Thursday, April 21, 2011

Say it like it is

As author, I love nothing more than when a reviewer picks up one of my novels and writes a great review. Even if they found stuff they didn’t like, it’s useful for me to get feedback. Granted, I’m aware that I’m not going to please all of the readers all of the time, but reviews are vital, not only because they clue potential readers in to my writing, but also serve as a reality check.

If a dozen reviewers all hammer me for the same issue, it’s time for me to sit up and take notice. So, in many ways, reviews provide a useful barometer to authors wanting to keep tabs on themselves.

Writing regular book reviews for a website or publication is a great way to get a broad general idea of any particular genres in which you may be interested. Besides the obvious benefit of free reads, you pretty much have your finger on the pulse of some of the latest releases in the market. Granted, you may not always pick up your favourite authors, but you’ll definitely discover some new favourites—before everyone else does.

So, what goes into writing a great review? I’ve been writing reviews for the newspapers and a few blogs for a number of years now. Each reviewer will have his or her own approach to writing a review, but I’m going to share what works for me, which may serve as a useful template for you, should you consider taking up writing reviews yourself.

Once you’ve read the book, give a broad general overview of the plot. Let’s trot out Little Red Riding Hood as an example, shall we? I generally kick off my reviews by sketching the essentials of the plot.

Little Red Riding Hood regularly visits her grandmother, who lives in an isolated cottage deep within a dark and somewhat perilous forest. Despite her mother’s pleas to stay on the path, Little Red Riding Hood strays one day when she meets a wolf. Consequently she lands herself in a spot of bother.

If there are aspects of the story that are supposed to be a surprise to readers, for the love of all that is unholy PLEASE don’t give spoilers in your review. Hint at them, but don’t ruin others’ reading experience.

Once the overview is there, which should suffice to give readers a good indication whether the story is to their tastes—for instance romance readers will probably not like to read out-and-out horror—you can start going into a bit more depth.

After I’ve given an overview, I like to discuss the main characters and how I feel about them and whether the author did a good job showing character development. Once again, AVOID spoilers.

After characterisation, look at the story’s pacing. Did the author’s plot drag? Were you immediately immersed in the setting? Was there anything that annoyed you? Did any plot holes surface? Was the story typical of the genre? How did the author approach the genre? Was there anything that you really liked? Essentially, ask yourself a bunch of questions then answer them.

In closing your review, try to sum up everything that has gone before. I try to sketch the context in which a book may be enjoyed, or suggest a target market, and try to end on a positive note (well, most of the time). As a rough guide, reviews for print media should be anywhere between 300 to 600 words in length. You can apply the same rules to online reviews.

Remember also, it’s not what you say but how you say it. Try to give valid reasons why you hated something instead of just saying, “This author’s writing stinks.”

Yes, it’s fun to snark, and I admit that occasionally when I write reviews, my inner snark comes frothing out, especially when it comes to big-name authors who SHOULD know better. That being said, if you’re an author, like me, and you write reviews, tread carefully. Writing reviews, much like writing novels, is a highly subjective business, and it’s easy for people to get their goat up. If you’re clever about it, you can say a whole lot more by what people can read between the lines. And sometimes when I encounter a book that is just plain horrible, I write my review in such a way that I deliver constructive criticism. Be honest, but say what you need to say as though you were saying it to the author’s face.

Lastly, on ratings. I’ve often encountered authors who absolutely blow their tops when they get three out of five for their novels. Or fans who want to peck out reviewers’ eyes when their favourite author “only” gets three stars. In my opinion, three out of five is a good, solid rating. It means someone thought your novel was good. Not oh-my-feck-I-have-to-spaz-all-over-the-place wonderful, but they’re saying a book is a good read and that they liked it. Maybe the reviewer wasn’t quite the target market. Maybe they just didn’t love the writing enough to allocate a four- or five-star review. Three stars are good.

The golden rule remains is that the business of fiction remains a highly subjective field. Some people think Nora Roberts or Christine Feehan are paragons of literary greatness. I disagree. We’ll all have our reasons. And, guess what, we’re entitled to them. We can all agree to disagree. Granted, there are some aspects of writing that are non-negotiable, like sound grammar, but as for the rest… Not all of us will read James Joyce, okay?


James Curcio said...

The question I wonder most commonly is how to round up (or track down) good subjects (targets?) for reviews. A lot of it thusfar has been happenstance, or people coming to me, but with my next releases I'd kind of like to be a little more strategic with it. And thusfar I haven't found a solid approach. How do you?

Nerine Dorman said...

With the review site I contribute to, I get to at least choose the books and aim for something along themes I enjoy. I'm not always so lucky with the review books I get for the papers, considering I'm dealing mostly with whatever the traditional publishers have foisted onto the books editors. At any rate I try to balance the bad with some good.