Fiction Writing Article 4
How To Review A Novel
Book review or book recommendation: is there a difference between them? Yes there is. A recommendation is just that, a recommendation. Someone who has read a novel and likes it recommends it to someone else. I liked it because …. Recommendations are important. Every author wants her readers to recommend her book to others. Recommendations sell books. But a recommendation is not a book review. A book review is an analysis of a book that goes way beyond a recommendation. Most of the book reviews you read on Amazon, and often even on Goodreads, are recommendations, not reviews.
What’s the difference between a recommendation and a review? When a reader is recommending a book she has read, she can say pretty much what she wants to say about it. I like it because …. That is not the case with a book review. A book review contains certain elements that need to be included if it is, in fact, a review of the book and not merely a recommendation.
What are the elements of a book review? A book review needs to include the complete title of the book, including a subtitle is there is one, and the author’s name. It should also identify the genre (romance, mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, etc.). A book review also needs to provide a brief overview of the book. This is not, however, a detailed summary of the plot. Authors do not want reviewers giving away their plot. Authors want readers to be able to discover for themselves how the plot unfolds. A reviewer should never give away more of the plot than the author or editor has provided in the marketing description on the back cover or inside flap.
After these basics have been covered, the reviewer needs to analyze different aspects of the book. These may include:
Setting: Where and when does the story occur? Does the setting and timeframe impact the story in a specific way? If so, how? For instance, in the late nineties, I lived in a small village in Nigeria, West Africa, for two years. If I wrote a mystery set in a small village in sub-Saharan West Africa, it would be very different in many ways from a mystery set in Southern California. A story set in a small farming town in the Midwest is going to be different from a story set in Manhattan. What is the setting and how does it impact the story? A sentence or two in your review on setting is sufficient.
Plot: Plot is the basic events of the story as they unfold. The reviewer’s job is not to tell readers what the plot is, but to provide his or her opinion as to how the plot works. First, is it interesting? As the plot unfolds, do you find yourself drawn in? Do you want to keep reading? Second, is the plot sufficiently intricate? Does it keep you guessing? Third, is it logical? Does it flow and unfold in a way that makes sense? The good reviewer discusses the plot without giving the plot away. She discusses features of the plot, not events of the plot.
Conflict/Drama: Conflict or drama is what keeps a story moving; it’s what keeps the reader reading. How does the author manage conflict or drama? A good story has an ebb and flow. Everything can’t be high drama; everything can’t be slam-bang exciting stuff. The dramatic co-exists with the mundane. But there must be more drama than mundane; otherwise readers lose interest. How does the author keep the drama going? The reviewer does not need to provide specific examples of how the author does this, but comments on dramatic pacing can be helpful to someone considering whether or not to buy a given book.
Pace: Does the author keep the story moving at an appropriate pace? Does it move too fast (rushed) or too slow (bogged down)? Or is the pacing appropriate, comfortable? The good reviewer might want to comment on pace.
Characterization: Are main the characters well-drawn, three-dimensional, realistic people? Or are they wooden, cliché, perhaps flat? Can readers identify with the characters? Are the characters like real people? Do we know enough about the characters so that we care about them? Do we know them well enough so that their choices make sense? A sentence or two about characterization can be helpful in a review.
Dialog: Does the dialog sound real? Does it reflect the way people really think and speak? Is it interesting? Funny? Dramatic? Does the dialog drive the drama? A good reviewer will pay attention to dialog and comment on it.
Is it necessary to discuss each of these story features in every review? No. This is a list of the kinds of things that a reviewer needs to consider as she reviews a work of fiction. Neither is it necessary to deal with these features in a mechanical fashion utilizing a list as I have done here. The good reviewer will be able to mention the features of the story she is highlighting in an interesting, brief narrative.
What about rating the book? Reviewers can rate the book if they want—one to five stars, a thumbs up, whatever. But if a reviewer is going to rate a book and especially if the rating is going to be less than excellent (for instance, three or four stars instead of five), the reviewer needs to explain why. I can’t stress this enough. Why did you give the book the rating you gave it? Suppose you give a book a four out of five stars. You must have an explanation as to why you did that. Were the characters too wooden or too shallow? Was the plot too convoluted or too simplistic? Was the dialog unrealistic or filled with clichés? What was the reason you downgraded the book from five to four stars? What were its weaknesses? It is only fair that you provide an explanation.
