Ask the Expert!

QUESTION #10 from Jacob Baugher

Q: I don’t know if we’re allowed to ask repeat questions but I’ve been thinking about this question for a few weeks now and thought it might be valuable for the “Ask The Expert” column.

At what point does cross-genre ingenuity stray into obscurity? I’ve picked up Gideon the 9th recently and it seems to be sort of a mix of a locked room mystery with a noir voice in a sci-fi setting with a magic system and strong elements of romance. Obviously, Tamsyn Muir created something highly successful and marketable. Where does she succeed where other authors may fall short? For example, a hardboiled detective urban fantasy meets first contact? Or maybe a Far-Future SF Military Thriller with wizards where magic and technology coexist (or are in direct conflict). I guess the overarching theme of my question is more “in your experience are these stories possible and marketable and, if so, how do you see successful authors balancing all these genre elements without falling into a spastic, disjointed narrative.”

In my experience, it seems commonplace to combine a “structural” genre with an “aesthetic” genre — urban fantasy being the most obvious example — crossing a mystery structure with the fantasy aesthetic, but balancing two or more different, seemingly incongruous aesthetics, like spaceships and wizards and technology and the arcane “hidden world” would be much more difficult.

A: Great question, Jacob. So, as you know, I’ve been saying for more than the last decade that genre hybridization isn’t a trend, it’s a natural evolution of genre fiction. I’m certainly not saying that conventional genre categories will ever go away—because they won’t—but there is unarguably a growing segment of genre fiction that embraces storylines that utilize genre elements from a diversity of categories.

A great example of this was a few years back when the novels in Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy (2010-2016) were released. These shelf-bending epics were mainstays on national bestseller lists but categorizing these novels was impossible—it was simultaneously post-apocalyptic fiction, horror, science fiction, vampire fiction, and travelogue. When I interviewed Cronin for Goodreads back in 2016, he shocked me when he talked about the novel that he modeled this genre-transcendent storyline after: Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove! “People ask, ‘What’s the book behind The Passage?’ and they all think it’s an apocalyptic novel, but it’s not—it’s a novel about this great cattle drive that was written by Larry McMurtry. I look at The Passage as essentially a road novel.”

And look at Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake saga—27 novels and counting, going all the way back to 1993. These novels are erotic romance, they’re dark fantasy, and they’re hard-boiled mystery!

So, here’s what I’m getting at. The advantages of genre-hybridization are obvious—readers get fresh, wildly original stories and writers not only get to play in an exponentially larger sandbox but have the opportunity to widen their audience. But here’s the catch—it always comes down to the quality of the story, and some of these genre blending storylines just don’t work.

I think your theory about combining structural and aesthetic genres is overthinking things a bit. If the genre mix works, and is palatable to readers—like Kat Richardson’s dark blend of Chandleresque mystery and supernatural fiction in her Greywalker saga or Diana Gabaldon’s fusion of romance and time travel in her Outlander saga—that’s an exciting foundation, and makes for a potentially entertaining reading experience: but the story still needs to be strong.

A genre hybridized novel with a crappy storyline (formulaic plot, cardboard characters, inadequate world building, etc.) will crash and burn just as quickly as a conventional genre fiction release with an equally crappy storyline.

So, Jacob, I’m obviously a big fan of genre hybridization. I’ve read many amazing novels in the past few years that flawlessly blend elements from seemingly disparate genre categories. But in every one of those novels, it was ultimately about the strength of the story. Just like any other conventional genre release, it’s great if the exterior of your narrative vehicle is sporting a fresh color or an innovative, sleek new design but it’s ultimately about what’s under the hood.

QUESTION #9 from K. R. Monin

Q: As a reviewer, do you prefer to see old conventions done well, or totally new takes on the genres? To phrase another way, if a story is well-written and engaging, but doesn’t feel original, does this lower your reading experience and ultimate review, or might a non-unique book still top your charts?—then how about vice versa, if a book tries too hard to be original and ends up a little obscure, do you give the author points for trying?

Thanks for considering!

A: An excellent question, K.R., and an important one as it can be directly connected to a novel’s commercial success and not just whether a title receives critical acclaim or not.

