Category Archives: General Interest

Reviewing a Book, Part II

Before exploring the mis-named “impartial” book review format, I want to mention the most influential form of book review today: the customer review. Just as “word-of-mouth” reviews by friends and colleagues can help you select a book (or avoid it), the online customer reviews found on Amazon, Goodreads, and elsewhere can help or hurt a book more than any traditional published review. When a book has thousands of positive reviews, who cares what the critics believe? Likewise, a torrent of negative reviews can condemn a critically acclaimed work.

Online Customer Reviews

Many online comment forms permit only 250 to 500 word reviews. The result is online reviews more like blurbs than reviews. Even negative comments posted online resemble blurbs more than in-depth reviews. “Don’t waste your money,” is not a review because it offers no explanation or insights. A proper review demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of a book.

Do not waste any words in your comments. To write a useful customer review within the limited space available, try to select the best or the worst passage from the book. If your complaint is that the characters are one-dimensional — a common complaint about low-rated books — give an example of the weak description used by the author.

Posting more reviews does not always translate into influence. Most online systems allow readers a chance to evaluate other reviewers. If you post a thousand five-star reviews, that’s going to cast doubt on your critical thinking abilities. If, however, you post a hundred reviews that demonstrate careful consideration of the works, then other readers will pay attention.

I look to see what someone reads when I judge book ratings online. If you read science fiction and post a negative review of a history of World War I, that’s not persuasive. However, your reviews of science fiction books might be insightful. If you like some authors and not others, that information is useful to other readers and reviewers.

While most reviews are posted on merchant sites, such as Amazon, I encourage you to consider Goodreads. Also, there are websites dedicated to particular genres.

(Somewhat) Impartial Book Reviews

Writing a full-length book review for a newspaper, magazine, or online publication involves analyzing the book and defending your opinions. A good book review educates readers, explaining what the ideal qualities of a text might be and how the book being reviewed does or does not reflect the criteria you have established. A good review is craftwork.

The label “impartial” suggests that the reviewer did not receive money or other perks in return for writing a review. Most publications have strict policies to foster impartial reviews. However, many publications feature reviews by authors and there might be some hesitation before criticizing a colleague. Ideally, a reviewer does not share a publisher, agent, or any other financial connection to the author being reviewed. At the end of a review, you should disclose any potential conflicts of interest, if only to insulate yourself from claims of bias.

The Intro and Overall Assessment

The first paragraph or two of a book review need to state the work’s title, the author’s persona, and your overall assessment of the work. The introduction demonstrates your understanding of the genre, the author, and other readers. You need to hook review readers, just as you do readers of any work.

Francine Franklin’s A Stitch in Crime, her latest humorous mystery, keeps a reader in stitches while medical examiner Barney Bumble stumbles his way through a complex scheme to dominate the clothing industry. Unfortunately, much of the laughter comes at the expense of Franklin, who resorts to the tired formula that seemed so original in her first two novels. Some might consider A Stitch in Crime literary comfort food, but most readers will want more from such a talented writer.

The sample intro offers the big details: Francine Franklin’s book A Stitch in Crime is, at best, a mediocre book. The remainder of the review needs to explain this claim with evidence and comparisons to other works.

About the Author

The second section of a book review needs to balance its appeal to readers new to the author and the loyal followers likely to defend the work. By proving you know about the author and his or her works, you are more likely to persuade readers to take your analysis seriously. Some of the information you might address includes:

  • What else has the author written?
  • Does the author stick to one genre?
  • Does the work (or previous works) resemble those of another writer(s)?
  • Does the author have any special qualifications?
  • Are there any biographical facts that might help readers?
  • Are the any great bits of trivia about the author that readers might not know?

Other works written by the author, especially if they are well known works, should be mentioned. First, this shows you have the most basic knowledge of the author. Second, it tells readers something about what they might expect from a new book. When you mention these past works, indicate if the author tends to favor one genre. If the author writes in a few genres, do the works in one sell better? Are they better written?

Readers… read. Therefore, they are likely to be familiar with other authors within the same genre as the book being reviewed. Mention similar authors, and later in the review you should expand on any comparisons or contrasts. When you do compare authors, realize that comparisons are imperfect. Readers do not want writers that mimic each other, but they do recognize that some writers are more alike than others.

After you establish what the author writes, explore any unique qualifications brought to the topic. A former police officer writing about urban crime? A doctor writing medical thrillers? Those are special qualifications. It isn’t that a writer must have career experience related to a book, but it does help readers take the author more seriously.

