Librarian and friend of Writing Bloc Becky Spratford is hosting a series titled 31 Days of Horror on her blog. She’s invited our authors to tell her readers why they love horror. Here’s Aly Welch, author of SILLY LITTLE MONSTERS.
Asking why I love horror is akin to asking why I like food or water. I have consumed it in one form or another for as long as I can remember, and it helps to sustain me. At first, anything scary was not my thing. Seeing movies like Gremlins and A Christmas Story in the theater as a toddler terrified me. When you’re little, and everything is still new and loud and confusing, A Christmas Story plays like a nightmarish fever dream instead of the holiday classic most remember it as.
My first literary exposure that gently eased me into a deeper appreciation for horror was a rabbit tale of mystery from Deborah and James Howe: Bunnicula. I developed an interest in writing around the same time. If Harold the dog could do it, why couldn’t I?
I grew to enjoy my horror with a side of heart and humor. Whenever I checked out Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark from the school library, the funnier offerings like “The Viper” and “Wait Till Martin Comes” earned the most re-reads. I was finally able to recognize and enjoy the humor in Gremlins on a smaller screen, and monster movies became more appealing, too.
Eventually I sought out darker and scarier content. I first flipped through Stephen King’s gruesome illustrated novella The Cycle of the Werewolf when I was nine. His books, along with movie adaptations like Cat’s Eye and Stand By Me, felt as definitive of the 80s as music by Madonna, though my enjoyment of both has extended well beyond then.
When Saturdays still meant morning cartoons to my peers, I looked forward to late night programming like Monsters, Tales from the Dark Side, and Friday the 13th the Series (a show about cursed objects, not the boring dude in the hockey mask, though a crossover was considered at some point). Even an anthology series featuring wise-cracking Freddy Krueger. He really slayed me with his puns.
just show myself out…
The more age-appropriate series Are You Afraid of the Dark? became my favorite part of Saturday night Nickelodeon in the 90s. By then, YA horror was beginning to hit its stride with Fear Street by R. L. Stine, and books by Christopher Pike and L.J. Smith. I particularly enjoyed Pike’s crisp writing style and witty protagonists, and Smith’s vivid descriptions and breathless romance. I wanted more than cheap thrills and the occasional giggle, I wanted to relate or dream of a more exciting life than the one I was living.
Along came genre-defying television like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dead Like Me. I found comfort and catharsis through fictional horrors that often mirrored the very real trials and tribulations of growing up. The characters’ missteps sometimes meant more to me than their triumphs. As scary as seeing the Chosen One hit rock bottom was, I appreciated the reminder that present circumstances aren’t permanent and don’t define us.
then there’s Angel. I’ve been thinking about Angel a lot lately. If Buffy
taught me to pick myself up and try again, Angel reminded me why we fight in
the first place. Not because we’re chosen, or because there’s something to be
gained from the effort, but because humanity is worth fighting for no matter
the outcome. Today that message hits harder than ever.
At its core, we confront our fear of death through horror. It reminds us that life is fragile and fleeting and encourages us to embrace it for as long as we can.
Aly Welch lives in Western New York with her husband, author Mike X Welch, and their twin sons. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys acting, karate, and yoga. She also loves exploring the woods and still hopes to find magic behind every tree and under every rock.
An earlier version of “Alpha” appeared in the Writing Bloc Deception anthology. It leads Silly Little Monsters, which will be published by Writing Bloc on October 23rd.
Librarian and friend of Writing Bloc Becky Spratford is hosting a series titled 31 Days of Horror on her blog. She’s invited our authors to tell her readers why they love horror. Here’s G.A. Finocchiaro, author of GRACE FALLS.
I was born with an overactive imagination. As a kid, I spent every waking moment adventuring outside, exploring the woods, and living in my own reality. I was fearless, battling villains, discovering lost treasure, and solving grand mysteries. Nothing could stand in my way—except the dark basement corner behind the stairs.
Every creeping journey down into the dark, cold, damp, concrete block basement was filled with dread, as I imagined a clawed hand swiping at my feet through the open stairs. And every return journey back to safety was taken at top speed, running as if my life depended on it.
The old oil-tank and heater was a bastion of evil. A hidden relic of archaic danger nestled behind the creaky wooden stairs, it was impervious to my Jedi attacks. I was weak in its presence. My imagination had twisted my own fears into something so horrible that I feared for the safety of every family member who ventured into the darkness alone.
The terror was like an infection, and it soon spread into the silliest of things. I was no longer a fearless child, braving strange new worlds, exploring the woods and building forts—I was terrified of the darkness. The thing that creeped under the stairs had escaped the basement and now lurked in every nighttime shadow.
I couldn’t watch or read anything scary. The very mention of monsters shook me. Every stranger was an agent of the thing below the stairs—the babysitter, the gas station attendant, the neighbors—everybody. There was no escaping it.
Even vampiric rabbits tormented me— after bearing witness to the cover of “Bunnicula” at the book fair, every albino bunny with red eyes was a blood-sucking fiend. Every shadow in my room at night formed a humanoid shape with terrible sharp claws and teeth. Every pop or creak in the floor was the creature creeping up to snatch me. Every commercial and TV show featuring a monster or masked killer was something that sent chills up my spine—the very same chills the creature under the stairs instilled in me.
In the matter of a year, I went from a heroic young boy saving the planet from Skeletor, Darth Vader, and Mum-Ra, to a crumbling mess—a cowardly kid afraid of his own shadow.
The 80s had no lack of heroes. From cartoons to the movies, there were so many iconic, colorful characters to inspire me and my imagination. From He-Man to Schwarzenegger, to the Ghostbusters and Atreyu—I was overwhelmed with heroics. People who rose up to fight the bad guys. But it wasn’t until I met Rudy Holloran, the badass, leather-jacket-wearing punk from The Monster Squad, that I found my true hero.
“I’m part of the goddamn club, aren’t I?” said Rudy as he stepped forward and lifted a wooden stake to take down Dracula’s Three Brides. Since that day, I never wanted to be anything else. I wanted to be a badass monster hunter.
Darkness be damned, I learned to embrace the fear. I learned to defy the darkness. I was the badass that wouldn’t back down. I was the survivor who fought back.
The final girl became a horror trope because “she”—the least likely to survive—was pushed too far and rose up to defeat the darkness. The Loser Club faced off against the clown-embodiment of fear itself, Shadow Moon ventured into the otherworldly plots of the gods, while John and Dave fell into the mind-altering clutches of the “soy sauce”—these characters made me feel a connection. I found belonging in being an oddball.
I saw the world differently than others.