Quick backstory: I’ve reviewed more than 10,000 genre fiction titles and have been reading nonstop for almost the last 25 years. A sizable percentage of the novels I review are formulaic, rehashed, uninspired stories that offer up nothing in terms of originality and innovation. Some of these novels are well written, with numerous noteworthy aspects like readability, solid world-building and character development, plot intricacy, etc. The problem is that I’ve read the exact general stories before, countless times. The characters and setting may be different but the story arc is so well-traveled that if it were a tire there would be no tread left on it at all.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this embracing of formula. Oftentimes, these novels sell very well. Many readers regularly seek out the comfort of a familiar read. But the ideal for writers, and publishers, is “familiar but unique”—give your audience something that is easily recognizable (like a murder mystery, a Regency romance, or a paranormal fantasy) but give them something new—a different take on a main character, an unexpected plot twist, a variation of world-building…

This innovation can include a relatively minor narrative tweak or it can be a radical change, something that is considered wildly ambitious and fearless. I remember back in 2010, at the height of paranormal fantasy’s Golden Age, Stacia Kane began releasing her Downside saga (Unholy Ghosts, Unholy Magic, City of Ghosts, et. al.), a series I described as “one of the most innovative—and important—paranormal fantasy sagas I’ve ever read.”

Set in a near future where governments and religions have been made irrelevant, the backstory of the Downside saga sets the stage for an unforgettable story. During a seven-day span in 1997, humankind was irrevocably changed when ghosts rose from their graves and killed millions of innocents. Only one small group, called the Church of Real Truth, devoted to the theory and study of magic, had the knowledge to control and defeat the ghosts. Now, several decades in the future, the Church essentially runs the world. There are no governments and no religions: “Who wasted their lives believing in a god when the Church had proof of the afterlife on its side? When the Church knew how to harness magic and energy?” The Church has even gone as far as to vow to reimburse citizens being haunted by the wicked dead. Debunkers are brought in to either banish the offending spirits or expose those fraudulent citizens trying to cheat the church out of money.

Kane’s singularly unique and deeply flawed protagonist Cesaria “Chess” Putnam is a Debunker. She is also a hardcore junkie, whose self-hate and paralyzing fear of having to deal with a nightmarish childhood—and more than a few bad decisions—have kept her anesthetized by drugs for years.

“That bitter numbness—so soothing—in her nose and sinuses, the back of her throat… like parts of her didn’t exist anymore. Especially when her heart jumped and happiness blossomed in her chest, in her mind. Definitely like parts of her didn’t exist anymore. All the bad parts.” (from Sacrificial Magic)

When these novels first came out, K.R., they were groundbreaking—in large part because of the unique elements of the storyline: the drug addicted heroine but also because of the depth of Kane’s world-building, her innovative use of language, and the overall philosophical depth of the storyline.

I loved these novels—not only because they were great stories, but because they were great stories I’d never experienced before.

So, after all of that rambling—as a reviewer, I most definitely “reward” writers who take chances, who explore unexplored territory, who try something new. Some of my all-time favorite novels are by authors who had the narrative courage to attempt something new: Stepan Chapman’s The Troika, Woman’s World by Graham Rawle, and Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? by Max Brallier, to name a few off the top of my head.

But here’s the catch—if you attempt something original, you better do it right or it’s all going to crash and burn. Big risk, big reward, right?

Ideally, I think the perfect read for me—and I’m talking as a genre fiction critic here—would be an emotionally connective and thematically powerful novel that feels familiar but ultimately offers up something unexpected. That’s not asking for too much, is it?

QUESTION #8 from Jacob Baugher

Q: Hi, Paul! My question is sort of a two-part question. As a book reviewer, you’ve probably read your fair share of great novels, but I’m interested in hearing about the not-so-great ones. What are some of the worst novels that you’ve ever read and why were they so bad? Additionally, both as a reviewer and as someone who teaches fiction writers, when you are encountered with work that is less-than-stellar, how do you approach the critique and correction?

