Book Reviews


Cover of Thanks for the Feedback

Image from Goodreads

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you’ve probably noticed that I looooove to break things down: “writing” isn’t just “writing,” it’s a collection of skills ranging from grammar to description to character building. You can’t just ask for an “edit,” because there are levels of edit.

So it’s no surprise that I love thinking about how there are multiple kinds of feedback.

I’ve been reading Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well because I wanted tips on giving feedback. And, er… that’s… not actually the focus of the book. But I still love this book.

You see, Thanks for the Feedback slots feedback into three buckets: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. And that got me thinking about how those apply to the writing world, where feedback often takes the form of a beta reading.

So let’s talk about the book’s three kinds of appreciation and how those look in betas!

Feedback Type #1: Appreciation

Thanks for the Feedback makes it clear that “feedback” doesn’t mean “stuff meant to help you get better.” It just means a response, of any sort, to what you’re doing. And sometimes you don’t want a deep, analytical analysis. You just want to be noticed.

That’s feedback type #1: appreciation. When someone’s looking for appreciation, they want acknowledgement, recognition, and encouragement.

I’ve actually gotten beta reading requests from people who only–or mostly–wanted appreciation. And that’s… dangerous. Not because there’s anything wrong with it, but because that’s not what all feedback-givers think to do.

For example, when someone asks me for a critique, I hear “give me a thorough explanation of what didn’t work, why, and how to fix it!” I mean, sure, I’ll mention things I like. I’ll throw in a compliment sandwich. It’s just not the focus. We’re here to find things to work on, right?

But if I default to that, and my beta reader’s hoping for appreciation, we’re going to have a capital-B Bad Time. Because I’m giving the next type of feedback: coaching.

Feedback Type #2: Coaching

“Coaching” is feedback that tells you how to improve at something. This is what people think of when they think of “constructive criticism.” When someone is coaching, they point out the things that need work and suggest improvements.

Sounds straightforward enough, right? There’s just one hitch: there’s a third kind of feedback.

Feedback Type #3: Evaluation

Evaluation is the third and most jarring form of feedback. Evaluation ranks someone: it’s giving them a grade, a yes or no, or a pass or fail. Unsurprisingly, this is also the most threatening type of feedback. No duh, right? It’s heavy stuff!

And while true evaluation is the realm of agents and publishers (the people who say “Yes, I want to read your full manuscript” or “I’m sorry, this isn’t for me”), a typical beta can still include evaluative feedback. For example:

  • When someone’s grammar is wrong. Grammar and spelling are either right or wrong. I may not be a bestseller, but I can still tell you that.
  • When you’re reading about something you have deep knowledge about. If you repair cars for a living, you’re qualified to provide right-or-wrong feedback on a book where car repair plays a major role.
  • When someone’s not following the unspoken rules of their genre. There are some things you are strongly encouraged not to do, like starting chapter #1 with a dream or a paragraph of description about a boring, uneventful day.

When I see these, I have a strong, knee-jerk urge to reply with “Don’t do this!” No suggestions, no corrections, just no. Wrong.

This type of feedback often feels very black-and-white: you’re right, the author is wrong, and they should fix it. But at that point, you’re not giving coaching, you’re providing evaluation. And because evaluation is the touchiest form of feedback, you’re more likely to get an emotional response from the author, whether it’s “I’m so embarrassed! I’ll work on that” or “Screw the rules! I can do whatever I want to!”

The ideal beta includes a mix of feedback types.

The most valuable betas combine all three kinds of feedback:

  • Appreciation helps tell people what they did right. This is the positive stuff, the stuff you liked and enjoyed.
  • Coaching helps you point out the things that you think could be improved.
  • Evaluation should be used sparingly and tactfully.

The best beta includes a hearty dose of both appreciation and coaching. That’s straightforward, right?

Evaluation is the tricky one. It feels like coaching when you find something that doesn’t need discussion–it’s just wrong, and it needs to be fixed. And while this can be valuable information, remember: you’re not just giving coaching. You’re passing right-or-wrong judgement. And that’s feedback you need to treat with extra care.

The Solution: Be excessively explicit about what you want.

The trickiest part of a beta is that we all want different betas. Some people want 90% appreciation with just a dash of the gentlest coaching. Some people want the most brutal read you can give them.

The solution’s obvious: talk more.

What type of beta reading do you want? What ratio of appreciation-to-coaching do you need? Tell your beta. Be extremely detailed about what you want them to focus on, what you don’t want them to focus on, what you care about, what you don’t care about.

