Tips for Writing an Effective Book Review


Tips for Writing an Effective Book Review

Book reviews are more than just an ego boost for authors. Your review – whether it’s a full-on critique or simply a rating – helps future readers determine whether or not to give that author’s work a chance. Also, on sites like Amazon.com, the number of reviews helps to determine if the site will put that book in front of shoppers looking at similar items; the more reviews, the more likely the book will be suggested to more shoppers (it’s all about the site’s algorithms). Here are some things to consider after you’ve read a book.

  1. Be honest! Even if the author is a friend, your credibility as a reviewer is at stake.
  2. Stars are important, but words add credibility. If you want to give the book you just finished 5 out of 5 stars, fantastic! Adding even one or two sentences about why you gave the book that rating will help readers know what to expect from the book. And yes, authors do like to know what worked and didn’t work for you.
  3. Post your review in multiple places. So you bought your book at a local independent bookstore. Good for you! You can still post a review at Amazon, BN.com, GoodReads, Shelfari, etc. Don’t forget your blog and social media outlets! Cutting and pasting your review to several places will really help the author.
  4. Don’t mention in your review that the author is your best friend, your neighbor, your ex, or your teacher. Some sites, like Amazon, will remove your review if it appears you have a personal relationship with the author. If you were given a free copy it is perfectly fine to say you received the book for free in exchange for an honest review.
  5. Be honest! Yeah, I said this already. A reader who buys a book with undeserved glowing reviews is more likely to become disgruntled and over compensate with more negative reviews than the book may deserve.

(c) 2016 Steven E. Wedel

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Fate and Legacy


Tonight I said a final farewell to the Western Heights High School Class of 2016.There has really only been one other time I was so reluctant to let go of a group of kids, and even then there weren’t as many that had come to be like family. The idea that I’m going to work tomorrow and won’t see these kids is really hard to accept.

20160520_143859I’m tempted to name all my AP Lit students here and tell a story about them, but that wasn’t my intent with this post. There are some good stories. I’ll only tell one, and it’s one from Friday, the last day of class. The seniors were dismissed after their assembly that day, which ended around 10:30 a.m. A couple of my girls, Sarah and Casidee, had been working for a couple of days to surprise me by getting most of my 6th hour AP Lit class to come back during their regular class time; they’d even arranged with another teacher to get me out of the room so they could get in undetected. That’s them in the photo, along with a few of my 2nd hour AP Lit kids. They also gave me a photo album with pictures going back to the beginning of the school year. There were flowers, food, some letters, and a couple of other gifts. It was an overwhelming display of affection and I doubt they’ll ever know how much it really meant to me.

As I told them, I didn’t want to come back to Western Heights this year. I tried very hard to find another job last summer. I won’t go into all the reasons, but one of them was because my best friend left the school. Left public education for a charter school. Now two more friends are leaving the Heights for the same charter school. I’ve applied at that charter school at least three times and can’t get an interview.

Tonight, after the graduation, two of my girls from last year, Daniela and Christine, stopped to talk to me. They told me about an event they organized at the Oklahoma Capitol a few months ago to raise awareness about the budget crisis and its effect on public education. They explained how they were telling everyone who stopped at the table they set up about me and how they were doing that for me. Someone else was telling me his brother, Class of 2008, still talks about me, wishing he’d been in my class; that was my first full year as a teacher and I didn’t even know what I was doing. Demarcus’s mom thanked me tonight for being a great teacher and said Demarcus talks about me all the time. Demarcus is an amazing young man … but I’ve never had him in class. Why would he talk about me? Why would a 2008 senior, who I didn’t have in class, talk about me?

I’m not fishing for compliments here. I don’t consider myself a great teacher. I’m no Wilda Walker, Gladys Lewis, or James McCurtain. Those are great teachers. I’m just a guy who decided to try teaching after several other careers left me unfulfilled. I love reading and writing, and have learned that I love helping kids. I am in awe of someone like James, who is all business and passion but who has the love and respect of his students without having to resort to jokes and teasing them.

Another of my girls, Lyndie, gave me a journal as a gift. She wrote a letter on the opening page and I’d like to share a small excerpt of that here:

I hope that one day I can inspire my future students in the same way you have countless others. I’m very blessed to have spent my senior year with you … One day I will look into my very own classroom and I’ll think of you, the person who has opened my eyes to the magic English has to offer, and smile. Smile not just for the good memories I have, but also for the ones I have yet to make.

I can’t read that without getting a lump in my throat. I don’t know when I inspired her, or even how. This is a kid I admired long before I realized I was having any impact on her. She’s smart, she’s got it together, she’s a good person. A virtuous person. I inspired her? Oh Lyndie, thank you, but it’s the other way around.

