Comments and Marginalia in Manuscripts

As I was writing a post about “comments” in computer programming source code, I noted that I like comments and marginalia when I write for “human” readers. Even when writing for myself, I like to preserve my notes. One of the things we lose with the transition from paper to digital media is the marginalia and other marks readers and writers leave as they read and write.

Reading and Marking

My wife and I both love books. We revere books. Because of this respect for the printed page, neither of us is an active highlighter, annotator, or scribbler. When I took a class that required marking in a book, it pained me to be destroying the pages with green and orange highlights.

When I buy a book, especially a textbook, I don’t want someone’s marks on the pages. First, the previous reader(s) might have marked the wrong passages as important. Second, it is distracting. I want to read and think about a text on my own, at least initially.

I do take notes, and I use Post-It flags to mark important passages. But, I cannot push myself to mark on the pages, no matter how useful that might be. I realize that most of the books I own have little resale value, but some are valuable. They are all valuable to me, regardless.

However, I realize that writing notes and highlighting strategically are good study skills. These are skills I wish my students possessed. It would help most of them earn better grades and, more importantly, consider texts more thoughtfully.

When I do see a student’s text marked, the pages are nearly solid markings. I have to explain to a student, yes, authors should make every word count, but you highlighting every word doesn’t help you focus on the most essential passages. If more than a quarter of a chapter is marked, there is no way to review and study the content effectively in the future.

Here are some suggestions for marking and marginalia I offer my classes:

  1. Limit marks to less than a third, ideally less than a quarter, of any chapter or section.
  2. Use more than one color to code the text in a meaningful manner.
  3. Mark words or phrases that represent the essence of the content, especially technical jargon.
  4. Annotate when a section refers back to another section, with a page number and word or phrase. (For example: “Ref’s c2p23: continental drift.”)
  5. Compare your notes to the index and table of contents, because titles and index references reflect major concepts in most texts.
  6. Outline using the marks you made, updating marginalia as necessary.

Marking a text seems tedious to many students. And, if they are avid readers and book lovers like me, they might resist marking directly on a page. That is why I also demonstrate using Post-It flags and notes for book lovers.

Unlike when I was an undergraduate, today students and teachers carry notebooks and tablet computers. I recommend using dedicated outlining software, either while reading or while reviewing marks. Many word processors have an outline mode, and you can use any text editor for notes, but a program such as OmniOutliner lets you organize and reorganize your thoughts. I demonstrate OmniOutliner and several free alternatives to my classes when I discuss the value of outlining after reading a text.

For books that are in digital formats, most e-reader software has highlighting and comment modes. I scan some older, more fragile texts and “mark” the PDF copy. When I can work with a digital copy of a text, I write a lot of notes to myself.

Notes While Writing

I make notes to myself while writing. Not a few notes, either. These notes help me when I edit, reorganize, and revise any text. Sadly, many writers working at computers don’t take notes. In the dark ages, a writer would write in longhand or type and make all manner of marks on the pages. Those marks and notes were helpful, but that practice is fading.

Tangent: My theory is that longhand and typing force writers to go slowly, to think about every word. When writing each word takes a bit of effort, I write less — but I write better. That’s why I write on legal pads and in notebooks, especially when writing fiction. There are fewer distractions and less temptation to generate high word counts on paper.

When I do open the laptop or pull out the keyboard drawer, I keep making notes while I enter text into my text editors and word processors. I spend part of a class meeting on using the “comments” feature in various programs because I want my students to develop this note taking habit. By the end of the semester, students are thanking me — as if some great mystery had been reveled to them. (Most claim to be masters of Word, yet have little awareness of templates, styles, macros, or basic automation tools.)

Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages both support comments. When you print, you can control whether or not to print the comments — but there’s no need to delete the comments before you print the document! Too often, my students delete comments that might be useful later. If you must remove comments and other marks from a document before sending it to another person, make a copy of the file first.

Do not place notes as text within the document, not even as “hidden” or “non-printing” text. Comments in a document will alter the layout, page count, and word count. Learn to use your word processors and editors properly.

One reason I love Pages and Scrivener is that they save “versions” and “snapshots” of documents. If you decide that what you have been typing for the last four hours isn’t what you wanted, not a problem. You can “revert to previous” or “restore snapshot” and get back the version you liked. The edits are not lost, either — they are stored as comments and notes.

