The REAL function of reviews (and why they really do still matter)

The REAL function of reviews (and why they really do still matter)

In days gone by, book reviews were the province of the professional, published in broadsheet newspapers, Sunday supplements and other publications. If a critic didn’t like a book, this was a big deal and usually meant that sales of said book became unstable: some folks would buy a book just because of a bad review and others who might otherwise have had a punt at it, avoided it.

Then everything changed. Not only did Amazon allow reviews, now it even chases you up some time after purchase asking what you thought. Blogs and book review websites give their thoughts on books. Everyone, it seems, is allowed to be a critic now.

Now while many have criticised Amazon for all sorts of things (and rightly so) the company has given a very valuable facility to writers who by now might be running out of bottom drawers to store rejected manuscripts in: a place to publish at minimal or even no cost. It’s also given readers the chance to express their thoughts on favourite and not so favourite and even hated books.

It’s been a volatile combination. A few years back, someone (who? We may never know) figured out that there was a winning combination to be had from reviews. If a book garnered X amount of reviews, then it triggered an automatic promotion of the book from Amazon. It meant that emails landed in the in-boxes of anyone who’d bought something even vaguely similar, alerting them to a book they may like. If your book garnered some more, the promotion stepped up a notch. So, the race was on to reach the magic numbers of reviews and that’s when things went pear-shaped. Authors started to buy reviews, or created sock puppet accounts to review their own books, and brow beat members of their family and friends to review their books. They also stooped to even lower tricks like writing one star reviews for the books of perceived rivals to lower their overall star average so that they became ineligible for a number of prestigious review sites. Flame wars broke out on message boards and discussion groups. Readers lost confidence in the impartiality of Amazon reviews, and became suspicious of books that had only five star reviews, believing (despite evidence to the contrary) that all must have been written by the author or the author’s friends and family. Amazon itself cracked down on some reviews, and began to declare that it was against their terms and conditions for authors to review other authors writing in the same genres, but failed to isolate and deal with the swathes of negative one star reviews instigated by disgruntled authors and their minions.

The review system was declared fatally flawed and I’ve heard people say they pay no attention to reviews any more. I’ve no idea if the algorithm that triggered extra promotion still exists, because I am still short of the magic number (or the one I last heard of) and they’ve probably moved the goal posts anyway!

So, if readers don’t really read or take heed of reviews, what’s the point of them? Why do so many authors ask for them, send out ARC to folks so that within hours or days of publication, there are reviews brightening the page?

It’s complicated. We’re tribal animals, us humans, and we’re not all of us pioneers. It’s a rare person who’ll venture precious cash on something totally untried. Myself, if the blurb has interested me (quite rare now) I tend to glance at reviews (and I do look at one star reviews too), download a sample and go from there. If I like what I read, I will probably buy regardless of what negative reviews say. (As an exercise, I challenge you to look up one of your very favourite books on Amazon and read the one star reviews. That puts it all into perspective. I have a single one star review that upset me at the time but which now I treasure.)

So if reviews are not really for potential readers, who are they for?

They’re about a kind of dialogue that was never possible before the internet. The dialogue between author and reader. Yes, letters were written, but the very public nature of reviews means that anyone can read them. This is why it’s very bad practise for an author to answer reviews, especially negative ones, without a great deal of thought, if at all.

Being a writer can be intensely lonely. We build worlds in our heads and we let others into those worlds when we publish, but there’s a real anxiety that we didn’t do a good enough job. Do the readers see what I see? Do they feel what I feel about the characters? When a review pops up (or an email or letter for that matter) and it becomes clear that we succeeded in our aims, that brings the real joy.

