I don’t just watch tv. Tips for writing reviews, part 1

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As some of you may know, I write reviews for a site called Haunted MTL. And yes, being a critic has always been a dream of mine. I think it’s probably a dream a lot of people have. I won’t lie, it’s pretty awesome. I get free books and foreign screeners. And I get to do my favorite thing, talk about fiction work that I love. 

That being said, it’s not always easy. I’ve turned a relaxing activity into work. Because a lot more goes into writing a review and cultivating a career around reviews, than one might assume. So today I thought I’d talk about how I do it. How I write reviews, the work that goes into them, and how I manage my critical career.

It starts with a fresh watch or read

When I review something, I like to read or watch it myself and get my first impressions down before I let the opinions of others pollute my own. I’ll watch the content with a notebook in hand, making notes about scenes or actors as I go. This scene went on too long, this was gross in a good way, and this was gross in a bad way. That sort of thing.

Research

Once I’ve consumed the content, I’ll go into research mode. Who was in this piece? What else have they done that my readers might have seen? What Easter Eggs were hidden in the content? What references might a casual viewer have missed? These are all things to consider in writing an entertaining and informative review. 

This is not, of course, the main focus of the review. So it’s best not to get lost in the research too much. But it’s fun, especially for nerds like me. 

Making stylistic choices

In any form of writing, you’re going to make some stylistic choices. Some of those will depend on genre, others on your personal preference. For instance, I write for an audience of horror fans. So I tend to write using more adult language and about adult subjects. For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever used the word boobies here on PBW. It comes up often on Haunted. 

The important thing here is to pick a style and stick with it. Yes, your style is going to change over time, but you want to avoid any dramatic switches.

Conveying information about the content, without giving too much away.

Spoilers suck. I will never get over having the death of Rita ruined for me in Dexter. And if you as a critic are spoiling the endings of things all over the place, you’re not going to be a popular critic. So you’ll have to learn how to tell part of the story, without telling it all. 

The way I do this is by focusing more on my opinion of the story, rather than explaining what happened. 

Now, there are some situations where it’s really hard to avoid. For instance, when I wrote a review of The Mist. A big reason why I hated that movie was the twist ending. But I didn’t want to give the ending away in case anyone still wanted to see that piece of shit film after reading my review. (The book was way better.) So, I had to sort of dance around it. I let on that the ending was different than in the book. I called it intentionally mean, and unsatisfying. And I mentioned at the start of the review that it might be spoiler-esq. It’s tricky, I’m not going to lie. But it’s vital. 

Knowing why something works or doesn’t work.

What’s the difference between a critical review and asking a buddy if they liked a movie? While your buddy might tell you a movie sucked, a critic will tell you why from a professional standpoint it sucked.

Many critics are professionally trained in film school, or deeply involved in content creation like myself. The reason is that it’s not enough to say that something is good or bad. Why was it good? Why was it bad? 

I do this in part here, with my Why It Works series. But while that series is aimed at teaching you how to write better, a review is aimed at telling a fan exactly why I wanted to pitch my remote at the screen in disgust. 

This is something that is best learned by watching a lot and reading a lot, then considering why you liked or didn’t like what you consumed. Was that film really hard to see because the lighting was bad? Was the dialog realistic? Were the characters likable? It requires an understanding of good writing and good film work that you only develop over time and practice.

But there are worst ways to spend your time.

Watching and reviewing bad content

Speaking of worse ways to spend your time, I want to end off with this. Sometimes I have to review stuff that is just terrible. And I have to watch the whole thing, to explain to other people exactly how terrible it was.

Several times, this has meant I have had to watch a movie that I pray no one ever knows I watched. There was one whose title I will not mention that emotionally scarred me. Sometimes it means I have to finish a tv series that I would have given up on long before the end.

There is an upside, though. Bad content is often really fun to review because you can use some of your most colorful languages. I despised the ending of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and enjoyed explaining in detail how lazy and damaging it was. It made me feel like watching the ending hadn’t been a complete waste of time.

There’s a lot more to be said about writing reviews, but as we’re nearing a thousand words here I’m going to stop for now and continue next week. But I want to hear from you. Do you enjoy reviews? Who is your favorite go-to critic? Have you ever dreamed of being a critic? Let us know in the comments. 

