Writing Book Reviews

A couple weeks ago I wrote a book review and it was pretty well-received.  Yay!  So this week I decided to detail my review process: what I consider important, what each category means to me as a reader, and how I decide a final recommendation.  Please keep in mind that this is purely subjective and is by no means a standard for how books should be reviewed.

Also, while I’m trying to finish up my own novel series, these below criteria are just what I enjoy when I read.  I don’t necessarily adhere to the same standards when I write – which may be a bit hypocritical, but then again writing and reading aren’t exactly the same thing.

Stats:  First, I always begin with the stats of the book:  Name, Author (and link to website if available), Series name, Word Count/Page Count, Year Published, and any other basic information.

Plot:  The plot is the book’s ‘main event’.    Now, this is just my subjective opinion, but a slow plot doesn’t necessarily mean a bad plot, more so if it’s part of a linear series.  What matters to me most in a plot is consistency rather than pace.  Like a well-tended plant, a plot needs time to grow and develop before it blossoms (climax or other turning points).  Because of this I’m a bit more of a patient reader – I don’t always like it when a book opens with the plot being shoved in at the beginning, and I’m okay with stories that have more passive dialogue (so long as it isn’t ‘dead talk’, such as irrelevant rumors or technologies) versus full-throttle nonstop action sequences.

The side categories of this are, of course, sub-plots and under-plots.  Sub-plots don’t so much lead to overall plot development as they do character development – essentially, they’re situations given to characters for the purpose of testing that character’s limits, relationships, or morals, which in turn prepares that character for the main plot.  While I’m okay with passive plots, sub-plots I’m more critical of – they need to be a quick read so as to return to the main plot of the story.  Underplots, or ulterior motives and plot twists, are a bit more devious, and have to do more with the main plot that the sub-plots.  Because scheming characters are among my favorite types of characters, I always love reading underplots – but they must be connected to the main plot in some way.

Things I keep in mind as I read:

  • Does the author keep the plot at the front and center of the story, or does it wander into a completely different plot at the end of the book than where it started?
  • At the end, is the plot resolved through an appropriate climax (for one-shot books) or is it still growing (for a series)?
  • Some genres of fiction develop more slowly than others:  Don’t expect a French themed romance novel plot set in the 1600s to move at the same pace as an intense sci-fi thriller.
  • Keep in mind the main character’s perspective:  A limited perspective (first-person) will limit the reader’s knowledge of the overall plot.  A single character doesn’t, and shouldn’t, know everything.

 

Characters:  Characters are a book’s gateway to the plot.  They are the lifeline, the reason we read.  And as the plot grows, the characters need to grow along with it.  While I’m okay with a slower plot, character depth/development absolutely needs to happen upfront.  A character needs to be defined as soon as they’re introduced.  They need to say or do something that makes him or her unique and relevant to the plot or even just the current situation.  Stagnant characters who do the same thing every day and react the same way to various situations are boring characters.

Character depth is reflective of their background and personality, and development is the result of situations that changes a character’s perception and personality.  While a character’s background doesn’t always change, its pertinent that the character changes during the course of the plot.  It does not necessarily have to be a positive change, but having characters react and carry those subsequent emotions/consequences (motivation) through the plot makes them much more than words on paper.  You often hear that characters need to be ‘relatable’, but I think a more accurate term is ‘human’, since empathy is a more intimate emotion than sympathy.  This goes for both protagonists and antagonists.  Eventually, something’s got to give for your characters.

As for supporting characters, they need to stay in that role unless they become a main character.  That doesn’t mean they can’t react to situations (they should like the main characters), but they should never overshadow a main character’s moment to grow.

Other things I keep in mind:

  • Number of Characters:  The more main characters there are, the more unique situations I expect each to encounter in order to develop and grow, or at least at different rates.
  • How a Character Develops:  Is it appropriate to the conflict the character is facing?

 

Setting/World Building:  Setting and world building are two different things, but they’re often related so I lump them into the same category.  To me, a setting just needs to be appropriate – does a sci-fi story take place on a strange planet or future Earth, or does a western crime take place in mid 1800s Nevada?  As long as the setting is described in a way that makes sense for the story, it’s fine.  If the setting changes during the novel, then these changes needs to be detailed.

