Friday, October 3, 2014

Ethics of the Book Review

Back in January I asked my friend Nancy to consider reviewing The Fifth Season. She declined, and we began a months-long conversation about the ethics of the book review. 

I've read a number of reviews by friends or colleagues who I know have a relationship with the author they're reviewing. That's why I felt free to ask my friend Nancy to review my book.  Is this really unethical? My friend Nancy says yes, and the more I think and read about the issue, the more convinced I am that she's right and that it's best for book reviewers to have no more than a passing connection to the author.

What the submissions guidelines say:

Never review the work of a personal or ideological friend or enemy. If the work is by your college professor, a classmate, a close colleague, a family member, or if the work is one with which you are associated in any fashion, please do not review it for The Bloomsbury Review.

Rain Taxi is dedicated to publishing unbiased, objective reviews. If you have a connection with the author or press, please disclose it upon submission. Not all relationships constitute conflicts of interest, but we respectfully request your candor regarding any relationships. If you are friends with an author and would like to highlight their work, please feel free to email us and suggest a review, or consider pitching an interview instead.

Writers reviewing books written by personal friends (or enemies), or from a press they hope to submit their own work to, or that has published their work in the past (or has published works of their personal friends or enemies) see where this is going? We hope for good ethics in the review section. If you have some connection with a press or author, be sure to disclose that to us before you write a review for NewPages

Monday, September 22, 2014

Break into Book Review Writing

In my recent post on How to Pitch a Book Review, I said the first step is to choose a book and the second step is to choose a publication to write for. Where to start? Many book review publications assign reviews, which means they already have a stable of reviewers. The book editor decides who will review what, then shoots an email to a reviewer asking, “Hey, would you like to review this new title?”

But how to nose your way into the stable? First of all, if you’re interested in writing reviews, you darn well ought to be reading them. And the review publications you read may well become the publications you write for … eventually. If you want to write for the New York Review of Books, you’ll need to work your way up.

Here are some accessible book review markets with a good reputation. All of these will consider pitches and would be a great place to start.

Make sure to read the submissions guidelines carefully before crafting your pitch, and you should already have a good idea of what a good book review is (and isn’t). Here are some rules of thumb.

  • Don’t review books by friends or colleagues (I’ll talk about this more in my next post)
  • Quote from the book’s content not the flap copy (flap copy or sell copy is the descriptive text on the back of the book or on the bookseller’s website)
  • Cover the book’s strengths as well as weaknesses (a pan is no fun for anyone and only displays the reviewer’s superiority)
  • Be respectful, not condescending
  • Stick within your area of expertise (I won’t review fiction or poetry, for example)
  • Read the book you’re reviewing (duh, right?). Cover to cover
  • Write a review, not a report. Don’t just summarize the book’s content. Respond to style, structure, effect, and contribution to the larger cultural conversation on the subject of the book you’re reviewing.

Here are a handful of publications accepting pitches from reviewers. If they like your work, you’ll be added to their stable of reviewers, where you can receive assignments, write and publish reviews, and gather clips for future use when pitching reviews to new publications.

Can you suggest other publications where a writer might break in with a first book review? Please mention them in the comments section, and I'll add them to the post. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

How to Pitch a Book Review

I’ve written only three book reviews and have a fourth one assigned but not yet written: I'm a beginner. But already I've found that review writing is some of the most enjoyable work I’ve done, and I even get paid for it!

So how did I start? I found a book I wanted to review, a publication I wanted to write reviews for, and I wrote a pitch.

Find a book to review
After looking through new and forthcoming releases at Publisher’s Weekly, I selected one, printed out the description, and Internet-stalked the author (whose work I was lightly familiar with). Because of the subject matter and its connection to my own memoir, I did not read the book or even hold it in my hand before I pitched the review. For another title, I might want to read the book before pitching a review.  

Find a publication to write for
My friend Hannah writes for Books & Culture, and although I am a Christian writer, I have done very little to reach Christian readers. I like the magazine’s style and ethic; I had a connection. Those reasons were as good as any!

Write a book review pitch
I really had no idea what I was doing—but I’ve written successful query letters and book proposals, and I’ve written cover letters for job applications. So I drafted a pitch, revised and rewrote, sat on it for a couple of days, revised again, then clicked "send." I’ve printed my pitch below, along with my own observations “between the lines.”

