Monday, March 09, 2015

"You did NOT just go there!" How to Write a Book Review

Writers, in general, start out as readers. And in the romance world, one of the best ways to help each other - whether as fellow readers or as fellow writers - is to write a review. A well-written review can help a books' sales immeasurably. It can also give an author who is a little uncertain just the right boost to keep them in the game. (All writers who don't need that sort of support every now and again, take one step forward, so the rest of us can pimp slap you. Twice.)

However, a poorly written review or one written in the wrong tone for all the wrong reasons can do far more harm than good. Ever read a review that was so obviously by the author's mother you expect the review to suddenly tell you to "Sit up straight!" or ask "What are you eating? Don't you know how bad that is for you?"

Or how about the review that is so bad you just know the author's husband's ex-wife got together with her girlfriends, two boxes of wine, some chunky monkey ice cream and painted each others toe nails while they wrote the review?

In the interest of fair play and my not having to deny I know you when I read one of your reviews, here are a few tips :

1. Spell check is your friend. If your review looks as if you are in serious need of "Hooked on Phonics," you are not doing the author any favors. No matter how wonderful her "charractors" are, unless the reviewer is talking about thespians who moonlight as cleaning ladies, one begins to doubt a reviewer's veracity when their spelling and grammar indicate the last thing they read was "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish."

2. Do not summarize the entire book scene by scene. If your review can be used as Cliff Notes to pass a midterm exam on the novel, you are the person who has already seen the movie and tells the ending in a stage whisper Helen Keller could hear. In Alabama, that can get you dragged behind the theater, doused in orange Crush and feathered in buttered popcorn. It is okay to tell a little about the story,  but remember a review is to express your opinion of the book, and it is also a tool to encourage other readers to buy the book. You know, so they can read it themselves.

3. Do not gush. Nothing sets my "Relative Radar" or "BFF Alert" off like a string of adjectives so gooey I have to go to the dentist after I read it or at least grab a towel to dry the slobber off my monitor. I have met some of my all-time favorite romance writing heroes at RWA conferences. I've met Leontyne Price, Placido Domingo, and even sang in a master class for Luciano Pavarotti. Somehow I managed to stutter things like "Thank you." "I greatly admire your work." and when I met Vincent Price I even managed to get out "You, sir, have haunted my nightmares for years." (I got a wonderfully wicked laugh out of him and a hug.) Whether you are reviewing a famous author you admire greatly or your critique partner who has talked you down off the ledge more times than Kim Kardashian has made unfortunate fashion choices - read over your review carefully and take out at least half of the adjectives. Now, if I meet Gerard Butler or Richard Armitage all bets are off. I'll climb Gerard or Richard like a low slung magnolia tree and bite the first one of you who tries to pry me away. Fair warning. The review will consist of one word "MINE!"

4. Tell the reader how the book made you feel. Did it draw you in? Did it make you think? Did it keep you up all night? These are the things a potential reader needs to know. What did you learn? What did the characters teach you? What journey did they take you on as they traveled to their HEA? Did it make you laugh, or cry, or shudder? People read to be entertained, but they also read to feel. Of course, if the book made you want to throw it against the wall or throw up like a frat boy on a three-day football weekend, you will want to use some tact in expressing it. Remember, folks, tact is the ability to tell someone to "Go to hell !" in such a way they ask you for directions.

5. Do NOT compare one author to another in a way that has people lining up for a fight night between the two of them. Telling readers if they like Author A they will like the author you are reviewing is perfectly fine. Telling readers the book you are reviewing makes Nora Roberts' latest read like the federal tax code is not only useless to the author of said book, it may well get you both hanged naked by a feather boa over a pool of  hungry tax attorneys and pelted by day old bon bons until you see the error of your ways. If you like a book enough to review it (or dislike one enough to review it) find a more creative and succinct way to say so.

6. So what do you do if you don't like the book? Back away slowly and run for the hills? It is possible to write a review of a book that didn't speak to you without coming off like that self-righteous, hair perfect, size two cheerleader with whom you went to high school. First, tell what you did like about the book. If all you can think of is the font the author's name is in on the cover, you MIGHT want to take that run for the hills option. However, if you can list a few things the author did well and then couch the things you didn't care for in terms that don't cut like a barber's razor - go for it. Be honest. About the writing. If you have met the author and she is a four star *itch, don't use a review to take a cheap shot. And don't write a two page essay on how you would have written the book differently and you would have won two Ritas and a Pulitzer with it. A negative review is like breaking up with a boyfriend. Say what you have to say as nicely as possible and then get in the car and drive away before that sucker finds a gun and starts shooting.

These are a few of my tips for writing a book review. What are some of your tips? What are some of your absolute DON'T's? Do you read reviews of books you are considering buying? Why or why not? Do you read reviews of your own books? Why or why not? What do you look for in a review? What makes it helpful?

Lets talk reviews!


Vanessa Barneveld said...

Wow, you sang for Pavarotti?! I'm sorry, Louisa, I must gush — that's amazing!

Some great food for thought here. As long as they're honest, fair and not unnecessarily savage, I value reviews, and sometimes they sway me into buying a book.

One of my review don'ts? Don't post spoilers, please! Even if a review says "Spoiler alert!!!" it's soooo hard not to look! Or is that just me? :)

Amy said...