Non-fiction works might not require a doctorate in the field explored, but it helps to have a broad knowledge of the book’s topic. I happen to prefer books at least co-written by scientists, historians, and other experts. There are good books by journalists — they are often self-taught experts — but I do give more credence to books by researchers. Be sure to verify how qualified a non-fiction author is and share that information with review readers.

What if the author is a pen name? Some reviewers choose to reveal the writers behind pseudonymous works, while others treat author personas as unique creations. Some authors have made their pen names part of marketing strategies. Nora Roberts is one good example of this.

Telling a Good Story

Does the work tell a good story? Most readers want a story, with more than a basic linear recounting of events. A story might be either plot-driven or character-driven, but it is always “driven” by something. Do we follow the growth of one or more characters? Do we watch an event unfold? Some readers are passionate about characters, while others focus on plot points.

I cannot recall much about the character in the film Titanic. The film was event-driven with characters serving to help us relate to the disaster. Yet, there are also characters we know better than their stories. I enjoy the character Sherlock Holmes; the stories seem to be vehicles for the character. One approach is not superior to the other.

When you review a book, indicate if the book emphasizes memorable characters or plot points. Of course, a good story has interesting characters and an interesting chain of events, but which are the readers more likely to remember? Series tend to need great central characters that become familiar to readers.

Themes and Theses

Books tend to teach lessons — at least they attempt to teach lessons. The lesson might be shallow, serving no real purpose. The theme is the overall topic, usually with some moral leaning. For example, a theme might be “friendship.” The thesis might be, “We need friends to achieve great things.” The thesis is an opinion on the theme — an argument that the book attempts to support. A theme is simply a short topic, which might not be a complete sentence. The thesis about the theme is not only a complete thought, but it is at the core of the story.

A good review tells readers if the theme and thesis are developed and realized. It is disappointing (and common) when a book fails to defend the author’s thesis. A book that tries to teach about love, yet conveys to readers that marrying the richest man is the best choice, has failed to realize its thesis.

An academic book review might spend more time on the theme and thesis of a book than a general review. An academic review tends to favor conceptual and historical comparisons, while a general review needs to focus on the reading experience. The themes and theses of popular fiction tend to be simple and familiar, which is another reason you can keep this section of a review short.

When you do encounter a book with an unusual theme or a thesis that challenges popular values, then you can spend more time addressing these aspects of the story. If a book about love suggests that an affair or two might be okay, readers might want you to challenge the thesis in a review. Plenty of literary works do challenge norms, which is why they tend to be outside the mass market.

Characters that Count

Having covered the basics, a review should address specifics about characters and plot points. I suggest addressing characters first, since they tend to be what sells mass market books. Even popular non-fiction often highlights the “characters” behind the events discussed. Does the book have characters who will be remembered? You don’t have to like characters to find them interesting, but dull characters can ruin a story.

We like to read about people (or creatures) caught in situations we’d rather avoid. For all the dystopian stories in our culture, we still like heroes rising against the odds. Because I write scripts, I tend to favor the “Hero’s Journey” story model common to screen and stage. A good story follows a character as he or she becomes a better person in the process of solving a problem.

A book review needs to address the following:

  • Are the characters interesting or dull?
  • Do the characters have backstories?
  • How does the author develop characters?
  • Are any characters “wasted” space?
  • Do you want to know more about them after reading the book?

Good, evil, or neutral, a character needs to be interesting. What is the character’s motivation? How does the character justify his or her choices and actions? You want to avoid characters that do things for no reason. Even an insane villain has a reason (however illogical) for actions. When you review a book, offer readers an explanation for why characterization worked or failed.

When you read the works of some authors, you end up with a complete history for main characters. Other authors offer only allusions to the origins of characters. Both approaches can work, depending on the requirements of the story. Tell readers what to expect: details or hints.

Wasted characters annoy readers. A “waste of space” character is one that doesn’t contribute to the plot or the emotional development of other characters. When reviewing a book, tell readers if there are wasted characters. It is not a waste to have a “red herring” among the characters; misleading readers makes for a good story. A common wasted character is the sidekick who does nothing to help advance the plot. Sidekicks need to be useful.

Some characters are based on real people or composites of real people. A review should mention anything known about the real life inspirations behind characters.

Good characters are complex. Heroes tend to have flaws and the plot helps the protagonist recognize his or her flaws. A villain should have some “reasonable” motivation. Often, a villain’s perspective offers an explanation for his or her actions. Pure evil often is less interesting than the evil that was created by experiences.

What readers want are characters worth meeting again and again, either by rereading a favorite book or by reading new books in a series. A good review tells readers if the characters are compelling.

