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A Conversation With Mayra Calvani and Anne K. Edwards authors of The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing .: Knowledge Base
Today, Norm Goldman Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com is excited to have as our guests, Mayra Calvani and Anne K. Edwards authors of The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing.
Thank you Mayra and Anne for participating in our interview.
Mayra and Anne: It's a pleasure to be here, Norm. Thank you for talking to us.
When did you both begin book reviewing? What motivated you to become book reviewers and what keeps you going?
I began reviewing about eight years ago. Like Anne, I started with EbooksNBytes.com—in fact, that’s how we first met! I have reviewed for many online sites over the years, but now I review mostly for my own blogs (Mayra’s Secret Bookcase and The Phantom Review), Armchair Interviews, and Blogcritics Magazine.
My first motivation was getting free books. As an author myself I later realized reviewing could be used as a tool to promote my name and my books. But this is secondary. What keeps me going is my passion for reading and books. I love discovering great new authors and submerging myself in the imaginative world of fiction.
I can only say I began reviewing for Eva Almeida on EbooksNBytes.com some years ago and I didn't know anything about the subject. She was a very patient lady and taught me a lot. She gave me the confidence to go forward to review on my own also. To be honest I was motivated to try building my name as a writer and found reviewing is one way to gain recognition. It has helped a great deal. Too, I have always loved to read and reviewing has given me an opportunity to meet new authors and characters I might have otherwise missed.
Before becoming book reviewers, did you read any special books on how to write book reviews?
Not really. In high school, I had always been good at capturing the essence of a book and putting it into words, so I just followed my common sense. Like Anne, I learned reviewing by reviewing. I later learned that there were no books available on book reviewing, anyway.
I must confess--no. There were no books available on the subject. I learned reviewing by doing, mostly--with many mistakes along the way.
Are your reviews improvisational or do you have a set plan?
My reviews differ according to the type of book and type of publication. With genre fiction, my reviews are lighter and shorter; with literary works, my reviews are longer and will usually include quotes, as well as a more in-depth look at the author’s work. But I usually follow the formula: interesting quote or lead, a brief summary of the plot (without ever giving away spoilers or the ending), and an evaluation with a recommendation (or not). Sticking to this formula makes it easy, and after reviewing for so long, it pretty much comes naturally now. But do I always follow it? No. When I write reviews for my own blogs, I tend to be less formal and more relax, and will often write in first person instead of the distant ‘this reviewer’.
I read the book, think about it for a day or two, then write the review. I rarely take many notes as my reviews are of the short, light variety. For the longer, in-depth reviews notes would be a necessity however.
What's the most difficult thing for you about writing book reviews?
Actually sitting down and writing them! No, seriously. Just like I do with my own writing, I tend to procrastinate with reviews. Reading the book is the easy, fun part. Making the time to actually sit down, structure my thoughts, and put them down coherently into a well-written, thoughtful review is the hardest part. Just like there’s writer’s block, there’s reviewer’s block. J
That said, having to write negative reviews is never easy. As an author, I know how much time and effort go into writing and finishing a book. I do my best to be tactful when writing negative reviews, but sometimes it’s hard to find that perfect balance between tact and honesty. Ultimately, my loyalty must rest with the reader. If the review request was sent to me by the author himself and the book is poorly written, however, I may choose not to write the negative review and instead let the author know my reasons for declining the review. This happened to me with a self-published, first-time author recently and he was very grateful for my honesty. If a review site or publication assigns me the book, however, I’ll go ahead and write the review, no matter how terrible the book is.
Let me say there are varieties of problems in reviewing, but the one that is hardest for me is when I read a book that is well written, but I didn't like it for lack of interest on my part. Then I must take time to figure out before I write the review why I didn't like or respond to the book and set that aside to give a fair review. It is easy to write a review for a book I liked or one I didn't like because it wasn't well written. Objectivity is necessary in reviewing to be fair to any author as I'd want the reviewer to be fair to my work.
Please tell our readers something about your book The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing.
One early morning, I suddenly woke up and thought to myself, ‘I must write a book about how to write book reviews’. I felt so strongly about it, I immediately started planning and jotting down ideas. I was very driven and focused throughout the whole process, and writing the book with Anne was an enriching experience and a total delight. We interviewed reviewers, publishers, publicists, librarians, bookstore owners, and authors. It was a wonderful learning experience.
I can honestly say Mayra is responsible for the idea, organization, and getting the book finished. As I see it, The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing is meant as a guide and source of information for reviewers on all levels. It is a compilation of everything related to reviewing and hopefully an aid to those who read it.