Sort of along the same lines, what are some genre trends that, in your opinion, are holding genres back from fully realizing their potential. I’m thinking specifically in the epic fantasy world, with the popularity of Goodkind in the late 90s/early 2000s, and Game of Thrones recently, the poor treatment of women — sexual assault and rape. I know, as a young writer, I encountered these tropes and, I hate to admit it, but I thought that they were just a normal part of the genre — showing how bad the villain is by having them do something heinous. Fortunately, I’ve left this misconception behind, thanks, in no small part, to you and other SHU mentors. So, I guess to sum up: What are some tropes/trends you’d like to see kick the bucket and what are some that you’d like to see brought back?

Thanks for doing this and for making your expertise available!

A: Thanks for the questions, Jacob. So, yes, I’ve read a lot of truly terrible novels over the last 25 years—both self-published and traditionally published. Some novels were so bad that the experience actually triggered a visceral reaction—I’ve thrown novels out into my front yard when there’s three feet of snow outside, ripped them apart immediately after I finished reading, I’ve even tossed a few into my fireplace just to watch them burn. These have been rare occasions, admittedly, but in all cases it’s come down to one thing—a writer’s (or publisher’s) complete lack of respect for the readers. I reviewed novels where there have been dozens of grammatical errors on every single page—some pages had errors in every sentence! That’s not only lazy and unprofessional—it’s insulting, essentially telling the reader that the writer doesn’t care one bit about the reader’s awful literary experience.

That lack of respect for readers encompasses more than blatant sloppiness—formulaic storylines can come into play here as well. I’ve read novels where the storylines are eerily similar to genre classics and/or bestsellers. I’ve read Twilight rip-offs, The Da Vinci Code rip-offs, so many Fifty Shades of Grey rip-offs… Again, there’s a lack of respect there for the readers—publishers or writers serving up uninspired, rehashed storylines with no attempt to change the general storyline even a little. The next time I have to review another erotic romance where a successful businessman plays vanilla BDSM games with his submissive love interest, I can almost guarantee you that the novel will be thrown into my fireplace.

If publishers and indie writers expect readers to pay them for their literary releases, and ideally return for more, they need to make sure that their product is high quality and professionally produced. The fact that reviewers are cathartically hurling their books out into front yards after reading them isn’t a good sign at all. There’s too much competition out there to serve up anything but your very best effort. Bottom line: have respect for your audience. Give them a well-conceived and well-produced work.

Your question about how I approach the critiquing of a student’s work that may be “less-than-stellar” is easily answered. I approach each and every work the same way—by quantifying the story’s narrative strengths and weaknesses. Once we identify those weaknesses—it could be a predictable plot, cardboard characters, lack of world-building, etc.—and figure out how to strengthen them, then we look at the manuscript from the standpoint of a prospective agent or publisher. Who is the audience? What are the selling points? How does this measure up to other comparable new releases? This exercise can be beneficial to students as it forces them to look at their work from a different, more commercial, perspective.

Lastly, great question about tropes. Genre fiction—and fiction in general—is in the midst of a (decades’ overdue) sea change. Sexist and racist tropes are finally being left behind, although I do still run across them, like xenophobic stereotypes in military thrillers, which isn’t all that surprising. These outdated tropes, like female characters being objectified and/or seen as liabilities in adventure fantasy, are being replaced with more diverse and inclusive storylines—in all genre categories—and it’s been wonderful to see.

One convention I’d love to see come back is the utopianism of the science fiction from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Dystopian storylines have been a prominent fixture in genre fiction for decades now and it would be nice to have a little hope in my literary escapism.  I remember as a kid reading novels like The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974), Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), and 2150 AD by Thea Alexander (1971) and really being inspired about what the future can hold. I’d love to see a new generation excited and encouraged about humankind’s potential again…

QUESTION #7 from Thomas Duffy

Q: I was a film reviewer in college. The studios sent us press kits for each film. I have always personally believed they are meant to sway the reviewer in a positive way so I never read them but I was wondering if these exist in the world of independent publishing. Would sending a press kit help at all? Would the reviewer even read it? With a new book coming out, I would like to know if I should make a “press notes” package for my reviewers. Or would this be silly?