Additional Notes

I encourage using comments, and I also encourage keeping all other notes taken during the writing process.

Good writers plan. They outline. They research. As they write, they revise and reorganize what they’ve already written. I’ve always kept a physical folder for each writing project, and I try to use a single notebook or legal pad for my handwritten notes, that way the notes for more than one project don’t end up intermingled. I’m usually working on more than one project, so keeping organized is essential.

I advise all writers, especially my students, to keep everything for a project together, both physically and virtually. How you organize the materials should reflect your work style, but be organized. It never seems to fail that the notes you thought you didn’t need anymore become essential to a passage you are writing or revising. Even when you finish a project, keep the notes.

Every writing project has to potential to become another project. For example, I’ve had short stories become stage plays, and then morph into screenplays. I’ve taken novels and turned them into scripts, and vice-versa. The notes I’ve maintained along the way have enabled me to adapt works effectively. Adaptation is hard work, be it an old short story that inspires a novel or a novel that might work well as a film. Without my notes, I might not remember why I made various choices.

Non-fiction also changes. I’ve written articles that lead to other articles. You don’t want to “reuse” earlier works, but you do want to draw from them. Good research for an article remains valuable even if it is contradicted by later research findings. Having old notes, therefore, helps construct better arguments in later works.

While I love physical folders, notepad, and notecards, eventually you type a manuscript or research paper. Since my earliest computing days, I’ve organized my projects carefully. At first, each project was a single floppy disk — or set of disks with labels of the same color. Multicolored disks were a great invention, too! Once hard drives became affordable, I created a “writing” directory (folder) and created folders within that for each project.

Today, I sill keep folders within folders, carefully named for quick searches. The folder approach is good, but for a few years now I have taken this to the next step by using Scrivener for drafts of most writing projects. If you write a lot, buy Scrivener (http://www.literatureandlatte.com). I also suggest buying Bookends (http://www.sonnysoftware.com) if you need to prepare bibliographies and track sources. Without writing a review of Scrivener (there are many online, since it is a great program), I’ll explain my endorsement simply: it organizes any writing, and all the research for that project, in a nice “binder” with sections.

Whether a writer uses Scrivener and Bookends or some other combination of tools, keeping notes is invaluable.

It is easy, too easy, to delete a document or project from digital media. A click or a keystroke and away the file goes, the bits to be reclaimed and reused for other data. With hard drives, USB memory sticks, and other media so affordable, there really is no good reason to delete documents or other files. Resist the temptation, unless you have a very, very good, extremely good, reason to do so. And even then, I’d discourage deletion.

What if You Become Famous?

That might seem like a silly question, but it is serious to scholars.

When writers worked on paper, libraries and universities could archive the materials of famous individuals. While some writers’ notes were destroyed (Jane Austen) and others hoped their notes would be destroyed (Franz Kafka), the manuscripts, notes, journals, and correspondence left behind by writers are useful artifacts for scholars.

E-mail is unlikely to be saved, so we are likely losing the notes writers exchange with editors, publishers, and agents. We are also losing most of their personal correspondence. (Granted, most emails isn’t worthy of being archived, but not all handwritten or typed letters were important, either.) E-mail, text messages, and other electronic communications quickly fade, though some services like Twitter do offer their archives to the Library of Congress and universities for research.

Sadly, even archived data can be rendered useless.

The floppy disks, old hard drives, and other media stored in our basement cannot be accessed by our current computers. I have no floppy drives, no tower cases with IDE interfaces, no way to access the odd media that seemed so amazing 15 years ago (Zip and LS-120 drives).

I try to remember to migrate old documents and files, including those I haven’t used for years, to each new system I buy or hard drive I install. I’m sure I’ve missed some files over the years, though. In those cases, I should still have printed documents in file folders.

Do your part to keep comments and marginalia alive.

Marketing a Book (or any Creative Work)

You as a Brand

If you are a writer or artist of any kind, you are a brand. I tell my students, every person is a brand: you become associated with a product or service. Your reputation for integrity and quality will proceed you. I could write a long essay on the value of being honest, hardworking, and so on.

Writers rely on building a following, usually based on consistently good works. But, even that’s not enough. You also have to get people interested enough that they will read or see your works. Marketing matters.

One of the mistakes authors and artists make is assuming that a publisher, producer, agent, or someone else will deal with marketing and promoting the work — and your career. You might tell yourself, “My success is their success.” Unfortunately, you’re likely one of many. Yes, you might be viewed as a commodity by the people you expect to market you.

