. Another review mentions that the book will have a niche audience—and that seems true enough. A number of readers complained of lack of development and laid that to the short length. That makes sense, and it is very valuable information to me since the terse style and over-all brevity were intentional, not accidental. I do tend to write short. Part of that has to do with my theory of reading and reader engagement. A sort of creative conspiracy of author and reader is my holy grail—both as a reader and a writer. I think the reader dissatisfaction indicates that I haven't accomplished that. 

So I have all those things to consider.

But I also wondered if there might be some way to push past my subjective reading of those reviews. So I tried. I often make Wordles of works in progress* to see how things are shaping up. This time, I made a Wordle of the text of the review. After seeing the first one, I realized that I needed to filter out proper names, words like "book" and "story," and a few other relatively common words that aren't included in Wordle's common word list. (Arguably, screening those terms out reduces the objectivity of the results.) Here is the review wordle...

* The Wordle below was generated from the first pages of a work in progress. The proper names—Bun, Carl, and Texanna—are naturally most frequent.  It cracks me up that "cheese" is a big deal. The book will outgrow that phase. I think. Or maybe not.

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