Category Archives: My Thoughts

Writing Believable Historical Fiction

Putting together a believable historical story, long or short, requires more than a plausible plot. You must pay extra attention to the little things, the details. While preparing to write my novel Jazz Baby, I consulted many sources for those authentic details. A high-school history book proved immensely helpful in creating the right mood for a story set in 1920s Southern USA.

Knowing the era is as important as knowing your characters. You can’t have a young girl in 1925 rural Mississippi (or any other place in 1925) making calls on a private-line rotary phone, much less a mobile phone she carries in her pocket. In fact, my character was poor, and thus would not even have access to any kind of phone even though they existed in her day. Besides, she wouldn’t have anybody to call. Thus:

 

  • KEEP DETAILS CHARACTER-SPECIFIC: Don’t just verify what exists in a period of time. Determine how widespread it is, and consider the likelihood your characters would have access in their particular places and circumstances.

Fashion is important, as well. Knowing what people wore in any particular era is key to verisimilitude. Emily Ann, the POV character in Jazz Baby, had no concept of tennis shoes or fashionable jeans, let alone modern name brands and today’s common designer styles. She did live in the era of flappers, but she would not be exposed to those outfits until she traveled to the big city. Still, would she dress that way—and why? Where would she get the clothes? Would she even know how to wear them properly? We have to consider these issues before deciding how to dress our characters from one scene to the next.

 

  • DETAILS SUCH AS FASHION ARE REGIONAL AND CIRCUMSTANTIAL: Lots of guides, many specifically for writers and media producers, show fashion of different eras, but you must pay close attention to where, when, why, and by whom clothing would be worn.

 

Sure, it’s obvious that Emily Ann wouldn’t see Gulfstream Jets flying overhead or hitch a ride in a Corvette, but you’re not always safe simply putting her in a Model T Ford. I wanted her to hear something important on the car radio while parked, but I dared not assume a radio could be found in the Model T. A bit of research, and I learned radio did not come into any automobiles until 1932. Most readers won’t know such a detail, but some sure will know, so for them the facade collapses beneath such inaccuracy. Keep it as airtight as possible.

 

  • DON’T ASSUME DETAILS ABOUT TECHNOLOGY: Don’t just research the technical detail. Verify all the details that flow from it. If a radio had been available in the 1925 Model T, verify how many and in which areas radios were sold. Don’t have her flipping through various stations late at night when maybe only one station operated in that region—and only during the daytime. If you want her to hear a news announcement, confirm that would happen on local radio back then.

Patient research shines a light on more facts than you might be looking for. Just as whether a car radio would have turning dials or push buttons, verifying might lead you to realize you can’t refer to an FM station back them. Would a character drop a letter in a street-corner mailbox, or did they not exist in small southern towns because people simply left mail in their roadside mailboxes for pickup?

 

  • RESEARCH ALL THE DETAILS: Don’t stop once you have your first question answered. Look closer, read more, find the photos—whatever it takes to get a strong sense of life in that time and place. You will very likely discover even more details you could get wrong without the extra effort.

Pay attention to language, as well. Slang changes from era to era, and from region to region. A young white girl in 1925 Mississippi will not greet her pals with a “Yo, dawg! ’Sup?”

 

  • WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE: As much as possible, read from the era and place, talk to people who lived through it, watch media showing the lifestyle, and consult as many sources as you can find. Not only are you verifying the authenticity of what you want characters to say, but you will likely discover very interesting and flavor-adding ways of talking that you had not considered.

Cultural norms are critical elements of authentic time and place. My story is set during Prohibition, which to many evokes images of either abstainers or scofflaws. However, “bonded liquor,” prescribed by doctors for “medicinal purposes” and sold by pharmacists, was quite popular in many areas, albeit under watchful government eyes. Cultural changes that older readers recognize might not be so familiar to younger readers. In Emily Ann’s world, African Americans were prohibited from patronizing restaurants, and segregated in places like theaters, restrooms, and even from whites-only drinking fountains. Emily’s fraternization with blacks could have cost her her life.

