Page Turners: Finding out more about the Reviewing Community
The tables have turned – this time the author’s asking the questions.
Blogs and websites have been hosting author interviews for decades, giving readers a chance to get to know their favorite writers on a more personal level. But today we’re going to flip the mold, having an author interview a book reviewer. So buckle up, grab your favorite caffeinated beverage, and prepare to dive into what makes a book reviewer tick!
This week’s Page-Turner talking to The Behrg – J.A. Sullivan
Behrg: First off, tell us a little about your platform. Where do you post reviews and how long have you been reviewing?
Jen: These days almost all of my reviews appear on Kendall Reviews (www.kendallreviews.com). I’d been a fan of KR content for quite a while, and just over a year ago I joined the team. On occasion, I also add reviews and author interviews to my own blog (www.writingscaredblog.wordpress.com), which I started in September 2017.
Before all that, back in 2013, a friend told me about Goodreads, which seemed to be the coolest site I’d ever seen. I loved being able to keep track of what I’d read and meeting other horror fans. Honestly, I think my friend pointed me in the direction of Goodreads so they wouldn’t have to listen to me rave about my latest spooky read. In my off-line life I don’t know that many horror readers, so it’s been wonderful being able to talk about books that creep me out. (Feel free to connect with me there: Goodreads)
Behrg: I gotta admit, I too enjoy Goodreads. I’m also weirdly psychotic about tracking things like books read, or books I want to read, so it hits all the right buttons for me. Outside of reading, what are some of your favorite things to do? What’s something no one in the horror/book blogging community would suspect about you?
Jen: My hobbies include cooking and baking vegan/vegetarian food, gardening, working on jigsaw puzzles and cross-stitch crafts, and watching horror movies. Except for my preferred genre of books and movies, I’m sort of what you’d expect in a little old lady, but I’ve been that way my whole life. I also enjoy listening to podcasts, which I’ve recently started reviewing on Kendall Reviews in a series called Scary’s Voices.
Behrg: So I’ve seen this announcement and I think it’s such a cool idea — I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t gotten into podcasts all that much, and starting out sometimes feel overwhelming. What’s the impetus for your series and what suggestions would you have for a newbie looking to dip their toes into that world?
Jen: I’ve been listening to podcasts for a few years now, usually while I’m in the kitchen or working on a jigsaw puzzle, but I hadn’t considered writing up anything about podcasts until Kendall Reviews received a request to review “Linda Listens,” an audio drama by Augie Peterson. Since I was already a fan of Augie’s podcast, The Short Stories of Augie Peterson, I was quick to take on the review and that process got me thinking an ongoing series of reviews would be great to connect listeners with podcasters.
There are thousands of podcasts out there, covering topics like book reviews, sports, guided meditations, comedy routines, and just about anything else you can think of, so it is definitely overwhelming! I’d suggest thinking about what kind of content appeals to you as a first step. Once you narrow down to a category or two, check through your social media for accounts you’re following associated with those topics and I’m sure you’ll find a few of them host podcasts. Starting with people you already know increases the chance of finding a show you’ll enjoy.
Plus, much like readers and reviewers have a community offering suggestions of books, podcasters often listen to a lot of other shows and have a lot of great recommendations to follow up on, so once you find one you like it’s easier to find more. And, of course, if true crime, paranormal encounters, horror movie discussions, book reviews, or original horror fiction is on your search list, be sure to read my Scary’s Voices posts for suggestions.
Behrg: I think EVERYONE could benefit from your new series! Great advice here, and sorry for interrupting your thoughts on the hobbies!
Jen: No problem – I interrupt my own thoughts constantly, ha ha! People might not suspect that I’m a huge wildlife nerd. Every year, my husband and I go on a vacation somewhere near hiking trails, so we can be out in nature and watch wildlife. I’ve also seen every documentary that David Attenborough has been in, and one of my biggest star-struck moments was attending a live appearance by Dr. Jane Goodall.
Behrg: Any favorite sub-genres under the horror umbrella? Any you don’t particularly care for? Same questions but for common tropes in the genre?
Jen: My favorite sub-genres would have to be haunted houses and possession stories, especially when atmospheric dread drips off the pages. A character battling something unseen and usually not believed by others feels relatable to me, probably because starting at an early age I had health conditions that weren’t visible to others and I was often not believed.
Least favorites would be post-apocalyptic and zombie genres. Probably because if I existed in those worlds, I have a feeling I’d die before the stories even started.
Behrg: That’s hilarious!
