Stuck on your novel? Write yourself a five-star review

No, I’m not telling you to go on Amazon or Goodreads and cheat. This is an exercise for the novel you haven’t finished yet. Especially if it’s giving you trouble.

I first suggested it in my purple writing book Nail Your Novel, as part of the section on revision, and it must have struck a chord because time and again it gets picked up by other writers around the blogosphere. Here’s KM Weiland and here it is most recently being passed on by Larry Brooks, at all stations from Jenna Bayley-Burke to Porter Anderson.

Since it’s proving so useful, I thought I’d take a more in-depth look at why we might do this.

But first, here’s what you do (from Nail Your Novel)

Imagine you are writing a blurb or a review and that you have understood everything the writer was trying to do. Be specific about the story, the themes and the mood…

When might you do this?

You could do it when you embark on major revisions, to firm up your ideas before you hack and slay. Or any time you’ve got in a muddle and lost faith. What you do is step back and write how you would like the book to work if all problems were solved. If you step away from the details and look at the big picture, you often find you are not as lost as you think. Whether you knew it or not, you have strong, specific ideas about what the book would be.

What should you put in it? Everything distinctive and exciting about your novel. This might be any or all of:

  • how the themes will work
  • the influence of the setting and what it brings to the story
  • the functions the characters might perform; perhaps whether they will be likable or not – and why that will be enjoyable
  • what the set-pieces are
  • why the big reveals will pack such a punch
  • the literary traditions the novel might fit into, if that’s your bag
  • the kind of readers who might enjoy it
  • if you’re planning a non-linear structure or something tricksy like two narrators, why that was a clever move.

You can probably see you have to do a bit of head-scratching, so this exercise is good for making you justify – and understand – your creative decisions.

The other times you might do this

The title of this post suggests you do it when stuck, but it’s also a very useful exercise to do it at the start, as a mission statement for what you hope the book will be. Especially in that first flush of enthusiasm when the idea is seductive and brilliant. When you’re courageous and undaunted – you simply know it will be good. It’s good to harness that for later when the honeymoon’s over.

Novels take so darn long to write that there usually comes a time when we’ve lost perspective. We confuse ourselves with infinite possibilities. We may even suspect we’ve ruined everything. If you wrote your ideal version review to start with, you have something to pull you back together. Even if the novel changes substantially in the writing, it’s useful to have a record of this early, optimistic vision. (It might have got richer, more sophisticated. Or you may find that fundamentally you’re still on course.)


Most of all, this exercise gives us confidence. By confidence I don’t just mean feeling better; I mean clarity and boldness in the way we handle our material. We can pitch the mood, decide what themes to highlight, what word choices fit, what’s superflous. We can strengthen character motivations and plot. Novels that work well know where they’re going.

So if you’re feeling lost, write yourself a rave review. Spoil yourself and strengthen your novel.

Thanks for the pic Bidrohi >H!ROK<

Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence is available on Kindle and in print. Sign up for my newsletter!  Add your name to the mailing list here.

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  1. #1 by Beth Barany (@Beth_Barany) on April 30, 2012 - 12:53 am

    Thanks for this suggestion Roz! I did this with one of my novels, just for fun and found it really helped! I also see how this kind of review can also help write a blurb. I need to do one of those and fast for a book, my book 2 in a series, coming out in June! LOL

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 30, 2012 - 6:56 am

      Thaks, Beth! It’s quite fun to do as well as being useful. And certainly good training for the blurb.

  2. #3 by Tahlia Newland on April 30, 2012 - 1:39 am

    I found you book really helpful. Thanks for putting it out there. When I think I’m finished, I like to review my work as if I’m not the author, just a really picky reviewer. That soon shows up the weaknesses. I review a lot of books these days and it helps me to look at my books from an objective point of view.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 30, 2012 - 6:57 am

      Thaks, Tahlia. Yes, with your review site you must now be getting a great perspective on what works and what doesn’t. I found the same when I started critiquing – it honed my self-editing instincts even more.

  3. #5 by Writerlious on May 1, 2012 - 12:39 am

    What a great idea! I’ll have to try this when I’m feeling stuck (*coughs*, or lacking confidence). 🙂

  4. #7 by Hunter on May 1, 2012 - 4:12 am

    Reblogged this on Hunter's Writing and commented:
    5 star reviews, hmmmm.

  5. #8 by TeacherWriter on May 1, 2012 - 12:56 pm

    Incredible advice. It helps to do this when you’re just beginning a novel, too.

  6. #10 by DRMarvello on May 1, 2012 - 2:56 pm

    Thanks for the post, Roz. After reading your suggestions and all of the comments, I think it makes sense to perform this exercise at the beginning, AND when you are stuck, AND at the end to make a blurb! I’d be willing to wager that the results will be quite different (and more illuminating) each time.

    Like many of the exercises in NYN, the goal seems to be to lift your awareness out of the “zone” so you can see your work more clearly and objectively. I believe it forces one of those “left brain shifts” we all sometimes need to get a better perspective on our writing.

    I’m going to try this right away on my WIP. I think my day-to-day writing efforts will benefit.

    • #11 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 1, 2012 - 11:32 pm

      Hi Daniel! It certainly would make an interesting barometer of how the book evolves. Might also be worth hanging onto as a story to tell once the book is out!
      And you’re right about the general trend of my NYN exercises. The biggest problem writers have is gaining objectivity. What they could easily see in someone else’s story they haven’t a hope of spotting in their own.

  7. #12 by Jami Gold on May 1, 2012 - 7:42 pm

    Love this post! Thanks so much for sharing this, Roz.

    As we were talking about in the comments of the guest post you did at my blog, we have to think about things from a reader’s point of view when we’re writing pitches or blurbs. What impression, knowledge, or understanding about our story do we want them to walk away with?

    This is a great technique for getting into that mindset. What would a perfect review look like? What insights would the reader have into the important pieces of the story? Great tip!

    • #13 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 1, 2012 - 11:33 pm

      Hi Jami – thanks! Yes, we need help seeing our books as readers do. A simple point but easily overlooked.

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