I don’t often accept unsolicited posts, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Current Guest Post Listings:
- Daniel Swensen: Reviewing Books Like A Boss: A Guide
- James Hazzard:Why Zombies?
- Lillie McFerrin: An Interview With The Founder of Five Sentence Founder
- Annamarie Miles: How I Write A Short Story
Reviewing Books Like a Boss: A Guide
So you’ve decided to write a book review. First of all, let me offer my condolences. I’m kidding, book reviews can be fun and valuable, if you approach them with the right attitude. They can inform and entertain. They can also be a terrifying chore. The difference lies in your approach.
Let’s start with the basics: why do you want to write a review in the first place?
- You liked the book want to promote the author?
- You liked the book want to promote the book?
- You hated the book but feel obliged to promote the author?
- You want to make people laugh and get internet Brownie points for delivering clever snark?
- You hated the book and want everyone else to share your suffering?
These are questions worth asking. Some motivations are more suspect than others, but I will not expound on their relative worth here. The main thing is, have your intent in mind when you sit down to write your review, because your content should reflect said intent.
If you want to promote a fellow indie author, slagging it at length and then giving it five stars is not a rock-solid approach. Neither is giving a glowing, breathless review and then giving it one star because you couldn’t be bothered to realize Amazon has a star rating system. (Seriously, I’ve seen both these things happen. “LOVED IT! BIG FAN! ONE STAR.”)
So now that you’ve established why you’re writing your review, let’s take a brief look at why other people read reviews.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but personally, I read reviews for clues on whether or not I’d like the book. I know, pretty revolutionary. But finding a good review can mean sifting through a lot of crap. Generally, no matter what the book, a bunch of people will 5-star it and proclaim it the best thing since breathing. Others will 1-star it and proclaim it the work of Hitler, Satan and Rob Schneider combined. Thing is, praise or condemnation by itself doesn’t interest me. What I want to know is why that praise or condemnation is there.
And that, to me, is the key to a good review: tell me why.
By this, I don’t mean make your praise more colorful or enthusiastic. Things like “I couldn’t put it down” or “I didn’t want it to end” don’t actually tell me about the book. They tell me about your experience reading the book. And I’m happy for you, but since I’m not telepathic, I don’t know what you value in your prose. Did the plot keep your attention? Did the book contain a mystery you were dying to see solved? Did you love the characters and their interactions? Every bit of information you include in this area will give me, as a reader of your review, something to look at and decide whether we have that in common. Writing the review in all caps with your balled fists, on the other hand, does not.
The same goes for the negatives. Now, I enjoy a good sarcastic slagging as much as the next person, but most one-star reviews are some of the least informative reviews imaginable. I hated it. It was torture. So boring I read half the dust jacket, threw it at my cat, and sat down to write this five-paragraph polemic on why it sucks. This book made me punch my baby sister. I would rather have the webbing between by toes devoured by PCP-addicted marmosets than read it again.
All very colorful, but your BDSM fetishes are your business. A chronicle of your suffering doesn’t inform me of anything but your penchant for hyperbole. If you truly loathed a book, tell me why: irredeemable politics. Hateful characters. Ludicrous plot holes. Turgid prose. Crushing boredom. (That last one is highly suspicious, since I enjoy a lot of things other people find boring, but I’ll still take it over comparisons of the prose to root canal or being branded with a cattle iron.)
If you want to be funny or creative in your review, by all means do so. But personally, I don’t go to book reviews for open mic night at the Improv. If you want to be witty, do it by being informative in witty ways, not by seeing how closely you can compare your reading experience to the Bataan Death March or whatever. And I swear to Vonnegut’s ghost, if you write “I wish I could give it zero stars” I will punch you right in the karma.
In closing, I’d like to bring this back around to the question of motivation. Reviewing books becomes a tricky endeavor when indie authors are involved. If you yourself are an indie writer, and make a habit of reading the work of others, you will inevitably meet a book you hate by a person you like. It’s just how it goes. So you may well find yourself in the position of having to review a book you didn’t care for and risk hurting the feelings of the person involved. So what do you do?
In my opinion, you be honest. And note that “honest” is not a synonym for “cruel.” Honesty does not give you a free pass to be as hurtful as you can to another indie author. If you’re going to take time out of your life to express your displeasure with a novel, make it constructive. List the problems and why you felt they detracted from the story. Detail your expectations and how they were not met. In short, give the author something they can take away from the review.
