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21 November 2011

The Matter of Reviews

It seems US has had The Kingmaking on special offer this week ($6.80)
 I found it interesting reading the several reviews - some love the book (thank you) others hate it. Apparently - according to some of the 'haters'- I can't write, have no idea of history and even less idea of what Arthur was like. Which is a tad silly as there is no evidence that Arthur even existed, so no one knows what he was like.
I'm not bothered by these reviews - in fact I find them a little amusing as they are all so contradictory. One person accuses me of not enough detail, another too much detail. One of the book being too long, another not long enough. Someone said they thought all the reviews must have been by my family and friends as she couldn't accept there were so many genuine positive reviews about this dreadful book.  I do have a couple of friends who have added reviews - but most of my US friends have been made after they've read (and reviewed) my books. As for my family - well my husband and daughter are severly dyslexic, haven't read my books and haven't got an Amazon account....

Novels about King Arthur seem to draw the extreme out in his followers. We all have our own ideas and fight like mad with others who disagree. I portray Arthur as a non-Christian, rather rough man, which goes against the grain of the chivalric Christian King image. Others see the magic and fantasy as the reality - Merlin, the Lady of the Lake. Usually, Lancelot is the hero with the love triangle stories.
These are all Medieval tales, made up in the 12th - 13th Century to reflect the way of life then, and, I firmly believe to be a certain amount of propaganda. Come and be like Arthur! A Godly, Christian King - come seek the Holy Grail!. i.e. come fight the Infidel in the Crusades.

I have no interest in these tales - they are good stories, yes, but my Arthur is set firmly in the 5th - 6th century and he is a rough, tough, warlord who has to fight hard for his kingdom - and even harder to keep it.
I can not picture Arthur as being so weak that he would let his best friend cuckold him. A man of this period would swipe the heads off both of them and that would be that.
My Gwenhwyfar (which is the Welsh spelling of Guinevere) is a tough, fiesty lady. She also remains loyal to Arthur - although there are a lot of rough patches along the way and more than once she'd be happy to slit his throat. (How many of us feel the same about our husbands? *laugh*)
So some reviewers take objection to the non-Christian portrayal, others that I have ignored the fantasy element - one reviewer said I cannot write battles (but then I'm a woman, so that explains it) Others say I write battles particularly well. While a fe say my books are disgraceful because the battle scenes are too "detailed".
I'm sorry but if you do not like the gore of battles, then don't read historical fiction. I assume these people do not know the difference between Historical Fiction and Historical Romance?

I started writing my Arthurian trilogy after I became annoyed with Marin Bradley's Mists of Avalon. Good novel, yes, but I so did not agree with her portrayal of Gwenhwyfar.
Had Amazon been around then (we're talking not far short of 30 years ago)I coulld have put a snide objectional review on Amazon.... "This is not not how the Arthur story should go. This author doesn't know what she is talking about".
Or I could have put "This was a good story, although I found some of the Americanisms a little off-putting and I personally don't agree with the author's ideas. Maybe I should write what I think happened."
Which is what I did.

Nice reviews are nice, the negative ones can be a bit hard to swallow, but the rude and spiteful ones are merely noise made by rude and spiteful people who are rude and spiteful. And the best way to deal with rude, spiteful people is to completely ignore them.
You don't like my novel? That's OK by me. It would be a dull world if we all liked reading the same thing.

I was also highly amused at a comment about my historical fiction novel Forever Queen.

Apparently it has too much history in it..... go figure....:-)

A Previous Article on a Similar Theme

Amazon Reviews. A good place to find a good book to read or a minefield where the author can come to sticky grief?

We all like good reviews, of course – not only authors - actors, musicians, artists, we work hard at our job and our results, in our case a novel, is precious. Our Baby. And like our children we like to see them doing well when out in the wide wide well.
But no matter how many glowing reviews, its that one bad one that cuts us to the quick and leaves us sleepless at night, worrying.

Maybe the book isn’t any good after all? Maybe I do write rubbish – maybe I should give up?

