Bing Crosby’s character development in ‘White Christmas’: an analysis

This week, White Christmas:

  • Is a classic of its genre
  • Demonstrates some elegant character development
  • Is for life, not just for Christmas
White Christmas film poster

Why I’m writing this review

I’m mostly writing this because I love White Christmas.  I probably love it too much.  I am one of those people who can watch it any time of the year and still be moved to tears at the end.

But it’s not just a lovely old feel-good film (though it is that), it’s not just two singers and two dancers doing their thing with random routines to fill an hour and a half, it’s not just a spectacle of colour and movement (though it is that as well).  It’s one of the most tightly-plotted storylines I’ve ever seen.

Ok, so I might have a thing about White Christmas, but I’m serious.  It’s an incredible feat of narrative and character development, so subtly done that it doesn’t draw attention to itself and away from the glitz and glam of the song-and-dance routines, but it’s there.

I’m writing this review so you can see it, too.

This review will contain spoilers.  I don’t feel bad about that – you’ve had plenty of time to watch it since it was made in 1954.  And if you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for?  Go and watch it!  Go on, I’ll wait.

Who are the main players?

Bob Wallace (played by Bing Crosby)

Phil Davis (played by Danny Kaye)

Betty Haynes (played by Rosemary Clooney)

Judy Haynes (played by Vera-Ellen)

Major General Waverly (played by Dean Jagger)

Emma Allen (played by the marvellous Mary Wickes)

Bing Crosby’s character, Bob Wallace

This is an ensemble film, following four main players (Bob Wallace, Phil Davis and the two Haynes sisters) but there is a strong argument to make that it is Bob Wallace who is the main character, the one who carries us through the film to the end.

There are several reasons for this:

The first is that he is the first main player to appear on screen and one of the four at the end.

The second is that he is the one driving a lot of the narrative.

The third is that he is the one with the most emotional attachments and relationships throughout the film, meaning he also gets more scenes of dialogue than the others (or he seems to).

The final reason is that he undergoes the biggest character transformation.

Bing Crosby in White Christmas

Establishing characters

Technically, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) comes on stage a mere second or so before Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), and they have an equal part to play in the opening song and dance.  However, that is background to the introduction of another character, General Waverly.

It is only when General Waverly has been established and has settled down to watch the show that the camera returns to the stage and Bob Wallace singing the famous song, White Christmas, in his inimitable style.  Phil Davis is sitting on the stage, present but not taking the spotlight.

Then Bob begins to make a speech, telling the men that they are moving out in the morning and that General Waverly is being replaced as their commanding officer.  This establishes several things:

  • He is a main character or even the main character
  • He has some authority over the other soldiers
  • He is liked and admired by the other men
  • He has information that others do not

When General Waverly confronts them about their festive show, Phil steps up to take the ‘blame’ for setting it up.  He also reveals a few things about Bob:

  • He is a captain, so is a higher rank than Phil and the other soldiers
  • He is a well-known and well-respected entertainer
  • He is self-assured and confident, unlike Phil who is bumbling and unsure (and nobody can do this in quite the way Danny Kaye does)
  • Bob is the one that General Waverly turns to for help when he becomes overwhelmed
Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in White Christmas – you can see Bing Crosby’s character is stoic and self-assured

Character development

At the start of the story, Bob is independent, self-assured and cynical.

If you’ve seen the film, you might not agree with this statement to begin with.  You love the film, you love Bob and you can’t believe he starts out this cold and unfeeling.  Well, that’s because he’s played by Bing Crosby with affable politeness.  That doesn’t make him nice.

When Phil saves his life and is ‘injured’ doing it, Bob visits him in hospital.  That seems like a nice thing for him to do but he is doing it merely out of duty, as is made clear when he makes assurances of ‘if there’s anything you need, just pick up the phone’ and yet doesn’t want to hear about what Phil does actually need.

Phil suggests the work together, when they get back to America after the war, and Bob’s first reaction is to refuse.  He repeats, “I work alone,” several times.  He is independent, self-reliant and isolated.

Phil manages to manipulate him into agreeing to give it a try, by playing on his guilt.  This is less creepy than it sounds, honest.

Bob then learns to work with others.

He and Phil work together on stage, singing and dancing, and they become a huge success.  Phil even manages to persuade him (guilting him again) to become a producer and they become even more successful than ever.

He is still emotionally isolated, though.

As Phil tries to set him up with women, Bob rebuffs them all and Phil confronts him about it.  He claims Bob is a ‘lonely and bitter man’, which he is.  Successful, yes.  Working with Phil, yes.  But otherwise lonely.

He is too afraid to date any of the women in his industry, not seeing them as suitable as they are ambitious and wouldn’t want to settle down and have children (I know, I know, a product of its time).  He opens up to Phil at this point and shares his fears that the women won’t be ready to commit, and shares his desire to one day find a woman he can love and marry.  Phil comments that it’s the first time he’s opened up to him like that and thus Bob takes another step on his journey of self-discovery.  He has learned to communicate his emotions.

He is now emotionally ready to meet a love interest.

Now, nobody likes to reduce Betty Haynes (the fabulous Rosemary Clooney) to merely ‘a love interest’, and maybe one day I will do a whole piece on her, but for now, that is what she is – in relation to Bob, she is his love interest.

When he meets the Haynes sisters, Bob is instantly attracted to Betty.  However, their world-views clash: Betty is naïve, good-hearted and honest, whereas Bob is cynical, practical and blunt.  Clearly, he is not ready to be her love interest.

Bob starts to do things for other people.

So far, all of what Bob has done has been, if not selfish, then practical or out of duty.  He agreed to partner with Phil, but that was because he owed him a debt and it drove him forward on his road to business and financial success.  He agreed to see the Haynes sisters’ act out of duty to an old pal in the army.

Even helping the sisters escape an extortionist, he is pushed into it by Phil, and he is angry and grouchy that he had to give up his train ticket for the sisters, too.

However, upon discovering that the general he so liked and admired owns the Inn he is staying at, he does something kind.  He arranges to get his whole show to the Inn to perform and draw a crowd, to bolster business for the general.  It’s not a completely unselfish act, since he tells the general (truthfully) that he can test new material ready to take back to New York, but it is still a generous thing to do.

He and Betty begin to fall for each other.

It is only now that Bob has learned to work with others that he can woo Betty as they rehearse for their show.

It’s also only once he has learned to communicate his emotions that he can create an emotional bond with her.

Just when it’s going well for him, it all crumbles.

So far, Bob has never been unsure of anything.  He has been talented, wealthy, successful and desired.  His own physical, emotional and financial safety has never been on the line.  Now it is.  Betty turns against him.

What is worse, he doesn’t know why.

At first, he is confident he can woo her again but she refuses to be appeased by sweet talk and champaign. 

He becomes unsure of himself and loses confidence.

Having failed to reconcile with Betty, she leaves.  He has lost all of his power: he has no hold over her and is reduced to begging.  It’s his first brush with humility.

Luckily – or inevitably – he wins Betty’s heart and her trust by doing something unselfish.

Given that he had previously stated openly that ‘everyone has an angle’, it’s understandable that she didn’t trust him.  When he said he was doing something kind, and Emma said he was using the general’s misfortune to get publicity, she came to the conclusion that – exactly as he had said – he was playing an angle.

