SPFBO musings

I’ve been sitting on these thoughts for a while, but I think enough of the thoughts have come together properly so that I can actually talk about them. And what it comes down to is this: I make a terrible pseudo-agent.

My typical reading style is to read a book from cover to cover and then review it. I don’t really do DNF reviews, and it feels wrong to start a novel and then not finish it. Long-time readers of Bibliotropic might notice that I’ve stuck with some truly terrible books, so that I could feel justified in giving them a proper review. Bad writing, flat characters, nonsensical and counterintuitive stories. I’ve made myself sit through them all, so that I could feel, in the end, like my review will be accurate and like the book is done justice.

Justice doesn’t always mean “positive review.” Justice, to me, means accuracy. It means looking at all the factors and weighing them and making a judgment call.

So the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is forcing me to go against my instincts and look at things in a whole new way. I’m under no obligation to read any of the books I was given from beginning to end. I can stop partway if I feel that the book just isn’t doing it for me, for whatever reason. That’s unusual for me.

As Mark Lawrence put it, we’re all putting on our pseudo-agent hats. We’re handed a batch of potentials and told to pick one that we feel is the best. If we were in charge of passing off one of these books to a publisher, which one would it be?

This is why I figure I make a bad pseudo-agent. An agent would be empowered to, if not inspired by the synopsis and cover letter, just put the submission aside and move on without reading the first page. This isn’t necessarily the agent being picky. This is the agent knowing what works for them, what will excite and motivate them, because how can you pitch a book to someone else if you have to say, “Yeah, this book really isn’t my thing, but it’s pretty good anyway. Maybe it’s not your thing either, but you should give it a try.”

An agent is, in many ways, a salesperson. And if there’s anything I’ve learned from my years of working in sales, it’s this: if you want to sell something, you have to believe in it. If you can’t get excited about a product, how can you expect to get someone else excited? You need to be able to say, “This product is amazing, because [this], [this], and [that]. And it’s right for you because [reasons].” And you need to be able to mean it.

(Or at least fake it well.)

Getting back to my point, if I was acting like a proper agent, I likely would have discarded the vast majority of what I was given, right off the bat. I could have looked at the summaries of all the novels and discounted at least a third because they didn’t immediately sound exciting. Not that some didn’t sound potentially interesting, depending on how they were written, but based on first impressions alone, “potentially interesting if other factors line up,” isn’t necessarily something you want to devote your limited time to.

I probably could have discounted another third after the first chapter. The writing in most of the books I’ve gotten is okay, it’s decent, but a lot of them aren’t wow-worthy. They don’t make me sit up and go, “Damn, this is good!”

I feel like I should be giving every book every chance it can possibly have, even if I know it’s not going to end up approaching the winner’s circle. Over the years, you develop an instinct about books. Or at least I have. I can usually tell what star rating I will end up giving a book by the time I’ve read the first 5 pages. Things may change as I read on. Sometimes the rating may go up or down by a star depending on how the story plays out. I’ve noticed that 9 times out of 10, though, I end up agreeing with my early assessment. At the end, more often than not I feel the same way as at the beginning.

The book I’ve already reviewed for the SPFBO? Had I been acting like a proper agent, I probably wouldn’t have read it all to the end. The writing was okay, but uneven. The story had potential, but the potential wasn’t fully achieved. The characters had no obvious motivation for what they did. It was, in short, decent but average. Okay, but could have been better. (And I don’t feel bad saying that here because I said it in the full review.) I still think it has potential. I think if it were worked on and expanded a bit more, it could be great. But as is, it’s not great.

It’s not going to be the book I choose to pass on to the others in round 2. I already know that. I knew that pretty early on, unless everything else I got was somehow abysmal in quality (and that isn’t the case).

This is my quandary. I don’t know whether I should continue as I have been, giving a book every chance and seeing how it plays out from beginning to end. Or whether I should break out the red pen, start slashing titles off the list, and concerning myself with only a few titles that I really think will do it for me. I know that sometimes my early judgments can be wrong. Sometimes books surprise me. Sometimes I discount a book because the synopsis doesn’t push the right buttons with me and then I pick it up later on a whim and find that I really like it and shouldn’t have made that snap decision.

