Wild Nights--Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
This Emily Dickinson quote was the "Hook" that started one of my favorite poetry book reviews, my review of Enter Here by Alexis Rhone Fancher, published in the Blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Aware of the imminent deadline for submitting the review, I wrote it by candlelight while a hurricane passed directly over our house (I live in Florida). I was reading it when our electricity blew. I found the text so engaging, I temporarily felt the storm as a sensual background that enhanced my reading experience. As you can see, writing book reviews can be both interesting and challenging.
1. Benefits of writing reviews: The biggest benefit of review writing is that it will improve all genres of your own writing. It also helps you keep current in your chosen field and gets your name "out there."
2. Who can be a book reviewer? You don't need a degree or academic job to be a book reviewer. However, if you have never published a book review before, you should be prepared to furnish a potential publisher with one or more published (or unpublished, if need be) prose writing samples that showcase your writing skills.
3. Determining what books to review: In deciding what to review, follow your instincts and personal tastes. Keep in mind, most publishers want the book to have a reasonably recent publication date, say, within a year.
Always begin by skimming either the book to be reviewed or other works by that writer to see what your probable reaction might be towards that author's new book.
Once you become known as a review writer, requests for reviews will probably exceed the time you have to devote to writing them, and you'll need to be selective. Aim for a book that intrigues, invites, and ultimately, delights you. I suggest you tactfully decline to review anything else.
4. Your query letter: Unless you already have a publisher lined up, your next step is to find a potential publisher and send them a query letter to see if they are interested in your proposed review. (By "them" I mean the reviews editor, if there is one; the overall editor, if not.) You'll want to look closely at reviews the press has published. And you need to sell both yourself and the book in that query letter, and do it briefly.
In the first paragraph of the query, I normally introduce myself and explain why I selected them to query about this book. I give a link to one of my published reviews. In the second and subsequent paragraphs of the letter, I introduce the writer and the book. I also attach my Bio, one that I've crafted to mention the kind of credentials that this publisher might consider important and pertinent.
Personally, I don't simultaneously submit my review queries, although there are plenty of reviewers who do. Instead, I try to determine which publishers are a good fit. I might query a journal or website that has published the writer's work on a regular basis. Another possibility is a publisher that has accepted my work on a regular basis.
5. Laying the foundation: I strongly recommend that you study the book in question, taking detailed handwritten notes. For example, for a poetry book review, I write down the title and page number of each poem. Then I write out direct quotes from each poem, letting my instinct choose which lines I copy into my notes. I keep these quotes within the margins of my paper. I have anywhere from 20-40 handwritten pages when I'm done.
In the white spaces around the notes, I write down all stray thoughts, impressions, and my own words/language that come to my mind. This ought to be done immediately when ideas about the book, large or small, pop into your head.
Some writers feel they do better when taking notes on their computer. I say, do what works for you. The point is to be sure to take notes and use them in writing the review.
6. The parts of a review: Almost all reviews have the following parts in common:
- Introduction (one or more paragraphs),
- Body paragraphs (any number of paragraphs), and
- Conclusion (one to two paragraphs).
- You'll also need a Hook sentence as the start of the Intro. The Hook should contain something intriguing, exciting, surprising, etc., to draw readers into the essay. The Intro should develop your Hook, perhaps with an anecdote, imagery, or example.
- I also recommend writing a "thesis statement" at the end of the Intro, a sentence that sums up the book and your personal reaction, your attitude towards it. (The thesis might also be placed at the end of the last Body paragraph before the first Conclusion paragraph.)
- The Conclusion can be written in a number of ways. I like to refer back to the Intro, completing or referring to the image or example with which I started the review. Most Conclusions contain a "big picture statement" that fits the book into some kind of context. And at the very end, I'll recommend the book to readers.
7. What to write about: It's up to you to decide what the Body paragraphs contain. Some possibilities are: What themes and issues does the book explore? What's the "atmosphere" of the poems or stories? What is it about the book that will engage the reader? What are some writing techniques that this writer uses skillfully? And which poems/stories caught your attention and why?
8. Pre-writing: Read over your notes several times, using a highlighter when you come to a poem or language in a poem that you think has the potential of being mentioned in your review--also note your reaction to that language. And re-read any research you've done about the writer and their work, highlighting what catches your attention.
9. Writing a first draft: When you're ready to write a first draft, you should look over what you've highlighted and then begin writing, although not necessarily at the beginning.
There are many techniques to psych yourself into starting a piece of writing, for example, free writing, webbing, or meditating, all of which some writers find valuable. I use the "Start-with-the-Easiest-Paragraph" method. Choose your poison.
10. Peer review: I'm a big fan of having a knowledgeable writer-friend look at my work and give me feedback after I've polished the draft review as much as I can (and, occasionally, when I'm stuck). And I check the accuracy of any quotes again before submitting the review.
By the time the eye of Hurricane Irma passed over my house, I was deeply involved in the (candlelit) process of reviewing the passionate, risqué poems in Rhone Fancher's Enter Here, which themselves involve stormy weather. I can't think of anything I'd rather do during a hurricane.
If you follow my recommendations, adapting them to your own situation, you should enjoy your own "wild nights" engaged with books you're reviewing. Yes, there is a review-writing learning curve, but the rewards are well worth it. Try it, you'll like it!
- My review of Alexis Rhone Fancher's Enter Here
- You can purchase Enter Here at the Bookshop
- For example, Rain Taxi's guidelines say that they are looking for unbiased reviews, and you are asked to disclose what relationship, if any, you have with the writer. If you have a connection with the writer, you are discouraged from submitting.
- For a list of journals that publish poetry book reviews, see: Where to Submit Book Reviews-60 Lit Mags/Journals!
- Research has found that, statistically, taking notes on the computer doesn't have as great a beneficial effect as handwriting them. But this doesn't mean everyone will benefit from handwriting their notes. It's a statistical trend that applies to writers as a group, not a rule that applies to 100% of individual writers. You are the best judge of what's best for you.
- For ideas how to kickstart your review writing process, see:
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Eileen "Mish" Murphy lives near Tampa with her Chi-Spaniel Cookie. She teaches English and literature at Polk State College. Her reviews have been published in Cultural Weekly, Blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Tinderbox Journal, and many other publications. She is a staff writer for Cultural Weekly. A visual artist and prolific poet, she illustrated the highly acclaimed children's book Phoebe and Ito are dogs written by John Yamrus. Her first full-length poetry collection Fortune Written on Wet Grass was published last month by Whapshott Press. For more details, visit Mish's website mishmurphy.com. She may be contacted at email@example.com.