Master and Commander

I have long been addicted to Patrick O’Brian’s novels which featured Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin in tales of sea battles with French warships in the early nineteenth century.  There was an article in The Sunday Telegraph on November 3rd by Lewis Jones entitled “The Dark Story Behind ‘Master and Commander’, the first of O’Brian’s twenty novels.  I probably read all twenty, which were addictive to an ex-Navy officer like me, because of the incredibly realistic accounts of life aboard British warships during the Napoleonic era.  But more than that, Aubrey is a roast-beef British, dashing, but sometimes thoughtless character, accurately played by Russell Crowe in the film, and Maturin is an Irish-Catalan naturalist, doctor, and spy.  They are shipmates, friends, musicians, and adventurers in the series.  O’Brian had an amazing talent for concocting what looked like sure wins for Aubrey, which suddenly became disastrous, but from which Aubrey extracted a brilliant win over his French adversary.

The Telegraph article mentions some interesting facts about O’Brian, the author.  He was born in 1914 in Buckinghamshire; during the war, he worked in British intelligence with his second wife, Mary Tolstoy, who had been married to a Russian, Count Tolstoy.  After the war, he moved to the Catalan part of France where he spent decades writing, half a dozen novels, a biography of Picasso, numerous short stories and translations.  He had friendly reviews, but he wrote in obscurity and he was always broke.  In 1967, when O’Brian was at a low ebb, he received a letter from the American publisher, J B Lippencott, noting the C S Forester had died the previous year and that he, O’Brian, would be well qualified to fill the void left by Forester’s Hornblower series.  In 1969, Master and Commander was published.  By the 1990’s O’Brian was rich and famous, was appointed a CBE and the world wanted to know about him.  As an intensely private person, this irritated him considerably.   He was the eighth of nine children born to an English ‘pox doctor’ (venereologist) of German descent and an English woman of Irish descent.  He was ‘briefly’ educated at grammar schools.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of O’Brian’s biography is the speculation about how he acquired his naval knowledge.  In a 1994 essay, O’Brian himself said, “my particular friend Edward, who shared a tutor with me, had a cousin who possessed an ocean-going yacht, a converted square-rigged merchantman, that he used to crew with undergraduates and fair-sized boys, together with some real seamen, and sail far off into the Atlantic. The young are wonderfully resilient, and although I never became much of a topman, after a while I could hand, reef and steer without disgrace, which allowed more ambitious sailoring later on.”

But, in 1995, the venture capitalist, Thomas Perkins, offered O’Brian a two-week cruise aboard his then sailing yacht, a 154 ft ketch.  He later said, “his knowledge of the practical aspects of sailing seemed, amazingly, almost nil” and “…he seemed to have no feeling for the wind and the course, and frequently I had to intervene to prevent a full standing gybe. I began to suspect that his autobiographical references to his months at sea as a youth were fanciful.”

In any event his tales of seamanship and combat at sea are remarkably realistic and entertaining.  Patrick O’Brian died in 2000.

Creative Writing Classes

I have decided to take two courses on creative writing at City Academy in London.  One is a full week, full day (10-5) class in advanced creative writing.  In addition to providing the students with a sharper writing tool kit, it covers the specific skills of novel writing, script writing (film or television) and play writing.  There is a good deal of emphasis on creative techniques and structure.  There were four instructors on this course, all of them freelance writers, some of them take commissions from the BBC and one is a children’s book writer.  All of us (six) on this course were impressed with both the knowledge of the tutors and their skills in transferring the knowledge to us.  We completed many specific writing assignments in class, ranging from five to twenty minutes, and we would read out our work to the class.

