Tuesday, August 23, 2016

How to Write a Book Review

I write a lot of different things – articles, novels, textbooks, short stories – but the one thing I don’t write is book reviews. Why? Because I’m simply not qualified to write a book review. A book review is different from a comment or opinion. Opinion is subjective: I may like or dislike a book, a painting, or a song and not even be able to tell you why. That’s just how I feel about it and others may agree or disagree and none of us is right or wrong. That’s the very definition of art. But craft is different. Craft deals with technique; it is objective, not subjective, and there are standards by which performance can be measured. Was the singer off-key? Is the anatomy in the drawing incorrect? Is the book filled with grammatical errors? Those are objective and quantifiable qualities that can be judged.

However, in rare cases, a creator will put an artistic twist to his craft creating a hybrid that purposely breaks the rules of the art form changing objective craft into subjective art. Tiny Tim and his ukulele would have been a music teacher’s nightmare but his act became a freak success. Pablo Picasso's abstract art style challenged conventional forms of representation, such as perspective, which had been the standard since the Renaissance. Had he been an art student, his teachers would have flunked him. Poet e.e. cummings eschewed capitalization and would cavalierly disregard punctuation when it suited him. Arthur Rimbaud turned the world of poetry on its collective head. Edgar Allan Poe was a central figure of Romanticism, one of America's first short story authors, and regarded as the inventor of the detective fiction genre. Today he is an acclaimed writer read by every school child. Yet, he was never able to earn a decent living from his writing and died in poverty. When art and craft combine, the masses – including critics and reviewers – cannot always recognize the wheat from the chaff.

I don’t have the hubris to claim that ability so I do not choose to be a reviewer. Sure, I’ll offer my opinion on whether I like a song, a painting, or a book. But I don’t want to embarrass myself like my third grade classmate who gave his book report on George Orwell’s Animal Farm summing it up as a rather boring book about farm animals. I first read it when I was seven years old, and then again at age 15. The teenaged me discovered I was reading a completely different novel, a brilliant allegory about the Bolshevik Revolution. I was amazed at how perspective – acquired through maturity and life experience – could change one’s interpretation of an artistic work like a novel. How could I ever review a novel? All I might do is offer my limited perspective of how I viewed it through my life experience and educational background. I had no idea how the same words might resonate differently with someone else who had grown up in a completely different world or who read these same words through a prism of a much broader education then I had received. How much might I have been missing because I didn’t study history, linguistics, or philosophy? How many books might I have judged poorly because I only saw the farm animals and not the philosophical allegories that lay behind them? How many bad reviews might I have written based on my own shortcomings and not on any failings of the writer?

If you just want to comment on a book you've read or leave an opinion, then you should treat it like a third grade book report. Begin by listing the title, the author’s full name (make sure you spell it correctly), the genre, and a brief description or summary of the book, being careful not to give away any spoilers or the ending. You don’t want to spoil your audience’s pleasure in reading this book by ruining it for them. The whole idea of the book report (or review) is to pique your audience’s interest and entice them to read the book and form their own opinions. Conclude with your opinion but always acknowledge, whether you loved it or hated it, that this is merely your own opinion and you recognize other readers may or may not agree with you. Don’t state your opinion as fact. Let your audience come to their own conclusions.

To do that, help the audience find the book. List the ISBN: this is a unique identifying number for every book published. Think of it as a Social Security number for books. With that ISBN, any reader can walk into a bookstore and ask the store to order the book for them if they don’t have it on the shelf. They can search for that ISBN online and find sites that sell the book. Libraries can locate a book using the ISBN. Every edition of a book has its own unique ISBN, so you can immediately refer to an earlier or later printing, an annotated edition, or one using large type.

Tell your readers what formats the book is available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, EPUB, Audiobook, etc. Include a picture of the cover with a link to where they can buy copies. (If you’re making money when people click the link as an affiliate, include a disclaimer to reveal that). Add a link to the author’s Website or blog. If you wish, you can also note the publisher, the book’s dimensions, and the page count (or word count if it’s an ebook).

