Approaching Book Review Blogs

I have been reviewing at least a book a week for two and a half years over on my magic realism blog. I am also an indie author, so you could say I have a foot in both camps. I try to support my fellow indie authors on the blog by reviewing indie books as well as traditionally published ones, but there are times when I wonder why I bother.

When I started out reviewing, I was pretty naïve about dealing with requests for reviews. I have become a lot more hard-nosed about it. I now get a lot of requests for reviews, from indies and from traditional publishers, and I also want to read some books that I choose for myself. It takes time to read and review a book, as I want to do justice to the book and the readers of my blog. That time is unpaid and comes at the expense of other activities including my own writing. I do it because I get pleasure from supporting other writers, because I hope I am promoting the genre, to please my followers, and also because I feel it helps my own writing. So let me give you some tips on how to approach a reviewer like me.

TIP 1 Read the blog’s review policy
I only review magic realism books. The clue is in the blog title. And yet I am regularly sent emails asking me to review books that don’t seem to be magic realist at all. Either the author is just emailing every book blog going or for some reason thinks that I will make an exception for their book. Either way they will be refused.

TIP 2 Follow the instructions in the review policy
They are there for a reason. Follow them to the letter. I ask people to put Review Request in the email subject line. Anyone who doesn’t do that, doesn’t get looked at. Not because I am pig-headed about it, although failure to follow my instructions doesn’t exactly endear you to me, but because my emails are set up to automatically put emails with that subject line in my review folder. I also ask people to explain why their book is magic realism, so that I can make a decision as to whether to accept the book on my to-review list. But again a lot of people don’t do that and so their books aren’t accepted.

TIP 3 Research beyond what the review policy says
If reviewers can see that you have actually read their reviews as well as the review policy, they are more likely to accept your review request. But there are other reasons for doing so. For example, every reviewer has genres they like and others they don’t. This may not be apparent from the review policy, but if you read the posts it will soon be so. Look at the reviews of books they didn’t like as well as the ones they did. You are looking for someone who likes books like yours. For example you may find that they like the story resolution to tie up all the ends or that they don’t like first-person narrators. Take note of these preferences and don’t submit a book which includes some of their pet hates. You might even find something that you can use to help make your case for a review, e.g., I see that you are a fan of Alice Hoffman, I believe my book is in the same style of magic realism

TIP 4 What to say (and not to say) in your email
Address the reviewer by name if you can. Ask politely for a review. It is also a good idea to put book review request in the subject line. Sometimes it is not always clear to me what I am being asked to do. Be pleasant but not overly informal. Include in the email the book’s genre, your name, book title, a short blurb that clearly states what the book is about, awards (appropriate ones only), number of pages, and publication date. Do not include attachments such as the review copy, or cover (unless you are told to in the review/submission policy). Say that you can send the review copy in a variety of formats including Kindle format, epub and pdf. Check your email for errors before sending it. I suggest you include just one link in the email: to the book’s page on your website. On this page you can put more information, such as extracts of reviews, book cover, sales links, etc. You want to reduce the amount of work the reviewer has to do and having just one link does that. And lastly thank the reviewer for considering your book.

TIP 5 Wait
Don’t hassle reviewers if they do not respond to your email. If they don’t, put them down as not interested and move on. Even if they do accept your book, expect to wait for the review. As an indication my waiting time for indie reviews is six months.

TIP 6 Submit a good, properly edited book in the format the reviewer wants
When the reviewer accepts your book, send the book promptly in the format requested. But bear in mind that the review may still not happen. I have accepted books for review only to refuse to review them later, because I found them unreadable. I can forgive the occasional typo (not all reviewers are so forgiving) but if they are frequent I will not review. The other problem can be one of formatting. Actually this is a problem with books from traditional publishers as well as indies. Bad formatting makes reading too much of a task and, like editing errors, gets in the way of my appreciation of the book.

