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Chapter 2: Critter Bumps Heads With Reviewer

July 7, 2011

If you missed the launching of “How This Critter Crits,” you might want to go back and read it first. It’s about a three or four minute read, so, the way I figure it, you’ll be rewarded about one-half cent per minute of reading time.*  But, please don’t read it for the two cents you’ll get.  Ultimately, you’ll feel cheapened and tawdry acting under that motivation.  Read it, instead, because you hope it might address issues you’ve wondered about.  Read it because you might find it entertaining and enlightening.  Read it because, like the mountain, it is there.  Hell, read it because you have five minutes before the Viagra kicks in.  Whatever — just read it!

            But, given all those reasons, if you still choose not to read it, I reluctantly offer this summary:

            “How This Critter Crits” was, itself, a summary — a summary of my haphazard critting experience during my first three months with FanStory.  Also it attempted to lay the groundwork for the remaining three-quarters of the year.

*    *    *    *

I think it was the second day after posting How This Critter Crits that I received a particularly glowing response.  I had already answered probably twenty of them — mostly favorable ones, with a few being, well, less than sterling.

Anyway, I scrolled down her crit to the response box and, after thanking her for her kindness, I told her how — owing to what she and others had voiced — I was literally quaking in my figurative boots.  I told her I’m like the rookie ball player who listens to, and then internalizes, what the press is saying about him: to wit, that he will break the home run record, if not this year, then surely the next.  Does he, for one moment, reflect that the press’s job is to sell newspapers and they’re notorious for being wrong?  Just once, does he let the thought that his teammates still have the nerve to call him “kid” bring him down a notch?  Oh, no!  Not this rookie!

Instead, the first time at bat he points to the center field fence (Babe Ruth style), and with the first pitch he closes his eyes and swings a mighty swing that miraculously sends the ball far over that same fence.  As he trots around the bases, his hat in his hand, nodding his head right and left, and grinning fatuous acknowledgment to the cheers of the standing fans — inside him, his stomach is churning.  He bristles to himself, “There you go … Now you’ve done it, dummy!  You had to go and point your stupid finger, didn’t you?  Thanks to your idiot finger, you’ve got yourself one long, scary season ahead of you!”

Anyway, I haven’t looked back at my answers to your wonderful crits, but I think there’s a good chance I might have spewed a little enthusiasm all over you about the segments that are to follow.  So … if you find me pointing to a fence here or there, please forgive me.

*   *   *   *

            One of the reviewers of How this Critter Crits asked me why I found the need to invent “Critter.”  After all, what was wrong with “reviewer?”  It’s a very good question.  And, while I can’t promise you a good answer, I can promise you a rather long one.

I choose Crit/Critter only for myself, and I choose it partly because it’s fun, fanciful and informal.  But, did you notice I snuck in a “partly” back there?  It’s because there’s another reason I choose not to review or call myself a reviewer.  And, I want to say right away that my reason is highly subjective.

It involves a bit of a story, so bear with me.  There will be a point to it, somewhere near the end.  I promise you.  Here goes:

About three years ago, I published a novel — my first.  Okay, it was my only novel.  It was a mystery/thriller, entitled The Dead of Winter, and you have no idea how proud I was of it!  I thought it deserved national if not world-wide recognition, with a place on the shelves of every library in the United States.  Of course it got neither.  None of that should be important to you.  But, besides my just wanting to say it, it does segue into the subject I want to broach — and, somewhere toward the end of that subject, it offers the point I promised.

The story has to do with all of us writers whose books were birthed by this particular publisher (by the way, don’t expect me to mention the publisher’s name, and though some of you may figure it out before I’m finished, please don’t shout it out.)  What is important, as I said, were all of us writers.  You see, we had a message board which the publisher owned, and on which we could chat, share ideas about marketing our prides-and-joys, pluck a person up when he was down, bring a person down a peg or two when he was too full of himself.  It was a brotherhood, a sisterhood.  And, life was good in the hood!

