Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Special guest: Bestselling crime author Catherine Astolfo talks about 'How to Write a Review'

Today we've invited bestselling author Catherine Astolfo to share her tips on writing reviews...

How To Write A Review
OR: Apologies from a teacher who misguided you

When I was an elementary school teacher, I assigned lots of book reviews. Depending on the grade level, I had certain outlines created by a committee or an individual teacher or even the Ministry of Education. None of these templates ever considered the Internet world. Why? Well, in my time, it didn’t exist. These days, the Internet is ignored because writing a review in school has far different goals than writing a review on Amazon or Goodreads or any of the other myriad online sites.  distinctly

The goals in school are two-fold. One, the student must prove to the teacher that s/he has actually read the whole book. Thus, a sufficiently detailed summary of the novel is a prerequisite. Two, the teacher focuses on certain skills to be demonstrated, all the way from the ability to predict outcomes based on clues to spelling or grammar.

A review for Amazon (I’m using the monster site to stand in for all the others) is entirely different. Firstly, there is only one major goal, although perhaps the reviewer may have a personal second. The major goal is to tell other readers about your personal reactions to a novel you have read. If there is a second objective, it’s to promote/support the author (more on this later).

Let me wax prosaic on the first objective and make my apologies to students who have followed their teachers’ rules into the present. Here are some entirely new ones. From me. When you do an Amazon review, do NOT summarize the book. All the online sites, especially Amazon, provide excerpts, summaries, or synopses. As a reader, I can check out three whole chapters for free. I don’t need you to summarize. If you haven’t really read the book, you are just cheating yourself, or the author. And if you are a cheater or have an agenda to attack the writer, I’ll be smart enough to see very clearly through your subterfuge. So please don’t bore me with your perception of the novel’s plotline. Leave that to the professionals.

What I am interested in is your reaction to the novel. This is your opportunity to write two or three sentences giving your opinion. You are not bound by the old rules. You are relieved of the summary task and you don’t have to prove any expert literary skill to anyone. (Although you may want to demonstrate correct spelling and grammar to be taken seriously.) Your only goal is to tell other readers what you thought and how you felt about this particular book.

I want to know your reaction to the characters. Did you like them (especially the main ones)? Were you repulsed, yet fascinated, by any evildoers? On the other hand, did you find them dull or unbelievable (e.g. their dialogue was unnatural)?

Let me know if the plot held you spellbound, was based on fact/history/fantasy or whatever, or if it was slow, tedious or implausible. Again, I don’t want the details. I want descriptive reactions from you. “I couldn’t put this rollercoaster ride of a book down for one minute.” “I fell asleep every couple of pages.” “The history was fascinating and informative.” “The fantastical world of Astolfoland was beautiful, sumptuous and believable.”

Speaking of Astolfoland, you might want to focus on the setting. Was the landscape truly phenomenal? Pastoral, bucolic or frighteningly futuristic? Was the emphasis on the surroundings what turned you on or off the book?

Tell me what you thought of the author’s style. Did you enjoy their sarcastic wit? Was the funny, sardonic voice of the character hilarious? Do you like crisp, succinct writing that keeps a plot moving? Did you love the long, luxurious descriptive narrative?

You don’t have to use fancy vocabulary and you don’t, I repeat, don’t have the tedium and difficulty of writing a synopsis. You only have to tell the other readers how you personally reacted to the book.

This template translates into perhaps five minutes of your time. You don’t have to get very technical about each of these categories, but you can if you want to (e.g. search plot types and categorize the book if Amazon hasn’t done it to your liking). If you have more time, go ahead and Google. Otherwise, craft three short sentences about your personal opinion. Write about how you felt about the book and what you thought of the style (pick a focus if you want: voice, viewpoint, technique), setting, plot (thriller, narrative, type of conflict, romance) and/or characters (dialogue, description, actions). Cover all these categories or the one that affected you most and caused you to like/dislike the novel.

As a writer, I would be thrilled if everyone used this technique. Why? Because readers would then submit more reviews. Unencumbered by the difficult task of creating a synopsis or demonstrating a specific expertise, the reviewer knows exactly what to say. After all, their reaction to the novel is personal, unique, and honest, and therefore easy to write.

One last thing: about the honesty. Of course it’s referable to be truthful. But that doesn’t have to translate into mean, vicious and soul-destroying. There is a gentle way to say “that jacket makes you look fat”. A professional, responsible way to state that your reaction to the book was negative. I can say, “I disagree fundamentally with the viewpoint” or I can say, “The author takes a stupidly ridiculous stance”. One accepts responsibility for the opinion; the other blames and demeans. Another way to accept responsibility and be professional is to use your own name when you review a book. Don’t hide behind a moniker. If you are a friend/relative of the author, say so. As a reader, I will take your relationship into consideration. If you are one of my students trying to seek revenge for a low mark on a book report, let me know, and I’ll be sure to put an A on your review.

Come on over to Catherine’s website and visit:

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