Reading my own reviews has told me a lot of things. Here are a few:You can’t please everyone. Some folks love a happy ever after ending, some prefer things less neat. Some readers cannot cope with typos. (S&P needs a good sweep through for these; I am aware of it but finding the time to do it is harder than you’d think. I was rushed into publishing it, and had been assured it was ‘clean’. Lesson- be more discerning about so-called friends). Some people seek to find detective story twists in literary fiction and are disappointed they did not find any. People have their own ideas of where a story should go, and can be unreasonably disappointed when it doesn’t go where they thought it should. In a story with multiple strands, readers all have their own favourites and preferences for where they would like it to go in a sequel(this makes sequels exceptionally hard to write). Readers become protective and loving towards certain characters, and become attached to them. Themes that affect one reader positively can push the buttons of another.

As a writer, hearing that a story that I lived and wept over has affected someone means I have done my job and done it well. In these days where the push is towards having mega best-sellers, which fly off the virtual and real shelves in their thousands every day, it’s easy to forget that there is a relationship going on, an unseen dialogue between the author and the reader. As a reader, I often want to tell the author what I liked or didn’t like, and why. In some books that have profoundly affected me, I have reviewed them so that my experience validates the book in some way for another reader. Experiencing it from either side means I understand very well how much it can mean to a writer to hear that their words helped another person. As a writer, reviews give me a reason to continue when self doubt and depression knock me down, when sales are poor and when it seems like the whole world wants to read the latest blockbuster by a famous writer and small fry like me don’t really exist. Reviews assure me that I have skills and that people I have never met appreciated those skills.

Writers can be fragile beings. Hemingway once said, “Writing is easy. You just sit at a typewriter and bleed,”. Reviews (well, good ones anyway) are the salve on the open wounds, that soothe and heal and give us strength to go on bleeding. 

Asda, axes and the persistent myths of mental illness

Asda, axes and the persistent myths of mental illness

The last few years have seen a number of high profile campaigns to end the stigma associated with mental illness. Time To Change ran an excellent one a few years back, and I really began to think things were changing.

Then this week two supermarkets in the UK, namely Asda and Tescos began selling their Hallow E’en range of spooky costumes and included one that was named (in one variation or other) Mental Patient. A blood-spattered costume was nicely accessorised by an axe anointed copiously with fake blood. The outcry online was such that the costumes were removed from stores and from their websites.http://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2013/sep/26/asda-halloween-mental-patient-costume?CMP=twt_gu

It’s only the outcry that has cheered me up from the very real sadness this provoked in me.

That someone in marketing could have been so crass as to think this was even vaguely acceptable is beyond me.

The truth is that mentally ill people are far more likely to harm themselves than another person, and much of that harm is inadvertently done as a result of harsh medication causing side effects. Those with serious mental health issues are considered likely to die 20 years before peers without such illness.

20 years. You did read that correctly. This is thought to be due to the long term effects of some medication and to other factors such as the knock-on effects of certain medications (such as weight gain etc) http://www.rethink.org/media/810988/Rethink%20Mental%20Illness%20-%20Lethal%20Discrimination.pdf

One of the factors I have noticed is that physical illness is often missed by doctors, because they have a tendency to assume everything is down to a mental health issue once someone has that on their file. It’s also down to a deep prejudice that is often unacknowledged. It’s this that can make people like me who have had a life long battle with my mental health hesitate when unwell. I start to believe that everything is my imagination or a product of being depressed. My recent discovery that I have a congenital condition that is quite serious (and may have been something that can be fatal) came on top of having to fight for a referral by a GP who’d decided to write me off as merely (ha bloody ha) depressed. I’m in the process of trying to see another doctor about mysterious pain that has been getting worse for six months but I have been putting off seeking help now until the pain has been keeping me awake at night. All because I have become so afraid of being dismissed as being mentally ill. It shows to me that there are too many people around who only take in the mental bit and not the ill part. I do not choose to be ill, whether physically or mentally.

This gaffe by major British supermarkets shows that sadly the stigma is still present, and while I believe that it may be less than it was ten years ago, it’s still far from vanishing. 

