Thursday, 1 April 2010

A Matter of Taste

This year I decided to enter my novel, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, which is one of the biggest prizes there is for unpublished and self-published authors. I made it to the second round but no further. Progress form the second round was dependent on reviews from Amazon's "Expert Reviewers". These reviewers were given the first 3-5,000 words of each book - the first two chapters in my case (you can read the whole book for free here to give you an idea what they were judging). It should be noted that they were not given the book's "pitch" (what you'd see on the back cover, or its genre. That may be evident.

A few months ago my wife receioved a hilarious circular e-mail telling the same story from two different sides and showing what a difference perspective plays in how we see things.

I decided to post the reviews here because they show a very similar thing about books.

I will not comment here on the reviews themselves. You are free to, and I will certainly join in once conversation has begun.

ABNA Expert Reviewer 1

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

I was very intrigued by the title of this excerpt, which may also interest other potential readers as well (though I was unable to determine what relation the title had to the story).

What aspect needs the most work?

Without seeing more of the work than this excerpt, I am not sure that the date at the start of the first chapter (December 12, 2007) has much relation to the story. The second chapter does not start with a different date. There is quite a bit of vulgar language that seems to have no other purpose than to shock the reader. This language could be eliminated or replaced with something not as vulgar without detracting from the story.

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

After reading this excerpt, I cannot identify the central conflict. I am not sure who the target audience is (age and gender) or what other authors' works this target audience may enjoy. It seems as though the author may not have clearly identified this either.

ABNA Expert Reviewer 2

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

The quality of writing is very consistently very good and the work is finished and polished. The characters we meet are interesting and even in this short excerpt are fleshed out enough to seem like real (if atypical) people. Choice of words and phrases are original without seeming contrived or awkward as is so often the case. The story promises to be a little edgy without being at all crass. It is fresh and contemporary. There are some truly brilliant parts, for example, when Szandi describes the route to Yang's studio or Yang's handwriting or is entranced by her eyes, the description of their lovemaking or her flashback about her Mum.

What aspect needs the most work?

I am unable to identify any major flaws in this excerpt. One minor issue is that as far as I can tell, Ilke never tells Szandi her name when they meet yet Szandi knows it.

These certainly aren't flaws, just some thoughts while I was reading:

It took me a heck of a long time to figure out that Szandi was female on the first reading.
There are some Briticisms that may or may not be intended.
What's up with Claire?
Szandi is quite mature for a 17 year old.
There are a lot of little threads started in the beginning of the novel, such as the letter about Szandi's father.

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

Judging from this excerpt, there is no doubt that the manuscript should advance in judging so that it can be evaluated in its entirety. It is difficult to say exactly where the plot is going from the short excerpt but there is more than enough enough interest and originality in the characters and opening action to hook the reader. It is likely that the main character doesn't really know where her life is going, either. I certainly hope that I have the opportunity to read the entire novel in the future.


  1. Reading review number one has caused me to lose my faith in humanity all together and become a misanthrope. I find it depressing that the reviewer apparently doesn't know what the Berlin Wall. And the comment about "vulgar language" looks like it arrived straight out of the 1950s.

    I'm glad to see that the second reviewer appreciated the book and shares my taste in literature. However, these English-speaking appreciators of literary fiction are so few and far between these days that I'm giving up hope. I think the trend of dumbing things down has gotten out of hand.

  2. One would hardly think they were talking about the same book! The first response, where the reviewer said the strongest aspect was the title, reminded me of the Henry James play "The Heiress", when the father tells his daughter, "you have no virtues other than the fact you embroider neatly". The reviewer's discomfort (and even bafflement) with the piece leaps off the screen - and when there's that fundamental disconnect, it doesn't matter how good the book is, it's just not going to work.

    The second review is thoughtful, insightful, and warmly enthusiastic. Even in the short piece s/he read, s/he was obviously drawn in, and thoroughly "got" it. Now there's a connection between writer and reader - it warmed me to see it.

  3. Shayne, that's a beautiful parallel :) Yes, I can almost feel the buttocks shifting on the seat.

    Marcella, you know, yuo're right - we should be targeting the continental market - I don't know about you, but I certainly do a fair bit talking about the book with people from Eastern Europe (as you know, I've got a piece about the book being published in a collection about life after the fall of the Berlin Wall - so SOME people remember it :)). Looking to the continentisn't a daft idea at all -and Japan.

  4. Briticisms.

    Apologies for not being American.

  5. Yeah, I'm trying to remember any "vulgar" language. Even still, if it's the way your characters speak, then it's valid. But you know this.

    I like, though, how the first reviewer didn't get the title. Wait, what? Even I understand it, and everyone knows I don't know anything. Did this person crawl out of a hole just for this review? I think yes.

  6. Having been in ABNA last year, I see there is a difference in the way the reviews are written. The three questions would have been helpful last year.

    The Vine reviewer are picked from a pool of people who review books on Amazon. This is a random selection of people who have nothing else to do but review books on Amazon, they appear to have a lot in common with people who have nothing to do but review books on Authonomy.

    The big difference is, as there is no 'backing' system, these folks are more negative than positive.

    I know that it's frustrating - but ABNA is just a contest. Not to be taken too seriously.

  7. All I have to say is that I want to read it, both because of the good criticism and the bad one. ;)

  8. @Tony - I know, it's the second time recently people have talked about my Briticisms. The problem is, being a Brit I haven't the first clue what they are!

    @Sarah - yes, the title thing is priceless. True, "Songs From the Other Side of the Wall" bears no relation at all to the 10 page extract. Except maybe for the 4 pages where the MC is singig at a concert. And the page about the Berlin Wall

    @Ms Kitty - I hope you mind, I've been using a quote (fully attributed) from you on our Year Zero publicity :)

    @Mari - thank you :) (I do fear you'll be disappointed if you're expecting a feast of profanity though :)) - the ebook is still available for free if the shipping's a nightmare on the paperback

  9. No, I don't mind, though I'm curious what you are quoting, I get a little pithy sometimes. (G)

  10. "towards the razor's edge of contemporary literature"

  11. I think there are only three kinds of feedback that I find useful and take any notice of:

    1) Feedback from other writers and tutors who really understand and sympathise with what you are doing and can offer insights into how to do it better.
    2) Feedback from people in the publishing industry who have a shrewd and well informed notion of whether there is a market for your book and where that might be.
    3) Reactions from 'ordinary people', readers, not writers, who don't know you, are in the book trade and have nothing to gain by being nice or nasty to you.

    Everything else is just noise and I am afraid I would put these reviews in that category.

  12. correction to the above - 3) should be:

    Reactions from 'ordinary people', readers, not writers, who don't know you, aren't in the book trade and have nothing to gain by being nice or nasty to you.

  13. Yes, and all three will tell you very different things, useful in different but equally important ways

  14. Oh, yeah - I like that one, too!

    I agree with Roland on the relative importance of feed back.

    Don't sweat it. You've gotten a lot better feed back from other sources.

    (Wanders back to the real world...yeah...I said that...'razor's edge of contemporary literature'...hmmm...)