I love to read. And after I read a book I often post a book review of it at the major book buying sites and at GoodReads.com. If I like the book, I like to say so. If I didn’t like the book, I need to be able to say why I didn’t like it. In order to facilitate my reasoning in either case, I’ve developed a simple formula for reviewing a book on the 5-star scale. This is primarily for fiction, but non-fiction can be done the same way, you just have to substitute presentation and knowledge for dialogue and characterization.
Here is my formula for scoring a book review on a five star method:
Is the book free of grammatical errors, typos and editing mistakes? Even a compelling story will become a chore to read if I am repeatedly pulled out of the story by obvious errors in punctuation, grammar, inept word choices, and typos. These are things that any serious writer will fix before publishing a book. Generally these require a second set of eyes. I firmly believe that few, if any, authors are able to effectively edit their own work.
This is a deal killer in my world. A book that is so poorly edited that it becomes a chore to read will get set aside and abandoned as I move on to the next book on my list in hopes that it will be a more enjoyable reading experience.
This type of problem is becoming more and more prevalent with the burgeoning of self-publication; especially in eBooks. In their rush to get their books published and become millionaires, some authors neglect the editing phase entirely.
If the book is well edited and a pleasure to read; are the characters well developed and believable? Cardboard characters and caricature characters will stop even a compelling plot line dead in it’s tracks because you can not relate to or identify with them. Even alien creatures, if they are a major player in the story, need to be believable. Do you care what happens to them? Are they so two-dimensioned that they just don’t seem real?
Is the dialogue natural, adding to the story not getting in its way? Stiff, forced, or corn-ball dialogue adds nothing to a story and does nothing to make a character more real. Likewise, each character needs to have it’s own voice, and that voice should suit the characters, well… character. If all your characters talk just like you do, knowing who is talking is difficult and even if you are a scintillating conversationalist, having all your characters speak the same way is boring.
Failure on any of these first three points will cause me to lay the book aside.
The Storyline or Plot
Is the story or plot compelling – is it a page-turner? Well developed characters who engage in great dialogue but don’t do anything interesting will not make a good book. You must have a good plot; it needs to withhold enough to make discovery fun, it needs a few twists tossed in to spice things up, and it needs to end every chapter leaving you wanting to read the next to see what happens next. The best books are those into which you can immerse yourself and lose track of time until you‘ve come to the last page.
The Something New Factor
Does the story show innovation or cleverness in the happenings of the story? Even historical fiction can put a new spin on things by adding a clever twist, something no one has thought of. It is fiction, you are allowed to be original. But it must be believable and substantiated — unless you’re writing fantasy, then you can pretty much just say “Because this is the way it works here” and get away with it. Any book that incorporates a Sci-Fi element is especially subject to this; the science needs to hold up under scrutiny or it fades into fantasy.
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Scoring a book is easy: one star for each heading that it does well. Mediocre performance in a category gets no star, something between mediocre and great gets a half-star.
I never try to dissect a book and give a chapter by chapter analysis of the story. Nor will I explain what the story is all about. What I will do is to say whether I liked the book or not and why. If a book earns all five stars and some aspect of the book just wows me, I’ll talk-up that aspect in the book review.
Also, if reviews left by others gushed about how this author is the greatest in history and their story is so amazing, and I find it to be just not so, I will mention their having “put their thumb on the scale” by having friends and family post overly exuberant, if not outright false, claims about this author’s work so that the book turned out to be a major disappointment to me.
That’s how I do a book review. What methods do you use to “score” a book you’re reading? Whether you plan to review it or not, you will be deciding if it’s a good book or not. How do you decide? Knowing how readers decide these things should help authors decide what needs special attention in their writing.