I don’t have the writers block of popular imagination, the blank white screen and blinking cursor that keeps me paralyzed for hours. But I do have a “writers reluctance,” which in some ways might be even more insidious. This is a familiar syndrome for most of you, where the distractions of meta-writing—research, outlining, emailing, formatting an e-book, reading industry news, and, uh, writing blogs—get in the way of actually writing, even though all of this activity feels like you’re making progress.
When I recognize I’m doing this, I can cure it most of the time by simply sitting down and opening up the last chapter I wrote. Something about committing to the act of putting my butt in the chair, turning off email, and opening up the document in question helps me focus and I can usually count on getting good work done from that point on.
Sometimes, however, it’s not enough to simply start; a warm-up is needed. There are various tricks that have helped me in the past to get the juices flowing (read and edit your last chapter or story, retype a passage from a favorite author’s work, write a letter to yourself from your lead character) and they all work to a degree. But another tactic I can add to the list is to write a book review.
It’s said that there’s no better way to learn something than to have to teach it to someone else–and so it is to a lesser extent with reviewing a peer’s work. Writing an objective, fair, and intelligent review of someone else’s novel requires the very same knowledge and skills you need to craft one of your own.
You should be able to answer questions about plotting, pacing, narrative, story arc, conflict, and resolution. Whether the book in question is an unknown debut or a blockbuster NY Times best-seller, you should be able to assess whether the author wrote a compelling story or not, no matter what kind of awards and accolades the book might’ve received. You should cite examples and excerpts to prove your point, which means you’ll have to read the text closely enough to spot the passages you want to lift for your review (which, in turn, should make you a better reader).
If you commit to writing an intelligent review with your writer’s hat on, you can’t help but increase your writing skills. You’re simply using them in reverse. (This is very similar to my idea of writing long book critiques to enhance your skills.)
Our Special Viewpoint
As I wrote in another post, there are certain approaches to reviewing that are neither fair nor helpful. Some of these things—such as arbitrary low ratings or a lack of citing relevant passages—are mistakes amateurs make. They might help future readers in a general way, but they sometimes don’t add to the overall conversation.
But writers who review should hold themselves to a higher standard, both in the positive and the negative. We know how difficult and challenging writing can be. We also recognize in other books the shortcuts, hasty patch jobs, and logical fallacies that we ourselves sometimes perpetrate. Reviews are a golden opportunity for writers to bring their expertise to bear, whether it’s to praise a subtle and especially clever resolution or to highlight a bungled moment that should’ve never made it past the first draft.
Iain Rowan’s crime fiction collection Nowhere to Go, for instance, uses plot twists in ticklish new ways. I appreciate that both as a reader and as a writer (I try to do much the same in my own collection one bad twelve). In my review on Goodreads, I pointed out how well done this was on Rowan’s part…but also how I thought the collection as a single entity could’ve benefited from some humor. These are observations a reader could make, I’m sure, but I feel as a writer I have a particular viewpoint that informs the review.
Fairness in All Things…
Unfortunately—and I put myself in this camp for sure—writers can also be hyper-critical of other writers, holding them to unfairly high standards and beating them without mercy vicariously through the review. It’s analogous to the vicious criticism you sometimes hear in critique groups. Rather than celebrate the fact that the author put together a competently written novel, we take them to task for small slip-ups in grammar or historical accuracy or awkward phrasing.
Don’t get me wrong: big mistakes should be pointed out. But the manner in which you expose these things in a review should be carefully considered. It’s important to remain constructive in your criticism and be even-handed in your assessment. Then again, if the book is simply bad, you won’t be doing anyone any favors if you sugar-coat things. Objective doesn’t mean sand-bagging the review; it mean being fair and unbiased.
I do have a sliding scale in my reviews for well-known authors with multiple awards to their name. When an author promises Big Things (via NY Times best seller status, aforementioned awards, news articles and children named after them), I expect Big Things. When they don’t deliver—in the form of silly plots, loose ends, bad resolutions, and the like—I think a review is the appropriate place to let them have it. To those whom much is given, much is expected.
An example is a review I recently wrote on Goodreads for mystery author Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead. While her descriptions of character and place are wonderful, I found her confusion of plot lines and somewhat contrived endings to be unworthy of an author who’d received four Agatha Awards and of a book cited as the “best mystery of the year.” I gave it two stars (“okay” on Goodreads’ scale) and explained my low rating as thoroughly as I could. A less celebrated author might’ve received three or four stars from me, but I expect more from an author with a talent like Penny’s.
Next time you feel yourself slowing down or catch yourself staring at a blank page do yourself—and a fellow author—a favor. Sit down, get your red pen out, and write the best review you can. Be fair, be thorough, be critical. Bring your skills as a writer and a story teller to bear and see if you don’t go back to your own manuscript a better writer than before.
I recently wrote two Goodreads reviews that helped me solve some writing issues of my own. If you have time, check out my take on mystery author Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead and crime fiction author Iain Rowan’s short story collection Nowhere to Go.