That’s the risk you take, I guess, when you do what I do. And I mean that primarily for book reviewing, not wearing the pseudo-agent hat.

I see other participants in this challenge approaching it in different ways. Some are reading the book in full (at least so far) and then picking the best out of a smaller batch, then moving on to the next batch. Others have discounted most of the offerings and are down to only a handful of potentials they will devote more time to. There’s no right or wrong way to do this.

…The problem is, I think, that I have two warring inclinations. The first is to do what I’ve been doing, reading everything I can and exposing myself to a lot of books that are mediocre or uninteresting. The second is to be more ruthless and approach this like I am an agent, at least in the quality department, and risk missing a couple of gems. There are pros and cons to either choice. And I’m uncertain as to which one is better, both for me and for the books I read.

11 comments on “SPFBO musings

  1. My question is this: how much time has Mark give you to complete this project? That alone would let me determine how to approach it (if I were doing it) If you only have a short time, it makes sense to pull out that red pen and start slashing. Also, how many other, already published books, are you giving up because you have to read these books? My first instinct would be to give the book one chapter to grab me, and base your reactions off that. Then after you’ve read all the first chapters, pick five that seem the best and read them through.

    • 6 months for the first batch of 25+, then the next 6 months will be reading and reviewing all of the chosen winners from the previous batch. So technically there’s enough time to read through them all, and I wouldn’t even have to cut back my regular reading by that much.

      I guess the ultimate dilemma for me is that by giving up on any of them, I’m not giving them the treatment I tend to give traditionally-published books. That being said, sometimes I’ve taken an entire month to read a trad-pub book because it’s so horrendous that I can only stand to read it 1 chapter at a time, so my usual habit of trying to finish everything I start doesn’t always do me any favours. :/

      I could wittle my list down in a day by reading through just the first chapters and discarding anything that’s not immediately awesome. But is that fair to the books that could easily make it based onquality and story that just didn’t grab me from the get-go? Would I have given them a greater chance if they were traditionally-published?

      Gah! I just keep going around in circles here!

  2. As a writer, I so appreciate your willingness to give every book every chance to “make it.” On the other hand, I’ve ridden the query- and submission-go-round enough times to appreciate a swift, “No thanks” over a long-awaited, “No thanks.” :)

    Besides, I spent some time working in Human Resources during a regional economic downtown. Hundreds of resumes/applications came in for four or five job openings every month. I know what it’s like to have tons of material to screen and judge!

    So… and I say this as a writer who has skin in the game… I’d say it’s perfectly reasonable to make your first decisions without reading every word of every novel because your role in this stage of SPFBO is different than that of a reviewer.

    (Aside: A few years ago, I had the opportunity to sit beside a Big 5 editor as she read and critiqued opening chapters of a novel. In addition to getting her awesome feedback, I learned how she first evaluated submissions: start reading, and stop when she wasn’t interested. If she made it through the first chapter, she’d scan through a couple later chapters to see if the writing held up. If it didn’t, the book was rejected. If it did, she’d read more. Apparently, about eight out of ten submissions didn’t pass that first test.)

  3. My first instinct, both as a reader and as an indie-author, is to suggest that you do whatever is best for you. If that means reading everything in full, do that. If it means being ruthless, do that instead. Maybe it’s worth seeing if you can find a compromise between the two views?

    I can add/say that, as an indie-author, I most appreciate any approach that doesn’t hold my work to a lower standard than a traditionally published book, whatever that approach entails for a person. I don’t know if it’s useful for you to hear that, but I hope it can help with your quandary. (Er, disclosure: I am not one of the participants in SPFBO as either a reviewer or an author. I’m only responding with my author-hat on in hopes that it’s somehow useful to offer that perspective in as far as I’m able to.)

    Does that help? I’ve been trying to word a response that was helpful and I feel like I’m failing. I stand by my first instinct, though, and suggest that you do what works best for you as a person and worry about the books second.

  4. Oh my, I’d make a terrible pseudo-agent too. I understand where you’re coming from, because I’m the same way in that I don’t DNF books when I review. In your shoes, I would probably understand why the process of this blog-off would require me to look at it differently, i.e. DNF if a book isn’t working for me and move on, but I won’t like, it would gnaw at me for a long time too. It’s easy to just say put-on-your-ruthless-agent hat in this instance, and when push comes to shove I probably could — but like you said, it just goes against personal instinct.

