Full disclosure: I obtained a Kindle copy of Picture Perfect Murder by Jenna St. James when it was offered free on Amazon. I borrowed a Kindle copy of Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke via Amazon Prime. I do not know the authors nor have I ever communicated with them in any way about their books or any other subject. I am a traditionally published author of historical romances, and self-published in contemporary romantic suspense and miscellaneous non-fiction.
Further disclosure: I read both books in their entirety.
Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder was originally published by Kensington in 2000 as the first book in the series of cozy mysteries featuring amateur sleuth Hannah Swenson. The digital edition is dated 2019 but contains no indication as far as having been revised and is also published by Kensington.
Picture Perfect Murder is copyrighted 2015 and published by the author, Jenna St. James. This is the first book in the Ryli Sinclair cozy mystery series.
Both books have high ratings on Goodreads, as these screenshots from 22 April 2021 show.
The Fluke book may have negatively benefited from being older and added to Goodreads at the site's beginning, circa 2007, when critical reviews were less likely to be pulled down by thin-skinned authors. The over-all rating for this traditionally published book is only 3.70, where St. James' effort, though published by the author, received 4.24.
It is a sad truth that after September 2013, Goodreads became much less friendly to critical reviewers, especially those who might not have read the whole book or were basing their criticism on something the author had done outside the actual writing of the book. This action on the part of Goodreads was precipitated by the almost-publication of a book by a young self-publishing author who got some negative reviews even though her book had not been officially published. Readers flocked to her book to give it five-star ratings -- even though they couldn't have read it because it wasn't published -- in sympathy to the negative reviews she received. This ultimately evolved into what became known as the Great Purge of 2013, when certain critical reviewers were banned from the platform. . . and critical reviews brought risks to the reviewers.
The message had been sent that Goodreads, as an arm of Amazon, was in the business of selling books, and bad reviews don't sell as many books as good ones.
Setting aside, then, the ratings on Goodreads as potential gauges of writing quality, how do these two books compare?
Picture Perfect Murder is pretty terrible. Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder isn't a whole lot better.
Of course, that is only my opinion, and I am only one person, one reader, one writer.
Reviews are for readers. If you've read any of my writing on reviewing, you know how adamant I am that reviews are not for writers, that writers would do well to never read their reviews and do better to never confront their reviewers. But writers, especially the self-publishing authors, often claim that they have an interest in those reviews beyond just wanting to know if someone liked or disliked their book. Whether they feel entitled to it or not, they want those reviews to provide feedback, to help them improve, to tell them what it was that made a reviewer not love their book.
Most readers aren't in a position to do that, and they should never feel obligated to do so. As I have said often enough, a reader may not even be qualified to render the kind of advice the writer wants. Sometimes the reader may be entirely wrong in their criticism, whether it's about grammar and punctuation, factual research, story structure, or anything else. If the writer herself isn't sufficiently knowledgeable, she may take that advice and make what's already correct about her book incorrect.
Writers who want feedback on their work should ideally get that feedback before the book is published, so that the product reaching the reading public is the very best it can be. For the writer who goes the traditional route, the publisher will presumably fix all the problems since they have a substantial investment in making sure readers don't find problems.
The self-publishing author, however, has only herself to rely on. If she can afford a professional editor, that may help, but not all those who bill themselves as professional editors really are. Some of them are no better qualified to edit than the authors themselves. How is an author to know who to trust? If the author's own skills aren't top-notch, she may indeed not know.
In a few words, it's a crap shoot.
I can't "fix" every book that falls short. I can't turn every manuscript into a best-seller. Nor am I even proposing to try. But I think what I can do is offer the kind of feedback some writers may be looking for through a detailed analysis of books I personally have found to be seriously lacking in quality.
It's one thing to review a book and say "The characters weren't relatable." What does that really mean? That's the kind of question I hope to answer, with specific examples from the books.
In previous posts, I've mentioned some of the reference materials I've relied on in my own writing career. The ultimate goal of everything is to create a written work in which the written words disappear, leaving the reader immersed in the world of the novel. Though it's not reasonable to expect any novel to be absolutely perfect, every writer should still strive for perfection -- the invisible novel.