Twice now, for me, this anxiety has been caused by a “reviewer” condemning my books as garbage because….. a few commas were not in the right place. “I found it impossible to read because the author has no idea where to put a comma….

Now I’m not saying that correct punctuation is not important… of course it is…. but typos do happen even in the biggest, best publishing houses.

Fair enough if the commas are out of place and the book is rubbish to read (maybe the plot is weak, the characters are unbelievable, the story goes no-where - or the book just isn't your particular cup of tea) but just to say “what a load of codswallop” because of a couple of commas are freebooting…. That is not constructive criticism, and yes, I take offence and it hurts.

Anyone can add a comment review beneath a listed book on Amazon. I think Amazon removes foul or obscene language but otherwise it’s an open playing field with not much the author can do if the review is unjustifiably bad.

So who are these reviewers? Genuine people who love a good read? Sour-grapes wanna-be-never-gonna-be writers who have an axe to grind? Friends? Family? The Publisher?

Some are very obviously family and friends… and yes I have a few friends who have added good comments to my books. Of course they have, they are my friends and they want to support me, but for two of my books in particular, Harold the King (UK title) I Am The Chosen King (US title) and A Hollow Crown (UK title) The Forever Queen (US title) my few personal friends are outnumbered by the many people I do not know – except, perhaps as Facebook / Twitter Friends because they enjoy my books.

I was browsing yesterday and glanced at the reviews for The Forever Queen, and came across a non-complimentary one. I was a tad miffed as the reviewer implied that the book was boring because it had too much detail in it. But it is Historical Fiction. It’s supposed to have detail in it! 

The reason why I was irritated was not because of the poor review – I think I’m grown-up enough to know that not everyone likes the same reading matter. Just as well, what a boring old world it would be if we did! No, what gruntled me (I was not exactly dis-gruntled, just gruntled – to quote P.G. Wodehouse) what, as historical fiction writers, are we supposed to do?

Not put the detail and receive poor reviews for not being historically accurate? Put the detail and be moaned at for it not “being a story”.

One of the points this reviewer made was that she/he did not need “to know what side of the river people were on” (not a direct quote – words to that effect)
Well in a historical fiction novel (or maybe a thriller or crime novel?) it is sometimes essential to mention this sort of detail. Rivers were boundaries! One army on one side, one army on the other. Many important battles took place at river crossings – and the writer of historical fiction is, I think, obliged to state who is where.

Detail also gives flavour of the period – the sort of food the characters are eating, what they are wearing. It is this skill of the author, to be able to blend the detail with the fact and the imagined bits, that takes the reader back in time; the literary equivalent of a time machine. Otherwise, without the detail, what are we left with? Just a story.

So, I took the decision to reply to this review. Calmly, quietly, acknowledging that I respected the fact that he/she did not enjoy the read, but querying some of the things that had been added.

One of which was that the reviewer refused to read any self published books on the grounds that they will probably be rubbish.
What a shame, and what a limited blinkered view? Some SP books are rubbish. Some mainstream books are rubbish. Some of both are mediocre, some of both are brilliant.
To tar everything with the same brush, though, to me, does not show an open, balanced judgement or mind. Or a good reviewer. (What is the point of only reading something you know you will like? Not very broadening is it?)

Which brings us back to the usefulness of the Amazon review. Why do people “read” a book then trash it in a review? If I don’t like a book I stop reading it, give it out to a charity shop and move on. I don’t immediately rush to Amazon to make snide, insulting comments. And some of them really are horrible.
I can only assume that the saying “those who can, write, those who can’t are rude to those who can” rather fits some people.

I was always taught “If you can’t say something nice, or useful, then don’t say anything at all.”
 It’s a good policy to stick to!

Constructive Criticism, as far as I am concerned, is always welcome. I learn from my mistakes. (And yes the comma that was in the wrong place was corrected as soon as another print run was made.) Although it seems the commas that were “repaired” are still out of place as someone else's opinion. There is a new complaint that I can’t write because the commas are wrong.
Sheesh.... you can't win can you?
In my next book I think I’ll just leave the little blighters out altogether. You, the reader, can put your own in where you want them. *laugh*

So, as an author, do you respond to a bad review or not? The number of spats between indignant authors and cruel critics is mounting – and a couple of these episodes have become quite famous.