The biggest review no-no: What you should never do as a responsible reviewer is simply summarize the plot. A plot summary is not a review. And often, a plot summary reveals things the author would not want revealed ahead of time to a reader. Revealing the plot ahead of time robs the author of revealing her story as she chooses and robs the reader of joy of discovery. Don’t summarize the plot. Detailed plot summaries are not appropriate in either recommendations or reviews. Talk about what makes the book good or not so good, but don’t summarize the plot.
For Fiction Writers
When it comes to writing fiction, I do not consider myself an expert. But I've written a few novels and along the way I've discovered some important things--at least I think they're important. My purpose in this section of my website is to share some of the things I've discovered about writing fiction with others who enjoy the adventure. If you agree with me, great. If you don't, that's okay, too. What I'm doing here is expressing my opinion and sharing what I've discovered along the way. I hope you find it helpful.
Articles will be posted as I get them written. Older articles are further down the page.
Fiction Writing: Article 1
Write What You Enjoy Reading
Write the same kind of stuff you enjoy reading. The idea is so simple that it might get by you unnoticed. But it’s a good idea. Write what you enjoy reading. Do you like reading mysteries? Do you read a lot of them? Then, as a writer, you will probably be better at writing mysteries than, say, romances or sci-fi. But maybe you enjoy reading romances. Maybe you read a lot of them. Then, as a writer, you might write better romances than mysteries. Makes sense; right?
But it’s not really that simple, is it? Take mysteries, for instance. There are lots of different kinds of mysteries. What kind of a mystery will you write? According to one website I visited, there are fourteen different categories of mysteries: Caper Novel, Mystery Novel, Crime Novel, Whodunit, Pastiche, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, Cozy, Hard-boiled, Soft-boiled, Police Procedural, Suspense, Thrillers, and True Crime. Okay. But if you visit different websites you will find different lists … like this one: Cozy, Armature Sleuth, Professional Sleuth, Police Procedural, Legal/Medical, Suspense, Romantic Suspense, Historical, Private Eye, Crime, Caper, Noir, and Mixed Genre.
There’s some overlap between the two lists, but several different categories are included in the second list. What kind of a mystery will you write? Whatever the category you enjoy reading is called, that’s the kind you should write. Write the kind of stuff you like to read.
For some people, writing is just a hobby. Those individuals enjoy the writing process and have no serious ambitions about being published. But for those who want to be published, the issue of what kinds of mysteries sell the best might be a concern. After all, publishers are in the business of making money. Publishers aren’t going to be interested in a category of mystery that is likely to sell only a few copies. So what kinds of mysteries are hot right now?
From one point of view, this is a fair question. But should the answer to the question, what’s hot right now, determine what kind of mystery (or romance, or fantasy, or sci-fi) you write? I’m not sure it should. Your writing is better when you are writing the same sort of thing you enjoy reading rather than something you think you need to write because you were told it’s the kind of thing editors are looking for.
So again, what should you write? Write what you enjoy reading. A couple of years ago I went to a writer’s conference. I signed up for a critique session where an editor from a New York publisher would read and critique the first ten pages of my book. The story I was working on at the time was the first book of a detective series I was developing. It was a series that involved a private detective. That’s what I enjoy reading, so that’s what I was writing. My favorite author is Robert Parker. I think his Spenser For Hire series is the best detective series ever written. In addition to Parker’s Spenser, I’d read lots of mysteries that involved private detectives, especially enjoying those written in the first person, where the story is told from the detective’s point of view. The editor who read the first few pages of my story liked my premise—said I had him hooked at page three. But he said PI mysteries were no longer popular and wouldn’t sell. He told me to make my protagonist a reluctant amateur sleuth. That, of course, would have necessitated writing not only a different story, but also a different kind of story.
As I considered that editor’s advice, I thought about all the PI novels that still fill the shelves of bookstores across the country. There are dozens of PI series that sell many thousands of copies each year. Authors keep writing them, publishers keep publishing them, and readers keep buying them. I decided that the editor was simply mistaken. I rejected his advice and continued with my character and my series. The lesson? Editors and agents are just people and they can be wrong. Weigh the advice they give you carefully. I’ll have more to say about that in a future article.
So, write the kind of stuff you enjoy reading. But how much should you read and how should you read it? Once you decide what kind of books you like, and decide (at least tentatively) the kind of books you want to write, focus on several authors who write those kinds of books and read one hundred of their books. And don’t just read them for enjoyment. Read them analytically. What does that mean? It means that as you read, you need to be paying attention to what the author is doing and how he or she is doing it. Here is a partial list of some of the kinds of questions you need to ask yourself as you read:
1. What is the setting and how is it used as part of the story? How does the setting impact the story? Could the same story be told in a different setting? Or would a change of setting require substantive changes in the story? Think about the importance of setting to the story.
