Tag Archives: book reviews

Book Review vs. Book Critique

The November 2019 issue of The Writer has an interesting article about “How to be a good Critique Partner.” I’ve been asked often enough to critique someone’s manuscript, both as a member of writing groups and individually, and one of the things that will always be at the top of my mind before I start is this: Focus only on the work. The second thing is: Stay positive, even when pointing out a negative by being constructive in criticism. I’ve heard horror stories about critiquing sessions that attacked the writer personally or shredded the writing. That kind of experience can be extremely traumatic. That kind of critique actually reveals more about the person critiquing rather than the writer or the writing and is far from helpful.

Anica Mrose Rissi, the author of The Writer’s article on critiquing has some good points I’d like to share here:

  • “Be discerning about what you sign on to read” — From my personal experience, I know I’m not the person to critique (or edit) a military story, horror story, or western. I don’t like those kinds of stories and so I haven’t read many of them. A good critique comes from someone who loves the genre of the book, has read a lot in that genre, and enjoys it.
  • “Ask questions first” — talk with the writer about the work and what stage it’s in. Find out what the writer’s expectations are, and what the writer wants to know about the book you’d critique for her.
  • “React with your head, heart, and pen (or comment button)” — what every writer wants to know about their work is this: what’s it like to read it when you haven’t written it? Be kind. Be generous with feedback.
  • “Don’t hold back on the compliments” — Noting what the writer has done well is just as important as what the problems might be with the writing.
  • “Be kind but straightforward” — or in another word, be professional. Be honest in your assessment. Say what you mean and move on. And be respectful of the work.
  • “Remember, it’s not your work” — I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of this when I start to think about how I’d change what I’m reading. That’s not my job. My job is to ask questions about what I don’t think works, point out problems, and help the writer see what I see. Then trust the writer to do what will be right for her characters and story and leave it.

Lately, I’ve been writing more book reviews than doing critiques. What’s the difference, you might ask? Well, there are some very big differences, starting with the fact that book reviews are done for finished and published books, and critiques are done on manuscripts that could go through several more drafts before they’re ready to publish. The approach for each is different: for a critique, I’m thinking about the writing and how to help the writer see its potential as well as its problems, while for a book review I’m trying to answer the question: would I recommend this book and why? Every time I finish a book and sit down to write a review, I’m thinking about the book’s strengths and weaknesses, what’s unusual about it, what I really disliked as well as loved about it. What was the experience of reading this book like? It’s rare that I find nothing to recommend about a book, actually (and I feel much the same about classical music), but there are two aspects that can make or break a book for me, i.e. the characters and the use of language, or just how easy is this writing to read?

Characters: I don’t have to adore all the characters. In fact, I expect not to like the antagonist, although I do hope to find him or her interesting in some way. I think of George Warleggan in the Poldark series, for example. I cannot stand this character but at the same time he fascinates me — I want to know why he does what he does, and I want to know how he’ll end up. He is not an evil person, just a selfish narcissist who has felt hurt and slighted in the past by the Poldark family. But what he does often turns out to be evil in its results. Characters need to be real to me, as if I could invite them for coffee and a chat some afternoon, with plausible motivations, thoughts, behavior, and reactions to the world of the story.

Language: Word choice, syntax, paragraph construction, and dialogue all affect the ease of reading and establish a writer’s “voice.” Right now, I’m reading a novel by Jennifer Lash entitled Blood Ties. Lash’s language is dense which makes for slow reading. In fact, her writing style reminds me a lot of Virginia Woolf. I continue to read because her word choice, her English usage, is so rich and colorful. It’s a literary novel. Such writing in a thriller would probably hurt the pace and suspense of the story that belong in a thriller. How a writer uses language can challenge a reader or make it a smooth, easy ride.

Book reviews are not the same as book critiques, even though both are about reading a book with a critical eye.  Both can be valuable to a writer for improving the writing of future books. And doing either one can also be helpful in being a better writer.

Is Anyone Out There?