You see, if Bob hadn’t changed over the course of the story, he couldn’t have earned the respect of either the general or Betty – he would have betrayed both with his cynicism and self-interest.

As it is, he has become a kinder, better man who values the friends he has and is willing to put his heart on the line.  It is this which makes him a suitable love interest for Betty.

White Christmas finale – Bob kisses Betty

Conclusion

Over the course of White Christmas, Bob Wallace goes from being a confident, self-interested man who is driven at work and keeps his emotions to himself, to a humble, generous man willing to do something unselfish to help his friends.

He is the character who changes most over the course of the story and it’s his journey we follow from the very opening scene to the closing credits.

It’s his transformation that gives this seemingly light and fluffy film such an emotional punch.

Why join a Writing Circle?

This week, I reveal that writing circles:

  • Can actually help you improve your writing
  • Are very variable in tone
  • Can host a range of events for writers
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

There are so many ways to improve your writing these days, you have to wonder why you should leave your house to go to a writing circle at all.  Why can’t you just watch an online lecture, listen to a podcast or spend your time actually writing instead?

Well, those are all viable options (and not to be dismissed).  But writing circles offer a lot of things you won’t get anywhere else.

Why writing circles are useful

There are several reasons why writing circles are useful for writers, whether you are a professional writer, a writer looking to be published or a writer who just loves to write for fun.

These are some of the reasons you should go check them out:

1. It’s great to talk to other writers (and there are social events)

If, like me, you haven’t come into contact with a lot of other writers, writing circles are a great place to meet them.

I found it so freeing to be able to talk about writing (even if it wasn’t specifically about my own writing) to people who understood.  Don’t get me wrong, you won’t be best friends with absolutely everyone in the group, but if you’re looking for a place to openly talk about how important writing is to you, then a writing circle is the place to start.

If I got nothing else from my time in a writers’ circle, this would have been enough.

Different groups have different dynamics, which is part of the reason it’s useful to shop around until you find one you like.  Some will be all business all the time, some will take their purpose seriously without being a kill-joy about it and give you time to chat, and others are social groups with a theme of writing.

Which one you prefer is entirely a matter of personal preference.  The one I found the best fit for me was a two-hour evening that was fairly regulated.  It started on time, people were quiet or took turns to talk, and whoever was in charge for the evening conducted the whole thing.  But there was a tea break half way through which was a great opportunity to stand around and have a chat and catch up with people.  And most weeks there was an open invitation for people to gather at the pub at the end of the road for a drink.  I found it was a really good balance of business and social.

2. You get lots of tips and hints about the craft of writing, publishing, editing and conventions

Obviously the purpose of writing groups is for you to get better at writing, so they should be doing something to help develop your skills.

Depending on which group it is, who runs it and what kind of budget they’re working with, you’ll get guests and experts to teach you.  If not, in-house expertise is called upon.

Even if it’s only the writers in the circle who are giving you advice, a lot of it is really useful.  Again, be careful about this – it’s not all useful (you need to learn who to listen to and who to nod politely at and ignore).

For a lot of groups, the range of experience varies considerably from people dabbling in writing to enthusiastic amateurs, to people who have been writing for years (published or not), to independently or traditionally-published authors.  That gives you the chance of talking to people who have more experience than you and most people are happy to talk about their writing journey.

I got a few good tips about which conventions to attend and which authors to read, and listened avidly to stories of success and disaster in the publishing world.  Hearing people talk about their journey is a great way for you to decide which path you’re going to take and (sometimes) what not to do.

3. You get to practice your writing

There are a couple of ways writing circles get you to practice your writing.

One is to encourage you to write something during the week and then bring it along to read out for the rest of the group (more on that in just a moment).  Several writers have said they only got their books written because they knew their writing group was waiting on the next instalment and didn’t want to turn up without anything.

The second way is to give you writing time during the evening.  The group I like has workshop evenings where you develop a specific skill (description, dialogue, flash fiction, etc.) and part of the workshop is to learn about the skill, practice it, review it and go back and improve.

Not all groups do this, which is one of the things that you need to consider when choosing a group.

4. You get to share your writing

With most groups, sharing your work is optional.  I don’t have any personal experience of a group where you have to share your work but I suppose there might be one out there.

Sharing your work (if you want to) is a great experience for writers.  If you’ve not shown anyone your writing before, this is obviously nerve-wracking but it’s a useful skill to develop.

I say ‘skill’ because the art of sharing your writing has to be developed.  If you have any experience of people who share their writing (in a writing circle or just in general) then you’ll probably know there’s always someone who wants to hear your praise but the second you say something negative, they tell you that you haven’t understood the themes, that you don’t appreciate their style or you didn’t read it carefully enough to spot their brilliant foreshadowing.  Don’t be one of those people.  I’ll do a separate post on how to share your work (and what not to do).

For the most part, writing circles are a space designed to share your work.  It’s made easy for you.

In the group I go to, sharing is optional and it’s on a first-come-first-served basis for those who do want to share.  If there are any left at the end of the night (it’s rare) then they get first go next time.

Also, in my group, people tend to read their own work aloud to the rest of the group but there are several people there who are happy to read your work if you want to share but get stage-fright.

One writer asked someone to read her work aloud because she wanted to listen to how he read it.  It was really useful for her to hear where he paused, which words he emphasised, how the sentences flowed and where he stumbled.

The point of sharing your work is to get feedback.

It’s always nice to get positive responses from the rest of the group but it’s not going to improve your writing.  The best groups are structured enough (and the people are nice enough) to make sure you get a mixture of positives and suggested improvements.

5. You learn to critique others’ work and then apply that internal editor to your own writing

This was one of the most useful skills I developed as a writer: the ability to critique others’ writing.

And the reason it was useful was because I now apply that to my own work.  The better I get at that, the more polished my writing becomes.

If you can learn to listen to somebody reading a section of their work and spot the clunky sentences, you’re more likely to spot your own clunky sentences.

If you find yourself thinking their characters aren’t very well developed, when you go back to your own work, you’ll double-check to make sure yours are.  You don’t want people to be thinking that about your work, after all.

Learning to spot these flaws (and I know that is a relative term) is the first step towards editing your own work and you’ll find writers, agents, editors and publishers agree that a writer who can edit their own work is highly sought-after.

6. They have guest lecturers, writers, editors and publishers

This is something your group might have. 

At some point soon, I’ll tell you more about my own experiences of writers’ circles but, for now, I’ll just say that one group had all of these over the years and another group wouldn’t dream of inviting an outsider in.  These variations are why it’s important to find the group that works best for you.

The circle that does have guests has a range of them and it’s been fascinating (and occasionally useful) to listen to these professionals as they talk about their area of expertise.

If you’re the sort of person who networks (and I’m unfortunately really terrible at it), then meeting all these people will be a dream come true.

If you’re not the sort of person who networks, then it’s still really great to meet them, listen to them and hear their experiences of the industry.  As you listen to more and more people, you build up a picture of what the industry is like, what to expect, and you can start planning your approach (for instance, deciding whether you want to be independently published or traditionally published, or whether you want to submit to a small press or a large one).