2. From what perspective is the story told? Does the author have the lead character tell the story from his or her point of view (first person)? Or does the author use multiple points of view or the omniscient point of view to tell the story? Which do you like best and why? Though I’ve written three novels using the omniscient point of view, as a reader and a writer, I prefer the first person point of view. It’s more personal, more intimate.
3. How does the author provide you with insights into who the characters are? Does she tell you or show you? Showing is always preferable to telling. Some things, of course, must be told, but does the author show you more than tell you? If he has to tell you, does he or she find an interesting way to tell you, such as telling you what you need to know in a dialog between two or more characters? Does the author use subplots to reveal additional insights about his or her characters? I’ll have more about subplots in future articles.
4. How is the story introduced? What happens in chapter one? How does the story proceed from chapter to chapter? For instance, in Robert Parker’s Spenser novels, there is something in every chapter that in some way propels the story forward.
5. What kind of balance is there between description, explanation, and dialog? What kind of balance do you prefer as a reader and why? For instance, I don’t like a lot of description and explanation. I want just enough of those things so I know where a scene is occurring and why. Then I want dialog and action. Why? Because the story happens in the dialog and the action. Adjectives don’t tell stories. For me, good storytelling is less description and more dialog and action.
These are just a few examples of the kinds of things you should be thinking about as you read the stories of the authors you wish to emulate. As a writer, analysis is an important part of reading. How do your favorite authors do what they do?
Each writer must make his or her own decisions as to what to write and how to write it. There are many factors to be considered. But one piece of advice that I find valuable is this: write the kind of stuff that you enjoy reading.
Fiction Writing: Article 2
A Good Mystery Needs More Than A Mystery To Solve
Several months ago I submitted a mystery I wrote to the senior editor of a well-known publisher. She rejected the manuscript because it included scenes and dialog that, she said, were not directly related to solving the mystery. She was right. They weren’t. In her rejection letter, she explained that in a mystery every paragraph and perhaps even every sentence needed to be directly related to solving the mystery. Her opinion, in effect, was that in a good mystery there is no room for a subplot.
Editors have a right to their point of view just like anyone else, but based on the work of a number of best selling mystery authors that I’ve enjoyed over the years, the editor’s point of view about subplots is not shared by everyone. My first thought when I read her email to me was that I could put a stack of over a hundred novels on her desk, each written by a best selling author who evidently does not share her perspective. Based on what she said to me, she would have rejected each of those novels because they contained scenes and dialog that were not directly related to solving the mystery.
Is it the case that a mystery cannot contain material that is not directly related to solving the mystery? No, it is not. Can mysteries have subplots? Certainly. Should they? In my opinion, yes.
What is a subplot? A subplot is an additional, secondary storyline that is embedded in your main storyline. It might be connected to your main storyline in such a way that the resolution of your mystery in some way depends on events in the subplot. Or, a subplot can run parallel to the main storyline, not related to it at all. In either kind of subplot, we gain valuable insights into the detective that help us get to know him or her better.
Robert Parker was a master at using subplot to provide us with insights into his characters. One of the reasons Parker’s Spenser series was so popular, selling not only millions of books but spawning a series of made for TV movies, was Spenser’s relationships with Susan and Hawk. True, Hawk was often Spenser’s partner, but there was more to the relationship than just the two of them solving a mystery or beating up on the bad guys. And Spenser’s relationship with Susan was often a completely separate plot line that had little direct bearing on solving the mystery but a great deal to do with providing interesting insights into Spenser. And then there was Spenser’s cooking. Sometimes Parker would take half a page to have Spenser tell us what he was fixing Susan for dinner, which had nothing whatsoever to do with solving the mystery. The same was true for Parker’s Jesse Stone stories: best-selling books, made for TV movies, and subplots that had nothing to do with solving the mystery.
And Parker isn’t the only best-selling mystery novelist to use subplot to his storytelling advantage. Janet Evanovich, in her Stephanie Plum novels, is masterful in her weaving together of multiple subplots with her main storyline. Part of what we like about Stephanie is how, in the process of solving a mystery, she deals with a mother who is frustrated with her life choices, her eccentric Grandma Mazer, her well-meaning but totally inept friend, former ho, and sometime partner, Lula, and two hunks, Ranger and Morelli, who, in their own different ways love and desire her.
