How to Write a Book Review

For starters, what tempts people to review books at all? If it’s for a prestigious magazine or newspaper, it could be money, though rookie reviewers are often happy to review in return for a free book and a chance to raise their profile.

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It can also be a chance to preen, to get in as many bon mots as possible, and to dazzle readers with a vertiginous vocabulary. If there’s room to slip in a lethal knife wound as well, so much the better. Will Self’s review of Julie Burchill’s Unchosen is often quoted as the epitome of this type of review:

“I can’t really dignify her latest offering with the ascription ‘book’, nor the contents therein as ‘writing’ – rather they are sophomoric, hammy effusions, wrongheaded, rancorous and pathetically self-aggrandising.”

He goes on to cite “Burchill’s repugnant gallimaufry of insults and half-baked nonsense.”

One snag is that it wasn’t a review as such. Still, it’s pugnacious stuff, and entertaining to read. Unless, perhaps, you are Julie Burchill.

Accusations are the stock-in-trade of many reviewers. In The Scotsman, Allan Massie says of Craig Raine’s oeuvre The Divine Comedy: 

“It isn’t a novel, no matter what author and publisher choose to call it. There is no real narrative interest and the characters are no more than names.” 

He goes on to give evidence for his view, leaving the public in little doubt that Allan Massie is a more riveting read than the book being dissected.

FreeImages.com/Davide Farabegoli

For a short while there was even the Hatchet Job of the Year Award. But several things have happened since then. Firstly, jokes about hatchets are a bit tasteless in a troubled world. Secondly, there are now more reviews on blogs and book review sites, far more than you’ll find in mainstream publications.

Online reviews like these are more workaday, and may serve their purpose better than the virtuoso variety. old-books1

Reviews just have two main tasks: guiding potential readers to their next book, and helping authors write what readers love most.

More readers could leave reviews, but I know that many feel inhibited from doing so. Yet the rules, such as they are, are pretty simple.

1 Short is OK, though preferably not as short as the one-word review “Book”.

2 Never include spoilers.

3 You don’t have to be a smarty-pants. In fact, it probably detracts from the value of your feedback. Just concentrate on what might help readers like yourself. 

4 Did you like the book? If so, say you did. You could also describe briefly what kind of book it is. “It’s a fantasy story about a girl who finds herself in an alternative reality which contains talking animals, strange new rules, and a lot of fun, some of it clever.” That’s not the most erudite description of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it’s enough to guide people, and it doesn’t give away the plot.

5 If you didn’t like it, don’t be rude. 

6 By all means add whether, in your opinion, the story is fast-paced, has lots of characters, is full of suspense, contains wonderful dialogue, and so on. It is your opinion, not the opinion of an English Lit professor, but it should be founded on evidence.

Your evidence should come from the contents of the book, and not depend on whether you liked the shoes on the cover, or whether Amazon delivered it to the wrong address. Here’s what one recipient wrote of a second-hand book:

“The book was in much worse condition stated, it would have been nice to have been warned about the blood stain that ran through several pages. Not happy at all as had to buy a second copy.”

7 If you feel like it, you could say which characters you liked in the book. Were they well drawn? Did their dialogue ring true? And so on.

8 Try to mention who might be the ideal reader. “Fans of cosy mysteries may enjoy this book.” It doesn’t hurt to mention other authors of books along the same lines, if any come to mind. But there’s no need to wrack your brains.

There’s a lot of really helpful advice on this blog post by top 1000 Amazon reviewer (and author) Debbie Young. If you’ve never written a review before, just come on in. The water’s lovely.

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I still have a soft spot for this spoof review of Orwell’s 1984, by a reader called So-Crates. As feedback it’s not that useful, and you need to know something about 1984 to appreciate it, but it does show that jokes don’t have to have a butt.