Every writer is always looking to improve — give them your take on how their next book could be better. Don’t set out to crush their spirit. If you truly hated the book and need to work off your frustration, then consider just not spending any more time with it. Go play a game or work out instead. Everyone will be happier.
Sturgeon’s Law is well in effect when it comes to book reviews — a lot of dross and a few gems. Do readers (and writers) a favor and be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
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Connect with Daniel Swensen (aka Surly Muse)
By J. Whitworth Hazzard
I admit it. I write about zombies. But, I don’t ONLY write about zombies. In fact, my first unpublished, and unpublishable, novel was about a dragon living in the Midwest. However lately, zombies happen to be one of the topics that I find interesting enough to spin tales about in my head. And while you wouldn’t think people would care, I’ve been questioned on the matter many times. By readers, friends, family, and especially other writers. You write about what? Why zombies? They’re just dead things with no brain. That’s not interesting at all, they claim.
I suppose in some sense they’re correct. If I only wrote about a reanimated corpse shambling around looking for someone—or something—to bite, then there’s not much story there. As a protagonist, or even as a single antagonist, zombies don’t have much oomph. They’d be short story material at best. So why write about them?
At the heart of things, my interest in zombies lies in post-apocalyptic fiction and the genre’s ability to cut right to the heart of human nature. With every Earth-ending catastrophe you get to see the good, the bad, and the downright ugly side of your characters. When I was a teenager, it was books like Lucifer’s Hammer that fascinated me but, as an adult, the idea of an asteroid as antagonist is just as boring as a solar flare, magnetic-pole reversal, or nuclear winter.
Yes, the end of the world is terrifying but, for me, zombies bring the human face back to doomsday. It’s us. We’re the cause and executors of our own demise in these stories, not some random act from space, or super-volcano. It always the fear of other people, the living, breathing evil that hides in desperate men and women, that drives a good zombie story. The Walking Dead should have taught us that by now. Because you lose sleep at night, not over worrying about gamma-ray bursts, but over the neighbor down the street that looked at your daughter like a piece of meat. You worry that if he loses control of his urges, so will you—and you’ll have to bash in creeper’s skull with a shovel.
In all my zombie stories, I consider the walking dead to be sort of like bears. They’re an environmental hazard. Stephen Colbert would agree with me that they’re a prime threat. In the zoo, people love bears. They’re cute and cuddly and sometimes do funny things. In the wild, bears are terrifying. Backpackers and campers lose their shit when a bear wanders into their path…with good reason. Zombies are no different. They represent an uncontrollable carnivore; a reset of nature’s food chain where humans are no longer at the top.
Why not write about vampires or werewolves? (Asketh the fangirls)
Because Trueblood has pointed out to me that vampires (and werewolves) are no more interesting than non-vampires as characters. There are plenty of boring-as-a-brick-wall vampires running around popular fiction these days. The merit of a character is not in his/her paranormal schtick but in their actions…it’s about STORY.
So why do you write about zombies?
I don’t! Is the short answer. I write about characters facing death and mayhem and trying to figure out where they belong in a world stripped of social norms and civilization’s safety nets. My characters have to figure out who they are and what they stand for when there is no law or order. THAT is what is I find interesting. I don’t write about zombie outbreaks and people fleeing for their lives either; that’s been done to death. It’s been done both very well and very poorly, but those stories I leave to other authors to tell. I write about people in the aftermath. I want to know what drives someone who’s lost everything to keep going and not only survive, but to rebuild society.
And with bears…errr…zombies everywhere!
That’s a good story to me.
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Be sure to check out the first two episodes of Dead Sea Games, J. Whitworth Hazzard’s zombie serial, available as ebooks on Amazon Kindle and B&N Nook.
About the Author
J. Whitworth Hazzard lives in the vast cornfields of Illinois with his wife, and four nearly perfect children. A Geek-for-Hire by day, J. Whitworth has worked for over a decade fixing minor computer problems, some of which he did not even cause. He prepares technical documents for a living and tries not to include any zombies in reports on server upgrades and network outages (although not always successfully).