A moth of mythic proportions(or a myth of mothic proportions)

 

A moth of mythic proportions(or a myth of mothic proportions)

I grew up with a brother who was obsessed with butterflies and moths, and bugs in general so I learned early not to show fear or I’d find something in my bed. In time, I stopped being terrified of spiders, and now rather love them, but I have been surprised by the number of people who while loving butterflies, loathe and even fear their nocturnal cousins, moths. But then, I think knowing a lot about something tends to dissipate fear.

At one time staying with my brother might mean sharing a bedroom with Indian Moon-moths, as the spare bedroom was the hatchery. Ghostly, pale, furry wings six inched across would flap slowly across the room, lit by the lights from the street outside. They didn’t bother me. It was better than his room which was lined with tanks of various species of tarantulas. They still have the power to make me wary.

So when I was writing The Moth’s Kiss, I asked him about the moth that is said to drink tears, assuming it was a myth of a moth. “No, it’s very real,” he said, and sent me links to it. This is a moth that derives its nutrition from the tears of sleeping animals and people. More than that, it pokes the eyes to make them water. “It also spreads dangerous diseases,” he said, and then added, “Isn’t it marvelous?”

I shuddered. The idea of such a thing coming to you in the night, unseen and unfelt was horrifying but there was a certain frisson of ghoulish wonder about it. Truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.

The Moth’s Kiss was written as a side exercise, while I was writing a novel, a sequel to The Bet. The novel required that the main character become aware that he was being observed, stalked, not just by one person but by several, and to help me focus this idea, I wrote a number of extra sections, from the point of view of those stalkers, knowing that while I would not include those in the novel itself, they would deepen the experience for me. There’s nothing quite like building back story; it’s like method acting for writers. But when I wrote The Moth’s Kiss, I saw it could stand alone and unsupported because it touched on deep fears many of us share.

All of the stories in this little collection are intended to tap into those collective fears, that primeval jolt of terror, that is beyond the rational and yet even for us today still hold the power to unsettle and disturb us. We might not believe in ghosts, or demons or black magic, but most of us still have fears we’re not aware of till the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up on end, and rationality runs out the door.

I’ve encountered many experiences over my lifetime that might well be dubbed paranormal and spooky, and on the occasions I’ve been persuaded to do some live story telling, there’s been few listeners who haven’t at least enjoyed a frisson of fear.

Anyway, the collection of ten stories, some that have appeared here and some that have never seen the light of day can be found lurking in the darkest corner of Amazon, here and here.

I’d advise reading them in daylight, if you are of a nervous disposition. 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Moths-Kiss- ebook/dp/B00CPLPYJY/ref=pd_sim_kinc_3 or for USA: http://www.amazon.com/The-Moths-Kiss-ebook/dp/B00CPLPYJY/ref=pd_sim_kinc_3

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Bet-ebook/dp/B009ISHLYI/ref=pd_sim_b_3   or for USA: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Bet-ebook/dp/B009ISHLYI/ref=pd_sim_kinc_3

 

Mirror, mirror on the wall ~ reflecting on failings

Mirror, mirror on the wall ~ reflecting on failings

I don’t like mirrors much. I suspect not many honest people do. Mirrors are unforgiving. They don’t airbrush out the bags under your eyes. They don’t show only your good side.

But they’re useful. They tell you when it’s time to deal with the caterpillar eyebrows and when you really do have spinach caught between your teeth. They also tell you what you have been denying, that the ten pounds you put on over winter are showing up even when you wear baggy sweaters and suck your tummy in all the time.

Mirrors are honest. They don’t try and gild the stark truths. They show us things as they are, in the worst possible light. There’s no nasty surprises after that.

Except there are.

Other people can be mirrors too, you see. It’s a well-known phenomenon that what we dislike in others is what we loathe in ourselves or fear may be true but rarely become conscious enough of to recognise. You can see a lot of it on social media, people bemoaning the activities and attitudes of others in such vitriolic terms that sometimes seem disproportionate to the offence (if offence it actually is). Now not everything is a mirror but sometimes it is. How we react to another person may well be a reaction to something within ourselves.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone where it feels as if they’re not talking to you, or responding to your actual words? The chances are they’re not. They may actually be talking (or shouting) to themselves.