 

  • STUDY THE CULTURAL NORMS: Learn about how people felt, thought, and acted, and consider the true consequences of your characters’ actions in those contexts.

Behavior often is not best described by laws. Though women received the vote in 1920, many were still viewed as the property of fathers and husbands. For a girl who found herself orphaned at 13, the official social-services response rarely happened if kinfolk might be able to “handle the situation.” Thus, Aunt Frannie arranging a marriage that we might find outrageous today would have been applauded as admirably expedient back then. Likewise, looking up the official 1969 USA drug laws would not offer much help in deciding how your young-adult characters actually acted during a campus party.

 

  • OFFICIAL POLICY OFTEN DOES NOT INDICATE HOW PEOPLE REALLY ACT: Look beyond laws, policies, procedures, and other official records of how things were supposed to be in another time and place. Ferret out real accounts and weigh your characters’ actions against what really tended to happen.

 

The point of all this is simply to remind you to check your facts while looking beyond the facts, stay loyal to the era you choose, and wow us all with your brilliant stories.

 

Grab a copy of Jazz Baby in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, Nook, or iBook.

More writers’ resources: GeezWriter.com

 

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It’s A Wonderful Life (Maybe)

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It’s A Wonderful Life. Most of us know the story: George Baily lives a carefree life built around a dream to travel the world. Then reality sticks its nose into things, causes life to slide sideways, knocking the wheels off of Mr. Baily’s travel plans. It’s when George utters those six words that the story really begins.

“I wish I’d never been born.”

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Clarence the angel is sent from on high to give our protagonist a glimpse at a world in which he’d never existed. George begins to see that without him, certain important factors could not have occurred without his presence; lives of others would have turned out quite differently—sometimes horrifyingly so. It’s a warmhearted story, though cautionary. One designed to make viewers give pause, to find reasons to be thankful for what they have rather than find disappointment in what they’ve missed. A simple story, really. But is this rooted in reality?

James Stewart and Henry Travers in the 1946 movie 'It's a Wonderful Life.'

James Stewart and Henry Travers in the 1946 movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’

Have you ever considered your own life, what the world might be like had you not been born into it? Most certainly your presence has impacted the courses other lives have taken—and you may not even realize it.

Every time we interact with the world around us—no matter how short the time—we’ve had some sort of influence. There are the obvious situations: “If Tommy hadn’t been there to yank that kid from the burning car…” or “Thankfully Jenny stopped to talk to me at the grocery store. If she’d have left a few minutes sooner, she’d have run right into that tornado…” and even “My son the doctor just discovered a cure for…” Interesting, sure, but those could be chalked up to right place, right time. In other words, those situations could have had similar outcomes regardless if Tommy or the doctor had or hadn’t existed, and Jenny, she may have been tied up in traffic and missed certain catastrophe. Another person may have been nearby, able to rescue the boy from a burning car. And no telling how many doctors may have cracked the code on some dreaded disease if given time and resources.

I’m more interested in the seemingly insignificant situations we tend to overlook or dismiss as unimportant.

One May evening in 1990, I was getting ready to go out to my favorite rock and roll night club with a good friend. At the last minute, this friend was called into work. She couldn’t get out of it. I didn’t want to go to the club alone. Where’s the fun in that? So I decided to just spend the evening at home, watching television. But a phone call I received changed my plans, changed my entire life and future.

A small party, the little sister of one of my best friends explained. Would I be interested? If so, could I be persuaded to bring the beer? In those days, I never turned down an invite to a party.

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I showed up, a pair of twelve packs in hand and, long story short, I’d caught the eye of the blonde who’d caught my eye. We’d never met before this night. Less than a year later, we were married. Nine months after that, our daughter came into this world. A son followed about sixteen months later.