And if you’re reading, get as much information from the author as you can. Try to gauge where they’re coming from. Does the author seem confident and resilient? Or do they seem anxious, scared, and discouraged? Do they look like they can handle big, heavy evaluations? All this can help you figure out what kinds of feedback you should focus on.

That’s always the answer for everything, isn’t it? Communicate more! If only it was as easy in practice, huh?

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Cover of How to Market a Book by Joanna Penn.

Hotlinked from Goodreads.com.

(First, in unrelated news, check out the four-star Uncaged Book Review of my YA fantasy novel, Justice Unending! You can find it on page 98. And with that out of the way…)

I have a confession: I don’t know anything about marketing.

I started this blog and my author website several years ago, and proceeded to do absolutely nothing at all with them. I went on Twitter and then spoke to no one, because I’m super shy and have no idea how people make friends… anywhere, honestly, but Twitter especially. When my first novel came out, I did a few guest posts, posted a few announcements, put in one request for a book review, and wasn’t sure what else to do.

I really don’t know anything about marketing.

So I started reading.

Joanna Penn’s How to Market a Book covers an immense amount of turf. It’s divided into several sections: an introduction to marketing, short-term promotional techniques (which don’t require an established internet presence), long-term techniques (which do), and an example of how you’d bring all of these together for a launch or re-launch of a book. It also has an absolutely killer appendix that lists every single main point of the book in checklist form. It’s immensely skimmable, incredibly useful, and possibly my favorite part of the book. Seriously. And it’s an appendix. Full of bullet points.

The book is a little vague on the technical details, but I’m guessing that’s intentional. It doesn’t tell you how to make a Facebook ad, for example; it tells you why they’re a good idea and explains that you can use your email list to target lookalike groups, but it doesn’t explain how you actually go into Facebook and do that. (This is probably intentional–that gets into “How to use Facebook” territory, and I’m sure the author didn’t want to write a technical how-to that’ll just go out of date the next time Facebook tweaks something.) And while this is true for a lot of things (“just do a giveaway,” as opposed to “here’s where you can learn how to do an Amazon/Goodreads giveaway”) the author does have an awful lot of supplementary links on her website that explain things that the book does not.

So while I might not feel like I could run out this very second and run a Facebook campaign, I did come away with an immense amount of ideas. How to Market a Book covers a ton of ground, from ads to book reviews to videos, podcasts, and more. I now have a lot of ideas about what I could look into next–and isn’t that exactly what an introductory book on marketing should do?

Oh yes, one more thing: there is, unsurprisingly, a very, very heavy emphasis on self-publishing, and many of the techniques aren’t easy to do if you’re published through a publisher. I could probably experiment with categorization, keywords, and metadata, for example, but because I published with a small press, I’d have to send those changes through my publisher. I’m fairly sure I can’t do Amazon advertisements at all, since I don’t have access to the Amazon KDP page for my book. So if you aren’t self-published, you’ll have to suss out with specific elements are still open to you. (Don’t worry. There are still a lot.)

Overall, this is a really lovely book for someone who’s brand new to marketing. It doesn’t go into immense detail about anything, but it does cover a little bit about a lot. And that’s just what I needed: an idea on where to start.

Overall, five stars. It’s a great introductory book.

(Also, in totally related news, I now have a mailing list! You can sign up on my website. You’ll get a free short story, too! Or, if you’re a writer, you can get the word counting spreadsheet I used in my Fun Ways to Use Excel to Track Your Writing Progress [#1, #2] posts.)

16080676Oh man, I’ve been so bad about updating this blog, I’m sorrryyyyyy

I was reading 2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love last week. (I also wrote a review of it on Goodreads!) It was a pretty standard book until I read the section on editing.

And then something just… clicked.

You see, when Rachel Aaron edits her books she does very few readthroughs–that is, she doesn’t start editing by reading on page #1 and going through to the end. She does one hardcore read-and-edit of the entire book, and she only does it late in the edit, after she’s finished all her big changes.

I’ll get to what she does and why in a moment. But this blew my mind for some reason. She avoids reading the whole story front-to-back because reading the entire story again and again and again made her hate her stories.

And that sounded familiar.

Could Editing Too Much Be a Problem?

I edit by reading the whole story from the beginning to the end. I do it many, many, many times.

The thing is, I like editing. I love editing! It’s my favorite part of writing a novel! So whenever people start talking about how editing is bad or stressful or deeply uncomfortable, I get a little defensive. Editing is awesome. You can’t change my mind on that.

That also means I did at least 6 passes on the book I last queried. That’s what it needed, so that’s what I did. I just kept reading and fixing and reading and fixing until it was ready to go.

Did I do a fine job editing? I’d like to think so. Did I hate that thing at the end? I wanted to toss it into a fire. 

