The Importance of Reviewing the Work of Other Authors.
“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. ... Read what you like to read, but if you want to become a better writer, don't be afraid to force yourself outside of your comfort zone.”
- Stephen King.
As a writer, you should always strive to improve your craft. The best way to do so is to read. Any author would agree, reading is one of the best ways to improve your writing. Today, I’ll be focussing on the benefits of reading a book with the intent to review it.
I have just recently begun to review the books I read and I have already noticed improvements in my writing. Since I started this practice, I look back and can’t fathom why it hadn’t occurred to me before. Reading is necessary to write; yes. Taking notes, deciding what you thought worked and what didn’t, trying to analyze the author’s intentions and whether or not they succeeded in communicating what they wanted to, all these things can only help you write better if you take the extra time to make a study of each novel you pick up.
Below, I’ll go into each element I look for in my read-throughs and why they help me. Most of this boils down to learning from the mistakes of others and emulating what you like. That’s pretty much it, but if you want specifics of how I do this, keep reading.
Pacing is a big factor for me. I can be kind of picky if a book isn’t paced to my liking. I think pacing can ruin a book for many readers without them even noticing. It isn’t something a casual reader would pick up on beyond noticing some slow parts. I wanted to love The Wheel of Time so badly because many other readers enjoy it. I might give it another try later on, but I’ll come back to the series knowing beforehand that Robert Jordan liked to slow things down for his long and detailed descriptions. Many people love that about his writing. It works for them. If you focus on the pacing of each book you read, you can decide for yourself what you like and what you don’t like. Note when the pace picked up or slowed down and try to determine if the author did it intentionally and why they might have changed pace.
Tone can vary greatly from genre to genre and even within genres. While you’re reading, try to pinpoint what tone the author is trying to relay to the reader. Did they accomplish this? Is the tone inconsistent or otherwise unintended? If so, how could those mistakes have been avoided? Take notes. Avoid the bad, and emulate the good.
What kind of story is it? Are you sticking to a story type you usually read or are you trying something different? Not to be confused with the plot, the story is the series of events that lead to a conclusion, whereas a plot could be arranged in any significant way to portray the right emotions for the correct moment in the story. Because of this, the plot generally gets all the attention. It’s how the story is told, but without the underlying story, the plot means nothing. Look past how the author is delivering the story to you and focus on the story itself. Is it a retelling of a well-known story? Does the author take well-known story elements and smash them together into something new? Does it work for you?
Plots can twist and turn, be arranged out of chronological order, or they can be straight forward and follow the story. Think about why the author put the plot on the specific path in their book. What were they trying to accomplish? Did it work? Could you predict what would happen next? Maybe the author tried to make the reader expect something that didn’t happen, or happened differently. Plot twists are great if they have been executed correctly, and almost painful if handled wrong. Take notes as always. What could you see coming? What hit you from left field? Why did the author make you feel a certain way at one point and differently at another?
Prose can be flowery and poetic, or they could be harsh and straight forward. Every author has a distinctive way they write and the best authors can match the way they write to the story they are telling. Remember, well written doesn’t always mean flowery prose. One of my favorite authors, Joe Abercrombie used simple and general prose in The First Law books. Most of his prose is gritty, visceral, and ugly because he means it to be. The simplicity is not negative in Joe Abercrombie’s case because not many writers could communicate the same emotions Joe can with so few words. Read a bunch of different styles and decide what you like.
Do you like the characters in the book? What do you like about them? What do you dislike? If you were writing these same characters, what would you change? Do you like them because you can relate? Do you not like them because the author meant for you to dislike them? Sometimes an author introduces a character just to kill them off and it doesn’t impact the reader because the author never took the time to flesh the character out. Why would they? They’ll be dead in a few chapters anyway. I’m trying to think of another author who does character work really well, but Joe Abercrombie is stuck at the front of my mind. I’ve been catching up on The First Law standalone novels so I can start A Little Hatred. Sorry to use the same author for two different examples but he just writes his characters perfectly. They are horrible people, and yet we can relate to some degree. He makes you keep reading even though these horribly people are doing horrible things. Anyway, look at how the author handles the characters you are dedicating so much of your time to. Would you change anything? Why? Why not?
Whether the author of the book is using the world we all live in or building a new world completely, how does he/she handle it? The connection between the reader and the world in which the story is set is difficult to maintain. Immersion is key. Are you immersed in the world? Try to look behind the scenes and see the wires holding up the set. Why did the author choose this world for their book? Could they have told the same story in a different world? Write down which elements sucked you into the world and which elements reminded you that you were reading a book.
Too many subplots can leave a story feeling cluttered and chaotic. Too few can leave a story skeletonized. A love triangle, a redemption arc, or a coming of age can all contribute to the story if they are executed correctly. They could frustrate a reader if done incorrectly. Focus on subplots in the book and determine for yourself if they had been handled well. Write down anything you would change.
You get the idea. That was a long way of saying “learn from the books you read.” Of course, I didn’t mention everything to look for but I hope I gave you a jumping-off point. The main thing is, reading with the intent to write a review can only help your writing. If I hadn’t mentioned before, take notes.
Besides all the benefits to your writing, leaving a quality review also helps the author. They mean less to a big name like Neil Gaiman or George R.R. Martin, but a quality review could mean the world to a lesser-known author just starting their career.
Thanks for reading. I post more writing tips, writing prompts, or self-publishing advice based on my own experience each Friday. If you would like to learn more about my debut novel, Well of Bones, you could click on the Well of Bones tab at the top of the page or you could use the link below to get to the Amazon page. Thanks again.
Until next week,