World building is a bit more complicated.  If the setting is fictional (fantasy lands, sci-fi worlds, post-apocalyptic landscapes, etc.) then it’s important to establish what makes the world unique.  Flags and symbols are a start, but where in time is their technology for things like medicine, crops, pollution, economics, etc.

It’s also important that any world-building aspect is appropriate – for example, population control makes sense in an over-crowded or under-sustained world, but not so much on a large family-run farm in the 1800s.  Authoritative establishments (governments, control centers, religion, etc.) provide doctrines to the status quo.  Again, it’s important that all of these elements make logical sense in the context of the setting and plot.  You often hear fantasy stories as having ‘laws for magic’, but this idea shouldn’t be limited to just fantasy – all genres need to have their laws in place.  This goes for any physical laws as well – gravity, thermodynamics, etc. – as well as examples that keep it consistent.

If the setting is non-fictional, it’s important to adhere to the laws of nature that describe the setting.  In short, don’t make New York City a desert savannah were lions and zebras roam – make it New York City complete with lights, sound, people, skyscrapers, activity, etc.  This is pretty obvious, but it may need to go deeper depending on the genre your writing.  A law in one state may not be a law in another state, minimum wage might be different, classroom size, church attendance, police force, etc.  Research is key if your setting and world building are set in reality.

World building is often a critical aspect to the plot, but not every detail need be related, nor do certain things need to be described.  As I learned long ago – ‘if it looks and acts like a sheep, make it a sheep’.  So while the setting just needs to be appropriate for the story, the world building needs to accurately reflect the setting.  Readers aren’t known for overlooking details.

Things I keep in mind:

  • How consistent is that?:  If you’re going to have a world that’s 40% the gravity of Earth, I expect everything in the said environment to act that way.  If a country’s symbol is a red star on a yellow background, it should be ingrained in anything the country finds relevant (flags, uniforms, monuments, etc.).
  • How accurate is that?:  If you’re going to write about a manslaughter case in New Mexico and gun laws are relevant, know your gun laws for the state as they adhere to the details of the case.  If you explain a sci-fi technology early in your novel, make sure that any use of the technology mirrors the way it is designed.

Grammar/Misspellings & Flow/Syntax:  The last topic is more a focus on the author’s attention to detail and less on any plot holes or character lapses, so it’s pretty straightforward.  While I don’t expect novels to be 100% perfect in terms of grammar, bad grammar will distract a reader from the scene.  Really bad grammar is unacceptable because not only does it distract from the scene, but can cause confusion.  Misspellings happen too, so I follow the same guidelines as grammar.  In my experience, I tend to remember misspellings and grammar mistakes more than the scene it takes place in.

Flow is ease of reading in both the technical sense (syntax) and story sense.  A proper order of words will ease the readability (this is where reading your story out loud as an edit helps a lot), and even more so if the events are in a logical order, even down to the detail.  For example, if a character pours himself a drink and talks for a bit, and pours himself another glass, did the author make sure the character drank the contents before the second serving?  If a character loses her weapon in a previous scene, does she suddenly have the weapon in the next scene?  Like grammar and misspellings, a disorder in flow and syntax is distracting to the situation at hand.

Overall/Recommendation:  While it all seems like a long-winded process, in the end it really comes down to whether or not I enjoyed the book.  I expect books to have boring passages, forgettable characters, technical errors, some world-building discrepancies, and so on.  But if the story as a whole keeps my attention, makes me want to turn the page to see who does what next, or motivates me want to pick up the next book or a book by the same author, then it’s pretty much a success in my book (ha).  For all the topics that cross my mind while reading, I absolutely have to find reason to invest time, energy, and reflection in what I’m reading.  I’ve already read a slew of books this year that fell short of fulfilling my ‘enjoyment’ quota, and if that’s the case I simply don’t waste time with a detailed review either.

While some of it is personal bias I always keep in mind that an author put much more time and tears into writing the novel than I ever will reading it.  Even if I don’t like a book, props to the author for getting it out to the public.

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