The outcast, the humbled survivor, and the punk rock badass—the archetypes have not changed much over the years. Popular culture has redefined them into varieties that aren’t so various—from Buffy to Blade, Hellboy to the Winchesters—the snarky tough guys and gals always came through. Their inner darkness shone like beacons. Despite their own troubles, doing what’s right was never in question.
I survived the horror under the stairs when I learned that I could be as badass as Rudy Holloran. As I got older, I learned that the more terrifying the monster, the more I looked forward to their demise. How would the hero, the last man or woman standing, survive? How would I persevere through bullying? Through high school? Through college and corporate life?
I learned to slip on that leather jacket and to let my inner badass take down monsters.
Every horror creator makes it their own. We are all terrified by something, and in our terror we find common ground. Some horror stories can be funny, and others can be outright gory. Sometimes the most effective scare is a disarming laugh before the quick swipe of a knife.
I will forever be grateful to the five kids who took down Dracula, Wolf-Man, The Mummy, and Creature (with a little help from Frankenstein) for redefining monsters. Without them, I may have grown up in a world where fear defeated me.
G.A. Finocchiarowas born and raised in South Jersey. He is a self-described goofball with a taste for bad jokes and good burgers. Finocchiaro currently lives in Philadelphia. He is the author of THE KNIGHTMARES and GRACE FALLS, and his story “Quibbles” appeared in the Writing Bloc Deception! anthology. Find him at gafino.com.
Prose is the cinematography of writing. It exists not just to capture what happens in your manuscript, but to capture it in a way that shows off your story to the best possible degree. Just as the angle and lighting of each shot are important in filmmaking, so are the words and sentences we use in writing, and how and where we use them.
Often, among beginning writers, you will find two main ways where people go wrong with prose.
Minimalists & Maximalists
You have the minimalists, who have a vision in their head and see words as the vehicle to getting that vision out so that other people can experience it, so they use few and simple words to get that story out as quickly as possible. They may have an incredible story to tell, but their ‘get it done’ use of language often undermines what could have been impactful story moments.
Then there are the maximalists. They love the sound of words on their tongue, the look of them on the page and thesaurus.com is a must-have website for them. Why say blue when you could say cerulean? Or walk, when you could say caper? Shouldn’t prose be poetry, and every word lovely? They’re flowery use of language often overpowers the story they are trying to tell, like doubling the sugar in a cake because you like sweet things.
This isn’t to say that minimalism or maximalism, in the right moments, isn’t a perfectly valid style of writing, I’ll talk about that later, but it should come from trying to achieve a certain effect at a certain moment rather than being your default. Both are unbalanced approaches to writing prose, and I would like to correct them both. You need a mix of both flowery and simple language to create good prose.
But, why? Well, let’s start by untangling a couple of myths.
I’m guilty of being a maximalist myself, so I can say this for certain – maximalists are not often told to do less. This is why it took me a while to realize that I needed to tone some things down in my writing (thankfully, I figured this out before I published my first book). Why? Because, especially when you’re young, teachers and readers are impressed by high vocabulary and complex sentence structure, and you are encouraged to continue with it. Thus, young writers like me often come under the delusion that high vocabulary, complex sentences, and extreme phrases equate to good writing. As an effect of this, minimalists are far more likely to realize that there are problems with their writing, but they are just as unlikely to fix them because they are also told that using ‘more interesting words’ makes for better prose.
Okay, but why doesn’t this work? After all, isn’t it proven that people with larger vocabularies get better jobs? Don’t you sound smarter when you use larger words? True, but it isn’t just knowing big words, but knowing when to use them that counts. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
How do you know when to use them? There are several contributing factors to this, all of which I will go over. Style, context, and rhythm.
Since rhythm is one of the most underlying and essential, let’s start with that.
Rhythm: The effect produced in a play, film, novel, etc., by the combination or arrangement of formal elements, as of length of scenes, speech, and description, timing, or recurrent themes, to create movement, tension, and emotional value in the development of the plot. -dictionary.com
Every part of the story has rhythm, as you can see in the above definition, however, we are only focusing on the part it plays in prose. So what is the rhythm of prose? Usually, when we think of rhythm, we think of the kind in music; the number of beats. Well, just like music, prose has beats. You can usually hear them when you say a sentence aloud. Take a look at the example below, an excerpt from my most recent publication, Lydia Green of Mulberry Glen.
The purple drapes swished closed behind her, the skirt of a surprised dancer swished away before her, and across the ballroom, her eyes just caught the dark train of Zamilla’s black hair as it snapped around the ballroom door frame and out into the night.
Read that aloud. Do you feel a little breathless? That’s because of two things: sentence length, and word choice. Lengthy sentences naturally take longer to read than short ones, and that fact, combined with simple, easy words in an intense moment of the story, gives the reader a breathless sense. Their eyes fly quickly over simple words while trying to keep up with the structure of the sentence’s length, meaning that they’ve just crossed over a lot of information in a relatively short period. If I used more interesting or significant words, the very intrigue of them would slow the reader down, producing a warbling effect, because they would focus more on individual words than the sentence as a whole. Like this.
The mauve drapes swept closed behind her, the pastel skirt of an astonished dancer swept away before her, and far across the ballroom, her eyes just caught the ink-black train of Zamilla’s hair as it snapped around the ballroom’s entrance and out into the depths of the night.
While this is an interesting style that could be used in a different scene, it isn’t what I wanted in this instance. Using unusual or interesting words is like using a highlighter – it draws immediate attention from the reader. This is why being a maximalist doesn’t work – you essentially highlight the entire story, and when everything is important, nothing is, and the reader doesn’t know what to focus on.
However, there are times when you should use the maximalist approach in prose. Let’s look at this paragraph below.
Far below they could see the outlines of tiny cottages dotting the green fields, the scruffy fringes of woods against the smooth grassy expanses, and a long blue river winding the length of it all as if someone had carelessly dropped a coil of blue silk to fall over the hills and between the trees. Here and there, fountains, towers, pavilions, and gazebos made of white stone could be spotted in the light of hanging lanterns. Far on the other side of the Valley, standing alone, was the solemn figure of an ancient stone tower. It gazed out over the great windswept Valley like a faithful guardian.
This example has much longer, more complex sentences and flowery language. Why? Because that kind of language slows the reader down, it makes them pause and think, linger in this moment, soak in the sights and sounds and smells. And that’s what I wanted in this part of my book, because we had just come upon a new setting where the characters were going to spend a lot of their time, and I wanted to introduce it thoughtfully and gently.
The point of this is that the rhythm of your writing contributes to the story itself, it creates an experience for the reader. Sentences with different structures, different lengths, different word choices, do different things in the reader’s head. You need to think carefully through them all. It’s all about the effect you want to achieve.
When should you use rhythm? Rhythm is always going to be there whether you know it or not, so you should always be aware of it and use it to your advantage. What does this mean for minimalists and maximalists?
