Reviewing process (Subtitle: no I don’t get a lot of free books)

I was asked recently where I sourced the books I review on this website. Do I get review copies from publishers/authors? How do I choose the books? In general, what is my reviewing process.

For the most part, the books I review on this website are books that I’ve chosen to purchase. The main purpose of writing a review is for me to reflect a little more on what I’ve just read, with the hope that this reflection might improve my own writing. Thinking about what I liked in a story and what didn’t work for me and trying to work back to what that means for writing. So, these reviews are in some ways personal meditations.

So why publish them on a website for the world to see? Actually that’s a slight exaggeration – I don’t think the whole world has seen my website. Perhaps Australasia and large segments of continental Europe. With small inroads into North America. Tops. But I digress.

Well, I like to publicly acknowledge books that I have enjoyed. I’ve been reading quite a few small press publications in the last couple of years and I know it can sometimes be difficult for small presses to get reviewed. Even my (very small) signal boost may help. Also, knowing that there is a theoretical audience for my review means that I want to feel that I could defend my opinions, which leads me to think those opinions through a little more. On top of that, publishing pieces on my website makes me feel a bit more connected with the wider speculative fiction community.

These motivations result in a couple of effects. Firstly, my reviews tend to skew a little more positive as I’m reviewing books that I’ve chosen to read. It is possible that I could select badly, but I don’t have a lot of time to read so I’m careful in what I pick. What influences my choices? Sometimes recommendations from people with a track record for picking out gems (for example Sean the Bookonaut), sometimes books by authors who I’ve enjoyed in the past, sometimes things that are on award ballets and sometimes because a really well written blurb sucked me in.

Secondly, I don’t feel any obligation to be nice. I’ve paid my money for the book and my opinions can be coloured by whether I think I’ve received value for money as well as the literary merits of what I’ve read. That’s not to say reviewers who get books from publishers have their opinion swayed by the fact that they have received something for free. Most reviewers I’ve spoken to have long since had the novelty of a free novel wear off and are too concerned with their reputation for independence for write a fluff piece. But for me, having shelled out hard earned for the story adds something to my reviewing process.

Those few times I’ve reviewed something that I’ve received for free I’ve found my reviewing to be a bit more tentative. Having said that, I’ve recently discovered a new reviewing experience. A publication (Antipodean SF) has provided me with a couple of novels to review for its monthly magazine. Having that extra distance between myself and the publisher has removed all sense of obligation. I’ll be interested to see how that impacts on the writing of the reviews.

What’s my opinion on rating systems? Well, you might have noticed that I don’t rate on my website, I’d prefer the comments to stand on their own. However, Goodreads and other online forums do tend to push for star ratings so when I rate on a 5 point system, I tend to use the following broad criteria:

  • 5┬ástars: excellent, superb reading experience. Not necessarily a perfect book, but one where any quibbles I have are minor. Can usually point to several specific positive aspects. I don’t tend to give out many 5 stars. Probably the critical point here is that I had to love reading the book. Worthy books where I can see the literary merit but didn’t love reading the book I tend to go down to 4 stars.
  • 4 stars: excellent book. Thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. Usually one or two things that I love, and maybe something I didn’t like so much (although not always – sometimes it was excellent but just not quite as excellent as the 5 star books). For some of the reasons I’ve outlined above, a lot of my reading averages around this 4 star point.
  • 3 stars: good book. Some good things, some bad but on balance I enjoyed it.
  • 2 stars: Meh. Probably more things I didn’t enjoy than I did, but also this rating can reflect being entirely indifferent to a book.
  • 1 star: Didn’t enjoy the book at all, actively disliked the reading experience. Haven’t given out any 1 star reviews so far to the best of my recollection.

Do I worry about annoying people with bad reviews? I don’t think so, but this is something that has crossed my mind as I’ve started to go to speculative fiction conventions in Australia over the last 12 months. I’ve met a few authors and they are by and large very nice people. This website is not a hotspot of speculative fiction review action, and as a result many of them haven’t read any of my reviews so the point is somewhat academic. However I try to give balanced reviews and I’d like to think that I’m never unfair or in any way spiteful in my reviewing. I’m more than willing to concede that my own reaction to a piece of writing is not the only reaction, and I’ve found that most authors tend to cultivate a similar attitude. Thinking of authors as real people helps me to keep my comments purely about the work, which I think is healthy.

