Monday, July 2, 2012

The Discovery, the Experience, the Result: The Art of Review

Writing Nonfiction Worthy of the Literary Magazine: The Review

Writing a review, of something (anything) is a great way to flex your muscles as a writer. Case in point, just look at all the blogs, columns and the various things being reviewed. There are reviews on restaurants, chefs; books, movies; products and services. Peoples are working on and writing reviews everywhere. And now, anyone can be a critic, a reviewer; a cynic or a reviler. Take a look at, for instance. Yelp is a wonderful way to connect (or in some cases, disconnect) businesses and potential customers. I find it astonishing how effective a site like Yelp can be. This is not about the food, the chef, the service or the otherwise Yelp-ing experience. The point is, it's everywhere, and it's available to everyone: anyone can review anything. And now, more than ever, it's important to write well.

When we talk about a review it can be anything, right? We can pick a product, compare it to other products and give it a good analysis. A review of a new leaf-blower or a new SUV has its place and that is not a good match for a literary magazine. Can we review a movie, a book or a new pop music album? These sorts of reviews are left best in the weekly or daily papers, and the good news is these sorts of venues generally pay. Again, not necessarily a good match for the literary magazine. I have noticed that many lit-mags will run a book review, but there are two things working under the surface. First, the book itself has a timely or influential reason for the review and second, the person reviewing the book is equally as influential or is an expert. The timeliness of a book review for a lit-mag may be tough since most publish quarterly or monthly. Few magazines run an on-going blog which may be an appropriate market.

The literary magazine is still a great audience for a review. At this stage, the writer of a review must get creative, and moreover, make the subject of the review something of importance. Here's the how-to list, I came up with:

Pick the topic: Knowing that a review on a single book, a single movie or a single recording will not do, the topic of the review must be picked carefully. As macabre as this may sound, choosing to write a review of the work of someone who has recently died may be good form. For instance, the recent death of Ray Bradbury warrants conversation, both on the page and around the water cooler. Revisiting some of your favorite Ray Bradbury books and reviewing them right now is probably a marketable review. Should you travel and see the homes of famous writers, this too might be a good topic. Pick something unique, unusual or fun.

Why is this pertinent?: This is the question of the hour. For instance, back in December of 2010, I went to the Clark County Museum of History. There was a wonderful Richard Brautigan installation complete with photographs, his early poetry and “the Brautigan Library Collection” which if you read The Abortion, you would know why it was so cool to see. But, and I'm just guessing here, you have not read the book, and you probably don't know Richard Brautigan. So, a review of the museum? A review of the writer? Probably not pertinent for a literary magazine. It made a great blog entry, but I would not have accepted this for Umbrella Factory Magazine, and I'm a big Brautigan fan. Is this subject pertinent? Ask yourself again: is this subject pertinent?

Is this timely?: If the subject is pertinent, is it timely? For instance if you write a great review of a book released in September and you start to submit the piece in October, it may not run in a magazine (if it gets accepted at all) until December. If it's not timely, then who cares? Books, reviews, products, everything moves fast.

Who is the audience?: Since this is a review for the literary magazine, remember the audience is mostly other writers. Other writers. Whatever the review, make it good, writers are tough. Before your review gets this audience of writers, it will have an audience of editors. Keep them in mind. Your review is not about you, it's about what you're reviewing.

What does the audience need to know?: If you choose a topic that's broad like the life and accomplishments of Ray Bradbury, you've lost already. If you choose Ray Bradbury's treatment of Venus in his short stories, then maybe you'll choose to mention that he died on the day Venus crossed the sun. Again, write this review with the audience in mind. No one likes to get lost in the details.

Is this review unique?: Ask yourself this question three hundred times. Rephrase the question and ask yourself again. Then take all those questions and ask the Internet. You'll find out quickly how unique your review is.

Good luck, and I mean it. The best way to write a good review is to first write 1,000 of them. Give the 1,001st review to the literary magazine and you'll be in a good position. So what do you do with the former 1,000 reviews? It may be a good time to start a blog.

Here are some sites I found useful:

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