TIP 7 Say thank you for the review
Your thanks can take several forms. In addition to a thank-you email, it can include a comment on the post, or promoting the post via Twitter, Google+ or Facebook. It could mean subscribing to the blog.

TIP 8 Don’t complain or have a go
The review is the personal opinion of the reviewer and you gave them a copy in return for a fair review. They have done you a favour and given up several hours of their life to read and review your book. If you don’t like the review, don’t fire off a comment. Walk away and calm down. Think about what they said. This is someone who reads a lot of books like yours (as you know because you read their blog, right?) and what they have said is worth considering calmly. Maybe you still want to reply. If you do, always start your comment with thanking them for their review. Is it a good idea to reply? Sometimes, but only if you can do it in a way that doesn’t look like you are arguing with the review. The readers of the blog will side with the reviewer, not you.

Good luck.

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Shadows in Story Structure

I was fortunate to have as a mentor a story editor who was a Jungian. We had a number of discussions about the Jungian concept of the shadow and its importance to writers, which I hope to capture here. But first let me just point out the Shadows that feature in my Healer’s Shadow trilogy are not Jungian shadows. Are you sometimes surprised and ashamed by your own behaviour? Do you say “I don’t know what came over me. It was so unlike me…”? Do you sometimes take an immediate dislike to a complete stranger? Now don’t lie – of course you do, we all do.

So what’s happening? And how is this relevant to the storyteller’s art? What is happening is that your shadow is showing itself. According to Carl Jung, who coined the phrase: Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. As children we learn (and are taught by our parents and society) that certain behaviours are unacceptable and these we repress – jealousy, prejudice, anger, greed, certain sexual fantasies. They haven’t gone away, they have been thrust into the subconscious and form our shadows. They stay in the dark waiting to burst forth. They do this in our dreams, at times of stress and as projections on to others. So when we say, “It was so unlike me,” alas that isn’t true, it is like us, because our shadow is part of us, but we are blind to it.

Firstly the tension between the subconscious shadow and our conscious projected selves is at the heart of drama. The shadow could be said to be the hero’s fatal flaw. Remember that the shadow emerges at times of stress and inevitably that means that it will appear when our protagonists are under pressure. These outbursts put the protagonist in danger, as it does for example, with a heroine who keeps falling for dangerous men. Or at the very least they will result in the protagonist hurting those who love her. An understanding of the shadow helps us to create fully formed characters and to place them in danger. In some books the conflict between the shadow and the conscious self is externalized – most obviously in Jekyll and Hyde and The Wizard of Earthsea.

Secondly the encounter with the shadow is part of the story structure. Jung’s analysis of myths and fairytales, which informed his development of the shadow, was further developed by Joseph Campbell in his seminal book The Hero With A Thousand Faces and this in turn was popularized in Christopher Vogler’s. The Hero’s Journey is divided into a series of key stages, in which the encounter with the hero’s shadow is core. The reasons for this are various. Maturity requires an acknowledgement of the shadow within us, so facing the shadow is part of the hero’s maturation. The shadow can contain not only negative aspects but also one’s true potential and so the hero gains the treasure that he seeks. Furthermore our antagonist and our protagonist are linked psychologically. As one can project on to others elements of one’s own shadow, so an antagonist is likely to display elements of the protagonist’s shadow, and when the hero confronts the antagonist he is confronting his own shadow at least in part.

Thirdly I have spoken so far only about the individual’s shadow, but civilizations also have shadows. These collective shadows express themselves through wars and persecutions of minorities. We carry within us a mix of our personal shadow and the collective darkness. It is the reason why we can behave so out of character when in a group. If your novel is concerned with such matters, it helps to understand this. The shadow then is central to conflict in any story. I was hugely excited when I discovered this truth and I hope this post helps you understand the shadow better.

A version of this article first appeared on the now defunct Indie Exchange website.

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Blog Tour

If you are wondering what I am up to and why I have been so remiss in posting to this blog, my apologies but I am in the Czech Republic writing the final book in The Healer’s Shadow trilogy. I could say that my access to the internet is unreliable (which is true), but more importantly when I am in the heat of writing I tend to forget to do anything else – house-cleaning, shopping, blogging, even eating at times, can go by the board.