Agents, publishers, publishers… they do love you while your career is hot. Become the next big thing, and everyone will be more than happy to work to promote you. This is not because everyone is greedy or selfish; it is more complex. Since these people represent dozens, hundreds, or thousands of artists, they have to invest their energy (and money) wisely.

An author recently told me that he didn’t want to be the one promoting his works. It felt like pride or conceit to be claiming people should buy his book. As an artist, you created your work for an audience, though we sometimes tell ourselves differently. You must reach out to that potential audience, somehow.

The Marketing Steps

Step 1: Ask Permission

Be honest with your agent or others involved in promoting your work. Ask if you can do some of the legwork to promote yourself and your work. Keep things positive, explaining that you understand your work is one of many and you simply want to help.

Step 2: Review Existing Plans

You should know what has been or will be done to promote your work. Compare any existing plan to the remainder of this quick and simple marketing guide. Only do those things that won’t undercut the efforts of marketing experts. Just as you should let an editor do what an editor does best, let the marketing pro do his or her job. But… you might need to help fill in some gaps.

Step 3: Web Presence!

If you don’t have an “official” website and/or Facebook page, create those. (If you need help, we are available to guide you.) If your works are available on Amazon, also create an Amazon “Author’s Page” and link that to your other Web presences.

Have your online sites complete and ready before moving to the next steps. You should include links to your website and Facebook page within your email signature, on business cards, and in any marketing materials.

Step 4: Create a Media List

Create a list of the local media. Starting local is much easier than trying to contact national media. Start with local newspapers and broadcast media. Once you identify those organizations, identify particular columnists, reporters, and show hosts with a history of covering authors and artists. Sending press releases, marketing materials, and review copies of a work to “Editor” or “Manager” is ineffective. You need specific names. You also need to know enough that you can connect your work to others the media personality has mentioned.

Step 5: Write a Template Letter

Personal letters work better than press releases. Compose a template letter that can be customized to each media personality you hope to reach. The template will be the “body” of the letter, and then you will write custom openings and closings for each recipient. Today, most people will send an email. Still, use the template approach instead of sending “off-the-cuff” letters to strangers.

Step 6: Customize the Template

Your customized letters should begin with a mention of some the media personality has done that enjoyed and that connects to the work you are promoting. For example:

Your interview with Beverly Smith, author of Knights of Nowhere, was a great introduction to a master of young adult fantasy. As a fantasy author, I appreciated your respect for the genre. My new work, Middling Squire No Longer, was recently mentioned by Smith on her website.

End the letter with a similar connection to the personality.

Step 7: Contact… and Follow-Up

After you are satisfied with your template letter and the customized versions, start sending them. Send only two or three at a time, instead of sending every letter at once. Keep a week or two interval between the mailings, until you have contacted every media outlet on your list.

Two weeks after each mailing (or emailing), send one follow-up note to each personality contacted. Do not contact anyone a third or fourth time, unless you are asked to do so.

Step 8: Local Organizations

As you contact local media outlets, also begin compiling a list of local organizations with a history of having guest speakers. As a writer or artist, libraries and museums are certain to be on this list. Search online for other organizations, too. Sadly, many people have forgotten local service organizations are still active: Lions Clubs, Rotary, Soroptimists, and others. (Maybe you should join some groups, too.)

Additional Suggestions

Never say “No” to an interview or public appearance, no matter how small the group or media outlet. Remember, you need an audience — readers, viewers, listeners, et cetera. They have plenty of choices. Be accessible and it will be rewarded over time.

Help other writers and artists with kind words — and online links. On your website, Facebook page, and elsewhere, be sure to support other writers and artists.

Participate in any “niche” organizations related to your works. If you write romance, join the Romance Writers of America. If you are a playwright, join the Dramatists Guild of America. Connecting to colleagues builds a network that will help your career. Do not merely join groups, either — be an active member.

Be patient. Marketing takes time.

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Book Reviews, Part III

Concluding our survey of book review formats, I want to explore the “analysis” or “coverage” that publishers and editors sometimes provide to authors. In the film industry, script coverage is something many screenwriters pay a consultant to provide. Knowing what others think about your manuscript helps identify when you didn’t quite accomplish your goals.

