Category Archives: Reviews

Batman, Boldness and Book Reviews

A guest post by Jeff Campbell.

Snap quiz: What bit of non-fiction writing inspires both fear and joy in practitioners of the fictional arts?

Book reviews.

Full disclosure: Writing book reviews takes a special kind of boldness, a strain of courage I no longer possess myself. I blame Batman. Back when I was a pre-schooler Batman (’66) was my favorite television show. It had everything: a Batmobile, Robin, Batman, what else could you want, right? In those long ago days of polyester and groovy-ness people couldn’t just watch their favorite shows. You had to wait for your show to ‘come on’. Yet love knows no limits, so after years of waiting and at the grand old age of twelve, I was thrilled when my mother told me Batman (’66) was returning to the airwaves. When the bat-time arrived, I tuned to the bat-channel and watched my favorite show.

I mentioned love has no limits but I should’ve also mentioned how it mucks up your judgment. Tragically, something had changed during those off-air years. Like many pre-schoolers, I had lacked a sense of ‘camp’, a peculiar brand of humor from which the producers of Batman(’66) had drunk deeply. In a state of horrible youngness, I had not understood that Batman was meant to be funny. Kneeling in a rainy alley, looking over the lifeless corpses of my favorite show, I vowed never to write book reviews. Boldness, a necessary tool for any book reviewer, had been torn from me.

But that’s me, not you. You read books. You have opinions. Why not combine these interests? Why not indeed! But beware, bold purveyor of literature, for there are traps into which the unwary oft fall. How clever of you to have found this article! Although I myself do not write book reviews, I am willing to offer advice unbiased by practical experience. As a reader and fan of book reviews, I have seen things that tarnish the genre. This being the internet, allow me to present them in a useful and familiar form: 8 tips for book reviewers (you won’t believe #7!).

#1: Be yourself… I read a lot of reviews where the writer isn’t content to be a mere book reviewer, instead wishing to be acknowledged as a God of Literature! Judgment, swift, terrible, unquestionable, flows from their pens as the divide supplicant books into piles of classics or garbage. I’m not saying don’t be bold, I’m just saying that not everyone will always agree with you. That doesn’t make their opinions wrong or worthy or attack.

#2: …unless you are really snide, then be someone nicer. All reviewers will write reviews for a books they loathe. It’s part of the job. You rarely read reviews where praise upon praise is heaped on a book but many reviews read like an extended and continuous curb-stomping. It’s perfectly fine to write a negative review, just be honest. Some books deserves scorn but if you’re writing to see how many cheap shots you can fit in each paragraph, well, it’s no more interesting than fawning praise.

#3: Be a reviewer, not a teacher. Look, I get it – you belong to a writing group or went to a really great class. Good for you! Remember though, it’s neither helpful nor interesting to explain how a writer should have written a published book. That moment is gone.

#4: Batman. Just a word to the wise: Your opinions will change over time. Be bold and fearless but, yeah, if you can avoid making your future self cringe when they dust off that review and read it again, that would great.

#5: Have an opinion. There’s this one reviewer I keep coming back to because (a) he’s amazing and (b) he drives me nuts. He’s insanely well-read, fantastically organized and focused like a laser. His reviews are full of interesting anecdotes and trivia and – here’s the horrible part – he will not commit to liking or disliking anything. A book review needs an opinion!

#6: Your word count should match your opinion. Hey, I don’t like the four stars out of five rating system either but some reviewers fall into the unfortunate pitfall of writing reviews starting with ‘I loved this book but …’ and spending the rest of their word count on that one thing they hated. Naturally, readers believe the reviewer didn’t like the book. Reviewer gets snippy, he loved the book! He said so, with four words in a thousand word review.

#7: Pick the books you review. I once read a national newspaper review of a seventh book in a series by a reviewer who had not read any of the first six books. She didn’t like it, found it hard to get into, too many characters. Do not be this person.

