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.

Let’s talk about fonts, baby/Let’s talk about ABC…

Preface: this is an introductory post to the world of typefaces and how it affects what we read. If you’re already decently versed, it may not be as in-depth as you’re looking for. Regardless, I hope you enjoy!

Let’s talk about something that will not affect you in the slightest as a writer, but that’s fun to talk about anyway because I think we can all appreciate being superfluous sometimes: fonts. As you all know because I won’t shut the fuck up about it, I’m a graphic designer by education. And if you were anything like I was as a child, you spent as much time in a word document choosing a font that was fun and had a lot of personality as you did writing any actual story. Papyrus, Joker, Curlicue, Chiller–anything that didn’t look like it came from a newspaper your parents were reading.

Let’s get down and dirty with fonts. Now, as a writer, the only times you might care about what font you choose are when

  1. You prefer to have a specific kind of font in your writing program.
  2. You write for a blog and need to ensure readability for your audience.
  3. You have some say in designing your cover, and need the typeface to match your genre/tone and the cover art.

Now, as for the first one in the list, I’m going to disregard that. How you prefer to write in your own time is absolutely none of my business–you want to write purple text on a bright orange background in size 60 Pacifico? Have fun! I wish you a high daily word count!

adult alone anxious black and white
MY EYES!

Let’s move on to the second one: ensuring readability for your blog. Please forgive me if the next few sentences seem condescending; I just want to make sure everyone’s on a level playing field when I introduce some vocabulary. Serif fonts are fonts that have tiny ornamental accents on them, like Times New Roman, Courier, or Georgia. They look older, a bit more archaic and proper in the sense that they appear to have been designed for a printing press.

 

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Times New Roman.


Sans-serif fonts
, on the other hand, do not have the fancy extra bits. Helvetica, Futura, and Verdana are some popular examples. These fonts usually look sleek and contemporary in comparison.

 

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Verdana.


So, let’s imagine you’re selecting a font for your self-published book. You find a sans-serif font you like the look of ’cause it’s cool. Before you pick that one for certain
, though, you might be interested to know–there’s some research that indicates that swathes of serif type are easier for our brains to read in large chunks when printed. I’m honestly not sure why; my professors theorized that the ligatures (read: little doodads) on the letters of serifed fonts help us register the word as a whole instead of as individual letters. Either way though, if you don’t want to intimidate or fatigue your readers, picking a serif font might help in readability.

And while you might read that last paragraph and think, “Well, that’s easy then, I’ll just put my book and my blog in a serif font,” I’m going to frustrate you a little by adding that design is rarely so straightforward; it’s become a sort of unspoken norm to have text that’s read on a computer be in a sans-serif font. Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia–all are sans-serif.

Ultimately, it’s up to you. You can write your novels in sans-serif and blogs in serif but the choice should be made in consideration of what tone you’re trying to achieve. Tone is everything when it comes to design. You can have a printed book of poetry in sans-serif, but maybe the forceful hand of Impact isn’t what you’re looking for unless they’re poems about memes? Feel free to use serif fonts on your websites (as we do; hello!), but make sure the content of your site is appropriate for the feeling of serif. I probably wouldn’t make a DIY site using a serif font, for example.

Moving on!

It wouldn’t be a real blog post about fonts without a mention of Comic Sans, but before you rush to find the freshest memes bashing the font (trust me, design school gave me plenty of those), consider for a moment that there is actually some anecdotal evidence suggesting that Comic Sans is useful in helping those with dyslexia read (especially children). Ugly font or not, that’s objectively awesome!

If most serif and sans-serif fonts are considered “body fonts,” in that they are typically used for copy writing, then let’s talk about display fonts. They’re just what they sound like: the big, busy fonts with tons of personality–Lobster, Trajan, Joker would fall into this category. These fonts are usually not intended for a lot of characters at once, which is why they’re good for book covers and logos and website headers.

 

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Pacifico.


Writing a steamy romance? Zapfino might work well.

 

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Middle grade sci-fi thriller? Blackout is a personal favorite.

 

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Historical nonfiction? Give Copperplate a spin and see what you think.

 

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Whatever you end up choosing,
make sure you’ve purchased the correct license to use it. Designers use a lot of time and labor creating fonts, and they need to be paid for their efforts. A quick search should show you who licenses it, and the purchasing packages for commercial use.

Phew! I think those are the very basics I can pass along for what I know of fonts and writing. I hope something in here was helpful, and if not, then I at least hope you learned something interesting!

Character Games 101: Dice Games

Welcome back to the final installment in a series entitled Character Games 101!