I wanted to be a rich and famous author. (Okay, I still do.) I thought nothing less than a literary legacy would ever make me happy in terms of a career. I was wrong. Sure, it’d be great to write something kids will study in school a hundred years from now, but is that a better legacy than the words Lyndie wrote to me? Better than having a group of incredible girls become politically active on my behalf? Lyndie will go on to inspire thousands of kids herself because she’s smart enough to know what she wants to do with her life at age 18 (unlike me, who began teaching at 40). As Tom Joad would say, when she smiles at her students, I’ll be there.

There are things I don’t like about Western Heights, but I have to wonder if it is my fate to stay there, at least a while longer, helping the kids who come through Room 42. (And apparently some who never do.) Does that sound arrogant? Or like I’m making an excuse for no other school wanting me? I don’t know. I just know I’ve come to the point that I’m okay with it. Where else could I go and find another Casidee, or Sarah, or Ben, or Jess, or Lyndie, or … You get the idea. And those are just names from this year. Shellby? Lacey? Tarryn? Chanh? So many others. So many others who have enriched my life. And so many more to come.

I’ll likely never see my name on the New York Times bestseller list. I don’t need that now. I won’t stop writing and publishing, but I do that for me now, not for a dream of wealth and celebrity. That picture up there and the things I was told tonight are better than fame and money, even if they don’t pay the bills.

No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another. — Charles Dickens

Scrivener Again


The last time I wrote about this word processing program made especially for authors I’d imported an MS Word file for a book I was working on. I had an overall favorable opinion, but the newness of the program and the fact I’d begun in Word caused me to go back to the original program to continue working on that project.

Then a depression hit, brought on by a stream of rejections, publishers not living up to contracts or going out of business, and the teaching job sucking up all of my time. It was the longest dry spell since I began writing seriously in the late 1980s. The lack of creative outlet fed the mood I was in and I’m sure I haven’t been the most pleasant person to be around the past year or so. However, I have a new project I’m pretty excited about, to the point where I’d like to be left alone for long periods of time to do nothing but work on it.

So, when I sat down to start it, I decided to use Scrivener from the get-go. Surprise! The creators had made some updates to the program during my down time. They made it even better. Here are some of the features I’m finding most useful at this early stage of the novel.

Character Sketches

These pre-formatted pages prompt the author to answer questions such as Role in Story, Physical Description, Personality, Background, Habits, etc. It’s extremely handy to have all these sketches available in the menu on the left side of the screen for easy reference at any time. A simple click on the character you need to recall the hair color of, then a click back into the document takes you right back to where you were.

There is a similar pre-formatted option for Setting Sketches that is very helpful, too.

Research

As before, the program provides a place where an author can dump and organize a collection of research material that, like the Character sketches, is easily accessed via the left-hand menu. This particular novel relies more on personal experience than research, but I know this will be invaluable on other projects.

Part/Chapter/Scene Breakdown

This one was questionable. There was a time, long, long ago, when I wrote and saved every chapter as an individual file. That goes back to the necessity of doing so on my old Smith-Corona PWP-3 word processing machine. It continued into my WordPerfect days, and even early MS Word writing, and always caused a nightmare with page numbering, and merging files into one document would screw the format in unbelievable ways. I can’t speak to the exportability yet, but I’m liking being able to break this particular book down by part, chapter, and scene.

Clicking on the Part option in the menu will let you access the chapters in that part via drop-down, but it will also show you the cork board with index cards on which you can put a synopsis of each chapter, or notes about revisions to be made later, or whatever. Under Part you can click on Chapter and get a new cork board and new cards for each scene in your novel. Ordinarily I only have one scene per chapter, but for this project I have the main action in third person limited point-of-view narration as one scene and have social media posts, text message conversations, newspaper articles, etc. before and/or after the narration, so I set those off as separate scenes. It’s proving to be very useful.

Sample Output

I haven’t used this yet, so I can’t say anything about it, really, other than I think it’ll be pretty cool. When the time comes, it appears I can output my novel as a standard manuscript that can be opened by MS Word to be sent to agents or publishers. But there are also options for Paperback Novel and ADE E-Book to accommodate those of us who have turned to self-publishing to get our work in front of an audience. Eventually I’ll be putting these features to use, though hopefully I’ll only need the Standard Manuscript option with the work-in-progress.

Scriptwriting

Another feature I haven’t tried yet, but look forward to exploring. I’ve written one movie script (an adaptation of my novella Murdered by Human Wolves) and used Sophocles for that. Sadly, the creators of that little program are long gone and my 2003 version of the program is clunky now. Scrivener offers formatting for movie scripts, stage scripts, comic book scripts, and radio scripts, in US and UK versions.

Going over the menu on the top, there are dozens of options I haven’t explored yet. I can’t imagine beginning a new project in a plain word processing program like MS Word again. I can’t remember now what I paid for Scrivener, but it was on sale at the time and less than $30. It was definitely a great investment.

Literature and Latte is offering a free 30-day trial version of Scrivener if you want to try it out. I’m not getting any kind of kickback if you decide to buy. I’m liking the software and I think if you’re an author you might like it, too.