#8: Anthologies. When reading a multi-author short story collection, it is not necessary to say you liked some stories better than others. How could it be otherwise? As a reviewer, your task is to evaluate the book as a whole. Does it deserve to sit on your shelf or not?

jrc J.R. Campbell is an anthologist and writer living in Calgary. If you want to review some of his stuff, go for it. He’s not afraid. His latest anthology is Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places, co-edited with his friend Charles Prepolec. Take your best shot. If you look around, maybe you can find some of their Gaslight Sherlock Holmes anthologies (Gaslight Grimoire: Fantastic Tales of Sherlock Holmes; and Gaslight Grotesque: Nightmare Tales of Sherlock Holmes) too. Take a look. Write a review. Tear him a new one. He may lack boldness but he’s no fraidy-cat. Take your best shot.

You Are Not Alone: One-Star Reviews for Everyone!

When a writer friend or fellow Fictorian tells me they just got a one-star review on Goodreads or Amazon, my teeth clinch and I wince. Getting a one-star review isn’t quite like being hit in the stomach with a baseball bat, but more so pounded in the chest with a meat tenderizer.

There is one glimmer of respite: you’re not alone in that ridiculous one-star review that didn’t even get the name of your characters right. You’re not the only one who asked yourself if the reviewer actually saw the words on the page, because it says right there on page 13 that Mary’s mother was an ex-CIA agent bomb specialist, hinting that she could have prior knowledge of how to deactivate bombs. Just saying. It’s on page 13. Not even 20 pages into the book. But, you know, maybe the reviewer couldn’t see words.

Even veteran writers get one-star reviews that are ridiculous or extremely rude, or both (it’s like a crap sandwich).

WARNING: Language. These authors use language.

And more:

WARNING: Language. These authors use more language.

But Children’s books. Those are safe, right?

And if you think there are still some sacred texts free from scathing reviews, I’d urge you to look up reviews for The Holy Bible. “Badly edited, poor continuity and internal consistency. Authors seem to change between books. Plot is cliched and thin, with virtually no character development save for Judas Iscariot,” says one reviewer. While some of these reviews are clearly written in jest, just remember, no work is safe from other people’s opinions.

But you as the author can past these scathing reviews by reminding yourself that you aren’t alone. Rant to your friends if you must, but keep it private. Don’t add any fuel to the fire. Your friends and other writers can help you through some of the personal attacks, and help bolster you up against the attacks on your book. Remember, what you see online are opinions. Everyone’s got them, and they don’t really matter. But your happiness DOES matter. Protect it, and keep close friends nearby who also want you to be happy.

 

Don’t forget to enter to win one of the prizes we’ve got up-for-grabs this week. Click here for rules and giveaway details.

Do Unto Others

I’ve written on this subject before on the Fictorians, but I can’t help repeating myself every so often when it comes to the impact of fans. It wouldn’t be honest to say that I primarily write for my fans. Truth is, I write for me, because I love writing and creating. Stories drive me. But I find the energy to keep writing, to power through the really hard days and finish books, because my readers frequently find inspiring ways to remind me that what I’m doing matters to them. And isn’t that what we all want, at the end of the day? To matter?

A friend of a friend recently messaged me on Facebook to say that she had started reading my first book on a Monday and finished it at 5:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning. She then started the second book on Thursday night and finished on Saturday, and messaged to let me know that she thought it was better than the first. She didn’t want it to be over, so she hoped to take her time on the third book. We’ll see how that goes…

The point is not to toot my own horn. Here’s what I’m driving at: those two books took a minimum of four years to write (even longer to conceive) and boom, they are easily read in just four days. Which is a bit lopsided, but one hopes that great books will be consumed as quickly and voraciously as possible. In an ideal world, I want voracious readers to discover me right now, but I also long for the day when voracious readers will be discovering me and my backlist of thirty other books.

Hearing from fans means a lot to me. And I know it means a lot to other writers, too, which is why when I discover a book I really love, I follow the golden rule: do unto others what you’d have them do unto you. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I get in touch personally, but I leave reviews and try to spread the word. It seems to me that word of mouth and personal recommendations are among the most important (if not the most important) way that people discover new books.

So let’s not be stingy with praise and appreciation. Writers are often lonely, socially starved people sitting behind computers in quiet rooms at ungodly hours (unless it’s just me?), so words of appreciation tend to go a long way.