Our first week we talked about learning more about your character through role-playing games, and last week we used Akinator to find out parallels between our characters and well-known ones in pop culture. This final type of game I’d like to explore in terms of its usefulness to characterization might feel similar to the first post in this series, if you play tabletop games. This game, however, isn’t aimed at helping you polish off your character–its goal is to help you create one to begin with.

Character Games #3: Dice Games

Wait! Please don’t leave. I know that at its face, a “dice game” sounds like the least amount of fun even someone in the 15th century would have. But before you click away, allow me to remind you that these dice exist (not a sponsor). If you consider yourself a storyteller yet you’ve never had an opportunity to play with storytelling dice, you should seriously consider remedying that. And you might think that having dice structure a story for you takes the fun out of the process, but I’ve found that it actually makes things more challenging; when you’re forced to fit two events or characters together, your brain has to do gymnastics to make that happen.

I’m not here to pitch those dice to you, though. I’m here to help you create a new character using a method that tabletop players will be familiar with already. We’re gonna roll a character.

Now, in RPGs “rolling” a character helps you determine stats for that character such as strength, dexterity, and charisma. But that’s narrow thinking.

Let me put that line of thought on pause while I talk about numbers. Personally, I hate numbers. They’ve never clicked with me; I don’t much care for mathematics. Just about the only thing I can find redeeming about numbers is their roles as symbols. For example, I bet off the top of your head you can list some significance of the number seven? There are the seven deadly sins, seven days of the week, seven colors in the rainbow.

So what? These concepts on their own are totally inane until you apply meaning to them. That’s where the fun is. By assigning meaning to the numbers on a die, you can create a character totally by chance. Here, let me give an example: ever seen a character alignment chart?

Hunger-Games-alignments
The real chaotic evil is that Cinna died. Totally unnecessary. 

Well, guess what? There are nine options there. Label ‘em, roll a nine-sided die, bam. Your character has an alignment. Sure, you’ll need to figure out why, but even then you can roll for an interesting backstory. Going back to the seven deadly sins: assign them to numbers, roll. Bam. Your character has a fatal flaw. What month were they born in? 12-sided die. For yes/no questions, substitute a quick coin flip. You can even use tracks from an album, or numbered pages from a book, or those horrifically addicting “what would your rapper name be?” posts floating around. It doesn’t matter! Because as more and more questions are answered, you’ll begin to see someone new take shape.

Just for fun, I’ll roll an example character. Since my dice are all still in storage somewhere, I’m going to be using this website to roll. You’ll note that it allows you to pick however many sides you like on a die, so there are no limits to your questions. Here I go…

My character hails from the southern-most part of their world. They are down-to-earth. They are chaotic evil, which makes their no-nonsense attitude even more terrifying. Their downfall is their hubris, befitting someone calm and collected, yet twisted. They have natural red hair and are non-binary. My character likes sour food, and is sensitive to smells; they are easily nauseated by foul odors. Their favorite season is autumn due to the decay (plus that’s when tangy tangerines in season, they always keep one in their pocket, dropping the peels wherever they please). They are a Capricorn, which lends the traits of patience, ambition, and fatalism to their personality. Their evil conquest is to spread a brain-controlling parasite everywhere they go, amassing followers that appear normal to the naked eye. Alas, they cannot get too close to their loyal minions, as the stench of the parasitic fungus is too pungent.

Wow. See? I have an underworld-born tangerine-loving demon who forcefully inducts people into a cult of his own worship by using fungus. And a few minutes ago I had nothing.

The beautiful part of this process of character creation is that it’s totally up to you how to structure it. Don’t like one of the options in your list of ideas? Strike it out. Feel no inspiration about the result you got, no matter how hard you brainstorm? Roll again. You’re still in control. This is simply a tool to help you get the story juices flowing.

A word of warning: know when enough inane detail is enough. Having quirks for your character is fun, but if your character is so unique that they begin to sound more like something a child would dream up while rambling, maybe back off a little.

Thanks for joining me in this series of Character Games 101! I hope you had fun, or at the very least, I hope you got some good ideas. And who knows? Characterization is a love of mine, so maybe this series will rear its head again in the future. Until then, keep writing!

Character Games 101: Akinator

Welcome back to the second entry in a series entitled Character Games 101!

Last week we talked about how putting your character into a RPG can help fill gaps in their profile that you’d never considered before. This week, we’re gonna talk about what happens if we streamline that characterization process instead of expand upon it–what happens when we tunnel-vision the questions instead of wander around in them?