Great post.

I wish people would not post spoilers. Teasers I like. I will put teasers in a review. I also like constructive criticism, give me something to improve upon. Why did the book not reach you. I think that's useful.

liztalley said...

I've had a lot of really nice reviews written for me. The best are the ones that are fair and balanced on the things liked and the things that didn't work. Of course, it's way better if the good outweighs the bad.

I'm fine with a line or two though. Lots of people are busy and think that leaving a review requires paragraphs. Nope. A line or two works fine for me.

Ali Hubbard said...

Great advice! And, we may have a fight over Gerard, although it appears that there is plenty of Gerard to go around ;-)

I think you are spot on. I prefer to read shorter reviews without the story summary. And spoilers are killers!

Simple reviews are best.

There are a lot of my chapter mates with books I love. But I feel too uncomfortable writing a review. I worry that it might be some conflict of interest or something. lol. Not quite "author's mother" level, but along the same vein. Or worse, they may think I'm sucking up or have an agenda other than just loving the book. Yes, those years as a buyer and "avoiding the appearance of impropriety" are hard to overcome. lol.

Collette Cameron said...

Wonderful, Louisa!
I agree about the page-by-page review. I also hate spoilers, or reviewers who think it's their "duty" to alert the world to a book's or author's faults.

Cari Hislop said...

Loved your post! Reviews offer endless conundrums. If I know an author and I do a review for their book...I will note that I know the it's right there (but I will give an honest review). If I've paid money for a new book and I feel ripped off by the author for some reason or other I will give them a low star review, but I will keep anything that might spoil the story after a spoiler alert.

I appreciate some people hate spoilers even with the alerts, but I love reading them and they often help me to know whether the story is for me or not. If the book is free...who cares...but not being rich I don't really have money to waste on stories that will make me foam at the mouth.

Sometimes reviewing a book can feel like committing treason. If you love an author, but they write a book that you find disturbing or that falls flat. Does one write the bad review or remain silent? I don't know. Catch 22...both options feel bad!

In general I have one personal rule for reviews and that is, I never review books in my genre unless I can give them a four or five stars. If I can't put my hand on my heart and say I love it...I just don't go there because the stories weren't for me...and a bad review would just make me look like a jerk.

I do always try to say something good if I have to say something negative. It's quite rare that there's nothing good to say (though I have come across them, but most of those I borrowed from the library so I'm not judging the story as a paying customer.

Louisa Cornell said...

It was an unforgettable experience, Vanessa. He was very honest, kind and made some suggestions as to roles I might take on. One of his suggestions ended up being my professional debut role, so the man had great insight. And he had an incredible laugh.

Honest and fair are always good qualities in a review. And I'm with you on the spoilers! I cannot resist temptation so please don't tempt me! :)

Louisa Cornell said...

Thank you, Amy! I think we have a trend going here - no spoilers!

Teasers are good. If you hint at a scene or something I just know I want to read without revealing all I am far more likely to buy the book.

And constructive criticism is great! If I keep getting the same criticism from a number of people I know I need to pay attention!

Louisa Cornell said...

Definitely want a balanced review that leans toward the good, Liz! And I am not surprised you have received good ones. LOVE your books!

And you hit on something very important. A brief good review beats the heck out of long, drawn out one, even if the long one is good. I think people stop reading at a certain point. Tell me what you liked. Why you would want a friend to read the book and get outta' there!

Louisa Cornell said...

Ali, I have a feeling Gerard is the kind of man who wouldn't mind being shared! :)

And hey, if you really love a book review it. Keep it simple and honest and it won't matter if it is a chapter mate's book or not.

Louisa Cornell said...

Exactly, Collette. A reviewer who feels the need to denounce every single supposed flaw in an author's work as a "public service" has an agenda and a Paul Bunyon sized ax to grind.

Louisa Cornell said...

That is a good rule when reviewing books in your genre, Cari. Sometimes it is best to keep some things to yourself.

However, I have to say if you have read almost everything an author has written and their latest simply doesn't measure up there are tactful ways to say so, and were I said author I would appreciate it. The really great authors who write for their readers will appreciate it as well.

As you said, reviews are trickier than sneaking past a pack of hungry Rottweilers in hamburger underwear. At some point or another, unless you are very careful, you are going to get your butt chewed. LOL

Cari Hislop said...

Thanks for your comment! Maybe I should just write the author...or maybe I should just leave it alone and not go there!!!

Speaking of getting past large scary dogs...when I was a teen I had a paper route and one house left their unfriendly German shepherd tied up on the front porch. He sat there growling as I put the paper in it's place and then I turned around to leave and he lunged and I instinctively jumped. He managed to tear a large hole in my trousers (over my bum), but I was otherwise unscathed. Scary! I would NOT want to repeat the exercise with a Rottweiler!

Ella Quinn - Romance Novelist said...

It has taken me forever to get this to load! But it was worth it. Great post Louisa!! No one else could have said it better.

Louisa Cornell said...


Writing to an author privately is perfectly okay. Even if there is something about the book that didn't speak to you or was not what you expected from this author there are ways to express that which a good author will appreciate.

OUCH !! German shepherds have a lethal bite. Glad you made it out of there with your bum relatively intact.

Louisa Cornell said...

Thank you so much, Ella!