Saturday, March 17, 2007
On Becoming a Review Connoisseur....
I love talking about writing. I love talking about books I like and what makes them work. Alternately, I like talking about books I hate and what makes them suck.

So it goes without saying that I love talking about my own book, too. When people read my book and want to ask me questions, it's fun answering them. I'm proud as a new mother talking about her baby.

But there is one question I do not love. One question that I've never really been able to answer.

It usually comes up in a casual conversation that goes something like this:

Me: So what do you do?

Them: Oh, I'm getting my PHD in advanced beverage management. What about you?

Me: I teach and work on my novel.

Them: You're writing a novel? Wow. What's it about?

At this point the conversation can take two different paths. Most people really don't care about the novel. They're just making a polite social noise. So I say, "Oh, it's about a lot of things," and the conversation moves along to another topic.

But some people are really interested. They ask follow-up questions, gently encouraging me to talk until eventually I break down and try to explain it. Because, ultimately, and I WANT to tell them what the book is about, I just suck at it.

Them: What's it about?

Me: It's... well, it's kind of the story of a man's life. An exceptional man. It's sort of like a behind-the-scenes look at the myth of the hero. As the story progresses you see the truth of this guy's life is really different than the legends that have grown up around him over the years.

Them: Oh, I –

Me: But it's more than that. It's a mystery. The story centers around his attempt to uncover the hidden truths of his world. It's about what it means to be human. It's a love story, too. It's a story about stories. About how everyone tells stories, but at the same time stories shape our lives.

Them: Um, Okay, I guess that –

Me: It's about adventure! It's about a world so real you can touch it. About love, loss and betrayal! Truth! Beauty! It's like a thousand angels singing in your head! It's a three-day orgasm with super-size fries and a footrub. It's.... it's....

Them: [backing slowly away.] I'm just going to go hide behind something if that's alright with you....

What makes it hard is that I'm trying to be honest. If I just lied to these people about my book, it would be easy:

Then: So what's your book about?

Me: It's The Princess Bride meets Fight Club, with a little bit of Pirates of the Caribbean sprinkled over the top.

Them: Sweet!. [Leaves at a sprint to go buy the book.]

It's probably this particular deficiency that caused me to get endlessly rejected back when I was writing query letters to agents.

What's the point of all this? The point is that my particular handicap has helped me really appreciate the art of the review.

In the last month or so, my book has been getting reviewed. It's a new experience, having strangers read my book, then publishing their comments up for the world to see.

I've never read reviews before. The most I want to know about a book or movie is if it's good or not. No details. When I read a book or watch a movie, I want to experience it uncluttered with any previous knowledge or expectations.

So this last month has been an eye opener for me, because the reviews have been rolling in, and I'm curious what people have to say about my baby. Er, I mean my book.

My newly formed opinions of a review is this: a bad review summarizes a story, like a third grader's book report. A good review delves deeper, they not only tell you why it a book tickled their fancy or left them cold, a good review shows you what a story is about, what lies at the heart of it.

And, since that's something I've always had a hard time expressing, it's really interesting watching other people do it. I know the book better than they do, of course, but they're better at describing these things. Sometimes I read a review and think, "Yes! that's it! Why couldn't I have said that?"

Sometimes I read one and think, "Huh, I'd never considered that before, but I guess that is sort of a central theme...."

And, of course, there are a few where I read them and think: "The hell?!?" Luckily, these have been few and far between.

Anyway, here's a few reviews that I read just today, that led to this rambly musing.

One's from Locus, which is one of the high-mucky-muck sci-fi/fantasy magazines out there.

And this one is from a smaller, independent reviewer on a website called Flames Rising.

In some ways I'm jealous of these people who get to read by book for the first time. They get to see the book from the outside. That's something I'll never be able to do.




posted by Pat at


Anonymous Miriam said...

I can relate to what you said about describing what your book's about. I hate being asked that and I never quite know what to say.

Great post. I've read some of those reviews and I look forward to reading your book myself.

March 17, 2007 6:16 PM  
Blogger Shawn C. Speakman said...

And I've had some of the same thoughts about "I'll never be able to read my book like anyone else" thought. It's kind of sad, really.

I guess you get to read my book, Pat, and your book just arrived in hardcover two days ago. It's like we are swapping, which is very coo.

March 18, 2007 8:40 PM  
Blogger Pat said...

Huh. That's interesting. I just glanced through this post and saw that apparently my blog can't handle an M-dash.

It figures that after all the trouble I go through learning the difference between the dashes and how to use them, that technology would find some way to slap me down.

Such is life.


March 18, 2007 9:42 PM  
Blogger Shawn C. Speakman said...

Hey Pat,

You can do M-dashes. It just takes a special code to do it. I'll send you an email with it.


March 21, 2007 11:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actualy if someone told me that reading a book was like a .. what was it you said ... Oh yea. A three-day orgasm with super-size fries and a footrub, I would be begging for the book. Do you know how hard it is to get a good foot rub??


March 26, 2007 12:50 AM  
Blogger Emerald said...

Sometimes I don't even know what my book is about, and I'm in the revision stage, I hate it when people ask that nebulous question. You'll never find another writer asking it, either. It's because we KNOW that it's entirely impossible to answer it. It's like trying to explain why a lover makes you feel so good. There are so many little details that it's impossible to sum up.
And whatever my book may be about, it definitely sounds a lot lamer when I try to explain it than it really is in my head.

And I agree on the envious point. Objectively editing my book is so hard. I find myself sort of skimming scenes because I wrote them, I could tell you the words in my sleep; it's like my favorite book I've read hundreds of times (it's now falling apart, poor thing), I can read 90 pages of it in an hour because I'm not even reading it anymore.
I wish I could just forget what I'd read, but even reading chapters I haven't seen in over a year, I still know it by heart. Very hard!

April 6, 2007 3:11 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Dancer Isadora Duncan snappily answered one of those irritating "What's it about?" questions perfectly:

"No, I can't explain the dance to you. If I could say it -- I wouldn't have to dance it!"

In the same way -- if I could say it in a breath, I wouldn't have to write thousands of words!

August 8, 2007 12:38 PM  

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