What I Learned About Writing From Reviewing
Bethanne Patrick Works Backwards From the Criticism to a Great Book
The reading itself is the thing, and not necessarily the exegesis. I read almost every book I review twice, the first time as a reader, to see if the title holds my interest all the way to a good ending. The second time I go through as a critic, making notes and highlighting passages that illustrate key points or the author’s style.
Occasionally there isn’t time for two passes, and I find that frustrating, because I believe in both author and reader as partners in a delicate dance. The author wants to speak; the reader wants to listen. I’ve occupied both roles.
Somewhere in our garage lie my first book reports from elementary school, along with my first published book reviews. The writing was sometimes less than terrific (one of my editors consistently asks for “more Bethanne!,” meaning less plot summary and more opinion, even now) but it reflected my passion for the written word, which led to my 20-year career as a literary critic.
What does a book reviewer do, anyway? We’re supposed to read the books that come out (usually the newest ones, known as “frontlist,” but often we reconsider “backlist” or older titles, too) and summarize them, analyze them, and critique them so that readers will be able to evaluate whether they want to pick up the books involved.
In order to offer thoughts on this, reviewers and critics read, and read a great deal. Some of us are academically endowed; others aren’t. One of my colleagues, whose reviews always teach me something, spent decades as an attorney. Another has a doctorate in medieval history but mostly reviews (and writes) commercial fiction.
I’m at the point where I can say that reviewing books has taught me a great deal about my writing. I hope these guideposts will help you with yours, too.
Throw out the timeline and hold fast to theme.
The author’s inattention to theme bothers me in many of the books I review. Easily overlooked, theme is a narrative’s deepest connective force, the thing that pulls all of the other pieces of story together. Your theme isn’t “love”; that’s your topic. Your theme might be “A love story survives wartime devastation and separation.” Every bit of plot and every tiny detail can relate to your theme if you know understand the bigger idea behind your story.
We all have so many stories and scenes and characters swirling around in our heads that it’s easy to include an anecdote that might be hilarious, or tragic, and yet doesn’t help a book’s theme one bit. Books I’ve recently covered that have a strong thematic grounding include Künstlers in Paradise by Cathleen Schine (“An immigrant family finds a way home on a new continent”), Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny (“Daily life may be madcap, but life over the years must include compassion”), and The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee (“The forgotten story of a real historical genius is told with attention to his true self”).
By remembering theme, these authors remind themselves, and therefore readers, of their purpose. Sometimes you have to write five or even 10 times more than what you actually need in order to connect the dots properly. Don’t tie yourself too tightly to a particular timeline or structure too early in the process; you might lose some of the generative power you need to find your purpose.
Listen to your voice.
Even if you’ve read all of Borges or Atwood, Hollinghurst or Mbue, it’s unlikely you’re going to write like any of them. That’s not because your writing is less than; it’s because your writing is different than.
Reading, and reading widely, is the surest way to develop your writing chops in terms of structure and syntax, but when it comes to style, we’ve each got to find our own, as did Atwood, Borges, and on. When you open a book, whether or not you’re going to review it in any form, you should be open to the author’s voice. What is their purpose in this book? How good is it as a whole? Did they accomplish what they set out to do?There is no way for a critic to discern how many drafts you’ve been through. All a critic can tell is when a book feels flabby and unfinished.
When you sit down to write, remember that you have a dance partner. Part of what you’re doing, in writing a book for publication, is finding readers. What snags might they get caught on in your plot or thinking?
That said, be on the lookout for places where your voice gets stronger and louder and maybe sounds a little different. Even if what it sounds like frightens you. That’s progress. It helps to have a good writing group or a couple of highly trusted readers who can help you see these places and give you constructive ways to work with them.
Finish your manuscript before you worry about feedback.
Getting from your first draft to your ninth can seem insurmountable. And what happens if you have to work on a tenth? No one loves going into overtime, but sometimes it’s what needs to happen so that you can win the game, i.e., finish a manuscript and move on to getting published.
There is no way for a critic to discern how many drafts you’ve been through. All a critic can tell is when a book feels flabby and unfinished. Without naming names (read: book titles), I’ll confess that kind of book disappoints terribly, because you know that it could have been better. We can tell that the process was flawed.
Here’s the good news for writers out there who are struggling to move from one draft to the next: This doesn’t just happen to first-time authors. This happens to all authors, including the ones whose names are part of our cultural fabric. Everyone (except perhaps the brilliant Jesmyn Ward) writes a stinker or three. This is the part of the journey where you have the most control, so keep it as long as you can and know that the time you’re spending might feel endless, but will result in a stronger novel.
The problem is rarely that your book needs more and more feedback from other people, be they critique partners, writing-group colleagues, or book doctors. The problem, in getting from an initial draft to a finished manuscript, is that you need to write your own book and see if you have accomplished what you set out to do before you hear what anyone else has to say.
Make your ending strong and memorable.
Don’t rush the ending. I’ve read so many books that fall apart in the final 20 pages. Sometimes the author tries to cram too much action in; sometimes the author hasn’t developed a character well enough for a big decisive moment; sometimes tying up loose ends means forgetting to thread those ends through plot holes. Your ending matters. Give it proper attention. Do all the parts of your work lead to it? Does it feel rushed or overlooked?
You’re looking for a reader to say/feel/think: “This couldn’t have ended any other way.” A “bad” ending is one that doesn’t commit. Who will ever forget the endings of Beloved or The Great Gatsby or The Handmaid’s Tale? I’m speaking of their stunning final lines, but also of the lines that lead up to them; the authors thought through the finish.
Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, Euphoria by Lily King, We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry, and The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai all stick the landing.
“This is not a story to pass on,” writes Toni Morrison on the last page of Beloved, an echo of the book itself, and a challenge for the reader to consider how the book leaves them.
Bethanne Patrick is the author of Life B: Overcoming Double Depression, available from Counterpoint Press.