As a corollary, I am also concerned that my appreciation of an author’s work might be impacted by the fact that I’ve met and liked them personally. I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and to be honest it is possible. I don’t think the phenomenon could make me like a work that I would have otherwise thought was terrible, but could it boost a 4 star review to a 5 star review? Possibly. I try to be conscious of it, but I also don’t want to unfairly mark down a work for fear I might be seen as being partial. I also try to note any biases I think might be effecting me. But at the end of the day, sometimes your appreciation of someone’s artistic endeavours can be impacted by your appreciation of the artist themselves. It’s probably why a lot of the most impartial critical work happens after an author has died. I’ve decided to just live with it.

In terms of the reviews themselves, I tend to wait a few days after I’ve finished reading a book before I write the review, just to let things sink in. Sometimes I have a lot to say, sometimes not so much – I try not to write artificially long reviews just for the sake of it. I try to think about as many aspects of the story as possible – the technical aspects of writing, the emotional impact, how engaging it is etc. As discussed above, these reviews are really just me writing down what I’ve taken from each of the books and I don’t feel the compulsion to be comprehensive. I love getting comments from people and hearing different opinions, and after I’ve published my review I’ll often go seeking out other people’s reviews to see where people have had different experiences. Often I’ll find some comment that I wish I’d made, or see some aspect of the story that I missed but totally agree with but I’ll only tend to go back and modify the review if I’ve made a factual error. If I ever want to add something extra I try to make it clear it is a post-review comment.

So, that’s me. How about you? For those that review, what is your process like? For those that read reviews, what do you like to see in a review?

Writing process – getting started

A lot of people seem to ask writers about the process they use to write. My first piece of advice about the writing process would be to seek out the advice of people that have been published and are generally successful. For instance, Richard Harland has published a whole website on writing tips, any page of which is going to be more useful than anything I can tell you.

If you’re still reading, the one thing I thought might be useful is a brief discussion about getting started. Most authors who write about writing have a certain level of success already. They have a writing process that has been proven, that works for them. They reflect on the end result of their writing evolution. But all of that isn’t necessarily helpful when you’re attempting to get started. Especially if you’re also working full time in an unrelated career.

After I decided I wanted to do some writing, I faffed about for a long time doing not very much writing at all. I thought about stories. I did a bit of planning, trying to outline structures. I read some books on writing. In short, I danced around the writing process without actually putting finger to keyboard. At the time of penning this post I’m about 55,000 words into the first draft of a novel and have written a few short stories. Nothing I hasten to add that is good enough quality for publishing. And that I guess is part of my point. This post isn’t about producing good quality writing or publishable material. It is about producing anything at all! You can’t even start the journey to publication if you haven’t written a word.

So what changed? How did I go from virtually no output to at least making progress. There were a few key points that made the difference for me.

  • Realising that any writing was good writing

I’ve heard others say this as well so it is not a particularly unique insight, but one major revelation for me was realising that what I wrote in the first instance didn’t have to be encumbered by little things like talent or quality. Any time I would start writing I’d get a couple of paragraphs in and I’d start to worry about whether it was any good. I’d wordsmith, rework, craft and shape trying to turn those couple of paragraphs into something “worthy”. And weeks would slip by. When you’re working full time and are balancing the other aspects of having a life, you don’t actually have much time to write. The loss of momentum created by that kind of fiddling creates huge problems with actually feeling like you are getting anything done (this is very related to the design vs build section below).

So, giving myself permission to write a piece of crap first draft was a big turning point for me. Suddenly I didn’t have to worry about using too many cliched phrases or whether my plot was too derivative. I didn’t have to worry about whether my dialog was too stilted or I was doing too much telling instead of showing. I just had to worry about writing and actually getting things down on page. And that was incredibly freeing.