In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?
As far as I know, nonfiction authors should always stick to the facts or historical events when writing a book. However, speculation or theory is always allowed, I guess, as long as it is presented as such and backed up with evidence. Writers of historical novels should also stick to the historical events of their story’s setting, as well as the time’s fashion, food, politics, etc. to give credibility to their stories, but they can also take liberties when it comes to the characters’ personalities or the way they speak.
For instance, women in the middle ages or regency periods were raised as submissive individuals, but nobody wants to read a book with this type of heroine. Likewise, it would be very annoying to read a novel set in the 1500’s with characters constantly speaking like Shakespeare.
When you have historical novels with real historical people in it, there must be a fine balance between the real facts and fiction. If one of your characters in the novel is Napoleon, you would have to stay truthful to his appearance, major personality traits and general manner, but you’d be free to play with other aspects of his persona. His dialogue would be invented by you, for instance. Or, for the purpose of the plot, you could have him engage in a secret affair with your protagonist.
Again, there must be a fine balance between fiction and reality to make this work. In fact the closer you stick with history, the more believable the story, which is why good historical novelists spend such an enormous amount of time researching.
But how much is too much? It’s difficult to answer this question, but my guess is I would know it when I see it.
Ohhh, that's a goodie question. As Anne K. my personal belief is if you want to write historicals that sound true, you must weave the story around the facts. However, stretching the truth is permitted for the sake of a good story. For instance, if you wrote a historical mystery set in the San Francisco earthquake and fire, you might change some of the facts about a fictional area in the city, or relating to the number of people displaced or injured, but you would not get away with changing the dates of the event or how much of the city was damaged or burned or where the city is located. The changing of events a bit, or characters added who didn't exist, and so on is why it's called historical fiction and not history.
Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?
As authors, we owe our readers the best work we can possibly produce, and this also entails honeying the craft and editing/polishing to the best of our ability.
I definitely feel writers owe something to readers--their money's worth. They pay for a book to enjoy a good read. It is no value to an author to lose readership because they fail to tell a good story. You can get away with some typos and small errors, but that failure is major. I also buy books to read for pleasure that I will never review and ultimately I will buy others by that author if the first tale is a good read, regardless of genre. We write to share our stories, but to do that we must sell the books. I remember the days of the 25 cent paperback book (early 1950s) and comparing that to $15.00 or more today, I think this value exchange of a good tale for the money is only fairness to a reader. A lot of the early paperbacks were cranked out in a matter of a few days by hired writers -- the plots were the same, characters stereotyped, and so on. Today, I believe from what I read that most paperbacks are better plotted and better written with an eye toward quality of story.
What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing? What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
The more I read books, the more I’m convinced that characterization is the most important element. A book can have typos, plot problems, and even clichés, but if I care about the protagonist, if I relate and sympathize with him or her, it’ll make me keep reading. Likewise, a book may have a great storyline, excellent prose, but if I don’t like the protagonist or find her sympathetic, I won’t enjoy the book.
After characterization, a clear and distinctive narrative voice is also imperative. By this I don’t mean perfect little sentences like soldiers in line, but prose that flows naturally with rhythm and cadence; prose that reflects the soul of the narrator (or the author), prose that at times is witty and insightful.
Originality, passion, and clarity are also important. Originality stems from the author’s imagination and sets the story apart from the others. Passion makes the writing come to life and engages the reader at an emotional level. Usually, if you write with deep emotion and enthusiasm, these feelings are transmitted through the words to the reader. By clarity, I mean clean, lucid sentences that express the author’s ideas with precision; simplicity of thought. There’s nothing more annoying and tiring to the mind than ambiguous, confusing prose. New writers who want to sound ‘deep’ usually make this mistake.
Must haves: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (personally, I hate this little book, but still find it helpful), and of course a good dictionary and thesaurus. These days I use those online.
Some books I’d also recommend: The Write to Write, by Julia Cameron, Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg, The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman, The Frugal Book Editor, by Carolyn Howard-Johnson, and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Browne and King.
The first and main element of good writing is imagination and an ability to organize a story cohesively. This is true for nonfiction also. This would also require the ability to write or some talent in the field. You must have an inner editor and critiquer also. A command of the language in which you write is very necessary added to a basic knowledge of the rules of whatever genre you are using. There are other requirements also, but I think these items and the very basic necessity of having a good tale to tell are what I think serve writers best.
