Novelists live and die by reviews, yet uncovering what garners a gushing ovation or blistering takedown is often a mystery. A professional critic lays out what it takes to earn five-star book reviews.
There I sat, the lone book critic at a lunch table full of established novelists: Nicole Peeler,
Victoria Thompson, Lee Tobin McClain, Rebecca Drake, Anne Harris.
They were all instructors at Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction program—one of the few graduate curriculums in the country specializing in writing commercial fiction—and I had just landed a job as a program mentor.
For two decades I’d been working as a freelance genre fiction book critic for outlets such as BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and the Chicago Tribune. After sharing my credentials with the group, some of the writers began telling stories about mediocre or bad reviews they’d received at different points in their careers from one or more of the companies I’d listed.
All eyes were on me—and not in a good way. I was inundated with questions: “Who are these people that write reviews? How do titles get chosen for review? How are books judged? What exactly constitutes a ‘starred review’?”
Some answers were easier than others. I told them that critics, while anonymous at companies like
Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and BlueInk Review, are highly knowledgeable in the categories they review. Editors at the respective companies pick releases to be reviewed from the numerous galleys and advanced reader copies (ARCs) that arrive in the mail every week, and from that stack assign books to their reviewers.
Yet when it came to the specific criteria for judging a book, I could only explain how I, personally,
critiqued novels. While part of my responsibility is to qualitatively compare titles to other releases in a specific genre or category—and to sometimes put a noteworthy work into historical context—I approach my job as a universal reader of sorts. I’ve always devoured books. As an introverted kid growing up in the ’70s, I read anything I could get my hands on—classic sci-fi and fantasy, pulp mysteries, horror, even “adult” novels like Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Harold Robbins’ The Adventurers, which my mother had secretly stashed away in her nightstand.
As a reviewer, not much has changed since then. I enjoy all genres and have reviewed thousands of titles in hundreds of subgenres ranging from apocalyptic fiction to zombie erotica. (Yes, there’s such thing as zombie erotica.) In the end, genre categorization matters little to me—it’s all about the story.
With that in mind, I decided to formalize a universal framework through which I process and analyze my various reading experiences. While there are undoubtedly specific narrative elements I look for in particular genres (pacing and tension level in thrillers, for example), there’s a pyramid of qualities—a Hierarchy of Needs, if you will—that I seek in every story. While highly simplified, it’s this structure that dictates whether I give a book a positive or negative review.
These five criteria will not only provide a glimpse into how a veteran book reviewer dissects and evaluates a novel but, hopefully, make you look at your writing in a different light. See for yourself: Does your work-in-progress have what it takes to earn a positive review?
The Book Reviewer’s Hierarchy of Needs: How to Earn Five-Star Book Reviews
A book’s degree of readability is the base layer of my reviewer’s pyramid, and the foundation for any good story. The quality of a novel—narrative clarity, narrative fluidity, having a coherent storyline—is directly related to the number of times I put that book down. Some are so bad, so poorly written, that I struggle to get through a single paragraph without wanting to walk away. Others have such a fl uid plot that I find it virtually impossible to stop reading—Tad Williams’ The Witchwood Crown and Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass being two such examples of utterly readable, page-turning novels.
I’ve read a lot of “unputdownable” books over the last few decades, and the vast majority of these all have something in common beyond a clear and fluid narrative: The stories have noticeably strong chapter beginnings and endings. It’s a small thing, but a great way to compel readers to keep reading. How can you put a book down when every chapter begins and ends with a cliffhanger sequence, bombshell plot twist or powerful statement? When I consistently find these elements in a novel, I know the author fully understands the significance of readability.
Conversely, novels that aren’t as readable—that are poorly written with awkward sentence structure, a confusing storyline, weak chapter beginnings and endings—are almost asking to be tossed aside. This may sound obvious, but if you can’t compel a reader to read your story, then you need to focus more on your craft before penning another book.
I define immersion as the ability for me, the reader, to not only lose myself in a novel (I call these “stay-up-allnight-till-your-eyes-bleed” reads) but to experience the story intimately, living vicariously through the characters.
