Now that you want to get your work published, it’s time to write a query letter!
It’s understandable to be a bit anxious about this. Practice will help a lot, not just with writing better queries, but also with your nervousness. Understand that many famous authors were rejected several times before they were published. So keep on plugging and try not to get discouraged.
Query Letter Basics
First things first: always do what the publisher says you should do. Seriously. Queries are cover letters accompanying your submissions to a publisher or agent. They can vary in length, but Job One is always to do what the recipient wants. That is, if the recipient wants it as an attachment, send an attachment. If they want it in the body of the email or sent via snail mail or faxed, then do that. Double-spaced? Do it. Times New Roman font? Why, that’s suddenly your favorite font, too!
The last thing you want to do is annoy the recipient of your letter. So follow directions to the letter. Unsure of an instruction? How about asking on Twitter? Do not let your manuscript get a rejection under a technicality.
Rather than giving you an example, it’s probably best to link to a successful modern query letter. Now imagine your work, with a showcase like that. Change the genre if necessary, the character names, etc., and you’ve got the bare bones of a query letter.
Suggestion: check several successful query letters, particularly those which are fairly recent and are in your genre. If they are the queries which your actual target admires, then so much the better.
Keep plugging. Queries are a rite of passage for every author. They will get easier as you keep on doing them.
Have you ever written a blurb for a book? Here’s how.
Grab the Reader’s Attention
The most effective blurbs are:
specific as to genre (don’t be coy; if it’s horror, then say so!)
open about who the protagonist is
not a rehash of the first chapter or the entire plot
neutral about the quality of your work (don’t say: this is an incredible book. Your saying that does not make it so. Sorry.)
So keep in mind – these are not the same as the summary you write for a query.
In this fantasy tale, Dorothy is whisked away by a twister to an unknown magical land. But first she has to deal with the quite literal fallout of her house falling on, and killing, a wicked witch.
Blurbs give us an idea about the story, and they make us want to read more. Also, a blurb for The Wizard of Oz would likely be longer than the above, better reflecting the work’s complexity and length. While a long book does not need to have a long blurb, it at least could conceivably support one. However, a short novel probably would not. Unless, of course, you’ve written The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird.
Reclusive millionaire Jay Gatsby leads the good life in 1920s New York. As his friend Nick Carraway watches, Gatsby’s life takes a turn with the all-too appealing but also all-too married Daisy Buchanan.
Scout and Jem Finch live in Alabama with their widowed father, Atticus, the town’s leading lawyer. It’s the 1930s, and Maycomb seems far from sophistication or enlightenment. And so the trouble starts when a black man is accused of raping a white woman – and Scout’s father agrees to defend the accused.
A beta reader is somewhat different from an editor.
For one thing, beta reading is generally something that people do for free.
Beta readers are people who read over your work and evaluate it before it goes to a publisher. They might read for typos, spelling errors, grammatical issues, and punctuation problems, but that is not a very good way to work with them. Work with an editor for that.
Instead, you want them to help you with flow and continuity. If your main character is female and 5’2″ and has a chihuahua on page 4, then she should still be female, 5’2″, and the owner of a chihuahua on page 204, unless there is some on-page reason why she isn’t. E. g.:
She is transgender, and successfully transitioned (with or without surgery) to male. Or the character no longer identifies as female or male.
The character had a growth spurt and is taller, or has osteoporosis, and shrunk, or maybe her legs were amputated (sorry, character!).
She gave away the chihuahua, or it ran away, etc.
The last thing you want is for your beta reader to wonder where the chihuahua went, particularly if the little dog isn’t a big part of the story.
How Can You Start This Relationship?
The best way to get a beta reader is to be one. So offer a trade with another indie. Be kind when you’re done, and either recommend your beta reader friend or at least donate a little something to one of their three favorite charities. If the work is absolutely abhorrent, at least you can say you did that.
What Should You Expect?