Minimalists need to be more aware of the impact each word they choose has, and put a little more thought into sentence length and structure to use them to their best advantage. Maximalists need to realize that interesting words and lovely sounding sentences can often compromise their rhythm.
Context: the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc.
Take this example.
Lydia wasn’t thinking. Or listening. Or looking for paper stars.
Taken out of context this makes no sense, but when you know that Lydia is in the middle of a magical library that you can easily get lost in, and has been dropping paper stars behind her to mark her way through it, a sentence like this can make your stomach drop. It’s the setup, not the content that makes this sentence a good one. It’s the same reason that the words “We are Groot” at the ending of guardians of a galaxy hold such weight. It’s the power of ‘if you know, you know.’
I could have said:
Lydia wasn’t thinking. The library loomed up about her, and shelves twisted and turned around her, and then the way out was no more.
But it doesn’t hold the same weight, even if it’s well written. You can use grand words and polish your sentence until they gleam, but there’s nothing quite like the pay-off of context.
When should you use context? When you have a good mechanism like paper stars. When the moment is emotionally charged. When there’s humor or irony in it. When it would sound most natural for the character to express their feelings in a simple way referencing something in the past rather than making long speeches about it.
What does this mean for minimalists and maximalists?
Context is a great way for minimalists to make their writing shine without too much effort. Maximalists need to realize that sometimes less is more. Not always, but sometimes.
Style: a particular kind, sort, or type, as with reference to form, appearance, or character.
Style is kind of the disclaimer of all writing advice. Poetic license. This is how authors are allowed to get away with pretty much anything. So why do people read posts like this anyway, if it’s all about style?
In the words of Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
I am all about breaking the rules as an artist, but there are a few things I believe you need to take into consideration when you break the rules. 1. Is it intentional? 2. Is it effective?
I used some passive voice in my most recent book, which is usually a huge NO among writers. Why? Because I wanted to achieve the aesthetic of a classic fairy tale, and a lot of old and classic books use passive voice. I was very careful to only use it just enough to get that style across, however, and seared clear of it during moments like action sequences so that it would achieve the desired effect without compromising the story I was trying to tell.
But I know there are probably some maximalists and minimalists arguing right now. What if I want my story to have that slow ethereal maximalist’s feeling to it? That’s just my style. What if I want my story to have a gritty quick minimalist’s feeling to it? That’s just my style. And that’s fair! To each his own. However, there is something you should consider, and that’s the suspension of disbelief. When a reader opens your book, you set the stage for them, whatever style of the stage that is, and they suspend their disbelief, seeing everything through the lens of that story with that style.
Whether you show them a world that is gritty or ethereal, they will see that throughout the story, and their imagination will start to fill in the blanks. You don’t have to constantly bombard them with the aesthetic of your world because they’ve already got it. That’s the magic of fiction. Thus, once they’ve suspended their disbelief, you can take some liberties. Soft, thoughtful, ethereal fantasies can still have moments where the rhythm is quickened or context is all you need. Gritty action-packed thrillers can still have thorough description and slower moments. Because the readers will place all of that on top of the foundation you’ve already laid for them.
When should you use style? When you need the reader to suspend their disbelief. When it’s intentional and effective. When it lifts the story up rather than dragging it down.
What does this mean for minimalists and maximalists?
Yes, choose your unique style and enjoy it! But don’t let style compromise Story, because it should be the Story that takes center stage, with the style of your prose showing it off to the best advantage.
Balance is one of the hardest things to achieve, both in life and in writing, but it’s worth it. Prose is the cinematography of writing, so lights, keyboard, action!
Millie Florence is an adventurous homeschooler who published her first book at age 13. She loves sushi, zip lines, and just about all things yellow. Millie lives in a picturesque blue house in the woods with her parents and her four siblings, and a varying amount of cats and chickens. Whenever you need a good excuse not to clean your room, you can visit her online at millieflorence.com, on Instagram, Facebook, or on her Youtube Channel. Check out her books Honey Butter and Lydia Green of Mulberry Glen.
Writing Bloc is pleased to announce our second full-length single-author work! GRACE FALLS was produced under the Identity Crisis Books imprint, which is managed by Head of Editing Cari Dubiel. We were so pleased to work with G.A. Finocchiaro on this collection of short works, all set in the small town of Grace Falls, Pennsylvania, where Lovecraft meets Stranger Things.
We talked with Finocchiaro about his book, the process of writing it, and what is coming next.
Tell us about GRACE FALLS and how it came to be. What was your inspiration?
GRACE FALLS started out as an idea to grow the mythology of the world I was creating. I was inspired by the way Stephen King connected his worlds together, and I wanted to do the same with the way he wrote the town of Derry. I love how he, and his son Joe Hill, winked at the reader with subtle hints as to the larger scope of the events taking place. With that mythology in mind, I wanted to write a bunch of short stories that were fun, creepy, and allowed me to pay homage to my favorite episodes of Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories, Tales from the Darkside, Tales from the Crypt, and more. I grew up in a small town, and there was always that creepy house, or that strange place that stirred rumors. Small towns have this way of creating their own mythologies because of their isolation. So I drew a lot of inspiration from my own childhood.
How are the stories linked together, and how do they fit into the greater universe of your work?
The outcomes of the individual stories bleed into each other through the characters and events over the course of one calendar year in Grace Falls. Sometimes it’s merely a suggestion that a character was there, and other times it’s through the direct outcome of the previous story. Every event is connected in some way, and those willing to dive in should be able to pick up on connections between each story within this anthology, as well as to my first book, The Knightmares.
This town and its inhabitants are at the center of a mystery that will ripple outward into every story I write. Their lives and histories will set up the overall mythology for everything that happens across all of my books. I was always fascinated with World War I, and how there were many events that led to the outbreak of war. That’s how I see my novels—each story building up to a breaking point.
“Mum,” the first story in GRACE FALLS, will ultimately be the start of the chaos within the book, but it is only a symptom of a greater threat to the town and its people. And as you finish the book with “Extraordinary,” you’ll get a small glimpse at the cosmic levels of danger involved. The stories in between, in particular “Breacher” and “Pajamas,” have a direct connection as they share the same, literal, back yard. “Cubicle 43-B” is the most isolated story, but its protagonist has direct influence on the life of the characters in “Extraordinary.” However, the best thread throughout the anthology comes in the form of its mysterious villain… but I won’t give away the fun.
What’s your writing routine like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m actually somewhere in between. I usually plot out all my chapters, but then I find that the narrative or a character’s arc organically should go a different direction, and I adjust. I also end up with a ton of notes, adding and subtracting things, throughout the course of writing my drafts. I view writing a lot like sculpting from a piece of rock. Everything starts with a large whole, and as a writer I slowly whittle it away, refining, until I have something I like.
