Is Rating A Novel A Good Idea?

What do the stars actually mean?

These days we are asked to rate pretty much everything. From our transactions online and holiday accommodation to books we’ve read and music we listen to. The question is what purpose does this achieve? The answer, to influence others to also buy or not.

I’m writing this now as it’s still early for me and my books have not been rated yet.

I rarely rate things, with the exception of on ebay.  I don’t see why I should leave a track record of everything I’ve done, every place I’ve been and everything I’ve thought about it. For me I like to close the world out when I read and not have to then fill in surveys of what I’ve been doing. I mean it would be a bit like keeping a document online and updating it with my thoughts on books, there for all the world to see… hang on.

I get in some areas it’s important for there to be a track record of how good an experience has been. The afore-mentioned ebay is a case in point; there are scams out there so a list of happy customers helps differentiate good and genuine sellers from bad ones.

But do we need this where the whole experience is subjective?

I don’t really bother reading other people’s ratings too much. I have many reasons for this, one being when I read a book it’s about me and the book, I don’t want other people’s opinions colouring my experience. There is that danger that because everyone says a book is good I will have higher expectations of it. I know there is the whole argument being a strong person won’t let that happen, but if influencing didn’t work why do they have these things? And why does the marketing and advertising world spend so long and so much on doing it?

For me part of the journey of reading is the gamble taken when I take a leap into the unknown with a new author. I’ve read books I’ve loved and read other things by the author that I love as much, or other times the rest of the things I’ve read have disappointed. The fact is this is a conclusion I have reached with no help and I like it like that. It does mean I’ve picked up some rotten books at times but again it’s all part of the joy of reading for me, not knowing what I am going to get.

When I say I don’t like ratings  I’m talking about the numbers out of five or the short reviews “Excellent” or “Rubbish”, because what exactly does this tell me? I’m not a fan of romance novels so if asked to read one and then rate it, the chances are I’ll give it a low rating, if that’s all I do it’s not really fair to the writer as those who will base their opinions on what I have done do not know the reason for this, or they may love romance literature. The same works the other way round I could give ten stars to a book I love, say a massive tome on the history of a small country; but someone with no interest in that country and who is not a fan of history isn’t going to come to the same conclusion.

A case in point is Moby Dick. I’ve read it and… really struggled with it; it was almost painful but the completest in me won’t let me not finish a novel. Honestly is was such hard work. Amazon have it at four out of five stars, I have no idea how it managed that. I just remember pages and pages about the use of whale oil in dry overly complex text and very little action at all.

With four stars it should generally be considered a good book but (and I know I could well be proven wrong here) I’ve not found anyone who started to read it who enjoyed it.

Even then some people are generous and if they quite liked something will give it four or five stars, for others only a very few will ever get their high scores; it’s an uneven playing ground. The same works the other way, for some one star is ok but far from perfect for others it means near on terrible. So put all these together and you have a very odd score. I know people say the Laws of Averages will work it out, but I refer back to my Moby Dick example.

Another example I can think of is a Doctor Who novel called White Darkness. This was released in 1993 and I loved it. It’s set in Haiti in the early 20th century and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I expected it to score well but it’s only got just over two stars. As a reader this might put me off, but then it’s only got two reviews so if I added mine the score would improve. Does this change the nature of the novel and how you might feel if you read it? As a book it’s no way near as well known as Moby Dick, so where that got hundreds of reviews this will never get as many. The Law of Averages is not fair for this in comparison, does that make it a worse book? I know which one I would read again.

I suppose my point being is as a writer, you don’t need to chase scores, just write what you feel is good and do your best to get it to the audience you had in mind who will appreciate it. Of course that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our best and learn how to improve, but we’d sacrifice so much of what we were capable of if we tried to keep everyone happy to get the scores, but didn’t write what was actually our voice.

If we are looking for commercial success, which we all are really, we do have to pay attention to how a book is doing but there are so many better ways.

I’m all for a like button, if you don’t like it don’t press it. After all the only time I do leave reviews on hotel websites is if I’ve a complaint, if it was good and what I expected I don’t. From conversations I know more people who do that same than review for all outcomes. Therefore these ratings will always be biased by extreme opinions. The other option is the other extreme, reviews giving proper reasons why that reader felt the way they did. But simple 0/5 “That was rubbish” or whatever should not, I feel, influence others on if they read the book.

