Follow Your Gut: A Guide to Fair and Impartial Book Reviews
I’ve been an avid reader all my life. I read mainstream writers like Stephen King, John Sandford, James Lee Burke, and Greg Iles. I also read lots of Indie writers, people who maybe couldn’t land a deal with a publishing house. I have enjoyed many of these Indie books. Often, they give me a glimpse at the growing pains experienced by developing writers, people who are making their bones in the competitive world of self-publishing.
I’ve been “reviewing” books since I started reading, passing judgment, both good and bad. Recently, I started publishing reviews on my blog. As an aspiring fiction writer, I’d want someone to give me an honest appraisal of my work. After all, if we only hear the good, where is the opportunity for growth and improvement? Whenever I visit Amazon, I am amazed at the number of five-star book reviews. There are a lot of good books out there. There aren’t that many great ones though.
When I start a new book, I start rating, looking at five components: story/plot, character development, dialogue, consistency, and editing. The story/plot must be engaging, and unless I’m reading fantasy or science fiction, it must be plausible. For example, I recently read a novel in which a mafia family discovered an undercover cop in their midst, confronted him, and let him walk away! I’ve studied the mafia for twenty years. This wouldn’t happen. Fuggedaboutit!
Some authors tell you about characters’ physical and emotional traits. This cheats the reader, and it’s lazy writing. Character development is a subtle art form. Show me the character’s traits through their actions. And I don’t need an inventory of what they are wearing, unless it moves the story forward. I have an imagination. Let me use it.
Good dialogue can make or break a novel. I know it when I see it. I also know bad dialogue when I see it, because my first reaction is always, “People don’t talk like that!” Elmore Leonard (RIP) may have been the best at writing dialogue. Other good ones include John Sandford, John Hart, and James Lee Burke.
I also look for character consistency. In other words, is a character doing something that is consistent with what I know of about them, or are they doing something out-of-character (pun intended) to accommodate the story/plot?
Finally, I look at editing – nuts and bolts stuff like grammar and spelling. Nothing turns me off more than a poorly-edited novel. I struggle to finish poorly-edited novels, but I finish them because I want to give the authors an honest and constructive critique of their work.
My review process is simple. I rate as I go. I establish an initial rating, but this can fluctuate as I progress through the book. It is a fluid process. I take notes on the things I want to say about the book, and highlight passages that I can use to illustrate certain points. I go with what my gut tells me. I don’t over-think it. Book reviews are subjective. What speaks to me may not speak to you. I rate books as follows:
1-star: poor editing, poor plot, and poor character development.
2-star: I liked something about the book, but not much.
3-star: I liked the book. The plot moved me to a degree, and the characters weren’t cardboard.
4-star: The book was good, and either the story or the characters were great, but not both.
5-star: I was blown away. Great story and characters.
One more thing. Don’t flame authors. Don’t say things like “That guy isn’t fit to write a restaurant menu” or “She couldn’t write an ad for socks.” Remember, authors pour their hearts and souls into their work. Critique the work, not the writer. A few months ago, an author contacted me and request that I review her novel. Long story short, I gave it two stars. There were multiple issues, including severe editing problems, which I addressed in my review. But, I also talked about the things I liked. I emailed the author when I posted the review. She emailed me back and thanked me for the honest assessment. She asked about my editing fees. I don’t know if I’ll get a gig editing her next book, but I was flattered (and surprised) that she inquired. If you get a reputation as someone who flames authors, requests for reviews will dry up. Now go forth, read and review, and have fun, because ultimately that’s what it’s all about.