  • Do it your way

After a career spent typing on a keyboard I’m not a great freehand writer. I find I can’t keep up with my thought processes when I write with a pen and paper. Also while I carried around a notebook and pen with me as much as possible, I found that at times when I might have found 1/2 hour or an hour to write I often didn’t have writing materials to hand. And then when I used scraps of paper etc, I found myself not really collating them or putting them together into anything coherent. All that is a long way of saying that I wasn’t comfortable with the way I was writing and that put road blocks up for me actually producing output.

For me a big change has come with the recent significant increase in the portability of computers. I’ve always like the concept of the laptop but never found the reality lived up to the promise. When the laptop weights a few kilograms and you have to carry it plus a bulky power cord, mouse etc around, it is not realistic to assume you’ll take your computer with you most of the time.

Enter the recent “ultrabook” trend that started with the Macbook Air. I bought an Air a little over a year ago and it has made a massive difference to my writing productivity. With 7 hours worth of battery and weighing not much more than a kilogram, it is entirely feasible for me to take the Air with me to work every day. On those days when I have time to take a lunch break, I take the Air down with me to a cafe and get 1/2 hour writing in. I can’t always predict which days I’ll get to write but now I don’t have to. It has made a huge difference.

(I got a Macbook Air partly because it was the only ultra light laptop around at the time and partly because I really like the Scrivener writing program which is only available on the Mac – although I believe a Windows version is close to coming out. Most manufacturers have been playing catchup and there are a series of ultrabooks with similar weight/size characteristics coming out now if you prefer Windows)

Of course computers aren’t everyones preferred method of writing first drafts. I guess my general point is that you need to find a way of making writing time available to you more often in a form that works for you. Like the “any writing is good writing” point above, it is about creating momentum in your work.

  • What a difference a week makes

Most of the podcasts that I listen to and articles/books that I’ve read by successful published authors talk about having daily word targets. I tried that for a little while, but I found it incredibly frustrating. Life doesn’t always let you sit down and write every day. It would be nice if it could. Perhaps if I was single or at least didn’t have kids it would be different, but I found that even setting a very modest daily target (say 200 words) just wouldn’t happen. And then I’d get discouraged and feel that I wasn’t living up to my goals.

I wish I could remember which podcast I was listening to (it was one of the Sydney Writer’s Centre podcasts on writers and writing), but it was one of the rare ones where the author in question was discussing juggling full time work and writing. And they said “set a weekly word count target”. A simple adjustment but it made all the difference in the world. I set a 2,000 words target per week, to be achieved by Sunday night each week. I started keeping a little log each week listing my word target and the actual word count I achieved. I reviewed the targets each month and if I was ahead of schedule I’d reset my targets to prevent coasting.

It made a huge difference. Sure, some weeks I don’t get there and I have to do some catchup work the next week. I’ve had to do some creative things to find time to work, sometimes working a lunchtime, sometimes locking myself in the study for a few hours on the weekend to make up for lost time. But generally I’ve stuck to the 2,000 word target and it has created some real momentum in my work. Having a week as my basic unit of time rather than a day has created some much needed flexibility in my schedule, and now I feel good about my progress as opposed to always feeling guilty about not measuring up.

  • Design vs build

In my early career I wrote a lot of software. I’d see fellow programmers get stuck in what we’d call “analysis paralysis” where they would rehash the design of their software system over and over again trying to get it perfect. And like any plan, it wouldn’t survive 5 seconds of actually being used. No matter how much time was spent on the design, once you tried to build the software you would have to go back and revise.

In the software world I gravitated towards design methodologies which essentially had you do an 80% design in a very short period of time and get started writing code as soon as possible. This worked as long as you scheduled in time to put your head up and revisit that design during the course of your work to make sure everything was still hanging together.

I have found myself taking a similar approach to writing. I do my “80% structure” up front, but get writing as quickly as possible then rework the structure as I go. I make sure I take time on a regular basis to take a step back and revisit the overall structure. Applying this approach helped me break out of some initial “analysis paralysis” and actually get writing.

And even if your first draft has structure holes, well that is what a second draft is for.

Conclusion

Look, this was just a few of the hurdles I had to getting started writing and how I overcame them. Your issues will probably be different. I’ll add to this post as I think of more things and try to keep it up to date. Leave comments below about your own experiences – I’d love to hear about them. And don’t forget, this isn’t about getting published or writing award winning work. This is just about writing anything at all!