A: Thomas, another great question. So, press kits have been a bit of a controversial topic for decades. The question always comes down to: “are they worth the time and money?” When I first started reviewing at B&N back in the ‘90s, I received press kits quite often. Sometimes they were simply a folder containing the press release, an author bio and picture, a list of stops on the book tour, perhaps an in-house interview…. stuff like that. But some publishers would go all-out and send the ARC and press release in a brightly colored bubble envelope mailer, or in a box filled with miscellaneous swag. I’ve received pens, magnets, even t-shirts. (Truth be told, one of my favorite t-shirts to this day was one I received when one of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels was released over a decade ago. I wear it all the time.) So, did these ARCs with press kits end up being reviewed more frequently, or more positively, than those without? In my experience, no. In all honesty, I’ve thrown many of these press kits away without even looking through them. It’s ultimately about the quality of story and nothing else.

Strangely enough, having been in this industry for so long—and having reviewed more than a few much-hyped stinkers that came in gold foil envelopes with praise-laden press kits—seeing these kits accompanying ARCs actually has the reverse effect on me now—I immediately think that the book is so bad that the publicists are trying extra hard to promote it!

But when it comes to indie publishing, I rarely see press kits—and the reason for this is quite obvious, right? Independent authors don’t have the marketing resources that traditional publishers have. They don’t have an in-house publicity department at their beck and call. I’ve seen the promotional budgets that some major releases receive and it’s mind-boggling.

So, the ultimate question here is do press kits work for indie authors? Are these press kits worth the money? In my humble opinion, I think your time and money would be better spent elsewhere.

I do have a suggestion that could be of interest. As a reviewer for multiple outlets, I receive a lot of ARCs—hundreds every year. I literally have an entire bookshelf just to put them all somewhere. I just randomly grabbed three ARCs from the shelves and although they are all different categories (SF, historical mystery, and thriller) and from different publishers, all three have the same thing folded in the inside cover–a simple press release. And if I grabbed ten ARCs, I’ll bet you that every single one would have a similar press release inside.

“Dear Critic….” “Dear Reviewer…” “Dear Media Colleague…” What follows is a concise synopsis, a brief author bio, and—in two of the three that I grabbed—excerpts from professional reviews of previous installments in the respective series.

I rarely see these press releases in the indie releases I receive—and as far as I’m concerned it’s a lost opportunity on multiple levels. All the publicity hype aside, the more solid information a reviewer has on a release and/or an author, the better.

As a reviewer, I always read these inserts before starting the book and usually use the paper as a bookmark. It’s a brilliantly simple maneuver because the cost is negligible and that one piece of paper acts as a mini-press kit. It’s subtle and, if it’s filled with pertinent information like genre category, selling points, author bio, contact info, social media links, etc., it’s a great resource for potential reviewers. There’s a reason the vast majority of traditional publishers do this—it’s quick and easy, and it works.

Hope this helps!

QUESTION #6 from Alexander Pyles

Q. How did you get into book reviewing? I realize that may be complicated, but as a book review blogger myself, I’m always wondering how do you “break into” writing reviews for PW or BlueInk and others?

Given your long career, what would be something utterly new and fun from specifically the science fiction genre that you’d love to see?

How do you balance book reviewing and book critique? Or do you view them as separate things?

A: Alex, thanks for the questions! I began my career managing bookstores all around New York, and loved the opportunity to promote noteworthy releases, not only through conversations with customers but understanding what the clientele at a particular store wanted and adjusting inventory levels to take advantage of that demand. (For example, I had a store that sold a ton of romance so we increased the shelf space and increased backlist numbers.) Also, I was (and still am) a big supporter of small presses and indie releases and did my best to promote those titles. After the company I worked for (Waldenbooks) was sold, the entire business philosophy changed. I hated it and eventually quit. As fate would have it, B&N was looking for an editor for its new SF/fantasy newsletter, Explorations. I interviewed for the position (never thinking that I would actually get it) and, surprisingly, landed the job—which entailed not only reading and reviewing approx. 20 novels a month but also editing reviews from other writers, interviewing authors, and laying out the entire newsletter. It was a dream job that lasted, in varying incarnations, for 18 years. That job, with all of its connections, opened up the doors to other reviewing gigs.