You’re working with a volunteer. Things might be slow. You cannot be overly pushy. However, setting an expectation as to the overall deadline (be generous with the time frame!) is helpful. E. g. if you want the beta reading to be done in ten months for a 100,000 word document (very possible, even for a busy beta reader), say you need it done in nine months and try not to be overly anxious about it.
What Are Some Practical Tips?
Use Google docs in order to avoid version control nightmares. Create a schedule and a set of expectations. Hence for our hypothetical 100,000 word work, a nine month time period gives the beta reader about 39 weeks to get it all done. If each chapter averages about 1,100 words long, then you want a beta reading turnaround of about 2 – 3 chapters per week to make it in nine months. See why I’m talking about giving yourself a one-month cushion? You’ve also got to account for vacations, illness, the other person being busy with other stuff, and even a lack of motivation on their part.
How Many Beta Readers Do You Need?
For our 100,000 word work, you’re probably going to want more than one beta reader. In fact, I would recommend that for any work longer than what most people would call a short story. You need some give and take and a consensus. If three beta readers tell you a chapter is dull, then it’s dull. If two say you need to use the word ‘whom’, and one says to use the word ‘who’, look it up on a trusted authority, such as Grammar Girl. Majority does not rule here.
Good beta readers are in the demographics of the people you’re trying to reach with your novel. They like your genre or at least are willing to read in it and offer feedback. They don’t tear you a new one when they don’t like something, but they are also unafraid to tell you if something isn’t working for them.
Some Standard Questions
Are the characters believable? Are they distinguishable?
Do you think the situations are plausible?
Are the settings well described? Can you picture yourself where the characters are?
Do the transitions work?
Are the conflicts plausible?
Is the conclusion a satisfying one?
Also ask about genre-specific issues, such as whether your mystery was too easy or difficult to solve, if your horror story was scary enough, if the technobabble in your science fiction novel was credible, etc.
Google docs is particularly useful for multiple beta readers, as they can see each others’ suggestions. Just set everyone to ‘suggesting‘ and not ‘editing‘. Google docs will also inform them when changes have been made, so they are reminded that you’re still out there, and you still need their help. Be sure to make corrections on the page so the beta readers can comment on them if they want to.
Don’t like Google docs? Then use Word and turn on its editing features. Use Dropbox or the like if your documents are too big to practically email back and forth.
Manners Count With Your Beta Reader!
Be gracious about the corrections; these people are trying to help you! But if it’s important for your character to be Lithuanian or eating pretzels or whatever, then stick to your guns and explain why. Do so without rancor, of course. Be kind and your beta readers will be so in return to you.
Establish a really good relationship, and you could be reading for each other for years.
PS… Beta Reader Rewards
Not 100% necessary, but nice to do all the same. I’ve gotten and given gift certificates. And if your work makes it to publication, send them a signed copy. For free.
Teasing is a subtle art. It is a lot like a fan dancer’s moves or a shy person’s come-on.
Teasing should feel like a movie trailer because that is exactly what movie trailers do.
Teasers are usually a bit longer than blurbs and are meant to generate excitement. They often end with a question, but they don’t have to. Think of how films are teased if you’re stumped for ideas.
She was spoiled, rich, and beautiful, until the Civil War ended it all. Scarlett O’Hara has lost nearly everything. But there’s a rich man who’s interested, and he might
even love her. Can she win Rhett Butler
and save her beloved land, Tara?
Revealing too much
Don’t get too obvious! You do not do yourself any favors by spoiling your own book. Notice how the above teasing for Gone With The Wind does not go past maybe the middle of the film? And how it never mentions Ashley or Melanie Wilkes, the burning of Atlanta, or Scarlett’s first two husbands? I deliberately left the teaser off at just about when the first big reel ends. It used to be, in the theater, Gone With The Wind would have an intermission, the film was so long. This teaser ends just about a minute after intermission ends.
Revealing too little
This is another problem. If I just said Scarlett was a wealthy woman living a life of luxury on the brink of the Civil War, that would feel a bit incomplete. I can go a little further, plus adding Rhett Butler’s name to the teaser brings in the male main character. Marrying Rhett is one of Scarlett O’Hara’s main character drivers, whether it is to secure finances for her family or due to love on her part. Bringing Rhett into the conversation means the listener or reader gets an even better idea about who Scarlett is, and what motivates her.
