How to Write a Sensitive Book Review

If you’ve ever been to Goodreads–or, failing that, Amazon–to check out reviews for a book, you already know how hyperbolic and cruel some of the so-called “feedback” can be. Here, let me go to a book and pull some excerpts (if you think I need to make this part up, hi! Welcome to the world of online reviews):

“This has to be the worst pile of crap I’ve EVER had the displeasure of reading. I honestly don’t know how this shit even got bought by a publisher!”

“Do not waste your life on this horrible book.”

“This was an absolute trainwreck. Not even fun, just… bad.”

No, I’m not going to tell you which book they’re talking about, because that’s not the point.

Now, it would be a lie to say that I’ve loved every book I’ve ever read, or even that I haven’t had thoughts like these about stories I’ve read. But if there’s one thing that’s true about the anonymity keyboards grant you, it’s that you lose empathy for those whom your words affect. I know that most of these people leaving these comments, if they were actually acquainted with the author, would not say these things to their face. The cult of online bullying and bandwagoning doesn’t stop in gradeschool–it just takes on a different name.

black and white hands mask bussinesman
“How DARE you try your hardest and breach 70k and get an agent and get published and EXPOSE ME TO THAT SHIT.”

Good or bad, novels are artistic expression, and acknowledging that I’m not referring to books that are bigoted or problematic in one way or another, I think book review etiquette needs to take a good, hard look at itself. It’s easy to attack someone’s efforts if you think poorly of their work–but that effort came from someone, and that person might not be in the best headspace when they happen to read a review that says “Do not waste your life on this horrible book.”

However! Reviews are incredibly necessary and valuable in our industry. Some authors genuinely want constructive feedback about their work from readers, and will understand their pitfalls in stride. That’s why I’ve created an easy 3-step guide for critically reviewing ANY book, regardless of how much you enjoyed it.

How to Write a Sensitive Review

  1. State what the author did well. Acknowledgments are incredibly important to start with–the author needs to know what their strong points were. Perhaps the dialogue was pretty punchy? Maybe the imagery shined, or the pacing was really good? If you make it clear that you’re being reasonable and fair in your feedback, people will take the rest of your review to heart, including the author. This is a great way to slip in compliments and gush about stuff that resonated with you. 
  2. State what needed work, or what bothered you. Once you’ve pointed out the things that were done well, now you can mention things that didn’t meet your expectations. This is where you can mention that you thought that one subplot was unnecessary, or that you didn’t like the way the story seemed to spoon-feed the reader things that they’d already found out 50 pages ago. Be honest with your criticisms, but also be kind. How would you want someone to say this to you if it were about your work?
  3. Re-state the positives, and potentially mention who should read this book while keeping in mind your criticisms. I usually end my reviews on recommendations, and it’s perfectly fine to add qualifiers like “if you aren’t bothered by [criticism], this is for you!” Because everyone is different, and someone out there will enjoy it.

“But Verb,” you say, scoffing, “who made you the monarch of critique etiquette?”
I DID. BY GOING THROUGH FIVE YEARS OF ART SCHOOL WITH NEAR-DAILY IN-PERSON CLASS CRITIQUES. There’s a pattern to this–there’s a way to say what you need to without harming the person behind the work, and I think everyone who likes to review should try it.

“Fuck you Verb,” I hope none of you say, flipping me off, “I just really enjoy being abrasive and blunt! The author got paid one way or another, so I’m just being honest–it’s fun!”
Oh, cool then! Thanks for reading, Regina George.

Sam Speaks a Sentence

Get it? It’s like Horton Hears a Who, but with my name instead? And it’s not nonsensical because this post is kind of relevant to the famous line of the aforementioned book, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant,” and how it can relate to writing? I know, I can hear you right now, “Wow, Sam, you’re great at introductions that also serve as segues,” to which I shall say, thank you, that’s really very kind.

When we writers… err, write fiction, we tend to constantly worry about whether we sound lyrical enough to pass for more than a boring play-by-play of characters jangling around like marionettes. Every sentence is scrutinized and we perhaps spend more time than we should looking for where to slip in more imagery, more metaphors, more patterns, MORE. There’s something insatiable about writing; no matter how pleased we might be with one particular sentence or scene, the next line is sure to pop our giant egos–or, hell, even deserved fulfillment–and fill our heads with dissatisfaction again.

