One-Star Reviews #3: Keep it Relevant

The third prevalent complaint I found in one-star reviews applies most specifically to writers who are forging into subsequent books in a series, and the word of warning one-star reviewers send your way is this: don't ramble. No matter how fascinating you might think the minutia of your world may be, if it doesn't serve to advance the plot in some meaningful way, don't include it.

To be fair, for every one-star review that complains about self-indulgent world building detail, there are ten reviews that rave about the depth of the story teller's world. The majority of loyal fantasy fans eat world details like Edmund Pevensie shovels Turkish Delight, but my study of one-star reviews shows there is a significant percentage of those who don't. As with many things in life, it seems to me moderation is the key.

More specifically, the incensed reviewers became weary when a promising first (or even second or third) book in a series led them into a tome of rambling nothing. World information, disjointed exploits, and story padding that make a laborious 900 page book out of what could have been a really good 500 page story bring one-star reviewers' blood to a boil. And given the price of a big publishing house hardback novel that has as many pages as all three Lord of the Rings books combined, readers want every word on those expensive pages to pack a punch--and I think they deserve that. Prior success is no reason for editors to let authors get sloppy.

Another refrain I found in these one-star reviews that decried irrelevant detail was an across-the-board complaint about overly-detailed sex scenes in fantasy books that did nothing to develop anyone's character (for better or worse) and felt more like voyeuristic indulgence of the author's weird thought life than anything that should populate the pages of a book. Just by reading the way the reviewers framed these comments, it's obvious they aren't moral ultra-conservatives. They might not even object to the concept of casual sex in the real world. They just don't want to see geeky fantasies lived out for pages and pages for no reason. It's not just us prudish Christians who'd rather not hear detailed language about body parts and their interaction. I find it a relief to know there are readers across the spectrum with a sense of decency, and they're not afraid to speak up about it.

I'll be the first to admit that finding the exact level of world exposition that pleases both those who geek out over it and those who demand continual story momentum is a huge challenge for those of us who have built worlds and mentally live in them. That's why I think it's very valuable to come out of fantasy land every now and again, take a look around at how people are reacting to the unveiling of that world, and adjust accordingly.

Comments

  1. Ahh, so people complain about "filler" novels! You know, the drivel that some authors churn out to make the series longer. (I abandoned the Left Behind books when I sensed the impending Filler Novels. You know there was originally only supposed to be 7 books?)

    Moral of the story: murder your darlings. :-)

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  2. Kessie... I quit LB for the exact same reason. The Mark was the absolute last straw. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. But that complaint is for another day :)

    Now for traditional fantasy I love geography and exploration and new lands and new people. Its what ultimately made me fall so deeply in love with Lord of the Rings. The world was real. And what made it real was not the divulging if every detail that came into the author's brain but what he withheld. Vague mentions of elven history. Lays that hinted at the deeper history without explaining it (though I couldn't stand it when Donaldson did it in the Thomas Convenant series). The feeling that everything was sort of in a state of ruin or decline with only hints of the grand. It made me desire more and to hunt for the stories that went with the history. And I did.

    On the flipside, I read the first book in the Wheel of Time cycle and I was one of those angry readers. Sure the world had history, but it went on for so bleeding long that I kept flipping back to the map at the front of the book trying to figure out how they were going to make it to their destination by the end of the book. After about 700 pages of backpacking they conveniently came to a place called 'The Ways' (I will always remember the name of it because I was so angry about it)which was essentially an underground warp zone that dropped them off near their destination. I felt totally gypped. Maybe if I would have KNOWN they were headed for the green pipe all along I would have been ok, but all it did was leave me with a bitter taste in my mouth. 700 pages of travel to get to a warp point. Gee, did the author realize his book was too danged long and so instead of editing it he invented something on the fly to come in under the maximum ideal word count? I think so. I wouldn't have given it a one star, but I would have gripped. Loudly.

    And this all comes down to what you said, Becky... all scenes must serve to further the character and/or plot. LOTR does that for the most part and comes off with an air of being so real that I don't mind in the least when it indulges itself because Im salivating for it to do so. Other books need to lay off the Turkish delight.

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  3. The problem with "filler" novels is that you cannot identify them at a glance (at least I can't). It is not until I've bought and read at the very least a few chapters that I understand the plot is going nowhere. So perhaps the one-star reviewers were mostly angry at being "duped" into buying a novel that's not as good. I think that, as writers, it is a challenge to us to write novels that don't ramble, to find that perfect balance between revelation and secrecy that will keep readers coming back. I haven't read LOTR, but given the comments here, I think I'll have a look into them.

    As for sex scenes, I also agree. They are unnecessary and will kill any book no matter how great the story is, IMO.

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