Practical Teasing Practice
Can you write a teaser for a classic work? Try it in the Comments section, and let’s see how you do!
If you first wrote in someone else’s universe, and now you want to claim your own, you may be transitioning from fanfiction.
Going from fan fiction writing to wholly original writing
It’s more than just ‘filing off a few serial numbers’.
How writing fanfiction can help you
It teaches you how to follow continuity. It can keep you writing when you’re stuck. Writing begets more writing (even fan fiction!), so it pays to keep going. You are better off, in terms of preventing writer’s block, to just keep on writing. Hence, if all else fails, go with fan fiction. Of course there are plenty of places to post it online. Here’s one.
How writing fanfiction can hurt you
It does not teach you how to make your own world, and it can hamper your growth in this area. Furthermore, if you are not used to making your own characters, it can hurt you there, as well.
Flip Your Perception
So consider what the foundational IP (intellectual property) does, and why it matters to you as you start the process of transitioning.
Interesting stories – spend some time deconstructing your favorites. Where did the writers hand-wave a problem away? Also, where did they get confusing? In addition, where did they deliver on the promise of their teaser/preview?
Compelling characters – why do the canon characters matter to you? Again, engage in some deconstruction. Forget who plays a character. So consider how you would feel about a character if someone else played them. Furthermore, consider how you would feel if the character’s gender and/or sexuality were swapped. Would you feel different if the character was of a race different from the current actor’s? Be your own casting director. Who, living or dead, could play the role better?
Fascinating scenes – even within a familiar place, commercial intellectual property exists inside its own bucket. It might be a city block, a hospital, a car driving across the country, or somewhere else. What would happen if the scene shifted? Does the work succeed if it moves from Milwaukee to San Diego to Angkor Wat?
Action-driving plots – what kicks things off? If it’s a television program, what happened during the pilot? Did someone new move in? Did someone lose their job? Have a wedding? Have a kid? Graduate? Get arrested? Would the storyline still work if the pilot was different?
Believable effects, makeup, costumes, lighting, scenery, etc. – technology is a part of onscreen fiction writing. New techniques are constantly being invented, as studios save money but also enhance believability. What happens if an older show or film gets new makeup and green screening? Does that help the story, or harm it?
Blaze Your Own Trail
For every exciting intellectual property out there, whether it’s books, films, YouTube videos, TV programs, or something else, it all started somewhere.
So what is your story? Who are your characters?
Who knows? Maybe someday someone will want to write fan fiction about your work.
Basic scene setting is a fundamental skill which every writer needs to perfect. Let’s look at some ways to do it.
All the old familiar places
When your story takes place during the present day, you’re in luck! You can get away without going over basic information. Present-day Moscow has cars. Today in Paris, people used the metric system. Current day Kentucky has telephones. So your really basic information is already there. Don’t waste time or pixels or reader good will by explaining any of that, unless it’s somehow important. E. g. if your Russian character was raised in the sticks, maybe they never saw a car before. If your Parisian is a transplant from the United States, she might occasionally forget that most countries use different systems for weights and measures. And if your Kentuckian was deaf and now suddenly can hear (and also led a sheltered life) telephones might be odd things which now have a purpose they didn’t have before.
Familiar place, unfamiliar time
Then there’s the scenario where your location is close or familiar. But the time is now. So, what is it, the past or the future?
Forward into the past
If it’s the past, then you need to do some research. Wikipedia is not a good final source, but it’s not a bad first one. What I mean is, you can start there, particularly if you are unsure about names or parameters. But then you need to branch out. Hence if you are trying to determine whether there were gas lamps lighting the streets of Berlin in 1740, you might want to start with looking up gas lamps and moving on from there. If they were invented later, then your question is answered. But if they were invented earlier (I honestly don’t know), then you should be looking at other sources. You can check footnotes, or just do some creative Googling. I have found The Library of Congress has some great old images, but you may need to spend some time looking, as not everything is logically labelled.
