Dawn Colclasure's Blog

Author and poet Dawn Colclasure

Monday, April 05, 2010

Notes from a book reviewer

One of the joys of being a book reviewer is not that you get free books to read but that you have a golden opportunity to read new books on the market (on the other hand, some books I have reviewed were published a year or more ago). This is information people who are not book reviewers are not ordinarily apprised of. Of course, there are the book reviews published online, in newspapers and magazines. All the same, some books do get reviewed and some don't.

In my case, one particular book I was planning to write a review for will not get a review after all. Because it is for my book review blog, I have the choice of whether or not I'll review this book. The reason why I am not going to write a review of this book is just one of many things I wish I could tell authors but, alas, don't have the opportunity to send them a note. However, since this blog is meant to enlighten, educate and inspire writers, as well as discuss writing in general, I will post my thoughts here with the hope that writers and authors may see these words and take them into consideration.

And because I'm not allowed to reveal the titles of books I have complaints about, and because I'm supposed to stay neutral as a Night Owl book reviewer, I will refrain from divulging that information. They didn't teach me the secret handshake for nothing.

  • Make readers care about your characters. When I take the time to read somebody's story, even if it is a fictional somebody, I want to really know that person. I want to know them better than I know myself. What is their greatest fear? Why did they choose the vocation that they have chosen? What kind of house or apartment or trailer do they live in? Describe it. Show me their world. But, more importantly, show me their emotions. Show me a character breaking down and weeping after her child has died so that I can weep with her. Make me feel her heart pounding in her chest as she flees from an attacker. Show me your characters instead of telling me about them. This will help me to care about your characters. Don't forget that "character" starts with "care" and if you make readers care about your characters, they will want to keep reading that character's story to the very end.

  • Don't overdo the cute stuff. In one scene I read, the two major characters kept throwing sarcastic barbs at each other. At first, it's funny. We can relate. People do those kinds of things in real life. But if it keeps going on and on and on, with the characters acting like a smartass with every single thing they say, it gets really old really fast. This kind of thing just doesn't move the story forward. Instead, it makes me want to sit down with a bowl of popcorn and just watch the whole thing. It doesn't have me on the edge of my seat, turning the pages for more.

  • Bring your world to life. Those very words are the title for a chapter I have in the Revisions book in the section for revising articles but I'm beginning to think I should create a similar chapter in the section reserved for revising fiction. BRING YOUR WORLD TO LIFE. This is not just a message I want writers of fiction to put to use in their stories but especially the writers of fantasy. If you're going to put me into a whole nother world, at least give me a map. Help me figure out what this world is all about. What does it look like? What do the residents look like? What kind of environment does it have? If it's not an environment where humans can live, then how are the people who live there able to breathe that environment? What's used for currency? What is the food like? Is there animal life? Show me, the reader, what kind of world you have created just for your story. Remember, readers do not know what the writer knows. Put everything into words.

  • Keep it real. This is reserved for writers of nonfiction. Even if you are writing about a new, blissful kind of philosophy of life, find a way for readers to apply it to their lives with real world standards. The book I was reading is nice, and interesting, but it just doesn't apply to the real world. It's not like I can read that book and say, "What a great book! Now I'm going to go outside to have tea with my leprechaun then ride around on a unicorn!" News flash: We, the readers, live in the real world. The real world is not all roses and rainbows. The author did cover certain sticky situations in which using his advice would be difficult, but instead of tackling them with solutions or offering ideas on how to handle them, he just glossed over them and threw out generalities. Fail. Real life doesn't work like that. In real life, people with a problem need solutions. They need guidance. They need answers. Not ideas. If you write nonfiction, make sure you write for real people living in the real world with real issues and problems they need solutions for.

  • Don't shove your beliefs down readers' throats. The nonfiction book I was going to review is heavy on Eastern thought and Buddhist teachings. As a Christian, this made me feel a little uncomfortable. I understand everyone has their own beliefs and that some of those beliefs can seep into what we write, but if you overdo it and keep at it again and again, it can be a huge turn-off for readers. In essence, you are limiting your readership when you try to make your book's message a preachy one. I had to wonder if that book was meant for Buddhists and not someone interested in the message or looking for answers to a sticky situation. Nobody likes being preached to or having a certain religion or belief held over their head.
I'm not saying these things to discourage writers from trying to write a book or get their novel published. On the contrary, I would like to encourage writers to keep writing. Keep being creative, sharing your stories and making your dreams of publication a reality. Just keep the above tips in mind so that when your book or story lands on the desk of a reviewer, that reviewer will have positive and encouraging things to say about it.

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2 Comments:

  • At 2:27 PM , Blogger Lillie Ammann said...

    Dawn,

    Great advice, but I do have a little difference of opinion with you in one regard. I agree that authors shouldn't "shove their beliefs down readers' throats." However, I don't object to the writer sharing her beliefs. My Christian faith is so much a part of me that I can't write without my faith coloring what I write. In fact, a number of reviewers have called Dream or Destiny, my romantic mystery, a Christian novel. I didn't write it specifically for the Christian market, but my Christian worldview obviously came through loud and clear. However, I have also had comments from reviewers that the message came through but that it wouldn't offend people with different beliefs. In fact, one of my early readers was a Jewish friend who has a relative who converted to Christianity and tries to convert my friend. My friend has told me several times that she doesn't want to be preached at. So when she offered to read Dream or Destiny, I told her the characters were Christian and followed their beliefs. I didn't want to offend her. She said she would read it but stop if she felt she was being preached at. After she finished, she said she didn't mind reading the book at all because while it was obvious the characters believed strongly in their faith, I didn't preach at the readers and try to convert them. There is a fine line and I certainly wouldn't want to shove my beliefs down someone's throat, but I don't think there's anything wrong with writing that reflects the writer's beliefs.

    Lillie Ammann
    A Writer's Words, An Editor's Eye

     
  • At 8:33 AM , Blogger Dawn Colclasure said...

    You're absolutely right, Lillie. It does depend on the kind of book you are writing, and who you are writing it for.

    When I bought that nonfiction book I mentioned, there was no indication that the ideas in that book stemmed from Buddhist teachings and Eastern philosophy. The title and subtitle did not give any indication of this, nor did the back cover copy. Providing this information would have been helpful and it also would have influenced whether or not I wanted to buy the book. Given that it emphasizes and encourages beliefs which I don't follow, I would rather pass on reviewing the book and now see it as just wasted money.

     

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