The more people you hear talk about the various aspects of writing, the better you’ll become at it.

7. They host writing events

Again, this is something they might do.

My writers circle has hosted several events over the years and one since I joined (is that my fault?  Did I kill it off?).

It was a huge event in a conference centre and there were writers from the surrounding area there to learn, talk, network, mingle, have lunch (or was that just me?) and generally soak up the camaraderie.

At the event, there were panels of writers, publishers and editors, as well as workshops on writing run by professional published writers, and short story competitions.  It was great fun and I learned a lot.

Obviously, that was a big event and it was time-consuming for the writers’ circle to organise, since it was done on volunteer-power.  It’s quite unusual to run an event of that size.

However, smaller events are much more common.  You’ll find affiliated events at a lot of groups, such as Open Mic Nights, book launches, group tickets to conventions and trips to the pub.

Tell me about your writing group

If you’re in a writing group, let me know what you’re getting out of it!  If you can think of something I’ve forgotten, leave a comment below.

You can follow me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1.  Say hello and tell me about your writing circle.

Why your English Teacher didn’t want you to write ‘said’

This week:

  • Teachers actually do their jobs
  • Language changes according to your purpose
  • There is teacher-me and writer-me
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I have heard a lot of authors complain that their English teacher taught them wrong.  I can’t speak for your personal English teacher (who, for all I know, might have been the most useless person ever to stand in a classroom) but I can tell you why English teachers encourage you not to use the word ‘said’.

When you were at school

Adults often don’t remember what it was like to be learning English at school, the new words, the complicated sentences, the totally baffling stories they wrote…  They judge their teachers’ advice on whether or not they agree with it now.  They completely forget that, at some point in history, the words ‘called’ and ‘hollered’ were unfamiliar to them and they had to learn them.

Teachers who helped them to learn new words were doing their job, and it’s only from the lofty position of knowing all these words now that people can decide whether or not they are appropriate for their stories.

Not everyone wants to be a professional novelist (or creative writer of any description) and it’s unfair to think that all your English lessons should be tailored to those very specific needs.  For the most part, people who want to write a novel have to learn the language to an appropriate degree first, and that is what their English teachers were there for.  Honing skills specific to your form and genre comes after that.

Why teachers tell you not to write ‘said’

That is their job.

Your English teacher was not teaching you to write a novel, they were teaching you to write an exam answer.

We can get side-tracked here by pointing out how awful it is that teachers are teaching pupils to pass exams rather than expanding their horizons with the beauty of the English language, but we won’t.  It is awful.  I don’t agree with teaching only to pass exams.  However, that is the reality of it.  It is not your teacher’s fault.  They have a job to do and they are told exactly what they need to teach.  If you had fun lessons at school, that was probably your teacher sneaking them in under the radar.

Examiners have a check-list of things to look for.  And, for the record, I have been a GCSE examiner (don’t get me started).

They look for things like:

  • Relevant content (sticking to the form, audience and purpose of the task)
  • A range of paragraphs
  • A range of sentence structures
  • A range of punctuation
  • A range of vocabulary

You can see that having a range gets better marks.  And so English teachers encourage pupils to use a range of vocabulary.

Repeatedly writing ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ doesn’t demonstrate a range of vocabulary.  English teachers encourage pupils to use different words for ‘said’ because it is one of the easiest ways to do this.

My advice

Like most English teachers, I have lobbed thesauruses (not literally) at pupils and told them to find a different word (and, again, I’m not going to get distracted talking about how to use thesauruses, either – I may do that in another post).  This is, firstly, to help develop a pupil’s vocabulary as they learn new words, and, secondly, to train them to use a variety of vocabulary in their work.

However, I will give very different advice depending what I am being asked, in what context and by whom.

If you are a GCSE pupil, asking my professional opinion as a qualified English teacher, then I will probably advise you to use a range of words such as bellowed, cried, whispered, etc. rather than just ‘said’.

If you are an aspiring writer (of any age), asking my opinion as a professional writer, then I will probably tell you that the simplest words are often the best.  The word ‘said’ is simple, clear and doesn’t draw attention to itself.  If you want people to focus on what was said, use that.  If you want your reader to focus on how it was said, elaborate by using a different word.

My advice will change depending on who is asking and what they are trying to write.  A great exam answer is very different from a great novel, which is different from a formal letter, which is different from a short story, which is different from narrative non-fiction, and so on.

You wouldn’t ask a prize-winning journalist to teach you about writing and then, at the end of the lesson, complain that they didn’t give you the best advice about writing novels.  Of course they didn’t.  They write articles.  That’s what they were teaching you.

The same goes for English teachers.  They’re showing you how to write exam answers.

A little story

One of the Year 7s I taught got to see how my feedback changed depending on what I was reading and why.

Every week, I would collect in the books, mark the work and give feedback.  And every week, I would give this particular Year 7 the same criticism.  It went something like this: Use capital letters, for the love of mercy!  Didn’t you learn this in Primary School?  This is the very minimum you need for writing a sentence.

Or words to that effect.

For those of you who are worried about my level of feedback, this was not the only thing I wrote.

This same pupil was writing a novel.  An actual novel that he hoped to get published some day in the future.

I love that enthusiasm.  I love that he loved writing.  I love that he spent the time actually writing it.  And, with that in mind, when he came into the classroom each week, he would hand me a memory stick and I would read the next chapter of his book.

Every week, I handed it back with a massive smile and lavished praise upon this Year 7 who apparently refused to use capital letters.  Why?  Because his book was amazing.  It was imaginative and funny and I absolutely enjoyed reading it.

Every week, I would mark his work as a teacher and give feedback that would help him get to where he needed (passing his exams).  And also every week, I would read his novel as a person and give him the feedback he needed to get to where he wanted to be (the encouragement to keep writing, practise, and follow his dreams).

If he had asked me to mark his novel as a teacher, I would have had to point out the grammatical errors, correct his sentence structure a bit and moan about his sporadic capital letters.  But there is so much that goes into a novel, and the least of those (certainly when you’re eleven) is perfect grammar.  As long as it made sense, was clear, progressed the story, made me laugh and kept me hooked, that was a successful novel.

Conclusion

Teachers have been telling pupils to use a variety of words, instead of only using ‘said’ because it is a well-known, legitimate and easy way for that pupil to demonstrate the skills they need to pass their exams.  Any tips that teachers can give their pupils to give them a better chance in their exams should be given.

I can talk to you about writing as teacher-me, or I can talk to you about writing as writer-me.  I will have very different things to say, depending upon which hat I am wearing.

My 3 Favourite podcasts about writing and what you’ll learn from them

This week, writing podcasts can be:

  • As long as a piece of string
  • Chuckle-worthy
  • Heaven on a hat stand
Photo by Wallace Chuck on Pexels.com

My three favourite podcasts about writing

I have tried listening to several podcasts on writing over the years and a lot of them I didn’t stick with.  That doesn’t make them bad podcasts, it just means that they didn’t capture my interest at the time.

These three are the ones I still listen to every week.

I have gone back and listened to them right from the beginning and have not regretted it.

I have learned a lot from them and enjoyed them.

