Reviews as conversations

10 years ago | G.S. Williams (Member)

Camille, who writes "The Misplaced Hero" made a very good point in another thread: stories are conversations between writers and readers. And she pointed out that this applies to reviews: the writer of a review is developing a voice and style so readers can follow their logic and decide where their taste aligns with that of the reviewer.

I always understood that to be one of the things WFG was aiming at in its design. Chris required named accounts and included rss feeds so reviewers could be followed. Every review I write is aligned with my other reviews so that my voice" is reliable for anyone that follows me. That way someone who entirely disagrees with me can reliably check out stories I didn't enjoy and someone who has similar tastes can follow me to something they will probably like.

Ultimately this means I am comparing new stories to old ones to see where they fit on a spectrum. I ask myself if I enjoy a story, is it the best example of its genre, does it invent anything new or do something I have never seen, does it display technique, can it change the reader? If the answer to all of those questions is yes, then it is 5 star. Once I have those ideas in my head, all stories fall into a framework - so that when the questions are answered "no" then I know where to put a story on the scale.

So no review of mine exists in a vacuum, they can all be interpreted in light of what I have reviewed before. I have never claimed to review from a writer's standpoint: I am not an expert, nor even published. I do, however, have a lifetime of experience in reading, and a lot of books in my head to compare stories to.

So, for instance, I compare "The Misplaced Hero" to "John Carter" and "Glory Road" among others. Camille has mentioned "The Scarlet Pumpernickel" which I can totally see: the fantasy/ sci fi element of travelling to alternate worlds is one aspect, but like "Pimpernel" in its study of revolution, culture and character. However those comparisons are directly related to my rating because the best stories should do something nearly incomparable.

If I were to review as a writer it would be based on one complete novel, one lengthy serial, and one inconsistent superhero story - a small sample indeed. I don't even post the superhero story on WFG because, frankly, it is not very good. My serial features time travel, which as a reviewer I would automatically deduct a star UNTIL the story demonstrates a new, effective approach. It started out a 3 star examination of a lawyer's character and gradually got more interesting - it took 34 chapters to get to action scenes, and 68 to introduce the villain.

While I think the story as a whole has merit, it is as of yet unfinished. My complete novel is thus my only real standard for claiming I know anything about writing. While I think it answers my above questions positively, it is a sample of one. I would not use that as a basis to claim any sort of expertise. I have read thousands of books, though, and use them as my basis for comparison.

I take great care to identify my biases so people can judge the validity of my opinion. If I consistently dislike vampires, wizards and zombies, people that like such stories can reliably add an extra star to my review. Such consistency is helpful, especially if a genre I don't like still produces a 4 star story: it is a safe bet that it is good.

As for me as a person, I go to great lengths to make reviews as objective as possible, avoid hyperbole or insults, and look for positives even in sub-par works. I studied literature, I also work in a factory and have done so most of my adult life. My faher was blue collar and my mother had a degree: I have and respect both. I have never said people should stop expressing themselves; sometimes I point out ways to improve what they are saying and sometimes I point out different examples that say it better for the same reason.

Improving our art benefits everyone. That is the conversation I am having with readers: read all my reviews and you can see that for yourself.

What kind of conversation are you having?

Read responses...


  1. DaringNovelist (Member)

    Posted 10 years ago

    You do a very good job of reviewing. Your point about consistency is the key one there: you provide a ruler, not just for the story, but for yourself. (But even if you didn't provide the ruler, the person who wants to understand better can find one.)

    My point in bringing up my review in that other thread was just to point out that it isn't a difference of opinion, it's a difference of perspective. And we all have different perspectives. We learn from perspectives if we know that's what they are. (Which was the other point only relevant to that other topic thread: if you get emotionally involved, if you worry about those other perspectives, rather than just understand them, it'll lead you off course. Don't do that to yourself.)

    And you just nailed the issue I fell victim to: taking 34 chapters to get to the action and twice that much to get to the villain. Just because it only hits a 5-star after that doesn't mean you should change the earlier stuff. All that lower-rated headway may be necessary to set up the good stuff later. It might be that the story needs that much set up, or it might be that the author needs more experience, but the story is better for it.

