Thursday, February 21, 2013

For the Love of Books: Why You Should Write Reviews

As I sat down to research and write this blog about book reviewing, I caught myself thinking, “Ugh, I don’t really care about this.” I haven’t written a book review since middle school (Shade’s Children by Garth Nix, for the library bulletin board). I dived in anyway, read 20-odd articles on the subject, and got told 20-odd times why I-- and you-- need to care.  

Reviewing books is about entering into a conversation, about contributing to the literary world. By giving a book 5 stars and writing a paragraph or two in praise of its strong points on Amazon, you are informing readers with similar tastes that this book is worth their time and money, as well as helping to support authors. Positive reviews are literally a win-win-win. More lengthy reviews, posted on blogs or printed in newspapers and magazines, are even better.

Negative reviews are a little trickier. I’m blessed with the capability to enjoy almost anything I pick up to read, so I don’t have to worry about this so much. But on the rare occasion when I don’t like something, or for those who are a little pickier, should negative reviews be put out into the world? It’s hard for writers when we consider that the author, his/her agent, or others involved might actually be people we know or could meet. It’s also a little scary when you hear horror stories like this one, in which an author decided to sic her Facebook fans on reviewers who wrote negatively about her book. Negative reviews are always going to be a little contentious, and I won’t pretend that I like the idea of writing one or that I could even see myself doing so. But I do think that they serve a purpose, especially if they are thoughtful and charitable. 

I hope that all avid readers will write reviews. Even if you’re not a writer, you’re a part of this community. Here are a few tips gleaned from the articles I read and my own experience:

1. Include some plot summary in your review. Your audience should get a clear sense of the book (not just plot and characters, but tone). In this way, your review becomes interactive: the reader can evaluate this summary and see if it sounds better to him or her than maybe it does to you. If so, great! Just because you didn’t like it doesn’t mean someone else won’t, and vice versa. 

2. “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” -- John Updike (for more of his rules for reviewing, read this). The funniest examples of this can be found on A funny site in general, they catalog the worst reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, and the like. Once you read reviews in which people are disappointed because Dracula is nothing like Twilight, you will either want to write your own semi-intelligent reviews or just curl up and die. 

3. Avoid owl criticism. This is Charles Baxter’s way of saying, similar to Updike, that you need to take books as they are, not blame them for what they aren’t. For example, if you read a book about owls and don’t like it because you think owls are stupid, that is not a good reason to give it one star and say it sucks. (Now, if the book is called “The Wonderful World of Cats” and you just LOVE kitties and you buy the book, open it up, and the first page says, “Just kidding! Owls!”, THEN you’re entitled to hate it for that reason). 

Don't like owls? Then why did you pick up a book with a big owl on the cover?

4. Just give your review some substance, for crying out loud. I don’t know how many Amazon reviews I scroll past and ignore because they’re one line long. In order to be fair to the book, the author, and your audience, you need to provide not just an opinion, but reasons for that opinion (preferably with concrete examples from the text itself). 

Review books because you love books. Sure, you’re not going to love them all, and it’s up to you to decide which to review. But reviewing books is an art in itself, one that should not be taken lightly, especially by people who are dedicated to reading and writing. This is our community, and if we don’t take care of it, who will?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day Special: Get in the Mood... To Write

It’s that time again. Whether you embrace the most romantic day of the year with open arms or rant about the stupidity of it on Facebook, there’s no denying that Valentine’s Day is important to a lot of people: Americans spend millions on dinners, gifts, cards, and flowers every year. The media is busy giving us all tips on how to pull off the perfect V-Day for our significant other, so I thought I would jump into the fray. For those of us who are practically married to our work, here are some tips for setting the mood in order to get the most out of writing time on Valentine’s Day and every day.

Go Out. Do you have a specific place where you go to write every day? Leave it. There’s nothing like breaking out of your normal routine to inspire fresh ideas and adventurous new techniques. Try the local park, the library, a cafe, or even your own back porch.

