Things I’ve Learned about Writing from Writing Book Reviews – Part 1

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I’ve always been a big fan of the notion that writers must read (see my previous post on The Importance of Writers Who Read OR Why There Are Book Reviews on this Blog) and I’ve also discussed the concept of writers writing book reviews (see my previous post on The Review from the Top: Should Published Writers Write Book Reviews?). I read a lot and I’ve been writing book reviews for four years now. The more of them I wrote, the more I realised that I was continuing to learn about writing and having things that I’d already learned reinforced with practical examples.

So here, using excerpts from some of my book reviews, are a few things I’ve learned from writing them.

There Are Three Universal Things That Make a Great Book
“The big three things readers look for in books to make them great are the writing, the plot and the characterisation. Plot is completely absent. Characterisation is absent as well. The book wasn’t hard to read, so there is something to Salter’s writing, but the style is pretentious, like it is trying to be literary and instead ends up inexplicable.”
From my 2 star book review of All That Is by James Salter

“So glad there is a writer of this quality in the world today creating books that tick all three boxes when it comes to producing a novel: writing, characters and plot. Tick, tick, tick. I’d hate to be the book that comes after it. For a while, at least, everything else must surely pale by comparison.”
From my 5 star book review of The Fault in our Stars by John Green

“As I read and came across plenty of spelling and grammatical errors, I was taking points off in my head but I can’t give this book anything other than five stars. Because the story is perfect. The characters are perfect. The writing is perfect. The editor was responsible for everything else and I can’t blame the writer. I don’t want to punish her or this book because of those errors, which can be easily fixed. I can’t say the same about a book where the story, the characters and the writing are just okay but it’s all done with perfect spelling and grammar.”
From my 5 star book review of I Came to Say Goodbye by Caroline Overington

I’ve read plenty of books with great characters and terrible plots. I’ve read just as many books with great plots and terrible characters. I’ve read well-written books with terrible plots and terrible characters. I’ve written a few of them myself. But the only books that get 5 star ratings from me are the ones that have it all. Which is why so few of the books I read get 5 star ratings.

In my experience, most writers are better at one of these things than the others. I think characterisation is my strong point and my writing is okay so when I am creating a story, I always try to give extra attention to the plot. The days when I don’t do any writing and just sit around thinking about the story, those days are almost always about joining the plot dots in my head – is it interesting, is it exciting, does it make sense, are there plot holes?

Being good at only one or two of these things and ignoring the other might still give you a good book. It might be published and it might be read. But it won’t be a great book until the plot, the characters and the writing are all working together and working well.

Sometimes Being Great at One Thing is Enough
“The writing is lovely, also a reflection of a different time. It is unhurried (something of an achievement in a book that is only 90 pages long) but it uses no more words than is absolutely necessary to convey the story, a genuine skill that I wish more writers – myself included – had today.”
From my 4 star book review of The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis

“This book is full of wonderful characterisation. Rachel is drawn so well that despite the fact that she is constantly drunk, often falling and sometimes vomiting, I liked spending time with her. She tries to give up drinking but her life is such a disaster, even before Megan goes missing, that she finds it impossible. She needs a drink to get herself through difficult moments, which basically constitute her whole life, and once she starts, she can’t stop. She was once a functioning alcoholic but she isn’t anymore. She doubts herself constantly but as a reader I never did. Even when she was vomiting on the stairs and leaving it there for her roommate to find, I didn’t want to stop reading. Rachel is the triumph of this novel.”
From my 3 star book review of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Even writers who end up writing great books don’t write only great books. They suffer from writing the occasional good book as much as the rest of us do. And sometimes doing one thing really well is enough. Absolutely stunning, beautiful writing might be enough for a reader to look past an okay plot and so-so characters. A really well-written and evocative character might be enough to cover for a plot that’s been done before and a plain writing style.

I’m certainly not advocating just giving up on aiming to get all three things right but as writers we should all play to our strengths in the same way sportspeople and musicians and doctors do and celebrate the things we can do really well.

Sometimes It’s the Little Things That Will Stay with the Reader
“In the thirteen years since I first read this book, there was one phrase that stuck with me because it was such a unique piece of description, pronouncing random beautiful people attending a party as having ‘star spangled smiles’. Sometimes it’s just the small moments that make all the difference for individual readers and that small moment did it for me. It was worth reading nearly four hundred pages just for that.”
From my 3 star book review of Ninety East Ridge by Stephen Reilly

“The final paragraph of the book is perhaps the best final paragraph of any book I have ever read. As a writer who struggles with writing endings, I am envious. In fact, it’s an ending that could have been tacked on to the end of many, many books, if any of the authors had thought to write it.”
From my 5 star book review of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg

Sometimes writers are so focused on the big picture that the little things get overlooked. But I’ve read a lot of books that are if not saved entirely, then at least redeemed from a book review mauling by one tiny moment – in the case of Ninety East Ridge, literally just three words out of tens of thousands.

This is why we write draft after draft after draft. Or at least why we should. Because it is often moments, not chapters, not even the entire book, that will be more important to readers, that will stay with them long after they finish reading, that will make them encourage others to read just so they can get to the same moment and sigh over it together.

It’s hard to write a perfect book – you could spend your whole life trying – so if you can write a perfect moment instead, that might be enough.

Don’t Use Writers’ Tricks
“After Cecilia finds the letter [containing the eponymous husband’s secret], she asks her husband about it when he makes his daily phone call home. He tells her he wrote it after the birth of their first child and that it’s just him rambling on about how much he loves his family. Even though Cecilia finds the letter in the very first chapter and thinks he’s lying about its contents, she agrees to his request not to read it and doesn’t until nearly 150 pages in. Because it takes so long for her to read it, it becomes clear Moriarty is using writers’ tricks to string out the suspense. She does this in order to give the reader a proper insight into Cecilia’s normal life before turning it upside down but she could have done that by having her find the letter later, thus shortening the gap and preventing my frustration.”
From my 4 star book review of The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

“I’ve written previously about books that use writers’ tricks and there’s one on prominent display here. Gaby Baillieux doesn’t appear until page 127 when chapter 24 begins. She sticks around for exactly one chapter and then disappears again, not re-emerging until chapter 38 on page 370 – which is the second last chapter. And she’s not in the last chapter either. Throughout the rest of the book she appears only on cassette tapes being listened to by Felix Moore as he attempts to construct her biography from his subject dictating her life.”
From my 2 star book review of Amnesia by Peter Carey

Even though I clearly liked The Husband’s Secret a lot more than I liked Amnesia, they both had a similar flaw – writers’ tricks. In the first book, the trick was revealing the existence of something that the reader really wanted to know about and then not telling them what it contained for a long, long time afterwards. The writer did it in order to create suspense but instead ended up creating frustration.

In the second book, the trick was an almost non-existent main character, who appeared in exactly two chapters. I think it was meant to make her mysterious but, again, all it did was make me was frustrated. I bought a book to read about the character outlined in the blurb and then was forced to read about somebody else wasn’t nearly as interesting.

There are a lot of writers’ tricks out there so I can’t possibly list them all but as soon as you see one, you will know it for what it is. Which is almost invariably linked to poor plotting. The sooner we can all recognise them in our own writing and do a rewrite quick smart, the better off all our readers will be.

*****

Look out for Part 2 on Friday.

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