Reviews are very important to an author in two ways: they can provide valuable feedback to the author, and they can arouse the interest of other potential readers.  Reviews can also come to the attention of a prospective publisher.  It goes without saying that authors want favourable reviews, but, in my opinion it’s better to have an honest, unfavourable review than no review at all.  After all, one wants to learn and grow as an author.

There are two measures of the value of a review: credibility and expertise.  A review by, for example, the book editor of the New York Times is far more valuable than a review by your aunt Martha.  The trouble, from an author’s perspective, is that its pretty easy to get a review by Aunt Martha, and it’s very difficult to get one from the editor of the Times.

So, how are book reviews used?  The short answer is that they are used in a myriad of ways to market an author and his/her book.   They appear on the Amazon book web pages and on Goodreads.  They are on the back cover of the book, inside the front cover and bits of a review may appear on the front cover.  Reviews are featured in billboard and newspaper/magazine adverts, and on promotional materials in book shops.

How do I get my reviews?  There are several ways.  I have an old friend who reviews my books; I think she does a thorough and objective job.  I have used paid review services like, but their credibility is fairly low.  There are book bloggers who offer to review books – mostly for free.  At one point I must have trolled through fifty book blogger’s sites to find three that said my book sounded interesting, would I please send it?  I think all this resulted in one review.  I have given away books on Goodreads as a part of the contests they run.  Theoretically, the deal is that if you win a free book from an author, the winner is supposed to write a review.  I sent out ten books to the winners and received one review.  Perhaps people just like to have free stuff! There are spontaneous reviews that one tends to get from readers who have bought a book on Amazon.  These spontaneous ones can be interesting.  There was a one-star review who didn’t like my book at all because it ‘wasn’t credible’. (That was the complete review.)  There was one that looked like a third grade book report.  And, of course, there are insightful, semi-professional reviews.  I have a practice of not commenting on reviews, except – where appropriate – to say ‘thank you’.

Yesterday, I signed onto a webinar that was put on by the Independent Book Publishers Association.  It featured a spokesman from Foreword Reviews who explained how they chose books that they review.  Having a review on Foreword Reviews would be very helpful.  Their quarterly magazine reaches plenty of librarians, publishers and editors – as well as the general public.  From my point of view, it also has the advantage or specialising in indie (independently published) books.  Two problems, though: first, there has to be intense competition to be selected: the magazine is published four times a year, and there are well over a hundred thousand indie books coming out every year.  And second, one has to submit the book near the publication date, so if a book has been out more than six months, it is probably of little interest.

If any of my readers considers himself/herself to be a budding reviewer and would like to have a go at one of my books, please choose a title on my website (, send me an email ( with your address, and I’ll send you a copy.

Inside the Writing Life

In the Winter 2015 edition of The Exeter Bulletin, the alumni magazine of Phillips Exeter Academy (the boarding school from which I graduated) there is an article Inside the Writing Life.  It is an interview of Roland Merullo (class of ’71, and quite a bit after my time).  Merullo has written 13 novels and four works of non-fiction.  He has been recognised for a Booklist Editors’ Choice, a Maria Thomas Award and was a finalist for the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Prize.  The interviewer is David Weber, who is Emeritus English Instructor at the Academy.


Roland Merullo

Q: Does the act of writing allow you to enter a space where it’s only yourself you need to please?  Or do thoughts of agents, publishers, other writers, or readers enter in?

Merullo: I think you really have to work to keep agents, publishers and especially critics out of the room where you write.  At the same time, in order to improve, especially in the early going, you have to be open to criticism and suggestion, so it can be a tightrope sometimes.  I support my family only from my writing, so I can’t indulge myself and write a 2,000 page essay on the meaning of life, or golf, or learning to swim, or my love for my daughters.  But I’ve gotten pretty good at going into my interior room and mining my own truth, even if its eventually packaged in a way that will please publishers and bookstore owners.  Before I started on In Revere, In Those Days, I was well into another book, hundreds of pages, and it just felt false to me, as if I were writing to please  some outside critic and not from my center.  One night, I just said, “Screw this” out loud, put all that work aside and wrote 30 pages of In Revere in a couple of hours.  That felt right.

My comments: I agree that one needs to exclude external influences when one is writing, but that one has to be open to critiques at other times.  I, too, have scrapped whole sections of a novel that didn’t ‘feel right’.  I started over with what I felt was good and genuine.

Q: Do you think of writing as existing above all in its own realm, called art?  Or do you want your books to act in some way on the worlds of culture, politics, society – or even on the inner lives of readers?