Back to the future
For the future, of course you can invent what you like (and I will get into that with a later blog post). But it pays to do some research anyway. Get an idea of what’s coming. If, say, solar-powered belt buckles are being patented, then why not put them in your near-future story? However, if you are writing a deeper, later future, you might want to make them passé.
Familiar times, unfamiliar places
Is the place found on planet earth? Then do some digging. And don’t just look at touristy sites! I live in Boston. It’s not all Faneuil Hall Marketplace, not by a long shot . By the way, a public service announcement from me: Harvard University is in Cambridge, not Boston. And it is far from the only university in this city.
For alien places, consider what it means if the gravity is stronger, or weaker. What happens if the atmosphere is thinner? One way to make things easier on you is to research similar locations. The Andes or the Himalayas could stand in for a planet with thinner air, for example.
Consider not just the look, but what happens when you engage your other senses. Is the place hot? Smelly? Smoggy? Is the landscape muddy? Frozen? Sandy? Do your characters have to climb? Cross rivers?
Put the reader in the action by engaging multiple senses. Latch onto the familiar if you can. Analogize to give the reader a faster understanding of the place. Do the homework, even on the small almost throwaway scenes, so your readers won’t have to.
Narrative nonfiction tells a story. Biographies and autobiographies are often more or less subsets. While it’s possible to relate a biography in a non-narrative form, that’s pretty rare. Essays are a form of short nonfiction. And speech is pretty self-explanatory.
There’s a lot more here. Poetry is usually rhythmic (although it doesn’t have to be) and has evocative imagery. Drama is serious stuff, and it can be a part of theatrical performances.
Humor or Comedy?
Humor is of course the funny stuff. Don’t confuse it with comedy (although we use the terms interchangeably in common parlance). Comedy is just when the protagonist lives at the end of the piece. Contrast that with tragedy, which is where the protagonist dies by the end. But comedy, traditionally, does not mean something is funny.
By this definition, A Clockwork Orange is a comedy.
Fantasy or Myth?
Science fiction and fantasy are pretty close. While fantasy is generally more otherworldly, science fiction usually dovetails with possible science, no matter how far-fetched. Fairy tales, in contrast, are generally drawn from folklore. The more general term, folklore, goes beyond stories to songs and proverbs from long ago. Legends, on the other hand, often have a basis in fact. This can be the subject (a national hero, like El Cid) or the plot. A fable is often short, but it always contains a moral lesson. A short story is generally too brief for a subplot.
Realistic fiction is also fairly self-explanatory. It’s fiction which could be real. Historical fiction adds a historical dimension although it’s often also meant to be realistic.
Horror evokes fright and visceral reactions. Tall tales are overly exaggerated and are virtually the opposite of realistic fiction. Mythology is a traditional narrative with a religious or faith-based component. Mystery involves the solving of a crime or uncovering secrets. Finally, fiction in verse is much longer poetry which contains subplots and major themes.
What are generally not considered to be full-blown genres? Young adult, adventure, romance, etc. Hence the idea, for the most part, has more to do with length and execution than subject matter.
How Do You Treat These Genres?
First of all, consider pacing. Horror often slows down, and then speeds up. Mystery might take a while to build to a satisfactory conclusion. Furthermore, mysteries contain red herrings. Myths might contain repetition. Some of that comes from oral tradition. Humor is all about timing. Drama can often be slow and building. Traditional poetry has a sing-song rhythm.
What is your particular spin? Do you use short, choppy sentence to speed up the action? Do you also choose shorter words?
Character creation is rather personal. It depends on how organized you are, and how much you like to plan. So character creation will vary. This is what I tend to do. However, my methods are not necessarily the best or the most consistent ones.
Your mileage, when it comes to character creation, will undoubtedly vary. And that is perfectly okay.
This is actually a picture of me from 2015, by the way.
