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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Workshop Wednesday - Writing Reviews

Look at that - I'm late for my first day of the new series. Ugh. I'm so embarrassed! I've been working like crazy on God Love Her and time got away from me yesterday. And it wasn't like I was tired or anything. Nope. I can't see any reason why I would have had some champagne the night before. Can't think of any reason at all...

So anyway, welcome to the new year, and my new Workshop Wednesday series. I hope you'll enjoy - or at least find interesting - the writing tips, prompts, and candid discussions. Some writers blog writing advice under the caption that they have expertise. I'll be the first to admit that I have no such claim. Writing is such a subjective, creative endeavor, that to think any one person holds the "secrets," or "keys" is just...silly. My goal is to share some of what I've learned along the way, and talk about what works for me; and I want to talk about some more practical aspects of writing that can help in day-to-day situations.

Ready? Let's jump in.

Writing Reviews

How often do you leave a review for a book or movie online? I'll be the first to admit, I don't do it very often. But whether it's Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, iTunes...there's a chance on nearly every website to rate and write a review for the entertainment you buy. These are the opinions of real readers and viewers and listeners, not the jaded quips of professional critics. These are the opinions that help others decide if this book or movie is right for them. Rating a product and leaving a review are also two of the best ways to show love and support to the writers who've poured months' worth of blood, sweat, and tears into a product. It's always for the fans, and reviews are a way fans can give back and encourage.

Reviews come in varieties: gushing, glowing, positive, negative, and downright hateful. Some are full of spoilers. Some are paragraphs long, and others are a few concise lines. What to do? I say, above all, be honest, and be proud of what you love. This is in no way a tutorial, but here are my personal guidelines for review writing.

Number One: "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." At twenty-six, I still lean on Thumper's mother's wisdom. If it ain't broke, right? I don't write hateful reviews. If I hate something, I just don't talk about it. I usually don't read it to begin with if I can tell from an excerpt I'm not going to like it. It's not my place to tell everyone how terrible I think something is. I keep my dislikes to myself.

Star Ratings: I use star ratings to gauge how much I enjoyed something. 5 if I loved it, regardless of genre or artistry. On the Goodreads scale, 5 stars is "It was amazing!"

If I couldn't put it down, couldn't look away, smiled and laughed and gasped throughout, it's getting 5 stars. Most books hit at a 3 or 4 for me. And if I would give it 1 or 2 stars, again, I don't rate it. I guess I'm pretty lenient. For instance, the new Hobbit is catching flak for deviating from the book, but I still enjoyed the heck out of it. 4 stars from me.

Composing the Review: I always start with an overall impression. I try not to summarize too heavily, but I like to mention the tense and POV. I then like to say something positive. I try to write negatives, or sticking points, in as polite a way as possible. And I try to give a few specifics that I really enjoyed about the way the author writes. Keep it clean, I say. Here's a review I wrote for Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos on Goodreads:

Touching and character-driven, “Love Walked In” is narrated by leading ladies Cornelia Brown (in first person) and Clare Hobbs (in third person). It explores both romantic, and parental love in a suitably dramatic narrative full of character.

Cornelia is likable from line one; she’s self-deprecating, sweet, and honest, and unlike most literary figures, has neither traumatic childhood nor closet full of skeletons. Her life – unremarkable on the surface as she serves coffee post-grad – is punctuated by her colorful, detailed view of everyone around her. Crossing paths with eleven-year-old Clare proves life-altering for both of them, especially once Cornelia realizes how badly Clare needs a real adult in her life.

While certain plot points were a bit “iffy” – Teo’s marriage, for instance, seems unlikely – the writing is rich and textured. Lyrical and witty in turns, the prose inspired me to pick the book back up for a second read. The story is, overall, touching and rewarding, if not a bit bittersweet. It was a very enjoyable read.

I’d recommend it for readers who enjoy women’s fiction, literary fiction, or a character-driven love story.

And for Faithful Place by Tana French:

I’m such a fan of Tana French and this is my favorite of hers yet.

I love Frank Mackey – for all the ways he insists that he’s escaped the black hole of crazy that is his family, his childhood street, it’s all the little things he won’t admit to himself that help the reader come to realize how deeply wounded he is by the family and street he refuses to claim. The inside of his head is an odd juxtaposition of nostalgia and contempt for the place that raised him, a reality that strikes a true chord.

French is a master of first person tense – a technique that can so easily make a story more superficial, but that only serves to make her novel more complex and suspenseful.

This book stayed with me for weeks. Faithful Place felt real – dirty and homey and alive in its imperfection – and Frank’s flashbacks about Rosie were touching and haunting. All the things Frank never says add up to an emotional sucker punch that’s better left subtle: “I held out my hands to her and she matched her warm palms against mine, and when our fingers folded together and I pulled her towards me I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe my luck.”

The ending killed me. This book is one of my all-time favorites, easily.

One of my goals this year is to write more reviews. I like supporting my favorites whenever I can. I don't ever want to be one of those writers who try to sound cultured by trashing books and movies. Those sorts of comments never help anyone. But thoughtful, heartfelt feedback is a great way to say "thank you," and I want to make a real effort to do so more often.

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