    But seeing as you’ve got a substantial number of books to go through for SPFBO, I would probably say take out that red pen and start slashing. I know the quandary though! There have been times where I was tempted to DNF a book only to have it become AWESOME in the last half. But I also have to admit it doesn’t happen too often. You’ll have to take your chances and risk missing some gems or fantastic-comebacks, but you gotta do what you gotta do!

  5. I am going to write a response that may seem to go off on tangents, but seeing as I am the one who was basically told, “pffft is this a joke?” as a review I will give you what I hope is an honest opinion.I meant it when I thanked you for your time.
    I will tell you what I tell all my Soldiers when they ask for advice concerning their goals. Your first impulse is usually the right one. Even after you measure all the pros and cons you will find that you will come up with more pros on your initial thoughts.
    I entered the contest with a great deal of trepidation. I know how inexperienced a writer I am. When I was slotted in your blog I read as much as I could on what you reviewed and where your reviews leaned. I knew I had the proverbial snowballs chance.
    You are right that my book needs copy editing, I wish I could afford a copy editor. I sent it to as many eyes as I could before publishing. It doesn’t change the fact that you were spot on in that assesment. The actual synopsis of my book I knew would not be your cup of tea. The obvious misogynistic appearance of my world, the dichotomy of me (the inexperienced writer/ bitter 40 year old man) trying to write in the POV of a wistful, naive 15 year old girl. The brutalness (which thankfully you never reached) of how women, children and animals are treated. I like strong female characters, but I don’t want to have one just to have one. I don’t have enclaves of women training like Spartans (because for some reason that is a thing now), or a lone Amazon of a woman proving that she can fight as well as any man. I wanted an average woman who becomes strong. I think I have a good story to tell. I still have an urge to tell the story, and one review from a contest I willingly entered won’t change it.
    This is a service you are providing us. If a book doesn’t hold your interest move on. Give a reason why it failed to hold your interest, like you did for the others. That in itself is a complete review. Some of us are not published for a reason. We suck! That may seem harsh, I could be more diplomatic and say that our work needs some more fine tuning, but that would just be sugar coating it.
    Sugar coating a review does a disservice to the writer. They WILL NOT improve if everything he/she hears is wine and roses. If one review causes the writer to stop writing then they were not writing the story for the right reasons (at least that is what I think).

    Do what you want. In my opinion, you agreed to read 25 books. Start to read the book, if it doesn’t keep you wanting to read more its the book’s fault, not yours. Give an honest effort for each book (I know you do), and write a review as to why it did not hold your attention. That is a review, which is more than you already agreed to do in the first place. You don’t have to review all 25, you just have to say you read it. But you have reviewed 4.
    Thanks again

    Nathan

  6. I used to review in a similar vein – I’d slog it out with every book, even ones I hated, so I could give a full, honest review (my thinking was if I culled all the books I didn’t like, I’d only publish glowing reviews that would lower my credibility as a reviewer).

    Now I’m a bit more picky. I give every book the benefit of the doubt, but I apply my lemon law rule to it – 10% of the book, to the nearest chapter. If I’m not gripped by then, it gets crossed off. If I’m still insure, I read a third.

    Thinking in terms of a 3-act structure, 10% should be enough to cover the set-up of the story – hopefully enough to enable my decision whether or not to carry on. Reading a third should at least get me through the opening act. If at this point I’m still uncertain, I ditch the book.

    I agree with Lynn, though. Go with whichever approach you feel makes you better equipped to say whether or not you’d want to pitch this book to a publisher. Like you said yourself, if you don’t believe in the book in its entirety, you’ll have a hard time taking it to market.

    Wishing you the best of luck too, it’s a hell of a challenge but so, so awesome!

  7. Ria, use whichever approach you want to and don’t worry about the rest. Every blogger in this project is doing something different to narrow their lists down, and no method is any more or less “right” than the next. The fact that you’re even taking the time to look at these books is amazing enough on it’s own. Just do your thing! -high fives-

  8. Pingback: April in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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