Origins for Character Creation
For me, characters arise in a few ways. One is just that I can ‘hear’ their ‘voices’. Or I might see a face clearly. Lots of situations or activities can create a focus. So I might walk around my neighborhood and consider what I see. This is whether it’s something from nature or just someone’s illegally parked car. Music in particular can be helpful for this, although it is not absolutely necessary. For a fanfiction bad girl character I named Pamela Hudson, her personality came barreling in when I heard the Amy Winehouse song, You Know I’m No Good.
And sometimes, characters just appear, fully formed. I tend to consider names in the context of how they sound and what they mean. Hence a character like Marnie Shapiro Chase came out of nowhere because I liked how her name sounded. Then I worked on putting her together. The same was true of Colonel Craig Firenze. He started off sounding good and I built from that.
Character Creation: Ethnicity
Still other characters might arise out of names and ethnicity. Or even national origin. Jazminder Parikh and Akanksha Kondapalli are both Indian women, but Jazzie is a doctor, whereas Akanksha is an attorney. I also tend to like someone to be from the southern US. Hence Jeannie Louise Scutter and Patricia LaRue arose. Characters from the UK might be Dave Shepherd, super-spy, or Dr. Devon Grace. Plus there are also scullery maids Frances Miller and Ceilidh O’Malley. So it runs the gamut of rich and poor.
In addition, I try to write some characters of races different from my own. These run the gamut from Dr. Elise Jeffries and Dr. Mei-Lin Quan to Solar System President Fankald Williams and her sister, Tamara Woods.
What’s in a Name?
While draping a character around the meaning of their name is kind of silly, it can sometimes help to inspire. I liked the name Ceilidh O’Malley, and it was a bonus that her name means a type of jig. Hence someone who grew up in grinding poverty had a rather frivolous name. So I gave her the middle name of Aisling, which is Irish Gaelic for dream.
Dave Shepherd didn’t originate as a protector in the Obolonk universe, but as I wrote him, he became one.
Other characters just almost tell me their names. This was certainly the case with Craig Firenze and Kitty Kowalski in Mettle. In Mettle, the two bratty tweens were always going to be Kitty and Mink. Tathrelle was another name that sprang up, for Untrustworthy. Frances always existed in The Real Hub of the Universe, but her surname started off as Marshall, not Miller. Her name was changed as a character named Marsh was mentioned too often with her.
Other characters are named for people I know, in whole or in part. The Enigman Cave is particularly chock full of such characters. It’s everyone from the Chief Veterinarian to a space defender to the Chief Engineer. The Real Hub of the Universe has some, including the Chief of Police. Plus the Ashford baby is named for a man I know.
Character Creation: Show Some Emotion
Characters also exist to make the main character feel something. And this isn’t always something good. Ben Chase exists to piss Marnie off in The Enigman Cave. Johnny Barnes exists in The Real Hub of the Universe to terrify Ceilidh and force her into action. Jeannie exists in Mettle to anger Craig and eventually make him not feel too bad about getting on a plane. And one of the reasons Dave Shepherd exists in the Obolonk universe is to help Peri get over Charlie.
Plus there are always love interest characters, even if they don’t last. That’s Lex Feldman in Enigmans and Dalton Farouq in Time Addicts, the 2019 NaNoWriMo novel.
Shapiro, Shapiro, Shapiro
As a kind of personal ‘tell’ and Easter egg in my works, every longer piece (except for Untrustworthy, as none of those characters are human), somebody is named Shapiro. This is even true in fan fiction, where characters Ethan and Rebecca Shapiro (father and daughter) figure prominently in the overall storyline.
The Obolonks series has Greg Shapiro. He’s a wisecracking cop living in Connecticut. The Enigman Cave has Marnie Shapiro Chase, the captain of the spaceship. Marnie’s kind of frumpy and nerdy but also very smart. Then in Real Hub of the Universe, the name is subtle. Blima Shapiro Taub is a character never actually seen ‘on screen’. Blima is known more for her jealousy than anything else. In Mettle, Shapiro is Eleanor Braverman’s maiden name. Eleanor suffers from Alzheimer’s.