Okay, so now we come to the fork in the road. My little brother is introduced to my wife’s best friend. A wedding is performed, a son is born, and a daughter quickly follows. So now, two marriages and four children are the direct result of a last minute change of plans one evening in May of 1990.

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But there is another life-altering situation that took place right around that same May moment. I’d been working at a local K-Mart shortly after moving back to Michigan from a two year stay in Florida. A co-worker had just lost a roommate and asked if I’d be interested in moving in, maybe help him pay the rent.

We worked different shifts, so we hardly saw each other at home. But we shared the same days off. This guy didn’t have much of party sort of personality. He liked the idea of having girls around, though. Did I know of any girls we could invite over, maybe catch a movie?

A close friend—the older sister of the girl through whom I met my wife—arrived later that day, a friend of hers in tow. I didn’t make a connection that night, but my roommate sure did. He and the friend of the friend married a year or so later. They had one child last I heard. I lost touch with them over time and haven’t seen them in nearly twenty-five years, so I don’t know if they’re still together or if other children were born, but I do know that had I not lived with this co-worker for a brief two month period, he most likely would not have met his wife. Different circles; but all it takes is for that one moment and that one person to make circles intersect.

My marriage ended in divorce—as did my little brother’s. Then we lost my brother in 2010. But the children remain. Some of these children now have children of their own; lives that would not exist but for a change of plans.

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These are the small details we tend to overlook or fail to recognize. We don’t get to have a George Baily moment. Clarence the angel isn’t likely to come show us the importance of a single life. But it’s there, if only we take the time to search for it, to really appreciate how connected we all truly are in our tiny space in time.

It’s this appreciation that allows us to proclaim: “It’s a wonderful life!”

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A Novel Called Jazz Baby

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Hi and WELCOME to Rave Reviews Book Club’s BACK-TO-SCHOOL BOOK & BLOG BLOCK PARTY!  Location: Beem’s Blog, Lansing, Michigan. Leave a comment and you’ll be entered to win prizes!

Sorry, due to postal costs, my giveaways are open to those within the U.S.

 

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Here’s What I’m Giving Away Today:

* Autographed copies of the Jazz Baby paperback.

* Handy book/tote bags with a screen print of a classic novel on both sides.

* Bookmarks, so you won’t lose your place.

**This giveaway is now closed! But we have WINNERS!!!**

Congratulations to:

*Rea Nolan Martin

*Bette Stevens

*Nonnie Jules

*Marc Estes

*Joy Nwosu Lo-Bamijoko

 

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Number of Winners for this stop:  5

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Just what is Jazz Baby all about?

Emily Ann “Baby” Teegarten is a young girl with big dreams. She has the sort of voice that convicts sinners simply through song. But Baby has bigger aspirations than singing spirituals to that Mississippi congregation on Sunday mornings during the summer of 1925. The girl yearns to sing jazz in the clubs way up in New York City. Her father is her biggest supporter, standing behind the girl every step of the way—until he passes away suddenly. Her mother, accused in the father’s demise, follows him to the grave shortly thereafter.

So what’s a poor white-trash orphan girl supposed to do to answer the call of her dreams? Her strict, Bible-believing Aunt Francine has ideas of her own for this tiny girl with the big voice. She brokers a marriage between Emily and Jobie Pritchett, the preacher’s son.

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Emily Ann is a composite of several girls I’ve known over the years. There is a psychological element to this character that comes from reality, as harsh and dark as that might seem to some readers. She demanded to be written into existence. I could hear her voice, with that Mississippi lilt, calling out to me from the ether, arguing that it’s her time, so pick up that pen, author man, and get to writing.

What Jazz Baby is meant to be is a trip into the year 1925; a shared summer with one young girl trying to find her way in life, in the world of her day. I spent untold hours in researching the era and that region of the country, and human behavior in general. The thing about human behavior is, it doesn’t change, no matter the era in which we live. Stories from that era, told to me by my own grandfather, seem to suggest that the young people from the 1920s sought out the same things young people from the 2010s search after.