But the thing is, I’m not exactly a confident person. I always find reasons to dislike my writing. So “hey, I’ve read this story so much I hate everything about it” is not a strange and unfamiliar state for me. Hating a story I read too many times felt natural and unavoidable.

It never–and I do mean never–occurred to me that reading my drafts too many times might make me hate them more.

The Alternative: More Targeted Edits, Fewer Readthroughs

You can buy 2K to 10K if you want to read the whole process in detail. (The book is 99 cents and 70 pages long. It’s not a huge investment.) But here’s what she does:

  1. She goes through the story real quick and creates a “scene map.” You go through the novel, tally each chapter, and write a bullet for each thing that happens in each scene and chapter. It’s kind of like making a reverse outline–except now, instead of planning each scene, you’re writing down what you actually wrote.
  2. You make a to-do list of all the big edits that you need to do.
  3. You use the scene map to find which chapters include the issues you need to fix.
  4. Go directly to those chapters–and just them–and fix them.
  5. Gradually check everything off your list.
  6. Once everything is done on your list you THEN do a readthrough of the entire story on the sentence-and-paragraph level. At this point you’ll have a lot of cleanup to do–you’ll have references to things you just edited out, or buildup to stuff that doesn’t happen anymore–but that’s just editing. The big stuff is done. Now you just make the rest of it work.

The important thing is that you AREN’T just making a to-do list and trying to fix the entire story in a single readthrough.

That’s pretty stressful, for one thing. And difficult. If you have a dozen tasks to tweak and several chapters to rewrite, just reading the whole darn story one–or two or three–times to get everything right can be exhausting.

So you don’t. You do targeted fixes. You get the big stuff out of the way. You only worry about polishing paragraphs and making things pretty once you’re sure that you don’t have any huge, glaring mistakes to fix anymore. And–just to make all this more appealing–apparently this is faster, too.

So I’m going to try it out!

I’ve got a really messy MG fantasy. It’s rough. Really rough. It’s so rough I was desperately putting off editing it at all because, despite how much I generally like editing, it felt like a huge amount of work to fix.

So, hey! Let’s see if this works! Let’s see if it’s faster, easier, or just all-around less stressful to fix targeted chapters first and edit everything second. Of course, worded like that, it sounds like it should be easier, huh? But goodness knows that these things don’t always work out like you want them to. Maybe my brain just won’t work in a non-linear fashion. Maybe this’ll be inefficient. Maybe. Who knows.

In any case, I’m going to try it out, give it a fair shot, and report back once I’m done. We’ll see how it goes!

Screenshot of the cover of 'Rock Your Plot: A Simple System for Plotting Your Novel.'

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

I recently finished Rock Your Plot by Cathy Yardley, and my very short review is on Gooodreads. But, like always, I’m going to leave the review on Goodreads and ramble about what it meeeeeeans to me here.

This has not, so far, been a very good year for writing. I’ll write about that later, I’m sure. But one of the symptoms of this not good year is that the stories I’m working on have issues that should have been hashed out in my outlines. And for some reason or another, my outlines aren’t working.

This is an incredibly obnoxious problem, because it’s new. I have a very well established system for outlining, and it’s never steered me wrong. I wrote 6 manuscripts this way, so what the heck is going wrong?

Short answer: I don’t know. But it’s dumb.

So in comes Rock Your Plot. This is a pretty simple book. It’s short. It’s basic. And it covers a bunch of stuff that you probably already know about (well, assuming that you enjoy outlining.) At its core, it combines the philosophy of Goal/Motivation/Conflict with a very standard story structuring system, and uses this to create a scene-by-scene outline.

And this appeals to me. I don’t know if it works yet–I’m only starting my outline now–but it got me to write half of a new outline (and quickly!) so it seems to be working so far. I like it because it’s close what I normally do, while being different enough to make me think about why I’m doing what I’m doing.

I’ve written a lot about my system. I like to start with a word count (usually ~70-80K for Young Adult fantasy), guestimate my average chapter length (which I know is 3,500-4,000), and calculate my approximate number of chapters (usually 20). These are beautiful, round numbers. I never write according to this formula–being flexible is the whole reason it works–but it makes it easy to write the first outline. And that’s all I needed to get my thoughts on paper before I tried my first draft.

Rock Your Plot is extremely similar, except she breaks the story into scenes instead of chapters. (And really, this is a pretty common–and sensible, given that a “chapter” can be an incredibly subjective thing.) Then it uses the Goal/Motivation/Conflict system for every scene and every major character, so you can test that every scene is moving the story forward and maintaining tension.