Jen: As for common tropes, I like the concept of evil children and hope that never goes out of style – they are ultimately creepy! On the other hand, a couple of tropes that make me roll my eyes are evil twins and people finding out information at bars. I can barely hear myself think at a nightclub/bar, so the idea of having a meaningful conversation in that level of noise seems impossible. As for evil twins, I think there are more creative solutions writers could use.
Behrg: Love your insights here. Physical books or digital?
Jen: If I could build a second level on my house, just for physical books, I would. But seeing as that’s improbable, I’ll stick with digital.
Behrg: Sounds like it’s time to add engineering and construction design to your list of hobbies! 🙂 Writing well-thought reviews takes time. What are some of the things that keep you going?
Jen: My love of reading is really what keeps me going. I get excited at the prospect of introducing readers to something they may not have heard of. Even when I come across a book I didn’t overly enjoy, I hope that my review provides some insight as to what it’s about and someone will read the review and think “that’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.” And, as an extra bonus, I might help an author reach new readers.
Behrg: Great outlook. If you had only one author you could read for the rest of your life, who would you choose and why? What if you had only three?
Jen: Only one – that’s torture!
Behrg: This is a horror reviewer interview series. I thought torture was an assumed part of the package!
Jen: I supposed I’d pick Ray Bradbury. His novels and short stories are so varied, covering the spectrum of speculative fiction, I’d never be bored. Plus, Bradbury’s prose is like magic on the page.
If I could add two others, I’d pick Clive Barker to transport me to dark and dangerous realms, and Stephen King to explore the horrors of everyday things.
Behrg: Ah, what a great classic line up. Love it! What’s some advice you could give to those just starting to build a platform to review books? What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered and how have you navigated them?
Jen: My best advice is to read and review the books that appeal to your personal taste, first and foremost. When I first started gathering books for reviews, I got sucked into the idea that to find an audience for my reviews I should cover the hottest releases. The problem was I focused on what I thought other people would want to read instead of picking books that genuinely appealed to me. It was a disaster and I was miserable. I still have that stack of books somewhere and haven’t read half of them. They felt like school assigned book reviews, instead of something I was doing for fun. Then I switched around my thinking, only selecting titles that really excited me. Since then I haven’t looked back, I’m happier, and I think my enthusiasm shines through in my reviews.
Behrg: Drudgery is never the point of book reviewing! Totally agree. Favorite read of 2020 so far? Favorite read of 2019? Of all time?
Jen: Lots of great titles so far this year, but my favorite has been Switchboard by Andrew Post. It has an undercover narcotics detective, body modification surgeries, drug induced visions, ghosts inhabiting papier-mâché people, and burner phones connected to another dimension. It absolutely blew my mind!
Behrg: Woah, I haven’t heard of this one but will now check it out! Sounds killer.
Jen: For 2019, I’d say At Home in the Shadows by Gary McMahon. The strength of the writing, the unique and unusual plot lines, and the interesting characters in this collection of haunted house short stories, all had me glued to the pages.
My favorite book of all time would have to be All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. I don’t recall how old I was when I read it (probably somewhere around age 11 or 12), but it shook my world. Previously, I had the naïve impression of the valiancy of war – clear good guys defeating bad guys, and you wanted the good guys to win. After reading this book though, I realized the world is so much more complex, and the true horrors of war leaves everyone involved broken, creating a legacy of pain and a breeding ground for hate in future generations. As I got older, that story never left me and I’m still in awe at how books have the power to influence our core beliefs.
Behrg: Brilliantly stated. Do you write fiction yourself and, if so, have you published anything? If not, how has reviewing books allowed you to grow as a writer?
Jen: I do write fiction and am fortunate enough to have had a few short stories published. Currently, I’m querying my debut novel and also have a couple of others in various stages of completion. After years of my critique group reading my short fiction and basically telling me almost all of them should be expanded into longer works, I’ve finally taken their advice and am focusing on novel length stories.
Reviewing horror has immensely helped me grow as a writer. Specifically when I’m reviewing I take notes of what worked in the story and where it was lacking, then I can analyze my own work and see if I’ve made the same stumbles and have ideas on how to correct them.
Behrg: I truly believe Stephen King’s oft quoted thought, that if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or tools to write. For those considering or starting out in writing, how did you come by your critique group and how has that process been part of your growth?