I could go on with additional examples, but the point, I believe, has been made. Everything in a mystery does not have to be directly related to solving the mystery. Subplots can be powerful devices to provide insight into the character and psyche of the characters. This can be especially important in a series. One of the reasons Parker’s Spenser and Jesse Stone novels were (and remain) so popular, and why Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels sell so well is that we like the characters. We know something about their lives, their problems, their strengths and weaknesses. They are friends that we care about. That kind of reader intimacy can only be achieved when interesting subplots are used in multiple books.
But you have to be careful with subplots. They can be like spirited horses that need to be reigned in. If they are not managed, they can run away with your story. Subplots must remain sub … subservient and secondary to the main storyline.
So what are we to make of all this? First, it is simply not the case that everything in a mystery must be directly related to solving the mystery. Second, a good subplot can add depth to your characters, making them three-dimensional people with whom readers can identify and sympathize more fully.
Fiction Writing: Article 3
Is It Enough To Simply Tell An Entertaining Story?
Is it enough for a writer to simply tell a good story? No. In the process of telling an entertaining story, a good writer, even if only implicitly, deals with important ethical, social, relational, or personal concerns. A good writer makes readers think about important things while they are being entertained.
There is a long and proud tradition in the Arts and Literature, going all the way back to ancient Greece, that utilizes stories as a way not only to entertain, but to teach and to provoke consideration of and reflection on important issues and concerns. Being born in 1951, one of the cartoons I grew up with was Rocky and Bullwinkle. One of the regular segments of Rocky and Bullwinkle was Aesop’s Fables, a collection of morality tales designed to teach important concepts. Aesop was a Greek storyteller who probably lived between 620 and 560 BCE. His stories were meant to teach lessons about good character and proper behavior. They were designed to make people think. Why did the creators of Rocky and Bullwinkle use these ancient stories in a cartoon program meant to entertain children? Could it have been that they believed that it was the responsible of those who have the attention of people, even children (or maybe especially children), to say something meaningful?
Later in the 1960s, Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek. One of the reasons the TV and movie franchise has remained viable may be due to the fact that Roddenberry’s approach to exciting and entertaining storytelling, an approach that has remained foundational to the franchise’s success, was the use of morality plays. Episode and episode of Star Trek deals with important human issues or concerns.
Those who are considered great writers have adopted that same approach. Consider a few examples:
Jane Austin, in Pride and Prejudice, deals with the status of women and the institution of marriage in eighteenth century England.
John Steinbeck, in Grapes of Wrath, addressed the economic challenges faced by the rural class during the depression.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, wrote about conspicuous consumption, the generation of wealth by questionable means, and a deplorable general lack of interest in the social concerns of his day.
Ernest Hemmingway, in For Whom The Bell Tolls, wrote about the brutality of war.
Upton Sinclair, in The Jungle, wrote about the dangers and health risks of the food industry of his day.
What made those writers great? Was it that they got the grammar right? Probably not—though getting the grammar right is important. Was it that they knew how to construct an intriguing story? That was probably part of it. But each had his or her own style of writing. Their books read differently and have a different feel. So what made them great writers? While there was likely not one single thing that made their work great, I suspect one of the things was that they wrote not just to entertain, but to provoke thoughtful reflection. The fiction of these well-known writers (all of it, not just the stories mentioned above) helped readers think about important issues. They (and others like them) didn’t just write. They wrote about something. Something important.
Could it be that too many writers today have lost sight of this important component of good writing? Is it enough to simply write an entertaining story? No, it is not. The good writer finds a way to touch on some important human issue or concern. The good writer not only entertains, but also provokes.
The important human issues or concerns don’t always need to be huge issues, such as the status of women, the brutality of war, social equality, or health issues. Things that might be considered lesser concerns by some, can still be important. Issues such as personal integrity, self-control, loyalty, friendship, kindness, discretion, moderation, courage, trustworthiness, and the like are important concerns for human life and interaction. Think about what J.K. Rowling did in her wildly popular and influential Harry Potter books. While she entertained us with a wonderful world of magic, she wrote about the struggle between good and evil. She wrote about courage, friendship, loyalty, determination and sacrifice. And while some critics might say that Rowling is not a great writer, maybe it is possible for a good writer to write a great book … or two or seven.
Writing that focuses attention on important aspects of human existence, even if only implicitly, is, I believe, better writing than that which simply entertains without provoking any kind of thoughtful consideration.