Too many of the aspiring writers I meet confuse professional coverage with traditional reviews. One writer recently told me, “Friends and colleagues love the manuscript. The coverage I received couldn’t be right.” Yes, it could be right. You can submit the best written literary work of all time — and it could receive a thumbs-down from the reader.

Coverage Analysis versus a Review

Only one criteria matters to an editor or reader providing coverage: Will a work attract a large audience? No audience, no book, play, or movie. Publishing and producing are expensive endeavors. If your work isn’t going to appeal to a sufficient number of people willing to pay money for it, nothing else about the work matters.

No single factor decides what will or will not have a market. Some works with average plotting have a market thanks to appealing characters. Other works are simply well-timed to the marketplace. The tastes of publishers and producers also matter.

I’ve had writers ask what the point of a coverage and analysis report is, especially if the coverage isn’t meant to make you a better writer. The real question is how you define “better writer” and why being better matters. Better at what? Coverage defines better as “marketable” and interesting to the largest possible number of people.

A literary critic has different understanding of better writing, often reflecting his or her academic grounding. Some critics embrace experimental literature and film, while the audiences for such works is relatively limited. Magical realism might impress a literary critic, and obtuse references to literary traditions might warm another critic’s heart. But, will the work sell? A literary critic is supposed to focus on what the public should read and watch, not what they actually consume.

If you would rather be a literary great than a commercial success, don’t pay for coverage of a manuscript. Instead, take some courses at a good MFA program.

SUMMARY OF EVALUATION

Formal coverage begins with a few sentences stating if the work should be published/produced. If the evaluator has concerns, he or she might mention them in the summary. Some publishers and production companies use a simple “A through F” grading scale. A work with an A or B grade moves forward, while everything else is tabled.

I’ve seen one-sentence coverage summaries, both positive and negative. Some of these have been humorous, probably unintentionally. A science-fiction writer I know received the following summary: “Good story, interesting characters, no way it would sell.” Welcome to the business.

MARKETABILITY

When considering a market, there are various groups readers consider. Does the work appeal to everyone? There are works called “tent-poles” because they are expected to turn a huge profit, propping up a producer or publisher. These are summer blockbuster films and Oprah list books. They aren’t made or published to stand the test of time: they are meant to sell, and sell big.

Film studios also describe films in terms of male/female, youth/mature, YA, tween, family, and so on. The “four-quandrant” work promises to deliver men and women of all ages. The “key demo” (the ideal demographic) in film and TV remains the 18-to-25 block. In publishing, you want either the YA (young adult) or the “mommy” reader. Yes, “mommy fiction” is derogatory — the Fifty Shades of Gray trend is called “Mommy Porn” for a reason though. We know that the largest reading segments are girls and women. The YA group from 12-to-18 and the 25-to-45 group drive book sales. (Maybe the college years are too busy for mass market book reading?)

Think about your audience, even as you decide what to write. Romance books sell. Think about the two types, though. We have the Twilight series and the Fifty Shades books. Right now, paranormal is hot, with distinct segments in the YA and adult markets. It is difficult to market books to men. Movies for men? Much easier to sell, from raunchy comedies to action films, young men are a good market for screenplays.

If you don’t know your market, don’t expect the coverage reader to tell you what the market is for a manuscript.

GENERAL LITERARY ELEMENTS

Don’t expect a reader to offer much in the way of literary criticism; they focus on the potential market, not the potential for a lasting legacy. Still, readers offer minimal guidance for writers. You tend to receive more feedback the closer a manuscript is to being optioned. If you receive a lot of comments, that’s a good sign. Readers don’t waste time with hopeless causes.

PLOT

Expect to be told when the plot’s pacing is off, especially if events move too slowly or events don’t advance the plot in any clear way. What you might believe to be an essential event might not be so obvious to a reader.

STORY

Stories are wrapped around plots and characters. Readers focus on if the story appeals to the widest possible audience, or a well-defined (and profitable) audience. Read about loglines. If your story cannot be conveyed as a logline, readers will likely give a pass to the manuscript — and I don’t mean a passing grade, either.

http://www.scriptologist.com/Magazine/Tips/Logline/logline.html

POINT OF VIEW

Readers look for a “sympathetic” point-of-view when they provide coverage. The assumption is that audiences want to see a story told through a likable, trustworthy character to whom they can relate. The point-of-view does not need to be that of the hero; companions are often the guides through a film or book. The key is that the perspective should be consistent.

