By Megan Westfield
Years ago, I was a reviewer and book review copy editor for San Francisco Book Review and their sister publications and websites. As I did this, I was also writing my own novel and fumbling faithfully along the path to publication. This seemingly never-ending path lead me to writers conferences, writers association memberships, critique partners, writing workshops, fiction contests, an inbox full of rejection emails, and then, a two-book publishing contract.
I’d always thought of reviewing books as separate from my fiction writing, but as I submitted an advance review copy of my own book to San Francisco Book Review last week, it made me realize that the things I indirectly learned from my years of reviewing books were as much a part of the journey to publication as the conferences and workshops. Here are a few of those lessons.
1. Keep at it until your title is perfect
When I first started reviewing, I was request-happy. The problem is, with reviewing, it’s not just reading anymore. There’s a review to write at the end and, though the reviews were short, they took time, and you have to finish the book even if you don’t like it. I started limiting myself to six books a month, fewer if I was requesting long novels or non-fiction in the bunch.
At San Francisco Book Review, the review pick-list was a spreadsheet. A really long, black and white spreadsheet of not much more than titles and author names, sorted by fiction genre and non-fiction topic. If I wasn’t familiar with a particular book or author, I would look the book up on the publisher’s website to read the back cover copy. But that additional research takes time, and I wasn’t going to expend that kind of effort for more than about twenty of the hundreds of books on the spreadsheet each month. And how did I decide which to look up? The ones with good titles.
2. Find your book’s high concept
While the titles were what made me go look up a book description online, it was the presence of hook or high concept in the description that made me take the step of adding it to my request list.
The thing that I think is most misunderstood about the terms hook and high concept is that neither necessitates a book to be “loud.” It’s about purposefully connecting to the root of inspiration for a story that was so strong you (the writer) couldn’t not write it. These days, I make a point to be purposeful in identifying the hook or high concept before I start outlining and writing. I keep brainstorming until I’ve narrowed the story’s hook down to one sentence that doesn’t sound weird and rambling when I say it aloud. Sometimes, this seems like an impossible task, and this a warning flag to me as it means I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the story yet. Because that pulse is the hook, I just keep adjusting the story until I reach that point where the story grabs me by the collar and won’t let go.
3. Read picture books even if you don’t have kids
I didn’t have kids when I was a reviewer, but I would sometimes review picture books. (Usually because I had a kiddie birthday party or baby shower coming up and I wanted to bring something other than Pat the Bunny or The Giving Tree—nothing against either book, of course.) Then, I started reviewing picture books when there weren’t birthdays or baby showers coming up. Because, guess what? Picture books are good. There might just be a few hundred words total, but all the elements of a novel are right there: three act structure, character, voice, black moment, plot twist, and important social issues and life lessons.
With a novel, it takes you hours of reading to figure out if the book’s going to flat line or be unsatisfying, but, with a picture book, you have the answer in three minutes—plus there’s really great art. So often, I’d read a picture book, close the cover, and just think wow. I held onto some of those wow books and now read them to my toddler and preschooler. And you know what? Those wow books are still good now, even on the 50th time through. A good story is a good story, whether in the form or a picture book or a 120,000-word saga. For efficiency’s sake in the study of story, head for the kids’ section!
4. Follow new fiction
I can’t recall how I used to find my next read before I became a reviewer, but I know it was being a reviewer that made me start tuning into new releases because I wanted to get a jump start on knowing which titles I was going to pick from the next iteration of the spreadsheet. Soon, I was following pre-releases, and, eventually, I subscribed to Publisher’s Marketplace, where I would salivate over books that had just sold and were still three years from publication.
All the writing advice out there will tell you not to write to trends, but as an aspiring author, it’s important to know how your work-in-progress relates to trends and who your competition is. Is it: “Shit, there’s a book coming out next spring that is an identical twin of my work-in-progress”? Or is it, “I’d never seen a book like mine with moon-dwelling shapeshifters until last year, and there have been three so far this year.” This knowledge is invaluable as you decide which literary agents to approach and, later, your approach to marketing your novel.
5. Rejection is not personal
I think of walking through a bookstore. All those beautiful new releases that just didn’t grab me enough to shell out money to read them. I think of the hundreds and hundreds of books that were available to me each month at San Francisco Book Review, that I didn’t pick to review, even though they were free. Then, I think of an agent taking on a new author, which is the opposite of free. The agent spends countless hours in preparation and pitching, perhaps even doing multiple revisions with the author beforehand, and all with no guarantee the book will sell to a publisher. And, thinking of all that, it was hard for me to justify being incensed when getting a rejection letter from an agent. There’s a high level of commitment required for someone to read a book, let alone represent a book. And none of it is personal.
MEGAN WESTFIELD’s debut novel, Lessons in Gravity, was published October 2016.
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Chris Hayden has been working at City Book Review since 2012, so that makes him the keeper of knowledge. He manages the office and book reviewers (all 200 of them!), which is no small feat. If you’re looking at the book reviews here, you’re seeing them because he sent the books out for review. Without him, this place would fall apart, because no one else in the office knows how to use the postage machine. Two words: job security.