Friday, March 7, 2014
I'm in a slightly different situation from the other writers who've preceded me with this week's question: "Do you read reviews? Reply to them? Review the works of other writers?" As a short story writer whose work appears in magazines and anthologies (i.e. not a full-length collection of my own fiction yet), I'm less likely to have my work reviewed at any great length—though I certainly did appreciate having been included in a round-up of last year's best EQMM stories and getting a quick shout-out on a particular story from a reader who enjoyed it. And I'm sure I'd feel stung if someone took the time to single out one of my stories as one to not read in a particular issue of EQMM; that would take a particular brand of disappointment, wouldn't it?
But beyond being a short story writer and thus largely ignored/sheltered (take your pick) from reviews, I'm also (quickly switching hats) a professional reviewer, with articles appearing fairly regularly these days in The Washington Post and past reviews in the pages of magazines including Mystery Scene, The Oxford American, The Strand and other publications.
Jason Matthews' Red Sparrow, currently up for an Edgar Award) to pretty negative ones (well, click through for yourself).
In each case, I'm not just trying to offer a thumbs up or thumbs down, which I think is the disappointing and even destructive thing about a lot of Amazon reviews these days, and in the end, I doubt that anyone really cares whether I personally liked a book or not. Instead, I try to gauge a book on its own ambitions or intentions (best as I can judge them), on the audience that it might be aiming for, on how it fits into some larger tradition or trend, etc. My hope it to provide some context that will let the reader know what a book is trying to do, how freshly or smartly it's doing it, and whether they might want to look into it further or likely just steer clear. In fact, one of the best comments I got on a review was from a friend who said, "I could tell that you didn't care much for that book you reviewed, but it sounds like just what I'd want to read. Is that bad?" No, not bad at all. In fact, that makes me feel like I did my job.
While I haven't myself gone through the process of writing and revising a book-length manuscript, finding an agent, finding a publisher, getting edited further, etc., I do respect and admire anyone who's gone through that and come out the other end with a published book in hand—and because I can certainly imagine what it must feel like to come through that process and find a lot of negativity waiting at the end of it, I don't cast such aspersions lightly. Contrary to popular belief, I don't think that critics in general take great pleasure in trashing someone else's work or in being clever at the expense of somebody else. Still, I do think there's an obligation to be honest about what might not be working in a novel and to give readers some insight (as I said above) about whether a book might just not be right for them. No one is served well if you just give a little pat on the back to everything you read.
Good critical commentary—whether a single review or the weekly contributions of critics like Ron Charles or Michael Dirda, the columnists I most admire—celebrates great accomplishments more often than not and provides both a deeper understanding of the work under discussion and of the larger world of literature across a wide set of genres. While I know the first question this week is about whether we read reviews of our own work, I do want to stress that everything I've tried to say here is why I read reviews in general—even of highly praised books that I ultimately have no intention of reading myself. There's lots to learn from a careful and conscientious critic, about our own craft and others' work and a whole lot more.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Do you read reviews? Reply to them? Review the works of other writers?
All reviews are not created equally, so for the purposes of this post, I’m going to divide them into three types, based on who’s doing the reviewing.
1) Professional, high-profile reviews (The four services: Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist; and major general and trade publications):
Reviews from these sources can matter, in several ways. First, getting a good review (starred or otherwise) can have a definite effect on books sold. People read those publications for a reason, and if your book gets good notice, they’ll be more likely to order and recommend your book. Also, these reviews can provide marketing material (blurbs!) for book covers and other promotional efforts. A complimentary pull-quote about your book from Kirkus (“The best book about talking walruses on the shelves today!!”) can give a boost to your marketing campaign.
Read them? I ALWAYS read reviews from these sources (even if an author wouldn’t want to, their publicist would bombard them with emails about the reviews).
Reply to them? Never.
2) Less well-known publications, bloggers: These types of reviews can also be helpful, both in terms of generating positive word-of-mouth (influencing sales) and for use in marketing, but a lot depends on the individual source/reviewer. The vast majority of these reviewers are very professional, but once in a while you might run across one with a particular agenda. Or a grudge. Or a bizarre way of looking at the world (and your book!).
Read them? Yep, I usually read these (if I know about them, of course), but I’m always watchful for those reviewers who seem to have an axe to grind or who are just out to impress their own blog readers with their super-snarky musings.