Writing Excuses logo and tag line

Writing Excuses

Hosted by:

Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells and Howard Tayler.

What I like about it:

The tagline for this podcast is ‘fifteen minutes long’ and that’s perfect.  In recent years, they have tended to go over that limit more often than not, bringing it up to about twenty minutes, but it’s still a very small, digestible episode.

It means there is no straying off topic, no rambling, no prevaricating and no searching through hours of drivel to find that one useful gem of information.

Each episode is clearly titled and so you can find the subjects you are interested in (particularly if you’ve listened to them and want to go back to hear about something again).

I also love the fact that there are four main hosts (with long-term or short-term additional hosts) and so, for every topic, you’re guaranteed to get a range of opinions.

The guests and other experts they bring on are interesting and usually addressing a specific question or topic.

My favourite series:

My favourite Writing Excuses series is 11, without a doubt.  It blew my mind. 

I have listened to it several times, just to remind myself of how brilliant it is.  I still think about it so much now.  It’s a year of ‘elemental genres’ and I have never heard anyone break genre down in that way before.

This podcast is an ideas podcast with an ensemble subgenre, blended with humour and a dash of drama.  You’ll get these references if you listen to series 11.

How the podcast is structured:

Each episode is (approximately) fifteen minutes long and is released every Monday.

The four main hosts take part throughout the year, and additional hosts join them on a short-term basis.

These days, each series is one year long and starts in January. 

Each series has a different overarching topic, such as character, worldbuilding or structure.  The episodes that year focus on one small aspect of that topic and, by the end of the year, they will have covered a complete masterclass of that topic.

When I started listening to this and realised it was brilliant, I went right back to the beginning to listen to series 1, episode 1 and worked my way right through.  I didn’t want to miss anything they had to say.

I wouldn’t recommend doing that.  The first few series, though enjoyable in their way, were very much a boys’ own club and much less structured than they are now.  It took them a while to get into their stride but, when they did, it was gold.

I would recommend starting at series 6.  This is when they really began to do what they’re doing so brilliantly now.

What it’s good at:

  • Giving clear, concise advice on specific areas within writing
  • Naming episodes clearly so you can find what you are interested in
  • Having a range of (often differing) opinions to show you a range of styles and personalities
  • Spending several episodes delving into different aspects of one topic to give a really deep understanding of that whole topic
  • Feeling the love and admiration that the hosts have for each other
Tim Clare, Death of 1000 Cuts logo

Death of 1000 Cuts

Hosted by:

Tim Clare.

What I like about it:

What I like about Death of 1000 Cuts is the raw, brutal honesty of the host when he talks about writing and mental health, and how the two are linked.

I also like the imaginative, often shockingly rude metaphors.  Seriously, I was blushing like a maiden aunt for the first few episodes because I was not expecting that level of genitalia talk.

The episodes are longer than the Writing Excuses ones, usually coming in at between one and two hours.  The host is not afraid to talk around a knotty, problematic or nuanced subject and explore it in depth.

Tim Clare is really good at making listeners feel like we get to know him, we are invited into his world and he is a kind host.

My favourite episode:

Some of my favourite episodes are the ones that are sprawling conversations, with a hint of fun in them. 

For example, one of my favourites is series 3, episode 24: StorySmashing with Nate Crowley.  This is a fun episode which focuses on different ways to brainstorm ideas.  The two hosts go ahead and brainstorm three ideas to show us how it’s done.  It might be my favourite because I love the excitement and possibility of creating stories.

There are lots that I love, though.  Every time he does a ‘writing ramble’, he says ‘this might not be for everyone’ but those are some of my favourite episodes, where he digs slowly down into a topic in a way I’ve never heard anyone else do it.

How it is structured:

There are four main types of episodes: interviews, writing rambles, first-page critiques and free writing courses.

There are a huge number of episodes in which the host interviews someone else from the writing industry.  Several writing podcasts do this but it’s always interesting to listen to.  Each interviewer and interviewee bring something unique to the discussion, so you’ll never hear the same interview twice, even if you’ve heard them speaking before.

We all know that, some interviewers are a bit stiff and don’t get the best out of their interviewees, but Tim Clare always seems to.  His enthusiastic approach is endearing and energetic.

He manages to ask interesting questions, questions I’ve not heard other people ask, and still get down to the nitty gritty of writing.

The episodes subtitled as ‘writing rambles’ are focused on one topic and the host talks about his opinions, experiences and thoughts on that subject.  It means these episodes delve deeply into a nuanced discussion of topics that otherwise might get a simplistic overview and reach a superficial conclusion.  I find these episodes really interesting.

What Tim Clare does that I haven’t encountered on any other podcast is the first page critiques.  He takes the first 250 words of someone’s novel (and anyone can send theirs in to be critiqued) and goes through, line by line, giving detailed word and sentence-level feedback.  It’s fascinating to hear his analysis and get that level of critique.  Even though it’s not my writing, I’ve found it incredibly useful to hear that level of detailed editing and have applied it as well as I can to my own work.

In addition to that, there are two whole series of writing workshops.  These are free, online workshops that you can get from Tim Clare’s website or his podcast, and they are entirely worth listening to and doing the writing activities.

If you have always wanted to go to a writing workshop or writing retreat but couldn’t afford it, try these out.

What it’s good at:

  • Nuanced discussions about mental health, writing, social expectations and any combination of these things
  • Demystifying the process of writing, submitting or publishing by having frank discussions with other authors and industry professionals
  • Identifying areas in which mental health, physical health, social expectations and the craft of writing cross over
  • Providing practical support for writers looking to develop their craft, with first-page critiques and free workshops
  • Making the reader feel part of a larger community and like we are friends with Tim Clare
My Dad Wrote a Porno logo

My Dad Wrote a Porno

Hosted by:

Jamie Morton, Alice Levine and James Cooper.

What I like about it:

This is a masterclass in identifying writing techniques and skills.  Not necessarily a masterclass in using them…

It is absolutely hilarious.  Seriously.  Hilarious.

How it is structured:

In My Dad Wrote a Porno, Jamie reads one chapter a week of his father’s erotic novels to his two best friends.

Yes, it is exactly the way it sounds.

The series are about 13-15 episodes long, usually with bonus footnotes episodes.  The episodes come out on a Monday, with footnotes out on a Thursday.  The series don’t run all year – that is a major down-side, that we have to wait for the next series to come round again.

As Jamie reads the latest chapter, with varying degrees of success on the character’s accents, his co-hosts leap in, interrupt, laugh, question and generally look on in disbelief as they dissect what is happening in the novels, what it means for the characters, what specific phrases mean… just generally what it means.

We get two layers to these podcasts: the book itself and the critique from the hosts.

What it’s good at:

It (inadvertently) covers topics such as:

  • Forgetting character names at random in the middle of book 1 (poor Donna)
  • How to block character movements between lines of dialogue (for example, a character putting their shoes in the corner of a room while they talk)
  • Sexuality, queerness and social acceptance
  • The (mis)use of; semi-colons
  • How to use language to create idioms and sayings
  • Introducing characters
  • Maintaining internal consistency with plot and world-building
  • Discussions on craft, language and reader experience

Let me know what your favourite writing podcast is

I’m always on the look-out for more amazing writing podcasts so let me know if there’s one you’ve loved.