The other class is on Wednesday evenings from 6:30 to 9:00 for six weeks.  This course is taught by the head of the creative writing department, who is script writer for Casualty on BBC1.  As such, he has a flair for drama.  This course is designed to help students progress or design a piece of creative writing.  There are five students in this course; I am the only male (aside from the tutor).  One woman in her early 30’s has finished writing a middle grade children’s book about a child who is disappointed in her own achievements.  A woman in her 50’s has a musical which has been performed somewhere locally and involves repercussions from Vietnam.  These two are making final corrections.  A woman in her late late 30’s has some ideas for a novel about two female friends, one of whom has a father who has strangely reappeared.  And the other student, in her 20’s, is trying to develop ideas for a novel.  And I am there with a completed manuscript about a man who is preoccupied with fears of his death.  Agents say it is well written, it has three good reviews, but nobody has said ‘yes’, and one agent said that in needs more intensity.

So I outlined the novel last Wednesday, including the concern about intensity.  I also presented my list of ideas for ramping up the intensity.  Almost immediately, the tutor said, why don’t you make the relationship between the protagonist and his grandniece the centerpiece of the novel, having them tell the story rather than the protagonist alone.  At first, I thought, Oh, God another rewrite!, but then it began to make sense.  The current structure of the novel is around a timeline which tends to dilute the intensity of the relationships.  But, if the two narrators cover and debate each of the relationships in depth, in series, it will be much more intense.

So next Wednesday, I’ve been asked to bring a revised outline to the class.  What this involves is taking all the events of each relationship, and grouping them together sequentially, rather than allowing them to be strung out along the time line.

This will, of course involve some re-writing, some new material and deleting some existing material.  But I’m looking forward to it.

Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

As a particular fan of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and other pieces by Mark Twain, I thought that this would be a particularly good book to which to listen, so I down loaded it from Audible and my wife and I started listening to it.  She lost interest almost immediately, but I carried on to the bitter end.

Mark Twain was the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clements, (1835-1910), an American writer humorist, entrepreneur, publisher and lecturer.  His obituary in the New York Times, called him “the greatest humorist this country has produced”, and his The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has often been called “The Great American Novel”.  He worked as a miner in California and as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River.  His pen name is the call of the leadsman on a riverboat reporting two fathoms beneath the keel of the boat – a safe depth of water.

Mark Twain

A Connecticut Yankee begins with the protagonist, Hank Morgan, wakes up after being hit on the head in early medieval England near Camelot, the mythical King Arthur’s kingdom, in an environment of chivalry, knighthood, slavery, serfdom, domination of the Catholic Church, and an autocratic ruling class.  Hank competes with Merlin, King Arthur’s great sorcerer, using nineteenth century technology to win the kings favour and become ‘The Boss’, the second most powerful man in the kingdom.  Secretly, Hank introduces gun powder, the telephone, hydraulic pumps, electricity, etc. behind the scenes in Camelot.  The average citizen of Camelot is depicted as a gullible illiterate, ready to believe the most improbable presentations.  Knights are hardly chivalrous, kings are tyrants and magic is everywhere.  Hank is challenged to joust with various knights and he defeats several by lassoing them, and the rest by shooting them with a pistol.   Eventually the church causes a revolt against Hank which results in a war of knights with swords and spears against Gatling guns and electrified fences, where the victors, except Hank, succumb to disease; Merlin puts Hank under a spell for 1300 years and then is electrocuted.

The novel is a satire of the romanticised views of chivalry in the middle ages; it is also an attack on the mysticism and the controlling nature of the Roman Catholic Church of the time.  The concept of time travel as a sub-genre of science fiction is significant in that it was followed almost immediately by several other novels.

I found the novel boring, probably because I have no romantic notions of knighthood and chivalry or misconceptions about the role of the Church which require correction.   There is one passage which lists just the names of a large number of knights.  I found it beyond credibility that a single nineteenth century engineer could build a ‘modern’ infrastructure in the iron age in only a few years.  Twain also mistakenly refers to steel armour well before it was invented.  Apparently Twain had a falling out with Sir Walter Scott who wrote romantic novels about chivalry and on whom he blamed the start of the American Civil War for Scott’s promotion of distinctive titles.  The story seems to have no unifying plot, but meanders from one set of circumstances to another at the whim of Hank Morgan.   The characters are largely one-dimensional, with the exception of ‘Sandy’ (Demoiselle Alisande a la Carteloise).  I found myself asking repeatedly, “What’s the point?”