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These weren’t asexual, sober, boring people back then. Not at all. The stories I heard, either directly or through eavesdropping, told tales of young and vibrant lives, of men and women on the prowl for good times, cheap booze, and dirty sex. Not at all different from today. (Google “vintage porn” and see how many nudie pics from the 1920s pop up.) The thing is, today we see our grandparents (mine are long dead) as old people who spend a lot of time in church, doing good and Godly things. But they were young once. Young, and quite different from who they are today. Humans grow older, we mature, we change. It’s part of the life experience.

I found it interesting that opium was a popular recreational drug in use during that era. Marijuana grew wild in parts of the country, going unmolested by the local authorities, many of whom would consider it silly to dedicate time, money, and effort in trying to eradicate a weed. The young people of the 1920s, the partiers, were the very ones partaking of these forbidden fruits.

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One reviewer referred to the characters in Jazz Baby as “Blue Velvet-type characters.” I like that comparison, though that movie never once crossed my mind as I wrote the book. These are indeed a collection of strange and bizarre types. I’ve always loved stories that break from the normal novel template. Good, quirky characters are a blast to create. The idea for the character called “Pig” came from a documentary film on 1920s movie star Fatty Arbuckle. He’d watched his career ruined through a sexual scandal that had no basis in truth. But in Jazz Baby, this character truly is scandalous. He really has those “unnatural” appetites.

Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle has his tie tightened in clip from the film 'When Comedy Was King', 1960. (Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)

Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle.

Even Emily Ann has a bit of the quirky in her. She’s fearless, reckless, and foolish, the way she traipses around the streets of New Orleans, running through the red-light district once known as Storyville, where she considers an invitation to allow her virginity to be auctioned to the highest bidder in a Storyville whorehouse. She’s a fan of bootleg whiskey, opium, and cigarettes, and she hasn’t a care in the world. Sexuality awakens in the girl, has her pondering the things that can take place between a boy and a girl–or between two girls. Is she bi-sexual? Labels mean nothing to Emily. And neither does race, as she spends much of her time in the company of “colored” jazz musicians, sharing intimacy with a certain piano player.

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But the streets are quite dangerous for a young girl of Emily’s size and age. Not everyone she meets has her best interests at heart. This is where that reckless side could cost her more than she’s able afford. Dark characters have their own ideas for this girl, how best to profit from her talents–even her father’s best friend proffers his own schemes.

It took me upwards near ten years to complete this novel, with all the rewrites, the research, and a two-year abandonment. It is available at Amazon http://www.tinyurl.com/bbj4my7 as a paperback or an ebook for Kindle.

Congratulations To ReLaunch!

I would like to take this opportunity to bid a hearty and heartfelt congratulations to the ReLaunch podcast for a strong showing at the 2014 Podcasters’ Paradise Awards.

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For those who may be unfamiliar with ReLaunch, it is an internet podcast hosted by Dr. Pei Kang and Joel Boggess. The show specializes in sharing stories of real people overcoming difficult situations to experience a re-birth in life, career, attitude.

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I would like to invite you to stop by and browse their archives and listen for yourselves to the amazing stories of real life, of the struggles, and ultimately, of the victories enjoyed by those who have found their own Relaunch.

ReLaunch Archive:  http://relaunchshow.com/relaunch-archive/

Here’s my own story: http://relaunchshow.com/getting-sober-author-beem-weeks/

Some Call It Collusion

Collusion:  secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose.

That’s Webster’s definition of a practice that, as far as I understand, is illegal in the United States. Yet, collusion has become a giant part of our lives as Americans. Oh, sure, we hear from time to time that this state or that state has gone after company A, B, or C for colluding to keep prices on certain products inflated. Fines are usually levied, a brief public shaming ensues, and before long the matter is forgotten.

