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Five Reasons to Review the Books You Read

Book reviews are a touchy subject at the moment. Between authors buying good ones and faking bad ones, a lot of people have recoiled from the idea of trusting reviews at all. But I believe book reviews online serve a valuable purpose. (That of informing readers.) And the best way to make sure the reviews on places like Goodreads and Amazon are accurate is to jump on the reviewing bandwagon.

Reviewing books takes time. And effort. And it often feels like no one cares. But whether you choose to review books on Goodreads, Amazon, your personal blog, or a different forum, there are at least five reasons to do it.

1. Trust me, I’m a reviewer.

As I mentioned above, there are a lot of disillusioned people out there right now. People are wondering whether they can trust online reviews, whether they should bother reading them, and whether there are better ways to make decisions about what to read.

Well, the answer is: Yes. 

  • Yes, you can trust online reviews…. if they’re written by someone you know and/or trust.
  • Yes, you should read them…. but take them with a grain of salt unless they’re written by someone you know and/or trust.
  • Yes, there are better ways to make decisions about what to read… like going by the recommendations of friends you know and/or trust.

We all know that we’re more likely to read a book recommended by a friend than we are to read a book displayed on the side of a bus.  And the great thing about social media is that we can connect with people (and friends) all over the world, in an instant. So instead of bemoaning the state of online book reviews, step up and be a trusted reviewer for your friends and contacts.

2. No, really. You have to read this. Right now.

There’s a beautiful feeling you get when you finish a particularly good book. There’s a moment where you sit, transfixed, your mind still deep in the story world as you close the cover. You’re part of the world. You know the characters like they’re your best friends. Or, in some cases, like they’re secretly you — just a different, more zombie-killing you. There’s a moment of disconnection from reality. A moment when you don’t want to let go of that imaginary reality. A moment when you clutch the book to your chest, as though you can write the story into your heart. 

And when that moment passes, there’s only one thing you want to do next. You want to reminisce.

“And what about the part where…?” “Can you believe he decided to…?” “How awesome was it when…?”

If none of your friends have read the book, you find them and you say, “You have to read this book. Right now.” Partly because you want to share the wonder of the story, and partly so you’ll finally have someone to reminisce with.

Well, that’s what a book review is. When you find someone and tell them what you loved about a book and why they should read it, you’re giving them a review of the book. So, why not write it down? Then you can tell everyone you know (and some you don’t) about a book you’ve loved without having to repeat yourself.

3. Stars belong in the Sky.

It’s not enough to just give a book a star rating. A review is so much more than just an arbitrary number between 1 and 5. A review helps your friends, and other readers, decide whether they’d enjoy reading the book themselves.

Not everyone has the same taste. Simple, but true. It’s easy to forget when we’re so enthused about the greatness of a book, but not everyone is going to enjoy it. In the same way that not everyone is going to hate the book you couldn’t manage to finish. For example:

  • Fifty Shades of Grey has 239,000 ratings on Goodreads.
  • 86,000 of those ratings have 5-stars.
  • 26,000 of those ratings have 1-star.

But none of those ratings tell me whether I would like the book or not. I could look at those numbers and decide that it’s more likely I’ll love the book than hate it. But what if I’m not like the 86,000 people? What if I’m more like the 26,000 people? How can I possibly make a subjective decision based solely on numbers?

But when I go and read some of the reviews, I find the following trends.

The majority of 5-star reviews include:

  • Christian is sooo hot. And dominant.
  • Anastasia is sooo innocent but doesn’t always back down.
  • “I don’t normally read erotica, but this is the best erotica I’ve ever read.”
  • “I was worried about the BDSM parts, but they weren’t very intense. It was just like reading about hot sex.”

The majority of 1-star reviews include:

  • There’s no real plot.
  • The characters are essentially the same as Edward & Bella with different names.
  • The writing isn’t very good.
  • The BDSM isn’t realistic.

And suddenly I have enough information to make an informed, subjective choice. So don’t just leave a star-rating. Leave real reviews, and your friends and contacts will be able to use them to make reading decisions.

4. It was awesome because it was awesome.

“You really should read this book. It’s awesome.”
“Yeah? What’s it about?”
“It’s about this guy and he does this stuff and… it’s just awesome. You should read it.”
“Is it a bit like that other book we liked?”
“No, no… Well, a bit. Yeah. But completely different. But it’s just awesome the way that he… He’s so amazing, and… You should read it. Because it’s awesome.”

Does anyone else have these conversations with people? Or is it just me?

I love it when I’m reading a book that’s so good, I barely notice the words on the page. I don’t remember what it said on page 68 or how the hero was described. I remember the way I felt when the hero triumphed at the end. When I’m reading one of those books, it’s easy to get so lost in the story, all I have at the end is a feeling that everyone should read this book. But when it comes to reviews, that’s not particularly helpful.

When I’m reading a book with the knowledge that I’m going to review it afterwords, I tend to read differently. Not with any less engagement, but with an eye for what makes the story work, as well as how it makes me feel. And, perhaps surprisingly, I find it makes reading even more enjoyable than normal. 

5. I just called to say I love you.

Reviews may or may not sell books, but they certainly spread the word and create the best kind of advertising possible: word of mouth. Looking at your book’s page on Goodreads, Amazon, wherever and seeing no reviews must be disappointing. And that’s why it must be so tempting for an author to buy or fake positive reviews. That doesn’t mean the practice is right, just that it’s understandable.