In conclusion I feel with literature taking that leap into the unknown is a good thing, we don’t need what everyone else thought neatly packaged up in to a couple of words or numbers.

Buy Moby Dick
Buy Doctor Who : White Darkness

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Seeing The Past Through The Eyes Of Those Who Lived It

Whole New Worlds From The Memoirs Of History

One of the wonders of reading is being taken in to a different world. I love history so love a book that can show me the past in a way I can feel what it must have been like to live there. How much better if the book was written in times gone by and was referring to its own near past, which to us is so much further away.

Contemporary fiction that has aged lets us see the real world back then more so than any amount of research done for a novel set in the past. Having just finished reading Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Dog by Dylan Thomas* (published 1940) I’ve had just a glimpse of what growing up in South Wales in the early part of the twentieth century was like. This is a coming of age selection of short stories, or moments from the “young dog’s” life – an actual voice from back then. How true they are, or if anything was added for artistic license I’ll never know. Regardless, sometimes it strikes a chord as boys will always be boys (the making of a friend from a pointless fight is very entertaining), but at other times it paints a picture of a life so much simpler than our own.

*My copy was printed upside down and backwards, which is really cool, but I think a mistake.

Thomas was born in 1914 and the earlier short stories are based in his childhood. Just the simple exploration of his families’ rural land in “The Peaches” lets us amusingly into the mind of a boy who has got the wrong end of the stick as he learns his Uncle is selling the piglets to fund his drinking. Soon he’s convinced it’s not just the pigs that are at stake.

“Where’s Uncle Jim?”
“He’s gone to market,” said Annie.
Gwilym made a small pig’s noise. We knew where uncle was; he was sitting in the public house with a heifer over his shoulder and two pigs nosing out of his pockets.

There is nothing ground breaking in this, but what a wonderful snapshot of rural Wales so long ago.

Later as an early teenager, with a group of lads, he goes hitch hiking to a rural spot to camp; just a handful of young lads in the middle of nowhere with just a tent for a fortnight. How times have changed.

Last year I read The Green Fool, likewise a collection of accounts of growing up, this time from Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. Where Thomas intersperses obvious short fiction with his childhood memories, Kavanagh tells us a chronological account of growing up in a rural village in County Monaghan. Born in 1904 his book was published in 1938 and recounts his very early days with his family in a small house where his father was a cobbler and for the most part they were happy, through to his becoming a writer. Again there is probably a mix of the artistic licence, faded memories and truth, but it conveys so well what the real people who lived then and there were actually like. Rural living in Ireland (and for most of the Western World) is now so much closer to urban convenience.

Neither works are the stories of the rich and famous as the days recalled are before each author made their mark and so we get both these worlds from the perspective of the everyday people lived them. It’s easy to write a world where you take phones, cars and the internet out. But these are worlds that never had them in the first place. They don’t evoke the past, they are the past and so tell a far more tangible account of the history then anything we can write now.

Buy Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Dog
Buy The Green Fool

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Seven For A Secret… Available To Read

If You Like Agatha Christie…

There is no way I could or would compare myself to the brilliant Agatha Christie; but I can be inspired by her. I’ve read many of her novels and been to see The Mousetrap. I know who did it… but I shan’t tell. If you’ve not seen it, go and book tickets, it’s very good!

A while ago a theatre group were looking for short plays so opened a submission to anyone who wanted to have a go. Of course they received hundreds, if not thousands, so my play wasn’t picked. But I’m fond of it so wanted to share it.

The website greythoughts upload short pieces of work so I sent them a copy and they have kindly posted it. (There is a taster below)

There is work from other writers there too so hang around and have a read. The good thing is they are all short pieces of work so you have the time for a browse. Enjoy


Scene 1

An old fashioned sitting room (1920s esq). There is an analogue clock on the wall saying seven to twelve but it doesn’t move for the whole play. There are three people. ANTHEA in her 20s with a string of beads round her neck, the flapper. She is standing, just right of the centre of the stage, by a table looking in to a mirror. Near her is an empty wooden chair. CHARLES early 30’s glass of whisky in hand is sat stage left in a comfortable chair side-on to the audience facing the centre. He is reading the paper. DORATHEA late 50’s serious looking with glasses perched on her nose but looped with a string round her neck, she is knitting. She is sat in a comfortable chair just to the left of ANTHEA. They are silent.