Your book is set in the 80s. How did you choose this timeframe? What did you research to make sure the setting was accurate?
Pop culture exploded in the 80s. I love that era, growing up, and look back fondly on it. It was a super weird decade filled with some of the most fascinating movies and music we have ever seen as a culture. To pay homage to the things that made me into who I am begins back then with The Monster Squad, Goonies, The Last Starfighter, and more. I wanted to tell stories about innocence versus darkness like the heroes of my youth.
What are you working on next?
I am currently working on a 4-part story (tentatively) that takes place, in part, within Grace Falls and includes some of its many characters I established within this current book. The series as a whole is called Cataclysm, for now, and is separated into these four titles:
The Two-Eyed Man
The story is a love story set against horrific events, both fantastic and real-life. I like to say it’s a cross between 13 Reasons Why, The Crow, and Clash of the Titans. This story will expand upon the characters of Grace Falls.
Creating a homegrown presence for your writing can begin right in your own neighborhood and town, giving you immediate opportunities to connect with readers. When I think ‘homegrown,’ I think local, and local, for me, means accessible and reachable. Those are the benefits I tout when I’m marketing myself to local businesses.
Where can you start to look for venues to support your homegrown writing? I initially started on my own street by dropping off a weekly poem and invite in my neighbors’ mailboxes, which led to a summer barbecue on my front lawn that everyone was invited to. Come to find out, I wasn’t the only poet on the street.
Although the barbecue didn’t spawn instant fame or a year’s worth of sales, it did start the beginning of a small group of readers interested in my work. Every connection is one step closer to a future where you are living your dream as a writer. The following is a list of local places to begin marketing your work and most of all you!
1. The Farmer’s Market
The farmer’s market was the first place I sought out to give readings to showcase my work. They usually occur in the center of town, weekly, and throughout the summer. You can build a following just by showing up every week. There is usually some kind of entertainment, like a band, and if there isn’t, you can suggest it to the people organizing it, by asking if they wouldn’t mind if you read some poetry/short pieces to people shopping. Most organizers are more than happy to have you. You’ll need a small amp and mic, which can be acquired pretty inexpensively from a local music store. (You might use it at some of these other places too.)
2. Historical Societies
Historical societies come in all shapes and sizes. They range from really tiny (as in you might even drive past it it’s so small) to being quite big, with a huge following. In either case, historical societies are usually equipped to offer events and have a ready membership and mailing list. If you can locate a historical society for an author, even better. If your historical society doesn’t offer readings, ask to organize one specifically for local authors, yourself included.
3. The Library
The library is the town’s hub for readers. Get in touch with those in charge of buying books and make sure to let them know poetry is important to acquire, including your own homegrown collections. Once your books are in stock, talk to the special events coordinator about arranging a reading or writing workshop. Both can go a long way in promoting your work. Be consistent and schedule events consistently to build readership and visibility.
4. Local Races
Depending on where you live, your town, or those nearby, should offer marathons or races regularly. Races attract a group of runners that often go town to town to compete. Most events also include vendors that give away product samples and information. Because the races are public, you can show up with your mic and work, and share them with a ready audience. (Check to see if you need a permit from the town first). At the least, you can hand out business cards and writing samples.
5. Churches, Occult Shops
Churches have become a source for entertainment and often have musicians, speakers, and authors perform. Often a paying opportunity, check your local newspaper for area events at local churches or temples to see which ones might be interested in a performance reading. Equally, your local occult shop or coven might also have reading opportunities. For instance, around Halloween, I bring out all my trick-or-treat-related writing to reach new readers; the store will usually carry your books for the month of October, leading to the event.
6. Natural Foods Stores
Most towns have a natural foods market that caters to local products and farms. I approach the owner/manager with my story of how great it would be to carry some homegrown writing on consignment. If the store has a café of any kind, I will do a giveaway for all those who attend—usually a sample of my work bound up in a one-of-a-kind chapbook and a free coffee.
Restaurants and bars are always looking for entertainment. If your local restaurant is booking musicians on Friday and Saturday nights, then ask if they’d be willing to showcase poetry on a Monday or Tuesday night. I often solicit establishments early in the year and try to schedule gigs around President’s Day, Martin Luther King Day or Valentine’s Day; the work I showcase is themed to the holiday. Just like a band, I read ‘cover-tunes’ from the classics, adding in a hit of my own and hope for an encore!
8. Nature Centers/Animal Shelters
Nature centers and animal shelters cater to a clientele with interests in the environment, animals, nature, walking, and recreation. They also usually have an education department that offers a variety of events or classes to the public. You might arrange a walking tour centered around nature writing or a similar workshop showcasing your work alongside the participants.
Being homegrown means interacting and getting to know your neighbors. People will start to recognize you, especially if you give them something to remember. Before long, you’ll have people coming up to you asking, “Hey, aren’t you that local author?” Then you know you’re on your way!
Hunter Liguore (she/her) teaches social justice writing at Lesley University. An award-winning author, her work has appeared in multiple publications internationally. Her cli-fi novella, L’Ultimo Polare was translated and published for readers in Italy.. She is ‘writing for the next generation of readers who care about the world.’ For more, visit: hunterliguore.org
By Kaytalin Platt – Cross-posted on Kaytalin’s website here!
I created the Author’s Guide to Typesetting in InDesign for authors who want a little more control over their book’s interior layout. InDesign can seem like a daunting program. There are a lot of tools and features, and many of which you won’t need for typesetting or layout. In this article, I’ll give you a step-by-step, start-to-finish guide on how to publish your book with a custom-designed feel. We’ll discuss creating a document, creating the rules which will govern your document, laying out text, and exporting for print.
InDesign is the leading program professionals use for book layout and production. It’s complex features make for high customization and professional quality. Mastering the program can give you a leg up in production and save you money.
Note: Before starting your typesetting in InDesign, you should have completed all rounds of editing in your Word document. Your manuscript should be as close to perfect as possible before laying it out in book form.
Working with a Template
Amazon doesn’t offer InDesign templates, but they do offer Microsoft Word templates. This has to do with the fact a lot of people don’t have access to InDesign or know how to use it. You can, however, still layout your book in InDesign and upload it to KDP.
For the purpose of this article, I created a template for myself using the methods I’ll outline below. I’m making it available for anyone who would like to use it as a branching off point to create their own.
Tools of the Trade
As I mentioned, InDesign has a variety of options you can use to build out your document. These are separated on either side of the screen. We have Left Screen Tools (located on the left side of InDesign) and Right Screen Tools (on the right side of InDesign). You can add more tools to the Right Screen by going to the Window dropdown in InDesign’s menu bar.