But do you know what would make it less tempting? If real people who really read the book wrote real reviews saying what they really thought. Show an author you love them: write a review of their book.

Do you review books somewhere online? Are you going to do so in the future? Do you read reviews written by your friends and trusted contacts?

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Five Reasons to Attend Writing Conferences, Conventions and Festivals

If you’ve been reading my blog recently, you’ll know that I recently went to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. (I wrote about it here, here and here.) So it probably comes as no surprise that I think Festivals like these are a great investment for writers of all levels: from the beginner who has just decided they’d like to find out how to put a creative pen to paper for the first time through to the seasoned professional with a couple of books under their belt, and everyone in between.

So, with no ado whatsoever, I give you my top five reasons to attend.

1. I’m an Individual, Just Like You and You and You

Writers, and artists in general, aren’t like everyone else. We’ve often grown up being told we’re dreamers, or we’ve got our heads in the clouds, or we need to start living in the real world. We think differently. We look at the world differently.We overhear a conversation on the bus about two girls visiting their sick grandfather and our first thought isn’t “Oh, how sad…” it’s “I wonder which one of them is poisoning him for his money. Maybe she’s not even his real granddaughter. Maybe she’s a fairy or a shape-shifter or a demon and she’s taken the form of his granddaughter because he owns an old building that was built on top of a portal to another world and— damn it, where’s my notebook?”

Writing can feel very isolating. Not just physically (although being trapped in a room with a recalcitrant WIP is an exhausting prospect), but also mentally. It’s very easy to start to feel like we’re all alone in our difference. Self-doubt creeps on to our shoulders and whispers its heady sweet nothings in our ear: “You’ll never be a real writer. Your writing sucks. No one likes you. And your clothes are at least ten years out of date.”

And then you go to a writing event, and suddenly you’re not alone. You’re surrounded by tens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people who go through all the same stuff that you do. Every day. It feels exciting and heady and like you’ve finally found a place where you can be yourself and say the weird things in your head out loud and everyone accepts everyone else. Because they’re just as odd as you are. And some of their clothes are at least twenty years out of date. Because who cares about clothes when you can sit down over a selection of food and drink and talk about the real issues. Like: Is the sick grandfather really as helpless as he appears? 

2. It’s Dark and We’re Wearing Sunglasses

If you’ve got a day job (or small children) in addition to your writing, it’s almost guaranteed that your writing comes second on a daily basis. If writing is your day job, it’s almost guaranteed that you’re so busy churning out the words, you don’t have a lot of time to sit back and think about the hows and the whys and the wherefores of what you’re doing on a daily basis. But sometimes, that’s what you really need.

When you’re at a festival, you have the opportunity to put on your blinkers, lower the shades, and concentrate one hundred percent on the art, craft and business of writing. You don’t have to keep stopping and starting so you can prepare meals. You don’t need to limit yourself to an hour a day so you can maintain a relationship. You don’t have to focus on your daily word count or your deadline. You have permission to sit back, take a deep breath, and fully immerse yourself in the joy of writing. And isn’t that worth the price of admission alone?

3. Old News in a New Way

I’m going to be honest — I rarely learn anything entirely new at the BWF. That’s probably true for most people once they reach a certain level of understanding and knowledge of the craft. I’ve read enough “how to write” books and blogs to know the terminology and the current trends. I’ve read enough fiction to understand the way narrative flows, and what does and doesn’t work. I’ve written enough stories to recognise my own writing style and be comfortable in expressing my thoughts with squiggles on a page. I don’t go looking for brand new information — I go looking for old information expressed in a new way.

An example of that would be my sudden epiphany about Inciting Incidents last week. I’ve read about Inciting Incidents over and over and over (and, possibly, over). The fact that you need one as close to the beginning of a story as possible is not new. But hearing the same information delivered by a new person, in a new environment, with different words, at the right time… BANG! Instant epiphany about my WIP.  

And until you get there, you don’t know what old news is going to hit you in a new way and totally change the way you think about your writing.

4. Answer Me These Questions Three

In one of my posts about the recent Festival, I said:

Even if I did type out all 3000 words (roughly) of my notes, it still wouldn’t be” everything”. If it worked that way, we’d all just buy the book of the workshop rather than attend workshops at all. It’s as much the interaction between the participants and the teacher that makes a workshop great as it is the information presented.

One of the things you don’t get when you’re reading a book or blog about the craft of writing, is the chance to ask questions. Not just the “what does that mean” type questions (which, let’s face it, you can probably ask Google) but the “how does this apply to me” type questions.  In a class or workshop, you can ask questions. You can ask about using modern slang in YA (try to avoid it), or about changing from past to present tense in the middle of the book (make sure there’s a good reason), or about how much bad language is too much (depends on your genre/market). You can ask for clarification or examples. You can interact — not just with the presenter, but also with the other participants. And you’d be amazed what you can learn.

5. It’s Not What You Know…

We all know the old quip. And we also all know that there’s a certain amount of truth in it. A writing festival, convention, conference, etc is a great place to connect with people at your own level as well as meet people more advanced in their careers. Plus, of course, there are plenty of stories of people meeting their agents, publishers, editors, etc at writing events. So take your business cards, talk to the people sitting next to you if you’re too shy to approach random strangers, and give yourself the opportunity to meet like-minded people.

Have you been to a Writing Event? Did you enjoy it? What reasons did I miss?

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