Dr. Hazzard has a PhD in molecular biophysics that he now uses to figure out how to scientifically justify the existence of mythical creatures. Trained in science and critical thinking, J. Whitworth spends his leisure time writing fiction that would make his former professors cringe. He has been a life-long writer and has spent more than his fair share of time writing about all kinds of ridiculous things. His dream of writing for a living started in the 5th grade when his five page story “The Blood and Guts 500” entranced and thrilled his classmates. His passionate prosody received a standing ovation and from that day forward he was hooked on the art of story telling.
Follow Dr. Hazzard’s adventures in fiction on:
Twitter @Zombiemechanics (htts://twitter.com/zombimechanics)
Facebook J. Whitworth Hazzard (http://www.facebook.com/jwhitworthhazzard)
Web Zombiemechanics Blog (http://zombiemechanics.com)
An Interview With Five Sentence Fiction Founder Lillie McFerrin
(1) How did you come by your love of reading?
Both my Mom and Grandmother are big readers. They made certain I was always surrounded by books and read to me often.
I actually still have my entire collections of Care Bears, Little Golden Books, and Walt Disney, along with about a hundred other children’s books.
The book that I loved the most was The Poky Little Puppy. I can’t wait to read it to my own kids one day!
(2) In what way(s) has your MS diagnosis improved your life?
I absolutely adore this question!!! Multiple Sclerosis has had a huge impact on my life in so many negative ways that I love pointing out the positives.
MS truly made me slow down and cherish everything, like being able to walk. It’s something that you just don’t think about until there’s a chance one day you won’t be able.
In the process of slowing down, I finally set aside time to complete my first novel, and well writing is kind of my thing, so who can complain about that???
(3) Did your love of greeting cards prompt your writing passion? If not, what did?
I truly have no idea where the writing started. The urge to write has always been there.
I’m cripplingly introverted and shy, so writing was the only way I said what I was really thinking.
That’s how I know when people say it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for, they’re right.
From the age of ten I have always kept journals where I like to ramble, where I pretend my poetry is amazing and full of meaning. Life changing stuff, really 🙂
(4) What five books would you run back into the house to save from a fire?
Oh man, oh man. I have honestly thought about this before.
(1) First, The Poky Little Puppy of course.
(2) Next, I have my Dad’s first Bible that I really love.
(3) Then, Pride and Prejudice
(4) My signed copy of Tough Customer by Sandra Brown
(5) My DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), not only vital in college, but a great research tool for some of my characters.
(5) How did you come up with the idea for Five Sentence Fiction?
Well, I had just started blogging and felt horribly inferior to many of my favorite bloggers and was looking for a way to have a regular post, especially when I was too tired to write.
I have a journal that I try to write at least three sentences in a day, so FSF was just a spinoff of that.
(6) How has social media influenced you as a writer?
Without question. Twitter tops the list by far. I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time last year, and without the awesome writers on Twitter who motivated me there’s no way I would’ve gotten my 50,000 words.
(7) What are the ingredients/elements of a great book? What do you look for in a great story?
I’m a complete sucker for a good ooey gooey romance with sprinkles of action and adventure.
I think the plot is obviously important, but most important to me are the characters.
I want to become friends and/or enemies with characters as I read, and I want to miss them when I put the book down.
(8) What’s the one essential ingredient to your creative vibe that you can’t do without?
Music. I have a mix just for writing that includes Ray Lamontagne, Grace Potter, Adele, and Andy McKee.
(9) Write a five sentence fiction based on the prompt THRIVE.
Drowning in the pool of bitter memories swallowing up my soul, I frantically tread, flailing my sweeter memories about and willing them to sprout feathers that will haul me up from this vortex of agony.
I search for a brighter place, but these slick talons relentlessly grasp at me from every angle, pulling me toward that dark place abandoned by light long ago.
But, as my toe unwillingly inches over the precipice, a face full of optimism, blue eyes big as saucers, and a pale pink bow of a mouth, flashes across my crippled mind.
She tosses me a rope, determined that I will use it to pull myself from the void.
In that instant I know I can tread forever or choose to pull myself from here and refill my soul with the sunshine of my daughter’s heart.
(10) What one thing would you like to share about MS? A myth you’d like to dispel? An aspect you’d like to clarify? What do you want people to take away from your experience with it?
For me, the fatigue is what is most misunderstood. I get tons of well meaning advice on how to deal with being tired constantly, but it’s one of those things you have to experience to understand. It is sort of like having the flu all the time.
