Reviewing Novels 101
This isn’t something I do a lot of, and as often as not, when I say something, it’s because I find a book brain-jarringly bad or incandescently good. In those sort of circumstances, the structure I’ve described sometimes goes out the window.
What, if anything, is going to be achieved by reviewing a novel?
I may learn something. The writer may learn something. Those are by-products. A review is really intended to help potential readers decide whether the book is worth the investment in time to read it. All books are worth the investment in money. Make that almost all books.
So, to help readers decide, what does the reviewer have to do?
She/he must set himself up as the final arbiter of style and evaluator of worth. Not.
A reviewer is giving an opinion, no more no less. And opinions are like … well, you know the rest of the quote … everyone has one. So what can be achieved? Simply put; consistency.
A reviewer who gives a consistent set of reviews, with reasoning, deserves a following of readers who can look at the reviews and say: “Well, he marked that element down in this review, but that’s what he does, and I like this other element and he’s marked that up. I’ll buy this book.”
That’s the aim, and to achieve it, a reviewer can use a structure to work from so that the consistency is built in from the ground up. Or just be brilliant and anarchic.
Here’s my opinion what constitutes a suitable structure.
A story line at the top level, with sub-plots. Plots are often called arcs, and a novel can be sectioned into mini-arcs, but each is a self-contained story.
For each of them: Do you know where you think you’re going? Do you want to get there? Do you know what will happen if you don’t get there? Does that concern you? Do you know what it cost you to get there? Was that painful? Do you know what your reward is? Is that worthwhile? Finally, did the process of getting there entertain you?
These are the sort of questions you need to be asking each arc or sub-arc. If you answer ‘no’ to the above, the plot will probably be vague or not compelling. Score it down.
Warning – some plots make you think you know where you’re going and switch it. Yes, there are good books that do that, but you still have to be able to say, at the end, that the journey was worth it. Also, books in a series often leave threads uncompleted. That’s also fine, and the question is: do I want to read the next?
Different genres have different expectations; a light hearted travelogue or a book about making your home abroad expects to be put down at the end of an anecdote. A thriller tries to keep you reading late into the night. Did you feel you had to turn the next page to get to the end of the arc? If you put it down, did you really want to pick it up again?
Action varies by genre, obviously, and has to be the payoff, provide a setback, move the plot forward or develop the characters or the environment. If it is unnecessary, if it doesn’t do any of those, score it down. Trust your instincts on this one. If the car chase doesn’t actually move the plot forward, but you really enjoyed it, don’t score it down – it’s part of the ‘environment’, the sort of thing that has to happen.
This is an instinct call again. A character must engage you. If they die or fail to get their due reward and you’re thinking, yeah, so what, then score the book down on this aspect.
If you identify with the character’s aspirations – get the guy/girl, climb that mountain, find that treasure, then score the character section up. If you love the good guys & gals and hate the bad ones, score the section up. Ambivalent characters are difficult. Anti-heroes who shouldn’t get the rewards they’re trying to. But you still have to be able to answer the question, do I care?
The dialogue also falls into this category – if it sounds unnatural (unintentionally) then score it down.
The story must take place in a believable environment. This can be a completely unrealistic environment that you have been seduced into believing by a gradual suspension of disbelief. It’s simple; if you spend time thinking the environment is ridiculous or unbelievable, then the writer hasn’t carried you along.
Well, if this is your own, make it up, marks out of a 100, seven points scale, whatever you feel will give go sufficient differentiation. If you’re posting on Goodreads or some other site with a specific scoring method, run some tests before you post and review each of them. Are you happy that book A is 1 star better than book B, and so on?
Scoring is never going to be an exact science, and you may feel the need to supplement the rating with a comment such as : ‘This was really a 3.75’.