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But what about those who boldly collude and get away with it? I’m talking about price-fixing on a product that everybody in the nation relies upon in one form or another; a product that does not allow for mass boycotting.

Gasoline is a necessity—even for those without automobiles. Gasoline or diesel fuel drives our lives. It is needed to get food from the fields and factories to the supermarkets. Gasoline fuels public transportation, taking millions of hard-working Americans to their jobs every morning. Our very economy revolves around oil prices at home and abroad.

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So where does collusion come into play? A few weeks ago, as I drove around my city, moving from one side of town to the other, I noticed gas prices getting that sudden and unexplained change. Nothing new there; these corporations play fast and loose with their prices. But this wasn’t a normal price hike. At approximately the exact same time during this particular afternoon, I witnessed no less than 30 gas stations raising their prices to $3.39 per gallon. I drove down one stretch where a dozen stations line either side of the street for several miles. Each station saw that $3.39 mark at the same time. It didn’t matter which station brand or location. $3.39 seemed the targeted goal for all.

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Coincidence? Did each of these corporations and the mom-and-pop local operations suddenly incur some unexpected cost that needed to be passed on to their captive customers?

I understand that Big Oil funnels millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of politicians certain to be friendly to their cause. Many of these same politicians own stock in these very companies. This pretty much ensures no serious actions will ever take place where collusion exists. There will never again be true competition in this particular market.

So what can the average person do about this? A boycott of gasoline just isn’t realistic. Nor is a mass exodus from the internal combustion engine to the electric car.

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What about a singular boycott?

And just what is a singular boycott? Each month, consumers agree to boycott one particular oil company and the stations that do business with that company. I’m talking about a total and complete boycott. We don’t buy so much as a pack of gum from that company or their affiliate stations. Then, when the month is up, we do it to another oil company, hitting them the same way. We do this each and every month, rotating these stations in and out of the boycott, for however long it takes to break their grip on our pocketbooks!

But an idea such as this takes unity on the part of consumers. A list of oil companies and their affiliates would need to be posted online. Consumers would need to diligently consult this list each month, taking care to avoid the company of the month.

Could this really work? It is most certainly has potential.

Will it ever come to fruition? Probably not. We here in America are just too divided. We would rather throw blame and hurl insults at each other than work together on the one thing that should unite us.

And that’s a shame, too. Restoring power to we the people has to begin somewhere, and this seems as good a place as any to begin taking it back. But there are those who will make this a Democrat/Republican issue or a free-market issue. It’s not; it’s a greed issue. There can be no free market where collusion exists.

It’s just a thought!

Beware The Techno-Zombies

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They are everywhere. In restaurants, bars, movie theaters, and banks. They can be found wandering the streets of big cities and small villages alike. I’m talking about the walking dead. No, I don’t mean flesh-eating zombies in search of a slow-moving meal. I’m talking about smartphone junkies. You know the ones, those brain-addled folks who cannot function more than a few minutes without looking at the electronic device that’s literally stealing their souls away.

We’ve all seen the videos on the internet; the ones showing those clueless clowns who plunge into water fountains inside some shopping mall because they can’t bear to look away from the smartphone long enough to save themselves from disaster.

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Just sit inside of a restaurant—any restaurant in any city in any country—and watch all the sagging, drooping heads. These brain-dead techno-zombies won’t even bother to socialize with their lunch or dinner companions. They just can’t spare the thirty minutes or so for simple human to human interaction. Their smartphone just won’t allow it.

This is the new society we live in. This is the curse that technology has gifted the human race. How many lives have been lost due to smart phones? I see these fools texting, surfing the internet, and checking emails while at the helm of fast-moving vehicles. I watched one idiot fly through an intersection before T-boning an unsuspecting motorist who had the misfortune of passing through that intersection at the wrong moment in time. The guilty party was texting or checking messages. The rest of us were stopped at the red light. I guess you’re not likely to notice a thing like a red light with your nose buried in a smart phone.