This trick is accomplished through a continued focus on setting, rich description and atmospherics. I
don’t want to experience the story as a detached viewer looking down at what’s happening—I want to feel like I’m in the story.
The litmus test for this is easy. If I become so engaged with a book that I lose track of time—if I glance at the clock and hours have passed by—you’ve succeeded in drawing me fully into your read. Writers who are absolute immersion masters (think Cherie Priest, Justin Cronin, Charlaine Harris) are so good at captivating description that weeks, months and oftentimes years after reading
their novels I can still vividly recall specific scenes.
This layer is where many writers stumble, and here’s why: While they may excel at world-building and meticulous description at the beginning of a novel, once the action and adventure ramps up, they not only lose focus but completely ignore description altogether. I’ve seen this happen countless times in every genre: rich description for the first 100 pages or so, then almost nothing in the final 200.
It’s called literary escapism for a reason. If I can’t lose myself in a read—from beginning to end—then I haven’t fully escaped.
3. Character Depth and/or Plot Intricacy
Three-dimensional, interesting and identifiable characters bring emotional connectivity and intensity to the read. If your readers aren’t emotionally invested in your characters, then the narrative impact of your story is inevitably going to be negatively impacted. Emotions wield power. If you can bring your readers to tears, make them laugh out loud or scare them to the point of checking under the bed, then you’ve succeeded on some level.
Creating authentic characters to whom readers can relate is a solid achievement—but an obvious word of warning: Stay clear of clichés and stereotypes. Overused conventions—like the Chosen One in fantasy who is consistently a white male, or the emotionally damaged billionaire entrepreneur in erotic fiction who needs to sexually dominate his love interest—even if brilliantly rendered, will underwhelm and disappoint more than a few readers (and reviewers).
Now, the reason I include an “and/or” between character development and plot intricacy is because, in some rare cases (particularly in mainstream thrillers), a novel with an impressively knotty storyline can still succeed with relatively cardboard characters.
Which is why plot intricacy is key: Why read a novel where you can accurately predict what’s going to happen after a few chapters? (I do that quite often. After reading the first chapter or two, I’ll jot down a prediction in my notes. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve guessed the ending correctly.) I just finished reviewing a brilliant historical mystery for Publishers Weekly that was filled with so many plot twists I was left guessing until the last few pages.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a fantasy or a thriller or a romance—the plot has to be intricate enough to keep your reader simultaneously engaged and a bit off balance.
4. Originality and Innovation
This one ties in with embracing originality, be it atypical characters or unconventional story structure. So many books out there today are built upon unoriginal, rehashed, derivative storylines. I read a lot. And I get bored easily, especially when reading the same basic story arc again and again.
My advice? Don’t play it safe. Write a story that you’ve never read before. In a 2016 Goodreads interview I conducted with fantasy novelist Michael J. Sullivan, author of Age of Myth, he said, “It doesn’t matter if it’s been done before. It just matters if it’s being done well now.”
I love that quote. Just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be re-envisioned or reimagined, but be innovative—put a new twist on an old mythos, turn a stereotype on its head. Have the courage to be creative!
5. Thematic Profundity
In the introduction to the 2006 reissue of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s 1960 Hugo Award–winning classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Mary Doria Russell writes, “You’ll be different when you finish it.” That’s my hope for every novel I pick up—that within the story there will be some kind of spiritual and/or existential wisdom, some kind of revelation or insight that will change the way I look at myself and the world around me.
A novel that holds this kind of thematic power—as well as the other aforementioned elements in the Hierarchy of Needs—will get a starred review from me every time. Stories, no matter the genre, have the power to change lives. Novels like Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We have irrevocably changed who I am. After all, that’s the ultimate goal, right? To write a commercially successful and critically acclaimed novel that is both entertaining and enlightening.
Evaluating a novel is a cumulative process. Those with masterful character development but zero immersion will still receive a poor review, for example, while a thematically profound read with excruciatingly bad readability will receive a terrible review.
May this Hierarchy of Needs not only make you more aware of how your writing is experienced by readers—and jaded book reviewers like myself—but also offer up a few invaluable insights that can be used to improve your craft. Who knows, maybe my next starred review will be yours.
Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.
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