Subject: Book Review Pitch: No Saints Around Here

Dear Mr. Wilson,

My friend Hannah Grieser shared your email address with me. I’m writing to inquire whether you have a reviewer for No Saints Around Here: A Caregiver's Days, by Susan Allen Toth (University of Minnesota Press, April 2014). If you have not yet assigned the book, I would love the opportunity to write and submit a review. 

Since I did have a connection, I thought I’d better use it. I linked the book title to the listing at Publisher’s Weekly. I put my request right up front rather than dilly dallying. Shoot straight. Tell the editor why you've made contact.

In the difficult months or years preceding death, the family caregiver—usually a woman—becomes enmeshed in what is too often a solo service. Dark thoughts arise for the caregiver and remain secreted away until someone like Toth unlocks her journal and says: here’s what it’s really like. Here are my awful thoughts. And here’s how it feels when it’s finally over and your husband is gone forever and all you feel is relief.

Toth’s memoir chronicles the last eighteen months of her husband’s life, when she cared for him through the final decline of Parkinson’s and dementia. This is no victorious memoir, but it’s piercing and honest and gives readers an opportunity to think through a season most of us pretend won’t come.

I wanted the editor to have an idea of the book’s content and why the subject matter would be compelling to his magazine’s readership. Mind you, I hadn’t read the book yet myself—these are elements I gathered mainly from reading sell copy and one blogger’s advance review I found online (though I do not think it’s generally a good idea to read reviews before you write yours).

I’m interested in Toth’s work because her emphasis appears to be on fulfilling her marriage vows and not on euthanasia or right to die. I was the primary caregiver for my mother-in-law for several years, and my own caregiving memoir released in September 2013 from Texas Tech University Press (The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law’s Memoir of Caregiving). I want to compare and contrast my experiences and Christian convictions with those of Toth, who teaches at Macalester College, an extremely secular and politically liberal institution. How does the world think of caregiving—and what can believers learn from and contribute to our larger culture in this area? These are issues I would explore in a review of No Saints Around Here.

My qualifications and my “angle.” As it turned out, Toth’s between-the-lines convictions about end-of-life issues did not differ from my own, so my review doesn’t do the comparison and contrast I might have anticipated. That’s fine. Before you sit down and write a piece, you don’t really know what will emerge. Your finished piece can differ a little from your pitch, and your editor won't mind. No problem.

My Middle East memoir, Through the Veil, was published by Canon Press in 2010 and was a finalist for the 2011 Oregon Book Award. My second book is The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law’s Memoir of Caregiving (Texas Tech University Press, 2013). My literary essays have been published in a number of secular literary journals and have received special mention in Best Spiritual Writing and Best American Essays. I’m new to review writing and have just one review forthcoming in “Book Look” from MissioNexus. I have included links to my blog and a couple of essays. Please let me know if you would like further writing samples.

I ended with my qualifications just to show I’ve got the chops. My clips were not book reviews because I didn’t have a way to link to the one review I’d written. There was no need to hide the fact that I have little review experience—but I did make sure to show the quality of my writing in the pitch itself.

I would be glad to answer any questions you might have, and I hope you’ll be interested in a review of No Saints Around Here.

Thank you,
Lisa Ohlen Harris

Writing Samples:

I had a return email from Mr. Wilson that same day, giving me a word count and a deadline, and it turns out that this pitch was the beginning of regular review writing assignments from Books & Culture. My review of Toth's memoir was published in July, and I've got another completed review coming out in November and an assignment for a third waiting on my writing desk. 

Want to try your hand at review writing? Go for it! Choose a book, a review publisher, and write your pitch! 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Portland Writers Workshop: Presenting Your Writing to Publishers and Artist Residencies

Look at this! Artsmith Director Jill McCabe Johnson, along with book publicist John Sibley Williams, will be presenting a Portland workshop!

