Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reading Reviews

If you’re wondering if your manuscript will stand up to published books and to an agent’s scrutiny (or his first reader, otherwise know as s/he-who-builds-the-reject-pile), then you might want to make a habit of reading reviews.

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?
TweetIt   from HubSpot

32 comments:

  1. I read reviews but I never thought to analyze them (except for my own). Your idea makes perfect sense, however. In the future, I can see myself being a bit more analytical rather than simply trying to get the overall flavor or the story. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I tend to stay away from reading reviews because I don't want anyone to influence whether or not I read a book or see a movie, but putting it this way definitely gets me motivated to keep up with them.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've analyzed my own (and actually used them to correct deficiencies I saw in current WIPs.) I hadn't thought of doing it on a regular basis, but it makes excellent sense. Thanks for the suggestion, Helen.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

    ReplyDelete
  4. Sounds like great advise, Helen! Great post.

    ReplyDelete
  5. That's a good idea! Neer thought of analyzing reviews.
    And of course remember, only the biggest releases are reviewed by PW.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Helen, I always read reviews but I have never studied them like this. This is excellent information. Very educational. Thank you.

    I think I am going to start saving the reviews from the books I buy so that I can do an "after" comparison of my critique to the ones in PW.

    ReplyDelete
  7. What a great idea. There's so much about the facets of writing nestled in those reviews, if we read them from a writer perspective. Thanks for the tip.

    ReplyDelete
  8. This is so excellent, Helen. I frequently disagree with reviewers, so I don't read them much. But I love this idea, particularly since I've been asked to review memoirs on a quarterly basis for www.womensmemoirs.com. and www.readingnewmexico.
    Guess it's time to bone up on how to put one together.
    Karen

    ReplyDelete
  9. This is just a very thoughtful and incisive post, Helen. Of course, I’ve read reviews, but never in this way. You’re very good at point out the things many people…well, me for sure…overlook, even though they’re sitting there in plain sight. Good job.

    Best Regards, Galen

    Imagineering Fiction Blog

    ReplyDelete
  10. Lisa, I like your idea of saving the reviews to compare your own feelings about the book with the reviewer.

    And you're right, Diane, PW tends to review the bigger names. You could also do this kind of analysis with other reviews in small papers or online.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Excellent advise, Helen! I've never looked at reviews this way but I shall certainly start. I will give one caveat though - each review is only one person's opinion. It's very possible it's wrong. I often have read several reviews of the same book with some loving it and some hating it.

    Elspeth

    ReplyDelete
  13. I read and analyze reviews, yes - for a lot of the same reasons you suggest. It helps me in my understanding of what works and what does not work in novels. There a lot of excellent book review blogs that I visit often for that very reason also.

    Marvin D Wilson

    ReplyDelete
  14. You're right, Elspeth. A lot depends on the reviewer's/reader's taste. If you can find multiple reviews on the same book, you can compare.

    ReplyDelete
  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  17. PW does not review unsolicited manuscripts, so people like myself (at least at the moment) cannot take advantage of their reviews.

    Personally, I read the reader reviews. These reviews represent a better aligned synopis of the book I think.

    Stephen Tremp

    ReplyDelete
  18. I do read reviews in a perfunctory manner; however, your post shows me that it is more of a learning moment if I pay attention to what is really being said.

    Thanks for the advice.

    In honor of National Punctuation Day, I used a semicolon!

    I know...I know. :)

    ReplyDelete
  19. What a great idea! I'm definitly going to start reading more reviews now. :)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Great idea, Helen! I am one who does enjoy reading reviews. It fun to get an idea of what others think of books I have read or am planning on reading. Also it does give an excellent idea how how some are perceiving ideas and genres, I think.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I read reviews as a reader looking for books that might interst me. This is actually very insightful Helen, to read from a writers POV. Thanks I'm marking the page.

    ReplyDelete
  22. For my sanity when reviewers are reviewing my work, I try to remember that art is subjective and not everyone is going to like everything I do.

    As a reader, I do like reviews that help steer me towards different titles. I'm always open to reading anything new.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Very interesting points, Helen. I had never thought to look at reviews for clues to improve the writing.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Great points, Helen. Reviews can be helpful as long as the reviewer reads what is written and not what they expect to find. I had the misfortune of having a really bad review on a book that had otherwise received glowing remarks simply because the reviewer didn't read the blurb provided and expected to find sex, shoot-em ups, and a hero with John Wayne's swagger instead of the sweet historical romance I submitted. Luckily, today I received a review on the same book...5 stars and a note from the reviewer that she wished she could give me more but the scale topped out. She considered it well written and compared me to one of her favorite mainstream authors. I was so honored. Trust me...I studied that one a whole lot more than I did the other. *lol*
    Thanks for another interesting blog. Love your site.

    Ginger

    ReplyDelete
  25. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Marisa, you also used a colon and half a parenthesis - ;-)
    Celebration!

    Happy National Punctuation Day everyone.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Yay Ginger! Steer everyone to that review, for sure! Congrats! (I'm using lots of exclamation points because I'm excited for you and because it's Nat'l Punctuation Day.

    ReplyDelete
  28. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  29. I never thought of looking at reviews like that. Neat.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Reviews can be quite informative, sometimes.

    ReplyDelete
  31. I read reviews by my favorite online reviewers, and usually look at the PW reviews at the online booksellers, but I never thought of analyzing them in this way. Nice idea.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Good thing I happened on to this post. I've read reviews from time to time, but I have a book coming out next year and hadn't even thought about the value of studying reviews.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...