So, to answer your question, Alex, I didn’t set out to be a book reviewer but I’m so happy things worked out the way that they did. Having connections in this industry—and in any industry, for that matter—is invaluable to advancing one’s career. My advice to you: Put yourself out there and apply for any and all jobs that you’re passionate about. You’ll never get a job you don’t apply for. Share with others that passion. Be open to new opportunities. My philosophy early on was “always say yes.” And be nice to people. That’s a big one.

Your question about science fiction is one I talk about quite frequently with my students in Seton Hill’s graduate writing program, which concentrates on writing “popular fiction.” In my humble opinion, science fiction has been ebbing for decades now, and I’ve been waiting impatiently for its next Golden Age. Don’t get me wrong, there’s been some fantastic SF released in the last decade or so but that prolonged interest in the category just hasn’t been there. However, I recently read and reviewed The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Volume One edited by Jonathan Strahan—which had some profoundly moving stories that explored critically important issues impacting humankind (“Emergency Skin” by N.K. Jemisin, Peter Watt’s “Cyclopterus,” Han Song’s “Submarines,” etc.). These stories reminded me thematically of the science fiction I read from the ‘60s and ‘70s—stories written by writers who pulled no punches. I would love to see more of that kind of socially conscious narrative—storylines that, instead of solely being vehicles for literary escapism, work also as a way of not only identifying societal injustices and dangers but envisioning a world where humankind has begun to transcend those failings. A few lines from Jemisin’s “Emergency Skin” says so much to this: “Sometimes that’s all it takes to save the world, you see. A new vision. A new way of thinking, appearing at just the right time.” [414]

And finally, Alex, I do see book reviews and book critiques as separate entities. When I critique a student’s or client’s novel, it’s with the understanding that changes can still be made. Although I do identify strengths, the focus in a critique is largely on the elements that could—and should—be improved to increase the potential of agent representation, landing a publisher, and/or satisfying reader expectation. It’s like a dress rehearsal just before a wedding. There’s still time to change things, big and small. But with a review, there’s an undeniable sense of finality. The church doors are closed, the author is at the altar, and there’s no going back. For better or for worse, this is the novel they’re married to.

QUESTION #5 from Andrew Reising

Q: I am an amateur reviewer and aspiring author myself, and I have a couple of questions for you: First, as a reviewer, how do you strike a balance between hooking a reader and not spoiling too much in positive reviews? I find that balance a little easier to strike in mixed or negative reviews, since I can talk about my critiques of the piece, but my positive reviews often come off as a bit bland or a bit too spoilery. Second, as someone who has read and reviewed thousands of books, do you have any advice for a writer who struggles with striking a balance between reader immersion and a fast-paced story?

A: Andrew, thanks for the email. Regarding your question about giving away too much—or not enough in reviews—I would refer to my response to Lona Manning’s question a few weeks ago (See QUESTION #2 below). That explains my philosophy regarding synopses in reviews very well.

Your writing question is one that comes up frequently with my graduate writing students. The answer is that you should be striving to achieve both (immersion and brisk pacing) in every single story you write. Pacing is probably the easiest of the two elements to achieve. An integral part of readability, vigorous pacing—regardless of genre category—is essential. A narrative focus on the main plotline and the surgical removal of sequences that add nothing to the storyline is an obvious place to start, but you should also be acutely aware of tension, be it internal or external. Depending on genre, this internal tension can take many forms—the sexual tension between potential lovers, the hatred felt between adversaries, the grief of a parent whose child has run away… External tension is a bit easier as it is often tied with action—a pedal-to-the-metal car chase, a detective investigating a gruesome murder, first contact with an alien… I’ve interviewed many authors who have said that not only do they attempt to have some form of tension on every page, but in every paragraph! Read a Harlan Coben or Lee Child thriller and you’ll see what I mean. They’re masters at using tension to manipulate pacing and, ultimately, readability.