It’s worth remembering the magic mirror in all interactions. It might clarify a lot of exchanges.

A survival strategy for depressive crises ~ 10 tips from the edge

A survival strategy for depressive crises ~ 10 tips from the edge

Even seasoned souls have depressive crises. I suspect this is familiar to most of us who have been affected by depression: those days where every bad thing seems to come to a head and drag us to hell again. They seem to come out of the blue, no matter what our usual strategies for evading them might be. However unexpected they can be, there are probably triggers.

I’ve been in such a place this week which is why I am writing this, on the hoof you might say. Triggers I have identified so far are complex: lower book sales, blog visits and a sense of slipping away as a writer. The words have been hard to pin down, the rolling narratives have stalled and begun to grow moss and lichen. Then my first attempt at working with Createspace for paperbacks totally failed, and I felt terribly stupid. And a final trigger was spotting that someone who used a private conversation between us as a basis for a blog post had released a book that shares both themes and ideas as one of my books. I know, ideas are not copyrighted, but it wound me up to breaking point, and I reached a point where I felt I was at the end of being a writer. I’m not cut out for a lot of what goes with it as an independent and all the energy used for the business side of things is energy taken from the creative side.

People often only get a clue that someone is in trouble mentally when they cry. But for me that’s often the final thing. I get numb, I stop being able to react to things at all. I feel like I am stuck in a big insulated bubble of nothingness. And it makes me want to wipe away any evidence I’m here at all.

So, what can you do? Tuesday the 10th of September was World Suicide Prevention Day and people were encouraged to reach out to others for help. That’s a start, but there’s plenty of folks who cannot easily do that, so being aware that someone in your circle of friends and family is struggling may mean you can reach out to them in their bubble first.

Here is a list of my suggestions for surviving a crisis. Needless to say, if you can reach out to someone, do so.

  1. Try to stick to your usual basic routine if you can. By which I mean the normal eating, sleeping, washing, going to work. We are creatures of habit, and maintaining routines can at least help reassure.
  2. Don’t underestimate the power of water. Ellie Jasper from Twitter taught me about the Magic Shower. It’s the same as a normal one but you also visualise all the misery and confusion and pain being washed off you as if it were mud. Standing in a flow of water affects the body and the energy field in all sorts of ways and works better in these crises than a bath.
  3. Sleep. The brain has a chance to reboot.
  4. Make no decisions more important than coffee or tea, tuna or cheese.
  5. Wear clothes that feel good. Clean ones for preference. Something that suits you as long as it feels good.
  6. Accept this is how it is today. Don’t beat yourself up about it.
  7. Try and eat decent food. Avoid alcohol.
  8. Avoid long exposure to the internet. If, like me, you’re a fan of social media, it can be very difficult to watch your time-line whizzing past with people oblivious to you. It can also be comforting to see life going on around you, though so be cautious.
  9. Reread a favourite book. Classic children’s books can be a huge source of comfort. Likewise favourite films. This may be displacement but who cares right now.
  10. Sit with it. Let the feelings be. If you cry, you cry. Other than blow your nose and wash your face, take no actions.

When the storm begins to abate, and only then, analyse what happened and why. Make notes. If you found anything that helped, make a note of that too. We all have our own list of things we find help us; but we sometimes need reminding of them. I use fragrance, incense, music, walking, writing, poetry, pets and a few other things, but sometimes during a crisis these can be either too much effort or counter productive. For example, trying to write a story when I am in crisis may help, but if it doesn’t go well it just reinforces the sense of personal failure.

Everyone’s experience is different and these are just my suggestions, written as much to remind me of my own strategies as to share them with anyone else. If they help you, I am glad. One of the things that keeps me going is the belief that the things I write, from poems and blog posts to novels and short stories, actually benefit others. The kind people who have told me that what I write has helped them may not know how grateful I am for this feedback. 