Plot Points

Do not give away the major plot points in a book review. Do not get cute with “spoiler alerts” in a review. Your job is to critique a book, not to summarize it. How do you address the plot in a review? You give the one-sentence “log line” that would appear in a TV Guide listing. For a reviewer, the challenge is to describe the plot without giving away the details.

To save his beloved swamp, an ogre rescues a princess and accidentally discovers the beauty of true love.

A review might include the following:

  • What is the problem that advances the plot?
  • What happens if the problem is not resolved?
  • Are there any subplots?

A story needs a problem that one of the characters must solve. If the problem is not solved, something bad will happen, usually to some other character or group. The Hero’s Journey model suggests that the protagonist decides to make a self-sacrifice to save others.

Sub-plots are important, but they can also overwhelm a story. Let readers know if there are too many sub-plots in a story. In my experience, romantic sub-plots can distract from stories, but they are included because authors and editors assume romance humanizes characters. In romance stories, sub-plots about money (or the lack of money) can be overwrought and annoying.

Style Points

Reviews should award style point — and penalize authors for poor style. Spend a fair amount of the review exploring style. A good story deserves to be delivered well. It is possible to have a good story, decent plot, interesting characters… and weak style. Readers won’t forgive poor style, so a review must address the readability of a book. The style section of a book review should address topics including:

  • Narrative point-of-view,
  • Tone of the narrative,
  • Voice of the author, and
  • Style of the writing, in general.

I am not a fan of present tense first or second-person narrative. Most readers are not, either. The second-person narrative was common in the 1940s. The short story and radio drama series “The Whistler” featured a narrator talking about the actions of the main character as he or she committed a crime and then tried to escape the consequences. It is an interesting approach to storytelling, but it can be confusing. Is “you” the reader or a character?

You don’t see the gun he has hidden under the table. You move. He shoots.

Does the author/narrator have a sense of humor? Are plot points themselves humorous? What is the “mood” and “tone” of the author? I love A Series of Unfortunate Events because the narration is dark and depressing, yet that is also part of the humor of the books. Such satire is amazing when done well.

There are style norms within genres. One of the norms includes the vocabulary used by the authors. Does the author prefer concise sentences or flowery prose? Is the vocabulary unusual in some way? How does the language reflect genre conventions, or does the author resist the conventions?

Closing the Review

A review concludes by restating your recommendation: should someone read this book? The last paragraph or two should remind readers of the strengths and weaknesses you have discovered. Your role as a reviewer is to promote good writing to readers. If you dislike a book, maybe you can suggest an alternative to read. If you like a book, be sure to remind readers of other works by the same author.

Reviewers foster reading, and they do so by offering honest critiques of the works they read.

Create PDFs from DOC, not DOCX Files

We learned a lesson tonight when I was trying to submit a script to a production company: PDFs from DOC files are much, much smaller than PDFs generated from DOCX files.

Microsoft Word migrated from the familiar “.DOC” format of Word 97-2004 with the release of Word 2007/2008 (Windows/OS X). I recall the painful transition from Word 95 to Word 97, but nothing has compared to the nightmare that is the DOCX “Office XML” file format. I appreciate the idea of XML-based documents. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s DOCX seems to cause a fair amount of pain.

The 101-page script stored as a DOCX refused to convert to a compressed and optimized PDF with Acrobat Distiller, Acrobat Pro, or Apple’s built-in PDF driver. This left me able to create only an uncompressed PDF. The file was 62 megabytes! A 184 kilobyte document exploded to 62MB… and it couldn’t be emailed through our server.

Saving the document as a DOC file, the document grew to 214KB, a bit larger than the DOCX. However, when a PDF was generated it was only 800KB. Not that 800KB is great, but it is much better than megabytes of bloat.

I often tell my students to save documents in DOC format, instead of DOCX, if they intend to email a document. I never considered that the DOC/DOCX differences would affect PDF output.

In trying to “help” the layout, Microsoft’s DOCX format includes a lot of redundant font and layout information. Although I didn’t have any graphics in my script, the DOCX format also links to higher resolution images than the DOC format supports. I examined the PDF output from Word 2011 (OS X) and discovered nearly 100 font “embed” occurrences. The problem is that Word styles are assigned multiple times — for no apparent reason.

You might imagine “Character Name” would be a single style that is assigned to all paragraphs. But, no, Microsoft’s DOCX included two dozen “Character Name” styles, each assigned to varying number of paragraphs. It makes no sense at all to me. During the PDF creation, it seems fonts are embedded repeatedly with the styles. I’d have to do some forensic work to discover what is happening in greater detail.

No matter what the cause, the best way to create a PDF from Word appears to be saving a document as a “DOC” file first.

