Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Friday, March 28, 2008

Build a Better Book

Today is my birthday, but you get the present! Right here, right now, the one-and-only Jennie Hansen has written a blog about what she looks for in a book to include in one of her insightful reviews for Meridian. If there is anybody in our market who is better-read or more dedicated to the cause, I haven't met them. Jennie does as much for LDS fiction in one review as some of us accomplish in our whole careers. This is an inside look at how she goes about it.

Reviewing LDS Books
by Jennie Hansen

I’m a critic. And I mean that in the nicest way. I’m not the sort of critic that enjoys pointing out faults and flaws. I’ve been accused of being hurtful, but that’s never my intent. What I aim for is improving LDS fiction. I believe in LDS fiction and want to see it get better and better. My way of doing that is by pointing out where improvements could be made---and applauding what authors get right. It is also my goal to educate readers to what is available in this fast growing field and encourage them to try new authors, inform them when an old favorite has a new release, and generally serve as a cheerleader for LDS fiction.

Most writers want and dread having their books reviewed. I’m one of the lucky ones who get to do the reviewing. One of the questions frequently asked of me is what I look for in books I review. I also get asked by authors how they can get their books reviewed in Meridian. Others wonder what good is a review. I’ll try to answer those questions.

I’ll start with the last question. Review columns such as mine serve a dual purpose 1) to inform potential readers of new books that are available and help them decide which books to spend their money on and 2) to improve the quality of books offered to the public by informing writers of those areas that need work and which areas they got right.

Most of the books I review are sent to me by the various publishers, though occasionally I receive a book directly from an author, especially if it is self-published or published by a publisher who doesn’t ordinarily publish LDS fiction. I review only LDS fiction—that is fiction that is written by an LDS author and/or has LDS elements. I try to read everything I receive, but that isn’t always possible. And I’ll admit I don’t finish every book I start.

When I first began reviewing, I only reviewed books I liked. Even a bad review is publicity and I was squeamish about giving free advertising to books I couldn’t honestly recommend. Now, because my readers have requested it, I review the majority of the books I receive whether I like them or not. My reviews are shorter and sometimes less kind, but I can honestly say most of the books sent to me by LDS publishers have merit though, of course, some are better than others.

The first thing I look for in a book is whether or not it stands out from the crowd. I want books that catch my attention right from the start and hold it. A great cover is a good start, but I’m more interested in the actual words that start the story and whether or not the book starts where the real story starts.

I’ve heard it said there are only about sixteen basic story plots. Off hand I can’t name them, but I do appreciate a fresh approach to tried and true themes and it’s a delight when an author chooses a topic that hasn’t been done to death. Often I receive several books with the same basic storyline. They may all be good, but I’m going to review the one that has a different or new way of viewing the theme. Sometimes when faced with two comparable books, I’ll choose the one by the author who is new to the genre. I’ll admit there are a few authors who write so well I would like to review every book he/she writes, but if time or space is limited, I will most likely give the established writer a pass unless the work is unusual or outstanding for that author.

I look for good writing. I prefer books that have been thoroughly scanned by a good copyeditor, but there’s more involved than proper grammar and freedom from typos. A good writer doesn’t keep me guessing from whose point of view a scene is being viewed and he/she doesn’t arbitrarily switch points of view in the middle of a scene. Too many points of view create cluttered writing. Childish sentence structure will lose me, as will pompous over-blown sentences and paragraphs. The same rules that govern excellent writing in the general market hold true for LDS novels. Also the premise or theme of the book must be weighty enough to carry through the entire book.

Since I review LDS fiction there must be a connection to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for books to qualify for my review column. That connection may be as slight as the author being a member of the Church and that the book follows standards that are commonly acceptable to members of the Church. The books do not have to be products of an LDS publisher, but most are. I don’t review books that present the Church in a negative light or ones that take a stand in opposition to Church policies or tenets. I prefer books that simply tell a story set in the context of the LDS culture, rather than those that preach or attempt to convert.