Left Screen Tools:
The basic tools you’ll need for working on novel layouts are below. If you hover over the tools, their names will appear. These are in order from top to bottom on the tools panel, but I’m excluding a few you might not necessarily need for your project.
Select Tool – Selects an object or group.
Direct Select Tool – Selects a single object within a group.
Type Tool – Creates text boxes, highlights text.
Line Tool – Create lines to add interesting elements to your page.
Rectangle Frame Tool – Creates boxes you can place images into.
Free Transform Tool – Changes the size of objects
Color Fill – Changes the color of objects. To change text, select the text box with the Select Tool, and click the T beneath the Color Fill section. This will allow you to change the text color. Another way to do this is to Select All the text, and change the color using the Color Fill box.
Right Screen Tools:
If you look at the menu bar running across the top of InDesign (following along behind File, Edit, Layout, etc), and select Window, it gives you a variety of tools to add to your workspace. You also have the ability to select pre-organized Workspaces.
I, myself, work in Essentials Classic. But, there are other options. You may wish to work in the Book workspace, but, for the sake of this article, everything I’m describing is found by navigating using Essentials Classic.
Right Screen Tools you’ll need:
Pages – You will have a LOT of pages in your book. This is a compact way of viewing and organizing them. The Pages panel also allows you to create Master Pages, which you can style and apply to hundreds of pages at a time, without having to add elements to each individual page. This becomes handy very quickly, and we’ll go into more detail on this feature later.
Layers – You may not use this very much, especially if you’re utilizing the Master Pages feature. It allows you to put elements on different layers and turn them on or off. This feature is especially nice for placing a Template on an InDesign page and hiding it away periodically as you work.
Links – Any images you add to the document will be found here, in list form. It allows you to see, at a glance, any altered or missing links you might have. An altered linked (signaled by a yellow warning triangle) means you’ve edited an image and haven’t re-synced it with InDesign. To fix this, double click on the yellow triangle. A missing link (signaled by a red circle and white question mark) means the image you placed in InDesign no longer exists in the folder you got it from. If you don’t fix missing link issues, you’ll have pixelated images when you go to print. To fix a missing link issue, you must put it back in the original folder, or replace it in your file from the new location. You can also click the “chain” symbol to re-link manually to the new folder.
Stroke – Allows you to adjust the thickness or style of the line you’ve created. You adjust the color of the Stroke in the Fill Tool section on the left. Click the hollow box behind the Fill Tool solid color and it will let you access the stroke color fill options.
Swatches – Quickly access commonly used colors or colors you’ve saved as swatches.
Effects – Adjust transparency, create drop shadows and other stylistic changes to objects.
Character – Select your font, style, character size, spacing between lines, and more in this section.
Paragraph – Adjust your paragraph text to left, right, centered, or justified.
Glyph– allows you to add special characters into your text. I usually manually add this tool through the Windows dropdown at the top of the program.
Text Wrap – allows you to adjust your text around any images you may have added.
Creating a New Document
Depending on which version you have, your document setup screen may look a bit different. I work on InDesign CC at work and InDesign 6 at home (probably soon to change now that I’ve updated to IOS Catalina -_-).
When you select File → New → Document, the New Document screen pops up.
Width & Height
In the Width and Height area, you might see numbers displayed a bit… odd (unless your version of InDesign is already set to inches instead of picas). Change the unit of measurement to Inches. If you’re in America, you’re probably more used to working in inches.
The most common indie published book is 6×9. For the purpose of this tutorial, this is the measurement I’ll be using. You’ll want to set your document to 6” wide by 9” tall. But, don’t get carried away and click Create. We need to setup your margins and bleed.
Margin can be tricky, depending on the thickness of your book. You may want a wider margin for super hefty tomes. But, for the typical 6×9 book, you can use these measurements below.
Top Margin: 0.875” or 1”
Outside margin: 0.625”
Bottom margin: 0.875”
Interior margin: 0.75” or 0.875”
Bleed is the term used to describe the content that flows off the edge of the page. You may not need this feature, but set it up anyway. You’ll want to export your document with bleed settings at the end of this tutorial.
Most people suggest 0.125” all around for bleed, but I like a lot of bleed. I usually set mine to 0.25” all around. Better safe than sorry.
Once you’ve adjusted your margin, and added your bleed, you’re ready to hit “Create”.
Building out your Template
After creating your document, you’ll set all the rules the document will live by. This will help you streamline your layout process and save yourself time-consuming edits later.
Take a moment to think about how you want the interior of your book to look. Grab a few books off your shelf and flip through them, maybe use one as a guide in setting up your design.
Once you know how you want the inside of your book to look, go to InDesign and select the Pages tab on the right side of the screen. It’s the first tab, and looks like two pages side-by-side.
The Pages tab is divided into two sections. In the first section, you’ll see a list of two items: [None] and A-Master. Beneath that, you’ll see a single page, which is the first page of your document. At the bottom of the panel, right to left, you’ll see the trash bin icon (to delete pages), a + icon (to add pages), and an overlapping vertical and horizontal pages icon (change paper size icon).
Let’s go ahead and add some pages to our document. There are two ways to do this. The long way is to repeatedly click the + icon. But, our document will require a lot of pages, so right click on the gray area within your Pages tab, next to your one, lonely page
Select Insert Pages and enter the amount of pages you need besides the one(s) you already have. Don’t worry, you can always add or delete pages later. If you’re unsure how many pages you’ll need, take your manuscript word document and multiply the page count by 2. This will get you close.
After adding pages, go to the area above the page list, where it says [None] and A-Master. Right click on the area beneath A-Master.
Select “New Master”. Hit Ok.
Once your new master page is created (should say B-Master, but you can name it whatever you want), double click on B-Master. This will take you inside the master page, and allow you to edit it.
Why are we editing B-Master instead of A-Master? A-Master is going to control the part of our document which should be void of stylistic elements like page numbers, title, or author name. A-Master is for the places you need blank pages, where you’ll be custom adding information, like the copyright text, dedication, and title page.
B-Master Page Design
I like to add the stylistic elements which will carry through a majority of the book to the B-Master pages. Here, I’ll add my page numbers, title, author name, etc.
Build out your B-Master how you’d like. Choose the font you want for your whole document, or use something a little different for this section. Be mindful of font and element sizing. I recommend going on the smaller side (but not too small) for these elements. Make it readable, but not distracting.
How to add page numbers to your document.
Create a text box using the Type Tool.
Add a letter or number, it doesn’t matter which or what.
Highlight the letter or number you’ve created, then go to the Type dropdown menu at the top of InDesign.
Select Insert Special Character → Markers → Current Page Number.
You should do this for both the left page and right pages. You won’t see a page number. That’s okay. This is just a rule you’re setting for these text boxes which will apply to all the pages you connect to B-Master.