Use Your Imagination. Sure, you can’t be writing all the time. That would burn you out! But when you’re standing in line at the bank or struggling through a boring day at work, think about your characters. Follow various alternate storylines to see how they would pan out. Begin planning the scene you’ll write when you get home. Keeping your mind busy will help build anticipation for the moment when you actually sit down to write.

Pamper Yourself. There are days when I roll out of bed, head straight for my laptop, and go at it. I can never stay there for very long before I start to feel gross, and I have to break my rhythm to go and take a shower. Instead of bumming around, treat yourself to a long bath (with bubbles if you’re feeling particularly indulgent), a manicure, a new ‘do, an expensive bottle of cologne/perfume, anything that makes you feel sexy. If your body is happy, your brain will be, too.

Get Away. In the world of social media and cell phones, distractions abound. Disconnect. Set your phone to silent and put it aside. If you can’t be on your computer without compulsively checking Facebook and Twitter, shut it down and grab a notebook. Remove yourself from anything that causes your mind to wander and give your writing your full attention-- it’ll thank you for it.

Music. I’ve only recently gained the ability to listen to music that has words while writing, but it has to be related to the work somehow or the lyrics get in the way. Music, used wisely, can really set the mood for the piece you’re working on. Choose carefully, though: Thrash metal might cause your love scene to turn out a little weird.

Scents and Lighting. Never underestimate the value of a room full of scented candles. Atmosphere has an incredible influence on mood, from the color of the walls to the aroma in the air. Create a special place for writing that makes you feel comfortable, relaxed, and ready for anything.

Self-Confidence. It all boils down to this: You must love yourself before you can love anyone or anything else-- including your work-- properly. You can’t bring your A-game if you’re feeling inadequate. Your confidence will show in the bold choices, the energy, and the originality your writing bursts with. Knock ’em dead.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

How to Hook Your Reader on the First Page, Part II

This is part II of my last blog post, so if you’re just tuning in, go back and read it first! To review, we all know that the first pages of your novel are the most important when it comes to landing an agent. Often, their decision about whether to read the rest of the manuscript is made by the first page. So I decided to examine the first pages of some of my favorite novels and figure out how they grab my attention and hold it. No better way to learn than from the experts!

7. Sabriel by Garth Nix
First line: “It was little more than three miles from the Wall into the Old Kingdom, but that was enough.”
This curious line gives us a glimpse of the world which we are about to be immersed in. The rest of the first paragraph informs us that on one side of the Wall in Ancelstierre (not-England) it is noon and the sun is shining, but on the other side in the Old Kingdom, it is sunset and rain is falling. This unfamiliar fantasy world is being built even within the first line.
The above line belongs to the prologue of Sabriel. Prologues are tricky things. This one tells us the strange circumstances of Sabriel’s birth and introduces both her father, the Abhorsen (giving us the meaning of the title she will later take on), and an antagonist, Kerrigor. “Is this prologue necessary?” is a question we all must ask ourselves, and in this case, I think it does a good job of building suspense and holding attention while providing important background information.

8. Watership Down by Richard Adams
First line: “The primroses were over.”
Has there every been a more beautiful or subtle way to say “Something’s going down, guys”?
The genius of that first line is that it serves as a launching point for a description of the setting-- the rabbits’ original warren-- which is, naturally, full of plants and flowers and a brook and whatnot. In all the scenery, we forget that pretty-but-ominous first line for awhile, allowing ourselves to be lulled into the same peaceful complacency as the rabbits. The other great thing about that line is that it helps the novel come full circle, as the last line speaks of the primroses beginning to bloom.