    That's exactly what I did wrong in the past couple of weeks. I had one of those "It's not moving along!" moments and rushed the story. (Not due to your review, but rather due to unnecessary fretting over What Will People Think?) The truth is, this story is not about where it's going. It's about what's happening now. It's about the voice, and that takes time to establish. (And rushing it kills the voice.)

    BTW, when you said "The Scarlet Pumpernickel" above, I chuckled and said "I've been found out!" because, in truth, there is a lot of Looney Tunes influence on me as well. The main, overt influence is silent film and "golden age" mystery, though. In those days, mystery, adventure and mainstream were not particularly well defined from one another. The genre I'm writing in would have been called "thriller" as easily as it would have been called "cloak and sword." It wouldn't have even registered as sf or fantasy.

    So in the end, when I say "Scarlet Pimpernel" that doesn't tell the reader any more than you saying "John Carter." It's not actually doing either one. It's just those are what we each see when sighting the trajectory from our perspective.

    BTW, I have written a post-mortem on the episode that went wrong and posting it tomorrow. (That's kind of what my blog is -- a look at process and theory as I work. "Writing with the curtains open" you could say.) It might be of interest to others writing serials. It is very specific to what I'm doing -- which isn't what everyone is doing -- so it isn't one of those "do this, not that" kind of things. More of a self-review or analysis that could spark some interesting thoughts or conversations.


  2. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 10 years ago

    I just used your story and my review of it as a handy example of how I apply what you called my "ruler." It seemed appropriate when you inspired my thoughts on this thread, because I liked what you said about writing and reviewing.

    I like your story. I like The Scarlet Pimpernel, the Three Musketeers, John Carter, the Fionavar Tapestry, and the mixed genre style you attribute to cartoons and I grew up with in comics as well. But the ruler I employ makes it so that, currently, it doesn't achieve a 5 star even though I like some elements: it is still developing.

    Jim's Legion of Nothing became 5 star for me over time. It was always reliable superhero fiction, but the characters and world grew and developed and it became my standard for good superhero prose. It gave me a comparison for what was possible so I could measure what other similar stories did better or worse: Wildbow's Worm is also 5 star in that genre by innovating things Jim never thought of because they both know their voices.

    I think my review style is very consistent but I wanted to make it as transparent as possible for clarity. I review from the perspective of "how can we all improve" but that took time to develop. I think the entirety of my reviews demonstrates it. Recent events in other threads and places seemed to have a lot of hyperbolic claims and so I want to be transparent: I have been consistent.

    The one thing that might be the least objective is that I will title my reviews to twist on the titles of stories, and sometimes that can be a bad pun or a harsher summary.

  3. DaringNovelist (Member)

    Posted 10 years ago

    Yes, the twist on the title is one of those things that really works for the readers, but writers tend to lose their sense of humor over.

    What you're doing is actually "criticism," discussion of literary meaning. Reviews are just about liking or not liking, maybe about handing down judgement. Criticism is about understanding. IMHO, that's what writers should be doing with other works.

    I don't believe, however, that writers should use reviews/criticism as critique. Yes, you can gain insight from a review, but a review is for the reviewer's readers. (For one thing, as was illustrated in that other thread... if you want to get through to the writer, very often you have to pull your punches.)


  4. DaringNovelist (Member)

    Posted 10 years ago

    BTW, if anybody wants to read some "self-review" -- which is very different from a regular review -- I just posted that post-mortem of the latest episode and my issues with where the story is going.

    I used to work as a story analyst, and I like to dig deep into detail -- often obsessing more over small details than is good for the average writer -- but it might be boring, or it might be interesting for writers going through similar things.


  5. Wildbow (Member)

    Posted 10 years ago

    Lessons learned. I'm relatively new to reviewing & critiquing (for that matter, I'm relatively new to writing in a public venue), and it's challenging in a very different way from writing.

    Camille's distinction of critique, criticism and review is interesting, and I admit it caught me off guard. Muddling these things might be a fault of mine.

    I recently joined a writer's circle with the idea of socializing with other writers, broadening my knowledge and learning how to constructively critique someone else's work. (and hopefully to get some criticism for parts of Worm which people don't tend to comment on, like the opening chapters, which are a bit shaky). It's hard! You want to cultivate someone else's writing, but you don't want to crush their motivation (I think we all know writers can be sensitive) and yet you don't want to hold back & have their work suffer, either.