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During a recent visit to a local burger joint, I witnessed a grandmother completely ignoring her young granddaughter, because whatever her smartphone offered far exceeded anything the little girl could manage. The girl, no more than five, practically pleaded for Grandma’s attention before finally realizing the futility in her effort. The grandmother acknowledged the girl twice during the thirty-odd minutes they were in the restaurant. And both times, the woman hollered at the girl to quit pestering her.

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Don’t get me wrong; technology has been amazing—especially for writers. It’s something of a miracle to be able to write a short article like this, and have it read by people all over the world with just a few keystrokes. But look at what’s been replaced by this technology. Social interaction is now mostly carried out over Facebook or Twitter or texting or any one of a dozen other social media sites. Very few of us actually sit down and write letters to friends and family anymore. Why bother when a text message is quicker and easier? Most schools here in the States don’t even bother teaching students proper handwriting. Cursive has been placed on the endangered species list. And books? Who has time to read books when there are video games, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and emails on which to catch up.

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I’m not against technology; I use it daily. I just think we’ve lost something vital to being human beings. And the deeper we fall in with technology, the more likely we’ll never recover.

The Honesty of Reviews

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Reviews, be they for books, music, art, or movies, are important to the creator of the work in question. A good review alerts other readers that a particular book is well worth your time and money. A good review will help a singer or a band ease from struggle to success. Even in the restaurant business, a good review is often the difference between a full dining room and bankruptcy.

At the same token, a bad review can sink a Hollywood picture before it has a chance to open to the general public. Bad reviews are a part of the creative world that every participant will eventually experience. It’s just a fact of life. There’s no such thing as the perfect novel. Somebody somewhere will find something about your work they just don’t like. Even the Beatles found detractors when releasing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album many believe to be a masterpiece.

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A review should be an honest, critical appraisal of another’s work. This appraisal will guide customers either toward or away from that person’s hard work. In today’s world of self-publishing, many books get published that aren’t necessarily ready for an audience. The story may be fantastic in theory but severely flawed in execution. (Pay the extra money for the editor!) But even in situations like this, honesty can be achieved without being rude. Something along the lines of: “I read the story and enjoyed it for the most part. The concept is quite entertaining. It could really use a thorough editing, to clean up the poor sentence construction, misspellings, and wrong punctuation. The author would do well to read up on Point Of View.” Civility allows others to know that, though the story is entertaining, there are issues within the text.

Civility! The Oxford American College Dictionary defines that word as: formal politeness and courtesy in behavior and speech; polite remarks used in formal conversation.

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Are we capable of civility in today’s cyber world? There’s this awful thing called a revenge review, where people will post negative reviews of books or music just to draw down a particular work’s rating on, say, Amazon.com. Some people, without conscience, will trash a person’s hard work just for the joy of hurting another.

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Recently, I became aware of a reader who actually changed her review of a book after it had been posted for some months. The reason? The reviewer had words with the author over something completely unrelated to the author’s work. This is a childish move, to be sure. But it’s also a dangerous slope to tread for the reviewer. By changing a four-star rating to a one, that reviewer loses credibility with those who read that person’s reviews. To change it after months alerts me that there’s something more going on. Did it suddenly dawn on you that the work deserved a single star rather than the four-star glowing review you originally awarded? Or are you being vindictive and childish because somebody called you out on an issue unrelated to the book in question?

A review should always be honest and from the heart. Once it’s been posted, it should be set in stone—unless the author has made corrections to the work, and the reviewer has re-read the book. To change a review—especially after a period of time—lets others know your word is not to be trusted.

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Reviews are important. And even though some authors like to downplay their importance, we know reviews help sell books. It’s a simple fact. So when writing your reviews, be kind—even in your criticisms. If a book needs work, approach your review as a teaching opportunity, sharing whatever wisdom and knowledge you possess. Civility goes a long way—and not just for the author, either.