Forget about the Connecticut Yankee; go with Huckleberry Finn.

 

Writing Seminar/Workshop

Last Saturday, I attended one-day seminar/workshop put on at the Cambridge Writing Retreat on the subject of ‘What Does Show Not Tell’ Actually Mean?  The instructor was Emma Sweeney, a novelist and literary instructor, who was both knowledgeable and interested in the development of the four writers attending.  Aside from me, there were three female writers: two novelists and a flash fiction writer.  The particular seminar I attended is part of a novel writing course put on by the Cambridge Writing Retreat over the course of a year, and the Retreat is the brainchild of Gaynor Clements, a poet with an MA in creative writing; it is put on in her attractive and spacious farmhouse.

The day started with Emma defining the terms.  Both Showing and Telling relate to what is in a character’s mind: feelings or thoughts.  Showing is accessing the world through our senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch.  Showing is describing a character’s reaction to one or more of the five senses to give the reader a clue of what they may be feeling or their attitude.  Telling describes the character’s thoughts or feelings directly.  Showing a close interaction – as for example, smelling a rose – can be quite powerful but can feel claustrophobic; showing a distant interaction tends to keep the reader at arms length. The literary preference is to use showing as much as possible, as this engages the reader in sensing the direction of the narrative, rather that being told the direction of the narrative.  Telling is best used when the author wishes to throw doubt on what a character has previously done or said; that is, to suggest that the character may be changing his/her mind.   If we are describing an emotion through telling, it is best to anchor it in an analogy or image.

Our first exercise was to go out into the garden and try to experience something close and distant with sight, smell and hearing; we were also asked to experience something close with touch and taste.  As the farmhouse garden has many herbs, flowers, shrubs and trees as well as chickens, dogs, sheep, birds and interesting vistas, this was not a difficult task.

We were then asked to write a scene in which one of our characters does something out of character using action, gesture, dialogue and a description of the setting.  This took forty minutes, during which time Emma spoke one-on-one for twenty minutes with two of the other participants about the status or their writing and any concerns or obstacles they were facing.  The two of us who had completed our scenes read them out for discussion.

When setting a general scene, it is good practice to follow it up with a more specific, detailed scene.

After lunch, we began to read and discuss excerpts as follows:

  • Hills Like White Elephants, by Ernest Hemingway.  This short story is almost all show and very little tell; the reader’s mind has to work to keep up with the narrative.
  • Notes on a Scandal,  by Zoe Heller.  The excerpt uses Tell to cast doubt on the protagonist’s version of events.
  • Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro.  The beginning of Chapter 4 is used to raise a number of questions to keep the reader’s interest.
  • The Web of Belonging, by Stevie Davies.  The excerpt uses an unusual words and layout to express the conflict a character is feeling

Our last exercise was to write a scene in which a character has an epiphany, starting with the external world, moving to the character’s mind, and concluding in the external world.  I had a plan for this one, but didn’t complete it because I had twenty minutes with Emma.  We talked about my concerns: creating more tension in the narrative and being less kind to characters.

The day gave me just the ammunition I needed to defeat the mystery of Show vs Tell.

 

Review: Me Before You

My wife and I listened to this audio book on our way back to London from Sicily.  I had selected it because I thought my wife would like it, and because its author, Jojo Moyes, contributed a lot of money to a program to help illiterate adults to read.  (My way of saying ‘thank you’!)