You’ve been very patient, so now I’ll at least approach the point.  Our books were sold on Amazon.com, among other book dealers.  If you are familiar with the books found on Amazon, you’ve noted the “star” rating system, very much like FanStory’s (but without the venerable and elusive six star rating).  As a reader, you can say a little or a lot about your opinion of the book’s worth, and rate it accordingly.  Of course, prospective buyers may peruse those reviews and make a decision whether or not to buy it.  So the rating is important.

Now, because of our brotherhood, sisterhood relationships (the groups and sub-groups and cliques formed on “the board,” as we called it), there was a lot of inner buying, selling, and giving of books to one another.  It was a kind of literary incest, if you will, within our brotherhood/sisterhood.  But, with it came a price.  Once you had one of your friend’s precious cargo in your hands, had read it (and some of them were sheer anguish to read), you were expected to review it.  And, this is how that worked in the hood: the review was first presented on the board where it was peppered with oohs and ahs and a half dozen variants of work of genius.  Then, with approval gushed by that book’s author and other friends, grateful permission was given for the reviewer to place it, with the full five-star rating, of course, on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Borders.

I did my share of reviewing.  Oh, yes!  Probably more than ten authors got my rave reviews and not one was less than a five.  My own novel sits elegantly on Amazon, though I have since severed my contract with the publisher.  Ten reviews (I counted them just today) still reside there, all but one penned by authors on our board — yes, by my friends, my brethren, my sis-tren.  All fives.  All bristling with verbs and dripping with syrupy adjectives.  And, of course — in my case — all sincere, all true.

Now, to take this story to its conclusion, and the promised point …  I remember an incident concerning one of the darlings of the publisher, and a formidable Titan among the published writers there.  As I was checking out the message board one day, I happened upon his posting which was blistering with invective for a newbie upstart who dared to deposit a three star review on Amazon, with comments advising the prospective buyer that the plot was thin, the characters thinner, and that she was saddened for the tree that gave up its life for this novel.

The poor young lady was, indeed, a newbie, her book having been published only the previous month.  She was abashed.  She shot back an answer that she was sorry but she was under the impression that she was supposed to be honest in her reviews.

A few minutes later, his reply came sizzling back.  “Honest?  Honest!” he seethed, while, I’m sure, flinging spittle over his keyboard.  “Who the hell told you we’re supposed to be honest?  We’re here to help each other sell our books.  No more, no less!”

Well, to say that their exchanges sparked controversy on the board is understated.  Adherents pitched in both camps.  Battle was imminent between pragmatism and idealism; between doing what works and doing what’s right –ultimately, it would be whether you would choose to be lying to, lying for and lying with each other, or “to thine own self be true,” as someone, perhaps a writer, once said — and, while we’re at it, let’s let him finish his thought: “And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Now you know the how and the why the other “partly” came about.  I warned you it was subjective.  But, to me it’s very real.  Call this process we’re all involved with what you want.  Review away, if you wish.  As for me, with a little shudder of remembrance I can’t seem to dislodge, I choose to crit.  And, whether my crits are good or bad, inspired or pedestrian, this much I pledge to you:  they represent the best I can do with the knowledge I have at this moment in time.  Further, I know you want — no, you should expect — any critter to deliver only the best he has in him.  For your part, I am going to assume that with your posting you are announcing to each and every critter out here: “This is the absolute best, most highly polished, work I can offer at this moment.  Please help me find ways to make it better.”

We only grow, as writers and critters, by stretching out of, and beyond, the creative skin in which each of us resides at every individual moment in time.  We exist in a true symbiotic relationship.  We feed off, and at the same time nourish, each other.  And, what each of us deserves is that which is true and genuine in the other.

If, however, flattery is what a person craves, allow me to whisper in that person’s ear the name of a publisher whose authors will gleefully offer a full, fragrant dose of it — for a price, of course….