The rule, really, is do not get into an argument. What is it achieving? OK so someone didn’t like your book. So what? Yes it’s annoying to have a 1 or 2 star – which can be very destructive to self published or struggling authors – but if the criticism is constructive and honest…. Well, learn from it.
Don’t get into a public exchange of blows. If you must reply, as I felt I had to with this reviewer, keep your dignity – and your sense of humour. Respond politely. If you can’t say something nice, or useful, don’t say anything at all!
And know when to drop the subject. There are a lot of people on the Internet (called Trolls, I believe) who deliberately enjoy stirring up trouble. 
Don't fall into their smutty little sad trap. You will never win and you will only end up hot and bothered with high blood pressure, and probably with a large dollop of scrambled egg on your face.

I was, actually, grateful to this reviewer because it made me think about how much detail should be in a book, led to me posting a comment on Facebook and receiving some very uplifting support as a result. And an apology from the reviewer, who offered to remove the review. I declined the offer – it was a fair, personal opinion. I’ve nothing against that. 
I did ask the reviewer to try another of my books though!

What ruffled me about the reviews for my books, aside from the comma issue, was another reviewer for Forever Queen who complained and gave me 1 or 2 stars because “this book is actually a reprint of A Hollow Crown – Don’t buy it”
That, I thought was unfair!

Its not my fault my US publisher decided to give it another title. And no it is not a reprint of A Hollow Crown, its re-edited & shorter by 40,000 words. As author I have done all I can to ensure that my readers realise there are two different titles – and believe me it is an absolute pain in the bum to have to type out two books with two different titles every time!
 By all means put a negative review and mention the clash of titles – but don’t trash the book and the author because of it, that is being spiteful.

So to sum up – by all means review (and I would love some more good reviews on my Sea Witch books!) but please, think about what you put – gushing “I love it” or smouldering “I hate it” isn’t much use to anyone.

WHY do you love it
WHY do you hate it?

If you want to review – then do so with constructive criticism.
If you feel the need to respond to something unfair then do so with a short matter-of-fact response, a basic correcting the facts (I did add a comment about the Title issue - pointing out it was not my fault) But don't get into an argument, don't respond, and respond and respond. Believe me, it ain't worth it!

On behalf of all authors grateful for good reviews – thank you!

If any misplaced commas in this article should offend readers ….. to bad! #laugh

Following on from my piece (article below) about bad reviews, while not wanting to labour the subject, (comma?) I have been thinking about another "review incident". Again, (comma?) I am not complaining,  merely observing, and as several people who have responded to the previous article here and on my Facebook Wall  have taken interest in the technicalities of editing (and the use of commas!) I thought I'd scribble a quick follow-up.

Quite a while ago I received a very scathing review about Sea Witch  - partly it was justified because it was a first edition and rather badly produced.... comments about that I would have accepted, but the reviewer was rude about the punctuation - basically "I cannot read this book because the commas are all in the wrong place."
early edition cover
Yes, a couple were out of place - but did the book deserve rubbishing in its entirety - and quite so sarcastically - because of it? 
Anyway. Now that I have a chance to totally re-edit I thought I'd double check the sentences this reviewer pointed out.
Well either I'm missing the point (or the comma ha ha) or I'm going mental or something for I'm blowed if I can find anything drastically wrong with the sentences she had rubbished !
this is one of them:

He had a sudden urge to look at that child properly; spun on his heel and hurried up the companionway steps to the shattered chaos of the quarterdeck, claimed the telescope from beside the ship's compass, mercifully, both still intact. Extending the tube to its full length, was about to raise it to his eye when Malachias, his face covered in blood, called his name and distracted his attention.
The reviewer adds  [I did not make that up -- it's on page 25] 
I suppose  I could have written 'he spun on his heels / he claimed the telescope / he was about to raise..... ' but it's an action scene (a pirate attack) so I wanted to keep the pace quick, and this is my style of writing.
I can only conclude that I ought to give up writing because I really can't see anything wrong! (maybe a full stop instead of the ; after properly to shorten the sentence? But..... well one baffled author here!)

