Guest Post: On Writing Your First Book Review

One of the great joys of my work life in the last year has been teaching a year-long advanced creative nonfiction workshop. This guest post is from my student, Nadia Ghent, a talented writer and former professional violinist. Nadia’s post is about reviewing Geeta Kothari’s short story collection, I Brake for Moose. My first (and only) book review took months to write (really, it was kind of torturous—I didn’t know what I was doing and where to start, and how to be critical and also empathetic, thoughtful, intellectual, and creative–and I thought I had to sound smart, speak the jargon like my PhD friends).  Still, I’m very glad I wrote that review, and I learned so much. I appreciated Nadia’s behind-the-scenes look at her process and the work that goes deep reading and writing and reviewing.

Yes, even you can review a book!

Nadia Ghent

IMG_1342I think it was somewhere around the fifth or sixth layer of scribbled Post-it notes on top of each already note-strewn page in the composition book I’d bought especially for writing down every single impression I had while preparing to review Geeta Kothari’s short story collection, I Brake for Moose and Other Stories, that I started to doubt my ability to write even one coherent sentence about this book.  Not that there wasn’t anything to write about—Kothari’s eleven stories are so rich with characters and the evocative details of their lives that I found myself writing down not just sentences, but also whole paragraphs of the text in my notebook.

I was struck with the immediacy of her writing, and the way each story takes the reader directly into the world of the characters in language that is clear and evocative. And also with the way every single one of these eleven short stories relates to our own world—Kothari’s characters transcend their fictional enclosure between the covers of the book, as if they were people in real life, people we would know.

Somehow I had agreed to write a review of I Brake for Moose and Other Stories for the online journal Necessary Fiction, and the enormity of the task—to do Kothari’s collection justice in even the most modest way—seemed beyond me. I also have to confess that this would be my first “real” review, since up to now my entire experience with being a reviewer of any sort had been limited to a collaborative book-reading blog that I’d participated in for the past two years. This blog was very informal, totally subjective, and the posts were mostly fun and easy to write.  The review for Necessary Fiction was going to be a completely different experience: objectivity would be paramount, and I would need to develop some kind of a critical stance.  I was going to have to write a lot more than, “What a great book. I really liked it,” and I had one thousand words in which to find something to say.

And so I began the only way I knew how—I read the book.  I read it as I would any other book, sprawled on the sofa, or in bed, or while eating lunch, and I read completely for pleasure, without the notion that I was going to have to say something that made sense or make some kind pronouncement of my fledgling critical opinion.  I am not an academic, and I’ve only recently returned to writing.  I used to be a violinist. The last paper I wrote in graduate school was on Beethoven’s string quartets, and that was in the previous century. But I have always been a reader, and I knew that if I could find the way Kothari’s book spoke to me as a reader, I would be able to find a way to write about it.

IMG_1343After the first reading, I got to work. I wrote down the basics of each story in my notebook: characters, setting, conflict, first impressions. But what really drew me in was Kothari’s language.  This is when I started writing down chunks of the text that resonated with me. I read each story a second, third, fourth, and even fifth time, becoming slightly obsessed with how much more each re-reading brought into focus– hence, the multiple layers of Post-it notes—while also beginning to understand the themes and subtle points of connection between each story.  I began to develop enough ideas about the book to write 10,000 words, not 1,000. The problem was that there was so much to write about in each story.  And the directions for reviewing from Necessary Fiction were clear—1,000 words was a strict limit. No indulgence in writing about every emotionally resonant detail.

I started reading previous reviews in Necessary Fiction, paying special attention to reviews of short story collections. I wanted to figure out how to handle multiple story lines and characters in one review, and how much detail a reviewer would go into in discussing each individual story. And I had stumbled into the first rule of reviewing: read the reviews already published in the journal you want to submit to. Suddenly I became aware of how many opinions about things—books, movies, restaurants, music, clothing, shoes, dog kennels, grass seed—that came pouring out of the media I engaged in every day. And that I mostly ignored. I began to feel totally overwhelmed. How was I going to figure out what was important enough to write?