And this is a dangerous dance; not only are we giving a disproportionate amount of our already tightly-allotted creative time, but if we jam-pack every inch of our works in progress full of lyricism like some poorly cooked Tolkien-esque sausage link (I’m so sorry I made your eyes read that phrase), the result might end up sounding ridiculous. It’s like when someone uses a thesaurus too much: I bedeck you in adulations, mine swain. Sprint yonder alongside me.

woman working girl sitting
“Wh-…what.”

Whenever this happens to me and I catch myself sitting at my desk, staring at the document and willing the words to continue–but, like, in a pretty way–I force myself to take a second and accept the fact that sometimes, the best way to say something is just to say it. No one is going to think less of your story because you couldn’t think of a more emotional way to state “Jimothy frowned.” Jimothy can frown! It’s fine! His feelings are valid! And simplistic writing styles are valid too. In the Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan, most of the storytelling is done in simple writing, and it’s one of my favorites. So even if some of us feel this weird lingering, phantom pressure to turn into a specific kind of writer for others’ approval, you don’t have to. I’d argue it’s better to be true to yourself. Just say the thing if you’re struggling.

For those writers where ornate and overflowing poeticism comes naturally and they don’t feel any pressure when attempting flourishing language, it’s probably not a problem. Congratulations on the flowers that spurt from your fingertips when you sit down to write! I’m not bitter at all! But for those of us who constantly struggle to reach that peak, I’m here to remind myself, and you, that it’s okay to be proud of every foothold you manage, even if the next part in your story feels like you’re falling back down a ways. Highs and lows are natural, and without the lows, we wouldn’t appreciate the highs quite as deeply.

Note, from Herb:
I think there’s an argument to be made that modern writing styles tend towards a trend that wants word economy to be the priority, i.e., if a word does not serve to further the plot, it has no use, which undermines words for aesthetic purposes or words for enlightenment of a theme, etc. So I think in a lot of ways we’ve moved past an age of flowery language.

“Yeah, that’s what [INSERT AUTHOR] said, too.”

I have a fine arts degree in communication design. I fought tooth and nail in a class of 40 to win one of 15 spots for it. I’d fall asleep studying in the library. I managed to scrape by my final semester in the worst throes of depression that I’ve experienced in my life. This is to say, I didn’t take my college grades lightly.

Even though my education was deathly serious to me and I sat through enough philosophy lectures for a small mammal to die of old age, ultimately I realized I didn’t want to use my degree. As you might have guessed, creative writing is not something I ever took higher education courses in—I wrote when I was a child, I wrote throughout grade school, and then I studied the structure of visual storytelling and tone for four years in university.

As someone who lived their life missing what some people might consider a necessary fundament in the creative writing process (and as someone who felt deathly dependent on knowing all of “the answers”), this realization left me feeling dangerously unprepared once I decided I wanted to write books. A lot of these insecurities I still grapple with: how am I ever going to land an agent, what if I can’t afford to attend writers’ workshops, my writing is likely terrible in comparison to others’, will anyone in this industry even take me seriously if I don’t have a masters degree in writing? That’s a lot of “what if’s” to entertain on top of the stress of writing, but that’s where I started–back before I’d drafted my kids series, back before I had any picture books written, way back before I even realized my first picture book about a caterpillar was essentially garbage.

So, what do you do? If you’re anything like I was, you assume everyone else who’s “made it,” who seems even remotely approachable has the answers for you. You keep your eyes peeled for Q&As on Goodreads and Reddit, you occasionally tweet at them in the hopes that your question is interesting enough to grab their attention, and if you’re really lucky, you attend author signings and ask them in person when the floor opens up to questions. After all, whatever they did worked, thus inherently they have some insight into what might work for you, too.

adult alone black and white blur
“I just want my first draft of my first book to be flawless.”

And this is true… to an extent. I was fortunate enough to work specifically on author signings at my local bookstore for a year, and I had the opportunity to speak with a variety of authors coming through as I helped host their events: Crystal Wilkinson, Isaac Marion, Jan Brett, John Scalzi, Greg Iles, Jeff Zentner, Kevin Sherry. Not only did I ask them if they had any tips for writers trying to get published, but without fail, whenever it was Q&A time some hopefuls in the audience would as well. And that’s great! If you love an author, you probably want to know how they got to where they stand now.

