Thursday, August 8, 2013

How to Write a Solid Review of Fiction

I recently joined an authors' group, in the hope of networking through the maze of indie authorship, and on my first day, another author complained about a review on Amazon that took her book and exposed every twist and turn in great detail, without a "spoiler alert".

Inevitably, there are reviewers out there who shine a bright flashlight on every red herring, every suspect, every plot detail. It's not that they mean to sabotage an author -- at least I hope it's not intentional. And yet they inevitably ruin the book for every other reader. I'd like to think that the typical reader picks up books for the purpose of being entertained and posts a review to spread the enthusiasm.

One thing every reviewer should always keep in mind is that your review is an opinion. It's not the only opinion. It's not the one opinion that will launch a book or sink it. You have a voice to share what you think, but with that voice comes a big responsibility. You owe it, not just to the author, but to the readers, to examine your motives in posting a review and play fair. I've seen a number of posted reviews for myself and other authors that trash a book with erroneous information, without regard for the impression left to those who are seeking the next great read. If you want people to take you seriously as a reviewer, take yourself seriously. Don't be sloppy in choosing what parts of the book you reveal. Understand that a book is not like a familiar song. A good author builds tension and excitement for that big crescendo of a finish. Unlike songs we repeatedly listen to, most books are read once, and when that cat's out of the bag, it's nearly impossible to get him back in there. Don't tell readers who the killer is or that Mr. X bites the dust in Chapter Five. That's a total buzz kill that makes readers put the book down before they finish.

There are different kinds of reviews, and they're based on the expertise and experience of the reviewer. Here's my take on it:

1. Professional -- Book reviewers for reknown review sources (Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, trade publications), librarians, and experts on specific topics will "go deep" in their postings. Using their own related work experience, they will address points in the review of the book based on their professional opinions, knowledge of the breadth and depth of the subject or genre, and offer insight to readers on why the book works or doesn't work. It's usually less about the emotions that result from the reading of the material and more about the technical details -- style, plotting, characters, pacing. A professional book review is subject to scrutiny for errors, mistakes, misinformation, and other details that don't stand up. For example, if a professional reviewer criticizes a book, but cites wrong information, that damage affects an author's reputation for quality work. The credibility of a good reviewer is on the line when he or she skewers the meat of a book and turns it into an unrecognizable shish kebab of tough, unchewable, overcooked nothingness.

2. Semi-professional -- Dedicated readers with familiarity of a specific genre or subject matter, professionals who work in a field related to the subject matter or genre, or even readers with a personal familiarity with the subject or genre, will write reviews that are enhanced by their personal insight into the subject matter. For example, if a reviewer was a homicide detective for thirty years, he or she can speak to the authenticity of an author's take on law enforcement in a crime novel. An English teacher might review a fantasy or paranormal book, speaking to the author's ability to put the concept into words successfully. A nurse might tackle a medical thriller and address issues in hospital procedures depicted by the author. These reviewers have relevant experience to enrich the rating process, but are also focused on their enjoyment of the story as it relates to their knowledge of the genre or subject matter.

3. General readers -- Everyone has the right to have an opinion, but an opinion is not necessarily a review of a book. When it's an uncritical look at a product, it's a rating. A review looks inside a story using criteria that has a solid basis, provides useful insight and information to the consumer, and stands up because it was formed from a foundation designed to provide structure to readers looking to decide what they want to read.

Think of book reviews like a home inspection before you purchase a house. You're going to invest time and money in your next dwelling, so you don't want to waste your resources. If you look at a house and miss all the flaws, you'll face the consequences. Nobody wants to get skunked. Smart people choose their home inspector wisely. You don't want someone who works for the seller to tell you everything is hunky dory. You want honest information that is bias-free.