Jen: I’d been looking for a critique group for a while with no luck and had almost given up when I met another author at a writing class which was hosted by my local library. We wanted to continue helping each other after the class was done, so we started meeting every month, exchanging feedback. And while our notes were great, what I really cherished was having an accountability partner – she expected a new story from me every month, and vice versa, so we had to sit our butts in chairs and get writing. It was just the two of us for years, until we took another writing class together and managed to recruit some others, including the teacher. Now there’s just 4 of us, but I think that’s the perfect size.
They’ve helped me tremendously in honing my skills and finding my voice. I think a large part of why our group works so well is because we all come from different genres – literary, dramatic, creative non-fiction, and me with horror. We can approach each other’s stories with fresh eyes because we’re not overly familiar with each genre, and we often notice story aspects that could be improved which someone inside the genre might have missed. They haven’t always appreciated my darker works, especially forays into extreme horror, but their critiques as outsiders have been invaluable.
Behrg: Really like the way you’ve approached building your group and the benefits of a critique group coming from different backgrounds. I’ve been working with a creative writing group for almost two years now and the feedback can certainly be invaluable. Plus it’s just fun to associate with other people crazy enough to want to try their hand at this writing thing.
There’s no right answer here, but how do you personally handle reviews for books you don’t care for? Do you finish every book you read or do you move on if a book isn’t grabbing you?
Jen: When I come across a book that I didn’t love I always look for something positive to say. Maybe there’s a unique premise, or setting, or character that was handled really well, and I highlight those elements in the review. Then I use the positives to balance against where I felt the story fell short. When writing a review, I always keep in mind that elements I didn’t care for might be the exact same reason someone else read and loved the same book.
There have been very few books that I started reading but didn’t finish. Instead of abandoning a book outright, I might put it to the side, read something else, and then come back to it. My personal tastes can be finicky sometimes, and I’d hate to miss out on something great just because I wasn’t in the mood for that particular story when I first picked it up. But, if I come back to it, and am still not compelled to see it through to the end, I’ll leave it alone.
Behrg: What advice would you give authors looking to have their books reviewed? What are some of the best ways authors have asked you to review their book? Some of the worst? Anything you’d like to let authors know regarding the etiquette of requesting a review?
Jen: My biggest tip to authors is to familiarize yourself with the reviewer’s tastes before asking for a review. After all, in my opinion, you should be thinking long term and be trying to find a fan of your work, not just securing a review.
The best requests I’ve received are when an author reaches out and explains why they think I’ll like their book. For example, if someone wrote a haunted house story and mentions they noticed I enjoy a lot of books in that sub-genre, I’ll probably take a look because not only are they my favorite stories, but the author showed they’ve taken the time to know their potential audience, rather than assuming everyone on the planet would want to read it.
The worst approaches are ones that display an obvious lack of care in knowing their readership. Like when I get a review request for a YA Fantasy/Romance, when my blog’s review policy clearly says I do not read YA, Fantasy, or Romance. I don’t have anything against those genres, I just don’t enjoy them as a reader. But there are thousands of people who do want those genres, so I’d suggest writers use their time wisely and find their true audience.
Behrg: As part of the horror author community, let me say a huge thank you from all of us for all that you do to support indie, hybrid, and traditionally published authors. Honest reviews not only help others discover our work, but can sometimes be the encouragement an author needs to keep doing what we do. Any last words you’d like to share with authors, fellow reviewers or casual readers?
Jen: Be true to yourself, no matter what you’re doing. Trying to change your writing style or reading preference to fit in with what you think is the popular trend of the moment is a one-way ticket to being miserable. Life would be boring if we all liked the same things, so be comfortable with your tastes, I promise you’ll be happier for it.
Behrg: For those interested in connecting with Jen or checking out some of her work under JA Sullivan, check out the links below! Be kind to each other.
A former child actor turned wanna-be rockstar, The Behrg is the author of the Internationally best-selling novel Housebroken and the thrilling Creation Series. His short work can be found in anthologies from Bloodshot Books, Comet Press, Omnium Gatherum, and Cemetery Dance. A mental health advocate, Behrg often explores the themes of mental illness within his work, albeit within a horror backdrop.
Behrg lives in Southern California with his wife and four kids where he still plays in a band, plays in fictional worlds of his own creating, and plays—quite poorly, he might add—at being an adult.
When coloring, he does not stay within the lines.
Stalk him at www.thebehrg.com
Check out The Behrg’s GoodReads page HERE
The Behrg’s Amazon author page can be found HERE
Follow The Behrg on Twitter @TheBehrg
Facebook: Do people still use that thing?
The Behrg Free Fiction: HERE