How many book review requests do you receive per week? How many do you accept? How long does it generally take you to read a book and write a review? How do you know when your review has been completed?
I used to receive an average of two review requests a week, but because of the time factor and my own writing projects, I’m closed to submissions for the moment. Of those 8-10 review requests, I usually accepted half of them. I’m very particular about what I like to review. These days I enjoy literary novels, dark fiction, paranormal/supernatural (though not romance or horror), middle grade, YA, and children’s picture books. I tend to avoid the high-profile commercial fiction. The more I read these books, the more disappointed I get. I think there’s a hidden treasure in small presses, and I love to discover those little gems.
I used to be a much faster reader (10 books a month), but now my average, at most, is two books a month. The actual writing of the review takes me from thirty minutes to two hours, depending on the book and the type of review (light or in depth). After reading the book, I usually let my ideas simmer for a few days before I write the review. Other times I’ll write the review right away. After writing the review, I go over it a few times for clarity, spelling/grammatical errors, etc. I hardly ever feel completely pleased with the way I write the review, but just like with any other type of writing, you have to let it go some time!
I review for some websites that send me a certain number of books a month. I do freelance reviews except for self published and vanity presses where the work isn't edited and I limit my genres not to include port, erotica or stories written to defame. The number of requests varies as does the number I accept which is often dependent on my own writing.
What will you be doing for promotion of your book and how much of it is your doing?
Though our publisher, Lida Quillen of Twilight Times Books, has a publicist, Anne and I are taking a very active part in the promotion of our book. I’ve always been an aggressive book promoter and, fortunately, I enjoy this aspect of publishing. Of course, book promotion can be very time consuming, so it’s important to plan ahead and put aside a few hours a week for this purpose. Our June book launch was quite successful and we received almost 200 comments from readers. What I did was interview about 25 reviewers during the whole month of June. A line up and links to the interviews can be found here:
We also sent about 50 review copies to various review publications. So far, reviews have been very positive, so we’re quite thrilled about that. We also took some ads in various strategic sites and we’re planning a virtual book tour this autumn. I’ll also be re-posting all the reviewer interviews on my blog, The Dark Phantom Review, during the months of September and October. Another thing we started doing is submitting the book for awards. The word has started to get around, I guess, because we recently found out that our book will be used as textbook for a book reviewing course at Loyola College, MD, this semester.
We are embarking on a new idea that is rather time consuming, something we haven't seen done before so I don't want to go into specifics on that. We have taken out ads, done interviews, Mayra Calvani did a book launch with Blogcritics, a virtual book tour and we have gotten reviews from several sites. A press release is also in the works at some point soon.
Are you working on any books/projects that you would like to share with us? (We would love to hear all about them!)
I’m working on several projects at the moment. I have two children’s picture books in the illustrating stages, both scheduled to come out in 2009. I’m also trying to finish two works in progress: one is an adult paranormal novel set in the French countryside, and the other is an ethnic (Hispanic) YA novel. Besides these, I’m also editing/polishing a middle grade fantasy I wrote two years ago. I also have two nonfiction works for children in the planning stages, so for the moment I have a full plate!
I have in the works a mystery, a YA horse story, a new dragon tale (see publisher site Twilight Times Books for first of these--Jeremy and the Dragon), and am planning on another nonfiction venture in the spring. I work in any genre that a story I have fits into. The mystery is second in a series (also from Twilight Times), the horse story is a fictionalized version of a gelding we had for 35 years. He provided us with a lot of humor along the way. The mystery is placed in Gettysburg, PA area during the reenactment of the Civil War and a series of murders are committed for a variety of reasons. My sleuth is drawn into the story by virtue of it being family related--sort of...:)
Is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered and where can our readers find out more about you and your book?
I’d like to invite readers to visit my websites and blogs. I have separate websites and blogs for my adult and children’s books.
I regularly post my reviews and interview authors on my blogs. Readers may also find my reviews and interviews at Blogcritics Magazine (www.blogcritics.org). The direct link to my work there is http://blogcritics.org/writer/mayra_calvani.
Together with Anne, I also keep The Slippery Book Blog (http://slipperybookreview.wordpress.com), though we haven’t updated it for a while.
I tell people to buy books. My house is filled with them and my cats knock them over a fast as I can pile them up... Visit http://www.Mysteryfiction.net for Anne K. and friends books. There are book excerpts from several authors there, reviews, and my ezine, Voice in the Dark, to name a few.
Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
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