“For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” The Stolen Child ~ on why we need retreats.

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” The Stolen Child ~ on why we need retreats.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about how baffling I find life lately. I suspect the plethora of medical issues may be having a hand in it but more and more often I find myself feeling (excuse my French here) I just can’t be arsed any more with modern life. I value very highly the comfort of our twenty first century life and the incredible medical facilities and the delights of technology. They make life a good deal easier in practical ways than we would credit and yet, recently, with the news concerning Syria and a number of worldwide news issues, I’ve begun to feel like running away.
On Twitter I have set things up so that potentially dodgy pictures don’t immediately appear when I click on a picture link, but it seems that this is set to screen out nudity and adult language. I discovered this the hard way when I clicked on a retweeted link and found an image so graphic (of a murder victim) I recoiled and was seriously disturbed. I checked who had retweeted it and found that they no longer followed me so I had no compunction in cutting them loose.
But the thought remains that there is too much of the sadness, badness and madness of the world that is intruding into my world. I’ve never advocated the so-called Ostrich approach, or of sticking my fingers in my ears and saying loudly, “Lalalala I’m not listening.” The impulse to withdraw is growing and I sense by touching those filaments that connect me to others that it’s the same feeling for many. It’s all getting a little much for us, this life, this bombardment of harshness and the perception that we are powerless, and while running away (nota bene: there is no AWAY) is seductive, it’s not the answer.
I’d like to share a favourite poem, one by Yeats whose connection to the mystical of his native Ireland resonates strongly with me:
The Stolen Child by W. B Yeats:
Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand.
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Away with us he’s going,
The bright, but solemn eyed –
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest
For he comes, the human child
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
Indeed it is. If someone had told me as a child, in terms I could understand, just how much weeping there is in this world, I might have drowned in those tears.
In my novel Away With The Fairies, the main character Isobel withdraws, goes away from her family to seek solitude and to try to come to some sort of terms with the deaths of her parents. But Isobel is an adult, with responsibilities and duties and it’s far from easy for her to carve out time and space for her mourning and it’s only down to the unexpected internal crisis that is triggered when she hits a deer driving home that she’s able to take that time. Her family in the end are the ones who arrange for her to have that time.
For most of us, a retreat may be seen as a luxury, or even as a running away from reality and yet I wonder now how many of you reading now are thinking with some longing of such an experience, a week or a month somewhere away from your usual life. In Yeats’ poem the fairies seduce away a child from his normal life, offering carefree play and sweet foods and a promise of no more tears.
We are not children to be stolen away by fairies, but adults who can seek respite from the sometimes heart and back breaking relentless onslaught of the world’s weeping. Imagine if you will the mother of that stolen child, imagine the impact the disappearance of a loved one would have on the family, and also on the world. Who knows what work that child was to have had in the world, what difference they might have made to matters small or large? This, then, is why time out is important, to refresh and renew the tired spirit and restore aching hearts before returning to take our places in trying to stem the flow of tears with kindness and support, and make the world a place less full of weeping than it might otherwise be.
(for Suzie Grogan, thanking you for your kindness on Thursday. I shall be trying to find some kind of retreat when I can.)

Summer’s End

Summer’s End

I have seen the stars fall

Piercing the clouds

With brief bright flames

White-hot and evanescent.

I have watched the moon rise

Pared to a mouse-nibbled cheese

By sunlit, lazy days

Of parched grass and airless nights.

I have felt the dew form

Heavier than rain, breaking

Drowned cobwebs with

Swollen crystal drops.

I have breathed the night wind

Laden with day-lost scents

Waiting only for the chill

Of dark descending.

I have heard the dip and splash

And beak-full calls

Of kingfisher, sweet surprise,

Where none were known to be.

And I have smelled Autumn air,

Fungal and fruitful fragrant

Amid leaf litter and windfalls

And drowsy gorging wasps.