“Do not buy this book if you’re expecting to find out anything at all about 1984, as this writer seems to have been living on a different planet. I was trying to do a bit of research into the influence of New Wave on cross-over dance music in the Mid-Eighties, but I found “1984” a complete waste of time… Jackson’s “Thriller”? (the soundtrack of the summer, and the biggest selling album of all-time) – not mentioned; Frankie Goes To Hollywood (their breakthrough year leading to world pop domination) – not a whisper.”  

You can probably guess what he says of The Road to Wigan Pier.

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What Not to Say to an Author

It’s wonderful being an author. While there’s rarely much money in it, you get to do what you love. It’s probably the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

There’s also the sheer joy of opening a box full of copies of your shiny brand-new book. That, as novelist Helena Halme points out, never gets any less exciting.

Helena Halme's latest book

And it’s a thrill meeting readers and getting feedback, especially when you find out your words have made a real difference.

But there are people who say the most inane things to authors. So, with the help of one or two fellow writers, I’ve compiled a roundup of things that really grate:

1 “Are you published?  Will I have heard of you?”

Well, yes, the author generally is published. Otherwise they’d probably not call themselves an author. As for hearing of that person, it depends. I know several people who never heard of Kahlil Gibran, yet his book The Prophet sold tens of millions of copies.

FreeImages.com/Mana Media

2 “Why don’t you get your book made into a film?”

If it were that easy, I think we’d all be knocking on Hollywood’s door. It’s not, which is why, until we get the call, we’re selling our books at around £7.99 a pop (or less; usually much less for the ebook). Not quite a direct route to the Walk of Fame.

3 “I do a bit of writing myself.”

I mustn’t scoff, because occasionally someone like David Lodge says this. More often, though, the follow-up is “I wrote a letter to my local paper once” or “I’ve written a 100,000 word novel from the point of view of a slug. Could you read it for me and help me get it published?”

FreeImages.com/Jurga R

4 “I’d write a book too if I had the time.”

The implication is that their life is far busier than the author’s, and that no talent is required.

5 “When I retire, I’m going to write a novel.”

Usually uttered by someone who’s never even written a shopping list. See 4.

6 “As you’re at home all day, could you just babysit/pick up a parcel for me/come out shopping with me?”

Because writing books is some romantic thing that just happens when you click your heels and make a wish. It’s not like it’s a proper job, right?

FreeImages.com/Kia Abell

7 “Where’s my free signed copy?”

Because, obviously, authors are happy to work for free.

Many thanks to my fellow writers, especially Vivien Hampshire and Georgina Penney, both from the Romantic Novelists’ Association.  If you ever meet one of us, you know what not to say.

‘Who’d Have Thought It?’

My posts normally have less ambiguous titles, but today’s contribution is from my fellow author and journalist Christine Webber whose forthcoming novel is called exactly that, and, as you’ll see, the name is just right. Over to Christine.

After 30 years of being conventionally published, Who’d Have Thought It? is my first independent venture. The novel sees my return to fiction after 29 years (doesn’t time fly!) of penning self-help books.
A lot of the knowledge I’ve acquired as a health writer, and as a psychotherapist, has crept into these pages. I’ve had tremendous fun fictionalising situations that I see all around me.
But my main reason for writing this book is that I find mid-life much busier and more unsettled than I had anticipated. Most people I speak to – who are also of ‘a certain age’ – say the same thing.  That sentiment underpins the story of Who’d Have Thought It?  
Here’s a brief extract from a chapter well into the novel, when my main character, Annie, has been persuaded by her best friend Janey to try internet dating.

FreeImages.com/Doru Lupeanu

She pushed open the door of the all-day bar and saw him immediately. As he had promised, he was sitting near the mock fire in the middle of the room. He had highly-polished shoes, a blazer and a cravat. A cravat! Dear God, she thought, I didn’t know you could still buy those.  

His eyes lit up when he saw her. He jumped up and lurched forwards, apparently eager to plant a kiss on her cheek. Quickly, she held out a hand to be shaken.

‘I think,’ he said. ‘Not that I’m used to this kind thing, but the form is that, on a first meeting, each participant gets his or her own refreshment.’

‘Fine by me,’ she smiled.