So you can see that the Easter egg characters are all rather different.
In the November 2019 NaNoWriMo novel, the name shows up as a the married name of a sibling of the protagonist.
Character Creation: Purposeful Characters
Sometimes characters are necessary to fulfill some purpose or another. Technically, that’s supposed to be the case with all characters (oops!). Either advance the plot or be background exposition. Hence Noah Braverman’s fellow reporter, Francine O’Donnell, serves to give him a bit of a reason to express his thoughts out loud in Mettle. Ben Chase serves as Marnie’s foil, but he also makes a big discovery which helps drive the Enigman plot. And I needed Livia Thorson in Obolonks to explain some of the robotics, just as I needed Ned O’Malley in Real Hub to explain how Ceilidh was going to get to the states.
Sometimes purposeful characters come in the form of radio or TV show hosts, or nameless people reading news stories aloud or commenting on them. How many times have you stood in line at a coffee shop and heard people discuss the events of the day? Even if it’s the sports section or politics or whatever, it can still help to orient readers as to time and place.
In Untrustworthy, Ixalla started off as a kind of explainer character, but then the role grew when I turned her into a revolutionary.
Why do you need a character? Do you like them? Do they drive the plot? Will you kill them off if you have to? Make characters to fulfill these purposes or to add depth and background. Give your story dimension with people who feel real.
Some editing tips and tricks for you, me, and all the writers we know! And don’t know, too ….
Because if you did NaNoWriMo this year, then now is right about the time you might start to thinking about attacking the editing beast. Or maybe you just don’t want to look at it yet. And that’s perfectly fine. However, you need to edit it eventually. Since professional editors cost money, it will pay for you to do some of the work early. Furthermore, if you have beta readers (and every writer should!), then you owe it to them to not waste their time reading an unpolished manuscript. Of course they should expect some issues as that is why you’re turning to them in the first place. However, a big garbage can full of word salad does no one any good.
So first of all, before you do anything else, run spell check. While that sounds simple and obvious, I have beta read for people who didn’t do that first. Second, check your dialogue tags. So, what are dialogue tags? Dialogue should run one of three ways:
She said, “I’m hungry.” Notice the comma before the first quotation mark, and then the period before the second? The first two words are the dialogue tag. The comma is mandatory in this case. And it’s the same thing if you move the dialogue tag to the end. So in that case, you would write: “I’m hungry,” she said.
She patted her belly. “I’m hungry.” Notice there’s no comma this time? That’s because the initial sentence is an action; it’s not a dialogue tag at all.
She growled, “I’m hungry!” The comma is back! And Grammar Girl (as usual) says it best: “Simplicity is the rule in attributives. Many writers try to think for the reader by replacing “said” with words like grunted, growled, demanded, bellowed, cooed, roared, squalled, and simpered. If the tone of the dialogue is not immediately apparent, rewrite the dialogue and not the attributive.”
So make sure your dialogue tags are correct and your dialogue makes sense. And third, get into your scenes and anything (or anyone) else you need to describe. Too much description can bog down the action. And too little can leave your readers guessing. So here is where a knowledge of films can help. Current movies rarely show little transitional scenes like walking down a hall or driving unless something else is going on. And you should do the same. If your character starts off at school and then comes home, don’t show the character on the school bus unless that particular scene matters.
Do some basic editing, at the absolute minimum, before anyone else looks at your work. Respect others’ time and they’ll keep helping you.
Reviewing – Bad Reviews – lousy reviews are tough to write! However, you need to write the occasional less than wonderful review in order to establish and maintain credibility. Not every novel is a stellar one. Not every effort is perfect and pristine.
This blog post is about reviewing badly-written works. But if a work is out and out plagiarized, then have at it. That’s just plain wrong, and it may be copyright infringement.
