The Noble Art of Spin
Artists tend toward the introvert side of the human experience, but increasingly we are called upon to take the lead in promoting our own careers. Many recoil with distaste, perhaps sabotaging the recognition they might otherwise accrue. Others brag with gusto, thereby sabotaging their own efforts with a veil of well-earned distaste. There is a middle ground, and it’s not that hard to identify, as I realized recently in a discussion with fellow writers about reviews and what one should and shouldn’t do with them.
The practice of mining reviews and news for favorable quotes was called “spin” long before that term made it into politics and the colloquial lexicon, and before it attained its more negative connotations. It’s an essential part of promotion, but like most things, it can be used and it can be abused.
To do it successfully, you only need ask yourself, “If I read this excerpt, then read the source, would I think the source had been misrepresented or not?”
It should be obvious that if you take a line out of context in order to make a negative review appear positive, the answer would be “yes.” If you go around misrepresenting your reviews, the world will see you for what you are, a douche with a coat of desperation. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t present what is written about you in the best light; that’s just common sense. Research has shown that your single biggest source of new readers is trusted referral. So it’s important that you collect and use good review quotes–but in a way that always preserves the honesty, even the objectivity, of your presence as a source of referral.
That being the case, resist mining the one positive comment in an otherwise lackluster review–resist but do not rule out. Don’t try to turn a bad review into a good one by extracting a word or phrase out of context, but it’s okay to mine what’s actually there–even if it’s less than you would like. It’s okay, for example, to use “One of the year’s most promising new authors,” from a review that goes on to say a particular work fell short. It’s not okay to use a word like “surprising” to imply a pleasantly innovative plot when the true source of the reviewer’s surprise was that you ever made it into print! Mining a quote while preserving, highlighting, or even amplifying its meaning is spin. Using one out of context to imply what was never intended is deceit–the type of lying that will haunt your soul and erode both your self-worth and your market potential. Just don’t do it.
But as long as you remain honest to the tone and meaning of the review, it’s okay and expected to mine and edit for readability. For example, if a reviewer likes an anthology or issue in which you appear–but doesn’t mention your story or you specifically–you can still use that to your advantage, just don’t imply a personal endorsement that wasn’t intended. That would be a douche move. If a reader is kind enough to compare your writing to a famous author, that’s awesome and you should use that–as long as the comparison was favorable! And if a reader or reviewer has something genuinely nice to say, by all means save it and edit it to suit the delivery medium–just like you would any narrative.
I’ve been very fortunate to receive mostly complementary reviews for my work so far, but I still have to boil it down for PR use. For example, Rocket Stack Rank gave my Analog story, “For All Mankind” four stars and the following fairly long, intentionally balanced “mini-review”:
Pro: The hard science doesn’t get much harder than this. The author has carefully thought through even the smallest details. Much of the fun of the story is watching the two heroines overcome one technical problem after another.
Tatyana is really the star character. Her blunt directness together with her genuine goodness and cute Russian accent makes her a delight to read. “He said Sasha would make you same offer but was shy over not knowing English.”
From the start, we know it’s going to end in tragedy, but the big emotional punch is actually when they succeed, not when they die. That’s quite an accomplishment.
Con: The worst part of this story is the first few pages. The author’s need to fit this into actual history requires all sorts of unbelievable elements, biggest of which are that a) the US and USSR could have done this in secret and b) they would have wanted to do it in secret.
It’s unlikely that 1970s technology could have supported two people (even women) for so long.
The ending goes on for too long.
Okay, so they thought the beginning was slow, the premise stretched credulity, and the ending too long. Fair enough. I can address those points to my satisfaction (and that of my beta readers), but that’s not the point. You can’t please everyone all the time, and even the best (or worst) review is a matter of personal opinion. This is a good review, one that the reviewer brought to my attention with the tweet
★★★★☆ Meticulous and Moving #HugoAward worthy story @cStuartHardwic
Sweet! So how did I excerpt this for PR purposes?
“Meticulous and moving…quite an accomplishment…a Hugo Award worthy story.” — Rocket Stack Rank
I think you will agree that this honestly and succinctly summarizes the true intent of the review, even though part of it comes not from the review itself but from the wrapper in which it was delivered, and the phrase “quite an accomplishment” is used to describe the whole story instead of the emotional core that it referred to in context (but the emotional core is the story!) Note too that I’ve edited tweeted text into prose just as we commonly do in reverse all the time, and I’ve edited tweeted text and prose text into a unitary whole. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it’s not misleading and the edit is explicitly or (as here) implicitly clear.
I save these review snippets and add them to a rolling display on my home page where, if nothing else, they give me an occasional pick me up. I also include snippets of reader emails and beta reader notes if they have something favorable and quotable to say about my writing. One reader sent me a very kind note, calling my work “a rare prize…writing as poetry a la Ursula K. LeGuin.” I loved that for two reasons, both because it had a pleasantly lyrical euphony of its own, and because Ursula’s “The Lathe of Heaven” was one of my most significant early influences. If someone compares your writing to a famous author, why of course you’re going to use that–just don’t imply that it was a favorable comparison if it wasn’t
And one more thing, don’t make up false praise. Even Rob Sawyer had to wait for a newspaper reviewer to call him “the dean of Canadian scifi.” It’s sort of true, but it feels that way because it’s authentic–because it came from a reader. Oh, and last but not least, for the love of meatballs, don’t argue with bad reviews. They happen. Read them or don’t, learn from them or ignore them, don’t take them personally; move on.
So what do you think? Have a favorite example of an author spinning it well (or not so well)? Leave a comment and lets me know, just excise the names to protect the guilty.