Six reasons to listen to writing podcasts

This week, listening to writing podcasts:

  • Is an affordable way to develop craft
  • Makes me part of a writing community
  • Builds my enthusiasm for writing
Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Pexels.com

Why podcasts are a great way to learn about writing

There are lots of reasons why podcasts are a great way to learn about writing.

1. They are free

You don’t need to pay money to go to a convention.

You don’t need to pay money to go on a writing course.

2. You hear a range of experts

You get to hear whichever author(s) or industry experts are hosting the show.

They have guest speakers on from all aspects of the industry, including authors, editors, agents, publishers and consumers (readers and bloggers).

Each one will give you a different opinion.  This frustrates some people because there is no ‘right’ way to write but it’s often useful to hear that there are different methods, techniques and tricks.  You can cherry-pick the ones that are right for you and build yourself a toolbox of skills to draw upon when you need them.

You can hear their struggles and be glad it’s not just you, that you can still finish your novel because this person did and they went through the same thing you’re going through now.

You can hear about their successes and be glad for them and feel hopeful that, one day, you’ll be successful in whatever way you want.

You can hone in on the episodes and experts you want to listen to at the time.  For example, there are episodes about drafting, creating character and getting started which are useful when you’re beginning your new project, and episodes about editing, redrafting and submitting to agents which will be useful later on.

3. You can listen to them when you like

Like all podcasts, they are easy to download to your computer, laptop, tablet or mobile.

You can listen to them whenever and wherever you like.  You don’t need to set aside a time specially for listening to them, like you would going to some kind of class.

You are in control of how long you listen for, whether you listen in one go or in sections.

4. It makes you part of a community

If you listen to one podcast over time, you get to know the host and the regular guests, and it makes you feel like you know another writer.  As someone with very few writer-friends, this is invaluable.

You can join discussions and groups about the podcast and feel part of a small community, all joined together by their love of the podcast and of writing.

5. It counts as ‘work’ or ‘research’

If you’re having a bad writing day, you can listen to one, learn about writing, and think about an aspect of writing you perhaps haven’t thought of before.

If it makes you think about writing, you’re developing as a writer.  Most authors agree that the best thing to do to get better at writing is to write.  I would agree.  However, just writing and writing and never stopping to actually assess what you’re producing won’t help you as much as you think.

At some point, you have to bring your inner editor to the party.  Write, and think about what you’re writing.  You can do this at any time, depending on your own writing preferences.  Do it in the planning stage, as you write or wait until you’ve written your piece and evaluate it at the end – whatever works for you.

Listening to experts can save you from making some amateur mistakes.

Hearing people discuss one aspect of writing and digesting that advice will mean you gradually become a better writer because you have considered the elements that make up a great novel (or poem or short story, etc.)

6. It will inspire you to write

A lot of the time, listening to someone talk enthusiastically about an aspect of writing will inspire you to have a go, too.

If you were having a bad writing day, listening to someone talk about it might fire you with enthusiasm and you’ll have another crack at it.

You can hear about other, successful authors feeling the same way as you.

Next time

Find out what my three favourite writing podcasts are.  You might guess a couple of them but will you guess all three?

Fantastic Regency Fantasy – The Lady Jewel Diviner

This week, The Lady Jewel Diviner is:

  • A fast-paced cosy crime mystery
  • A cute nod to Regency romance
  • Obsessed with cream teas

The Lady Jewel Diviner (2021) by Rosalie Oaks

This is the first of a series of cosy crime with a Regency Fantasy twist.

Premise

The Lady Jewel Diviner is set in a Regency England wherein magic exists and strange creatures abound.

Miss Elinor Avely is the heroine of the story and she has the magical ability to divine any jewel nearby.  At the start of the story, she believes she is the only person to have such an ability.

However, when she meets Miss Zooth, a vampiri, she learns that there are other types of magical creatures and magic-workers known as Musors.

This is mainly about Elinor learning that she can develop her powers and getting to know the magical world around her as she becomes embroiled in uncovering a smuggling ring off the Devonshire coast.

Story

Having fled London society after a scandal involving a jewel – she was accused of stealing it instead of returning it, as she had intended – Elinor, her mother, Mrs. Avely, and brother, Perry, all retire to what they suppose will be quiet country life in Devon.

Obviously, that’s not to be.

There are a large number of players in this book and I’m not certain I kept up with who they all were.

What I know is that, for some reason, smugglers have taken the jewels which French aristocrats have been bringing with them across the channel as they flee the Revolution.

Elinor, being able to divine jewels, sets about finding them.

The first thing she finds is two aristocrats, hiding in a cave, having just made it across to England.  They have been double-crossed by the people who helped smuggle them out of France and Elinor’s family takes them in.

This is a fast-paced mystery with new information popping up all over the place.  I found it enjoyable and read on, wanting to know who the real culprit was.

There is also a romantic sub-plot: Elinor and Lord Beresford, who tried to come to her aid when she first became the talk of London, but who did it in such a high-handed way that it backfired.  Naturally, he appears and his whole family is mixed up in the smuggling affair.

Worldbuilding

This had huge potential to be a fascinating new magic system but it didn’t quite deliver.  It was hinted at but didn’t become an integral part of the plot.

The most interesting worldbuilding is the various creatures which inhabit the Devonshire coast.  Notably, there is a selkie and a vampiri.

The selkie is introduced and has his part to play in the unfolding of the mystery, but we don’t learn much about him or his world.  I feel that will come in one of the later books.

The vampiri, Miss Zooth, is interesting, since she can turn from a bat into a woman of bat-size.  She is a tiny spinster lady, which is a brilliant twist on the legend. 

She is also the mentor (or, in Regency terms, chaperone) figure but she doesn’t reveal very much information.  Again, I suspect we will eventually get more in later books.

The fact that she cannot retain her clothes when she shifts between forms leads to some (slight) amusement.

There are eight types of magic (I believe there is a ninth to be revealed), of which Elinor has one.  She learns that she should be able to develop her power, and begins to do that under the guidance of Miss Zooth, but it doesn’t come to much in the story.

Overall, I feel that there were many missed opportunities here, which is a bit disappointing.

Feminism

I liked that the main character was a young woman (of unspecified but presumably marriageable age).

She was forthright and determined, which leads to a lot of her scrapes and adventures.

It’s difficult to blend feminism with true Regency manners and decorum.  However, with Regency Fantasy intended as a light read, I can totally forgive modernisations and hot-headed heroines.

The Lady Jewel Diviner nods to the social conventions of the time in things like needing a chaperone, but doesn’t let it stand in the way of Elinor going off searching for a cache of hidden gems in the dead of night.

At least she had her tiny spinster companion with her.  You know, for decorum.

Writing

It’s written in a pseudo-Regency style that hints at being Jane Austen without achieving that actual style, rhythm or wit.  It’s more modern (and that’s not a criticism, just an observation) and uses some formal dialogue to achieve the strictly hierarchical, repressed tone of the Regency.

There is very little description, including of the characters.  The main character was just a blank in my mind, waiting to be filled in.