As she waited for the noisy coffee machine to steam her milk to a high enough temperature, Annie was able to view Roger in a mirror above the bar. He was about sixty. Dapper. A little tubby. Not overly tall. Perfectly respectable-looking – but her heart was not in this outing, and she wondered how soon she might decently leave without seeming rude.

‘Ah, not a drinker, then,’ he said with evident disappointment as she returned, carrying her cappuccino.

‘Bit early for me,’ she murmured. 

FreeImages.com/Carien van Hest

He raised his eyebrows. ‘Ah well, once you retire, there seems no reason not to drink whenever you want to. And the excellent thing here is that mid-afternoon, you get a deal – steak and kidney pie and a pint. Had my grub earlier. Very fine!’

She stirred her coffee, stifling an urge to giggle.

‘And they do two-for-one meals on Monday, which is really top value. You couldn’t get a better meal anywhere. And, if I say so myself, I do travel a lot, so I know what I’m talking about.’ He paused to take a deep gulp of his ale.

‘Last month, for example, I accompanied a young lady to the continent for a long weekend. Very luckily, I got a cut-price deal on the overnight ferry crossing. And if you make sure you’re one of the first on board, you can get good reclining seats so you don’t need a cabin. Of course, with the ferries taking care of two nights, you only need to shell out for one night in a hotel. And I found a pretty decent B and B …’

‘And are you still seeing that “young lady”?’ Annie asked innocently.

He took a swig of beer. ‘No! She rang me after we returned to say she’d gone back to her husband. I was bloody annoyed because I had rather pushed the boat out on her account.’

‘That would be the ferry boat, would it?’ Annie murmured, gazing at her rapidly disappearing coffee. ‘Yes, I suppose some women can be awfully ungrateful.’

‘You can say that again,’ he remarked before he launched into a story about another young lady who had let him down.

Surreptitiously, she glanced at her watch. Janey had said she might ring to see if she was coping. 

Fortunately, a couple of minutes later, her friend obliged.

 ‘So sorry,’ she explained to Roger, ‘I have to get this…’ Then ignoring Janey’s whispered question about how things were going, she spoke loudly into the phone: ‘Darling … Oh no! No, of course. I’ll come right away…’

‘Trouble?’ Roger’s brown eyes – which had, up until now, twinkled with a benign expression – gazed somewhat angrily at her.

‘I’m afraid so. My daughter’s having a crisis at the moment. And I have to go. That’s what mums are for.’ She stood up. ‘I would thank you for the coffee, but since I bought my own I won’t bother. Good bye.’

He harrumphed: ‘Well, I must say … Still, maybe another time.’

She was halfway to the door. ‘Probably not,’ she said over her shoulder.

Who'd Have Thought It?

Who’d Have Thought It? is out on June 10 in paperback and as an ebook.

Football, Superstition, and the Writing Game

Footballers (and fans) are notoriously superstitious. From wearing lucky pants to drinking frog juice, the game is riddled with irrational beliefs and habits, many of them linked with the post hoc fallacy.

FreeImages.com/Diego Sinning

A Buddhist monk and his entourage have been regulars at Leicester City’s King Power Stadium to bless the pitch and distribute lucky charms to the players. Now the monk’s amulets and talismans are credited with Leicester City’s phenomenal success in the Premier League.

Authors may like to think they’re an intellectual cut above mere footballers, but many persist in the same kind of magical thinking. Here are some common rituals and beliefs:

FreeImages.com/Marcia Rogriques

1 Keeping pencils sharpened to a perfect point. On one level this makes sense. The sharper the pencil when you first put it to paper, the longer you can write without stopping. Pencil-sharpening is also the archetypal displacement activity. But a lot of writers go much further than that, believing good karma to be inextricably linked with stationery choices.

John Steinbeck would keep exactly a dozen perfectly sharpened pencils on his writing desk. He favoured the hexagonal type which produced calluses on his fingers, so his editor sent him round pencils instead. I’m told he never used them.