Character Games #2: Akinator

So, there’s a really fun website that a lot of people play with in their free time, and I’m going to link it, I promise–at the end of this post. Otherwise you’re gonna get distracted and–hey! Don’t scroll down yet! The link will lead to a game called Akinator, which is essentially 20 Questions but where, instead of guessing from the categories “animal, vegetable, or mineral” (which by the way, is an incredibly bizarre taxonomical hierarchy?), it guesses fictional characters based on your yes or no answers! Pretty neat, right?

Aside from being horrifically addictive and mindblowingly in-depth, Akinator gives us an opportunity to inspect your character in simpler ways that the moral dilemmas of RPGs might not. Does your character drink coffee? Do they know how to use a gun? Does your character have any connections to medicine? These questions–albeit bizarre to answer knowing that Akinator is not going to be able to guess your character–are a good way to get a feel for how to wrap your character into a neat little package. Akinator asks questions that cut straight to the core and sift through characteristics with sweeping generalizations, and while this may sound like a bad thing, it’s actually something of which you can take advantage.

You see, our favorite characters from literature can still be summarized in a way that might come across as insulting or oversimplified. Luna Lovegood: quirky, bizarre, intelligent. Schmendrick: bumbling, kindhearted, loyal. Magnus Chase: witty, good, brave. But to say that they can be boiled down to a few adjectives isn’t to undermine the validity of these characters… in fact, character tropes are wildly successful because they work, it works to have someone fit nicely into a box once stripped of what makes them unique.

Go through Akinator and answer the questions about your character as best as you can. Given, when you get to questions like “did you create this character?” you could just end the game by admitting it, but if you stick it out and pick another series? That’s the fun part–whether you know the series from which Akinator guesses or not, give it a shot. See what character you get. Then, once you see profiles that are similar in nature to your own character, you have a unique opportunity to compare the two and see what works about the one that is well-known. Don’t know anything about the character you got? The internet’s got your back. Goodreads, Wikia pages, and IMDB are overlooked wealths of people gushing about their favorite characters.

I did this just now with the protagonist of my kids series; I got Ivy from Ivy and Bean. Right off of the bat this is heartening, because it tells me that I’ve written a character that falls into the genre for which I’m aiming. Now, I read a lot of kids books, but never this particular series, so this also gives me the opportunity to look up Ivy, see what readers think about her and what role she plays in her books. A quick check on Goodreads lets me know that she is generally well-liked, a bookworm of sorts in comparison to her friend Bean, but the real shining point is her friendship with Bean. Coincidentally, my character’s interactions with the people in her life is also my focal point for her growth, so I will try even harder to depict realistically the interpersonal relationships of my main character.

Okay, as promised, here is Akinator! Have fun, try not to get too distracted, and keep writing!

Character Games 101: RPGs

LET THE GAMES BEGIN.

I am very excited to start a new series of posts that marries the process of character development to different types of games! I am doing this in the hopes that it might 1) inspire people who aren’t confident in their characters to delve into them in a fun way, and 2) encourage those who write but who’ve never been into games to find the stories waiting for them there (video games are a wonderful medium of storytelling, but we will get to that at a later date). To start off, I’m going to talk about the most straightforward and possibly the most fun genre of gaming in which you can get to know your character

Character Games #1: Role-Playing Games

Good characters should be able to be boiled down to their most basic parts. What drives them? What are their weaknesses? What is their moral compass like? When we know these building blocks, the character is able to transcend one plane of reality we’ve developed for them and shift into any other that we like, because the circumstances through which we view them shouldn’t affect the essence of who they are. Think of “alternate universes” in fanfiction–just because your favorite Kingdom Hearts fanfiction is the one where Riku is Johnny Rotten doesn’t mean that what makes Riku Riku is any different. This flexibility of characters and their ability to translate into other worlds is what makes this first Character Game so much fun.

Take your pick of Role-Playing Game, or RPG. There are thousands to choose from: you might opt for a tabletop game, a fantasy campaign video game, a Massively Multiplayer Online RPG (MMORPG), or even just Live Action Role-Playing (LARPing). Despite what you choose, the concept is simple: play as your character. I am far from the first person to use this technique, and the reason for that is because while it is obviously fun, it also gives you and your character something to bond over, making it a great way to get to know yourself. You’ll have a story to complete together, enemies to defeat, mountains to climb. Along the way, as your character is forced to make choices you hadn’t thought of before, the gaps in their mental profile will fill naturally, which will be a boon once you are ready to return to writing.