Jojo Moyes was born in 1969 on Maidstone, England.  She attended Royal Holloway, University of London and City University for a post graduate course in journalism.  She worked for The Independent newspaper for about ten years.  She wrote three manuscripts of novels that were all rejected.  With one child and another on the way, she was writing her fourth novel, which she decided would be her last if it were rejected.  Wikipedia says. “After submitting the first three chapters of her fourth book to various publishers, six of them began a bidding war for the rights.  Moyes became a full-time novelist in 2002, when her first book Sheltering Rain was published. She continues to write articles for The Daily Telegraph.  Moyes’ publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, did not take up the novel Me Before You and Moyes sold it to Penguin.”  It has sold fourteen million copies world-wide, went to number one in nine countries, and reinvigorated her back catalogue resulting in three of her novels being on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time.  Moyes would later write two sequels starring Louisa Clark, the protagonist of Me Before YouAfter You in 2015 and Still Me in 2018.  “Moyes lives on a farm in Essex with her husband, journalist Charles Arthur, and their three children.  She enjoys riding her ex-racehorse, Brian, as well as tending to the numerous animals on her family’s farm, including Nanook, or ‘BigDog’, a rescued 58 kg female Pyrenean mountain dog.”

Jojo Moyes

Me Before You is a romantic novel, but it is also a tragedy on a serious, controversial subject: euthanasia.   The protagonist, Louisa Clark, aged 27, an attractive girl from a small, historic English town and an ordinary, lower middle class family, is laid off from her job working in a cafe and takes a job as a carer for a quadriplegic 35-year-old man, Will, who was injured in an accident, is wise, good-looking, worldly and was enormously successful in business.  He isn’t sure he wants to continue living in his present state.  There are many other characters: Louisa’s parents and sister, Will’s parents and sister, Louisa’s boyfriend, Will’s girlfriend, and a medical carer.  It is a long book: 512 pages, and the listening time is 16 hours.

The book is certainly addictive; it is difficult to put it down.  Apart from the first chapter which begins rather slowly, the book is electrified with wave after wave of emotional crises, all quite real and believable.  There are job crises, romantic crises, existential crises, financial crises, personal crises.  The dialogue and the scene-setting is very good indeed.  Also impressive is the medical research that Ms Moyes must have done to make this novel as believable as it is.  The central characters are all clearly defined, and their development is entirely credible.  The only criticism I can offer is that one becomes somewhat emotionally fatigued reading the novel.  Could it have been a little bit more memorable and effective if it had been a hundred pages shorter?

If you’re a reader who likes emotional roller coasters, this one is definitely for you!

Judging a Literary Award

The Reader Views Blog has an article by Sheri Hoyte, Managing Editor, regarding the process of scoring titles for the Reader Views Reviewers Choice Literary Awards.  Sheri Hoyte’s website says that she is an aspiring children’s picture book author.  “I worked in the corporate world for over thirty years, honing my business and professional writing skills until 2012, when my passion for stories called me home to Reader Views an online publicity company for authors. Over the next couple of years I read and reviewed books for Reader Views, becoming the editor and social media manager in 2014. I am now one of the managing editors.”

Sheri Hoyte

In the blog she says: “So what do judges look for when scoring a literary awards title? Much like reading with a writer’s hat on, reading with a judge’s hat takes a different focus. Following are the guidelines I use when judging a literary awards title:

·         Content.  Does the author’s voice convey a distinct and consistent style throughout?  Does the flow of the book draw the reader in at an appropriate pace?  Does the reader have a clear understanding of who the characters are in the story?

·         Presentation and Design.  There is nothing more distracting to a great story than editing and proofreading errors.  This is the easiest thing to fix or prevent in the first place.  I can tell within the first few pages whether or not a professional editor has been used.  An occasional typo won’t make or break the book, but consistent use of poor grammar will cost points in the presentation category.

·         Production Quality.   Is the cover attractive and appropriate for the genre and the story?  Yes, I know the cliché, but a dull and drab cover, or a noisy cover with hidden titles and too much information can be a turn off.  Does the binding fall apart when opening the book?  Is the paper quality adequate or just so-so?  I have a hard time concentrating on a story when the book I’m reading is falling apart or the pages are tearing because the paper is so thin.

