Friday, June 14, 2013

My Selection Process, A Pal Pronouncement, from Pete Barber

One of the opportunities open to a Pal who has written a number of reviews is the equivalent of an author guest post. I reminded those who were eligible about this a few weeks ago and Pete decided to grab the opportunity. Then I had to figure out what to call them since a Pal isn't really a guest, "guest post" was the wrong term. I quickly focused in on words that started with a 'P' because everyone loves alliteration. After considering and deciding against several possibilities (Pal Peeps didn't sound strong enough and Pal Propositions sounded dirty), I settled on "Pal Pronouncement." 

In our first Pal Pronouncement, Pete gives some insight into his process of choosing books from those submitted for possible review. I hasten to add that my process as well as that for each of the other Pals are different from Pete's and also different from each other. Each Pal has access to the same database of submitted books, but how they choose from that list is up to them.

I think this process should be of interest to our readers and I'm sure that authors hoping for a review will get something out of it as well.

Last night, as I discarded the twenty-eighth Amazon book sample in a row chosen from Big Al’s list of submitted works, I despaired of ever finding another story I could commit to reading.

“Why is it so hard?” I mumbled.

“Go to sleep,” my wife grunted.

So I laid down my Kindle and turned off the light, but sleep didn’t come. Instead, my question churned and bounced, “Why am I struggling to find a book I want to read?”

And an odd thought occurred to me. Like every wanna-be novelist, I cringe at the hurdles the traditional publishing world places between me and my potential reading audience: A 250-word query letter, or if I’m lucky, the first five or ten double-spaced pages of my story will be read. And based on that tiny sample, a masterpiece of modern literature will probably be discarded like a piece of trash. Never mind that I spent twelve months writing and rewriting my opus. And don’t even think of sending in a genre that the agent or publisher isn’t looking for—gasp, horror!

Well, what goes around comes around. As a reviewer for Books & Pals, I’m faced with a ‘slush pile’ of fifteen hundred titles. I’m the one who has to choose which of these works of art I’m willing to commit eight or ten hours to. And wadda-ya-know I’m using many of the same criteria the dreaded, unfeeling, mean agents use.

Al tells me about one in four of the books submitted to the site get read and reviewed. Authors who’ve read some of my reviews might wonder if they even want to be picked! So, if you do, or equally, if you don’t, here’s my current selection process.

I maintain Al’s to-be-read -list in a spreadsheet in ascending submission date sequence. So the oldest titles get the first crack of the whip. That only seems fair. I select by genre. My genre tastes are varied, but there are some I won’t read:

Religious fiction—I think it’s a ridiculous categorydo only religious people read religious fiction? I mean, do I have to be a hobbit to read Lord of The Rings?

YA or children’s booksI’m grown up now, and my grandkids don’t live close enough for me to pick books for them (they probably wouldn’t listen anyway). I don’t understand young people enough to judge the language level or story arc acceptable to young adults (although I do find them useful for programming phones and TV remotes).

Horror—I’m chicken, and I read at night, but mostly because I’m chicken.

Time travel—it hurts my brain to work out what can and can’t happen, and for some reason I can’t suspend disbelief over traveling back and forward in time. Quite an oddity when you consider the many less feasible ideas I have no problem with, but, heh, we’re all different.

Short Story Collections—Shorts are a different animal from novels, with different constructs. I don’t intend to write shorts, and one of my objectives in reading and reviewing other authors is to learn and improve my craft.  That’s right, you heard me, I’m self-serving.

These criteria are personal choices, but they help to narrow the field. Once I have a candidate, I copy and paste the title and author into the Amazon search field and click.

I read the blurb. If there’s a grammatical error, or typo, or multiple adverbs, I go back to the list. Staggering, but this is not an uncommon occurrence.

If the author has managed a grammatically correct blurb, I check the word count. I don’t attempt anything over 100,000 words. Really? Come on. Once you’re an established author like, say, Mr. King, feel free to slap as many words down as you wish, but as a newbie don’t spare that red pen. I may miss a few gems, but I’d warrant not many (and I save hours).

If the blurb sounds interesting, I eyeball the review count and star-spread (on the Amazon bar-chart). If the book has some three or  two-star reviews, I’ll click on one or two, not to see if they liked the tale, but to see if the reviewer found some of my red flags and saved me time (more on this later). If not, I’ll download the sample and return to the list, repeating the process until I have six or seven candidates.

So, later that evening, tucked up in bed, I open my samples and, well, sample the stories. Here are a few of my red flags:

If the first few sentences have poor grammar, typos, repeating words, or multiple adverbs, I pick the next title. If the writer hasn’t combed through those first few sentences, there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that he or she has taken care throughout the book. No excuses. There’s free software out there to show you repeating words if you can’t see them yourself, and they grate on me. And before you start whining, I’m no adverb-Nazi, but five or six in a chapter, please, not five or six in the first page—there are many vivid verbs available.

Something else that grates is a prologue. I’ll read it, but it doesn’t put the book in a good light for me. Why can’t you merge that essential backstory within the tale? Too difficult for ya? Rather have the reader do the work?

Beyond the first paragraph, I want to be immersed in the action as soon as possible. Two or three pages of narrative will have me glazing over. The characters are what it’s all about. I need to empathize and root for them, not the weather, or the scenery, or the history of the town/family/creatures of the forest. Save me from recollections of how the MC got to where I find him or her. At this stage, I don’t care enough about them to wonder. I love a first chapter that shows me the action, soaks me in the MC’s experiences and makes me wonder what’ll happen to him or her.

And for Pete’s sake (yes me!) read the dialogue out loud. People speak in spurts not in long multi-sentence diatribes.

That’s not all of it, but it’s a big part.

And, believe it or not—I love to read a good book.

Pete Barber, aka-The Grinch.


?wazithinkin said...

Thanks for sharing your process, Pete. Mine is not quite as refined as yours is. I pick books for many different reasons; the biggest factor is most likely my mood. I have no real system. The title alone has to grab me then I look at the book cover. I know, I know, we shouldn't judge a book by its cover but I am a visual person and the cover does set a tone with me.

Allie said...

What a great post!!! It was well thought out, funny, and most importantly, entertaining and informative!!! Bravo, Pete!

Walter Knight said...

Reading should be fun.

Karen Wojcik Berner said...

Thanks for the insight, Pete.

Rebecca Forster said...

Pete, Great post. Will pass it on. So appreciate the effort you and all the pals put in.

Vicki said...

Entertaining post, Pete. I have to confess I use the same sort of criteria with my own reading choices, getting quite ruthless in the process. And I'm not a reviewer. :)