The only solution was to start writing. But because I actually didn’t know what to start with, I made a list of verbs as a warm-up exercise: craft, follow, fracture, mirror, reflect, create, temper, contend, and as many others as I could think of.  My first day of actual writing consisted of listing verbs. I thought that if I could think of what the writing was doing—as if the writing were a person engaged in some kind of action—I would be able to convey how this action reveals the ideas Geeta Kothari engages with in the stories, and how successful she had been. This also began to fix in my mind a specific place to start: verbs as the motor in constructing sentences and creating structure. Instead of an amorphous sense of what I wanted to write about (everything!), I had a way to bring motion to my own ideas. Next, I grouped the stories into those that shared themes, and I decided to focus on three of them in greater depth, while saving room to mention all the others at least in passing.  And then I re-read all my notes, added yet another layer of Post-its, and finally sat before the blinking cursor and the blank screen. I dug in.

Of course the first draft was terrible. Most of this awful initial attempt consisted of long quotes with just a few of my own sentences woven in to hold it all together, which they barely did. I thought that the language of these stories was so incredible that the review should consist mainly of the text, while what I had to say needed to retreat into the background. It was like baking chocolate chip cookies but leaving out all the flour because you just wanted to eat the chocolate.

This was not the best approach.  Sejal read this draft and made some gentle but firm suggestions that helped me think more deeply so that I could really begin to write and not just reproduce the text. Or actually hide behind the text—it was going to take some courage and resolution to put my words first. I took out most of the quotes, and found that this opened up space for what I needed to write. And that I actually had something to say.

IMG_1344After a few more drafts, I put the review down for several weeks and worked on other projects. I felt as if there was still more I needed to do, but that time and distance were needed even more. And I continued to think about the stories as I walked the dog, went for a run, read other books.  Points of connection between the stories and larger themes that I had missed started to become clear. It was as if the stories were talking to each other in my imagination even while I was doing other things.

As the deadline approached, I returned to what I had, re-wrote it again with these new thoughts, changed the middle and the end, sent it to another friend to read, wrote some more, ever mindful of the fluctuating word count. And then finally, two days before it was due, when there wasn’t anything else that still bothered me, I decided that the review was ready. I sent it to the editor early mostly because I was worried that a monumental snowstorm predicted for the day of the deadline would affect my Internet service (it did not). But also because two more days would not have made it any more finished.  And amazingly, it really was ready: when the editor sent the review back with her comments a few weeks later, she had made only minor punctuation edits—her precise and consistent red marks throughout the review might finally cure me of my terrible habit of using two spaces between sentences. The review itself didn’t need any revision, and after I fixed the spacing issue, the editor scheduled it for publication

What I learned from this effort is how important it is not to think that we can’t write something worthwhile about a work of art, that somehow only super- qualified people get to have a voice, to put forth an opinion, or to write about literary and real-life themes that affect all of us in different ways.  I learned that it is incredibly important to advocate for writing that speaks to us, even if we are not academics or book critics or even published authors, and that writing about compelling fiction like Kothari’s is part of what we need to do as literary citizens in this world. It’s difficult, though, and reviewing takes many, many times longer than reading.

But how incredible it is to get into the inner workings of these stories, to enter the world, if only through the imagination, that Geeta Kothari has created.  And then to have a chance to think even more deeply about these stories through the process of writing about them. I hope that more people will read I Brake for Moose and Other Stories, and that the review I spent many weeks struggling over will contribute to others feeling drawn to Geeta Kothari’s stunning collection of stories.  Then my effort will have been entirely worth it.

None of this would have happened without Sejal and her incredibly generous and transcendent teaching. Thank you, Sejal, for suggesting I just give it a try, and for always asking for something better (and not giving up on me after that terrible first draft!) I don’t think I would have thought of writing a review on my own, and I certainly didn’t believe that I could actually do it. But I made it through, thanks to Sejal’s encouragement and an entire pack of Post-it notes, and now I feel as if I might just have enough confidence to write another review sometime soon.

 

 

 

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