Evan BraunEvan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for more than ten years. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, whose third volume, The Law of Radiance, has just been released. He specializes in both hard and soft science fiction and lives in the vicinity of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

A Crash Course on the Best and Worst Elements of Writing

What an enlightening month November has been! If you ever wanted a crash course in what makes writing the best or the worst, this was it.

There is so much to learn about writing craft and storytelling from the masters yet we can learn equally from writing that doesn’t engage us. Deciding on the ‘best’ means we need to understand why we like what we do and what constitutes the best for each of us (Kristin Luna). It also means not disregarding other forms of fiction because the best stories use elements of both literary and commercial fiction and knowing how each works makes us better skilled writers (Susan Forest).

Elements in the best writing includes:
precision of word choice, great imagery and detail plus an author who gets right into his character’s heads (Clancy); a grasp on multi-sensory prose which like a dream, makes the fantastical normal and lifts the reader to a place of wonder (Brenda Sawatsky); cliffhangers and when multiple story lines crash together in a maelstrom of calamity at the end of a book (Evan); well executed diverse fiction that helps the reader understand the world we live in and cultivates respect (Kim May); story matters and being a good storyteller with proper pacing and resolutions is key, but before telling the story, think about how much you can tell us by each word, each sentence, and the beauty you strive for in bringing them together (Colette); it’s not just about the protagonist against the antagonist but about how every character interacts with every other character (Jace Sanders); heroes aren’t heroes all the time. They are just humans with something about them that is extraordinary, and the more flawed a character is, the more human they seem (Leigh Galbreath); the best writing has characters who strive for themselves along with sentences that soar on their own (James Van Pelt); successful prologues convey information without being an info dump and they promise a story/writing style upon which they deliver (Ace Jordyn); a consistent background which functions almost as another character, widening the options for the protagonist’s conflict along with psychological realism where characters behave consistently (Al Onia); the key to the ‘best’ has less to do with perfect prose, and more to do with story impact when what we’re writing matters, emotions rise up, and the reader can feel it (Adria Laycraft).

What constitutes the worst writing includes:
meandering prose that loses the reader and is boring and there’s no beginning, middle or end and no characters to invest in (Clancy); it’s a bad idea to mislead readers about what kind of story you are telling readers for pick up books because they’re hoping for a certain type of experience. (Mary); when writers grab hold of a culture’s cool elements—Samurai swords, martial arts, ninjas—and throw the rest out the window because the history, philosophy, sociology, and traditions are so intertwined and influential on the cool elements that you can’t separate the two and do it justice. (Kim May); it’s not possible to root for a guy who seems like a walking pity party or if the main character lacks any sense of wonder (James Van Pelt); prologues don’t work if they create expectations that the book doesn’t meet either in story content or style, if they’re an info dump or if they are used to foreshadow or tease (Ace Jordyn); when writers betray the promises set in the beginning of the book and shatter the reader’s bond with the story (Frank).

So how can we judge how we each measure up at being the best? We can compare our work to those we admire and like to read or, as Nathan Barra observed, we can learn by comparing our earlier works to our current ones and being motivated by that.

In case you want to follow up on any of the excellent points I’ve summarized, here is a list of November’s blogs. Just click on the title and the link will get you there.

Happy reading and writing!

Lee Child vs the Boring Clancy
Not What I Signed Up For Mary
The Dreamer Brenda Sawatzky
In Loving Appreciation of the Story Swirl Evan Braun
The Emperor and the Impostor Kim May
Kneeling in the Silver Light Mary
The Importance of Word Choice Colette
Learning from the Masters Jace Sanders
A Tale of Two Readers; or, Everybody Wins Kristin Luna
The Not So likeable Hero Leigh Galbreath
Pluck, Pity Parties and Prose – What I Like Best and What Doesn’t Work James Van Pelt
SSWS Writing Scholarship: Should YOU Apply?  Colette
Clive Cussler, Guy Gavriel Kay and DJ McIntosh are Masters at … Ace Jordyn
Writing What I Like to Read Al Onia
Writing Stories that Matter Adria Laycraft
Looking for Progress in a Mirror Nathan Barra
Don’t Break Your Promises Frank
Using the Tools of Both Literary and Commercial Fiction Susan Forest