With immersion, your goal is to immerse your reader in the story through a clear and focused narrative, engaging characters, and most importantly, overall description throughout. For me—as a jaded reviewer—this is a litmus test of sorts. If I can “lose myself” in a book—and spend hours happily living vicariously through a character or characters—that’s a clear indication that the writer understands how storytelling works. I could talk about immersion for hours, but I’ll keep this as brief as I can. One relatively easy way to deepen immersion is to infuse a diversity of sensory descriptors whenever applicable. Many writers use visual descriptors almost exclusively—and while that’s fine, they’re missing out on so many opportunities to deepen immersion. Describing the structures in an alien city, for example, is important, and may indeed create a memorable scene, but if the author takes just a few sentences to describe the smells and/or sounds of that city, that scene immediately becomes exponentially stronger.

Some adventurous writers have even written (unforgettable) scenes where the visual descriptors take a backseat to other senses. In The People of Broken Neck by Silas Dent Zobal, a novel I reviewed for PW back in 2016, the author blew me away with his unconventional use of sensory description and imagery. Here’s an example of a sequence where the use of varied sensory descriptors makes it utterly immersive:

“The wind pushed warm air. A grackle scrambled out of a nest in the cabin’s eave. The spring peepers sounded like sleigh bells. A very distant gunshot, small-bore, probably a hunting rifle. The crack and squeal of the rear door of the Suburban.”

So, Andrew, the bottom line is that not only can you do both—write an immersive story that is fast-paced—you need to do both, regardless of genre category. Without either element, your story will surely fail. Your primary focus should always be on story—and pushing that story forward. Immersion doesn’t need to be continuous—and it’s oftentimes subtle, just a sentence here or there—but you need to understand how to utilize it efficiently when the opportunities arise.

I hope this helps!

QUESTION #4 from Anthony Perconti

Q: Do you have any opinion either way on leaving negative reviews? I’ve heard arguments both for and against. I’m personally from the “if you don’t have anything nice to say” school of thought. If a book doesn’t grab me, or if I do not finish, I will just move onto the next book on the TBR pile. Genre fiction, generally speaking is read for personal pleasure, not academic peer review. There have been many best-selling books that have left me absolutely indifferent. No harm, no foul; individual taste being a highly subjective thing. Thoughts?

A: Anthony, excellent question. I rarely scroll through reader reviews on sites like Amazon and Goodreads—and when I do it’s often just for pure entertainment value—but I’ve seen a lot of the reviews you’re referring to. One-star reviews that trash books because the narrative content didn’t align with the reader’s personal preferences and/or reader expectations.

So, first off, there are obvious differences between reader reviews on Amazon and professional reviews in Publishers Weekly, BlueInk, Kirkus, etc. Professional reviews—in my opinion—are written for three audiences:

1.  professional book buyers and acquisition managers (like the ones who purchase titles for B&N, Target, Walmart, library systems, etc.)
2. readers, and, lastly,
3. the author.

My personal reading biases shouldn’t matter to any of these groups. The book buyers and acquisition managers need to know if a title is commercially viable—basic information like genre category, strength of writing, and how the title stacks up against other comparable titles are hugely important for this group. Additionally, a basic synopsis and other narrative measures like character depth and readability are important to readers who want to know if a particular novel may appeal to them. Lastly, is the author. Regardless of whether the review is positive or negative, I try to include some kind of constructive criticism aimed at the author—specific reasons why the novel worked or didn’t work.

A good example of this is Bird in a Snare by N.L. Holmes, a historical mystery I reviewed for BlueInk a few months ago. I loved the novel and noted the story’s intricately plotted mystery, meticulously described historical setting, and deeply developed characters. But I also mentioned the unhurried pacing, which negatively impacted certain sequences of the novel. I mentioned this in the review largely for the author’s benefit so that she could be aware of this potential flaw in future installments.

Bottom line: I’ve written a lot of reviews panning titles… hundreds of them. But even in those reviews, I try to put a positive spin on it. If I can, at the very least, make an author aware of issues in their writing, then I feel like even a negative review can have a positive effect.

QUESTION #3 from Kirk Hammond

Q. If a book doesn’t exactly match your preferred genre, how do you remain objective while reviewing, or is subjectivity inherent in all reviews?

The reason I ask is, after receiving certain reviews (not yours), I felt they assigned the wrong reviewer. Not that I disagreed with what they wrote, I just felt they paired my book with a person who would’ve never enjoyed it in the first place.