 The Art of the Pitch: Presenting Your Writing to Publishers and Artist Residencies
When: Sunday, November 30, 2014 @ 2-4pm
Where: Daedalus Books
2074 NW Flanders Street, Portland, OR 97209

COST: $50 at door/$40 in advance

Award-winning poets and editors Jill McCabe Johnson and John Sibley Williams will guide you through an interactive two-part workshop that provides both hands-on experience and conceptual strategies to help you succeed in finding and pitching your work to the book publishers and artist residencies that match your vision and aesthetics.
In the residency portion, participants will:
 Learn what reviewers look for in residency applications
 See examples of successful applications
 Gain tips and practical advice for crafting a compelling application package
 Find out how to target residencies that are a good fit for your work
 Draft the “story” of your creative work for application purposes

In the book publisher portion, participants will:
 Learn how to craft comprehensive publisher pitches
 Find out how to tailor your approach to specific publishers
 See examples of successful cover letters, marketing plans, and CVs
• Discover how to research which publishers best suit your work and goals

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How to Apply to an Artist Residency

I asked Artsmith’s Executive Director, Jill McCabe Johnson, what Artsmith looks for in residency applications. Jill doesn’t make the selections for the Artsmith residency herself, by the way—a rotating panel of poets, prose writers, and artists make those decisions each year. Jill’s sense is that the writing sample (or portfolio) is by far the most important element of the application package. Her advice to potential residency applicants (for any artist residency) is this: be absolutely honest.

Applicants who write what they think judges want are missing out on the benefit of creating an artist statement or statement of intent. It's a contemplative, reflective exercise—a chance to deeply assess where they are with their craft. The most exciting work is often in a strange, hard to describe state, right at the edge of exploration and sometimes obsession. It's a vulnerable, risky place, and it can feel even more vulnerable and risky to talk about it. Instead, artists might feel safer talking about some past project. However, applicants whose work has them practically humming with electrical current sound as though they're working in a field of charged air. I believe reviewers sense that risky, vulnerable, charged moment in the work and are drawn to its illuminating potential. I also like to believe, that when artists are honest with themselves rather than writing what they think others want to hear, they gain something by examining their work, and therefore validating its importance.

Hearing Jill’s advice encourages me because the one time I did take a risk in an application, I wondered if I had made a mistake by sounding like I didn’t know for sure where my writing was headed. I don’t think my Artsmith application was all that risky, but here’s what my cover letter and very brief Statement of Intent looked like. Note: this is not a typical Artist Statement, but a variation on the Artist Statement in compliance with Artsmith’s application requirements. 

Dear Artsmith Peer Review Panel,

After living away from the Pacific Northwest for twenty years, I returned to Oregon four years ago and found my writing transformed by the strong physical and emotional connection I feel to this region. My essay structure is characterized by intuitive leaps and my style is often lyric, relying on image and reflection, and on implication more than explanation.

Note: This residency is located in the Pacific Northwest and I knew I would benefit from “writing in place,” and this was something I wanted the judges to know. If you have a strong connection to the region where your desired residency is located, be sure to reveal that in your application—but don’t be a brownnoser! When I applied (and was awarded) a residency at the Collegeville Institute in flatland, Minnesota, where mosquitos grow as big as your head, I didn’t invent something about my sense of a place I’d never been. For that application, I focused on my work and what I thought I could bring to the community in residence alongside me.

My work has been published in The Gettysburg Review, Arts & Letters, River Teeth, and elsewhere. My second memoir just released from Texas Tech University Press.

Note: This is just the requisite list of publishing credits (if you have them). As an editor, as a reader, and as a writer, I have a strong preference for a brief listing of credits. If a writer fills an entire paragraph with all her publication credits, I always feel like I’m listening to a pompous windbag. But if a writer lists three impressive credits, I will naturally assume that the humble writer has many more credits with similarly impressive publications. And the editors and judges will most assuredly Google your name and learn more. Toot your own horn, to be sure, but choose the sweetest, clearest notes. Three of them.

In a residency setting, I look forward to extended time alone to immerse myself in writing, but I also look forward to fellowship with other artists. I’m an extrovert, but I’m primarily a listener, asking questions to draw others out. I am always interested to hear about the writing projects, intentions, struggles, and successes of fellow artists.

Note: This is, I think, my own innovation in a residency application. I’m a listener, a mentor, writing coach, and editor, and when I’m placed in a residency setting my skill set comes with me. Again, this isn’t something to plug into your application if your dearest desire for the residency time is absolute solitude. But if you’re a listener, like I am, I don’t think it hurts to you let the selection committee know this. Most residencies offer creative time during the day and fellowship during the evening. Is there something unique you will bring to your fellow residents? Consider mentioning it somewhere in your application.