    Reviewing is a little different as you're talking to the audience rather than the writer, but I find it harder in some ways because you're not able to look at the work, discern the author's intent, where they had their focus, and all that, and shape your response - you're flying blind, trying to anticipate what the broader audience as a whole is going to want to know, and share that information.

  6. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 10 years ago

    I think focusing on the work itself and how effectively it reaches you is the way out of that corner. The author's intent is less relevant than the effect the story had on you as a reader, because if the intent was carried out well then you enjoyed the story.

    If you didn't enjoy the story then there are content issues you can point out OR personal biases that are at odds with the intent that you as the reviewer can identify. That's why I say up front "I am doubtful of werewolves as a sign of originality" so people can subtract out my personal bias with regards to a writer's intent to entertain themselves and readers with a werewolf story. I think their time would be better spent developing something original AND I correct for that bias when I can identify how someone has used the conventional platform to innovate something new.

    If you don't feel like you can comment on the intent / overall effect, then sticking to technique is best because it gives something objective a reader can see and a writer can correct.

  7. Jim Zoetewey (Moderator)

    Posted 10 years ago

    I tend to think about audience first.

    I tend to see two different audiences for the review, however. First, the people who are reading it to get a sense of whether the story is good or not. Second, the author, because you know the author will be reading (I always am). Fortunately, on a site where almost everyone is an amateur, the stakes aren't all that high.

    It's not as if someone's spending money on this. Stories this site links to are free.

    Bearing that in mind, I tend to think that if I'm going to criticize someone's writing, I might as well give some specific suggestions as to how to change things. Not that I'm any kind of authority really, but, I've always found specifics useful when I've been critiqued--even when I don't listen to them.

    Reading between the lines of people's suggestions, I can sometimes see that changing something different than what they're suggesting would solve the problem too. I can't be unique in that.

    I'm not sure that reviews should normally include writing suggestions, but here it makes some sense.

  8. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 10 years ago

    I like suggestions because it gives you feedback on what (in theory) could be changed in the story that would make it more appealing to that reviwer and (in theory) other readers. If those things aren't compatible with the writer's vision, it is still useful because they know that they are on their track, and understand where it diverges from others and why.

    A few times I have compared "popular" but what I think of as "derivative" motifs in terms of Adam Sandler movies: I like Sandler, he makes me laugh, and some of his movies are extremely popular. But most of them are 3 star at best because they aren't classics in comparison to other films. He's even derivative of himself. Likewise, a zombie, wizard or vampire story is going to be fun for those who like that genre, but it would be hard to claim creative, 5 star status.

    Recently I thought of another analogy, using food criticism: McDonalds is arguably the world's most popular restaurant but no one would claim that a Big Mac is 5 star food, and you can get a burger anywhere. 5 star restaurants and chefs blend technique, creativity, nutrition and enjoyment to make something innovative. Stories can be looked at the same way - skill, originality, thought provoking message and entertainment are key components.

  9. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 10 years ago

    Well I suppose it depends on if you're specifically looking for fast food or gourmet. If you want a quick burger and fries, looking at a review that compares it unfavorably to a five star restaurant in a posh downtown location really isn't going to be much help.

    Or to put it back to here, if you're specifically looking for a zombie, wizard or vampire story then a) the fact that it's overdone isn't going to be an issue (that's what you're looking for) and b) a review that dings it specifically for being the genre you're looking for will not be useful.

    But that's not how I use reviews. I rate reviews based on what I know of the reviewer. At one point in time there was a movie critic I always paid attention to because I knew if he absolutely despised a movie, chances were exceptionally high that I'd love it. (Oddly enough, if he didn't hate it, but he also didn't like it, chances were good that I'd feel exactly the same way about it--it was the movies that really set him off that I wound up adoring.)

    Curveball (Updating)
    A Rake by Starlight (Updating)
  10. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 10 years ago

    That's exactly my point. Reviews as a conversation establishes that what you can rely on is the character of the reviewer's voice -- the more they are consistent about their perspective and transparent about their biases, the more you as the reader will know how to weigh their perspective for your own use. That never means you have to agree with them, it means you know you can count on them to be themselves and know how to gauge your own reactions accordingly.

  11. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 10 years ago

    Yeah, I agree with that. :)

    Curveball (Updating)
    A Rake by Starlight (Updating)


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