Soothing Hurt Feelings and Maintaining the Relationship
Let’s face it. A less than glowing review is going to engender some hurt feelings. Plus there is every possibility a friendship will end over it. That’s not someone being a prima donna (at least, that isn’t necessarily the case). Rather, it’s that you just told someone their baby was ugly.
Yeah. It’s like that.
So, what do you do?
I believe one reasonable response is to essentially perform a cost-benefit analysis. Not everyone is a critic of any sort. Consider how hard it is to get your own work reviewed at all. It’s work! And people like to be pleasant, plus they want very much to be liked. They may be a part of the community and hoping for positive feedback in return. Or they might be friends or family. Hence we are all essentially graded on a curve. Know that going in.
One thing you can do is, delay and defer. Maybe that’s weasel behavior. But it will soften the blow if the negative review is not the first one anyone sees when researching a book. If someone already has 100 reviews, then it won’t be quite so noticeable. Of course, lots of indie writers never get that many reviews. But you might be able to delay a bit.
Another idea is to go fast. Detail and length are not your friends here, so make it quick.
Consider the Audience
I suggested this for middling reviews. But it holds true here as well. Who is likely to read your review? If the writers asks you to review on Amazon, then you are going to rather directly affect someone’s sales and potential sales. If you are being asked to review on an obscure book blog read by sixteen people, then the impact will not be as great. Plus you can initially post your negative review only on the obscure book blog. Once the writer sees the review, I doubt he or she will push for you to share it on Amazon, GoodReads, CreateSpace, Barnes & Noble, or iBooks.
Providing Constructive Criticism
While this is a good idea in theory, it’s not really what someone is looking for when they request a book review. Instead, rather than hearing that they should learn dialogue tags by checking out this Grammar Girl link, they want to read about how their book moved you.
However, you still might be able to slip in some constructive criticisms, and write things like I would love to see this book with shorter chapters; it might benefit from another round of edits or some strategic splitting. Or I was hoping for a less challenging mystery. This one was hard. You’re not damning with faint praise but you’re also not putting lipstick on things.
A Few Escape Hatches
Preface a bad review with some escape hatches which will help the writer. After all, you’re not there to trash them, right? Here are a few ideas:
I am not the intended audience for this work or genre. – If you’re over 50 and asked to review YA, you probably aren’t in the intended audience. Maybe younger folks would be big fans.
The work is unique. – Unless it’s plagiarized, this is honest and accurate.
It is a good freshman effort. – This is straying into the realm of damning with faint praise. But it’s not a horrible thing to write about a work. Most people are not going to do well with their first novel. And that’s okay.
I really liked this one thing and think you should have written a lot more of it. – Liked one of the supporting characters? Enchanted by the setting? Think the plot was a good idea but poorly realized? Then this is for you. Of course you are not rewriting the piece for the writer. But your suggestions might just become helpful plot bunnies for them for later. Maybe they really will write a sequel or prequel, or revisit the scene, or rework the plot in another piece.
Salvaging the Relationship by Privately Reviewing
You might be able to save things by privately telling someone – you don’t want me to post this review. There are review sites which will do this, and will often give the writer a choice. If a writer really wants reviews, they might be okay with a less than wonderful one.
You are presumably friendly or at least cordial with the writer. Give them a break and give them the option.
By the way, negative reviews can often help a new writer. Not only do they give the writer what could end up being really valuable feedback, they can even boost sales. For consumers considering taking a chance on a new, unknown author, a rash of 5-star super-perfect reviews can seem suspect. But a few poor reviews can give the whole thing more credibility,
How about Bad Reviews for Famous People?
If you only write 4- and 5-star reviews, then you are probably selling everyone short. Just like bad reviews can give a writer more credibility, they can also give the reviewer more credibility.
But if you don’t want to hurt your friends’ feelings, what do you do?
One idea is to review all sorts of books. Review classics where the writer is long dead. Or review popular works with hundreds or thousands of reviews where no one will notice your review much, anyway. Did you hate reading The Scarlet Letter? Then go ahead and trash it on any review site you can find.
It’s not like Nathaniel Hawthorne is going to rise from the grave and complain, right?