Lynn Otto
Lynn has known me since I moved to Newberg, Oregon, four and a half years ago. We have been in a writing group together since 2010, and Lynn and I meet at local coffeehouse each Thursday to spend the afternoon writing.

Nancy Nordenson
Nancy is a longtime online writing friend (since 2007), and she was my roommate at the Collegeville Institute residency last summer.

My spring semester teaching commitment does not begin until January 13, so I am available to attend the entire Artsmith Artist Residency January 3 – 10, 2014.

Note: Artsmith asks applicants to provide contact information for two recommenders. Here's where I innovated a little by including a brief "bio" for each recommender (and what she knows of me as a member of a writing community). I could have selected faculty members from my MFA as my recommenders. I could have selected my publisher or an employer—but I thought I should list people who know not only my writing but what I bring to the writing community. So I listed two fellow writers who have seen me “in action” in a writing community and who know how I balance respect for writing time with socializing—elements of balance that are important in a residency community.

Thank you,

Lisa Ohlen Harris

Simple sign off—and if there hasn’t been another field provided for your full contact information, be sure to include it under your name (address, phone number, email).

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Artsmith Residency: January 4 - 11, 2015

As you re-establish your writing schedule this fall and start sending work out to editors (or to your critique group), make sure you’re also applying for residencies and fellowships. My home state of Oregon offers cash writing fellowships to poets, writers, and publishers who are Oregon residents, and many states have similar provision for the arts. Do you know what’s available in your state? Find out and start to apply! Get these application deadlines on your calendar and make applying for them part of your writing life. I applied for an Oregon Literary Fellowship the year I moved back to Oregon (2009) and I still apply every year. I haven’t won yet, but I've promised myself I'll keep applying. Why not? It costs me a stamp or two, and it’s good practice. Also, one of these years, I just might win.

My favorite reading spot at Kangaroo House
You should also be applying for writing residencies, which are essentially (more or less) paid retreats for the purpose of reading, writing, and fellowshipping with other artists and writers. I applied for an Artsmith Artist Residency Fellowship (in Washington State) in 2012 and was turned down. But I promised myself I would try again. I’m so glad I did! The second year I applied, I was accepted, and in January of this past year I left my kids and husband a chore chart and headed north past Portland, past Seattle, to the San Juan Islands. 

Transportation is not included in this residency, so if you’re selected you’ll have to get yourself to the San Juan islands by plane, boat, or minivan (my middle-aged-mom vehicle of choice). The sun set while I was on the ferry from Anacortes, so I arrived at the residency after dark (which isn’t all that late when you’re as far north as the San Juan Islands in January) and clunked my suitcase up the wide porch steps of the Kangaroo House Bed and Breakfast, a twenties era two-storey home with lots of space for poets and writers and artists to sprawl around with laptops and books and sketchpads.

Each resident has a private bedroom/bathroom. A seriously gourmet supper is provided each evening, and for breakfast and dinner you’ll have access to a fridge and microwave to fix your own fare. Oh, and there’s a self-refilling bowl of chocolates on the coffee table by the fireplace. Amazing.

Jill and Charles, owners of Kangaroo House and sponsors of the residency, have a special sense for when to say hello and chat, and when to keep quiet and let you be. Along with two poets and a fiction writer, I wrote and read my days away in front of the cozy fireplace at Kangaroo House. The one artist among us had a cabin on the beach where he sketched and painted by day, joining us in the evening for a delicious shared meal and later, wine and artsy talk around the fireplace. The residency is scheduled perfectly for academics, during the last week of winter break.

My residency pals: Tim Burton, Theresa Dowell Blackinton, Simone Muench, Cynthia Neeley, and the wonderful Jill McCabe Johnson (Charles is behind the camera)
Applications are due September 30, and the application packet includes a “statement of intent,” which I took to be a version of the commonly requested Artist Statement. I’ll post my own application letter to Artsmith here tomorrow—the one from the year I was accepted! 

The application fee for the Artsmith Residency is $35 and the deadline is September 30.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Prose Writer Attempts Poetry

A few weeks ago I was part of a William Stafford anniversary reading at Linfield College. Here I am reading some excellent poetry by William Stafford, followed by my own attempt at free verse.