The INSPECTOR (early 20s) enters stage right and stands to the right of ANTHEA.

INSPECTOR : Thank you all for coming. You have all been called here tonight in the hope we will find the accused and the motive.

CHARLES : I was here already old chap, speaking of which aren’t you a bit young to be doing this type of thing?

DORATHEA : He’s got a point, normally they are balding men who really should have retired by now.

ANTHEA : Or old ladies with nothing better to do than pry in to other people’s lives.

Read More

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I Am A Writer!… But in the real world…

Can I Really Call Myself A “Writer”? – Do I Qualify?

I love writing, I always have and over most of the years I’ve traipsed this planet I have written a lot of stuff. The problem is it sits on old laptops or has been lost along the way. I’ve written books, half of books and bits of books. I’ve written short stories and short plays. I’ve even written songs when me and a mate use to busk just off Grafton Street in Dublin. We’d go out at about eleven o’clock at night and play until people were too drunk to notice and aside from money we’d get paid in fags (neither of us smoked) and drinks (people would order us pints in pubs and bring them out to us on the street, it was very kind but we couldn’t drink them as you never knew if they added anything to them).

But after all this amateur writing of stuff I never thought I could call myself a writer.

I am a massive reader, and we’ll come to that on these pages, so to me a writer was someone who was professionally published. I wasn’t therefore – I was only playing at it, or so I thought.

A few months ago I finally decided to self-publish my novels. A couple of years ago I’d got a temp job at a self-publishing company, nothing to do with the actual publishing I was more on the facilities side, but I chatted to the people who worked there and a seed was sown… and then forgotten about.

I then wrote a second novel, Framed Of Rathgar, and it sat on my laptop and I got on with life. Actually that’s not true, I sent it to some agents and got ignored or turned down. The fact was I knew my book was good, that it was better than some of the stuff that had got published that I read.

One of the themes of my novel happened to be about taking control of your life and not just accepting the choices of others and letting them control things. So a load of agents didn’t want my book… so what? I read a lot about the publishing world and how self-publishing was taken more seriously than it was in the past. So I finally decided to take the control myself and just do it, what could I lose?

Actually it’s been a roller-coaster, but we’ll get to that.

So then I had to let people know I had published my books… how? I set up a Twitter account, I’d never used it in my life (and another form of Social Media, which promptly banned me for no reason; honest Guv). And soon I found myself involved in the #writingcommunity I’d got followers and advice and started selling copies of my novel! How mad is that?

Could I now call myself a writer? In my biography on Twitter, to start off with, I was apologetic. “Novelist – well I’ve self-published two novels,” it said. Then someone twitted something:

“Oh hey, fellow selfpublishers! Never say you’re “only selfpublished”. It’s a ton of work, work that in traditional publishing someone else would do for you. And it always takes a lot of courage to go out there and face the public. You’re doing an amazing job.” @MattGrandis

And someone else told me off for not being more positive in my bio.

The fact is being a “writer” is a definition not some title that you have to be given by “those on high”.

To get past the hurdles of a traditionally publishing a book you need approval of other people, that doesn’t make you any more of a writer! And anyway, in just a few weeks I’d sold copies of my novel and am getting good feedback (thank you very much you kind people).  I, therefore, have had people give me their approval, they just don’t work in the traditional publishing industry.

I’d still love to be traditionally published but I am also achieving what I wanted to by being self-published. I can still hope and dream of the day.

But now I have sold copies of my book I feel I qualify to call myself a “writer”; but even that is rubbish.

If you write you are a writer, even if no one else ever sees your work, and no one else has the right to say differently. You are a writer, be proud of that!

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The Trials Of Setting Up A Blog!

The First Post…. No One Will Read!

Whilst I set this up there may be some random things appearing! Sorry for that.

Oh that’s a picture I took from the top of Xunantunich (Sho-nan-toe-nitch) – a Maya temple in Belize – it’s there because I wanted a picture of something and this is the first blog and no one is reading it.