In fact, most of the characters gave the impression of existing on the page and not beyond.  We never learn of them doing anything else.  There was a lot of potential for back-stories and character development that never happened.

Perhaps because it was so fast, but the conclusion of the mystery is a little confused.  There are a lot of people doing things for reasons that I didn’t fully understand.  That is either a fault with me and my ability to understand plot (entirely possible), or it is a fault with the writing not making motivation clear.

The thing that annoyed me most was the fact that Elinor kept allowing her brother into the adventure.  He was a complete liability and little more than a plot device to bungle things up.  Why she kept bringing him along at all is the real mystery.

Recommended

I recommend this as a light read if you enjoy mysteries and letting the plot wash over you.  It’s quite interesting and easy to read.

If you are looking for something fun, with detailed worldbuilding, then I’d suggest you check out Manners and Monsters by Tilly Wallace.

If you are more into Austen-style romance with realistic world-building, then I thoroughly recommend Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Fantastic Regency Fantasy – Manners and Monsters

This week, Manners and Monsters is:

  • A weird mix of American and Regency
  • A great mix of magic and cosy crime
  • Full of pickled cabbage

Manners and Monsters (2019) by Tilly Wallace.

This was a strange clash of Americanisms and Regency England.

I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting the American influence, but it surprised me so perhaps that is why it stood out so much.

Overall, it was fun and light-hearted.

Premise

I loved the premise of this story.  It is right up my street.

Regency fantasy is always something I am willing to give a go.

Manners and Monsters is set in a secondary-world Regency England wherein magic is commonplace.  There are twelve mages in England, five in France, and they have been using their magic (and magical creatures) to fight their wars.

At the time the novel opens, a contaminated batch of face powder has struck down a portion of the ton.  Mostly ladies, they have become Afflicted, i.e. zombies.  However, they aren’t mindless, shambling creatures.  As long as they feed on ‘pickled cabbage’ regularly, they maintain their physical form and their reason.

Because they are wealthy and influential, they also retain their place in society.

Story

Hannah Miles is the only child of Sir Hugh and Lady Seraphina.  Her mother was one of the twelve mages of England until her death two years previously.  Being Afflicted, though, she is still pottering about and casting magic. 

While her mother searches through ancient tomes and magical genealogies, her father works away in his laboratory dissecting hearts and studying the curse that killed his wife.  Hannah helps her father (having no magic herself) and it’s this gruesome occupation (and her habit of speaking her mind) that makes her destined for spinsterhood.  So she assumes.

Enter a dark, brooding hero who is unconventional and doesn’t care what people think.  Unconventional enough, perhaps, to actually respect a woman as his equal?  How fortuitous.

When a brutal murder casts a shadow over her best friend’s engagement party, Hannah wants to solve the murder.  The trouble is, it looks like it was one of the Afflicted.

Viscount Wycliff has returned from the war a changed man.  His fortune is depleted and he has become an investigator for the Ministry of Unnaturals.  Rude, arrogant and with a hatred of the Afflicted, he is informed by his superior that he will need a chaperone if he is going to speak to the ladies.

You guessed it: Hannah.

So begins the investigation into the murder and the tempestuous relationship between Hannah and Wycliff.

What I didn’t like

As a fan of eighteenth-century (and thereabout) literature, and historical lit of that period, I am not opposed to slow pacing.  However, the beginning dragged a little and exposition was repeated so that, at around 20%, I nearly put the book down.  However, I kept going and was eventually swept away in the story again.

It was a good mystery with a clear range of suspects.  They were scrabbling round a bit at points and there were some key set-pieces that were dropped in for clues, but overall it was an enjoyable mystery to let play out before me.

I found the way that the hero is flagged up so much at the start as having such an effect on the heroine (even though she actually barely met him) a little heavy-handed but it didn’t ruin the story for me.

I also feel that this book could have used one last line edit to weed out the repetition of certain phrases.  I don’t care if it is, as I suspect, some VERY SUBTLE FORESHADOWING, if she calls Wycliff a hellhound one more time

What I liked

Having said that, as this is a bit of a romp through a pseudo-Regency landscape filled with magic and the undead, I’m prepared to take it for what it is.

The characters are strong, and I believe that, now they are established, the series will only get better as they will grow and develop and deepen their relationships.  I am looking forward to reading about Timothy, who is only introduced in the last chapter but is already a firm favourite with me.

What I particularly loved was the worldbuilding.  The way that society has had to adapt to the presence of the Afflicted is very clever.  As it was only wealthy ladies who were cursed, and as they represent such a small portion of the population, there has been no zombie outbreak, no rampaging through the streets in search of brains, and no mass panic.  Their condition has been carefully concealed from the greater population and the Afflicted are wealthy enough to buy their ‘pickled cabbage’ from the one authorised retailer.

This is a book firmly set in the upper echelons of society and it barely concerns itself with the lower classes (which is not unexpected and is not a criticism of the book).  Hannah’s main concern is her mother, protecting the poor, vulnerable Afflicted ladies from Wycliff’s ungentlemanly interrogation, and her own lack of marriage prospects.

Brilliant, right?

Recommended

I recommend this if you’re looking for a fun, light read.

It doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is one of its greatest charms.

The cover is banging, too.

I will get round to reading the rest of the series and have just found out that this is, in fact, a spin-off of another fantasy series, Highland Wolves, which I will take a look at.

How to tell genre-snobs to f- off in 3 glorious phases

This week:

  • I am not happy that I was genre-shamed
  • It takes me less than a minute to think of three examples of fantasy in ‘great classic literature’
  • It’s weird boiling Hamlet down to ‘man is haunted by the ghost of his murdered father until he goes on a homicidal rampage’

Guess who had someone try to genre-shame her today!

You guessed right – it was me.

For all my fellow Fantasy-lovers out there who have had people look down their noses at you, here are three quick come-backs for the genre-snobs who try to make you feel small.

Oh, you only like the Classics?

I take it you’ve read The Iliad in the original Greek, then?

No?  Me neither.

Still, I love those stories.  All those cursed women with snakes for hair and half-bird women luring sailors with song to their island piled high with skulls…  All those men chatting with gods and riding winged horses…

Can I draw your attention to:

  • Gods meddling in the lives of mortals
  • Gods turning into animals
  • Gods turning mortals into animals or half-animals
  • Centaurs
  • Harpies
  • The Minotaur
  • Sea monsters
  • Men with supernatural strength
  • Women leaping fully-formed out of their fathers’ heads

The list very much goes on.

Oh, you mean British classics?

I guess the most famous British (English) author is Shakespeare, huh?

I’m so glad he didn’t dabble in Fantasy.

However, may I draw your attention to:

  • The king of the fairies sending his fey servant to pour nectar from a magical flower into the eyes of four young mortals in order to make them fall in love (AMSND)
  • A half-man, half-donkey (AMSND)
  • Witches (Macbeth)
  • Potions that make the drinker appear dead when they’re not (R&J)
  • A magician summoning a storm to ship-wreck the treacherous brother who usurped him (The Tempest)
  • A spirit that had been trapped in a tree by a witch (The Tempest)
  • The ghost of a murdered king haunting his son in his quest for vengeance (Hamlet)

Oh, you mean only serious literature?

