When I start a book and find out that it is a “first novel” for an author several things come to mind immediately. Is this the first published book for this author? Or is this the first book for the author in every way, first book written and first book published? If the answer to either question is yes, then the headaches and twinges sets in as both my anticipation and anxiety ramp up. In many ways I dislike writing reviews on “Firsts”. While it is true some first books jump right out of the gate like Bear, Otter, and the Kid by TJ Klune and never look back in their race to success and great storytelling, most don’t fit into this category. Like bike riding, jump-roping, and other activities, you take your beginner falls and make your beginner mistakes and hope you are not surrounded by onlookers.
The beginning novelist doesn’t have that opportunity. They put their baby out there and wait for the reviews to come in. And when the reviews are less than stellar, it must feel crushing. Amy Lane, an author I love, recently showed us a blog cartoon her daughter is launching about life with an author mother. It shows Amy upset over a 3 star rating in one section. The cartoon was funny as well as truthful. The author pours their heart and soul into a book and then has to wait to see if they are going to get a smack down or a boatload of golden stars. This painful anticipation goes beyond categories like established or beginner but at least an established author has been there before. For a first time author, it is alien territory. Yes, there be dragons lurking there. I can always hope that the first time novelist has a wonderful editor, a great group of concrit partners and a support system to see them through the pangs of their first publication. Doesn’t always happen either. Sigh.
That’s the author’s side. Now let’s flip this over. While I don’t wish to contribute to an author’s pain, I still have an obligation to the readers who will buy the books to tell the truth as I see it. Yes, review ratings are based on the judgement and opinion of the reviewers but if the person writing the reviews taste match your own then you come to count on their reviews when purchasing or thinking about purchasing a book. If you are too kind to an author about the story you have read and don’t express your real feelings or observations about the book, then you are betraying the trust of people who count on your judgement. Say you stretch that rating out from a 3 to a 4 star rating, does it matter? Yes, you have just said that a book that was only average is now a book you loved and would recommend. Someone spends their money thinking they have bought a book they will love only to find it lacking. Now you have a frustrated and perhaps angry reader. They are unhappy with the reviewer as well as the author. Goodwill demolished on every front.
So how to balance the two? It is a constant juggling act. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. I try to be helpful but that is not always possible. I can hope that I can take away enough from the story to say something positive. It is easy to be mean, harder to be a “force for good”. So I look to find some redeeming characteristics to write about. Again not always possible. Usually I go through several drafts of a review. All the scathing things I really want to say get written first. You know the easy caustic points you can make, sometimes it is like shooting fish in a barrel. Just not very sporting. Have I done it? Yes. I am human. But I find that with each draft, some of those sentences get edited away. Mostly.
Sometimes upon completing a disappointing “first” from an author, I often wonder why someone didn’t help them more. How on earth did that plot, that dialog, that choice of words in descriptions, and that very lack of characterization makes its way into publication? Why did not someone pull that writer aside and say “that is a lovely first attempt, now let’s box it up, slide it under the bed and start on your second novel.” Is that not done any more in the rush to publish something? I really don’t know. I would love to hear your opinions on this, either as a writer, publisher, or an author.
So that’s where I stand, in the middle of a teetertotter trying to find my balance. Sometimes I teeter on the edge, sometimes I tip and totter over, and sometimes the balance is just right. Feel like Goldilocks on those days. Good days and bad, good stories and bad attempts. Karma. How do you feel about reviews? What makes a good review for you? And what first books have been memorable ones? Let’s talk, shall we? Book reviews to follow!