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On Reviewing Fiction

Posted on February 3, 2005 by Monica Valentinelli

These days almost everyone with a home computer at some point or another wants to be a writer. As a consequence the fiction market has been flooded with new authors: some good, some bad. But what makes a piece of fiction “bad”? How does the average reader know what’s worthwhile to read and what isn’t?

Enter the reviewer. The job of the fiction reviewer has never been more challenging. Deciding whether or not a work is deserving of a reader’s attention is, arguably, a matter of opinion. So when writing a fiction review, maintaining a level of objectivity is essential. Reviewing fiction is, in essence, two jobs. The first is to judge the literary work, the second is to write about that judgment. There are lots of tools in a reviewer’s arsenal that can help lead to that second step.

Fiction Review Tools

Judge the writing based on its nuts and bolts

Does the work have a lot of typos? Are the correct verb tenses used consistently throughout? Grammar is the operating system for any piece of writing. Incorrect word use (lie vs. lay, for example) may indicate an inexperienced writer. Inconsistent verb usage is the most common grammatical error. Even the most experienced writer can make a mistake. If the editor doesn’t catch it, a careful reader can be jarred by the change. Punctuation, while essential to phrase a thought or a sentence, is not merely a matter of grammar. The meaning of style has transcended everyday grammar and has become a writer’s calling card.

A writer’s style is his (or hers) pick-up line

While grammar is a story’s telephone number, style is the line that gets the digits. How can you tell if something is a matter of style? If the writer uses grammar and/or punctuation intentionally, that usage will be repeated throughout the work. An example of this is sentence length. To illustrate pacing, a writer may choose to use either long or short sentences. To illustrate thought, a writer may choose to italicize the phrases. Others may choose to write in sentence fragments. Writing in fragments is currently a highly debated style tool. Style may also be illustrated in terms of genre. Other stylistic points like the use of too many dialog tags (e.g. “said” or “thought”) can indicate a writer’s level of experience. A well-read reviewer may not look too kindly on bad grammar.

Your way is not the only way

When reading a work it is imperative that you read it for what it is, not for what you would have written. If you feel the urge to rewrite a writer’s ending, or tweak a character’s appearance, remember that you as a reviewer are the third party observer. This also is applicable in those moments when you read someone other than your favorite author and are inclined to rewrite the story based on your go-to girl.

A reviewer’s point-of-view is a lot like the old question, “If you saw a room with windows, would you be on the inside looking out or on the outside looking in?” The reviewer’s distance forces them to always be on the outside.

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Some writers dread reading reviews of their work. Telling a writer that their work is crap is destructive and creates instant hostility. Your opinion will get lost in a flurry of harsh words. Constructive criticism, on the other hand, goes a lot further. Writing improves with time and practice. The writer you are so quick to admonish now may be a best seller in the future. Pointing out what makes a work good and bad is a precious thing for a writer. Well-written reviews are ones that both the writer and the audience pay attention to.

Good genre fiction does not include used car salespeople

This 1987 Honda may not be as fast as the 2004 Honda, but it is still the same car. In the world of genre fiction, there are hundreds of ways of saying the same thing. Horror is a great example of this. In horror you have bad guys and good guys. Sometimes people get killed, sometimes they get scared, and sometimes they turn into something scary. Yet no matter how many different creepy characters a writer pens (or how many haunted houses exist) it’s the thrill of suspense that hooks a reader every time. When reviewing genre fiction, one rule of objectivity would be to divulge what genre class the fiction belongs to (e.g. gothic horror vs. hack-n-slash) before revealing its plot. What makes genre fiction worthwhile is its ability to entertain. If you, as a reviewer, are checking under your covers, chances are the story did its job.

Gaming fiction has rules that are not meant to be broken

Regardless of who chooses to delve into the world of gaming fiction, there are lots of rules. No matter how good the writer, writing within the strict confines of setting, powers and abilities can take a toll on any piece of work. Gaming fiction is more challenging to write than any genre fiction that involves overused archetypes (e.g. angels or vampires) because the author is writing within the realm of someone else’s universe. When casting an opinion it helps to have read the game the work was based off of. An example of gaming fiction is the new fiction novel “Hunger Like Fire,” written by Greg Stolze, for White Wolf’s Vampire: The Requiem. Not only did Mr. Stolze write the novel within V:TR’s frame of reference, he wrote the first novel in that universe. Talk about challenging! Another thing to remember is that sometimes the author has restrictions beyond the gaming universe. For example, maybe they are required to mention a certain character or write the novel from a certain point-of-view. With gaming fiction, meaningful and rich content can be more important than structure.

So now that you’ve read your book to review, and you’ve judged it, are you ready to write it? The fiction review is challenging to write, because this is the least mechanical form to comment upon. Unlike RPGs, video games, and DVDs, there are only two primary things to focus on: the story, and how the story was written. As a result, these types of reviews can be a bit shorter than other types of reviews.

One tool that may help writing your review is to sit down and have an outline or a template. Here are some categories to keep in mind when fleshing out your thoughts:

Fiction Book Components

  • Setting. Did the setting add or detract from the storyline? Was it described well enough you could draw a picture of it?
  • Characters. If these characters were people, would you be interested in having dinner with them? What did you like about them? Dislike?
  • Characters, Signature (Gaming). Were the characters written true to their nature in game? Did you like seeing them in action?
  • Theme. Was there a moral to this story? Did the characters grow or respond naturally to the storyline?
  • Style. Was the story easy to read? Did you find some of the writing odd or out of place? Did the style fit the characters? Plot?
  • Grammar. Were the mechanical nuts and bolts in good working order?
  • Mood (Genre and/or Gaming). Were you scared out of your mind? Happy? Did the mood go hand-in-hand with the setting?
  • Plot. Was the story interesting enough to keep you reading? Was the plot twist too contrived?
  • Pacing. Was it too slow in parts, too fast in others?
  • Details (Gaming). Did the novel fit the game setting? Were there glaring details out of place? Did it enhance the game or distract from it? Motivate you to run a game?
  • Beginning/ Ending. Did you like the way the story began? Ended? Did the ending seem appropriate for the story? Or were there one too many questions?

Writing the Fiction review

Now that you have your thoughts on paper, you’ll be amazed to find how much you have to say on the subject. Although there are many different ways of writing a fiction review, there are some pieces of information that should be present in your first paragraph. Title and author’s name should appear so your reader knows what work you’re referring to. It also doesn’t hurt to write the publisher and, if it’s gaming fiction, to reference the game line and their publisher.

The meat of the review may utilize all or none of the thoughts you have gathered in your outline. Things to avoid would be sentences like, “It was good” or “It sucked.” A thesaurus can come in handy to flavor your writing when you’re stuck for a description. Ending the review is always difficult. You have several options. You can tie into your first paragraph, talk about what’s next for the author, or end with your own experiences. Because the writer’s market has exploded online, it can be a nice touch to add the author’s url or homepage.

Other Reviews

When writing your review, it helps to read other fiction reviews. If you’re writing a review on gaming fiction, has a host of reviews. If you’re writing literary reviews, your local newspaper or is a good place to start. Genre fiction reviews can be found where retailers specialize in selling that type of work. An example of where you can find some genre reviews is, a retailer for horror books. Be sure to check out a website’s links page if they have one, you may find additional reviews somewhere else. If you tap into another source for a quote, remember to reference it.

In Conclusion

Now that you’re done with your first draft, you’re ready for someone else’s opinion. Whenever possible, always have someone read over your work. It may take more than one try for the words to flow in your own style. Convinced your review is finally done? You’re ready to submit it and start reading another book!

Happy writing!

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