Writing a Constructive Review

Writing a Constructive Review

There comes a time in every writer’s life when a fellow writer approaches and asks:

“Will you write a review for my book for my website or back cover?”

“Will you write a review for my book on Amazon or Barnes and Noble?”

“Would you “like” my book on Amazon or Barnes and Noble?”

“Would you “like” my book on Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, et al?”

What do you do?  On a number of online discussions, I’ve seen many requests for “likes” and many responses in both negative and positive.  Here’s what I do.

First, I decide if I want to read the book or not.  Except for rare cases (see below) I won’t write a review unless I’ve read the book.  If I agree to read, it’s with the caveat that I will try to get to it as soon as I can, particularly if I’m reading another book and have a top ten list of books in line.  If I don’t want to read it, however, I’ll be honest and say that I’m not the right person to write a review since I usually don’t read    . . .  name your genre: horror, sci fi, non-fiction, etc.

For those books I do wind up reading and don’t like, I think about the positives and begin with those:

“Great atmosphere”

“Spunky characters”

“Vivid setting”

“Provocative premise for the book.”

Every book has good qualities.  Really.  Find them.  Give that writer positive, encouraging feedback.

If the writer asks you to post a review on Amazon and you seriously don’t like it, I would be honest and say I can only give it two stars because:

“The writing is inconsistent”

“The characters are rather wooden”

“The setting is hard to visualize”

This might open the door for more conversation about how to improve the book– in your opinion, of course, which could be a good thing for both parties.  And, like in critique groups, both writers come away with something valuable.

I welcome your feedback.

Writers Are Reviewers Too

Writers Are Reviewers Too

I’m as guilty as the next person.  I read a lot of books, fiction and non-fiction.  I don’t often write reviews.  Yet I complain that I don’t get a lot of reviews on the books I write.  So, what’s going on?

I decided to examine the reasons why I don’t write book reviews so I can forgive those who don’t write reviews for me.  Maybe.

  1. No time. Classic excuse but I don’t buy it.  It takes only a few minutes to go to Amazon or other book venues, click on “write review” and write a few lines.
  2. Didn’t like the book and don’t want to write a bad review. Well, I don’t have to write a “bad” review.  I can constructively criticize without tearing the book apart.  This does take a little bit more time, however.
  3. What can I say? It can be as simple as “I loved this book” or “I couldn’t put it down.”  It helps to add some details such as “I loved the main character’s fortitude in dealing with her sick mother,” etc.  This does help the writer plus future potential readers who are looking for stories with strong characters.
  4. I could compare the book with others that I’ve read, both positively and negatively. Readers like to know, “this thriller was equal to The DaVinci Code in tension,” or “this writer should leave romance to Diana Gabaldon.”

Then there are the star ratings.  I definitely use them in selecting books and find them helpful when there are a lot (maybe 50 or more) of similar ratings.  I rarely will select a book that has 100 2-stars, but I might consider 100 4-stars.

As a reader, I do look at reviews.  I am remiss, however, in writing book reviews.  Still, I wonder, why can’t I get more reviews?  At the very least, from my friends, who, by the way, you cannot count on to write reviews.  And perhaps, you shouldn’t.

After writing this, I am setting my own goal to write reviews on books I read in the future.  I’ll let you know how that goes.

I would love to hear your experiences.  Please share.

Conflict and Characters: A Winning Pair

Conflict and Characters: A Winning Pair

The dictionary defines conflict as “a struggle or an opposition.” Conflict comes from the Latin word for “striking,” but it isn’t always violent. Conflict can arise from opposing ideas.  But conflict, in any form, is essential for your story.

Characters must struggle with conflict, even in a simple form. If your character is torn between two different desires, say, marrying a woman who lives in Boston, but dying to take a job offer in Saskatoon (where is that, anyway?) he’s conflicted.

Conflict is key to your characters’ relationships.  If everyone gets along beautifully and there are no differences of opinions, arguments, debates, fisticuffs . . . no screaming, pulling hair, beating up or murdering someone, well, there’s not much conflict.  And not much interest.

