Thursday, December 29, 2011

Three Things (Fantasy) Readers Want

It has been such an encouragement to me how many of you have really gotten some nugget of useful wisdom out of the One-Star Review series I've been posting here--I really appreciate the feedback and encouragement. As I troll more one-star diatribes for cohesive nuggets to post about, I thought I'd take a little detour to talk about what those who posted positive reviews state they want, at least in general terms, from their fantasy reading. After all, of the "big titles" I've been studying, the boo-hiss reviews represent less than 5% of the feedback on any of these books, so it seems prudent to at least touch on what most people are saying.

So here we go. If reviews are to be believed, fantasy readers want...

To visit your world

Fantasy readers generally revel in the opportunity to traverse the map of another land, if the tale you are telling allows for such things. Where the mountains are, how the weather changes from place to place, what rivers must be forded and how difficult that is--all of this information helps readers feel like they are "really there" and oriented in a fantasy world. If the landscape is especially unusual (for example, the Shattered Plains in Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings or the moon Pandora from James Cameron's Avatar) readers want as much detail as it takes to help them see the wonder. Granted, that <5% of readers did frown at the detailing of the world being overly detailed, but those folks tended to seem like they were just in the wrong place overall by reading fantasy. Sure, a lot of thriller readers couldn't care less the color of the veining on the poisonous balepetal plant, but fantasy readers in general, grin when you tell them.

To have a sense of a deeper history

Note that I said "a sense," which does not mean a huge dissertation, or heavens no, a ginormous prologue that dumps all that info into our unwilling laps. One of the major elements of The Lord of the Rings that helps it ensare readers generation after generation is the way Tolkien includes references to Middle Earth's history that are just that, references. None of his characters feel it necessary to explain what they're hinting at, just like if you were writing a contemporary earth-setting novel, you wouldn't feel compelled to explain what you meant if you referred to World War II or the Beatles. Your characters would talk about such things and they would know the cultural context. In the same way, Tolkien's characters talked about goblin wars or the lay of Beren and Luthien and at most, hinted at the full tales. And it works. (It helps for us uber-geeks that there are commentaries, notes, and appendices for us to go find out the full sweep of what these things are all about if we want to.) But for those who don't, the cultural references work to create a sense of water that runs deep with history and lore.

To feel smarter than your average bear

If there's any readership that doesn't mind technically specific vocabulary, archaic usage, and concepts that make them go "Oooh, I need to Google that," it's speculative fiction readers. Many of the folks who read fantasy are happy to spend  time with their like-minded buddies discussing the differences between a glaive-guisarm and a bardiche, and most of them would prefer you call those weapons what they are in fantasy, rather than you just say polearm. Reviewer complaints have included griping about authors whose worlds lack color because every castle guard carries a spear, or because the writer decided "people only read modern dialect nowadays." (I find homeschooled fantasy readers become especially irked about the language issue.) Granted, your novel shouldn't read like middle English, because that would be overkill. And if you're going to write in a "high" style, you better be sure you are second only to Shakespeare in your mastery of it, because it will show if you try and you're not. (Trust me on this.)

Whether we admit it or not, we spec-fic readers are a strange breed, generally more willing to figure something out we don't get on the first pass, and even more willing than average to accept things that we won't understand because the author made it up and no amount of Googling will offer more information.

I could continue to add bullet points to this list, but that may have to wait for another day. To conclude, however, I am deeply grateful for the people who take the time to post detailed reviews of books on-line. If we can't talk to readers one-on-one about our own work, it seems to me there's still a trove of information out there to tap for wisdom.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

One Star Reviews #4: Grammatical Snobbery

There are none so righteous as the newly converted...

I thought C.S. Lewis had said this, but as I dug around, I was hard pressed to locate an attribution for the quote. But it certainly holds true no matter who the quote belongs to. For those who are freshly educated in the use of language, the brand of righteousness these folks exhibit is irksome to fiction writers.

While not as pervasive as the one-star reasons I've talked about in the first three posts in this series, a refrain I am finding in one-star reviews (and also two-star, incidentally) is grammarphilia. People who stand on the premise that impeccable grammar is far more important than style. Fragments give these people heart palpitations. Prepositions at the ends of sentences are like scarlet letters of the literary world. No self-respecting paragraph would ever have just one sentence.

Now, I am completely on the grammarphiles' side in their assertions that writers should know how to make their nouns and verbs agree, that they shouldn't use words whose definitions they don't exactly know (think "inconceivable" from The Princess Bride) and they certainly need to comb their work for wonky syntax. But militant adherence to the rules of academic writing doesn't necessarily serve best in the realm of fiction. With the emphasis on voice in fiction, it's a necessity that authors have leave to play a little bit with accepted grammar rules. If the message beneath the words becomes horribly garbled due to excessive liberty with grammar, then of course the author has gone too far.

