Friday, January 28, 2011

What Reviewing Books Can Teach a Writer

I started reviewing books last year for Sacramento Book Review, and it has been one of the more pleasurable experiences in my life for several reasons. Three stand out.

For one thing, I get to discover some of the latest books being released. Don't all the writers, publishers, editors, teachers, etc. advise us to read as much as possible? This makes it possible to both read the latest books and feel virtuous as I indulge myself in what I've come to think of as book feasts.

More importantly, I have to analyze the books I read, and not merely read for entertainment. I have to think in terms of why a book does or does not satisfy, and in terms of plot, character, setting, and theme. I have think of plot structure in terms of tension, arc, and resolution, for scenes, chapters, and the whole book. I have to notice dialogue, imagery, and telling details and how they are rendered. In fact, reading a book with the idea of reviewing it is one of the best writing exercises I know. An added bonus is that the skills you sharpen in a review carry over to reading your own work. Among other things, reviewing books teaches you to read like an editor.

Which brings me to my third reason: Reviewing books has given me real perspective on decisions of editors and agents. As a reviewer, I've read books that are "good", "very good", "wonderful", and "outstanding". I've read books that make me eagerly await the next one by the same author. But, I've also read a few duds. There is good reason reputable agents and editors don't take on submissions riddled with poor grammar, poor spelling, poor punctuation, a rushed ending, etc. And, if you want the best writing future for yourself, you won't want to settle for those who will. It goes beyond mere grammar rules. Writing well takes patience. It's revising and polishing that brings about the kind of story their guidelines ask you to follow.

In my own case, sometimes I get "antsy" and would just like to be done with a WIP. But then I put it away, and when I take it up again, I see where it needs more attention, and I realize: "I don't want to send it out this way." (And I don't want to see it published this way either.) More and more, when revising after critique buddies have given feedback, I find myself asking, "How would an agent see this?" "How would an editor see this?" After all, I won't be at their side, explaining what I'm trying to convey here. And they won't have been through this piece with me three or four times and know where I'm going with it. They have to get it from the first read.

How about you? Have you sometimes been too eager to be published? Are you ever tempted to send work in before it's ready? Do you ever have an "aha" moment when you see your work through an editor's eyes? Please share your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

I can definitely see how reviewing can help a writer write better! What a great experience it sounds like this is for you.

Yes, I have in the past been way to eager to send something out. Now I'm much more cautious. Proofreading takes TIME, and we need to take the time to do it! There's nothing more annoying to me in some of the self-published books I've been reading lately than typos, words left out, and sometimes simply sloppy grammar and punctuation!

I'm glad you like my snow poem on my post today. Thanks for commenting. Yes, it was published a number of years ago in Phoebe: The George Mason Review (George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia; the literary journal is still actively publishing).

Have a wonderful weekend!
Ann Best, Author

Angelica R. Jackson said...

It's interesting that you've posted about writing reviews--it was quite the topic on twitter/kidlit the other day. Here's one person's take on it:

Carrie said...

Yes! I have put things out there before they were ready because I really, really wanted them to be ready and OFF MY DESK! I got exactly the feedback I deserved: not there yet. I'm not sending anything out again until I am double sure that it's the best I can do.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Ann, yes, it IS a wonderful experience. Today I reviewed a book that was so outstanding I wanted to sing with happiness at the opportunity to read it and review it. Your poem was just exquisite, by the way, and if anyone stumbles onto my blog and these comments, please click on Ann's picture and go straight to her site and read it.

Angelica, I did read many of the comments your site references regarding how free authors are to be book reviewers. But, as I commented on about two or three sites, 1. one has to be both fair and honest when reviewing (like... don't trash: every book has something in its favor even when the shortcomings are clearly what they are, but be honest about the shortcomings). And, 2. I doubt that a writer will want to submit to an agent or publisher who publishes books the writer doesn't admire or respect. So one shouldn't get hung up on the threat of consequences for being honest. Agents are right to defend their clients' work (would you want one who didn't defend yours?). BUT: As all the guidelines say, one way or another, "please read our lists and make sure we are a good fit for you." I can't imagine submitting to an agent whose authors I didn't want to keep company with, can you?