Smashwords

My horror heroes, Wes Craven

When I think of Wes Craven’s films, I’m struck with a flood of memories. Nightmare on Elm Street is the first horror movie I remember watching, with a babysitter who probably shouldn’t have let me watch it. I was little, curled up on our old couch in our trailer in the dark, eyes big as the moon and glued to the gore. 

Nightmare on Elm Street

I remember watching Scream at a sleepover, complete with pizza and sodas and a gaggle of girls. Everyone else was a little off the pizza after the first scene. 

I was not.

Wes Craven created some of my favorite slasher movies of all time. Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, The Last House on The Left. All of them leave people sick to their stomachs in the very best way possible. 

And can I also just mention that this guy won the name lottery? His actual birth name is Wesley Craven. I always thought that was a stage name. How lucky do you get?

Craven always allows the main characters to be the heroes. And his main characters are very often teenage girls. There’s no boyfriend, father, or parent jumping in to save them. It’s Nancy or Sydney saving everyone else’s ass, even after no one wanted to listen to them. They never once came across as scream queens. They also didn’t suffer from what I call the Alice Problem. By that, I mean Alice from Resident Evil. She had no personality, could have been anyone. I can’t think of a single thing about her that would distinguish her from Jill Valentine.

Scream poster

There’s none of that with Craven’s leading characters. They are their own people. 

I’ve never watched a Wes Craven film and not had a good time. In addition to being wonderfully bloody, they’re often funny. Especially the Scream movies. I love a good laugh to go along with the gore. I love that his movies aren’t afraid of being silly. They’re never taking themselves too seriously. 

I have no problem with fiction that has a message. Some of my favorite books and movies are all about that. Pleasantville, Dogma, Jacob the Liar. These are great films. But not everything has to have a message. Sometimes a piece of art can just be there to be enjoyed. And I love that Craven does that.

Finally, Craven figured out how to avoid one of the biggest issues with the horror genre. Almost everything has been done. Most viewers are genre-savvy. So, to surprise an audience, you’ve got to embrace the meta.

And Craven has made a habit of doing just that. The Scream series is a great example, giving us film after film full of in-jokes designed for horror fans. Even better is my favorite horror film, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

In this film, the actors from Nightmare on Elm Street are attacked by Freddy. Even Robert Englund, the actor who played Freddy himself. This was a ton of fun for a super fan like me. 

So, what have I learned from Wes Craven? And what can you, as a writer learn from him?

-Understand that your fans are probably genre-savvy, and have fun with that

-Have fun with your art in general. Don’t be afraid to go big.

-Give your main character a real personality. 

Don’t miss the other posts in this series, where we talked about Stephen King, George Romero, and R. L. Stine

Check This Out- All Indie Writers

Alright, so I spent a minute and a half on this site, and signed up for the newsletter.  Then I realized that if I was going to explore the site and get a post written on the site, I’d better set a timer or I was going to get lost in the archives.

All Indie Writers is all about being a self publishing, freelance or independent writer.  Since that’s something I’m hoping to move closer and closer towards (the ten year goal is to be a full time writer with no day job.) this site is my new favorite thing.

The first post that really grabbed my attention was A Simple To Do List Tweak.  I won’t ruin it for you, but it did give me a new idea about how I write blogs for this site.

There’s also a podcast!  This has been my new favorite way to learn things, because I can listen to them on my 20 minute walk to and from the day job, or while I’m cleaning, or knitting, or doing anything that would prevent me from holding a book, or looking at a screen.  (If Brandon Sanderson ever reads this, I’ve listened to your podcast in the bath tub.  Sorry.)

It really is a one stop website with job postings, advice columns, a blog, and forums for deep discussion about the craft and the job.

Definitely check out All Indie Writers today.  I know I’ll be taking some time to explore it in depth.

Markets- Pseudo Pod

Awhile ago I posted about a site called Escape Pod. This is a sister website, Pseudo Pod, that’s all about horror. I am a huge fan of scary, macabre, and anything creepy and crawly. So, I love this one.

Genre- Horror.

Word count- they want either flash fiction of around 500 to 1,000, or longer pieces from 2,000 to 6,000 words.

Sub Date- Any time.

Wait time- two months

Payout- $100.00 a story, either length.

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