Once you’ve created your B-Master page design, you’ll set it aside for right now. Click out of it by double clicking the first page of your actual document in the Pages tab. This will take you to the live section of your document.
Use the Type Tool to do a rough organization of pages. Just create small text boxes for each page and write what will go on that page. You’ll typically need:
Table of Contents (if applicable)
Acknowledgements (if you want them in the front, typically go in the back)
When you reach the first page of Chapter 1, go back to your Pages tab on the right.
Select the first page of Chapter 1, and all the remaining pages beyond it.
Once they’re all highlighted blue, right click on one, and select Apply Master to Pages
Now, the B-Master design you created earlier has been applied to all appropriate pages.
Take a look at the first page of Chapter 1. You’ll notice Chapter 1’s page number doesn’t start with Page 1 (as it should). Don’t worry. We’ll fix this later. For right now, we need to decide how the text should be styled—type size, line spacing, font, etc.
The font you choose is extremely important. Different fonts work for different jobs. A serif font (fonts with little wedge feet) are best for print because they are the easiest to read. You rarely want to use san-serif fonts for novels.
San-serif fonts work best for digital platforms like websites or mobile devices (but not e-readers). Choose your serif font wisely, but don’t go crazy. Sometimes the best choice is the most common one. I’m particularly fond of Georgia, Garamond, and Lora.
Font size is crucial. Too small, and it’s hard for the reader to see. Too large, and you’re wasting space in your book (and it can seem unprofessional). My design professor used to say anything over 11pts was for geriatric people, and would be considered that on viewing. So, I usually like to stick to sizing fonts between 9pts and 11pts, depending on what font I’m using.
Different fonts appear in different sizes. With Georgia 11pts and Garamond 11pts, one can appear larger than the other. The best way to judge the appropriate font size for your chosen font is to create a test page to gauge varying sizes and line spacing.
Let’s do that.
Creating Test Page
I’m going to ask you to do this in InDesign and not in Word. InDesign and Word treat fonts differently, and, as you’ll be typesetting in InDesign, you’ll want to test your fonts there.
Go to your Chapter 1 page.
Create a text box that stays within your pink margin box.
Pull a short paragraph from your story, one or two sentences or one long sentence.
Paste it into the box.
Add a line of text above it which says [Insert Font Choice] Size 9.
Select your pasted text.
Change it to your font of choice using the Character tab on the right side of InDesign (A icon).
Then, change the font size to 9.
Choose line height (directly right of font size). Adjust until it looks good to you.
For example, I chose Georgia as my font, and set the font size to 9pt and spacing to 13pt.
Once you’ve made your selections, copy all the text from the Font Choice + Size title, down to the end of your paragraph.
Paste the copied text 3 times beneath your styled paragraph.
Now, for each copied paragraph, go up a font size and spacing. (10pt/14pt, 11pt/15pt, 12pt/16pt). Be sure to keep track of your chosen size and spacing in the title above each paragraph. This way, you’ll know what you’re looking at when you print. When you’re finished, you should have 4 different sets of paragraphs at different sizes and line spacing.
Print this page out. (ctrl+p) Select range of pages and enter the page number of your font test page.
Once printed, sit down with it. Have a look. Analyze the sizes. Find a font size and spacing you think works best for your size book and audience. You’ll use that font size and spacing going forward.
Go back to your document and paste a page of text into the text box you were using. Style it with your chosen font, size, and line height. Now, play with the line spacing. Adding, subtracting, until you find the look you want.
Having a good amount of line spacing between sentences is nice. It doesn’t make the reader feel crowded and lets the book breathe. Too close together and things feel muddied or crammed. Too far apart, and you’re wasting space.
For me, I went with Georgia 9pt font size, and 13pt line spacing.
After you get this set up, Select All.
Click the Paragraph tab on the right side of the screen and uncheck Hyphenate at the bottom of the panel.
Next, we need to set our tab indent. Tab a few of the paragraphs, if you haven’t already.
The space of a tab should be around 5 characters wide. It can be a little less, but shouldn’t be much more.
Create your tab spacing by Selecting All text.
Click the Type dropdown at the top of the program.
Align the tab box over your text so you can measure 5 character spaces.
Click on the ruler in the area you feel is around 5 character spaces (usually just past the 0.25” mark). Your tabbed text should adjust to match this rule.
Click out of the Tab box.
I like to add grids to my document so I can adjust everything to baseline, helping all the text align from one page to another.
For Mac users, this is in the InDesign dropdown to the left of File. For PC users, it may be labeled as a Setting or Preferences dropdown, I’m not sure.
When you find it, select Preferences → Grids.
Set the following:
Color: I set mine to Charcoal. Just don’t choose blue (all element boxes are blue).
Relative to: Top Margin
Increment Every: [Chosen Font Spacing pts]
View Threshold: 75%
Save your settings.
Creating Paragraph Styles
Now, let’s create a Paragraph Style which will carry throughout the document.
Click inside your text box.
Look at the Toolbar running across the top of InDesign. You’ll see a dropdown menu which reads [Basic Paragraph]+.
Click the series of lines on the right of the dropdown. There are two stacked on top of eachother. You want the one where all the lines are matched up. This will line your text to the grid we created earlier.
Next, on the left side of the dropdown labeled [Basic Paragraph]+, click the Paragraph symbol.
Select New Paragraph Style.
Name your Paragraph Style (I named mine Chapter Text).
Set Based On to Basic Paragraph.
Now, your document is ready to begin layout. Let’s start with Chapter 1.
Laying Out Your Book.
Start with Chapter one. Determine how you want your chapter lead-ins to look. Grab a few books to flip through to get an idea of what other typesetters have done. Once you’ve made your choice, go to your Chapter 1 page and start laying it out.
I like to create separate text boxes for the Chapter Header and Chapter Text.
Feel free to get creative with your chapter heading, change it to a different font from your Chapter Text or leave it the same. It’s completely up to you!
After you’ve styled your Chapter Header the way you want it, select the text.
Go to the paragraph symbol next to the [Basic Paragraph]+ dropdown and create a new Paragraph Style for your Chapter Headers. You’ll be able to use this to style your Chapter Headers moving forward.
I usually start my chapter lead-in textbox about 5/8 to 1/2 down the page, and go to the edge of my margin.
Paste your Chapter 1 text in. All of it. You’ll notice, it won’t all fit. That’s okay. We will link text boxes across multiple pages.
Select All your text (ctrl+a).
Go to the Paragraph Style dropdown at the top and change [Basic Paragraph]+ to Chapter Text, if it doesn’t already say that. This will convert your text to the style we created earlier.
Next, at the bottom of your blue text box, you’ll see a red + symbol. Click it.