Carrie, Yes, I've done that too. Which is one reason I'm happy to be reviewing books. It certainly has brought so much advice home to me!

penandpaints said...

Hi Elizabeth
I used to be way to eager to submit my writing, I once sent a synopsis and first three chapters of a novel I had nowhere near finished! Thank goodness I didn't get a request to see the rest!
Needless to say, I take muuch more time these days to make sure everything is up-to-scratch, Now, I'm maybe a bit too wary and nothing ever seems polished enough!
As for reading, I try to read much more lately because I'm quite sure it makes a better writer!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

penandpaints: I did the same thing once: I sent publishing company early chapters of a book when I hadn't really worked out the middle or the end. Well, they liked it and requested to see the whole thing! I had just started a long-term substitute teaching job. So every evening I was rushing home to try and figure out the next chapter and the next (while my super nice husband took care of cooking and dishes). I finally sent them a really horrible product, and (this was about twenty years ago) they actually took the time to read it and pass it around and critique it for me (while turning it down, of course.) A writer could never be that lucky these days. I really learned my lesson!

Kenda Turner said...

No matter how many times I've queried, when I look over the mss again for the next submission, I always find something else to "fix." When does the writing stop?!

But more and more, instead of asking how will an agent/editor see this, I find myself asking what will the child who will eventually read this see it. My theme for the year is "visualize"--not only the character's story but the child whose nose is in the book!

Great post :-)

alexia said...

Great point! Since I've become serious about writing, when I find a book I love I try to analyze it and figure out what is so great about it. It does help to look at it from that perspective.

henya said...

I have been eager with my first book. But I've learned the hard way. With my second novel (almost finished), I am taming the "eager" beast.

Thanks for a great blog!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Kenda, I agree that the primary audience is the young person who will read the work and hopefully love it. And that's who I keep in mind when I write the first couple of drafts. It's only after that that I go back and look for the darlings that have to be done away with, the over explanation of what the reader would have figured out by then; areas of confusion; areas that could be strengthened, etc. That's when it's helpful to read other books and figure out why you either loved them or put them down and somehow never returned to them.

Hi, Henya, thats for following me. Glad you enjoyed the post. I think we all learn the hard way. :-)

Kimberly said...

What a great way to think about reviewing other books.

I've definitely sent things before they were really ready. I thought my first story was finished, boy did I learn a lot on that one.

Faith said...

That's why I review, too! So I can have a better "other side" perspective. I also was on staff for 'Flash Me Magazine' for a year before they went on hiatus, and that gave me an even deeper look at the other side. I think it makes me a lot more careful about sending things out, though there does come a point when you have to stop fixing and just let it go :)

Talli Roland said...

Wonderful post, and so true. Reviewing books makes you think about what's important to the reader. I've had some great moments seeing things through a reviewer's eyes.

Anonymous said...

A writer worth publishing has all the tools she has acquired through education, and through reading classic and commercial literature. She also must have talent. Amateur writers lack training or talent or both. Some like David Foster Wallace are just geniuses:


Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Kimberly, yes, I know the experience! :-(

Hi, Talli and Faith, thanks for following me. It IS a different experience, seeing through a reviewer's eyes. You have that "aha" feeling. ("Oh. Now I know why...")

BTW, Faith, I had a flash fiction published in Flash Me Magazine, in 2004: "Blackjack". Were you one of the editors then?

Hello, Anonymous. I certainly agree one must have talent. All the other stuff just helps to polish it up.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Elizabeth..I am in sync with you. Since I started reviewing books I too have noticed that I have become extra critical with my work. I have started to think like an editor. Reviewing a book is indeed the best writing exercise one can think of and one gets the chance to read all kinds of books.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Rachna, good to hear from you. Equally important, I think, would be the classes on writing that you are teaching. I'm sure it's made you much more aware of what makes writing work. Hope the teaching and writing both are going well. I finished Imogene (this draft) yesterday! Also, in a few days, a special award will be going to you. I'll let you know when. :-)