Helping Readers Choose With Book Reviews

The more I learn about Amazon book reviews, the more I have to change my tune. Recently, I claimed that a book review can be as simple as two or three sentences. While that remains true, and a simple review can certainly help the author, it isn’t the most helpful type of review for the potential reader.


In her article “What to Do When Amazon Pulls Book Reviews,” marketing expert Penny Sansevieri reveals some secrets she’s uncovered about why Amazon does, from time to time, make a book review vanish. A book’s set of reviews might be suspect if they can be linked to the author’s friends and family. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll pull those reviews, but it’s a factor that might contribute to the ultimate vanishing of those reviews.

Other factors might include reviews in which the reviewer doesn’t go into depth—or at least offer a couple of tidbits—about why they liked the book; multiple reviews coming from the same IP address; a book with only five-star reviews; and Amazon’s own constantly changing algorithms.

Book reviews exist, first and foremost, to help readers determine whether or not they should buy this particular book out of the millions available. As a newly published author, it was easy for me to lose sight of that and focus on the perspective of how reviews can help me.

It’s not about me; it’s not about the author. The idea behind customer reviews is for readers to either encourage or warn other readers about why they may or may not like a book.

The best reviews are those that are helpful to other readers—thus Amazon’s question at the bottom of each customer review, “Was this review helpful to you?”



When someone answers yes or no, those responses are counted and displayed at the top of the review.


Granted, not all review-writers use the opportunity to help others. Some simply praise the book without much explanation. Others might simply spew hatred because they’ve been given the platform to do so. Some people misunderstand the star-rating as a measure of how they personally felt about a particular aspect of the book, rather than as a measure of the author’s writing and story-telling skills.



What does all this mean to you? What does it mean to me? It means we need to try and catch ourselves when we are only considering our own perspective. Like so many other aspects of life, it means not asking ourselves, “How can I use this to my benefit?” but rather, “How can I use this to benefit others?

With that in mind, I’ll have to revisit my reviews of other authors’ books, and make sure I’m following my own advice. I’m not a prolific review writer, and maybe you aren’t either. But when we do review, the best way we can help out an author is by helping out his or her potential readers.

Website debut and book release date!

Welcome to my website. I’m thrilled to announce my debut novel, Peer Through Time, will be available as both a paperback and Kindle ebook starting January 20, 2015. Read about it and pre-order here.

I’m compiling a mailing list for my monthly newsletter and giveaways. You may sign up here.

Coming soon, a preview of Peer Through Time— in video form. I’ll be recording a video of myself reading the novel’s opening scene. Stay tuned!
– David

PeerThroughTime - Splinters 2
Available January 20, 2015

If you see any errors on this website (typos, incorrect links, etc.), please contact me here.

NaNoWriMo 2013 reflection

From Wikipedia: National Novel Writing Month, shortened as NaNoWriMo, is an annual internet-based creative writing project that takes place every November, challenging participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1 and 30.

At the beginning of November, my plan was to complete 50,000 words (translation: approximately half of novel) by the end of the month. This was a brand new novel, a sequel to a previous one, but one I hadn’t yet started writing. I had most of my characters conceived, and a very rough idea of the plot, so I dove in. My plan was to write every day, at least 1667 words per day, to reach the 50K mark by month’s end.

At the end of day one, I had written 1,900 words, leaving me optimistic about reaching my goal. On day two, I wrote zero words for my novel—but I did start a draft blog entry about how I had failed NaNoWriMo. On day three, I wrote about half my daily quota, and on day four, my daily word count soared to 3,000.

The rest of the month went something like those first four days: very up and down. I did reach my goal of 50,000 words, but it will be some time before I can assess how much of it is usable story material and how much of it is pure drivel. There is certainly both. There were times when I just didn’t feel like working—if this was a job for which someone was paying me, I’d have called in sick—but in the spirit of the project, I plowed ahead anyway, even when I felt as though I was writing like a four-year-old. See Spot run.

The half-manuscript I vomited out during November has so many characters, and so much going on, that I lost my navigation of the main plot and sub-plots. But that navigation isn’t what NaNoWriMo is about—it’s simply about getting the words down.

Will I participate again next year? It depends—on the above-mentioned assessment, and on what else is going on at the time—and I probably won’t decide until next October. But whether I do or not, here are the top 7 things I learned about myself as a writer.