I get that hard drives are cheap and broadband is fast, but that’s no defense for lousy file formats. More is not always better, as Microsoft’s bloated file formats constantly demonstrate. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s bloat adds to Adobe’s bloat.

Reviewing a Book, Part I

Book reviews allow us to share more than our opinions about specific books or authors: they are an opportunity to defend what we consider the qualities a good book should have, while often giving us easy examples of the traits a book should not posses. A well written review offers a lesson to writers and readers.

In this first part of “Reviewing a Book” we examine basic school book review assignments and promotional marketing reviews. Our second part will explore impartial reviews such as those appearing in newspapers and magazines. Some college courses also encourage students to compose long-form impartial reviews.

Beginning with Book Reports

Our first experiences with writing about books is the elementary school book report. The genre is the simplest form of a review. Consider one possible assignment outline for young students:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Setting
  • Protagonist(s)
  • Antagonist(s)
  • Other Characters
  • Summary
  • Why I would or would not recommend this book.

In the lower elementary grades, students might complete a basic form with spaces for the required information. Teachers want students to develop the ability to identify elements of narratives. Early reviews reflect this emphasis on identification. Once students can identify narrative elements, teachers encourage more advanced comprehension and application activities.

Once you can identify the role characters play within a narrative, you are ready to explore the lessons taught by the choices characters make. In upper elementary grades and middle school, students begin to compose five-paragraph reviews exploring the themes and theses of books. The theme of a work is often a generalization. A thesis is the core argument of a work.

Theme: A family is more than genetic inheritance.

Thesis: An adopted child is as much a part of a loving family as any child might be.

Appreciating the relationship between a theme and the thesis of a work helps you understand why a writer makes certain choices when developing a plot. Exploring such complex concepts as “theme” requires more than a simple fill-in-the-blanks approach.

The (infamous) standard school essay format leads to a review that might be structured according to this model from the state of New York (http://www.nysedregents.org):

Catchy Review Title

Paragraph 1: Introduction of the Review. This paragraph mentions the author and the book title. Indicate your overall recommendation in the first paragraph, which will be rephrased in the conclusion.

Paragraph 2: Summary and Main Characters. Summarize the story and describe the main characters.

Paragraph 3: Favorite Section. Describe the best part of the book, explaining why other readers will enjoy it, without giving away the entire plot. If you are writing a negative review, explain your least favorite part of the book.

Paragraph 4: Lessons Learned. Explain the theme of the story and any lessons that the author wants readers to remember.

Paragraph 5: Conclusion of the Review. The last paragraph should restate if you recommend the book to others or not.

Book reviews expand in detail as we gain experiences as readers and writers, but the underlying structure remains the same. A New York Times book review tells us a bit about the author, the basics about the book, and tries to persuade us to either read or avoid an encounter with the text. The breadth and depth increase, but those elementary school models remind us that most of us have written book reviews.

In high school, book review assignments resemble marketing reviews. Teachers tend to ask students to write about books they enjoyed reading. As a result, the book reviews of high school students read like promotional materials.

Blurbs and Marketing Reviews

If you read dust jacket endorsements, known as cover blurbs, you are familiar with the shortest form of marketing review. A marketing review is meant to sell a book; rarely does a marketing review teach the potential reader a meaningful lesson. Of course, if you do buy a book based solely on blurbs, you do risk learning how useless blurbs are.

Blurbs read like the snippets of movie reviews studios use (often out of context) to promote their films. Hyperbole is the norm in blurbs. “The ‘must-read’ book of the year!” “This book will change your life.” “I had to read it cover to cover. It is impossible to put down this book.” If blurbs were accurate, then every book published would be superior to all previous books. Blurbs are less than 100 words and seldom longer than 50 words.

Marketing reviews are short reviews commissioned by a publisher or author. Some writing groups offer to review member books, so these reviews can be cited in marketing materials. Such reviews are collegial and supportive, rarely examples of detailed critical analysis. However, before dismissing all marketing reviews as useless, appreciate that there is a difference between being supportive and being dishonest. When writing groups review books by members or when an agent asks an author for a review, these reviewers tend do their best to compose honest reviews.

Marketing reviews tend to be less than 750 words. Within the constraints of their purpose, the reviews adhere to the conventions of longer form reviews you might find in newspapers or magazines.

A sample marketing review structure:

Catchy Review Title Review Subtitle

Paragraph 1: Introduction. This paragraph includes short, easily quoted sentences about the best qualities of the book. Mention the author and the title in the middle of the paragraph. The wittier your statements recommending the book, the better in a marketing review.