Photo: NASA

One of my lifelong interests is stars, planets, galaxies, and everything about them. Today, I saw an article about seeing the light from galaxies that were formed over 3 billion years ago. They are so far away from us, it has taken 3 billion years for their light to reach us. Distance in the universe often confounds my imagination. I was thinking, in response to that article, that the blinking lights in the night sky that have always fascinated me are not necessarily single stars but probably entire galaxies. Those tiny blinking lights. Does sentient life in those tiny blinking lights ever look to their sky and see us?

As a writer, I often feel like a tiny blinking light in a massively gigantic universe, and I’ve struggled to find how to be inviting as a writer and encourage readers to read my stories. After all, as a tiny blinking light I am most likely an entire galaxy of planets, stars, black holes, and stardust. And I’m really not 3 billion years away, I’m right here. My stories are right here, too. But how would I ever know if anyone came to visit?

Is anyone out there?

Hope Clark, in her Funds for Writers newsletter several weeks ago, wrote about her perception that nobody is reading anymore. She has that perception because she’s not receiving the responses that she used to receive — at her blog, via email, with book reviews. If people are reading, she’s concluded, they’ve stopped “talking” about it.

Photo: Marina Shemesh

She has a point, but I’m not certain that I agree completely. It’s only been in the last 10 years or so that I’ve considered responding to an author about a book of theirs I’d read. Before that, I read and read, and it never occurred to me to try to reach out to an author to let him or her know how much I enjoyed their work. Now that I’m an author myself, I know how it feels to read a person’s review of my work, or to have a reader comment here, or to send me an email. It’s wonderful to know that my work has been read. Like most writers, I don’t like writing and sending my stories into the black hole at the center of our galaxy and never knowing what happened. Up until 10 years ago, though, I would have said isn’t that to be expected?

Now, we have so many ways to connect with people whether or not they are strangers.  One of the things that I learned over 10 years ago — and it made me want to find a cave somewhere in which to write — was that writers must be accessible in some way to publicize their writing. Traditional publishers expect writers to market their work as well. So writers need websites and/or blogs. They need author pages at all the places online where books are sold, and they need to be an active presence on GoodReads, Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media they can find time to join and be a presence on. It exhausts me just thinking about it.

One of the things I decided to do, though, to be a presence as a writer is to write reviews of books I’ve been reading. I read voraciously — new and old books, fiction, nonfiction, good and bad. I post my reviews at GoodReads, and then if the book is relatively new, I try to also post the review where others will see it and can immediately buy it, like Amazon and B&N. What a difference it would make if all readers took a half hour (or less) after reading a book and reviewed it online? It’s not a big deal, either, and doesn’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning review. Just what you thought of the book and why, and if you’d recommend it or not.

Writers will know then that their work hasn’t disappeared down a black hole, and they are not alone, a tiny blinking light far away in a black sky.

To Review or Not To Review?

Photo: Marina Shemesh

Photo: Marina Shemesh

I love to read.  I’ve loved books since before I started school, and my parents were reading to me.  My favorite book back then was Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit.  I gave it a five-star review by requesting it every time anyone offered to read to me.  The truth is, we review things all the time — restaurants, movies, books, plays, jobs, bosses, politicians, everything and anyone.  Usually verbally, but there are those who commit their thoughts to paper (or the computer screen).

As a writer, and especially now as a published writer, I’m occasionally asked to write a review of a novel, or a fellow writer will suggest reciprocal reviews.  It sounds like a good idea, reciprocal reviews.  The one thing to remember about them, or anytime a writer reviews a book for pay or exchange of services, it’s absolutely necessary to include a disclaimer in the review that identifies the review as for pay or reciprocal.  Commercial reviews, i.e. those that appear in newspapers or magazines, do not need this disclaimer, only reviews by consumers. And if there’s no pay or no reciprocity?  No disclaimer necessary.