I think the idea that just because you’re not yet in a wheelchair your MS isn’t that bad is one thought that drives me nuts. There are so many other truly disabling facets to this disease. But, I have had the opportunity through Facebook, Twitter, and the MS Walk I do every year to meet many fellow MSers and they are amazing people, with sunny outlooks, and trooper attitudes.
We are all just learning the best way to live our new life. The best possible thing you could do for the person in your life with any disease is get educated. I have to remember my family doesn’t always get my inability to control my moods. Really, they are the ones suffering there 🙂
(11) Write or Die: Your survival depends on crafting the world’s best story. What one writer (living or dead) would you chose as your co-writer – and why?
Picking just one is tough, but I would have to go with Sandra Brown.
I had the opportunity to meet her last year at a writer’s conference in Savannah, and she was amazing. My favorite thing about her books is the way each one is fresh and new and interesting while staying true to the romantic suspense her readers demand. Her characters are always interesting and ones that I miss in the best way.
BIO: Lillie lives on Amelia Island with her Boston Terrier Duke. She is working towards her copy editor certification and looking forward to starting work as a freelance copy editor next year. Editing is one of her favorite things to do, next to writing. When she isn’t at her desk, she’s most likely kayaking. To connect with Lillie, stop by her blog or follow her on twitter.
HOW I WRITE A SHORT STORY
But that is the first thing that makes this subject so fascinating for me… there are lots of us out there writing stories and although we’re sharing the same 26 letters and 5 senses – I bet we all go about it differently. So rather than offer you advice on how you should write a short story, I’ll share with you some of the things I (try to) do.
I’m about to self-publish a collection of short stories (shameless plug 😀 ) and there a few habits I’ve developed in my short story writing.
I always start with free-writing.
9 times out of 10, my short story comes from my free-writing.
Free-Writing is about turning off the internal editor and getting words out of your head and on to the page. Ignoring spelling, grammar, plot, structure etc you just write. Garbled ideas, single sentences, snippets of a conversation – whatever is going around your head.
A lot of the time you won’t use what you’ve poured on to the page; but my experience has been that in the middle of the random ramblings there’s always a gem to be found.
I try to limit the number of characters
I can only develop my character to a certain level in a short story. So I usually keep the characters to a max of 3 or 4. Any more than that and the reader doesn’t get a chance to get to know them; and can get confused with the mix of people involved. I have broken that rule the odd time because the story demanded it, but in general I like to have 1 or 2 main characters and 1 or 2 supporting characters.
I add a twist in the tale
I like a short story to have a punchline. There’s little time for readers to develop a deep connection with the story, so I like to finish with a play on words or a revelation. Almost like the story is being told with the camera zoomed in on a small aspect of the situation. Then at the end, it zooms out and the real context of the story reveals a contradiction that brings a laugh or a tear – or even a groan that you’d associate with a corny joke – I’m not fussy.
Show don’t tell
If you’ve been writing for more than 5 minutes you’ll already have heard this ten times. I think it’s all the more important in a short story. Rather than say that the character was angry or scared etc., I try to let the story reveal that. One of my common mistakes is revealing the character traits of fear or love etc., really well, then I finish the paragraph by stating the obvious… “She was really scared.”
I’ll be honest when I say that I still struggle to get this one right and I always need someone to point it out to me when I’m ‘telling’ – which brings me to my last point…
I always have someone read it
I am a terrible editor and proof reader; but this is about more than tapas. (See what I did there? 😀 ) I’ve learned the hard way that just because everything makes sense in my head, it doesn’t mean it will for the reader. My storylines are usually quite tame in nature and I was shocked when someone read a story of mine and said, “I can’t believe she murdered her children.” I was like… “WHHHHAAAAATTTTT? No she didn’t!” The story was not meant to be ambiguous, but it was and I hadn’t noticed.
Actually there is one more… I ENJOY IT!
I love writing. I’ve been blogging for years but only in the last year or so have I tried my hand at writing stories and I love to do it and hope that I can make it my 9to5 – even if I never make any money. I’ve found my thing. And I love it.
If you’re not loving it, if you’re not enjoying it – you really need to ask yourself if you should be doing it. I don’t mean you shouldn’t wrestle with your stories or work hard to craft the tale.
But to write a story, and write it well – you’ve got to love doing it!