Why writing book reviews can help you improve your craft
Reading fiction with a critical eye is key to becoming a good fiction writer. We all know that reading widely is important. You’ll be exposed to a greater breadth of genres, conventions, writing styles and inspiration. All this goes into the mixing pot for you to assimilate and use in your own fiction writing.
Read fiction critically
But reading fiction critically is also essential. Working out what works in the text and what doesn’t means you’re looking objectively at the story. You’re not just saying what’s effective or not – but why. This is what editors do when they conduct a developmental edit or a manuscript evaluation.
When you come across a passage that stands out in a good way, consider why this is. The story moves forward rather than stands still, the decisions a character makes is both in keeping with their personality and refreshing, the verbs are vivid and enriching, and helps the moment to come alive. Drilling down and unpicking what you read is reading critically. Being able to write about it clearly in a book review means you understand the significance of what you’ve read.
If there’s a section that’s dull, try to find the reason for it. It’s all too easy to say you didn’t like something, or you didn’t feel engaged with the character or the action. It’s much harder to say why. There’s always a reason underpinning the problem – perhaps the premise isn’t strong enough or the characters aren’t fully rounded. There might be a whole lot of info dumping going on in the dialogue.
Go back over what you’ve read, slow down, take notes.
Book reviews as an exercise in understanding
Writing a book review is a great exercise. It forces you to summarise a story, pull out the main plot points, identify sub-plots, recognise characters’ worth. If you can’t summarise the story, perhaps it lacks a focused narrative thread? If the story collapses at the end, structure could be an issue.
Ask yourself if the author has achieved what they set out to do? Have they been successful?
You’re not saying, ‘I didn’t like that’ or, ‘The passage didn’t do it for me’ and ending there. You’re having a go at figuring out the underlying issue.
If you can spot that a story starts well but then slows down and you’ve one eye on watching the telly instead of finishing the chapter, ask yourself why.
If you find yourself not giving two hoots about the main character and you don’t care if he gets in a pickle, question why this is.
Improve your own storytelling
No writer ever reaches the point where they can’t learn anything else. All fiction writers can improve their craft and reading widely and critically is key to this development.
Writing book reviews are perfect for cementing your understanding. You’ll then be able to put this understanding into practice, weaving narratives techniques through your own story or implementing structural techniques with the goal of creating a page-turning narrative.
Write a book review while the novel is fresh in your mind. Write notes to capture your thoughts while you’re reading or as soon as you finish the book. Then turn them into a book review.
If you wait too long to put pen to paper to write your book review you’re likely to forget key storytelling ingredients or identify the emotion the author conveyed.
There’s enjoyment too!
Also, don’t forget the enjoyment that’s gained from reading. The hours spent quietly reading are never hours that are wasted.