My editor couldn't see anything wrong with it, and a good friend of mine (also an author) uses the Serenity Software Editing package - its apparently very good (yes I will be getting it) She ran the offensive sentence through for me:
"I've just run the contentious sentence through Editor and it threw up only a couple of objections, both of which I decided were inappropriate; in other words, your sentence passed quite a severe test. I also ran it through Word's grammar checker - no probs. As an editor, I might have tentatively suggested deleting the comma after 'mercifully' because correct use of commas can often impede flow. The rule about commas for novelists seems to be 'the least you can get away with'. I might also have suggested putting 'he' before 'about' in the second sentence.

I do suffer from comma-itis, I admit, but that is another reason why I have an editor (actually, I now have two - three when I get Serenity - and I now have a sharp-eyed publisher!) I tend to stick a comma in where I take a breath or need to pause for emphasis when reading the piece aloud thus:

He had a sudden urge to look at that child properly;[pause] spun on his heel and hurried up the companionway steps to the shattered chaos of the quarterdeck, [breath] claimed the telescope from beside the ship's compass, [pause] mercifully, [pause for effect] both still intact. Extending the tube to its full length, [breath]was about to raise it to his eye when Malachias, [pause]his face covered in blood, [pause]called his name and distracted his attention.
Another "reviewer"  a couple of months ago added a similar review on
This second person has only put 1 other comment up in 5 years  for an audio tape. Why pick on my book out of the blue?
 I can only assume this second person is someone vindictive.
So one baffled author who instead of getting paranoid about the use of commas, intends to carry on in my own sweet, engrossed in my characters' way. I'll rely on my editors and hope that sensible readers realise these sort of reviews are not worth the words they are written with.
Ok. Next subject? Suggestions please?
(and if anyone says 'where & how to use compound words' ....... 
  (grumpy silence this end..... *laugh*) 

present edition
for those interested- here is the complete excerpt from Sea Witch 

Glancing along the shambles of the deck he ran his hand through his hair, unsure where to make a start. Looked again at the departing ship. Damn you! he thought. Damn you to Hell and back! Then he paused, stared, not believing what he was seeing. Was that a child? A sodding child was standing at the merchant’s taffrail! Had that Dutch captain been so confident he had allowed a passenger to observe the whole debacle? Cocky bastard! Jesamiah narrowed his eyes to see more clearly, but from this distance detail was distorted. All he could see was the shape of a girl with dark hair - a girl for God’s sake!
Annoyed, he glowered, but as he turned away to get on with what he ought to be doing he had the uneasy feeling she was watching him, and him alone. The hairs at the nape of his neck prickled and his spine shivered. Sound faded from his ears; the moans and pleas for help from the wounded, Malachias calling orders - everything blurring in his mind as if nothing else mattered, as if there was nothing else outside the existence of himself and this girl. She was staring at him and he felt naked and vulnerable beneath her gaze, as if she had stripped him of his rough, hard exterior, the necessary façade of a pirate. As if she could see the private hidden person. He found his hands were shaking, had the strangest feeling this girl, whoever she was, knew everything about him. Everything.
Stranger still, he did not mind her knowing his secrets, felt almost relieved that at last he could share them with someone. Her presence was not intrusive but comforting - and suddenly a suppressed memory of the past flooded into his mind, a memory of experiencing something similar to this before!
He had been on his knees spewing his guts into wet earth puddled with his own urine; was distraught, crying and gasping for breath. He was not yet fifteen years old and his brother was behind him carolling vicious and vindictive laughter. And through the shame and fear he had distinctly felt a hand resting between his shoulder blades: a sensation filled with love and protection. And a voice had entered his head, breaking through the utter, bereft and lonely despair.
~ Fight him! ~
Words he was sure, later, he had imagined, for everything that dark night had been tainted with bewildering distress. Yet, squinting across the widening gap of the sea at this girl he questioned his assumption. Had he imagined it?
He felt – how did he feel? Odd, as if someone was standing beside him, smiling. As if a smile was in his head – not words, not thoughts, just a loving, protective smile.
He looked down at the splinter of wood stabbing into his arm, at the blood soaking his shirt. Was this nonsense because of blood loss? Making him light headed? Yet, beyond this stupid idea that someone was standing here with him, there was no disorientation, no confusion.
He had a sudden urge to look at that child properly; spun on his heel and hurried up the companionway steps to the shattered chaos of the quarterdeck, claimed the telescope from beside the ship's compass, mercifully both still intact. Extending the tube to its full length, he was about to raise it to his eye when Malachias, his face covered in blood, called his name and distracted his attention. The spell was broken. Jesamiah turned to answer and when he looked again she was gone; no one stood at the stern of the Christina Giselle. There was no girl. He shrugged. Perhaps he had imagined her after all? Perhaps it was the smoke, the noise, the anguished cries of the wounded begging for help – his anger – playing tricks on his mind? He shook his head to clear his senses, set his attention to concentrating on more important things; getting this sliver of wood out of his arm, tending the wounded – there would be amputations to do. The dead to see to, a few words of respect to be spoken over them before the corpses were sent overboard. The Mermaid to be salvaged, somehow.
Busy, his mind occupied, he forgot the girl.
As Tiola, with her gift of Craft, had intended him to.


