Sunday, October 28, 2012

Are Book Reviews Helpful?

I actually prayed to God that I remain alive at least long enough to read the last installment of J. K. Rowling's wizarding adventure. Sure, it might be a little embarrassing to confess that, but the sentiment is indicative of a morbid truth: I will not be able to read everything I'd like to before I'm called to eternal life. There just aren't enough hours in an entire lifetime to read everything. If you're a bookworm like me, that's reason enough to get sweaty palms and nausea. Which means, whatever I pick to read better be worth my time.
In my youth, I'd read books all the way through to the end, even if they sucked; not anymore. There are many great stories out there better deserving of my time and imagination. Granted, there are very few books I've actually stopped reading (mostly self-help, Christian spirituality tomes), but the satisfaction of knowing I can move on to something more worthwhile is priceless. The problem is how can I know something is worthwhile before I read it?
If you happen to enjoy a book from a particular author, chances are you'd probably enjoy--in different degrees--other books written by the same person. This is perhaps the most sure way of selecting a good book. It's like going to see a movie because one of your favorite actresses is in it. Sure, some of her movies will be better than others, but even if you pick a bad movie, you can always enjoy her skills. But that's not enough. Actors and actresses can only make so many movies a year--not nearly as many as you'd like to see. So, you try to branch out, maybe watch a movie someone recommended.
Watching a movie a friend recommended is like buying a book because you read a review: some recommendations are great and some are not so great. It's hard to gauge. Personally, if a friend tells me I should read a particular book, I do. I figure that if they go through the trouble of verbally encouraging me to read a book, it must be good. But I don't give book reviews the same weight. That's not because I don't think they're worth it.
I judge books by their covers all the time, and if not for well-written reviews, I'd be duped every time. Book reviews have helped me from throwing away money on an underserved volume. The other side of the coin is equally valuable. I've purchased books because they've received great reviews. Yet, because I don't take the time to get to know and trust one particular reviewer, it usually takes a group of collective reviews to help me make up my mind.
This gives me renewed respect for good reviewers. Good reviewers don't tell you whether or not you should read a book. Instead, they describe enough of the characters and plot to give you and idea of what the book is about, and present its major strengths and weaknesses. If they did their job right, you should be able to make the decision to purchase on your own.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Children's Literature Review

     Starting a new job can be daunting, but starting a job that doesn't pay is exciting. What makes unpaid jobs exciting is that people who agree to them have vested interest in what they're doing--usually. It certainly is the case for me.
     At the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic conference I received a flyer from Children's Literature about seeking new reviewers. It seemed like something interesting. I love to read and I love writing media reviews. Plus, they promised I get to keep all the books they send me! I decided to contact them.
     The person I spoke with was very friendly, and the more I spoke to her the more excited I became about this new project/hobby. Roughly every six weeks, I'll receive a batch of five books, anything from board books to YA novels, and I'll get to write a paragraph for each about my perceptions--positive or negative. Children's Literature will then add the reviews to its database.
     I got my first batch of five books today. It's a test batch. Hopefully, I will pass. I am looking forward to reading, enjoying, scrutinizing, and then adding them to my collection or donating them. I'm pretty excited about it.
     So, next time you flip open a book jacket or open a magazine and glance at the children's book review, check to see whether it came from Children's Literature. It may just have my name on it.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Many Interests

     This past weekend, I attended SCBWI's Mid-Atlantic Fall Conference. Asides from learning a great deal about the importance of research when writing non-fiction and catching up with market trends, I realized that my search for a niche has only just begun. As usual, just when I begin to think I am beginning to sort of get this writing thing, somebody shows me there is much more to go.
     It all really started with a manuscript review. A talented author took a sincere look at a picture book manuscript I submitted. While she praised its humor and affirmed some of my writing abilities, she made a suggestion I had not expected: "You may want to consider expanding this into a chapter book." This is supposed to be a picture book. What's a chapter book?
     I have some idea of what a chapter book is, but not really. I barely understand what a picture book is despite having spent the past couple of years really studying this craft. I knew chapter books existed, but I figured I should focus on mastering one thing. The only chapter book I could think of is Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and I think that is more middle-grade fiction than chapter book. I have not even read it.
     Sure, I see where my manuscript's criticism comes from. It is a little violent, which will work against a commercial publisher taking it on as a picture book for six-year-olds. Plus, it seems the humor is geared for slightly older boys, and older children are apparently reading chapter books as early as first grade. Still, I am committed to this story being a picture book and would rather tweak it, but this idea of chapter books has latched on to me.
     I will probably spend the next couple of months purchasing and reading contemporary chapter books to become familiar with the genre. I think I might like it. That is the problem. I like picture books. I like nonfiction books for children. I still enjoy writing poetry and short stories. Perhaps, someday, I will feel confident enough to write that novel I have had on my mind for so long.
     Then, there are all the other crazy decisions I have to make regarding my interests. What higher degree will I pursue: education? science? creative writing? What about my love for playing music? There is not enough time in my life to do it all. Or maybe there is, but how long will it take to see the fruit of their mastery.
     I do not want to complain too much. It is nice to enjoy and be able to participate in all these things. But because my time is spread more thinly across my interests, it may take a little longer than I would like to really master any one of them--at least one! This makes me quite impatient.
     Is there a solution? Persist. I cannot accept any other option. Soon enough it will pay off, I hope. It is much like musicians practicing. Sometimes they practice scales, sometimes they study theory, sometimes they work on reading, sometimes they obsess over the metronome, and sometimes they just groove. The improvement occurs in small increments across various parts of their playing. Years later, the practice will pay off.
     In the meantime, I need to keep distracting myself. That should not be too difficult.