  1. I’m not a write-every-day author. While many authors write every day and feel that’s necessary to keep their momentum going, I’m going to need to take at least one day a week off from writing. I’ll still be writing “in my mind”—thinking about my characters and what they’ll do next, coming up with many different plot ideas so I can pick the best one—but for at least one day each week, the extent of my actual writing will be limited to social media interactions.
  2. I’m a plotter. I knew this already, but more times than ever during November, I cursed my October self for not preparing enough. He provided me with some great characters and settings, but didn’t give me enough plot points to work toward.
  3. My writer’s block is best overcome by writing pure dialogue. I have sat before the computer numerous times, stuck as to what to write next, staring at a blank screen. I try to describe the surroundings, or what a character is doing, and it takes me an hour to write a paragraph. But if I just stick to dialogue, writing only what the characters are saying to each other, the words flow. I can turn it into a scene later, adding in description and action during revisions. A lot of this dialogue will be cut—these characters do tend to ramble on—but at least I’ll have a frame around which to build a scene.
  4. I must look back before moving forward. The idea behind NaNoWriMo is to only move forward and not review what you’ve already written. However, my memory just isn’t that good. Half of what I wrote the day before was done in a sort of trance, so I don’t even know what’s happened in the story unless I review it. At the very least, after each chapter or scene I must write a brief summary of who was involved and what happened, and over time this becomes my “map” for the novel. The trick here is to resist the temptation to revise and restructure—save it for later.
  5. Writing hurts. I mean it physically hurts, sitting in a chair for hours. I must get up and stretch. I must take the laptop off the desk and move it to another location and then write some more. This is something else I already knew, but it’s very difficult to put into practice when you’re in the trance. It’s similar to surfing on the Internet—before you know it, three hours have gone by and your shoulder is sore from the cumulative tiny movements it takes to click on the mouse or reach for the keyboard. And stop slouching!
  6. I can do this. I honestly didn’t know whether or not I had it in me to complete half of a first draft of a novel in one month’s time. Mentally, I was 50% prepared for failure, and I was OK with that. Three weeks into the month, the best NaNoWriMo advice I read was from a person nearly one-quarter my age. More on that below.
  7. I am not an overachiever. If I set a goal for myself, I will reach that goal, but just barely. At times I will fall behind my goal, wallow in self-pity and doubt, and later pick myself up and do just enough work to get back on track. If I do get ahead, it won’t last long. The beauty in this is that I can set whatever goal I want for myself, and keep increasing it little by little.

Throughout the month, the NaNoWriMo community was full of pep talks, and my favorite of these came from a 12-year-old (!!) from Oakland, CA, who is working on his 2nd novel (!!!). Tai Reichle had this to say:

“If at the end of this month, you find you haven’t written a novel (as I will probably find), and have that “Shucks, I didn’t write a novel” feeling: laugh at yourself. Seriously, think about it: you just got a little angry at yourself because you didn’t write a novel. In a month. Ha! I would have never guessed I’d ever think that. Let alone complain about it. So instead think this: ‘Shucks. I didn’t write a novel. Neither did about seven billion other people. But I tried. So there.'”

Even though I did reach the 50K-word goal, by no means do I have a new novel, or even half a novel. But I have something, and it’s a hell of a lot more than I had at the beginning of the month. Now I’m looking forward to setting it aside—probably for several months or longer—while I concentrate on whipping my first two novels into publishable shape.

On becoming a writer: update – October 2013

Several weeks ago, I quit my job in order to write full-time. This is a temporary arrangement. I’m living off some meager savings, borrowing against my own future for this very scary experiment. My partner’s income doesn’t cover our expenses, but the emotional support provided is at least as—if not more—important.

I do not have any paid writing gigs, nor do I suffer from the delusion that my writing will provide financial support any time in the near future. For a man of no faith—in the religious sense of the word—I’ve taken a huge leap of faith.

My first novel—a science-fiction tale of time travel and murder—took me 19 years just to write the first draft. I wrote only when inspiration hit me, taking months or years off at a time, and there was little story planning involved. It was then that I began studying the craft of writing, specifically novel-writing. The biggest eye-opener? Successful novelists don’t wait for their muse to come to them—they treat their writing like a job, pushing through even when they don’t feel like it, and allowing themselves to write badly, with the idea that they will later be able to turn it into something coherent and intriguing.

My second novel—a sequel, picking up 20 years after the first one ends—was drafted in 10 months. I had transformed myself from a “pantser” (as in, writing by the seat of your pants, with little strategy) into a “planner.”  I had the major plot points of my story mapped out, so all I had to do was bridge the gaps in between.  Once the first draft was complete, I began what would become the first five months of revisions.

Half-way through this revision period, I could no longer deny the thought that kept creeping into my head, louder and more persistent each time: This is what I want to do. I was so sick of sitting down early in the morning—or late in the evening, or on the weekend—planning to write for an hour or two, only to get interrupted by incoming work.

My job in electronic data management was rarely bounded by the typical workday of 9 to 6. My clients were attorneys, searching for information relevant to whatever upcoming lawsuit we were working on. Usually it was patent infringement—they stole my stuff—and my job was to sift out all the garbage among millions of electronic documents, so that the attorneys and paralegals would have a smaller mountain of potentially relevant documents to examine.  