Mustn’t scoff. Alongside my needle-sharp pencils, I keep a stash of special paper clips. When starting out in journalism, I became convinced that my work had a far higher chance of being accepted if I attached it to the covering letter with a brightly-coloured paper clip. These days every article I write is commissioned, and I don’t even use the post, but it’ll take more than that for me to go back to plain clips.

FreeImages.com/Danilevici Filip-E

2 Keeping quiet about your current project. There’s some logic in this too. Talking about your writing can sap creative energy. Unfortunately social media seem to demand it of authors, which can lead to much angst. And the posting of cat pictures instead.

Mishmish with Post-It notes

3 Not tempting fate. Creative visualization is all very well, but since when did imagining yourself receiving the Booker Prize actually lead to success? Exactly. Arrogance is a hideous trait that can only lead to bad karma.  

Bad karma is closely linked with the Evil Eye. I was raised in the Middle East where the Evil Eye is responsible for almost every calamity you can imagine, and then some. As my mother explained in her first book Cocktails and Camels, if someone admired your new dress and you then spilt coffee all over it, it’s not that you were clumsy fool. It was the Evil Eye. If your felucca got stuck in bulrushes which had been there, as everyone knew, since the time of Moses, it had nothing to do with poor seamanship. And, it goes without saying, if you had three daughters and no sons, that was obviously the Evil Eye too.

Cocktails & Camels, by Jacqueline Cooper

Blue beads with an eye on them can offer some protection against the Evil Eye. Also called Nazar amulets, these are common throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

FreeImages.com/Kerem Yucel

Imagine my surprise when my own mother, instead of arming me with beads for success with my fiction, actually tempted fate. This was years ago, when all I’d done was send off in the post for some guidelines on writing romantic novels. Even before I had even written a single word, my mother promptly crowed about “My daughter, the successor to Barbara Cartland.” I cringed in the certain knowledge that my writing career had been jinxed for all time.

As a scientist, I really should know better, but old beliefs die hard. Fast-forward the tape of life and my thirteenth and fourteenth books are about to come out. There’ll be no fanciful boasts from me on publication day. June 30 will find me sitting with my sharpened pencils and a rainbow of paper clips.  

A lucky amulet would be handy too.

Just How Fictional is Fiction?

There’s a socking great disclaimer at the front of my novels.

“This is a work of fiction. All characters and events in this work, other than those clearly in the public domain, are entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”

The real bits should be obvious. All you have to do is check out Marylebone, or amble down Hampstead High Street.

Hampstead Butcher & Providore

I’ve made up almost all the rest. Not that readers believe authors’ protestations.

Friends and family are apt to dissect published novels with an eye on ‘real life’. Even Ian Fleming, I’m told, suffered from this problem. People don’t just ask “Am I in it?” They go straight for “Which character am I?” I have half a dozen friends who believe they’re the single mother from One Night at the Jacaranda, and one who still thinks she’s the femme fatale.

Waitrose Marylebone

“I’m Geoff,” insists my husband Jeremy. He has no discernible similarities with the doctor in my novels, though someone did once call him Geoffrey by mistake at a party.

Of course authors draw on reality when inventing their stories. Jane Davis says her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’. Her next book My Counterfeit Self was inspired by the plight of UK atomic war veterans. She even mentions many of them by name, but her book is still made up, and all the better for it, in my opinion.

Finnish author Helena Halme also uses the truth as a springboard for fiction. Her romantic series The Englishman is based on her own life story of meeting her Navy husband and moving to the UK. The prequel The Finnish Girl is now out, but, like the others in the series, reality has been fictionalized to provide the right pace and tension for a novel.

The Finnish Girl by Helena Halme

Fiction certainly benefits from an injection of fact. That’s what makes it relatable. I lost all faith in a story where the NHS doctor ‘worked shifts’. In those days, hospital doctors often worked a one-in-two rota. Going to work on Friday morning and not leaving till Monday evening was called many things, but a ‘shift’ it was not.

(I can’t help thinking a lot of non-fiction could do with a few facts too. Books on curing cancer with carrots really should move to the fantasy shelves, but that’s another story.)

