How To Write A Book Review And Entering Club Competitions – 15 September 2021

Ayr Writers got two for the price of one on Wednesday with workshops from Nigel Ward and Fiona Atchison. They were both so informative, I ended up taking twelve pages of notes, but I’ll try and convey their main points here.

Vice-President and Treasurer Nigel Ward has had many successes with book reviews, winning both the Ayr Writers’ Club and Scottish Association of Writers trophies in this category on more than one occasion. He started the night by reading one of his recent prize-winning reviews of Jim Crumley’s The Nature of Spring, to give us a flavour of what adjudicators are looking for.

Nigel then outlined the main points to cover in a 350 – 500 word book review.

The book – why did you choose it to review? Have you read it recently? You might want to read it twice, or at least skim it again, with some post-its handy.

Author – Who are they? Do some digging and you might find an interesting angle. What else have they published? Similar titles or different? Is the author’s viewpoint explicit or implied? Especially for non-fiction, what expertise do they have?

Reviewer – Give a glimpse of yourself and your own experience of the subject. But don’t make it all about you or become self-indulgent.

Readership – Is it middle-grade, YA, adult? Genre? Literary novel or beach read? For non-fiction, is it academic or for a layperson? Is it preaching to the converted or will the reader be challenged?

Content – Avoid providing a blurb. No spoilers or plot twists. Be careful of how much information you give. What are the themes? These might inform your review itself; if it’s a lighthearted book, you might write in a lighthearted style. Consider the plotting, pace, setting, characters, dialogue, style and tone. Should you include a content warning if the book is likely to cause offence or distress?

For non-fiction, how does it relate to other titles on the market? Is it unique or does it provide new information? Is the evidence presented convincing or has anything been left out? How is the presentation and layout? Are there photos, an index, content page or foot notes? Are these clear or confusing?

Come to a conclusion. Give your opinion but make sure you distinguish what is your opinion and what is the author’s.

Critique – Nothing is perfect, so don’t shy away from the book’s shortcomings. You don’t need to be heavy-handed in the criticism if you don’t feel it’s warranted, but make sure you are balanced.

Final points – If you want to write reviews, you need to read reviews. Don’t review the book you wish had been written, review the book that has been written. As always, show, don’t tell. Allow the review to flow. Grab your reader at the start and end powerfully.

“Boring” stuff – Make sure you have the following at the top of your book review. This doesn’t count towards your word count.

  • Author (or editor)
  • Full title
  • Publisher
  • Date of publication of the edition you’re reviewing
  • ISBN
  • Price
  • Format
  • Pagination

And finally, edit, check, edit again, check again (repeat as necessary).

After the break, Competition Secretary Fiona Atchison inspired us to enter all 11 competitions on offer from AWC this year.

Why enter competitions? In Fiona’s words, you develop your writing by getting feedback from the adjudicators. It gives you a deadline to work to and a theme to inspire you, not to mention an opportunity to try new things. You might have an unexpected talent. Think you only write poetry? Why not give drama a go? All entries are judged anonymously so it makes no difference if you’ve been in the club for a week or ten years.

You could even win a prize!

First place – £15 book token and trophy

Second place – £12 book token

Third place – £8 book token

Everyone who is placed, including Commended and Highly Commended, also receives a certificate.

Fiona then gave us all the information we need to format a manuscript and enter competitions. She has posted these notes on the Google group.

Some last advice from Fiona. Be consistent. Use words for one to ten, then numerals for 11 onwards. If you have a long name, like the World Health Organisation, write it once then use the acronym WHO. Spellcheck. Proofread. Read it aloud. Ask someone else to read it. Avoid repetitive words and phrases.

Remember, your first draft is not your last draft. Edit!

The evening ended with some of our members talking about what entering club competitions have meant to them. We said how valuable the feedback has been, how our confidence has increased and that everyone should give it a go. They also gave examples of what they have achieved.

Gail McPartland’s book Code 998 Prisoner is still available on Amazon. Greta Yorke has self-published Witch Hitch and the Tartan Witch books. Maggie Bolton has published with other members as LiterEight, as well as self-publishing her own books like The Cow Who Ate Farm Haggerty’s Underpants. Helena Sheridan has been published in women’s magazines and won a competition adjudicated by Ian Rankin. Linda Brown recently gave a talk to a History Writers group about her ancestor Hugh Wilson, a famous footballer in his day. Carolyn O’Hara has been published in The Highlander magazine and released her book Oculeus; The Musings of a Liberal Victorian in Ayr last year. I reminded everyone that the club competitions are a safe space to fail. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain from entering them.

The book review is due on 29th September, so get writing and good luck!

P.S. Some people were asking about how to avoid having a page number on your cover page. I don’t create a cover page, I just use a page break (press control and return), fill out the covering information needed on the first page then follow these instructions –https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/start-page-numbering-later-in-your-document-c73e3d55-d722-4bd0-886e-0b0bd0eb3f02

Kirsty Hammond

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