Then, click at the top of the margin on the next page (pink line). This will create another text box, carrying the hidden text over. Repeat until Chapter 1 is laid out.
Repeat the above steps for the remaining chapters of your book, until you reach the end.
The Finishing Touches
If you have extra pages after laying out your chapters, that’s great. You can easily delete them using the Pages tab on the right, and trash can symbol in the bottom corner of the tab. More likely, you’ve had to add pages. (And hopefully applied the B-Master style to them along the way). After laying out all your chapters, add the “closing” pages to your book: the acknowledgements page, glossary, etc. You can keep the B-Master styling or apply the blank A-Master styling, this is up to you.
Look at your page number count. In order for your book to print, it has to be divisible by 4. If you can’t evenly divide your book by 4, you must add a few pages to make this happen. You can fill these pages with individual thank yous, sponsors, or a glossary of terms for your novel.
Earlier, we created our page number styling on the B-Master page and left it at that. To get the numbering to work as it should, we must return to our Pages tab on the right side of the screen.
Select the first page of Chapter 1, and then all the corresponding pages until the very end (or when you would like to stop tracking page numbers).
Right click on the blue pages and deselect Allow Document Pages to Shuffle. This will remove your ability to move pages out of order. It also makes it a pain to add new pages randomly. But, why would you want to do that? At this point, you shouldn’t need to.
Select the first page of Chapter 1 again.
Right click. Select Numbering & Section Options.
Click Start Page Number at: and set it to 1.
Chapter 1 should now start on page 1, and the subsequent pages should follow.
Once you’ve completed your layout, you should print a copy of your book to review and markup. Use the directions below to submit a PDF for print. This helps you spot any issues you didn’t notice through the seemingly hundreds of rounds of edits you did before in Word. It’ll also help you spot any styling issues or errors you missed during typesetting.
You can have proofs of your book printed through your printer, or you can print the document in spreads on 11×17 pages from a local print shop. It will be costly, but worth it.
Time to Print
Once you’ve “proofed” your book and corrected any errors, export your book as a PDF from InDesign:
Click File → Export
Name your document.
Select Adobe PDF (print).
At the top, in Adobe PDF Presets, select High Quality.
On the General Tab make sure All pages are selected. Export as Pages (not spreads).
On the Marks and Bleeds tab, select Use Document Bleed Settings. Don’t worry about anything else. Most printers, unless you’re doing single sheets, don’t need crop marks for books.
You’re book is ready to send to your printer.
As far as your cover, I suggest hiring a designer if you can afford one. It’s relatively easy to find one that works with your budget using the internet. Covers can range between $50-$500 depending on the designer you choose. (I typically do them for $150). A professionally designed cover can add value to your book, make you seem more professional as a writer, and draw attention to your work. But, if you can’t afford a cover designer, most printers have templates you can use. I know KDP has a few. Just remember to stay inside the margins and input the correct total page count into the template generator.
Kaytalin Platt is an author and graphic designer living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Raised in Deer Park, Alabama, a rural town north of Mobile, Platt enjoyed spending time in the surrounding woods and working on the family farm. Growing up on a farm gave Platt a peculiar set of skills, which she enjoys using on the random chance their needed–especially if it involves welding.
Platt’s mother contributed heavily to her passion for writing. They would listen to instrumental music, film scores mostly, and she challenged Platt to write down what she imagined happening as the music played. Platt’s love of music and writing only grew, and she began work on her first full-length novel during college. She worked on the novel, writing and rewriting, for nearly a decade before submitting it for publication in 2016. The Living God, Platt’s debut novel, was published in May 2019.
Currently, Platt is working on the followup to The Living God, and experimenting with stories on Wattpad, a reading platform home to over 80 million users.
In the most recent episode of the Writing Bloc Podcast, hosts Becca Spence Dobias and Jacqui Castle speak with authors Tahani Nelson and Peter L. Harmon about their experience with the process of creating an audiobook!
We’ll go over the various routes for audiobook production available to indie authors, and discuss some experiences with each! Thanks for listening!
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Jackie Pulpit since we were in a writers’ group together many years ago. Since then, Jackie has found great success in independent publishing under other names. Questionable Morels is the first in the Naturalist Selection cozy mystery series, starring protagonist Fern Rivers. Fern must question everything she knows to be true after a mysterious death rocks her small metropark community.
I loved the book, so I wanted to ask Jackie a few questions about the upcoming release!
This is your cozy debut. How is this work different from other work you have written? Why did you choose to write a cozy?
Aside from switching perspectives from third to first person, not too much about the writing and creation process changed for me. Stepping away from fantasy and sci-fi was refreshing, and I enjoy writing situational dialogue in a present-day mystery. The biggest difference was having to detail the plot from top to bottom. I’m a bit of a pantser, in that I usually have a general idea of what my story is going to be so I can keep things loose and free to change if necessary along the way. Mysteries need to be solved—pun intended—on the outline before the main character can do it themselves.
I chose to write my cozy series because of two reasons. One being my love of PBS mysteries: who doesn’t enjoy watching the likes of Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes sniffing around for clues and solving complex murders in interesting settings? Two, because of a friend’s recommendation of the cozy genre. I’d never heard the term before that point. I researched it and fell in love.
Fern Rivers is a naturalist. What was your inspiration for this story world? How does the natural world inform your writing?
My wife is the inspiration for Fern Rivers. They are alike in so many ways that I think she’s a bit weirded out by it. Nature, in general, informs my writing. My series takes place in the fictional town of Duskview, where Lake Erie, lush green forests, and a small, sleepy town are prominently displayed. The Cleveland Metroparks and its Emerald Necklace are a treasure trove of beauty and inspiration, and I feel that the cozy genre is lacking a focus on such a splendid setting. Having a naturalist as the sleuth protagonist is also a blast to explore. It helps that I’ve also been around outdoor education for two decades.
Fern has to work two part-time jobs to make ends meet, plus live with her ex-boyfriend. I personally enjoyed the inherent conflict that this situation added to the main murder plot. I also loved the giddy nerdiness of Fern’s ex, Alexander. What do you think readers will like about this story?
Personally, I really hope readers will enjoy what I hope is a fresh take on this genre by exploring outdoor education and the strong female presence found in parks all around the world. I like to think that people will learn something about nature and the local wildlife of Northeast Ohio. I attempted what I hope is a unique approach to the recipes normally found in culinary cozies by providing original artwork of certain plants and wildlife mentioned in the novel. As for the nerdy ex-boyfriend, Alexander, I had so much fun writing him, and I intend to explore his character a lot more. In today’s society, I felt that having two Millennial ex-lovers living and working together made sense and had endless potential for conflict, growth, and hilarity.
What are your future plans for Fern? How will she grow (ha ha, see what I did there) in forthcoming stories?