The very first step to making your author-published digital novel invisible is to format it correctly.
If your very first page is divided into block paragraphs -- no indent, extra space between paragraphs -- I as a reader know you don't even know what a book is supposed to look like. Writers read, and real writers know what real books look like. That means indented paragraphs; save those extra blank lines to indicate a transition of time or place.
I mention this here because it is the nature of copying and pasting from Kindle pages that they automatically delete all paragraphing, regardless of format. For ease in reading small snippets, I've put the quoted sections into block paragraphs, but this should never be done in the actual published version of the book.
So, how is it that Picture Perfect Murder and Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder fell so far short of perfection?
Let's start with a look at the very beginning, the opening page of Picture Perfect Murder.
I hate looking at dead bodies. And believe me, I’ve seen a lot of them in my twenty-eight years. There’s nothing that can prepare you for that first glimpse of death.
In college, I worked part time at Jaworski Funeral Home. It was one of those small, family-owned businesses. They were great about working around my class schedule. They were even better about including me as family. A few holiday dinners and family gatherings later, and Ryli Jo Sinclair had become an honorary Jaworski.
For four years I did everything from flower arranging to consoling families. I didn’t deal with the actual prepping of the dead body. But still, a dead body was a dead body as far as I was concerned.
St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 50-56). Kindle Edition.
So, what's happening? We're in the viewpoint of a first-person narrator, one Ryli Jo Sinclair, and she's . . . thinking. We don't know where she is or what she's doing or why she's thinking about not liking dead bodies. Instead of getting right into the action of the story, author St. James indulges in some of Ryli's background. While this information might become important later on, it's not important now. There's nothing going on that would make it important.
The mere mention of a dead body in the opening paragraph sets up some anticipation, but the author doesn't follow up on it. In fact, the next paragraphs provide contradiction to the opening: If Ryli spent four years working for a funeral home, why didn't she get accustomed to dead bodies?
You may be stepping back and saying, "But it's only three paragraphs!" And that is absolutely correct. However, if the author is already, in the first three paragraphs of the book, resorting to non-essential character reflection, it doesn't bode well for the rest of the book. (Spoiler: Holiday dinners with the Jaworski family are never mentioned again.)
Let's look at the opening to Chocolate-Chip Cookie Murder.
Hannah Swensen slipped into the old leather bomber jacket that she’d rescued from the Helping Hands thrift store and reached down to pick up the huge orange tomcat that was rubbing against her ankles. “Okay, Moishe. You can have one refill, but that’s it until tonight.”
As she carried Moishe into the kitchen and set him down by his food bowl, Hannah remembered the day he’d set up camp outside her condo door. He’d looked positively disreputable, covered with matted fur and grime, and she’d immediately taken him in. Who else would adopt a twenty-five-pound, half-blind cat with a torn ear? Hannah had named him Moishe, and though he certainly wouldn’t have won any prizes at the Lake Eden Cat Fanciers’ Club, there had been an instant bond between them.
Fluke, Joanne. Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder (Hannah Swensen series Book 1) (p. 11). Kensington Books. Kindle Edition.Because this book is told from a third-person point of view, we aren't quite as directly in Hannah's thoughts, but neither are we out of them. And just as in Picture Perfect Murder, the opening gives background information that may or may not be important later on. Hannah is remembering, rather than doing.
If Ryli opens with a reference to a dead body, Hannah opens with nothing. We don't know what she's doing or where she's going, and there's not the slightest hint of a mystery.
For contrast, let's look at the opening to Martha Grimes' The Man with a Load of Mischief, the first of the Richard Jury mysteries as published in 1981.
Outside the Jack and Hammer, a dog growled.
Inside, his view of the High Street obstructed by the window at his shoulder, Melrose Plant sat in the curve of the bay drinking Old Peculier and reading Rimbaud.
The dog growled deep in its throat and started barking again, something it had been doing intermittently for the last fifteen minutes.