A: Kirk, great question—and one that I’ve been asked many times over the years from more than a few disgruntled writers who have received less than stellar professional reviews. While I can’t speak for other reviewers, I will say that I try very hard not to bring any of my reading preferences or prejudices to the table when reviewing a novel. I try to be what I call a universal reader—and that is a reader that can sit down with a book, any book, and experience it as purely as possible, without any personal baggage to taint the read. There are two significant reasons for this:

1. I understand how much hard work goes into not only writing a novel but publishing and marketing it as well. I know writers who have spent close to a decade      writing and editing a single novel. Judging a novel strictly on my biases as a reader would be completely unfair to the writer and to his or her readers.

2. I’ve read some highly unconventional stories in my career—Rigor Amortis, a zombie erotica anthology released in 2011 comes immediately to mind—as well as a ton of hybridized novels that are difficult to categorize. And while I probably wouldn’t seek out and read some of these titles as a regular reader, I’ve found that, because I approached these novels with an open mind, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by many of these titles and absolutely blown away by a few of them. Your novel, Kirk, is a great example of this. I described Opposable as “equal parts drug and alcohol-fueled road novel, bizarro science fiction, and apocalyptic thriller.” Can I see a reader expecting a conventional SF adventure not enjoying your novel? Absolutely! And that’s fine—a novel that I described as “the literary equivalent of Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, and Douglas Adams, all dropping acid during a pulp horror convention” definitely isn’t for everyone. But a reviewer panning it on the basis of personal preference and not something related to the actual writing—strength of story, depth of character, plot intricacy, etc.—that just seems wrong.

Also, I feel like I need to add this. While I approach every novel with an open mind, I do bring 25 years of reviewing experience with me—and that includes understanding the various genres’ histories and evolutionary tracts, reader expectation for a specific category, and current trends impacting fiction and genre fiction. So, for me, it’s not just about the reading experience but also how that release stacks up against other comparable contemporary and historical titles. Is it completely formulaic and uninspired? Is it a watered-down retelling of a classic backlist title? Or is it pushing the boundaries of the genre, exploring new storylines and characters?

I suppose the bottom line is this, Kirk. Reviews are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. Your novel could land in the hands of a reviewer who understands what you’re attempting to do and loves the audacity of it all, or it could find a reviewer who, because they’re limited by their own biases, ends up hating a novel for all the wrong reasons.

The review should never be about the reviewer—it should always be about the novel.

QUESTION #2 from Lona Manning

Q: It seems that in the old days (Jane Austen’s time), book reviewers pretty much gave the whole plot away. What are your thoughts about revealing plot points?

[Also], my pet peeve is when a reader picks up a book, doesn’t like the genre, and writes a scathing review. For example, trashing a romance novel because they prefer thrillers. Do you have a pet peeve about book reviews?

A: Lona, excellent questions. First off, I agree with you about negative reader reviews based purely on personal preference. If a horror aficionado picks up a Regency romance and hates it, that reader should understand that posting a review isn’t fair to the author or the writer’s audience. That one bad review—however silly—can negatively impact a book’s sales, which directly affects a writer’s income.

They should also understand that a novel isn’t like ordering a fast-food burger made especially for them—hold the pickle, hold the lettuce—it’s a work of art that a writer spent months if not years creating. The fact that some readers get upset enough to post a scathing review because a fantasy novel doesn’t contain enough dragons, for example, says more about them than it does the author.

As far as professional reviews go (PW, Kirkus, BlueInk, etc.), every organization that I’ve ever worked for has understood not only my categories of expertise but also the kinds of books I prefer to review. In my case, I consider myself a universal reader and will happily read and review anything. I have zero “pet peeves” when it comes to the kinds of storylines I review—although I will say that I get excited when I read a story that is innovative in some way. After reviewing 10,000+ novels, some storylines can get a bit, ahem, predictable.

My answer to your question about revealing plot points in a review is a bit complicated. So, I got into reviewing through an editorial gig with B&N back in the ‘90s. My mission was to seek out noteworthy novels and promote them in newsletters that contained reviews from myself and B&N book buyers. If I didn’t like a novel, I would simply not include it in the newsletters. The reviews that I wrote contained critical analysis, yes, but ultimately they were meant to get readers excited enough to purchase the featured titles. Writing those reviews was a great education for me because I had to reveal enough plot to hook the reader but not so much that all of the glorious plot twists and turns were revealed.