If you were to put your character into D&D, what race would they be? What class would they play? A thief, or a bard, or a berserker? Would they be chaotic neutral, only doing whatever served themselves, or would they be lawful good, jumping to the rescue of whomever needed it without a second thought? How would they approach a dangerous situation? Weapons drawn, diplomatic, hesitant? What kind of loot would they enjoy, if they sought loot at all? Are they agreeable with the rest of your teammates, and what dynamic do they fill in that space–what relationship do your party members have with them?

Perhaps your character wants to meet Dragon Age’s Inquisition. What are their thoughts on the control of mages’ freedoms by The Circle, by templars? Are they a city-elf in an Alienage, or a Dalish apostate (rogue mage) who can shapeshift? Perhaps a Qunari, but even so, are they born in the Qun, or are they a Tal-Vashoth, and how do they feel about their caste ranking?

If your character were to join the battle for Skyrim, would they be a Nord fighting against Ulfric, much to the chagrin of their family, or would they perhaps be a beast-race, a khajiit who (for some reason) found their loyalty with the Stormcloaks? Would they practice Magicka? Adopt children? Are they scared of draugr (mummies), or spiders, or dragons? Or maybe you play them as being terrified of werewolves, and avoid Whiterun at all costs due to the rumors floating about the city? Which of the Divines do you think they would be likely to worship, if they were to worship any of them at all?

I can pitch fun questions to you all night and day, but unless you’ve inserted your character into these worlds before, you’re missing out. Being able to have fun with the familiarization process is not only something that we take for granted, but also a hidden joy of living in the time we do, where the medium of story-telling via gaming has never been more colorful and in-depth. So, dear reader, I would encourage you to hold your character’s hand and take a trip with them. Go to Azeroth, or Albion, or Mordor. Take them into another world and see what happens. It’ll be fun.

“Do You Hear What I Smell?”

I was staring at one of the parts of one of the sentences in one of the drafts of one of the books I’m working on. If you write, you’re familiar with the situation; that one part has your arm bent backward and your bone is groaning, and you’re sweating acridly as your work hisses, “Screw youuu.” But you can’t back down, because you gave birth to this, and unless you’re some kind of Oedipal loser you can’t admit that you’re weaker than it.

There are only so many ways to describe a thing, right? And I don’t mean in the equally-frustrating “if I say the word ‘box’ again I will sound like a broken robot, but if I find other ways to describe it I will sound like a literal alien with a thesaurus.” I mean that some descriptive tropes have been around for so long that they don’t even register anymore when we read them.

Let me give an example for clarity: how would you describe the smell of an old book? Musky, earthy, perhaps even woody. But it’s a cloying scent, almost dusty.

And there it is. If you’re a reader, even a casual one, you’re probably familiar with all of the adjectives I just used. Ones like earthy. Cloying.

But I want to be striking. I want to stand out. Surprise!—this is the exact scenario with which I was struggling. I was trying to describe the smell of old books and failing fantastically. There’s something to be said about trying to tango around the trite so desperately, that you plant your foot into a big pile of ‘what drug was the author on,’ and not in the good Shel Silverstein kind of way. In a ‘this is disconcerting and my fear compounds’ kind of way, which is not necessarily what you’re aiming for when you write for young kids, as I do.

Fearing for my hair follicles, I huffed a deep sigh and tried to calm myself, casually voicing my problem to my boyfriend. Without missing a beat, he shrugged and said, “Why don’t you just cross senses?”

Aside from the fact that the flippant response said through a mouthful of PB & banana sandwich made me scowl, I also had no idea what that meant.

“It means like…using a sight to describe a smell, but directly. It can be either a metaphor or a simile. The idea you want to convey will still land. The old book smelled yellow. You instinctively know what I mean by that, right?”

The death-grip on me seemed to relax. I could breathe again.

The notion of crossing senses to renew descriptions resonates with me, and it’s not because I suspect I have the least powerful synesthesia ever. It’s because it adds another layer to what’s possible when you’re stumped creatively in a world full of tropes. To turn a noise into a mental image that evokes the same visceral response is kind of amazing, y’all. When used sparingly, it can resuscitate sentiments and become a point of pride where exhaustion reigned prior.

So, whether you knew about this already or you’re eager to try it out for the first time soon, that’s great! I just wanted to pass this along, from someone who didn’t go to college for creative writing, but whose partner did, in the hopes that someone else might find it useful.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to use this as my practice sheet.

“Her hair was summery,” turns into “Her hair looked like the tang of citrus.”

“His laugh was high-pitched,” turns into “His laugh like a knife on ceramic.”

“The flavors were very strong,” turns into “A freight train of flavor.”

“The cold was biting,” turns into “The cold was a sharp tinnitus.”

“The ending was abrupt,” turns into “A hiccup of an ending.”