First of all, find reviewers who write reviews that you trust. I would recommend you start with reviews in Publishers Weekly. PW reviews in different categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children’s. Each category has sub-categories. Choose the category that fits what you write and then read the reviews on a weekly basis.
Publishers Weekly reviews that are starred are ones the reviewer gave a high rating. One thing I like about a PW review is that the reviewer tells you what he didn’t like. Of course, if they were reviewing my book, I wouldn’t like that at all, but we’re talking learning from reviews not analyzing my anger issues.
Let’s look at three reviews from Publishers Weekly’s Fiction Book Reviews: 9/21/2009
First a snippet from a starred review for Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler:
Tyler's gift is to make the reader empathize with this flawed but decent man, and to marvel at how this determinedly low-key, plainspoken novelist achieves miracles of insight and understanding.What can you learn from this? How about: it’s okay to have flawed characters. Sometimes, as writers, we forget that readers don’t have to have perfect characters. Flawed can be good as long as those flaws are balanced. If by seeing those flaws exposed, we (readers) gain insight into ourselves and understanding of that character’s actions and behavior (and, thus, ourselves), then flawed is good.
Here are two lines from a review of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman:
Unfortunately, any hint of trouble is nipped in the bud before it can provide narrative tension, and Hoffman toys with, but doesn't develop, the idea that Cecelia could inherit her mother's mental problems. Madness, neglect, racism and snobbery slink in the background, but Hoffman remains locked on the sugary promise of a new day.What does this tell us? It tells us that this reviewer felt that the author was afraid to let go and explore hard issues. Maybe the author wanted to keep the book upbeat, quirky and fun. The reviewer, however, wanted the issues brought up to be explored deeper. To me, that says if you dance around the hard stuff, there will be people who don’t like your dance or who think your happy dance doesn’t fit the music your book is playing.
And lastly, here’s the closing line from a starred review of Then Came the Evening by Brian Hart:
Most impressive is Hart's ability to conjure rich and conflicted characters in an uncommon situation; his handling of the material is sublime.Look closely at that line. It tells us that this reviewer liked the characters (as did the reviewer in the first example, which was also a starred review) - s/he called them “rich.” Notice also that those characters s/he liked were “conflicted.” (Remember that the unstarred review in the second example pointed out that the author had not tackled the difficult issues.) Notice also that the reviewer liked that the author had put the characters in an uncommon situation.
Those are mere snippets from three out of many reviews for that week’s book releases. By reading reviews, you see not only what is coming out in your genre, but what pulls in a reader and what pulls the reader out of the story. In just these three pieces, you can see how important fully developed characters are and how, as an author, if you hint or show dark places in your book, you then have to go into those dark places and face the fear within.
How many of you read and analyze reviews? What have you learned from them?