Film presents a bit of a problem, since your primary guide might not appear in every scene. In books, the common mistake is mixing point-of-views within a chapter or scene. Think of every scene as a self-contained narrative, from one character’s perspective. That character can only know what he or she experiences.

Try to emphasize the scenes with the primary guide. Viewers and readers try to imagine what the main characters do and don’t know. When the audience knows too much, because you’ve let the point-of-view slip to an antagonist, then some of the mystery and suspense is lost. Your audience wants to be on the edge of their seats. Controlling the point-of-view allows you to control the audience.

THEME

Popular books and movies tend to have simple, easy to appreciate themes. Good wins, usually, and the theme is obvious. Don’t confuse a theme for a thesis or moral, which is an argument supported by the work. A theme might be “Accepting people despite differences.” A thesis would be, “Accepting others leads to a better understanding of yourself.” Yes, popular stories teach a lesson, but the theme is what you can sell in a short logline.

STRUCTURE

To sell a work, start with a three-act structure. It should have a beginning, middle, and end. Furthermore, I suggest concentrating on the “Hero’s Journey” model for your structure. That’s not because there aren’t other formulas, but because coverage readers like the journey models taught in film schools.

I’ve argued this with emerging writers and literary writers: structure matters when you want to sell a story. That assertion does not imply every story must adhere to the formula coverage readers expect. You are free to break whatever rules you want — but don’t expect an easy time selling a work that doesn’t adhere to the simple three-act structure.

CHARACTERIZATION

Make your character distinct. You don’t want characters that are similar to each other. Also, the protagonist and antagonist in a story need motivations. They need backstories. You should know the details of a character’s life, even if those details are never in the story. Coverage is going to focus on whether or not an audience is going to enjoy a character.

Not every “enjoyable” character is good. Darth Vader is enjoyable. Freddy Krueger is enjoyable. Characters that are odd, a little quirky, and distinctive are enjoyable. An audience should want to follow your characters, good and bad, because they are larger than life.

DIALOGUE

Dialogue sells books and movies. Since film has drifted away from narration (voice over), books are starting to do the same. As a result, the dialogue between characters is how readers learn what a character is thinking. Write good, tight dialogue; every word matters.

SETTING

Coverage readers look at settings in two ways: 1) How expensive would it be to film? 2) How much will audiences care about the setting? Cheaper is better for film, while more elaborate and amazing is better for some types of book. Remember, books are an escape from reality for many readers — and it costs nothing to create a setting with words.

If the setting is essential to the story in a book or script, be sure to research the details. If the story could take place anytime, anywhere, then you’ll be focused on the characters.

DESCRIPTION

Script readers want minimal description and narration in a film or stage script. As they say, “Let the director do his (or her) job.” Scripts are sparse, only 4500 words or so for a full-length feature. That’s the length of a short story. You cannot afford to get lost in detailed descriptions.

For a book, paint with words. Be as descriptive as possible. You are the director, the cinematographer, the set designer, and more. The book author is all-powerful. Use that power, but use it wisely. A manuscript analysis will indicate if you need to add description. Rarely does an analysis suggest less description, but it does happen. Describe what matters.

The Librarian

This weekend, TNT aired “The Librarian” movies. It reminds me of other great references to books and libraries.

From The Mummy (1999):

Evelyn: I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure-seeker, or a gunfighter, Mr. O’Connell, but I am proud of what I am.
Rick: And what is that?
Evelyn: I… am a librarian.

From the Doctor Who episode “Tooth and Claw” (2006):

Sir Robert: Nevertheless, that creature won’t give up, Doctor, and we still don’t possess an actual weapon!
The Doctor: Oh, your dad got all the brains, didn’t he?
Rose Tyler: Being rude again!
The Doctor: Good, I meant that one. You want weapons? We’re in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world! This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have – arm yourselves!

I found the idea of being a librarian very appealing—working in a place where people had to whisper and only speak when necessary. If only the world were like that!
― Peter Cameron, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You

Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.
― Neil Gaiman

When the going gets tough, the tough get a librarian.
― Joan Bauer

A book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements and clumsy hands. so the librarian protects the books not only against mankind but also against nature and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion.
— Umberto Eco

Not all librarians are evil cultists. Some librarians are instead vengeful undead who want to suck your soul.
― Brandon Sanderson, Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones

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.