And that’s pretty much standard procedure with today’s pro reviews. Reviews contain a brief synopsis but generally no real spoilers. I’m a big believer of keeping the reading experience as pure as possible and spoiling someone’s experience by revealing a particularly jaw-dropping twist seems wrong.

I hope this helps, Lona. Thanks for the questions!

QUESTION #1 from Thomas Duffy

Q: My question in response to your Facebook post is this: Could a book with a lot of powerful emotions be well-reviewed to the point of receiving a starred review under BlueInk guidelines even if the book had a few typos or technicalities? If your critic found his or her self moved by the story, could he/she give the book a starred review or does the critic have to abide by the academic standards for book production?

While I have yet to get a starred review, I found Kirkus “got” the emotions with my book One Love but BlueInk missed the emotion to focus on technicalities. On the other hand, BlueInk was kinder and more receptive to the emotion in another one of my books To Never Know.

Are there any rules where emotions can be more important to the assessment than technicalities? Or will it always be a combination?

A: Thomas, great questions. I work for both Kirkus and BlueInk—as well as PW and other review sites—and I review both traditionally published and self-published releases so hopefully you’ll find my response to your questions at least a little helpful.

I’ve been reviewing for around 25 years, and I’m an instructor in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program as well, so I’ve spent the last few decades essentially dissecting and analyzing a wide variety of storylines in every genre category and subcategory imaginable. I consider myself a universal reader—I will read anything with a completely open mind and focus on the reading experience. That said, I’ve found that every novel—regardless of category—needs to have certain narrative elements to create a positive reading experience (and that can certainly encompass critical acclaim and/or commercial success). I call it my Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. (Back in 2018, I wrote an article for Writer’s Digest examining this pyramid. Here’s the link if you’re interested).

So, the base level of this pyramid is Readability. If a novel isn’t readable, it’s all but guaranteed to fail—and not only get a poor review but also do poorly commercially. Narrative fluidity is absolutely essential to a story. You mentioned typos. A few typos are not a big deal if they don’t impact this fluidity. I find errors in traditional published releases often so don’t feel like your novel needs to be error-free. It doesn’t. Here’s the thing. I keep track of every error in the novels I review. I keep count in a notebook. If a novel has a handful of errors, it’s forgivable and not an issue because it hasn’t impacted my reading experience. But I’ve reviewed novels with hundreds, possibly even thousands, of errors. I’ve reviewed novels with errors on every page, in almost every paragraph. I’ve reviewed a novel with a grammatical error on the cover in the title! So, yes, grammatical errors can matter—and can ruin a reading experience no matter how strong the story is.

You also mentioned powerful emotions. Referencing my pyramid, that ties in with my third level, Character Development. Emotional connectivity is essential if you want readers to enjoy and remember your novel. Without these emotions, and this intimate connection to your characters, you have a cast of cardboard characters that readers will almost immediately forget. This depth of emotion, this understanding and identifiability of your characters, is particularly significant in romance categories.

So, Thomas, to (finally) answer your question, if I reviewed a novel that featured powerful emotional storylines and had characters so well developed that I felt emotionally connected to them, I would definitely note that aspect in the review. Emotional connectivity is a noteworthy accomplishment and many novels never attain this level. But if the overall novel didn’t achieve readability—i.e. had so many typos that it negatively impacted the reading experience—there’s no way that I could give it a positive review.

As a final thought, I’ve read more than a few novels over the years with brilliant premises and impressively original storylines, but they’ve failed because the writing didn’t achieve narrative clarity and fluidity, be it because of an inundation of errors or just plain sloppy writing. They weren’t readable. Think about this: how many bestsellers have you read that were predictable and formulaic but written so well that they were virtually unputdownable page-turners? (I’ve read a lot of these kinds of novels!) Readability isn’t everything—but without readability, you’ve got nothing.—Paul Goat Allen

Our expert, Paul Goat Allen, has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He has reviewed over 10,000 titles across a wide range of categories.