Paragraphs 2 and 3: Summary. In the summary paragraphs, continue the positive and witty recommendation model. Marketing reviews tend to embrace adjectives and adverbs, without the absurd hyperbole of blurbs. Clichés pepper marketing reviews, but we wish they didn’t. You do not need to write, “The dangerous voyage across Lake Superior during a squall had me on the edge of my seat.” Replace a cliché like “edge of my seat” with more detail to make the marketing review more substantial.

Paragraph 4: Characters. People want to know what makes the main characters compelling. Marketing materials know that people remember characters better than plot points.

Paragraph 5: Promote the Author. Marketing reviews tend to include more promotion of the author than impartial reviews do.

Paragraph 6: Style Points. Because most marketing reviews try to associate an author’s style with his or her biography, praise of the style tends to follow the biographical information. For example: “Drawing on her experience as a surgeon, Dr. Garza vividly describes the operating room scenes. Readers witness the common mistakes surgeons make under pressure, from a firsthand perspective.”

Paragraph 7: Conclusion. Again, the wittier, the better. The first and last paragraphs of a marketing review are the most important because they are meant to be quoted.

If you are asked to write a marketing review, we suggest outlining the review using the above model. A marketing review needs to fit on a page or two. The sentences and the paragraphs are short, allowing them to be quoted. As Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Part II

In our next post, we will address composing long-form reviews.

Publishers Losing Control

Publishers are still relevant in the Amazon-dominated world of book retailing, but they are losing their influence in some of the most important areas of publishing — and they will either adapt or fade into the smallest niches.

Academic publishing is a huge industry, from peer-review journals to textbooks. There are also industry journals, which cater to a variety of fields and specialities. Publishers charge a lot for academic and industry publications because they can.

Over the next five years, and certainly within a decade, major universities with in-house “presses” and journals will migrate to digital editions. There are several content management systems (CMSs) designed specifically to manage academic journals and monographs. I anticipate that these systems will someday support numerous output formats from a single database of articles or chapters. If you need an e-book in ePub format, a few clicks later it will be transferred to your device or computer.

The Public Knowledge Project (http://pkp.sfu.ca) is one example of a set of open platforms targeting the academic publishing market. The applications are free and already popular among research universities around the globe. Other open software solutions and numerous commercial solutions exist. I’ve helped install many of these platforms; one or two good administrators can manage a complete publishing and online solution.

We’ve already seen self-published books for the mass market displace books from major publishing houses on Amazon. Self-published textbooks are starting to rise on Apple’s iTunes U. The publishers are losing control — so they can either adapt or fade away.

Industry organizations will also move to online, digital publishing. They won’t need to rely on massive publishing companies to print and distribute journals. Those organizations that are also publishers, and there are many, will also migrate to digital publishing. They will be forced to make content more affordable and more readily available.

As an aside, I hope writers aren’t among the losers in this shift to affordable distribution models. So far, moved to digital formats haven’t helped publishers or writers. We will need to find a way to balance the needs of writers with the needs of readers. Then again, academic publishers have seldom offered fair compensation to writers.

 

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Design Changes – Coming November 19, 2012

The Tameri Guide for Writers had fallen behind the times. In Internet time, we were a generation behind the latest design and feature trends. The site had been moved to a three-column “fluid” layout a few years ago, accommodating a variety of computer screen sizes from 800 to 1024 pixels wide. Today, however, people have huge screens on the desktop and little screens of 320 pixels in their pockets or purses thanks to smartphones. The Tameri site wasn’t working well for many visitors.

Writers and publishers once could assume words would appear on a page that didn’t change from reader to reader. If two people purchased copies of a book in the same format, the books were the same. Today, however, digital texts are unpredictable. My iPhone has one display, my wife’s iPad has another. Plus, both devices “auto-rotate” pages depending on how you hold them: portrait or landscape is up to the user, not the designer.

I am now testing a layout that seems to work well on my phone, okay on a tablet, and perfectly on a standard screen from 1024 to 2048 pixels wide. That’s the new design conundrum: each layout has to be at least good enough, if not perfect. I’m still designing with the assumption people will have a 1024-pixel or wider screen, with phone and tablet access for convenience. Design is a compromise.

When we do unveil the new template, we will be converting one page at a time. That will allow us to catch problems as we update the entire site. Once we are certain things are working well, we will bulk convert the remaining content. Expect a few glitches, though.

For the technically minded, the new site will be using a mix of fluid and responsive grid templates from Adobe Dreamweaver’s library [link http://www.adobe.com] and the 1140 Grid System by Andy Taylor [link: http://cssgrid.net]. Merging two basic template sets has resulted in a better overall design for website visitors.

As always, please let us know if you locate any design or content errors. We are dedicating more time to Tameri projects in coming months.