 (from original post)

Blogger ChristyEnglish said...
Thank you for this post, Helen. Fascinating stuff. Arthur is quite a polarizing figure. I can't wait to read your version of him.
Blogger Kathleen Jones said...
I really sympathise Helen - you do wonder what planet some amazon reviewers are living on. One reviewer complained that my book was 'full of typos' and grammatical errors - a book that had been edited, copy-edited, and proof read by Penguin and a university press! Could she actually read English? it upset me for ages, but you just have to let them go. Good luck with the book - it sounds excellent and probably nearer the truth than most of the Arthurian novels on the market.
Blogger Helen Hollick said...
thank you Christy and Kathleen. I know exactly what you mean Kathleen, it is upsetting when you've worked so hard at proof reading & correcting - only to find those wretched typos pop up in the last print run! Several of my books have been badly produced by various publishers in the past, what upsets me is that these have not been my fault but the publishers'. (When I was with Heinemann they sent the uncorrected proof to St Martins in the US. I didn't get a US edition proof copy to check so the wretched thing was published with at least 360 errors. As a consequence I had one especially nasty e-mail from someone accusing me of being ignorant and uneducated. I also find that American readers often don't get on with the way we sometimes write here in the UK (and vice versa of course) Several US reviewers (sorry I can't bring myself to call them readers) cannot figure out that there is a difference between our styles. Brits are not so bothered by POV changes, I think, and we are far more tolerant of a comma being in the wrong place. Which is another point. Yes grammar is important, but am I the only one who gets so interested in the story that I rarely notice if a comma is in the right place or not? Speech, question and exclamation marks and full stops, yes. Commas....I sometimes feel very tempted to leave the lot out and get the reviewers to put them in where they want them!
Blogger Helen Hollick said...
Meant to add: one thing that does make me laugh - several people have "complained" about the inaccuracy of the 'history' in my Arthur books (which considering he didn't actually exist is a bit much really)But not one has mentioned the inaccuracy of the US covers. The shield is wrong, the sword is wrong .... I don't like the UScovers much (no choice, my publishers designed them) My new UK covers though.... and YES on Kingmaking & Shadow that IS a sword correct for the period....
Blogger Cathy Helms said...
The subject of 'Arthur' always brings the most heated debates and he seems to have some very nasty 'fans' out there too. I've read a lot of Arthurian books over the years and every single one of them was from a different POV, had a unique slant on who he might have been and 'when' he might have been. No one really knows for certain, as you've said. I happen to be of like mind with you and when I picked up The Kingmaking, it changed my life!, I loved it immediately. And while I'm an American, I usually do not pick up on punctuation or typos that often as I get too absorbed in a good story to notice. Those highly critical of punctuation are likely in college or fresh out of it and still suffering the academic woes *laughs* And I'll admit that too many Americans have a superiority complex which I personally think is ludicrous. It's a tough and very brave thing to put your own creations out there in the public eye and open yourself up to the opinions of others. You, my dearest and most talented friend, have nothing to be ashamed of. And I admire you for your attitude towards the naysayers out there (who cannot seem to distinguish between reality, hard facts and the fantasy).
Blogger Judith Arnopp said...