Now if you really want to write a book review, let’s turn to the  elements you should include in your review.
 1. Plot: Is it formulaic and cookie-cutter (”Save the Cat”) or original and creative? Is it hard to follow? Does it make sense? Are there subplots interwoven?
2. Characters: Are they well-defined? Are they 3-dimensional or do they come across as cardboard figures? Do they have individual personalities or could the dialogue between characters be interchangeable? Are these real people with human failings?
3. Dialogue: Does the dialogue fit each character? Does that sound like something a character with that personality and life experience would really say? Is the eight-year-old using a college-level vocabulary? Is the southern sharecropper suddenly extremely knowledgeable about commodities trading? Is the sociopath displaying empathy? Does the dialogue move the story along or is it merely filler, or worse, serving as an info dump? Is there an appropriate balance of dialogue versus exposition?
4. Pacing: Does the story flow smoothly? Are there action scenes to break up the monotony? Are there moments of suspense? Or does the story drag on like one long, boring monotone?

5. Theme: Does the work contain one or more themes? What are they and how are they represented? Is there a message within the story?
6. Symbolism: Is there an underlying meaning  to the author's tale (remember Animal Farm), or in the selection of character names? Often names will have symbolic meanings.
7. Avant-garde: Did the author break any established literature or writing rules or conventions? You may find this annoying and disconcerting because the author is doing something unexpected. The question is, Was this done on purpose, for effect, or because the writer was a novice who didn't know any better? A good writer always knows the rules and then sometimes goes on to break them on purpose. If that’s the case, don’t rush to judgment to hold a writer’s innovation and creativity against him or her. Personally, I’d rather a writer take chances, even if they don’t pan out quite the way the author wished, then to read the same boring cookie-cutter material.

8. Professionalism: Has the writer learned his or her craft? Here I’m talking about technique, not artistic vision. Is the writing style consistent? Does the author use foreshadowing, irony, symbolism, allusion, and metaphor? Does the author establish the setting for each scene or just launch into dialogue? Is the writing concise and crisp, or filled with redundancies and clichés? Does the author use simple declarative sentences, or multiple compound sentences and run-on sentences? Is there a proper balance of exposition and dialogue or does the author rely too heavily on one and not the other? While adverbs and adjectives are essential parts of speech, does the author overuse or misuse them? Is the prose overfilled with unnecessary details? Is the writing filled with exclamation marks? Does the writer properly use “said” for most of his dialogue attribution tags or does he amateurishly substitute anything but (e.g., implored, opined, or my favorite I caught once- ejaculated). Even better, does the writer use a beat of action in lieu of the tag? You can’t giggle, laugh, sigh, or smile spoken words; those are actions. The characters must say words, not smile them. Are there spelling, diction, grammar, or punctuation errors? In other words, was the editor out to lunch, or in the case of self-published novels, was there even an editor?

9. Layout: If it is a self-published book, is the layout professional? Are there unacceptable widows and orphans on the pages? Sufficient margins? Proper leading between lines? Readable type font and size? Proper formatting?
10. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Finally, what do you feel were the strengths of the book? Its weaknesses? Books are like people; none of them is perfect. They all have their strengths and weaknesses; their good points and their bad. The question is, when you add them up, is this person or book someone you would want to befriend or avoid?
11. Accuracy: Is your review factually accurate? The best way to look like an amateur reviewer is to get your facts wrong. I have had reviewers quote things that never appeared in my books; or confuse my main protagonist with someone else in such a way that it showed they hadn’t even read the book. In fact, I had one reviewer admit in the review he had never opened the book before he went on to review it. Another reviewer filmed a video book review: she held up the book to the camera, mispronounced the title, and flipped through the pages, presumably to show that it was, in fact, a real book— That was it. The entire review lasted nine seconds. I even had one reviewer who told me she had intended to leave a five-star review but cut it down to three stars because she thought my depiction of a torture chamber showed I must’ve been a terribly depraved and perverse individual to have dreamed up all those devices; I explained none of what offended her had come from my warped mind but rather from the Catholic Church during the Spanish Inquisition. I’m simply not that creative.

Here’s a final test. Get in touch with your old English teacher. (Never lose contact with your English teachers; they are the most valuable friends you may ever make as a writer). Give her your book review and ask her to grade it. If she gives it an “A”, post that sucker. Anything less, take it back to the drawing board and work on it. Not only will you end up posting a dynamite review, but you’ll learn how it feels to be both the critic and the critiqued. 

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