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.

Dialogue #2 — Why Is My Dialogue Awkward?

This week in the “holy shit I’m going to pull my hair out” section of writing frustrations: dealing with dialogue that is on the same level of awkward as watching a straight person introduce their friend’s girlfriend via “and this is Lily’s… roommate.”

As I said in my last dialogue installment (which was uhhh four months ago hahahahaha let’s not talk about that), I really love writing dialogue, so it’s infuriating to me when I try to write it and it’s just not working. Everything feels stilted, jolting along like a malfunctioning steam engine. To counter that, I’ve come up with some questions that help me, and will hopefully help you too.

 

  • What are they talking about? Dumb question, I know. But you’d be surprised how often you can write dialogue and later, realize it doesn’t really… mean anything? Or at least doesn’t add anything. To evaluate this problem, it can be good to assess the two levels of “what are we talking about?” First, there’s the surface level: two people are arguing over where to go to dinner, a group of people doing a project together need to decide how to go about it, etc. If it’s a necessary conversation, something you need to transition or to give the reader information about what’s going on, that’s fine, you don’t have to go any deeper than that. But there’s also the second level: two people are arguing over where to get dinner, and it gets way more heated than it needs to be, and the reader knows: this isn’t about dinner, it’s about the fact that they’re behind on their bills and she just lost her job and they can’t afford to go to dinner but they’re trying to pretend like everything’s fine. A group of people need to decide what to do their group project on, but the reason they can’t come to a final decision is because the one member who held them all together dropped the project, so they go around in circles, unable to confront the fact that they can’t get it done without that one member. In other words, it’s the difference between what’s being said and what’s being implied. When you find yourself asking the question “what are they talking about?” maybe follow the question up with “is there something bigger going on here?”
  • Does this conversation reveal something about the characters? Sometimes, you’re writing a scene that is very much about having to convey some basic information to the reader about, say, how this heist is going to go down. But that doesn’t mean it can double as something else. A lot of really good dialogue is revealing in a way that doesn’t matter in the moment, but is good to know for later. If Laurel, Tony, Michelle, and Andrea are planning a heist, and Michelle leaves in the middle to go pick up McDonald’s, we know that she perhaps doesn’t care much about it, or doesn’t take much of anything seriously, or just really likes McDonald’s. If Tony yells at her for it, we know he is taking this the most seriously, has the most explosive temper out of all the them, etc. Then let’s say Laurel defends Michelle, says they’ve all been working at this for awhile, maybe they should take a break, we know she’s the peacemaker. Maybe all Andrea this whole time is sit silently in the corner, but that alone is also very telling: she doesn’t get into petty arguments, she can’t be bothered, you get the idea. Maybe this isn’t important right in the moment, after all, the main thing you want from the scene is to explain to the reader how the heist is going to go down, but these elements are important for later; we need to know how they function as a team, and dialogue is a great way to convey that.
  • Are they talking to the right person? Maybe you’re writing a scene, and you know it’s essential, you know it’s revealing–that’s not the problem. It’s got some of that good juicy character backstory, or it’s that moment when the character finally snaps, but still, it’s not quite working. It doesn’t punch the way you want it to. Ask yourself: who is the character talking to, and why? Let’s say Gwen has been struggling with, hmmm, some deep moral questions in relation to their Catholicism (can you tell I’ve been watching the new season of Daredevil?). You as the writer think, oh, they should definitely be talking to their best friend about this, he can help. Or, they should go talk to their priest, right? Do some good old-fashioned confession. But maybe Gwen is feeling too closed off to go to their friend, is questioning their faith too much to go to their priest (I should really just tag this as Daredevil spoilers at this point). So they find themself in a old records store at 10pm, buy a Grateful Dead track, and they ask the clerk if she believes that God forgives everything. Maybe the clerk answers with something profound, maybe she tells Gwen to go the fuck home and sleep off their existentialism. The point is, Gwen couldn’t ask that question to the people who might come to your mind at first thought. Perhaps they couldn’t say it to anybody at all, and end up going home to their unreasonably cool looking loft for a broke-ass lawyer without a law firm in NYC and drink half a bottle of scotch and ask the stale air if God forgives. Wow, that got dark. ANYWAYS,

 

These are just a couple questions that might be important when writing dialogue that’s not working, maybe they’ll work for you, or maybe you’ll need to develop your own questions. Either way, I hope these were helpful for you. Join me in either two weeks or four months, who the fuck knows anymore, for my third installment in the dialogue series.

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.