On Crafting a Bona Fide Book Review

Way back last October, I was contacted by the co-editor of Literary Mama, a prestigious e-zine comprised of articles, columns, interviews, and the like by real writers.  I was being invited to write a review of George Estreich’s The Shape of the Eye.  The invitation came as quite a shock – how did they land on little ol’ me?  As it turned out, the assignment had originally been offered to Jennifer Graf-Groneberg, author of Roadmap to Holland and a regular contributor at Literary Mama; Jennifer was unable to accept the invitation, however, and she personally recommended me for the job.

To say I was flattered would be a gross understatement.  I was elated!  Jennifer is one of my heroes – not only because she wrote a book that meant so much to me in the early weeks and months after Finn was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome, but also because she’s just a really neat person.  And I know this, because, despite being a successful, published, big-shot writer, she’s very approachable and down to earth.  I contacted her via email when I finished Roadmap to Holland just to tell her how much her memoir meant to me, and she was very responsive, and we continued to communicate from time to time thereafter – she even let Kevin interview her for an assignment he had at school.

Anyway, so she recommended me to write a review of The Shape of the Eye.  This was perfect luck, because I had already read the book and loved it – and I had already written a heartfelt review of it on my book blog, as well as did an interview with George Estreich in an effort to promote his book (it boggles my mind how some of the fluff that’s out there can hit it so much bigger than real gems like this; I have no doubt, though, that it all boils down to promotion, and not quality or talent).  The editor from Literary Mama wanted much more than what I had written in my book blog review, however; this was going to require me to stretch my writing muscles in ways I had never stretched them before.

I write lots of book reviews on my blog.  It’s really kind of a hobby: I love to read, and I love to write; I love to record my thoughts about the books I read, and I like to hear what other people think.  The stuff I write on my book blog fulfills those needs and wants of mine, and I do it for me on my own terms, not really expecting my reviews to have much influence anywhere.

Writing a book review for Literary Mama, however, is something to be taken seriously.  Literary Mama caters specifically to the reader and the writer, and a book review on LM has potential pull in the literary community.  Additionally, all contributions to LM reflect LM’s standards.  This would be the very first time I would write something that would go through an editing process.

I was told back in October that LM wanted the review for their Father’s Day issue in June, and they wanted a first draft by some time in May.  Back then, it seemed ages in the future – I had all the time in the world.  But, as often happens, before I knew it, it was already April, I had to start thinking about writing an in-depth review of this book.

The first thing I needed to do was re-read The Shape of the Eye.  I loved it just as much the second time around as I did the first.  This time, though, I went through it with a yellow marker, highlighting passages that were quotable, that illustrated certain important points, or that could be used as jumping-off points for discussion of certain issues.  This required reading with a much closer eye to detail than when I read it the first time purely for my own benefit.

When I finished re-reading it, I had a book full of highlighted passages and pages marked with Post-it notes.  I felt very intimidated about actually sitting down to write the review.  Where would I even start?  This couldn’t be just an opinion piece like I am used to writing.  This had to have substance and harmony, meat and balance.  In the end, I just sat down one afternoon and started typing, thumbing through tabbed and highlighted portions of the book, and I didn’t stop until I had written a complete first draft.  It was about three and a half pages long, single-spaced – a much more substantial review than I had ever written before.  I was actually pretty happy with it.

I had Michael read it, as well as a couple of friends whose writing I admire, and they all suggested a few minor alterations.  Then I submitted it to the editor of LM.  And I waited.

And waited.

A week or so went by and I didn’t hear anything, so I started thinking, “Wow, I guess I nailed it on my first try!”

And then I heard back from the editor.  She sent me the first draft back, marked up with various comments.  All in all, she seemed to be pleased with my first draft, but wanted more.  More!?  Ack.  Now I really felt intimidated.  She wanted more of my story with Finn, and how it tied into my feelings about the book.  Why was this book so special to me as opposed to other memoirs I had read about raising a child with Down syndrome?  She wanted more depth and detail about various other points I had made, as well.

Over the next two or three weeks, so the process of evolution went.  She would ask for this or that change (usually it was a case of wanting more), and I would sit down with my trusty laptop and dig a little deeper, and then send her the latest revisions.  Finally, a week ago, I got a note back from her saying that it had been submitted to the senior editors, and they were pleased with it but wanted a weightier conclusion.  I almost cried.  I was in the midst of suffering from the flu, hugely pregnant and thinking I could blow at any moment, and I already felt that I had dug as deep as I possibly could in writing this review.  I put on my big girl pants, though, and sat down at my computer once more.

A few days later I got one more note from the editor saying that the senior editors had approved it, it would publish over the weekend, and all they needed was a short bio for me.

A bio, huh?  This also wasn’t going to be a piece of cake exactly.  I went through some of the other bios of contributors over at LM and they’re all pretty impressive.  Those contributors seem to all be actual writers – writers with credentials!  Not some SAHM with a laptop and big dreams like me.  I finally came up with a bio that I hoped would be okay, and submitted it.

So here’s the final product, with all the edits and cuts: Down Syndrome, Family, and Belonging: A Review of The Shape of the Eye

I’m very pleased with it, and I hope it helps get the word out about this wonderful book.  It was quite a learning process for me, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute to a prestigious publication like Literary Mama.  I hope to contribute again!

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9 Comments on “On Crafting a Bona Fide Book Review”

  1. Elizabeth Harper
    June 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm #

    I read it this morning and I was dead impressed! I’m a fairly new reader to your blog and seeing your name on the email notification from Literary Mama this morning made me pause before hitting delete. I had a million things to do today so I was scanning my email quickly and cleaning out my inbox. When I saw your name, I had to open it up to see what you had to say. Well done you!

    • Lisa
      June 18, 2012 at 7:34 pm #

      Thank you!!

  2. jamestenedero
    June 18, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

    Just discovered your blog this afternoon, read your post, and followed the link to your book review. Wow – what an engaging read! Your writing has such a nice texture to it: straightforward and evocative, without feeling the least bit forced. Your review is one of those pieces that reads as though it was effortlessly written … Thanks (from a fellow writer) for giving us a peek into the sometimes messy process that’s involved in getting to that result 🙂

    I look forward to more from your blog in the future!

    • Lisa
      June 18, 2012 at 7:58 pm #

      Thank you for the kind words!

  3. Anna
    June 19, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    Nice, Lisa!

    I am especially impressed how you carve out, protect and use wisely your writing time.

    I get paid to write and teach and have full time childcare to enable me to do it. That you write so much and so well, while mothering is a almost a superhuman achievement. Lots to be proud of!

  4. Inger Klemm
    June 19, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

    Don’t sell yourself short Lisa. You have a lot more going for you than big dreams and a laptop:) I really enjoy your writing; it’s intelligent and thought provoking. Great review! Congratulations.

  5. alyson
    June 19, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

    What a fantastic review! I am so proud of you Lisa and can’t wait for the day I get to read your book. Congratulations!

  6. Erin
    June 21, 2012 at 4:32 pm #

    Excellent! I may have to read it again later as several of the passages really resonated with me, and I want to remember them.

  7. Rebekka K. Steg
    June 29, 2012 at 9:53 am #

    I read your review, it was excellent, great job!

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