You mean literature which explores serious themes such as social injustice, poverty, morality, lost love, the wasted lives of men, and their immortal souls?

Like literature by Dickens, perhaps?

Like A Christmas Carol?  That story in which a ghost haunts his old business partner before supernatural being transport Scrooge off on a magical adventure for him to learn a moral lesson?

Would you like to consider:

  • Ghosts drifting round, weighed down by chains forged of their own selfish acts (ACC)
  • The ability to travel back in time and forward into the future (ACC)
  • The spectre appearing to haunt the railway, warning of impending disasters (The Signalman)

Conclusion

Magic and fantastical elements have long been a way for great writers to explore key themes.

Magic has fascinated people for thousands of years and there is part of us that gets a thrill from hearing about the cool stuff that witches and shape-shifters and prophets can do.

It’s also a safe (and effective) way for writers to present ideas in an enjoyable, understandable and relatable way for wide audiences.

The tale of Little Red Riding Hood is a much more interesting experience than an authority figure simply stating outright ‘don’t go into the woods’.

The greatest (most recognised) writers throughout history have utilised our love of the strange and inexplicable to captivate us.  The fact that they have also presented this fantastical element in an intriguing, structured and beautiful way is testament to their writing prowess.

Therefore, don’t try to tell me that it is easier or less worthy to write anything with magic in it.  The skill and craft and understanding of form, audience, structure and language is inherently the same.

Fantasy has, and continues to be, a popular and richly-developed genre which explores some of the most pressing concerns of the age in a new and imaginative and digestible way.

So check your genre-snobbery at the door if you want to chat to me about ‘great literature’.

How a One-Star Review Convinced Me to Read ‘Kings of the Wyld’

This week, I marvel at:

  • The irony of the situation
  • The brilliance of Nicholas Eames
  • How funny the word ‘titillation’ sounds

One-star reviews

We have all read one-star reviews.

Some of us read them for fun.

I also read at least one five-star and one one-star review of a book if I can’t decide whether to buy it or not.

It helps me to get an idea of what sort of people like and don’t like it, as well as why they like and don’t like it.

Ranting in reviews

Ranting and raving about how much you hated a book is not necessarily a kind thing to do.

And it’s not necessarily constructive.

A lot of review rants are almost unintelligible, poorly-written and nonsensical.

It shows, actually, that you’re letting your knee-jerk emotional response get the better of your reason.

In fact, one-star rants can have the opposite effect from the one the reviewer intended.

Why I’m suspicious of rants in reviews

I have a deep suspicion of any review that states ‘I didn’t like this book, it’s rubbish’. 

I suspect the reviewer actually doesn’t know whether it’s a good book at all; they’re just spewing hatred because they didn’t like it.

Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t actually mean it’s bad.  There are loads of great books out there that really aren’t to my taste.

Ironically, I’m more likely to give the book a shot if the negative reviews are badly written; if people can’t write accurate, thoughtful reviews (even if they are negative), then they’re probably not the sort of people I want to listen to.

Check out my blog post ‘How to Write a Review of a Book: accuracy, opinion and kindness’ for more information about structuring reviews, being accurate and giving your opinion in a reasonable way.

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

Kings of the Wyld is an Epic Fantasy novel by Nicholas Eames, published in 2017.

It has won numerous awards, which kind of goes to show how brilliant it is, but I didn’t know any of that when I bought it and started reading it.

The review

I came across this review because Nicholas Eames tweeted a screen-shot of it, which was in turn re-tweeted by an author I followed at the time.  It meant I saw this one-star review without ever having encountered the author.  I knew nothing about his book until this moment.

You’ll see exactly why I was so intrigued.

This is the review that I saw:

In case you’re using a screen reader or other access requirements to read this blog, this is what the review says:

“Stopped reading once it turned out the wizard had a “husband” and every other “hero” character is a submissive beta male. If this kind of stuff titillates your progressive mind – this book is for you. If you are a normal red blooded male – stay away from this crap.”

Why I instantly bought that book

No word of a lie, I bought that book right there and then.

My first thought was:

I have a progressive mind in need of titillation!

The review told me everything I needed to know about Kings of the Wyld.

It even told me things that the blurb couldn’t.

I knew instantly that:

  • This wasn’t going to be yet another misogynistic Fantasy book
  • It had (positive) queer representation (I couldn’t be absolutely sure it was positive until I read it)
  • It probably wasn’t going to depict ‘normal, red-blooded’ male assaults on women
  • Any book that could wind this guy up has to be worth a read

How happy I was that I did

Very!

I was so happy I read this book because it was filled with literally-snorting-with-laughter moments, a wonderful, varied, flawed cast of characters coming together to overcome a common foe, all kinds of Fantasy creatures, and a Moog.

I recommend it to you, too, if this sounds like your sort of thing.  No pressure.

Let me know what you think

I’d love to know if you’ve ever bought a book based on a one-star review!  I bet it’s more common than people realise.

Let me know in the comments section below.

And, if you love Kings of the Wyld, give me a shout.

How to Write a Review of a Book: accuracy, opinion and kindness

This week:

  • I divide reviewing into two parts
  • I reveal my podcast-listening habits
  • People can actually write accurate reviews!

We’ve all read those reviews of books that are obviously written by somebody who hated the book and wants to rant about it.

That’s fine.  You’re allowed to do that.

However, it’s not necessarily kind.

And it’s not necessarily constructive.

Accuracy, opinion and kindness

I have subtitled this blog post ‘accuracy, opinion and kindness’ because I believe those are the three things you need to write a good review of a book.

Accuracy is important because you, as a reviewer, don’t want to mislead your own readers by writing things that simply aren’t true.  Sometimes it’s hard to see where the boundary lies between being truthful in your review and still giving an opinion.

My own rule of thumb is that, if I didn’t like a book, I don’t review it.  Obviously, some people want to review books they don’t like (either to prove that they read them, to vent about their feelings of being ripped off, or to warn other people away from that particular book).  That is an individual choice.

My personal guidelines take into account the way I review books.

I’ll go into that below.

Essentially, though, if I don’t like it, I don’t review it.  I don’t want to promote it, even accidentally.  If the only things I can think to say about a book are that it exists and I didn’t enjoy reading it, I feel it’s a waste of my time writing about it and it’s going to be hurtful for the author to read that review.

And it’s not kind to slate somebody’s work unless there is a reason for you to do that, like if it was actually harmful to you (and that can happen).

Why you are writing that review is something you should consider very carefully.

Writing reviews is for:

Telling people what you think (the same way you’d just tell a friend-of-a-friend down the pub because you’re really excited about it and want to share it).

Warning them about harmful or controversial content.

Promoting the book.

Supporting the author (cheering them up with positive feedback).

If you’re not writing your review for any of those reasons, take a moment to reconsider whether you need to write it at all.

Consider:

  • Are you gaining anything from this?
  • Are you helping anybody else?
  • Are you going to upset somebody who hasn’t actually harmed you?

Below is my own personal system for reviewing a book, whether that is simply to file it away in my own mind or to write about it in a public place.

It’s a system that promotes accuracy and opinions.  You can decide yourself about the kindness.