Helen, I have read practically every Arthur book going, I studied him at uni. I love the 'idea' that he has become and the way that idea has moved through history, adapting to every generation. Out of all those books I can never decide if I prefer your Arthur or Bernard Cornwells - it is a pretty close thing and seems to be narrowed down to those two though but I certainly prefer your Gwenivere. A novel can't appeal to everyone, just focus on the readers who do love your work (and there are a lot of them). Let the rest go hang :)) Judith The Forest Dwellers Peaceweaver
Blogger Helen Hollick said...
aw, thank you Cathy - mind you, you are a tad biased! *laugh* We both owe Arthur a lot, without him we would never have met.
Blogger Helen Hollick said...
Judith - its very frustrating that many people say they like my Trilogy as much as (if not more than) Bernard's - yet his series sells because he is well known, yet mine don't because I'm not. Bernard even admitted to me (several years ago now)that his wife thought my version was better because I managed to write the story of Arthur without adding Merlin. (he tried it & found it didn't work.) I think the biggest frustration of being an author has nothing to do with reviews or opinions - its the _knowing_ that your book is good, but getting word out about it is as hard as proving Arthur actually existed!
Blogger Cathy Helms said...
Judith - I completely agree with your comments! Becoming a well known top selling author these days IS as hard as trying to prove Arthur's real existence! Great analogy!
Blogger Deborah said...
I saw your tweet, read your blog and then went in search of the bad reviews. Honestly Helen! Poor research into post-Roman horses, what were you thinking??!! If anyone has the audacity to question the depth and width of the River Torridge in your new pirate book you can refer them to the harbourmaster! Seriously though, when writing fiction based somewhat on fact then research is required (as you quite obviously undertake)but readers should also remember this is fiction. As a reader of fiction, historical and otherwise, I suspend belief when reading - I am entering a fictional world. Only really big, glaring errors, would stop me in my tracks. I have started reading Book One of the trilogy and am enjoying it. And that is exactly what a book should be - enjoyable. You had some very good reviews (more than the bad)and as with all these things one must take the bad reviews with a pinch of salt and as subjective viewpoints. As you said at the end of the article, it would be a boring world if we all liked the same books. Keep up the good work!
Blogger Blodeuedd said...
I must say that the reviewers example would totally mess with the flow, It's all choppy. I can't see anything wrong with the way you wrote it. As for commas, buuu, my language, well we use them, but mostly they do not need to be there anymore so I am used it it ;) I should learn to use them in English thoughDelete
OpenID elizabethashworth said...
This is an interesting discussion. If I'd been your editor I would have changed it to this: With a sudden urge to look at the child properly, he spun on his heel and hurried up the companionway steps to the shattered chaos of the quarterdeck and claimed the telescope from beside the ship's compass, both of which were mercifully still intact. He extended the tube to its full length and was about to raise it to his eye when Malachias, his face covered in blood, called his name and distracted his attention.
Blogger Helen said...
Elizabeth: yes your suggestion is perfectly correct in style etc - but - it is nowhere near my personal style of writing, also, it is too ponderous. I wanted that scene to be quick, "this, this, this" - up the steps, run to the binnacle box, grab the compass - distracted by Taylor, turn round.... oh, the girl has gone. Slow the pace again.... Deliberately writing in a breathless style makes your reader breathless - and therefore _there_ with the action as it is happening. Goes to show that there are several ways of writing a scene depending on the author - with or without commas! *laugh* which is why reviewers should be careful what they write.

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