Thursday, July 30, 2009

Book Review Workflow

You may think reviewing books is little better than an idle hobby. Actually, it's more like a craft. And now that I'm approaching the 1,000-review milestone, keeping the quality high is no easier than it ought to be. There are a lot of steps involved in shaping, polishing, and presenting each review.

First, and not to be sneezed at, is the step of choosing a book to read. Some of the choices may seem like a no-brainer; I'm following a series, so I read the next book in it. But really, I'm following so many series at the same time that it must take some skill to keep my mental thumb on the place where each of them left off. I am constantly on the lookout for the next paperback in a ludicrous number of series. I sometimes have to visit out-of-the-way places, on- and offline, to get hold of copies in good condition and at a decent price. As for selecting which books to read in what order? I really can't explain how I do this. I pretty much go where my mood takes me. I certainly have a lot of options on my to-do shelf, any time I need to change books.

Second, I read the book. There have been a few books I have started reading, paused to pick up something else, and had trouble getting back. Remarkably few, I hope. The rest of them absorb my attention during the hour or two each side of bedtime (depending on how naughty I allow myself to be). And during breaks at work. And in waiting rooms. On buses, airplanes. At airport terminals. During downtime at church and the symphony. Etc., etc., etc. I am not an especially fast reader as such. My productivity is boosted by my total lack of interest in TV and my deep, paralyzing horror of having nothing to do. I hardly go anywhere without a book.

There's a special spot on the corner of my desk where I let books stack up when I have finished reading them. When the stack is yea high - say, four to six books - I devote a free morning or evening to writing a review of each of them. Then I put the book on my "done" bookshelf, from which I periodically cull a boxful to sell at Dunaway Books, conveniently right up the street.

The writing itself is a lot of work. It would take me ages if I hadn't been practicing writing daily since childhood. Which is not to say that it's necessarily easy. It may look that way to an observer, but I make a special effort to say just so much about what happens in the book and no more; to offer up a personal evaluation of the work; to make it unique and readable and entertaining; and to give it an intelligent shape as a miniature essay. Some reviews come relatively easy. In other cases, it can be very hard to hit the right tone; I can end up scrapping most of my work and starting over. Generally speaking, writing a four- to six-paragraph review (give or take a few) on each of four to six books takes me two or three hours.

I typically write the initial review for this blog. Then, often, I browse the internet for links to add to my review. I most frequently include links for wiki articles, authors' webpages, and other reviews of mine. I have also been known to drop in links to fan websites, online bookstores, news items (most recently an author's obituary), information about film adaptations, and points of interest related to the topic of a book. Finally, I search for enough pictures to make sure that, as the reader scrolls down through my blog, there is always a picture on the screen. I sometimes search arthouse websites, but I find most of my images through Google.

After I publish the post, I then read through it once or twice. Partly this step is down to sheer vanity. But it has a practical use. I often find mistakes that I want to correct. For a literate, literary person, it's sometimes astonishing how many typos, misspellings, grammatical errors, and half-complete rewrites I leave hanging out the first time I publish a post. Especially when I'm tired. After a couple rereads, I am generally satisfied with my writing. I may also move the pictures around so that they are as evenly spaced as possible, without interfering with the flow of the text more than absolutely necessary.

And that's just the first of three times I publish each review. The second time will be on Shelfari, where I have a shelf of "books I have read" that more or less mirrors my reviews. I search for books I have read so that their images are displayed on my shelf. I rate them on a five-star system. I copy and paste the text of my review (losing the pictures, links, and most formatting in the process). Eventually, after irregular intervals, I will add subject tags to the books.

Last of all, I put each review on MuggleNet. This may seem a bit backwards, since most of my reviews started out on MuggleNet and only moved to my blog later. But I only recently acquired posting privileges at MuggleNet, and I've been in the habit of doing the actual writing on Blogger for over a year. It works nicely. Plus, there are a lot of steps involved in posting to MuggleNet. I have to copy new reviews into a text editor, add html tags. I then open an html file for one of my existing reviews, downloaded from MuggleNet, and do a "save as" to create a new filename. I use "cut" and "paste" to very quickly replace the text of the review, so that I only have to type a few words (title, author, age recommendation) in each html file. I update the index pages for the Book Trolley as well. With the systematic use of cut and paste, I can keep the amount of code that I actually have to type to a minimum. All this coding, for 4-6 reviews and the relevant indices, can be done in only a handful of minutes!

Then comes the FTP part. This is where I upload the new and revised pages to MuggleNet. Perhaps surprisingly, this takes longer than any other step since writing the reviews themselves. First I have to connect to the server. Then I have to wait several minutes for my FTP client to generate a directory of the main folder. Then it does the same thing for each subfolder until I reach the one I need to work in. The actual file transfer takes mere seconds. But before I can disconnect, I have to let it create one more directory. These long stretches where the computer says, "Working," in Majel Barrett's voice, can be very tedious unless I have other things to get done, such as cooking dinner, or shaving, showering, and getting dressed for work. Finally, there's a separate production admin site I have to visit so that I can leave a news bulletin about the new update where MuggleNet's casual visitors can spot it.

By the time all this is done, I've just about put in a full day's work. And do you know what I get paid for it? Diddly. I do it because I love to read, because I love to write, and because I love to share the books I love. I do it because, as in any craft, achieving excellence is the craftsman's reward. And I do it because I hope you enjoy the results. Please don't keep your enjoyment to yourself. Let me know what you think, even if only to argue with me. Leave a comment! Become a blog follower! Tell others about it! Maybe, with your encouragement, I'll collect enough courage to follow through on my plans to write and publish my own books.By the way, what do you think of this art work my Dad did for a potential self-supporting Book Trolley website? Whoa. If we go there, I'll have even MORE work to do...

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