·         Innovation.  To stand out in any genre, innovation is the key.  Is the subject matter original?  Does the author bring a fresh voice to the genre?   Are writing elements being used in interesting and creative ways?

·          Social Relevance and Enjoyment.  For fiction books: Is the book impactful on the community of the genre?  Is it reflective of important social issues? Is it highly entertaining and completely engrossing?  Would I re-read this book?  Was I left wanting more?

·         Resourcefulness.   For self-help, business, how-to, etc. type of books: Is the book easy to follow, clear and concise? Are credible sources noted? Does the author have credibility in the subject matter?

When I read a book, whether for pure enjoyment, to learn a new skill, expand my knowledge, or for a literary contest, I want to feel a connection to that book.  Fiction or non-fiction, humorous or biographical, when I’ve finished a book and it lingers in my mind for days – that is the sign of greatness.

Bad Book

You may remember that a had a recent post (September 1) on Why Do Bad Books Get Published?  I now have an example: The Tiger’s Prey, by “Wilbur Smith with Tom Harper”.  I bought in from the local bookstore here in Sicily, which has a rather limited English language shelf, because years ago I read Wilbur Smith’s When the Lion Feeds, his first novel (1964) which I thought was great story-telling.  By 2014 Smith had published 35 novels with sales of 120 million copies, 24 million of them in Italy.  He is now 86 years old.

In 2012, he moved his publishing to Harper Collins.  As part of his new deal, Smith would be writing select novels with co-writers, in addition to writing books on his own. In a press release Smith was quoted as saying: “For the past few years my fans have made it very clear that they would like to read my novels and revisit my family of characters faster than I can write them. For them, I am willing to make a change to my working methods so the stories in my head can reach the page more frequently.”  Smith’s Wikipedia page lists five co-writers; in the last five years he has only written one book in his own name.

So who is Tom Harper, and how much of The Tiger’s Prey did he write?  The answer to the latter question is not in the public record.  The answer to the first question is that he is a novelist, “13 thrillers and historical adventures”, born (1977) and brought up in Germany, now living in York, England.

In the previous post, I said, “It’s also worth noting that many bestselling authors no longer write their books themselves and use ghostwriters (who might not have the same writing chops) so that the author can churn out more books.”

Could that be the case for The Tiger’s Prey?

This novel is set in Cape Town and India in the 18th century, and it focuses on a family of seafaring, English aristocrats.  There are plenty of adventures:

  • Tom Courtney wins a sea battle with pirates while being seriously out gunned and out manned.
  • The head of the East India Company sends a derelict boy, Francis, who is Tom’s nephew to kill Tom as revenge for Tom’s accidental killing of Francis’ father.
  • There is a battle between Tom and Francis in which several others are killed.
  • Christopher Courtney breaks with his father, Guy, who runs the Company office in Bombay and joins the crew of a trading ship.  (Guy and Tom are bad blood twin brothers)
  • Christopher is flogged by the captain, later kills him, steals the captain’s money box, sets fire to the ship, and goes ashore.
  • Christopher joins a Hindu warrior school.  He is on a mission when he rescues a woman on the road who is threatened with rape and kills her assailant.
  • The woman runs a band of brigands and he joins her band.
  • Francis joins Tom on a trading mission to India.
  • The ship that Tom, his wife Sarah and Francis are on is shipwrecked, and they are intercepted by the army of a local Indian ruler, but they find their way to a local Company fort.
  • Christopher and his female leader become lovers and steal a money chest belonging to the local ruler.
  • They are captured and imprisoned by the Rani, the local ruler.
  • Christopher is forced by the Rani to kill his lover; he takes a position in her army.
  • The Company chief at the fort falls out with the Rani, and sends a military mission to negotiate with her.
  • The mission is attacked, the chief is killed, and the survivors retreat to the fort.
  • The fort is attacked by the Rani’s men but Tom resists the siege until the Company rescues them.
  • Tom goes to Madras and finds that his wife, who left the fort early, has been taken by pirates, and held for ransom.
  • Christopher joins the pirate leader; Guy refuses to attack the pirate; Tom cannot steal the money to pay the ransom.
  • Tom finds a rajah who is willing to fight the pirate and gives Tom and Francis command.
  • The pirate castle is sieged successfully and the women freed.
  • Tom and Christopher fight and the latter jumps off the castle wall.
  • Tom gets a large portion of the pirate’s treasure and Christopher gets together with the widowed wife of the Company chief.