Scrivener: Day 1


I wrote my first novel on a Brother electronic typewriter that would show me nine characters on a little digital screen before they were committed to paper. From there I moved up to a Smith-Corona Electra XP typewriter, and then on to a Smith-Corona PWP3 word processor before getting my first computer. After upgrading that computer a bit (we’re talking 8088 processor here) I got hold of a copy of WordPerfect 5.1 and thought there would never be a better writing tool created.

Bill Gates pretty much messed that up, making his MS Word the industry standard, and eventually I upgraded machines to the point I found myself using Word. I liked Word 2003. The versions since then, not so much, but it’s still the industry standard, right?

My friend J. Kathleen Cheney (whose book The Golden City you should read!) was talking about this program called Scrivener on Facebook a while back, so I looked into it, then decided to buy it. AppSumo was selling it for just $20, so the risk was minimal. Yesterday I read through the tutorial and decided to give it a go.

I imported my current work-in-progress, a Western novel I’m calling Orphan. I used Scrivener’s features to break each chapter into its own file, something I hadn’t done since the WordPerfect days. The advantage is that Scrivener lets me write a little synopsis card for each chapter that I can later look at on a corkboard. This way I can get a feel for the pace or see how many chapters back a certain event occurred. I can also assign point of view for each chapter, something that is handy in many of my novels. In this one, I’m wanting the POV to be pretty evenly split between three characters and this tool should help me determine if I’m hitting that goal. Here’s a screen shot of the corkboard feature:

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I haven’t gone back and written the synopsis cards for every chapter yet, but these few give you an idea of what it would look like. Ideally, a project started from the beginning in Scrivener would have all 20 cards by this time.

Scrivener works like a binder and can hold almost any kind of file. I’m going to love this because I’m constantly saving pictures and text in files as part of my research. Scrivener makes all those available in a menu bar on the left side of the screen.

Scrivener allows me to make notes and assign those to the specific chapter or make them available throughout the entire document. For instance, I had not mentioned the eye color of one of my characters, but later on that became important, so I can put in a note that will be there nagging at me until I go back to the chapter where that should be mentioned and make the edit. Here’s another screen shot that shows the text as I was working on it. The synopsis card is at the top right, with meta data under it, and project notes under that. All my chapter files and any related files (if I’d assigned any yet) are on the left.

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Also, I can do split screens. In Orphan I have the characters in two groups, one tracking the other. When one camps in a certain place and I describe the terrain, there’s no longer a need to keep scrolling back and forth or, what I’d usually do, cut and paste the earlier description into the new chapter and cannibalize it. I can just open the previous chapter in a split, pick out the most relevant details, and continue on.

This is what I’ve learned from the tutorial. Still, it was kind of scary to actually start adding new material to the novel in a program that wasn’t the old familiar MS Word. But I did it last night/this morning. In practice, I found a couple of things I liked and one thing I’m not crazy about. I like that when I finished that chapter, I could immediately go to my note card and write the synopsis of what I’d just written, and that I could open the next card and jot down what will happen in the next chapter. I seldom outline very far in advance.

What I didn’t like was that I don’t have a running word count for the entire project any more. Scrivener gives me a word count for the chapter, but not the project.

One important thing to keep in mind, and the Scrivener tutorial is very clear about this, the program is for rough drafts. When I’m finished and ready to submit my work I’ll want to export it back to MS Word. The real test will come after I do that and check the manuscript to make sure my formatting is right, the chapters are in the right order, etc.

AppSumo isn’t selling Scrivener now, but the program is still only $40 from Literature and Lattes. So far, it seems like a worthy investment.

Out of the Loop


I have never been to a World Horror Convention. I’ve never been to WorldCon or Comic Con. Despite being an officer for three years and electronic newsletter editor for several more years than that, I never attended a Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Award ceremony. I’ve never been to NECon. Or DragonCon. The list could go on and on.

Between 2003 and 2007 I did go to Horrorfind Weekend every year. I miss that. It was a chance to physically visit with other people working in the genre … writers, actors, make-up people, directors, etc. Despite being a former journalist and now a teacher, I’m really not that outgoing, but I did make some friends at Horrorfind. We signed some books together, listened to each other read, spent a lot of time in the bar and room parties, talking about the industry and life and writing and all that goes along with it.

I miss that.

Yes, I still go to SoonerCon every year, and try to make it to FenCon, too. But those are smaller regional conventions where the focus is always more on science fiction. Not many horror authors come in from the coasts or from Canada. Not to say the folks who come to those conventions aren’t good people. I consider some of them almost family … but they’re not the whole family.

I miss talking to those people I used to see at least once each year. I miss them personally and professionally. While I haven’t found the success Brian Keene predicted for me when Shara first appeared in 2003, I have made a little money off my writing and next year I plan to attend at least one major horror convention to mark the release of the new book written with Carrie Jones, and hopefully something more. (I’ll talk more about some career changes in a later post.)

So … which major horror convention should I plan on attending?