Reply to them? I’ll sometimes thank the reviewer (if I know their name) for taking the time to read my book and offer a thoughtful review, but I NEVER make specific comments about the review itself. People are entitled to their opinions, and that’s one of the things that makes this country great (along with 24-hour donut shops).
3) Random Internet people (on Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, etc.): If you’ve ever surfed these sights (and really, who hasn’t?), you’ll know how, um, uneven reviews can be here. Most are reasonably fair and honest reactions to the books they’ve read. But there are some reviewers (a not insignificant number), who use these reviews to vent or try to show their superiority or to exhibit their wit or to demonstrate their need for stronger medication. Actually, these reviews can be quite entertaining (as long as it’s not your book they’re reviewing—then it’s slightly less entertaining).
Read them? I admit that I usually read them, but I don’t give them much weight. When it comes to reviews from the masses, I look for general trends. A hundred mostly-positive reviews outweigh that one-star, “my dead great aunt could write a better book” outlier.
Reply to them? Although sorely tempted at times, I NEVER respond to an Amazon review. Never. Only bad things can come from that. Really bad things. I’m not kidding. Just say no. (I’m talking to you, writers!). Move along, move along, nothing to comment on here.
Do I review other writers’ work? Not anymore. I stopped leaving reviews a few years ago, mostly because of guilt. I’d feel guilty that I couldn’t read all my friends’ books, and then I’d feel guilty if I wanted to leave a 4-star review (instead of 5 stars), and then I’d feel guilty about feeling guilty. And really, who cares what I think about a book anyway? So, no more reviews.
What say you? How much stock do you put in reviews, especially the “non-professional” ones?
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Monday, March 3, 2014
Do you read reviews? Reply to them? Review the works of other writers?
Something rather frightening happens to some writers when their first book comes out. They become obsessed with their own reviews. They obsessively check the issues of Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, etc., etc., holding their breath and hoping that their book will get a favorable mention (or perhaps even a star). When it doesn't? Despair! When it does? They slowly find out that a great review does not instantly make them a bestselling author.
It's not that I don't read my own reviews--I just don't read them very often. I noticed that all I ever remembered were the bad parts of the review and none of the good. Eventually I had to stop measuring my own abilities on whether or not a newspaper/magazine still gave a few inches of space to unknown writers, and whether or not a reviewer happened to like or dislike my writing. I did a guest blog some years ago where my host quoted from a review that I remembered as being particularly horrible and scathing--and I was shocked that he had been able to find something that sounded so wonderful in the reviewer's words. I had completely missed it. I realized that I had no perspective and it was healthier to step away.
I have never responded to a bad review because I think it is, well, tacky. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I'm not going to change their mind and I would just end up looking like an overly sensitive wimp. And I only tweet about (or mention on Facebook) books that I like. I'm not being paid to review anything and I figure life is too short to read things that I don't enjoy. Or pour salt on the wound of a writer just because it wasn't a book that I enjoyed.
Now, I'm not saying that reviews are not important. I love to read reviews and I'm sad that newspapers aren't reserving space for them anymore. I find reviews helpful as I look for new books and authors to read. And I can sometimes tell by reading between the lines of a bad review that it's actually a book I would love. I just have to trust that other readers will do the same for my books.
Friday, February 28, 2014
Is it true that bad books make good movies and good books make bad ones?
There's no hard and fast rule about whether good books make bad movies or bad books make good ones. There's only about a million factors involved, from the screenwriters to the director, the producer, cast and probably even down to the crafts services personnel. And let's not forget the source material.
Books and movies by their natures are very different beasts and require different aesthetics and elements. Movies have to convey a lot of information in a small amount of time, so overly complicated story lines can drag a movie down. Books can handle information in a more leisurely manner, description of places and people are more important, and you can get more into the heads of the characters, examine their thoughts and feelings. A book has to wrap you up inside itself because it can’t rely on a visual picture to get across the look and feel of the characters and settings. And a movie should grab the essence of the book, without necessarily being true to every detail of it (see LA Confidential below). These changes can – on occasion – make the movie better than the book.
So, some good books make good movies and some good books make bad movies. And some bad books make good movies and some make bad movies. Well, of course, nothing is true all the time. And I wouldn't venture a generality, but it works both ways.