But the one-star reviewer/grammar officer doesn't see the artistry in tweaking, in starting a sentence with the occasional conjunction, in pouring words into a mold that maximizes their impact, even if it doesn't adhere to collegiate grammar specifications. It's these types of reviewers that I can't help but wonder if they just have nothing else to do than read books and become incensed over non-traditional sentence structure. Never mind the fact that the fragment or word order actually serves a specific artistic purpose (if you simmer down long enough to analyze it.)

I would ignore this type of one-star review if it didn't bleed over into another area the grammar-police also seem to partner with their hatred of loose sentence structure, and that's an intolerance for a partial reveal of information. As I came across multiple one-star reviews spurred by linguistic frustration, many of these reviews morphed into complaints about questions authors planted that did not generate immediate answers. (Now, hearkening back to #3 of this series, it is a legitimate gripe if the author never bothers to tie up anything, but just wanders around for hundreds of pages.) But I think the narrow view of grammar is logically tied into the reader frustration with "hooks" or "plants," as I've heard them called. People who think in a rigidly linear fashion have little tolerance for unexplained actions, titles, or remarks, and it seems few of these types of readers are willing to stick with a book if they have to wait too long to find out what the author was alluding to.

The take-away I get from this is that if I'm going to plant a question in my work, I need to make sure I reassure my reader that I haven't forgotten about it. An occasional hint that I will get back to that--eventually--goes a long way in reader retention. And if I'm going to ignore formality in grammatical structure, I had better do it less than I have in this blog post if I don't want the Champions of Grammar to wage war on me.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

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.

Monday, December 19, 2011

One Star Reviews #2: Papa Don't Preach

As I continue my quest to squeeze as much wisdom as possible out of one-star reviews of generally respected fantasy books, I came across an issue that a commenter on the last post about this topic touched upon: visible religious content in the narrative. More specifically, overt parallels to Christianity seem to have a distinct talent for drawing the ire of the one-star reviewer.

Some of these reviewers have railed against feeling as though books have snuck up on them under the guise of fantasy stories and then somewhere in the middle, pulled a "bait and switch." Some have even suggested that if authors intend to have Christian content in their stories, that they should preface the book with a warning. Something like a allergen label, I guess:

Processed in a facility that may leave trace amounts of stuff that sounds and feels like the Bible.

Or perhaps: 

Caution: Contains characters that bear an undeniable resemblance to Jesus or other biblical figures

Few reviewers have any problem with a religious system in fantasy. In fact, many of them applaud the depth of world-building it takes to give characters an intricate and fully-realized belief system. But if that belief system comes across in a way where the reader begins to feel the author is trying to tell him what he should believe in real life, well, look out. Those one star reviews will come hurtling in like flaming balls of catapult shot. And if that belief system reminds people of Christ, that only compounds the intensity with which people react. If there's anything reliably divisive in this world, its Christianity.

Honestly, I can't entirely blame the one-star reviewers for getting ticked off when a fantasy book suddenly starts to sound like an over-preached sermon. Themes are wonderful. Deeper meaning is what makes a good book great. But when it comes to religious content, the old mantra--know thy audience--becomes imperative.

If I'm writing for Christians, they are going to be much more willing to read an object lesson in my work and see what they can take away from that. We're used to that method of operations, since most of us engage in that exercise at least once a week if not daily. But if I think I'm writing for a crossover audience, they will drop me like cast iron that's been sitting over the fire if I start to let my characters become mouthpieces of specifically biblical teaching. This is entirely my opinion formed from observation, but I believe we all have an inner eye that recognizes our Maker, even if we are choosing to ignore him in our daily living. For those who do not have an active faith they are pursuing and an understanding of God's loving, relational nature, the detection of that God can be unsettling, to say the least.

Now then, that doesn't account for the books that are out there that, to the Body's shame, preach in the negative sense of the word, casting a reproachful, down-the-nose glance at the reader who does not align to the worldview of the story. I don't contest the single-star reward such writing earns.

The conclusion I come to is this: we need to handle all content that parallels a Christian worldview with a deft and winsome hand. It's so easy to fall into "tract mode" when we are in the territory as something as important to us as our belief systems. I sincerely believe it is far better to write a story that helps to raise excellent questions than one that tries to have all the answers.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reviewer Warnings to Writers #1: Skip the Head Dipping

Over the past few weeks, I've been grabbing a little time here and there to make a study of one-star reviews of fantasy books on Amazon. The content of such reviews has been sometimes funny, but more often very telling. A detailed picture of "what not to do" as an author. Now, granted, I tend to skip over the one-star reviews where the reviewer makes an idiot of him- or herself by spouting vitriol, or spelling every third word wrong, or using syntax that requires the reader to employ a combination of creativity and mind-altering substances to make sense of the reviewer's point.