Conflict can occur within a person’s mind.  This is the most interesting of conflicts and defines the character’s character, if you will.  When a character confronts another character, there is drama.  When a character confronts his/her own self, there is drama plus.  Now, the stage is set for future interactions with everyone he/she meets.

In The Triangle Murders, my protagonist, Frank Mead, is overwhelmingly conflicted about his relationship with his daughter, whom he feels he has abandoned after his wife’s suicide.  The daughter feels similarly.  However, circumstances bring the two of them together, creating not only conflict, but often tension.  There is great strain between them and the reader must wonder if it will ever be resolved.

Emotions play a large role in portraying a character’s conflict.  If a character keeps his emotions hidden, any conflicts he faces may stretch these hidden emotions to a breaking point.  As a reader we need to know what’s happening in his head–how this conflict is affecting him.  We also need to see how it manifests itself in his behavior.  Do serious money problems cause him to drink more, beat his wife and kids, or retreat further into himself?  How your character handles conflict makes him unique . . . or not.  Unique is better, by the way.

Conflict between characters can take many forms.  It can be job-related, school-related, socially-related, sexually-related, family-related, or other-related.  Often all.  However, too many conflicts in too many places can cause the reader to get worn out.  Give your character, even a cranky one, at least one amiable relationships, even if it’s with another cranky character, please, or we won’t like him very much.

I like to find new ways to help my characters resolve their conflicts.  For instance, in Frank’s case above, he enlists his daughter’s help to solve an ancient murder.  They form a tentative truce to accomplish this, which may, or may not, last into another book.

My advice is to maximize the use of conflict in your story.  It is a great tool to keep readers turning the page.

As always, I welcome your feedback.

Good Grief, Bad Grief

Good Grief, Bad Grief

Emotional upheavals can translate to great writing

I’ve had a rather tumultuous week since I returned from Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks.  I started out high on beauty and serenity, natural landscapes and wildlife.  I was calm, tranquil, close to meditative.

Then my sweet dog of thirteen and a half years passed away.  It was downhill from there.

You know that feeling of being gut-punched, but you weren’t?  Of having your throat close up but you’re not sick?  Of crying during a comedy?  Of laughing during a tragic drama?  High one minute, low the next? Forgetting why you walked into a room?  Not feeling particularly hungry one minute, but ravenous the next?  In the words of C.S. Lewis:

“Grief … gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.”
This is grief.  Grief . . . at the loss of a loved one, human or animal, or even the loss of a job, a car, a house.  Not pleasant.  Still, for writers, it can give us that added insight into the emotional underlay of our characters.  Grief, or other intense emotions, like anger, can provide that extra dimension to boost ordinary characters into incisive, sharp, exquisite personalities.  It’s hard to write what you can’t feel, or what you haven’t ever felt.

Actors practice getting into character by living or reliving these emotions and translating them into behaviors.  Screaming, crying, yanking their hair out, pounding the table, running away or simply sleeping.  So many ways to act out grief.

Writers must translate those same emotions into the written word.  I encourage you to take these emotions and render them to words, then to sentences and scenes.  How have your own experiences of these sensations, like grief, helped you bring your characters to life?

Experiences Make You a Better Writer

Experiences Make You a Better Writer

It was three in the morning.  A slight tremor shook the windows.   The doors began to rattle in their frames.  The bed seemed to move.  Now the windows were banging against the shutters and a strange howling sounded in the air.

I leaped up and ran to the French doors of our room at the Hotel Tramontano in Sorrento, Italy.  I knew what was happening.  Mt. Vesuvius was erupting, just as it did in 79 AD, when it brought Pompeii and Herculaneum to its knees.  What a story!

I threw open the doors and peered through a curtain of mist, across the Bay of Naples to the majestic volcano. Nothing.  Not a wisp of smoke nor a glow of lava trails.  I was peculiarly disappointed.

My husband stepped outside to join me on the veranda.  He had just called the front desk.  “Just a strong wind.”  Combined with old windows and doors and perhaps my sub-conscious wish to be Pliny the Younger and witness the infamous eruption.  Nothing.  Bummer.