It's hard to narrow it down to a few examples as there's so many choices of each combination. And it's also hard to distill down the essence of why this worked and that didn’t, as each one that I've chosen could stand an entire essay on that subject. Here's a sampling, though I'm sure not everyone will agree with my assessments. And I'm sure I'll offend somebody with each one, but here goes (in no particular order):
In a Lonely Place (Dorothy B. Hughes): Good book, great movie. This is tied for my second favorite movie after Casablanca. I like it for a lot of reasons, but especially the story of the angry and alienated screenwriter. And I know I may offend some people here, Dorothy B. Hughes fans in particular, but for me the movie version is a huge improvement over the book, and I liked the book, but I didn't love it. The book, as I recall it, is a pretty straight-forward serial killer story. The movie takes the basics of the book and adds an ambiguity that leads to a much more bittersweet and poignant story and ending than in the book. So this is a case where the filmmakers did change a certain essence of the story, but it works out for the better. And if you want to hear a really good song based on this movie check out the Smithereens' "In a Lonely Place," which even cops a couple of the film’s most famous lines: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ro6mucYQeN4
The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown): Bad book, bad movie. Sometimes bad books make bad movies. I know a lot of people like this, but in my maybe not so humble opinion, the book was very poorly written. It's a prime example of a great idea poorly executed. And the movie didn’t try to break out of the cardboard characters created in the book. It concentrated on remaining relatively faithful to the plot and didn’t stray so the movie remained as weak as the book.
Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe): Great book, horrendously horrible, piece of garbage movie: Why? Because, if I recall, as it's been a long time since I've seen it and I won't punish myself with wasting two hours of my life again, the producers didn't have the courage to do the book. The book is filled with various sensitive and controversial elements that deal with race and our perceptions of justice in society and the producers didn't have the courage to do that on the screen, so they turned it into a lame parody of what the book was trying to convey. And the movie was bad on every possible level.
The Godfather (Mario Puzo): Okay book, a fun and quick read, great movie. In fact, one of the greatest American movies of all time. The movie, through great acting, directing, cinematography, a haunting sound track and a terrific screenplay, took a pulpy story about gangsters and made it a saga about family honor, tradition, a way of life and the struggle for the American Dream.
LA Confidential (James Ellroy): Good book, great movie: Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland took Ellroy's sprawling novel, condensed it, pureed it and simplified it, making a tight, cohesive and powerful movie out of it, while still keeping the essence of the novel intact.
Mildred Pierce (James M. Cain): Good, maybe just okay book, good movie (the 1946 version w/ J. Crawford). Here the screenwriters and director took a major liberty with the book. SPOILER AHEAD: In the book the Monte character (Mildred's second husband) does not get murdered. In the movie he does. And this brings more tension, drama and mystery to the movie, without, IMO, messing with the basic integrity of the story line. And while the Kate Winslett mini-series follows the book more closely, to me it was more plodding and in a word, boring. Though I guess I'm in the minority here as on IMDB the Winslett version gets 7.7 out of 10 stars, and the Crawford version 8. So almost a neck and neck tie. Oh well.
The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler) – Great book, wretched movie. Okay, I know a lot of people love this movie, think it's some kind of cult classic, etc. To me the only really good thing about it is the location of Marlowe's apartment, the Hightower Apartments in Hollywood, where I once looked into renting a place. Really cool building. But Elliot Gould's Marlowe, despite what some say is a Marlowe for the times (the 1970s), is not Chandler's Marlowe by a long shot. And Chandler was, and probably still is, rolling over in his grave at this one. And now that I've pissed off a bunch of people, I've got the Kevlar helmet and flak jacket ready to take the incoming.
And now for a little BSP: in addition to my novel WHITE HEAT, just out is LA LATE @ NIGHT, a collection of noir and mystery short stories. So far available on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback. And other venues shortly too.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Well, leaving aside To Kill A Mockingbird, a slew of Chandlers, I Capture The Castle, and Atonement, yes. And Harry Potter. But broadly speaking. And The Great Gatsby. Quite broadly. Trainspotting.
So maybe no.
Sometimes the problem with a beloved book being made into a movie is that so much is lost. Nothing's missing from the film - the film's fine - but all you can think of as you sit there with a fistful of popcorn halfway to your open mouth are the purged characters, edited out like Trotsky.