Anyway, once the chaff blows yonder, what's left is a specific list of what makes readers so mad they feel they have to stand in front of the book in question and wave their arms wildly, saying "Turn back! Turn back! Don't suffer like I did."

One of the biggest reader offenders I'm running into is what I'll call "head dipping." What I mean by that is a story that interrupts itself continually to give us the point of view character's internal monologue. It seems a lot of writers not only head dip too often, but the feelings they are talking about in their characters are whiny, insecure, pathetic, and annoying. It's true we all feel like that when we're confronted with overwhelming circumstances, but it seems the bulk of fantasy readers don't want to hear about it. They want the story to forge onward. They want to see the character's conflicts, they want to hear the dialogue that reveals little snippets of the characters' inner distress, but more than one visit in a very great while to any remotely emo passages, and you readers will let the world know--loud and clear--that they think it stinks.

While frequent passages of musing may work literary wonders in "serious" forms of prose, it appears to me fantasy is surely not one of them--from a reader perspective. Since most of us who write genre fiction are indeed writing for readers, I believe we would do well to heed the issues that inspire one-star reviews. As I turn up more recurring themes in these boo-hiss reviews, I'll be back to share what those are. And as always, I invite your commentary on what you think about the observations I bring up here.

Happy reading and writing, friends!

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Do's and Don'ts of Critiquing

Whether your a writer or a reader who knows writers, chances are, you've been asked for your opinion on somebody's story in progress. Talk about a ticklish position to be in, depending on who the asker happens to be. As I've spent time experiencing all levels of experience, from online forums where people have never critiqued anything before, to professional workshops under the guidance of multipublished authors, a list of things we "critters" should do (and a bigger list of those we should not) keep piling up in my mind. I figured, rather than let those take up space in my already cluttered brain, I ought to spill them here and hope they help someone else in their intent to give a good critique.

Here are my general thoughts and observations in the realm of critiquing:

#1-Be realistic about what kind of feedback you can provide--and how quickly.
If you are no grammarian but you know your way around a story, critique what you're good at. It's infinitely more useful to the person you're critiquing if you work in the realm of your strengths with confidence and leave the areas you're not sure about to those that are. What you also need to know is what kind of time you have to offer to critiquing. By the nature of the business, writers are very often on deadlines, whether it's for a contest, a mentoring program, or a publication date. It becomes very stressful for the writer if he or she is waiting on a critique that doesn't come. Better to say you can't help than to keep the writer waiting. (I stand  guilty of the above offense!)

#2-Provide at least a few points of positive feedback, no matter how rough the rest of the piece may be.
Pop psych tells us that it takes a fistful of praises to offset one admonishment, but in the world of writing, it's not exactly practical to try to outweigh the corrections in that kind of proportion. As a matter of fact, it would be annoying. But on the flip side, a critique with only "fix this" and "I didn't get/like that" will leave the writer feeling pretty deflated.

And tied into this: if the piece you have agreed to critique is a horrible mess, do both yourself and the writer a favor and don't line-by-line critique it. Instead, you might want to give some general feedback about what problems are pervasive in the piece, highlighting a few examples in the first page or so, and suggesting the writer take some time to address those issues. A draft highlighted, commented upon, and rearranged so that more is flagged as wrong than right is more than most melancholy-type writers can take without inspiring a major bout of depression or desire to throw things.

#3-Use your most professional tone possible.
I don't care if you are very familiar with the person you are critiquing--the number of efforts to be cute or funny on paper that have gone awry are too numerous to count. Unless you are providing a critique to your absolute writing soul mate who will understand every inflection you write as if you said it to him over a cup of coffee, err on the side of formality. Otherwise, you risk sounding like you are patting the writer on the head like he is a four-year-old, or else you are being snarky. Either could make writers bang their keyboards and growl indiscernible epithets.

#4 Critique stuff you generally like.
It's hard to read good, polished writing you don't entirely care for, and let's face it, most of us don't bother to keep reading stuff we don't like. Critiquing, in general, is a volunteer activity that is hard enough for most writers to ask of others due to how time consuming it is by nature--no need to suffer through a critique of a genre that isn't really your thing or a story whose characters you hate. You won't provide a very helpful critique anyway,  unless you are a paragon of altruism and objectivity. I know I should never try to critique romance or women's fiction, because I absolutely don't get the genres. Working tropes in those genres give me an upset stomach--and that's my problem, not the writers' and the genres'. I simply should not critique them because I will complain about stuff readers of those types of work love and expect.

There are more guidelines out there, I'm sure. As a matter of fact, you may be reading this and saying, "You didn't mention..." I invite you to do so in the comments area below!

Happy reading, writing, and generally helping.