But I’m gonna let you in on a secret, friends: I didn’t love all of those authors. I loved a few of them (omg Marion), but most were just people promoting their careers, and we only saw each other as polite faces in a work setting. The benefit of talking to lots of authors about their “secrets” indiscriminately—even ones I felt no butterflies over—is that I can deliver this kernel of truth that I learned to others, this granule of experience.

They all said the exact same thing, once boiled down.

Thus, I have created an untouchable formula for how to be a Successful Writer:

 

Success = finding what works for you + lots of effort + reading + creative partnership

 

That’s it. No tricks, no big secret. Just finding your own rhythm, sticking with it, consuming other stories, and getting feedback on your own. Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to take a lot of patience; the publishing industry moves at a glacial pace in itself, but all of these things are going to take time from you, as well. A metric fuck-ton of it.

The point of this post is to say that if you’re anything like I was when I started writing, you might be inadvertently wasting time by collecting knowledge from those who came before you instead of actually applying yourself. Don’t get bogged down in the preparation stages. As my own CP and co-contributor Herb might agree, preparation is a slippery slope—it’s easy to find yourself feeling endlessly shorthanded, when in reality your toolbox has been full for months. So next time you feel like you need answers from someone more experienced, pause–open a word processor–and try writing instead. You’re good to go, friends.

For All the Books I’ve Loved Before

If there is one thing I learned about being a bookseller, it’s that there is nothing more difficult than getting people to branch outside of their preferred genre. And dear reader, let me preface this post by saying that I empathize, I really do; whenever I pick up a biography or a romance novel (it happens, believe it or not), there’s this moment where I have to brace myself for a new kind of story, a new type of content. However, even when you breach genres, you’re likely to choose a read that’s still relevant to your interests, right? If you dislike historical fiction but consider yourself a buff on 1920 women’s fashion, you’d probably decide on something tangentially related to that.

But what happens when we gleam over books with low marketability? When the genre marries the topic in a way that will fail to appeal to tons of people? As someone who worked in the fray of selling new releases, it was (and still is) disheartening to see so many good titles cast aside on the fly simply because the reader assumes they won’t connect with the story.

On a whim last year, I picked up Waiting for Augusta, a middle grade novel by Jessica Lawson. It’s a story where one of the large themes… is golf. Do I like golf? No.
Do I know absolutely anything
about golf? Also no. (I know that people yell “fore” sometimes.) Did I really and truly enjoy that book, and was I surprised to find themes about diversity that resonated with me? Absolutely. 
Yet, as a bookseller, this pleasant surprise meant nothing to anyone but myself since it did not translate into sales.

When you pitch a book to a customer, there are only so many ways to wrap it before they find out the hard details like the last nail in the coffin. Despite being a wonderful book, the fact that Waiting for Augusta wasn’t just a middle grade historical fiction novel, but a middle grade historical fiction novel involving golf seemed to be a magical combination of words that evaporated people’s interest in the title before I was even done telling them about the supernatural elements, the mysteries woven through the story, or the sense of freedom and adventure that would resonate with young readers. After going through this process repeatedly, it got discouraging when a book I was excited about got tossed aside flippantly over and over.

And so, I have a confession, dear reader.

I was never able to handsell a copy of Waiting for Augusta. Not one. I pitched it daily, I carried it around the store with me, I even made it my staff pick, but not a single person would take a chance on this book.

Now, I know that the people reading this aren’t the people who wouldn’t be risk-takers in the first place; you’re not your Aunt Molly shopping for a birthday book for your princess-loving niece (aside: we loved those customers, too). But if you’re reading this right now, you probably have an interest in books and writing, in which case there’s a chance–a tiny chance–that I could convince you to pick up something that was a marketing flop. Because those authors deserve love and recognition for misfit stories, too.

Just because something is hard to excite others about doesn’t mean it isn’t good.

Here are a few hard-to-sell books from my bookseller days. All of these titles are tried and true Good Books. Give one of them a chance, for yourself or a family member. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Waiting for Augusta by Jessica Lawson (check it out!)