Perhaps that's why short stories can make such successful films even for their fans: they start the right size. Brokeback Mountain for instance is wonderful in both forms (unlike The Shipping News) and (Rita Hayworth and) The Shawshank Redemption too. Whereas, when John Irving tried to turn the - admittedly sizeable - Cider House Rules into a movie, the script had a running time of over eight hours.
Killing other people's darlings must be easier. Emma Thompson pulled off a near miracle when she adapted Sense And Sensibility. She took a wonderful book and made it better; removing characters no one misses (Lady Middleton and her four children? Who cares?) and giving purpose to dull characters too. Margaret Dashwood adds nothing to the world of the novel whatsoever but in the film she's funny, she reveals Edward's character through his relationship with her and the little actress playing her manages to steal scenes from Kate Winslet, no less.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
The Devil, The Wizard & The Blogger
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Monday, February 24, 2014
Friday, February 21, 2014
This week's question is "If you could choose different aspects of famous writers, who would you use to construct your ideal writer?" and trying to patch together my own "Franken-author," as Meredith termed it on Monday, has sent me in a number of different directions—including one less focused on craft than on production and profitability: Erle Stanley Gardner's writing speed (a book a week!), Stephen King's bank account, Tana French's overnight success, etc.
I think most of us, when we first try to write, start out from a point not just of inspiration but of imitation. Most of us (not all) are avid readers first; we recognize how we've been impacted by a book and an author, and so maybe we set out to build something similar ourselves, make that same impact on someone else. And the first step is that is a kind of mimicry of what we've read. I remember as a teenager being blown away by Ken Follett's The Eye of the Needle and Triple and The Key to Rebecca—and then setting out to write a spy novel myself, echoing the mood and the moves and the dialogue and.... well, echoing is about all I could do, since what did I really know about espionage or history or much of anything at that point?
It's worth remembering here, of course, that Harry Crews claimed he learned to write by dissecting Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair, purportedly even ripping out pages and arranging them on the floor to see them better. As he said:
I've read Graham Greene very closely with the conscious idea of seeing how in the hell he did things.... So I took one of his novels and reduced it to numbers: how many characters; how many days did the novel take; how many cities were involved; how far into the novel did I understand the climax to take place; where did the action turn; how many men, women, children, room. Then I sat down and tried to write a novel using that skeleton.... Needless to say, the novel that resulted from this was an abominable piece of work—arbitrary, mechanical, uninteresting. At the same time, I think I learned a great deal from that exercise....Unlike Crews, I don't think I'll ever be able to point to one book or even one author which taught me style and structure and character and plotting, and I don't think I could even parse out which groups of authors influenced the writer I am—anymore, of course, than I might be able to put together a conglomeration of authors that I'd like to be. Too many influences and possibilities to count, too much out there to draw from, and still so very very much to learn.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
If you could choose different aspects of famous writers, who would you use to construct your ideal writer (ie, plotting from James Patterson, characters from Carl Hiaasen, setting from Charles Dickens, etc)?
Here’s my dream team:
Plot – Michael Connelly
Characters – Tom Wolfe
Setting – J.K. Rowling
Pacing – John Gilstrap
Prose – Dennis Lehane
Hook/Premise – Michael Crichton
Plot twists – Jeffery Deaver
Humor – John R. Powers (go look him up!)
Emotional heft – Reed Farrel Coleman
Storytelling – Stephen King
Ka-Chingability – James Patterson
Feel free to agree/disagree/add your own choices in the comments!
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Monday, February 17, 2014
by Meredith Cole
It sounds like a diabolical experiment: building the perfect author. And kind of funny, too. I can't even imagine what a Patterson/Hiassen/Dickens writer might sound like. But I think the combo author would lose the unique flavor of each writer as they were added to the mix, and that would be a shame.
Here's what I do know:
I would love to write mysteries as funny as Timothy Hallinan's Junior Bender series.
I'd love to be able to write beautiful descriptions like Reed Farrel Coleman.
I would love to write a painful coming of age mystery story like William Kent Krueger.
I would love to be able to write fight scenes like Lee Child.
I would like to be able to write a complex politically charged mystery like Sara Paretsky.
I would love to write a well researched historical mystery like Anne Perry.
And I could go on and on... Because I am both a reader and a writer.
And for a very funny post by a very funny author, see Lawrence Block's "author merger" piece from last week. If authors were corporations...