At the conclusion of “How This Critter Crits” I previewed what was to be this, the second installment, saying it would contain “The flesh and bones (with enough fat for the flavor) of an attempt at applying the same yardstick to all crits.”  Little did I know that someone would innocently ask me why I don’t call myself a reviewer.  It just goes to show there are no innocent questions … or short answers.  Allow then, if you will, today’s offering to be as a huge set of parentheses between the first installment and the third.  And in that third installment I will try, once again, to explore the method I will use in trying to apply one and the same yardstick to all crits.

 

* Note: This reference and what follows would be completely understood by a FanStorian, and was therefore an inside joke.  The gist of it, then, is that it takes only 5 minutes to read, so why not just read it!

 

Pssst!  You made it this far so why not pop over to the right-hand side bar and subscribe to my FREE newsletter?  Until I get other people to voluntarily rave about it, I’m gonna have to be the first one you’ll read as saying: “Jay’s newsletter’s a hoot!” and “Chock-full of writing tips, it’s information rich, while entertaining and funny!” and “You’re gonna wanna jump aboard before Jay discovers how great it truly is and starts charging a huge subscription fee!”

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4 Comments
  1. Wow…powerful, with just enough humor interjected to not be confrontational or preachy. Jay, you do share a cautionary tale in this post…a tale of familiarity and cliques, and the power and persuasiveness that those two things bring. I applaud you for your honest critting, and loved this: “For your part, I am going to assume that with your posting you are announcing to each and every critter out here: “This is the absolute best, most highly polished, work I can offer at this moment. Please help me find ways to make it better.” ” On one hand, it is a double edged sword to make that assumption, BUT you are being true to yourself by making it. Regards reviews, I have witnessed the ugliness that familiarity on discussion boards brings; it makes me hesitant to leave a review. Your level of ethics while critting so impresses me. I feel fortunate to count myself among the recipients of the honest critting you have done. And it did “stretch my creative skin”. I am grateful. As writers we are all at some stage of being diamonds in the rough…and only with truthful “critting” do we become polished pieces of brilliance worthy of oohs and ahhhs.

    • This was a wonderfully complete, well-thought-out comment. I so much appreciate your observation and candor. It hasn’t gotten easier with the number of crits I did over the years, and it must have run into the tens of thousands. See, the premise with FanStory, if you’re not familiar with it, is to earn member dollars and nifty bonus bucks by critting other writers’ stories, poems or scripts. The more member dollars you earn the more you can “spend” to push your posting up as close to the top as you can. The higher it is, the more money it pays for others to crit. Consequently, the more crits you get. If you use the system to your advantage, you get more people reading and commenting on your writing (with the hope you’ll get some gold among the dross), and to get the money to promote your next writing you must crit a large number of FanStorians’ prides and joys. With the right attitude you can grow tremendously as a writer from the good input you receive from others and from actually making the effort to try and lift the other writer up through your critting.

      I’m sorry I’ve rambled on so. I’ve never learned to say, simply, THANKS!

      Jay

  2. I love the story behind not choosing to call yourself a reviewer. Not that the story was happy, of course, but I love your descriptions. I could see the whole thing. Sigh. That’s why I’m reluctant to review books on my blog. I don’t want to get wrapped up in any drama resulting from it. Still, I’ll happily talk about something I really enjoyed. I won’t blow sunshine though. I’m nice, but I’m honest too. 😀

    • I know what you mean, Sonia. It is a dilemma. And, it’s compounded by the fact that the writer has completed and published his book. In the spirit of critting one is trying to give the writer valuable input that will hopefully help him improve his book. In FanStory they were all works in progress, but here If I did a constructive critique of the book and pointed out a sagging middle to his plot, or that this word was misspelled or that sentence lapsed from the past to the present tense… it could cast the writer into depression, because it’s too late to do anything about it. If your motive is to really help him (in the above case on the sequel, for example) I suppose you could volunteer to email him a crit that might help him improve his next effort, then post a very general, gentler “review” in a blog or at his publisher’s site. But, then you have to examine your honesty. Other people might be moved to purchase the book based on what they perceived as a favorable crit.

      One more time… you are SO welcome here, Sonia.

      Blessings,

      Jay

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