A novelist invents stuff, but it needs to be right. While I can’t define ‘right’, I had to make that call with the image on the front of my forthcoming novel Hampstead Fever.  Cover designer Jessica Bell suggested adding a little red boat to the pond. The flash of red on the water seemed a delightful counterpoint to the red hat and red lipstick. But the pond in question is Hampstead Heath’s Number One Pond. Luckily one my sons, a local councillor, knows all about Hampstead’s ponds. As he explained, only the Model Boating Pond is a model boating pond. Cute as it was, my little boat had to be hauled out of the water.

Hampstead Fever

Being right is more about authenticity than fact. Being authentic, or so the Oxford dictionary puts it, includes

“Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original.”

Ain’t that the truth?

Getting an Author Photo

Soon after emerging from the editing cave, blinking in the light, came two realizations: I would need to do some publicity, and I needed a new author photo.

It’s like that advert about changing your mattress regularly every eight years, when it dawns on you that the last time was a bit longer ago than you imagined.

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No, the FotoMat won’t do (not that kind of FotoMat, anyway). It’s strictly for driving licences, passports, and the FBI wanted list.

Neither will a selfie taken holding one of your own books and grinning maniacally. And definitely not the charming efforts taken with best mates in a giggly stupor.

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My husband declined to volunteer his skills. I didn’t need high-res images of thumbs. I needed a professional. Enter the brilliant Mat Smith Photography

Two hours with Mat and his assistant Anna taught me a lot. I have yet to study the results, but this I know:

1 There is such a thing as too much sunlight. Who the hell wears sunnies in an author photo?

FreeImages.com/Michell Botetano

2 Have lots of outfits to change into, but don’t use your entire wardrobe. Every single garment you choose for the photoshoot has to earn its keep.  No massive flowers, busy patterns, or shouty diagonal stripes. Consider the image you want to project (friendly, intellectual, offbeat?). Think too about the outfit in its own right. Or, as Mat and Anna would have it, “What does it SAY?” This is the best question I’ve ever heard about clothes, and I plan to take it with me every time I go shopping.

3 Avoid too many props. You don’t need to wear a stethoscope to convince people you’re a medic.

Hewlett Packard Rapaport Sprague stethoscope

4 Smile. It’s your natural face-lift. I base this advice on the fact that I look decades older if I keep a straight face. 

FreeImages.com/hamidreza ahmadi

5 Look into the camera rather than the distant horizon. It will make you look interested rather than aloof. Yes, this applies even if you have one dropping eyelid (most people do).

6 If you pose in the street, people will wonder whether you’re a celeb. It’s neat to have some publicity material to hand them, even if it’s from your last book.

One Night at the Jacaranda

Keep it Short, Stupid

War and Peace, when it was a 1,225-page blockbuster rather than a toothsome TV adaptation, was a by-word for long and weighty.

FreeImages.com/Davide Farabegoli

At medical school, one lecturer seemed bent on following in Tolstoy’s footsteps. Using ten words when one would do, he habitually overran, but did he cram more in? Was his specialism more vital than others? No.

Sadly, many speakers drone on at length, oblivious of their audience and of those scheduled after them, their numerous PowerPoint slides an accessory to their crime of disrespect.

alarm clock

Most topics, even Brexit, could be covered more succinctly. Going too long is blatant laziness. “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead,” said Mark Twain. Others, including Cicero, TS Eliot, and Blaise Pascal have expressed the same sentiment.

As the cliché goes, it would be easy for journalists from The Sun newspaper to write for The Times, but not vice versa. Guido Fawkes, who has done both, agrees. 

fabric tape measure

Keeping it short leaves little scope for nuance. On the plus side, readers won’t give up in droves, as if their team is losing 6-0.

KISS. Less is [word count exceeded]

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You may like to read: 10 Tabloid Tips to Better Writing, from Writer’s Digest and my writing colleague Dan Holloway on Why Less is More When Reading or Performing Your Work in Public.