I was working for, and with, workaholics. They often worked until midnight, started up again before sunrise, and had little reverence for the restoration that a Saturday or Sunday off might provide. That our clients were all over the globe was another factor: if it was the middle of the day to them, then we should be working, no matter where we were located, and whether or not we had personal lives to attend to. It’s Sunday and you’re in the park with your kids? Who cares? We’ve got a client call scheduled—last-minute, of course—so get on it.

I don’t have kids, but witnessing others suffer this type of treatment was getting me down. Way, way down. I know there are much worse stories—horror stories—of how some employees are treated, but telling myself “you could have it worse” wasn’t doing much to improve my attitude.  I just wanted to write my book, and—just as important—to know when I would have time to write it. Ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there—some authors do write like that, and out of necessity I will likely have to do so in the future, but I wanted to know what it would be like to be able to schedule that time myself. Would I stick to it? Could I possibly be disciplined enough to crank out at least twice as much writing as I had while working a more-than-full-time job? Would it be worth it?

No, I haven’t spent as much time devoted to writing as I had imagined I would. But yes, I’ve been disciplined enough to have made a big difference in where I am now vs. where I would be if I’d still been working that job.

After two weeks of freedom, I had revised the second half of my novel. I had completed in two weeks what had previously taken me two and a half months to accomplish. Not a bad improvement—I was liking these numbers. Over the next several weeks, I went through another round of revisions, wrote a synopsis, rounded up some “beta readers,” and hired an editor to do some substantive (not just copy) editing.

Now that my second, more polished, novel was in the hands of others, I figuratively dusted off the manuscript of my first novel and started planning a complete structural overhaul. I would keep the basic storyline the same, but aside from laying out the general idea and introducing characters, my manuscript was a mess. It contained long passages of characters’ thoughts, without any scenes moving the story forward. There were pages and pages without conflict. There were three protagonists and it was unclear exactly whose story I was telling.

The remedy was not easy to come by. I brainstormed, coming up with ridiculous ideas that no one will ever read. I couldn’t make it work. I had quit my job for nothing. At times, I was stressed and despondent and ashamed—but at least I had time to keep at it.

I kept trying different ideas of how to make the story work—how to make it more compelling, how to take the idea of it in my head and turn that into a reality. What finally kick-started the re-write was fairly simple in retrospect: I switched the point of view of two characters, so that the one written in first-person (originally written in third-person) was now my main protagonist. Secrets that had been kept until the middle of the book were now laid bare right up front, forcing me to come up with new secrets, new twists in the storyline to keep it interesting and moving forward.

Within three weeks, I had reached the one-quarter mark. Three weeks after that, I was halfway done with the first draft of my major re-write. I had done in six weeks what had previously taken me over a decade. It wasn’t purely self-discipline that got me there—I had, little by little, begun immersing myself in the writing life.

I’m not a joiner. It is a major effort to get myself to participate in social activities where I don’t already know someone. But they say you have to find a writing group. Well, you don’t have to—but so many authors have credited their writing groups, at least partially, for their stories’ improvements. It makes perfect sense. I would do it.

So I forced myself to join a writing group—it was a no pressure, come one time if you want, stay as long as you want sort of deal—and it wasn’t terrible. But it wasn’t great. It was, as they say … meh. I did get some writing done that day, in addition to discovering that a café I usually pass by has some great sandwiches and friendly service. And it’s a quiet café where a lot of people come to write. So maybe I did get something out of trying to find a writing group. I’ll keep trying.

The third week of October brought LitQuake, San Francisco’s annual literary festival. There are multiple gatherings throughout the week, many consisting of authors reading excerpts of their work. I went to a few of these events and started seeing some of the same faces in attendance.  One author, when asked about inspiration, said that NaNoWriMo was very inspirational.

National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo—occurs each November. It’s a community of writers whose goal is to write 50,000 words during the month of November. It’s quantity over quality, with the idea of fixing it up later. That many words would normally take me several months, but I’m committing myself to the challenge for NaNoWriMo. You’re supposed to start with a brand new book, so I’ll set books 1 and 2 aside and start on book 3, which will complete my trilogy.

So by the end of November, I should have: (a) the first half of my book 1 revision drafted; (b) feedback to start what will hopefully be my final revisions on book 2; and (c) the first half of my book 3 drafted.  

Looking back, that’s a lot accomplished in a short amount of time. I couldn’t have done it while still tied to the demands of my former job. I certainly don’t advocate quitting one’s job to follow one’s dream—”don’t quit your day job” is a common warning among authors—and yet that’s exactly what I did. I wish I could travel to the future for a few moments, like some of my characters do, and see what’s become of my future self.

In a way, there is a method for predicting the future, one that we all possess: you create it yourself. You lay out a plan, saying “first I’ll do this, which will lead to that,” etc. You may not have the timeline down, and you have to be flexible, but as the saying goes, the best way to predict the future is to create it.