However whilst I am away from this site, I can also be read on various blogs around the interweb. I have been writing various posts and answering interview questions as part of a Book Tour organised by the ladies at Goddess Fish. Some of the most interesting posts can  be found here:

Do visit these wonderful book bloggers.

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Notes From A Storyeditor – Where to start

The first in my series of notes about what I learned from my friend and professional story editor Hannah Kodicek. This was first published on the Indie Exchange website. 

The starting point for any story-making is the relationship with the audience. Although we writers may be sitting alone in front of our computer in a garret somewhere, the story exists only in that relationship, otherwise you’re not telling anything.
We start by understanding what we all have in common (audience and writer):
  • Curiosity – this is inherent to human nature, it’s the reason we do so many things, one being picking up a book.
  • The need to find context – what is it like, how does it fit with what I know/feel, how does it feel like to be someone else
  • Need for pattern – again part of our nature, we will look for patterns and order even if they are not there, and there are a load of patterns which we will expect in stories
  • Need for balance (equilibrium) – we feel disturbed if things aren’t fair, we want to put it right.
  • And conversely the need to upset equilibrium – the need for the unknown, the thrill of risk.
  • The need to think ahead causally – this is an extension of our need for pattern,
  • But there is also the thrill of the unknown.
  • Common cultural context – myths, history, fairytales, belief-systems etc.
  • Archetypes – which Hannah described as “deep subconscious forces shared by all” and which are the subjects of numerous books
  • The need to relate to others, which for me is the most important.
These commonalities are what we as writers build our stories on, for example every story starts with an imbalance which propels the story forward. We may play with them e.g. encouraging the reader to detect a pattern that isn’t there and so think ahead incorrectly. But the single most important thing is to access people’s emotions. Everything we write will stir some sort of emotional response in the reader. They will be gratified if their curiosity is satisfied or they feel they see a pattern or context. They will be thrilled and scared when we take them to somewhere unknown. But they will be dissatisfied if we promise and do not deliver.
Which brings me to us the writers. There are a number of questions we need to ask ourselves as we approach a story:
  • Why am I telling this story? – Why me? Why now? Why do I care? (If you don’t the reader certainly won’t).
  • How does the story fit with or challenge the context familiar to my reader?
  • What is the emotional key to the story? What touches me most deeply? How will it resonate with the reader?
  • What will I and the reader take from the story?
  • What tools do I have to do the job?
These then are the fundamentals from which all storytelling flows and I always go back to them when I am working on a story. I find them particularly useful when I am working on the second draft. 
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A room of one’s own

When I was younger (in my teens and 20’s) I used to write, a lot. I didn’t just write: I was published in poetry anthologies and magazines, but then I stopped. I was too busy with working and being a mum. Maybe the writing abandoned me rather than the other way round. Maybe as Virginia Woolf put it “Every woman needs a room of her own.”, not just physically but psychologically – a creative space.And I didn’t have one.

I’d always made up stories and composed poetry, even before I was taught how to write them down. And not having a room of my own didn’t stop that process, I just didn’t write anything down. Somehow it wasn’t important enough. I needed to get away. About seven years ago I bought a farmhouse in the Czech Republic. I had intended to buy a little hut, somewhere that didn’t need lots doing to it, where I could live in nature for a while and write. Instead I bought a ruined farmhouse, one which would need lots of TLC and work. Talk about sabotaging one’s best intentions!

But the Czech house brought one great benefit – I started to blog about my experiences in “Adventures in the Czech Republic.” And I loved blogging, the feedback was great and I got to know some really lovely, interesting people in cyberspace.

A few years ago the house, although not finished (I had run out of money), was ready to be used for my orginal purpose. I took a deep breath and sat down with my hands resting on a computer keyboard and a blank screen in front of me.

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