Merullo: There is art to it, and art is essential to any healthy society, but I take a workmanlike approach to writing books.  It bothers me a great deal to hear writers talk about their work as if they have a special line to God or something, or as if it’s “torture” to face a blank page. People who value words should use that one more carefully.  Writing reminds me very much of carpentry, in both its methodical aspects and in the need to think ahead . . . though my body hurts less after writing a novel than it did after building a deck or a garage.  I’m all about the inner lives of readers, and the interior life in general – an area we tend to ignore as a society.  But I feel that for it to matter, the interior dimension should be linked to our outer lives, to things like politics, for example. . . .

My comments: I like the comparison of writing with carpentry, and I agree that both require methodology and planning.  I’m surprised by his comment, below, that he doesn’t outline.  To me an outline is essential to avoid the unnecessary and to include the essential, just as a carpenter’s drawing assures that the project will be completed as envisioned.  I sometimes feel that I have a muse – some external influence – because, occasionally, I will suddenly think, after I’ve written something: “Where did that come from?  That was brilliant!  I could never have thought of that!” I doubt that it was God, but maybe The Presence spoke up.

Q: By this time do you write intuitively, having internalised the skills you needed?  Or does technique remain a conscious focus?

Merullo: I write almost completely intuitively.  Early on, I’d study the work of other writers, but I’m not particularly analytical or scholarly.  I don’t outline, try not to over analyse.  When I taught in college – 10 years at Bennington and Amherst – it wasn’t especially enjoyable for me to analyse the great works of literary art, to break them down into pieces, and try to explain why they were so good.  Some of that is a teacher’s job, of course, necessary and good, but to me it was too often like eating a delicious piece of pie and having to sit there and talk about the ingredients in elaborate detail.  I just wanted to eat the pie.  And now I just want to bake the pie.  My feeling is that if you go down deep into yourself – beyond the purely intellectual level – you can maybe write something that reaches down deep inside the reader; you can connect with them in the most profound way.  I think about technique very little now.

My comments: I write pretty intuitively, but as I review what I’ve written, I think about details: technique.  I think his comment about reaching down deep inside yourself and thereby being able to reach something deep inside the reader is tremendously important.  I just wish I could do it more often!

Icarus as an Artist

The myth of Icarus, who, with his father, Daedalus, tried to escape from Crete, using wings that his father made from feathers and wax, is subject to interpretation.  Icarus disobeyed his father’s instructions not to fly too high, because the heat of the sun would melt the wax of his wings.  Icarus flew too high, the wax melted and he fell into the sea.


The usual interpretation seems to be that it was hubris – over-ambition – which caused Icarus to fall to his death.  The moral being that we should not fly too low in our lives, as that would not do justice to our capabilities, but we should not try to fly higher than or capabilities.

A few days ago, I heard another interpretation: that Icarus is a symbol of the artist, trying always to stretch and improve his art.  This was suggested by Jorg Widman, clarinettist, composer and conductor.  He was conducting the London Chamber Orchestra and introducing his own piece: Icarus’ Lament.  He said that his piece was inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s poem Lament of an Icarus:

Lovers of whores don’t care,
happy, calm and replete:
But my arms are incomplete,
grasping the empty air.
Thanks to stars, incomparable ones,
that blaze in the depths of the skies,
all my destroyed eyes
see, are the memories of suns.
I look, in vain, for beginning and end
of the heavens’ slow revolve:
Under an unknown eye of fire, I ascend
feeling my wings dissolve.
And, scorched by desire for the beautiful,
I will not know the bliss,
of giving my name to that abyss,
that knows my tomb and funeral.

Jorg Widman’s Icarus Lament was an interesting piece – quite unconventional- played only by the string section of the orchestra.  It began with the violins playing a very high note, pausing momentarily and continuing.  One could visualise a winged creature beating its wings laboriously in very high flight.  Then came the cellos, playing a more sombre melody, as a sort of counter-force to the violins.  Finally, the violas joined in playing a more lively melody.  One definitely had the feeling of the creative force (violins) struggling to assert themselves over the force of gravity (cellos), while the world (violas) looked on.

So I suppose that Icarus could stand as a symbol of the artist who is not content with the safe journey, and who yearns to stretch his talents.

For myself, I see it slightly differently: as a learning and development process.  With each novel, I feel well, I’ve done that; what can I do next that’s a little more challenging?  I suppose what I don’t do is to focus on what my readers would like, because that will tend to be ‘more of the same’.  Rather, I think, if I do this new novel well, my readers will probably like it And if they don’t?  I hope that they’ll tell me what they didn’t like.  But, if they do like it, and I feel I’ve met my challenge, I’m ready to move on to the next challenge!