Fish Girl by Donna Jo Napoli and David Wiesner (classic-style illustrated fantasy MG GN)

My Name’s Not Friday by Jon Walter (YA historical fiction focused on slavery)

Mister Monkey by Francine Prose (absurdist dark comedy about a failing theater production)

The Green Bicycle by Haifaa al Mansour (MG about a young girl in Saudi Arabia who wants things the circumstances of her birth can’t give her)

Demon Dentist by David Walliams (absurdist humor MG novel, very Dahl-esque)

Gertie’s Leap to Greatness by Kate Beasley (contemporary MG about a fifth grader trying to win her estranged mother’s love)

Frogkisser! by Garth Nix (a classic Nix fantasy geared for a MG audience)

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan (MG historical fiction about Hispanic labor camps in the US)

Please Let Your Kids Read Graphic Novels

FADE IN:

INT. A children’s bookstore. It’s bright, cheerful, filled with stories of all shapes and sizes. These stories are meant to bring both joy and sadness, to show kids both a world bigger than their own and that their world is plenty big enough. We pan over to a customer and a bookseller chatting.

CUSTOMER

It seems like, no matter what I give him, my son just doesn’t like to read! Do you have any recommendations?

BOOKSELLER

Yeah, for sure! Have you tried graphic novels? I find that a lot of kids who get overwhelmed by reading have more fun with graphic novels. They’re often a faster read, the pictures can keep them visually engaged, and the stories tend to be more streamlined. There’s a really good one that’s just come out–

CUSTOMER

Oh, no. I want him to read real books.

The bookseller’s eyes go dead. She pulls a gleaming knife from a place unknown. Smiles.

End scene.

Hey guys! Thanks for checking out the first scene of my new comedy horror spec script! Check back next week for more quality content like this!

Just kidding. But for real though, for real though, let’s talk about graphic novels vs “real novels,” and why it’s damaging to think of the former as “cheating” or “easier.” I was a children’s bookseller for a couple years, and I had the above conversation many times, minus the murder.

Maybe minus the murder.

It was one murder, okay?

Anyways, here are a few reasons why you should consider the validity of graphic novels, and as a bonus, perhaps avoid getting stabbed by a bookseller:

  1. While I understand that being a good reader is a skill that parents want their kids to have–and therefore, in their minds, the more words the better–the first thing to remember is that some people simply do not do words well. Whether it’s dyslexia or ADHD or a million other things, a solid block of text, much less 200+ pages of text, can be intimidating and frustrating. Graphic novels, on the other hand, are meant to be as succinct as possible. Have you ever been reading a book and thought, alright, I was over this lakeside view description several paragraphs ago? Good news, in graphic novels, you will get a beautifully illustrated lakeside, think, well isn’t that pretty? And then get to move the hell on with the story.

 

  1. Do not overlook the fact that a graphic novel is a story told partially by illustrations, and thus children will gain an artistic appreciation from it. You wouldn’t go to an art museum with a kid and say, “oh man, if only they could read these paintings, then they’d really be getting something from this,” because you’re not dumb. A book that gives the reader an artistic experience as well as a story can only be a win-win.

 

  1. Reading books is about more than becoming better at processing words. Of course having a big vocabulary is awesome, of course I am very impressed by your ten year old who reads at an eleventh grade level, but that’s not what stories are. Kids gain empathy and a larger understanding of the world, of people who are different from them. They’ll come away with solid morals and inspiration and a sense of wonder. I’m a writer, I know the power of words, but words are not the only things that can tell stories, and if you have other mediums to help your words along, all the better.

 

  1. Lastly, if you’re still thinking, well that’s great, Herb, but it doesn’t change the fact that traditional novels are simply better for improving reading comprehension, then consider that a) if you’re trying to get your child to read and they won’t even touch a book, isn’t the reduced word count of a graphic novel better than none at all? and b) this peer-reviewed study says you’re wrong.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this unnecessarily hostile take on children’s graphic novels. Now have a list of some of my favorites, should you wish to shower your children with some spectacular stories that are of equal value to the traditional novel.

 

Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittany Williams

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier (hell, anything by Telgemeier)

The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag

The Graveyard Book based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

5 Worlds by Mark & Alexis Siegel

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi