Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Learning From Reviewing

Reviewing books is a good way to learn how, and how not, to write.

A recent book, The Red Plague Affair, had a few problems that irritated me, though not to the extent that I disliked it. There was much to praise in it, from the well drawn characters to the intriguing and occasionally exciting storyline.

What put me off were a few small things:
  1. Lack of description of the action. In the final third of the book, there was enough action and description of it, but it was sparse in the earlier chapters. When you have people being killed, it would be nice to know why the main character is dispatching them. There was plenty of detail of the clothing and the interior decor, but not of much else.
  2. It was assumed I'd read the first book. There were some things that were left unsaid that I presumed were in book one of the series, though that is not certain. When writing a series you are expecting people to start with the first one, but that's not always the case. The second (or subsequent) may be the first book a reader will pick up.
  3. Being shouted at. There was a heavy use of italics to show people talking in their heads, and they spoke to themselves a lot. It felt as if the author were shouting at me.
  4. No Oxford comma. This could be a style thing, but it did make reading some parts difficult.
There is nothing in that list an editor couldn't have picked up and had corrected, so why it was left is a question I cannot answer. These four things in and of themselves don't make a bad book (and it was professionally published by Orbit), but they do give a bad impression and, for me, mean I won't be hurrying out to buy another of her books.

Reading other people's work gives an insight into my own writing, while reviewing them can put into words what I feel and what I've learnt. The review also highlighted what I like, such as unexpected twists and the psychology of people and their actions. I discovered how much I'd miss action, and how little I'd miss knowing about the way someone dresses and whether a corset hurts or not. It also allowed me to compare the book to another series to remind myself how it could be done better.

The irony was that at the back of The Red Plague Affair was the first chapter of the book series I was thinking about. Maybe the author, or the editor, should've read that series first themselves

As authors,we don't have to be doing reviews for a particular organisation or magazine to get the benefit, just writing a short review of any book we've recently read will do the job. The benefit of reviewing books for magazines and websites, whether you get paid for them or not, is you get the book for free and can keep it afterwards...if you like it. I've given a few to charity after reviewing them.

Get reviewing, even if it's for your own benefit.

(I do reviews for the British Fantasy Society, and if you want to get free books for review, you can contact the reviews editor, whose email address can be found on the contacts page. There are adult and teen books available for review. Who knows, you might find a new author to like.)


Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Martin, Nice, post. I agree that reviewing books is good for a writer. It really sharpens one's skills, makes one aware of plot points, etc., all the elements of good writing, in the same way critiquing in a writer's group can help you critique your own work.

Martin Willoughby said...

Elizabeth: Wherever you can indulge, it's wise to do so.