Earlier this same day we had traveled by train from Naples and my husband had been pickpocketed.   Now, of course, Naples is the pickpocket capital of the world.  But how could that happen to us?  It only happens to others.  Well, we lost our credit cards and cash (fortunately, not our passports,) and spent hours on the phone with Visa when we arrived.  Nice folks.

Not an auspicious start to a holiday in Italy.  Maybe that was it.  Instead of a mystery, I’d write a travel book:  Misadventures in Italy.  Uh uh.  Stick to mysteries.  How about an artifact newly discovered, buried under layers of excavation in Pompeii.  A humerus bone that was only two hundred years old.  How could it possibly be buried here along with remains almost 2,000 years old?  Whose bone was it?  A female, young, small, delicate with a knife wound slicing across the bone?  Maybe a swath of fabric is found near the bone.  How old could the material be?  What about a tool or a bowl or utensil nearby?

Clues.   Ahhh.  More, more.

And what about Pliny, the Younger and Pliny the Elder?  The life and times of Pompeiins, Napolitanos, Herculaneum— uh, ers, ites?  People from Herculaneum.  What a backdrop for a historical mystery.  And forensics can help resolve the bone, fabric, bowl conundrum.  (Maybe the forensics expert was pickpocketed on his way to the crime scene?)

Whether I  write a mystery about Pompeii or not, the point is, so many of our experiences can be evolved into a full-fledged story with characters, events, descriptions, and rich background.  Those incidents in our lives that are memorable are often traumatic when we live through them.  Find the humor and spin them into a grand story.

I can laugh at the faux volcanic eruption of Vesuvius now.  Trust me, it wasn’t funny at the time.

A Jump-Start Outline

A Jump-Start Outline

For me, outlining is extremely important.  Mainly because a large part of the action in my mysteries take place in the past and have so darn many details, I can’t rely on my pea-brain to remember it all.  I begin with my “jump-start” outline.   Now, what the heck is that, you ask.  I made up the term so I can’t refer you to any book or manual.  Since there are two separate story lines in my books – past and present – I actually have two “jump-start” outlines.  But since both are very similar I combined them for today’s blog.

Modern (and Past) Story Line

  1. Broad overview of story, ie: Digital photographer searches for missing Van Gogh painting after her best friend is murdered (my last book.) The Past story line will be a bit different since this is where the story begins.

Expand this to a paragraph if you like, but no more for now.

  1. Characters: Snapshots of main characters, both protagonists and antagonists, to include physical description (so you can visualize them,) their likes, dislikes, what’s important to them . . . or not, education, occupation, you know, general stuff. Add in personality traits: stingy, obsessive, lazy, kooky.  Use bullet points.  They’ll grow organically as you write.
  1. Setting: Where does most of the plot take place? In my last book, Washington, D.C. and Paris, France.  Ooh la la.  Get it right – go visit, don’t just look at pictures.

Major conflicts, ie: Is the main character getting divorced, in love with a loser, always fighting with her boss, her mother, her sister? Are her relationships getting in the way of her job success? These may only come up occasionally and in usually in sub-plots.

  1. Ending: You may not always know this at the beginning, but at some point — early on –you do need to know what the ending will be.  As a caveat, I will say that I had the ending for one of my books and my editor suggested a completely different one.  I loved his idea, changed it and in doing so, ruined my follow-up book.  (You’ll have to read it and see.  Ha!)

With my “jump-start” outline I write a quick and dirty first draft.  At this point, I have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t as far as plot, characters, etc.  Now, I get into serious outlining.  More detail on all the above, and even a chapter by chapter outline.  What will happen next, next, next.

I better define the characters in terms of personality and interactions with each other.  I refine their conflicts.  I add details to the settings.

Then I start again.  Read the new draft out loud, cringe and re-write.  Test the chapters out in my critique group, cringe and re-write.  I don’t usually re-outline unless the book isn’t working as a whole.

Hopefully, that first “jump-start” is all I need.  Ideas welcome.