But it isn’t just one barely credible adventure after another, the book is full of brutal violence and some unloving, explicit, rather forceful sex.  Moreover, there is a complicated backstory about the Courtney family which adds to the credibility burden which the story bears.  The characters tend to be black or white, good or bad, with little depth or complexity.  And what motivates our hero, Tom?  It is mostly to recapture a precious family sword, which has been taken from him and falls into several evil hands.  The sword is described with typical hyperbole: “he had used it to send countless men to their deaths they so well deserved.  It was made from the finest Toledo steel, and the supple weight of the blade was perfectly balanced by the star sapphire in the pommel.”  One might ask, also, what the title of the book has to do with the story.  The only tigers in the story are either rugs or the subject of a hunt organised by the rajah; the hunt does nothing to advance the story.

There were several factual errors in the first few pages.  East Africa was mentioned as a leg of the slave trade with America and the Caribbean; it was West Africa.  During the first sea battle, a “brazier on an iron tripod” is brought out and used to heat the tip of a sword.  This is extremely unlikely.  The only heating on a wooden sailing ship was the in the cook’s galley, which was extinguished before battle for fear of fire.  The only exception would be to heat shot (in the galley).  There is also mention of an un-manned broadside.  To be un-manned, the powder in each gun would have to be lit by a long fuse, and since the burn time of 18th century fuses was highly variable, it was unlikely to be a effective broadside.

There are two areas where Mr Harper shines: his knowledge of 18th century seamanship and exotic Indian lore.

Give it a pass.

Review: Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History

This book was recommended to me by an Italian friend of mine, who particularly likes non-fiction.  It was written by Penny Le Couteur, PhD, who, the back cover tells me, “teaches chemistry ad Capilano College in British Columbia, Canada.  She is the winner of the Polysar Award for Outstanding Chemistry Teaching in Canadian Colleges, and has been a professor for over thirty years.  and

Jay Burreson, PhD, who has worked as an industrial chemist and held a National Institutes of Health special fellowship for chemical compounds in marine life.  He is also general manager of a high-tech company.”

The title of this book is based on the unproven belief that the clothing of Napoleon’s officers and soldiers in his Grande Armée may have fallen apart during the extreme cold of the winter of 1812, following its retreat from Moscow.  One observer of the army’s retreat noted that it appeared like “a mob of ghosts draped in women’s cloaks, odd pieces of carpet or greatcoats burned full of holes”.  The buttons on the uniforms of the Grand Armée were made of tin, a metal which changes into a crumbly, non-metallic grey powder at low temperature.  Could crumbling buttons have led to the defeat at Moscow, and the extreme hardships of the retreat?  If the army had been equipped with brass buttons, might it have been victorious at Moscow, and moved on east, capturing all of Russia?  If so, Russia and all of Europe would be a different place today.  In 1812, 90% of the Russian population were serfs, who, unlike their counterparts in western Europe, could be bought and sold by their owners.  Might Russia have been recreated in the image of France?