If you're an avid reader and write a review, you'll probably talk about how the book made you feel while you were reading it, what you liked about it, and even what bothered you. This type of review has merit. The average Jack or Jill wants to know whether the book is worth picking up, and looks to readers for some feedback. Jill wants to know what you got out of the time it took you to read the story. Jack wants to know whether the subject matter was believable. But here's the thing. Unless you're an expert on the subject, you might want to stay away from validating or criticizing technical parts of the book that are above and beyond the scope of your knowledge. If you aren't a cop or a lawyer, if you've never engaged in any investigative endeavor, give it a pass in crime novels. Speak to what you enjoyed or didn't enjoy. Make it clear you're talking about your impressions of the book, not your technical expertise. (I once had a critic announce that she was married to a man who worked in what would appear to be a related field -- second- and third-hand knowledge is not the same thing as first-hand knowledge, and unless you are trained, let it go.)

Let's say you're a teacher of pre-school kids. You're probably not going to be successful in navigating the finer details of a twisted plot to surgically implant some weird poison into the body of an unconscious victim or discuss whether that crazy computer-driven car that is remotely controlled by a hacker is believable or not. Some fiction is stranger than truth and some truth is actually stranger than fiction. It's important to know the difference. If you're talking about the evil nanny who usurps the role of Mother in the family that hired her, you're likely to offer readers some unique insight into parenting styles, what it takes to be a nanny, children's behavior, and even credible dialogue between adult and child. Don't pretend. Stick to what you actually know.

Not all reviewers are professionals working in the book trades, but good reviewers know what's out there. I know one reviewer who reads so many books that she can instantly list other works by the same author, what other series the author may have, and even authors of similar works. She's like a walking bookstore manager and her enthusiasm for books is contagious. If you tell her the kind of books you like, she can steer you in the right direction. I know another reviewer who can compare books to other forms of media and often does -- whether it's a television production or a classic Hollywood film noir. She'll read a book and tell you that it's reminiscent of this author's action thrillers or that author's psychological suspense novels. Those connections and comparisons are helpful for readers who want to try something new.

A book review is not the same thing as a book report. It's not like you're back in school and the teacher is trying to determine if you actually read the book. No cops are going to show up at the door because you failed to mention this happened or that happened. The author and publisher always post a synopsis of the action. What readers need from reviews are a sense of whether or not the author was successful in spinning a story according to certain criteria.

It's important for reviewers to have an authentic voice, one that matches their level of expertise to the book. To do that, here's a checklist of five things you should include in your review, whether you're a professional, semi-professional, or general reader reviewer :

1. Plot -- What did you think of the plot? Looking back, did you find the pieces of the story fell into place in a meaningful way?

2. Characters -- What did you think of the characters? Looking back, did you find that they evolved as the story moved along?

3. Setting -- What did you think of the setting of the story? Looking back, how did the details, descriptions, and action fit the plot line? Could you imagine yourself in the story, as an observer?

4. Pacing -- What did you think of the way the story moved through the chapters? Looking back, was the flow natural, as the action unfolded, or were there glitches that cut into your enjoyment of the story?

5. Tone -- What was your overall sense of the story when you reached the end? How did you feel when that last page was read?

Always, always, always examine your own bias before posting a review of an author's work. Make sure that what you write is as fair and accurate as possible. I say this because there have been plenty of times I've been distracted by events in my own life that affect how I feel about a book. I sometimes stop reading and take a break before moving back to it, not just because I need to sort out my own thoughts, but also because I believe in being fair to the author whose work I am reading. This experience has taught me that my own bias can and will get into the way of sharing my thoughts on a book if I am not vigiliant. Sometimes it really is a good book, but I didn't recognize it. Other times, the author failed to draw me in or I chose the wrong book to read.

Yes, you read that right. It actually is possible to choose the wrong book to read. If you love horses and you pick a book about space travel, are you going to kick yourself for being a Son of Flicka, wasting your time on a book that has no relevancy in your life? Time is short. Read what speaks to your heart. This is especially important with all the free offerings out there. You don't want to waste your precious reading time. You want to love the story, because then you'll appreciate the author's hard work and you'll share your opinion with like-minded readers who will benefit.