9. Abarat by Clive Barker
First line: “The storm came up out of the southwest like a fiend, stalking its prey on legs of lightning.”
Barker’s command of language and imagery is one of the many things that keeps me coming back to his books. He has an imagination like no other and the ability to share what is in his mind in such a way that readers see it just as vividly. Can’t you already see the dark clouds roiling toward the characters?
The first page introduces us to three women in a boat, who suspect that the storm threatening them is unnatural and who have some “precious cargo.” Already, we have hints that something serious and probably magical is happening. There is palpable tension in the boat, both among the three women and between them and some unknown antagonist. This sense of foreboding draws the reader in.
10. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
First line: “Shadow had done three years in prison.”
I remember reading this for the first time and thinking, “Shadow? Really? Like the dog from Homeward Bound?” So, even though I love Gaiman, the name made me a little nervous. But I stopped being bothered by the name very quickly when I got sucked into the story.
The first page talks about Shadow’s thoughts and experiences in prison, which are very interesting and give us a sense of Shadow’s character. For instance, he had this feeling of relief when he was incarcerated because it meant he had hit bottom and could go no lower. There’s an honesty to it that has you rooting for the character almost immediately-- which seems like a big leap from the first line. The key here is the voice: it’s unique, relatable, and intriguing.

11. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
First line: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
A what? In a hole? I’m sure the original readers of this precursor to the LOTR trilogy were baffled by the opening line of Tolkien’s novel, but it certainly sparks curiosity.
The rest of the page goes on to describe Bilbo’s residence: It’s not just a hole in the ground but is actually a very comfortable, well-furnished home under a hill. From the word “hobbit” we suspect that we are not in the real world as we know it, and the description of this home in a hole draws out that feeling of not-quite-rightness. The first few pages are taken up with exposition and hints of future adventure, which is just Tolkien’s style. Tough out the long passages of description/exposition and you’ll be rewarded with some of the most epic fantasy scenes ever penned.

12. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
First line: “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.”
Noticing a trend yet? This is yet another line that begins with world-building. Instantly, we are told rather conversationally that this is not a place we know. The magic-steeped land of Ingary is presented to us as well as the curiosity-piquing statement concerning birth order and luck.
The protagonist, Sophie Hatter-- that unfortunate eldest daughter-- is introduced, and within the first page, the story flies in the face of conventional fantasy tropes, even going so far as to poke fun at them. Diana Wynne Jones’s storytelling voice is unique and engaging, differentiating her work from other YA fantasy. 


So, to recap, here are the main ideas I’ve gleaned from reading these first lines & pages (as well as many more that never made it into the blog). 

1. Craft purposeful first lines. Your first line should be interesting and original, and it should DO something. A first line that just lays there like a dead fish will never grab a reader’s attention. It can set the tone, begin world-building, introduce a character (and his/her voice), foreshadow plot, jump into the story in media res, amuse, disgust, intrigue, or surprise, but it should never just be.
2. Be unique. The first few pages of your novel can fulfill many different functions and still be successful in hooking the reader. There is no formula for first pages. It can be helpful to take the idea of this blog and run with it-- i.e., model your first page after one by a favorite author-- but once you have figured out and established your own voice in the piece, you should absolutely come back and revise.
3. Teach the audience how to read your novel. In most cases, it’s best to start in the point of view of your protagonist. Know what tense, what voice, and what tone your story will have, and use these from the beginning. A heavy philosophical passage preceding a light-hearted adventure-- or vice versa-- is jarring to the reader. Also, be sure to let them know right away if your novel is not taking place in the real world. This can be done subtly (think Stephen King’s use of made-up words) or blatantly (Diana Wynne Jones’s “In the land of Ingary...”).
4. Introduce major dramatic questions. This may be most important of all: Give the reader a reason to read on. Make them care about your character and understand the stakes of his or her situation. If there’s nothing they’re wondering about by the end of the first chapter, why should they keep going?

Hopefully some of the first lines discussed in this blog caught your fancy. As I said before, these are some of my favorite fantasy novels, so if you're looking for a great read, look no further! I also encourage you to give your own favorite books this treatment and see what makes their opening pages tick. Have a favorite first line that uses one of these attention-grabbing strategies? Share it!