There are two things to consider:

  1. Is this a good book?
  2. Do I like it?

These two things are DIFFERENT.

The first is about whether it conforms to reasonable and accepted standards of published works, and the second is about whether you are a fan of that particular book.

Think about it like this:

If I order a dress online, the parcel arrives and I open it, I am looking to judge that dress on two things: 1) is it a good dress? 2) do I like it?

For the first one, it is about quality: is the material good quality; is it well-tailored; does it wash well; does it hold its shape?

For the second one, it is about whether that dress suits me personally: does it fit me; does the colour suit me; does the style suit me; is it appropriate for me to wear it where I want to wear it?

If I buy a dress and it is good quality, well-made, and exactly what it said it was, only I look awful in it and feel uncomfortable and it turns out this backless ball-gown isn’t suitable for the office after all, is that a bad dress?  No, it’s a good dress, only it’s not right for me.

If it is cheap material, sewed together badly so the hems aren’t straight and the seams are coming apart, it doesn’t matter whether it’s my colour or not, it’s a bad dress and I can’t wear it.

That is the difference between the quality of the product and whether you like it.

Is this a good book?

By ‘good’ I do not mean do you like it, I mean what is the quality of the story and the prose.

To judge whether something is good, you must consider it by every reasonable, accepted standard in the industry.

Things that you need to consider:

  • Grammar – does it conform to acceptable standards of grammar?
  • Spelling – are there typos and spelling mistakes or is everything generally spelled correctly?
  • Punctuation – are there punctuation mistakes or does the punctuation help to structure the narrative and make it easy to understand?
  • Syntax – do the sentences make sense and are they easy to read?
  • Plot – does this have a coherent plot, with related events, and conform to a standard plot shape for the culture in which it was created?
  • Character – are the characters believable, interesting, clearly defined and not promoting anything harmful?
  • Character development – do the characters change from the start of the book, according to the experiences they have been through?
  • Themes – what are the themes explored, are they explored in depth and from multiple angles and are they universal or current topics?
  • Purpose – does this book have an obvious purpose, does the authorial voice overpower the narrative, does it conform to the accepted shape of that genre or form?

Do I like it?

This is where you get to have your say.

Some things will just be to your taste and other things won’t be your cup of tea.

It’s actually ok to write in a review that you didn’t like a book, as long as you’re clear that it’s an opinion.  If you can back that up with reasons (from the factual list above), then you’ll add weight to your opinion.

You can write a negative review without being offensive to the author.  Saying that something is not your kind of thing is fine.  I tend to choose not to do that, but that’s a personal choice.

Of course, you can always say that you did like it.  And, just because you liked it, doesn’t mean it was perfect.

Can you answer yes to one and no to another?

You can absolutely answer ‘yes’ to one of these questions and ‘no’ to another.

That is the beauty of this system.

It means that I can have intelligent conversations about a good book, even if I actually hated it.

Consider it this way:

A wine connoisseur can tell the age of a wine, the region, and all the subtle flavours that blend together to produce that particular vintage.  They can tell a quality wine straight away.  They don’t, however, love every single one.  They have a personal taste and they enjoy some wines more than others, even if the quality of the wine is the same.

It’s the same for books.

Some books, no matter how well-written, just aren’t for me.

I can tell you whether I think a book is good quality or not.  And I can tell you whether I like it.  And sometimes those two things are different.

For example:

I happen to think that Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the greatest books ever written in the English language.  I can wax lyrical about the language, debate the themes that are explored, and argue passionately that Tess is not the passive heroine people think she is (she really isn’t).

I don’t actually like the book.  I find it interesting.  I think it is good quality.  I don’t like it (I know, I know, I can’t help it, I just don’t – it’s too depressing for me and I don’t sympathise with enough of the characters to pull me through it.  Angel Clare?  Don’t get me started).

So I have divided my review into two parts: it is a good book, but it is not to my taste.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is Rocky Flintstone’s Belinda Blinked.

[As a small disclaimer, I am writing this rather scathing review because it has been aired on the podcast My Dad Wrote A Porno and the author apparently takes criticism in good part.]

[I suppose another disclaimer is that this is a self-published erotica novel, so judge me how you will.  I suppose, tagged on the end of this, I want to add the disclaimer that I am not snobby about self-published novels, I am just stating a fact here.]

To answer the question ‘is this a good novel?’ I would have to say ‘no’.

This novel (and I very nearly put that in inverted commas) does not conform to conventional standards of writing.  There is no progression of plot, only a series of events.  There is little to no character development.  Famously, in one chapter, the character of Bella is suddenly referred to as Donna because the author forgot her name and clearly didn’t proof-read his manuscript.  The syntax is often difficult to read and understand.  There are consistent grammatical and punctuation errors throughout.

You’ll agree that this is not up to the reasonable, expected standard of a published novel.  It is poor quality.

However, to answer the question ‘did I like it?’ that is a resounding ‘yes’.

Admittedly, I like it because it is so badly written, and that is hilarious.  I enjoy the complete madness of it.  I admire the strange innocence of it (and, yes, I know that sounds like a strange thing to say about an erotica novel but it has a certain naivete).  In short, it is a book very much to my taste.

If I were to review this book, I would say: it’s poorly written, but thoroughly enjoyable.

How to put accuracy and opinion into practice

You can see from this, that you don’t need to be cruel about a book just because it is not to your taste.

If you want to warn people away from the book because it is poor quality, state that in your review.  But don’t confuse quality with you not liking it.

Some of the best reviews can be one-star reviews, if they are done well.

If you read a book because it sounded good, and then you read it and hated it, it stands to reason that you were expecting something else from it.  And, if you picked that book up because you wanted what it said it was offering, then it might be fair to warn others that the blurb is misleading.  But that can be a statement of fact, not a rant about how awful you think the author is because they didn’t write a book specially for you.

I recommend dividing your reviews into two: an accurate representation of the book, and your opinion on why that worked or didn’t work for you.

Accuracy

Think about:

  • Was the book what it said it would be?
  • Does it mesh with other books in the genre?
  • Were there grammatical or syntaxial errors?
  • Did it read like a standard story, or was it doing something new or strange with structure?
  • What kind of humour did it have, if any?
  • Are there any factual or historical inaccuracies that are important?
  • Is it, reasonably, going to be considered offensive or harmful to a person or group of people because of misrepresentation, stereotyping or lack of research?

Opinion

Think about:

  • Did you enjoy it?
  • Was it similar to other books you have enjoyed?
  • Was it the genre, type or tone you were expecting from the blurb?
  • Did it follow the conventions or tropes of the genre?
  • Did it have something new and interesting to say, a new take on an old trope or something you’ve never seen before?
  • Did you, personally, sympathise with any of the characters?
  • Were there any things which offended, upset or triggered you that you want to warn others about?

If you divide your reviews into these two sections, you’ll be able to write articulately and thoughtfully on the quality of the book, whilst still sharing your opinion and recommending it or warning people away from it.

Let me know what you think

Let me know what you think about my reviews, who your favourite reviewers are and what they do well!

If you have any tips for writing top reviews, share them in the comments section below.

See you next time

Come back next time when I’ll tell you exactly how a one-star review convinced me to read Kings of the Wyld.