I did see what you did there. 🙂 Fern’s character will indeed grow, and I plan on throwing some particularly tricky mysteries her way in the next couple books. I have three books in total planned as of right now, along with a prequel short story. I’m going to tackle a budding romance, explore the unusual relationship between her and her ex, dive into painful family memory, and continue to introduce people to the natural world.
When I first sat down to write this review, I pulled out my laptop. I know, I know. What was I thinking? But, habits are hard things to drop, which is why we all need a bit of help sometimes.
Luckily, I realized my mistake and quickly closed the laptop and grabbed the Freewrite. And that, my friends, is how I am writing this review. So, be prepared for a freeform, word-vomit salad of a review in the true spirit of the FreeWrite – a tool designed to help authors write without looking back.
I’m an author and freelance writer. I spend 4-6 hours a day writing. I also get distracted easily. I know this about myself, and yet I don’t always take the steps to optimize my writing time even when I know what those steps are. Close the tabs, don’t check social media, just get 1,000 words down without stopping to research when you get stuck. Just. Keep. Writing.
Enter the FreeWrite. The idea was instantly appealing, and I didn’t think long before I ordered one(thankfully for me, they have a payment plan). Since I received this marvelous little machine, I’ve found I can double or even triple my wordcounts during a writing session.
The FreeWrite is an electronic typewriter designed as a forward-momentum only, first draft writing beast. It’s not for editing. In fact, you can only make the minimal edits possible through pressing the backspace key. No highlighting, no cut and paste, no ‘let me just check one thing real quick’. Onward you must go. The small screen has enough room to display one to two paragraphs at a time so your mind is always kept in the present or future.
When you are ready to upload your unedited, free-form masterpiece, simply switch on the WiFi button and the content will sync to the cloud. This is where the Freewrite earns a big leg-up for me when compared to good old pen and notebook – no need to transcribe anything later.
Let’s see… what else do I like about it? Hey, I warned that you were getting a Freewrite-style review here. Though compact, it has a full, weighted keyboard that I find therapeutic to type on. The E-Ink screen backlight is optional, and so you can turn it off and can sit outside at a coffee shop or a picnic table and not worry about glare on your screen.
The entire thing is fairly light. I can fit it into my computer bag along with my laptop as long as I move a few things around. What else? Oh, there are multiple folders you can toggle through, allowing you to work on several projects at once if needed. Also, there are options for starting a timer, or tracking your word count if you are sprinting or are trying to achieve x number of words per a day(this would be a great tool for National Novel Writing Month).
The best part? When you find yourself distracted, when you otherwise would have started researching obscure facts from the 1940s or switched over to a social media tab for ‘just a minute,’ instead, you look up and take in your surroundings. You employ the far off gaze of a writer at work and you wait for the next spark of inspiration. Eh, what do I know? I’m mostly rambling. But, that’s the beauty of the Freewrite.
What can I say? I’m really enjoying it so far. But, I realize this wouldn’t be a balanced review without throwing in a few caveats. The keyboard could be a quieter. There is also a slight lag when typing quickly, so you will find yourself waiting a second for the words you just typed to appear on the screen. If either of those are deal breakers for you, then there you have it.
So, what are my final thoughts? I love my Freewrite, and the times that I remember to use it I am more productive, no question.
It is not for anything other than first drafts, so anyone who buys one thinking otherwise will be sorely disappointed. If you are a writer with excellent focus who can always keep their mind on the task at hand and who writes for hours a day with no thought of anything else, then congratulations, you win. Maybe it’s best to spend your money elsewhere.
So, in conclusion, if you find yourself craving a tool that allows you to type on a full keyboard, seamlessly send your work to your computer when you are ready for the editing phase, but otherwise devoid of other temptations and distractions then this might be the tool for you.
As a librarian, I am constantly thinking about book reviews. I use them to select books for my library’s collection, as well as to decide which titles to hand-sell to my patrons. I review for Booklist and read reviews critically. I see a review as a tool – something to help people make decisions about a book before reading it. And it’s cool to give back to the reading community by creating those tools after I’ve enjoyed a book.
In my writer-life, it’s different. Reviews of my own work make me cringe. I cannot open the Goodreads pages for anything I’ve written. Better to remain in la-la land.
Because here’s the thing – reviews are for readers.
And every reader will have a subjective opinion. Whether you’re indie-published, trad-published, or in some little hybrid land like I am, your reviews are not all going to be five stars. Even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the highest-rated book on Goodreads, has 4.62 stars.
In library terms, we call that 1. Every book its reader and 2. Every reader their book. These are two of S.R. Ranganathan’s five laws of librarianship. Some readers will resonate with your work, and others will loathe it. That truth cannot be avoided, and it means that as writers, we must become comfortable with reviews that we don’t like.
OK. Now that you’ve sat with it for a while, we can get back to the task and art of writing reviews of other people’s work.
Some writers will give the advice that you shouldn’t review other people’s work at all. That’s a perfectly valid choice, and it’s your boundary to set as a writer. For me, it’s not feasible. First, because I’m a librarian, and second, because I just can’t stop reading books. Seriously. It’s an addiction.
So I have some Very Particular Rules for how I review and blurb. I generally do not rate anything lower than four stars. I figure, if the book was worth my time to read and I enjoyed it, it’s worth four or five stars. If I am sent a book for Booklist that I cannot review under this criteria, I decline to review it. But, like the decision to review or not review, your star-code is yours to set. Readers vary widely over this – some readers will give one star even if they read the entire book! This is another reason why the stars are so subjective.
A few other general tips:
Don’t use the review as a platform.
Remember – the review is for readers. Now, if you have some connection to the book, you may certainly state that. But the reader is not interested in what you have to say about your own work. They are trying to figure out if the book is worth their time investment. Also, this is not the time to be using writerly jargon, being overly critical, or give feedback the way you would in a writer’s workshop. The book is published. That time is over.
Do comment on the very specific strengths of the book.
What sets this book apart? I like to think of myself as writing a query letter for someone else’s book every time I write a review. I’m helping the author sell the book by pointing out its strengths.
Do focus on the appeal factors.
If you are not familiar with appeal factors – brush up! We librarians use them to help match readers with books. These are the juicy characteristics of books which entice readers: plot, character, language, setting, and so forth. Here is a fabulous crash course which I use in my readers’ advisory classes for librarians (thanks, Molly At the Library!)
Do be mindful of the star rating.
“But, Cari, you just said the stars don’t matter!” Yes, I did. But the overall star rating will impact how readers receive your review. I’m not saying you should change anything based on it – stick to your star-code. Just know that the star rating is there and it’s part of the package.
Do acknowledge the author’s hard work.
A thoughtful review helps the author know that it was worth it for them to put that work out into the world. Help keep the good karma wheel spinning.