by LJ Roberts
It took many years and steps before I became, for a time, a paid book reviewer. One was being invited by Robert Rosenwald of Poisoned Pen Press to evaluate manuscripts for them, which I did for three years, and received a list of things for which to look. I have since taken those original suggestions, expanded the list, and use it, albeit not literally, as a guideline when reading books for review.
Although I don’t review to a specific checklist, I’ll admit that these elements are so ingrained in my Virgo brain that I’m very aware of them as I read, make notes, and write my reviews.
The purpose of the hook is to grab the reader and compel them to keep going. But the opening should flow cleanly into the story and the level of interested maintained beyond the opening. Readers do see through the grab if it then fizzles out after the first chapter.
Setting/Descriptions/Sense of time and place
Yes, it does matter. Knowing where and when the story takes place is more than telling the reader. It’s wonderful when writers paint a verbal picture and engage the senses. Referencing landmarks and citing directions are fine if the reader knows the location well, but don’t do much for those who don’t. The real skill comes from making the reader feel as though they are with the characters—part of the story.
Author notes do matter, particularly in historical mysteries, but also in those with fictional settings. Yes, readers read them. It’s good to know what is real, what is not, and what has been altered.
Whether hero or anti-hero, principal or secondary, the characters need to be real. That doesn’t necessarily mean a physical description of the person, but more a sense of the person. We want to know why they are and how they became as they are. It nice when they’re someone we’d like to know, but even if they’re not, they should be someone with whom the reader can empathize/sympathize. Members of my mystery readers’ group have often said they can read a book with a weak plot as long as there are strong characters. That’s a true indication of just how important the characters and their development are.
The backstory is important, even in a series. Even with a favorite author, not all of us have the memory we once had. But it’s also very important for new readers who may come in to the middle of a series. Knowing the history of the character(s) and their relationship to those around them personalizes them. It shouldn’t be extensive or slow the pace of the story, but enough so we can relate to the characters.
If you have a story with a lot of characters, characters with similar names, and/or characters known by several names, such as often happens in historical mysteries, a cast of characters is something devoutly to be wished. Your readers will thank you for it.
Good dialogue flows easily. It reflects the characters’ personalities and situations, as well as social, economic and educational circumstances. If the character comes from another country or is set in a different time, the reader has a sense of that without it being labored or being difficult to read.
Prologues, cliffhangers/portents, flashbacks, multiple-POVs, twists, coincidences. This is probably the area of greatest controversy.
Prologues/cliffhangers are two devices of which I am not fond. Prologues can work as long as they are directly related to the plot, and are not something lifted out from the middle of the story and inserted at the beginning as a substitute for a solid hook.
However, seldom has there been a book where the prologue could not have been done without.
Cliffhangers/portents are completely unnecessary and, in a sense, insulting to the reader. It’s the sign of an author who doesn’t trust their plot so they feel they need to push their audience along; i.e., “Then we found the body.” Well, of course you did. It’s a murder mystery. If one reads a story leaving out every portent, it becomes clear how unnecessary they are. The plot-thread cliffhanger at end of a book is something else entirely. Life doesn’t have neat stops and starts. Nor need have books. Readers want to know what will happen in the future, so carrying on a plot thread does work to keep a reader interested in a series, but it’s not enough on its own.
Flashbacks and multi-POVs can work and be very effective. But care must be taken that the transitions are clear, and their use enhances the plot. Flashbacks, particularly, can feel as if they are filler, if not used well and done with purpose.
Twists and coincidences can be incredibly effective when done well and not overused. The best ones are those one doesn’t see coming but feels should have been. They can provide that “wow” moment. However, a story that relies on twists and/or coincidences almost becomes comical and the impact is lost.
The big one. In spite of the statement related to the importance of the character, if the plot doesn’t work, the book doesn’t work. If it isn’t believable or interesting, if it has holes you can drive a truck through, or forces the reader to make assumptions, you’ve failed. Yes, there are topics of which one becomes tired; serial killers, the disappeared/kidnapped woman, the child in jeopardy, but even those can work if the story is strong.
Most of all, the plot must make sense and make the reader care what happens.
Cadence. Flow. Style. An author’s voice is so important. It needs to be genuine and natural. Some authors truly make you feel as though they, personally, are telling you a story, and that’s great. Even without that, having an even flow to the story is desirable. Having humor, unforced, unexpected, often wry, is memorable and engaging. But if that isn’t part of the author’s voice, it shouldn’t be forced, as readers will know it.
This may be the hardest one. It’s not necessarily a matter of finding a topic or a character never before seen, but more of presenting an idea in an original way. Still, while this is an important element, it’s one that bears the least weight.
Overall quality of writing
This is the summary of all the parts. It’s the final impression. It is where the author, with a minimum of devices, draws the reader into the story on page one and refuses to let go until that final page. It’s where you close the book and, if all the elements work, you may think “Wow!” This is the one that determines whether you’d read more books by this author. Even more importantly, this is the element that determines whether you’d recommend the book/author to others.
There you are. Every reviewer has their own style, of course.
Perhaps it comes from being a Virgo that these are the elements at which I look. No matter; the most important thing to me is that I give fellow readers an honest opinion.
But in the end, “It is purely my opinion.”
LJ Roberts was born with a book in her hands. She is a reader and reviewer of mysteries; a compulsive hooker—the crochet kind, not the street kind—and one who never leaves home without her camera. Her reviews are seen by more than 10,000 people per review, including a monthly email list of 500 subscribers. In 1993, she became the coordinator of the East Bay Mystery Readers’ Group. She started reviewing formally in 2004, spent three years evaluating manuscripts for Poisoned Pen Press, and was a paid reviewer for The Strand Magazine. In 2010, she started her review site “It is purely my opinion,” and is a Top 1% Reviewer with over 1,300 followers on Goodreads as well as in the print magazine Mystery Readers Journal, and on numerous online sites.