CCY_PercevalsSecretCvr_FNL-960x1280.131107To review or not to review?  As a writer, I’d love for everyone who reads Perceval’s Secret to write a review at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or on their own blogs.  Get the word out there!  Let people know that it’s fun, compelling and worth the read!  But of course, the reality is that most people don’t feel qualified to write a review (even though any thoughtful reader is) so they don’t write even a short review.  They don’t understand just how important book reviews are for the promotion and sales of a novel.  Especially for a writer like me who hasn’t already had a bestseller and has an audience just waiting for the next book.  Word of mouth is a powerful force, and book reviews are a part of that kind of promotion.  Think of a book review as what you’d tell your friends about the book when you’re having a beer at the neighborhood pub.

What about me?  Do I write reviews?  Yes, I’ve been working hard during the last year to get into the habit of writing a review of each book I read.  I post the reviews at Goodreads and usually Amazon or the store where I bought the book.  And I’ve agreed to do two reciprocal reviews.  The first, I’m embarrassed to say, I have yet to do.  I bought the novel and it sits on my Kindle, and that’s the problem.  I prefer printed, hard copy books, usually paperbacks, and if I buy a Kindle edition, it takes me a long time to read it.  I’ve been catching up on my reviewing “obligations,” i.e. reviewing books of writers I know and these are not reciprocal or even requested of me.  I just want to support those writers.  So I fully intend to honor my obligation to my first reciprocal review agreement, and I’ve set myself a deadline of August 31.

The second reciprocal review went in an unexpected direction.  I bought the Kindle edition and read the fantasy novel immediately, fully expecting that its author was going to read Perceval’s Secret immediately and review it at Amazon.  I think I sent him a free copy of the novel, too, to review.  He did not offer to send me a free copy of his book.  When I finished his book, I wrote the review and posted it at Amazon and Goodreads, and I sent him an e-mail alerting him to the review.  It wasn’t a super, glowing, positive review, however.  I had a couple problems with characters although overall I enjoyed the story and gave it four stars.  And guess what?  To date, I have yet to see a review of Perceval’s Secret written by that author.  I am not pleased.

But then, I have yet to do the first reciprocal review, so who am I to judge?  This is the risk.  People won’t follow through on their agreements.  So what’s a writer to do?  Maybe try to make it easier on readers to write a review?

Here are some questions to answer when writing a book review:

  • How did you come to read this particular book? (Maybe you love the genre, it was recommended by a friend, you liked the cover, etc.)
  • What did you like about this book? (genre, atmosphere/tone, main character, secondary characters, setting, story, character-driven action, dialogue, language style, plot-driven action)
  • What did you dislike about this book?
  • Would you recommend this book to other readers?

The next time you read a book you love, please help out the author and write a review!

Being an Author: Readers

Photo: Marina Shemesh

Photo: Marina Shemesh

Now that Perceval’s Secret has been on sale at Amazon, B&N and Kobo for seven months, i.e. published, I am finally feeling that I have published a novel. Last April, I even thought that I was still working on the publication process and had to remind myself that it was done.  It’s a strange feeling, actually. Writing a blog has helped me deal with the feeling of exposure that sending a piece of writing into the world can create.  I’ve been doing that for seven years now and I’m acclimated to a certain extent.  I also write for Classical MPR online, and that has added to my feeling of exposure but thankfully in a good way.

Being an author can mean different things to different people, I guess.  To me, it means that I’ve written a work of fiction that’s published. It’s now available for people to buy and read.  Often people who are complete strangers.  A few have written reviews at Amazon for the novel, and I am ecstatic to hear what they think of the book and that they enjoyed it.  I think it’s important for authors to hear from readers — a meeting of minds over a work of fiction.

But what about when readers don’t respond in some way?  It’s understandable to me that readers who don’t know the author might remain silent, which is the reason I’m thrilled when a stranger writes a review.  What has been a surprise is my reaction to the silence of readers I know, people I know have bought the book — they’ve told me — but then say nothing after they’ve read it.  Did they hate it that much?