Character development is important to a story and I look for characters I can feel are real and I want to like the protagonist. I want to see characters that grow or are somehow changed by the events in the book. I like plots that have a beginning, a middle, and an end with twists and turns that hold my attention. The setting isn’t as important to me as character and plot, but it still plays an important role and it helps if the author gets details of the background right. (There’s no Angel Moroni on the Manti temple, potatoes aren’t dug in May, and reins aren’t used to drive oxen.)

Every reviewer has a few personal idiosyncrasies and strong likes and dislikes. We’re human and we each set the criteria by which we judge a novel to be strong or weak by varying standards. Some of my particular dislikes are stories based on misunderstandings that could be resolved in five minutes of honest dialog between the characters. I don’t like unrealistic behavior from supposedly mature adults, helpless females that have to be rescued by a man or a miracle, or going beyond an acceptable level of literary license when dealing with historical or scriptural characters. I’m very picky about speculative fiction and “near” history as well. I enjoy both well-written genre and literary fiction, though I’m not a fan of extremely esoteric literary works.

When I first began reviewing it was difficult to get an LDS novel reviewed. The few reviews that appeared in papers or magazines were generally scornful of those early books. The magazine I work for, Meridian at and the AML group, were pioneers in this endeavor. Now there are many sources of reviews of LDS novels. Many online reviewers have sprung up and some of them are excellent. I believe all of these reviews are playing a role in making LDs fiction more satisfying to read.

Besides being a faithful reviewer of others' work, Jennie is a best-selling author of many, many novels in a variety of genres, and was recently awarded the Whitney Lifetime Achievement Award for her varied accomplishments. You can visit her website HERE.


At 3/28/2008 2:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done Jennie!

David Woolley

At 3/28/2008 2:43 PM, Blogger Marcia Mickelson said...

Wow. Thanks Jennie and Kerry for brining us that great post. It's nice to know what you're looking for, Jennie, and to get an insider's perspective on reviews. I think you're very fair in your reviews and I love reading them. And, it's nice to know you're on the lookout for newer authors.

At 3/28/2008 7:29 PM, Blogger Marta O. Smith said...

Happy Birthday, Kerry!

And Jennie, thanks for the information, and for all you do for the world of LDS fiction.

BTW, I just read The Amethyst, and I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

At 3/28/2008 10:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, so i am just this poor reader who really has no interest in blogs but am going completly mad beacuse there are no new books out at the moment that i haven't read! Sorry about that, but do you have any idea what is like to be the type of person who reads books like David Copperfield in one day. I go through books so fast that the evil publishers (evil because they delay publishing) can't keep up. I was wondering what new books you guys will be coming out with soon and maybe an idea of how long I am going to have to wait. Thank you for your time. I know that my venting to you about my frustration is kind of silly, but it's kind of hard when everyone looks at you funny when you read as much as I do.
P.S. I have read ALL of your books Jenny (they are all also signed as i used to work at Seagull). You are a wonderful writer and I love it when you review a book. It's nice to have the oppinoin of someone I know.

At 3/29/2008 1:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Kerry and thanks so much for the insights, Jennie. :)

Julie Bellon

At 3/29/2008 1:20 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Great overview, Jennie--it's like a synopsis of writing class. Thanks for all you do for the cause of LDS literature.

At 3/29/2008 6:39 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

Thanks for this, Jennie, and happy birthday, Kerry!

At 3/29/2008 6:48 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Fascinating blog, Jennie. Thank you!

Anon, I just had a new suspense novel come out this month, called Fool Me Twice. Kerry just released a book of essays called Counting Blessings. Julie has a new book coming out in July, called All's Fair. Jeff has the first book in his Farworld series coming out in September. I know Sariah has a new book coming out sometime this year, the story of Ammon, but I don't know title or month.

That's awesome that you read so much!


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