There are seventeen chapters in this book: one for each special molecule or group of molecules.  In each chapter, the elements making up the molecule are identified, as well as the structure of the molecule.  If the molecule occurs in nature, the efforts made to synthesize it are discussed.  But, most interestingly, the impact of the molecule on human history is described.  Here is a partial list of the molecules: pepper, nutmeg and clove, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), glucose, cellulose, silk and nylon, dyes, the Pill, molecules of witchcraft, salt.  For example, in the case of the spice molecules, they stimulated an enormous growth in world trade and exploration.  Ascorbic acid prevented scurvy, making long voyages possible.

While there are plenty of chemical formulae and equations in the book, one does not have to be a chemist to understand the evolution of each molecule.  The text is user friendly, understandable and clear.  The authors are at their best when they describe the impact of each molecule on history, using facts, examples and statistics.  In the introduction, they confess that they had to narrow a larger list down to seventeen.  One has to wonder what they left out, but it doesn’t really matter because the general point about the power of chemistry on humanity has been made. One must wonder what the future will bring.

As I read the book, some of my high school chemistry came back to me, and in this sense, I may be an atypical reader, but I would have liked a brief chemical tutorial on how the structure of a molecule is determined, and on how individual molecules work on human beings.  There are excellent discussions on salt and soap, but for some other molecules, this is discussed only superficially.

6 Elements of a Good Book Review

There is a post on the above subject which appears of the Steve Laube Agency blog.  It was written by Karen Ball, who was a literary agent with the Agency, but has now gone back to writing.

Karen Ball

She said that a “good review” is helpful to readers in deciding whether the book is for them.  “So here are some things, based on book reviews out there, for reviewers to keep in mind.

“A good review is balanced. It takes into account that we all have likes and dislikes, and while this book may not be our cup of tea, it could be someone else’s absolute favorite. (Hey, it could happen!) Yes, share your honest opinion. But realize that’s what it is. Your opinion. A subjective evaluation of what you’ve read. No more, no less.

“A good review is about the book, not the author. Focus on the writing, on the treatment of the topic, on the characters, on the storyline, on the research, on the facts, and so on. Don’t make judgment calls about the author’s faith, intelligence, relationships, parenting skills, parentage, or whatever. A reviewer’s job is to share your opinion of the book. You don’t have the right to go beyond that.

“A good review is about the author’s craft, not the book’s packaging. Don’t base your review on the cover or endorsements or things over which, I guarantee you, most traditionally published writers have absolutely no control.  (Now, if the authors are indie, then yes, they control those things…) But remember, what you’re reviewing is the writing, not the packaging.

“A good book review doesn’t give an extensive summary of the book and then one or two lines about your thoughts. Readers can get the summary from lots of places. What they want to know is what you thought of the writing, the message, the story.

“Even more important, a good review doesn’t give away the ending/secret/mystery/twist! Please, friends, for the love of heaven, don’t ruin the read for others. If you knew who the killer was on page 2, fine, say, “I knew who the killer was by page two.” But do NOT say, “I knew by page two that the butler was the killer.” If a book has a great twist, say that. But don’t give the twist away. Have mercy on not just the readers, but on the author.

“A good book review is specific. Don’t just say you loved the book or hated it, tell us why. And tell us what specific aspect of it you loved or hated. For example:

What did you like or dislike about the writing?

What drew you to–or left you cold about–the topic or characters?

What moved or challenged or inspired or infuriated or disappointed you?”

I think this is all good advice.  I would add that there are almost always some things things the writer has done well, and that praise should come before criticism.  I may have a tendency to give too long a summary of the story, but when I do this, it is for two reasons: first, to show that I have actually read the book (there have been cases where a reviewer based his critique on only a sample of the book), and because I may want to make a point about the plot in my critique.

Why Do Bad Books Get Published?

Ellen Brock, a professional freelance novel editor, published a post on her blog, https://ellenbrockediting.com, with this title on February 16, 2015, but it is still timely.  She works with about 150 authors per year as editor, plot consultant and writing coach.

Ellen Brock

She said, “It’s a question that all aspiring writers ask themselves at one point or another: Why are there so many bad novels on book store shelves?