So it’s what I used to do, but more methodical. Mostly, it’s just making me think.

And… so far, so good. I’m not done with my new outline, so I don’t know how it’ll turn out, but the concept behind Rock Your Plot is eminently sensible. And if you’re a detailed person who loves outlining, it may appeal to you, too.

Mostly, it just got me outlining something again. And that’s exactly what I needed to do right now.

I read this ages ago, but hey. Let’s talk about YA tropes, through the lens of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

Screenshot of the cover of the novel.

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

My complete review is on Goodreads. Like always, I’m not going to duplicate the review here. Instead, I’m going to wax philosophical. Bear with me.

So, I read Miss Peregrine’s a while ago, and I really liked it. This was honestly a surprise, because I’ve really been struggling to find YA novels I like. But if you check out its reviews on Goodreads, you’ll see that they’re very… divisive. So what drew me in?

Well, that gets to the core of what I’ve been struggling with. I like action. I like adventures. I also like well-developed characters and character drama. I like romance, but I like it as a subplot. Basically, I like “Fantasy with romance subplots,” not “Romance with fantasy elements.”

But romance is super duper in right now. Daughter of Smoke and Bone? Shadow and Bone? Graceling? These are all strong fantasies, but their main plotlines are about romance. Everything else is secondary.

And that’s fine, it’s just not my favorite thing in the world. Unfortunately, this seems to be an extremely popular trend, and I’m having a hard time finding more straight-up adventure fiction.

And that’s why I loved Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The characterization is not as deep as I’d like, either for the heroes or the villains, but it’s a strongly-paced, high-tension adventure. It was mildly creepy, consistently tense, and mysterious. I didn’t like the romance in Miss Peregrine’s either (I actually found it uncomfortable), but it didn’t make up the majority of the novel. It was a subplot.

Would I have liked it as much if I hadn’t read so many YA fantasy-romances lately? Who knows? But it had something I desperately wanted in YA fantasies right now: A lower smoochy-smooch-to-adventure ratio.

Cover of the novel 'The Luck Uglies.'

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

My full review is on Goodreads!

This is the sort of thing that makes me want to read more Middle Grade.

I love YA, I write YA, I read YA, but goodness! How often have I written book reviews that said, “Well, it was fun, but I wish they would keep the romance from overpowering the story so we can just have an adventure?”

And oh, this was an adventure. The Luck Uglies is a charming and atmospheric MG fantasy. And that’s where it shines–despite being based on some common fantasy premises (like capricious, ignorant medieval lords and rouges with hearts of gold), the world is delightful, the atmosphere is great, and the characters are universally charming.

And, yes, it was a welcome break from all the YA I’ve been reading, as–in true MG fashion–there’s no romance at all. It’s all about the heroine discovering the truth about her family. Otherwise, it’s all childhood friends and wild adventure.

There were a few rough bits, sure. Those are in my Goodreads review. But it was still one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

Cover of the Twitter for Writers novel.

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

My full review’s on Goodreads!

I’ve had a Twitter account for a couple years, and it never made any sense to me. Saying that makes me sound like I’m a zillion years old (and, well, maybe I am), but really, I’m a nerd. I’ve been online since the early 90s and I’ve gotten hip-deep in every stupid trend. But Twitter was a mystery to me–it was obviously not a good way to keep track of people or what they were saying. Everything everyone says goes by too quickly and is buried too fast. So what’s the point?

I ignored my Twitter feed for years. I used it to passively stalk agents. That’s it.

But then I picked up Twitter for Writers. It’s an exceptionally thorough overview of everything a writer might do on Twitter. It starts out with the painfully easy things–setting up an account, tweeting, and following people–but then dives into deeper concepts, like Twitter parties and automated tools. Best of all, it’s for writers, so it talks about things writers need to know, like how to promote your work without shoving it down your readers’ throats.

It also introduced me to some of the truly obnoxious things people do with automation. Did you know some folks use automated tools to force you to confirm that you’re human? Or to remove people who unfriend them? Or to create and send out tweets? Thanks to this book, I didn’t have to figure it out for myself–and I immediately started avoiding people who did these things.

This book is a little cutesy at times. It’s also extremely simple. (Though hey, Twitter isn’t exactly brain surgery.) The book is divided up into simple and advanced tips, but there’s no reason to read them selectively. They’re all easy.

If you know anything at all about Twitter, this might not be particularly useful. But for someone like me, it was great. I’m tech savvy, I just never cared about Twitter. But I get it now. I do. And thank goodness, because Pitch Wars (and now WriteOnCon) are both extremely Twitter dependent. This book was the kick in the butt I needed to get in there and start using Twitter properly.

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