Sun streaming through the cerulean blue and deep green of the tulip-design of the leaded panes threw rainbow colors across his table as Melrose Plant rose up to peer over the reverse letters advertising Hardy’s Crown. The dog sitting in the snow outside the public house was a scruffy Jack Russell belonging to Miss Crisp, who ran the secondhand-furniture shop across the street.What's different about this opening? Melrose Plant isn't thinking. He's doing. And he's doing something in response to an action over which he has no control, the dog's barking. He doesn't know what the dog's barking means, but it has aroused his curiosity enough that he has gotten out of his seat and gone to look out the window.
Grimes, Martha (2013-03-26). The Man with a Load of Mischief (Richard Jury Mysteries Book 1) (Kindle Locations 55-60). Scribner. Kindle Edition.
Instead of merely the describing the window as having colored glass in a tulip design, Grimes makes the sun streaming through that glass an active force in the scene. Though it's not a particularly mysterious or murderous scene, the participants are active, and it's much easier to imagine this scene visually -- cinematographically -- than the opening to either Picture Perfect Murder or Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder.
The reader knows these three books are murder mysteries; they aren't unidentified manuscripts being read cold. The reader therefore comes to the opening with an expectation that regardless how the book starts, there's going to be at least one murder and someone is going to solve it. Is it absolutely necessary, you ask, that the murder take place on page 1? Or that it be referred to on page 1?
No, it's not. But what is necessary is that the author begin as she means to go. If the author resorts to character introspection or retrospection before there's even been any action, does she plan to continue in that manner?
As Shelly Lowenkopf points out in his 1982 article "Creating the Rejection-Resistant Novel," many beginning writers -- and maybe some more experienced ones, too! -- often include in their opening pages "bits and pieces of background and detail the author needs to know in order to back off and let the characters tell the story. More often than not the reader doesn't care about these bits of trivia and resents being told them."
Yes, the author needs to know how Hannah acquired her cat. The author needs to know Ryli worked part time for the funeral home. The reader doesn't need to know this, at least not yet. Will the reader mind being told the Jaworskis made Ryli feel like a member of the family? Will the reader resent being told Hannah and her cat had bonded instantly? Probably not.
However, if that background information is important to the plot, it ought to come out as a result of the plot's unfolding rather than the reader just being handed those details out of the blue. It's especially annoying in the St. James book because a reader who has been tuned in to the Jaworski story that ends up going nowhere may end up disappointed at not knowing the relevance!
In contrast, the opening to the Grimes book gives the reader a lot of needed information with no introspection.
1. The dog is growling outside the Jack and Hammer. Even though we don't yet know exactly what "the Jack and Hammer" is, we know it's the "inside."
2. Melrose Plant, despite the non-gendered name, is "he." Even though we may not know what Old Peculier is, we know it's a beverage of some kind because Melrose Plant is drinking it. We may not know who or what Rimbaud is, but it's somehow connected to reading material, because Melrose Plant is reading it.
3. The dog growls and barks again.
4. Sunlight is streaming through the window, letting us know it's daytime.
5. The dog is sitting in the snow -- it's winter -- outside the public house. Now the reader knows the Jack and Hammer is a pub.
As screenwriter Josh Olson has written:
It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.
(By the way, here’s a simple way to find out if you’re a writer. If you disagree with that statement, you’re not a writer. Because, you see, writers are also readers.)
Many, and perhaps most, readers aren't going to be as analytical as I am. Many, and perhaps most, readers will read for pleasure and skip over the flubs and errors and inconsistencies that drive other readers bonkers. It's possible for a writer to get away with this kind of writing in the age of digital publishing because there are far fewer gatekeepers. Low-priced or free ebooks will almost always find a few readers, and unless the books are really outstandingly terrible, the authors can count on establishing at least a bit of a following.
That level of success may be sufficient for many, and perhaps most, self-publishing authors. The collection of hundreds -- even thousands -- of glowing five-star ratings and reviews may also be sufficient. On the other hand, if you really want to improve your writing so you can establish a following of readers who will pay more than the bare minimum -- or only read your books if they're free -- maybe give some of this criticism a thought or two.
After all, that's what you said you wanted