While we can’t expect every novel to be literary gold (some books are just for fun), there sure are a lot of bad novels out there!

Sometimes all of these poorly written books can give writers the impression that their clearly superior novel should have no trouble getting published, yet when these writers query, they are met with rejection. It’s easy to feel like there is a double standard. Why do mediocre (or worse!) books get published when my great one keeps getting rejected?

The truth is that most of the bad novels out there did not come from the query slush pile in the first place.”

Here is where she says many of these bad books come from:

Celebrities

Whether they’re an actor, a TV personality, or a leader in their field, famous people are often able to get books published regardless of the quality. This is because the publishers are selling the name on the cover more than they are selling the book itself, and readers are inherently interested in what celebrities have to say.

Bestselling Authors

Like celebrities, there comes a point when authors are selling their name more than they’re selling their book. Publishers know that with a huge base of loyal fans, putting out a book that is not super spectacular will have very little impact on sales. Many readers will also look more favorably upon books by their favorite authors simply because they have positive expectations.

It’s also worth noting that many bestselling authors no longer write their books themselves and use ghostwriters (who might not have the same writing chops) so that the author can churn out more books.

Foreign Translations

This is an often overlooked reason a book may not follow conventional (English language) writing “rules.” A novel that is extremely successful in a foreign language may be translated to English so that publishers can expand their market. There are a variety of potential issues in the translation process that can lead to a lower than average quality to the writing, such as a poor translator, different writing standards from the country of origin, and no way to clearly or easily translate words or phrases into English.

Industry Insiders

It’s not uncommon to read the bio in the back of a debut novel and find that the author used to be an agent, work at a publishing house, or write for a newspaper or magazine. People who are inside the publishing industry have the ability to use their connections to get ahead, even if the book isn’t quite as high quality as readers are used to. This is not to say that these books are always bad, but it certainly happens.

Media Tie-Ins

Media tie-ins have become quite popular. These are books that are novelizations of movies or TV shows. They may be based on the films/episodes or they may simply be set in the same universe or feature the same characters. These novels are often assigned to writers for low wages and may not have had enough time spent on them.

Self-Published Novels

It’s not always clear when a novel has been self-published, and though there are some amazing self-published books, there is an endless supply of self-published novels that were not properly edited. Today, authors can sometimes get these books into local libraries or bookstores and readers can buy them without ever realizing they were self-published.

Sequels

As with famous authors, sequels often rest on the laurels of a previous book. Publishers bank on readers needing to know what happens next in the story and may be more lenient when it comes to tightening up the story and polishing the writing if they anticipate readers will buy the novel regardless of a lower quality.

Other Reasons

Sometimes bad novels are plucked from the slush pile and given the privilege of publication. There are a few reasons this might happen:

The Acquisition Editor Likes It

Acquisition editors are (typically) the people who sift through the slush pile and decide which books are considered for publication and which are not. These people are just that – people. Their tastes play a huge part in what they choose, and sometimes a book resonates with an editor due to personal experience or preferences. Sometimes these books don’t resonate the same way with the average reader and fall flat.

A ‘Catchy’ or Unique Concept

As much as we like to think of writing as an art form (and it is), publishing is a business. A mediocre book that has a great concept may be easy to sell on its premise alone. Once readers have purchased the book, a profit has been made. If the novel only gets a two or three star review online, that’s not such a big deal. Readers will still pick up the book in the store, get excited by the concept alone, and purchase it.

A Concept That Is Timely

Current events can sometimes prompt a novel to be published before it’s had the chance to go through proper polishing because the publisher is hoping to capitalize on public interest in a certain topic, concept, or person. In order to not miss this window of public interest, the book might be shoved onto shelves too soon.”

I think it would be very interesting to spend a couple of days with an experienced and successful acquisition editor, looking at synopses and samples of novels s/he has rejected, and discussing the rationale for rejection.  It would also be interesting to understand her/his evaluation of why a published novel failed.