My insecurities come gushing out.  Why hasn’t so-and-so told me what she thought?  Why hasn’t this relative responded or written a review?  Why haven’t other relatives bought and read the book?  I need to take a deep breath, let it out, take another deep breath, and let it out.  Breathing is an amazing defense against the ego’s chaotic sensitivities.

Credit: Deepak Nanda/Wikipedia.org

Credit: Deepak Nanda/Wikipedia.org

I remind myself that I know not everyone will like Evan’s story. Some people won’t like being immersed in the classical music world, or read about PTSD and its effects on a person’s life when it’s untreated, or like Evan’s dilemma and his way of dealing with it. Maybe some people just won’t like my writing. It’s impossible to please everyone, but I would hope that people will try the book before making any kind of judgement or forming an opinion.

Then I remind myself that no one is required to communicate with an author with a response to the author’s book.  Even the people I know personally.

The best way to move away from all this ego chaos is to write. I write in a journal daily. I write my blogs. I write e-mails.  I write promotional materials for the book.  Slowly, I write my way back to fiction. My current projects are short form: a short story entitled The Negligee that is finished and only needs some tweaking, and a short story that I’ve begun writing. Eventually, once I’ve completed shorter writing projects, I’ll begin work on Perceval’s Shadow, the second book in the series. Its first draft is done, but needs a lot of work.

No matter what anyone thinks about me or my writing, I shall write.  Once I have this mantra back into my mind, I’m fine.  The ego quiets down so I can give it something else to preoccupy it while my imagination comes out to play. So, as much as I’d love to hear from readers and what they think of Perceval’s Secret, it is not essential to my writing life.


Perceval’s Secret is still on sale at Amazon, B&N, and Kobo for $2.99.  Now would be a good time to buy your copy if you haven’t already.  I’ll be raising the price on January 1. Or take a shot at guessing the mystery element in the book’s cover design to win a free book! (See details under the “Free Book!” tab)  And if you’d like to write a review to let other readers know what you thought about the novel, that would be grand, and I thank you for it….

Update: July 26, 2014

It’s been over six months since my last update about my writing life, so time for another.  Those of you who have been following me during that time know that it’s been busy, busy, busy.  Crazy busy!  I’m looking forward to my “vacation” that begins in about ten days.  I will not be working for at least two weeks, but I will return!  Without further ado:

Designed by Christopher Bohnet, xt4, inc.

Designed by Christopher Bohnet, xt4, inc.

Perceval Novels:  Of course, the BIG accomplishment here is the e-publication of my first novel, Perceval’s Secret, at Amazon Kindle Store, Barnes & Noble Nook Store, and Kobo International (for my friends in other countries).  The novel has two reviews at Amazon, good ones, too.  Sales in the first four months have been quite slow despite enthusiastic response to the marketing.  I want to scream to the world — hey!  It’s a really, really good book and a fast read!  Give it a try!  The e-book format is just fine.

My next chore will be to set up a crowdsource funding project at Indiegogo (I did one at Kickstarter last fall, if you remember, to help pay the production and publication costs, that wasn’t successful) to help me pay the production and marketing bills.  I’ve been tracking the costs so this time I’ll know exactly what I need.

Marketing:  Marketing and promotion for Perceval’s Secret has consumed most of my time.  I mailed 1100 postcards to orchestra musicians early June, and I’ve been handing out the postcards to anyone I meet (almost).  I’ve left piles at doctor offices, my dentist, my hair stylist, and at the large annual science fiction and fantasy convention, Convergence.  I continue to carry postcards with me to leave wherever I can.

Author Buzz promotion is in full swing.  The first part was a book giveaway contest that brought a good response.  Five happy readers received free copies of the novel, as well as one book club in South Carolina.  The Bookmovement.com campaign was changed from a book giveaway to a banner ad on the home page of their website for a week.  There was some concern that book clubs wouldn’t be that interested in an e-book novel.  Well, the book club in South Carolina was very interested and all members had e-readers.  I saw the Kindle Nation promotion and my novel was the first on the list.  Actually, Amazon has been promoting Perceval’s Secret on its own, sending out e-mails to people and every time my novel is at the top of the list!  Then there’s the “Summer Buzz” ad campaign that began this past Monday.  Ads for my novel will run on various book blogs and websites for the next month.