Want an example or two? I'm not a huge fan of fantasy or paranormal stories, and yet I confess to loving books like Charlotte's Web, Babe, Harry's Mad, and even classic fairy tales. For someone who doesn't like fantasy, I thoroughly enjoyed Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle. That's because even though the writer was writing about magical powers that don't really exist, she always kept her feet firmly planted on the ground, and made her characters oh-so-human. Another author who, in my opinion, navigates the treacherous ground between fantasy and reality is Jane Yolen, a prolific poet, storyteller, and author of more than 280 books. In every one of her books, you will find a firm grasp on reality, on the human heart, and on logistical details even as she writes of worlds that never existed.

Just one more thing to share on book reviews. Are you determined to be a good reviewer? Build up your skills. Pick a genre you enjoy, so that you can compare the book you want to review to other books in that category. Reread your all-time favorite books and use them to practice your review skills. Pick up new books in that same genre, so you can speak with genuine authority. Do the new authors meet the bar you set, do they excede it, or do they fall short? Don't stray from your genre until you have a good, solid number of reviewed books under your belt. You can still read other genres, and you should, but when it comes to doing reviews, learn the process. There are plenty of readers out there who are looking for solid suggestions of good books, and they will welcome your efforts as a reviewer if you are reliable and fair in the information you post.


  1. If my printer was working I would print this out. It would be handy to have as a check list.

    1. I'm working on creating a simple form, Rhonda, to make it an easy process. I really want to encourage avid readers to offer their honest thoughts about the books they read. That feedback is helpful for everyone.

  2. Thanks for such an illuminating and helpful post. I always read a cross-sample of reviews before buying a book cold (without a personal recommendation from a friend or someone I trust, or from a favorite author). It seems to give a more accurate representation of what to expect from a book.

    My question is how much weight should poor or sloppy editing be given in a review? I've read books where I loved the plot and characters but the poor grammar and bizarre punctuation were enough to draw my constant notice. However, since I enjoyed the story I rated the books highly (4 or 5 stars). I placed a disclaimer of sorts at the end of my review stating there were editing issues but they did not keep me from finishing or put me off from the author. Is that acceptable or should a good reviewer keep to just the 5 points you mentioned above?

    1. Honestly? I'm guilty of editing infractions myself, and even though I strive to be perfect, I'm not. You raise a great point, though. Does it matter? Should you mention it? It sounds to me like you handled this with the grace of a dedicated reader. You could consider the bad grammar, typos, etc. as cutting into the pacing of the story, since they disrupt your ability to follow the action. Some readers can move through errors because they get the context of the story, but I've heard other readers say it really disrupted the flow of the story every time they had to stop and try to figure out what the author meant by the garbled writing. Should it affect your review? When you are telling readers about a book, it's your reputation on the line. Would you want to know upfront? That said, I think you also have to define for readers just how bad those errors are -- train wreck and derailment, head-on collision on the highway, minor fender-bender, or tiny scratch you can't even see? How did you see the mistakes affecting your reading pleasure? After all, the whole point of reading fiction is to enjoy a good tale, isn't it?

      For those of you in similar shoes -- if you really love a story, but you find the author has made errors, consider contacting the author directly. Most of us will comb through our manuscripts to fix them. I say that as I finish ten days' worth of re-editing a manuscript to get the bugs out. In this digital age, it's easy and smart to do it. But if a story just doesn't have any reader nutrition to it, if you're unsatisfied with the heart of it, is it worth it to try to correct an author's errors? Probably not. Save your reading passion for what moves you. That's time well spent.

      And as for my own editing on my own comment, I just discovered that there is no magic button to edit on Blogger. My screen froze and refroze on me several times, and what I thought I typed was not what showed up. That's the trouble with digital media. Glitches sometimes really are out of the control of the writer and you find out the hard way.