Friday, September 30, 2011

How my own book reviews can make me a better writer

You all know about a little review site called Afterglow Book Reviews. It's the place I (and 19 other awesome readers) hang out and post our immediate gut reactions only to the books we absolutely loved.

Occasionally I love a book so well, I post more than one review, one there and one on my own blog, as was the case with Bethany Wiggins' debut novel, SHIFTING.

Usually I post my reviews, read and respond to comments and go on my merry way without another thought. Yesterday, something one of my dear writing friends emailed me about my work made me look back at my SHIFTING review, and I singled out this line: "the paranormal didn't swallow the characters. It's an important part of the book, but I didn't feel knocked over the head with it."

This single line from my review of SHIFTING brought back to memory all the times my critique partners and family members had (delicately) told me that my world-building was too confusing or too present or too much in the first few chapters of my YA contemp fantasy.

And it hit me: What I love about these other books is what I need to be doing in my own!

From my review of THE CLEARING by Anne Riley:
"I cried multiple times as the protagonist Natalie dealt with such serious issues as bullying at school and her parents' deaths. The twists are sublimely surprising, and the magical escapism enchanted me. Doesn't every girl hope deep down that she's special? Especially those of us who were bullied relentlessly in school!"
From my review of GRACELING by Kristin Cashore: 
"I didn't jive with Katsa right off the bat. She's so different from anyone I know, more brutal and anti-social in a way. But through her relationships with her cousin and his confidant, and later with the male lead, she became a real person to me. Cashore deftly puts the reader in Katsa's shoes....Even at the end, I didn't understand Katsa. She doesn't want the same things I always wanted. But that's how I know Cashore is a talented writer! Because despite all that dissonance--despite Katsa being my polar opposite--I understood her choices and as a reader was able to accept them."
From my review of MISTWOOD by Leah Cypess:
"The entire book masterfully keeps readers in the dark about Prince Rokan. Can he be trusted? Are his apparent feelings for the Shifter genuine? In the end, Isabel must make some very difficult, heartbreaking decisions between two people she loves. It's only by discovering who she is that she is empowered to make those decisions... I loved the characterizations. Even the side characters have depth..."
And for some middle grade flavor...

From my review of POWERLESS by Matthew Cody: 
"Things I loved:
  • That this story is told from the POV of a regular kid surrounded by superhero kids.
  • That the story of his grandma's cancer brings a dose of reality to the otherwise completely fantastic premise.
  • That Daniel is tough, but honest and sensitive--in other words, a great role model for kid readers.
  • That all the characters act like real people."
Each book had its own reasons for charming me, but you can definitely see some recurring threads: strong or realistic characterization, a unique POV, the use of relationships to illustrate the protagonist's character, an air of mystery, and the emotional triggers that get me every time.

Reviewing my reviews (hee hee) has helped me find direction in my revisions. What do you use as a guide for your writing? Any particular how-to book or novel?

(Tip: This also works with negative reviews you've written. What you hated, your readers will likely hate as well.)


Gail Shepherd said...

I absolutely agree with you. Close reading is the best way to understand how fiction works on our emotions, not to mention how some authors use structure, characterization, tension, etc to deliberately manipulate emotion. Writing reviews, even just in your own little notebook or publicly on a blog, is a terrific craft exercise.

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Thanks for your comment, Gail! It seems so obvious to use what works in the books we read, yet it's something we do almost subconsciously... unless we make a conscious effort. LOL.

I think the craft of manipulating emotion through words is something I get completely from reading other books or from movies (just another form of literature). If I didn't read, I'd have absolutely no clue how to write a break-up scene so it really hits home. Studying other ppl's work is the key for me.

Andrea Mack said...

Great post! I find I need to be more conscious of what I can learn from other writers (after I read and enjoy a book first, of course).