I am working slowly on getting more book reviews at a variety of online locations.  I continue to utilize social media also to spread the word about the book.  I’ve been quite surprised by how much time social media takes up, and I’m only focused on four sites.  I can’t imagine the time commitment for more than four sites.

Short Stories:  I have not had any time to work on short stories.  As usual, I continue to get ideas for more stories, and I write down the ideas to flesh them out at a later date.  I have continued to collect markets for the short stories ready to send out, and this fall I plan to start sending them out again.  If you haven’t read them yet, they are available at Wattpad.  The Light Chamber is here.  The Negligee is here.  Please rate them as you see them and leave comments!

Essays:  My monthly Word Power column continues in the Minnesota Mensagenda, and has expanded to included a word-find puzzle four times this year.  I love creating the puzzles.  If there were a job creating those puzzles that I could do as a day job to pay my bills, I’d be one happy camper.  Of course, if my writing brought in more money, that’d be especially wonderful too! (smile)

a_readers_advice_to_writers-460x307Paid Gigs:  The wonderful surprise in the last few months was being approached by a producer at ClassicalMPR to write for their website.  I’ve written four essays for them so far, and they’ve now given me an annual contract so I’ll be doing even more in the future.  My latest was just published at the website yesterday and is here. 

Yager Editing Services:  My freelance editing and typing business has been on hold but I plan to finish setting up the website after my “vacation” and start looking for business.  I’ll announce here when the website is open for business.

The Successful Patient:  I’m writing this nonfiction book/memoir under my pen name, Gina Hunter.  Work stopped when the e-publication project took flight.  It doesn’t look like I’ll be working on this project this year except for the Successful Patient blog posts that I publish at Eyes on Life.

Presentations/The Successful Patient: I gave a wonderfully successful presentation based on material from The Successful Patient at the CCFA IBD Education Conference this past May in St. Paul, MN.  I was quite pleased to observe attendees writing notes as I spoke and we had a lively Q&A at the end.  I also participated in a panel about supporting a loved one with IBD and that was really interesting.  Patient advocacy is an element of chronic illness management that is one of my causes.  I have no presentations scheduled for the rest of this year, but I’m hoping to do more next year.

The Eyes on Life Commentary Blog:  This nonfiction commentary blog continues a steady build in audience.  Popular posts in the last six months again involved the Minnesota Orchestral Association and nonprofit governance, and just about anything concerning raising boys or male behavior.  As with the memoir, The Successful Patient, I write this blog under the pen name Gina Hunter, and it can be found here.

The Anatomy of Perceval Blog:  I continue to write here once a week about fiction, the Perceval novels, classical music, movies and book reviews, and anything else related to writing, especially fiction.  Watch for updates here about  Perceval’s Secret and the beginning of work on the second novel in the series.

Job Search: I will need to find at least a part-time job once I’m back from my “vacation.”  As much as I’d love for my writing and editing endeavors to support me, I cannot count on that.  I am satisfied, however, that I’ve been working my butt off to find ways for my writing and editing skills to bring in the money.

As you might guess, my reading hasn’t been as active as I’d like.  I’ve been working my way through the biography of the conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski since the beginning of the year.  I’m almost finished.  I’ve joined Goodreads (friend me if you’re there!), and this will either make me intensely guilty that I’m not reading and reviewing more books, or will be just the incentive I need.

I’ve mentioned before here that I will be having major surgery soon, and that is my “vacation” time.  I will not be able to work for a while, but I hope to do a lot of reading.  I plan to post here next Saturday but then will be on hiatus for at least two weeks.  Please hang in there with me!  Thank you.

cute-cat-picture-wallpaper by jasonlefkowitz.net