Every author wants his or her book to get a great review. Every reviewer wants to write a glowing review for every book he or she reads. So you have two people with the same goal, yet great reviews are hard to come by. Why? One reason is that the reviewer is just that. A reviewer is not your friend, your press agent, or your publisher. Her responsibility is to read your book carefully for both content and mechanics and pass judgment on it, whether she gets paid for her reviews or not. That’s her job.
So what does an author have to do to get a great review? The answer is simple: writes a good book. Ha, you say, isn’t a review only the reviewer’s opinion? Aren’t opinions very subjective? The answer to both questions is “YES” followed by a gigantic “BUT.”
Many reviewers have degrees in English, either writing or literature. Quite a few have been editors. A large number are or have been teachers. Some are writers in their own right. And most important, over their lifetime they have read hundreds, if not thousands of books. They can spot a split infinitive in a heartbeat; their eyes can scan six hundred words on a page and zero in on the missing “t” on the “no” that should have been “not.” Some of them can read the first ten pages of a book and tell you how it’s going to end. In two words, they are professional readers. And I can tell you from my own experience, they take their profession very seriously. Their reputations depend on their honesty and accuracy about the recommendations they pass on to their readers.
So how does an author get past all the pitfalls to receive a rave review? These are the basics that will help your book shine.
1. Forget that you ever heard that “there is no such thing as a bad review.” While reviewers don’t go out of their way to bash a writer’s work, they do tell the truth. Whether it’s published in the Podunk Press and Fish Wrapper or the New York Times, a bad review, or even a mediocre review, will do you harm whether you want to admit it or not. Everything a person reads has an impact on him. Having seen a review in the local paper that says a book is predictable, cute, or overlong will steer the reader to a book he knows nothing about because he unconsciously assumes it to be more interesting, adventurous, or well written then one he has heard even marginally criticized.
2. Pay attention to the basics. Spell check is a wonderful tool, but it can not and should not replace the author’s eyes. Spell check will not pick up errors in spelling if it recognizes the word present as a viable word. You may mean “knot” and type in “not” by mistake. Spell check will not underline it in green for you. Only your or a proofreader’s eyes will find that type of mistake. When you write you should have a good (and I emphasized “good” for a reason) dictionary within reaching distance. Most book manuscripts range between 45,000 and 350,000 words; do you know how to spell, conjugate and make plurals of them all? I don’t.
In the same vein, get your facts straight. Even the best reader cannot suspend her beliefs to make it possible for your character to see the ocean from the east side of the Cascade Mountains, or drive from New York to California in two days. It simply isn’t possible. For example, I was asked to review a book that stated a character could see New Jersey and Delaware from western New York. Having grown up in that area, I knew that it wasn’t possible to see Delaware because Pennsylvania was in the way. It really turned me off to the book.
3. Have a chart or book of grammar within reach of your writing area. If you have the least doubt, or if the phrasing looks or sounds wrong, look it up. Remember the spoken word and the written word is different. We speak in stream of consciousness, we write with punctuation. I use Painless Grammar. It’s a sixth grade grammar book that’s easy to read and understand with really cool examples.
4. Buy and keep handy a synonym finder. Just as there is more than one way to “skin a cat,” there are different ways to say the same thing. I just opened mine at random and found 26 subdivisions under the word “head.” Using one or two of the synonyms beats saying, “His head hurt,” “They x-rayed his head,” and “The doctor said he had a head injury” all on the same page. I know many writers, especially those just starting out, don’t have a lot of money, but words are your profession, and just as a lawyer needs law books, and a doctor needs a stethoscope, a writer needs the tools of the trade to be successful.
5. While most stories fit into the following five categories of love, lust, greed, power, and revenge there are as many ways to tell the story as there are writers to write them. Be careful – our ideas come from many places and sometimes we don’t realize that the plot twist we just put in our work is little more than a thinly veiled paraphrase of something we just read or saw on television. If you have an original premise, be sure that the way you develop it is just as original, unless, of course, you’re writing for a series such as Star Trek or Dragon Lance, which have specific formulas.
6. Read! Read! Read! And when you get done, READ some more. This is especially important in genre writing. If you don’t read horror, don’t try to write it! If the only fantasy you’ve ever read is Harry Potter; don’t try to write a high fantasy. Even though fiction is imagination, it has rules. Even fantasy worlds have rules. Pureblooded elves never have black hair, trolls never smell nice, and dwarves are never tall. Break these rules and the first book a fantasy fan buys of yours will be the last, and every fantasy reader he knows will know why. Does this mean you can’t write anything original? No! Until MacCaffery, dragons were almost always portrayed as large, if not huge, beasts. In her Dragons of Pern series, they start out as little more than small bird size and are bred over generations to a size large enough to carry a human on their back and haul cargo. Was it different? Yes. Was it original? Definitely! Did she break the rule about dragons? Not really, because she put them in a world where the rules about dragons as we know them didn’t exist.
7. Edit! Edit! Edit! As a writer, you must not only know the words to use, but how many of them to use. The rule of thumb is USE AS MANY AS THE STORY NEEDS, NO MORE AND NO LESS. The best example of the number of words fitting the work is the Gettysburg Address. One more word or one less and the speech would have failed to say what Lincoln wanted his audience to hear and feel. And it certainly would not be the historic document it is, nor would it be the most recited and memorized speech of our early history.
8. Beware of stereotypes. Stereotypical characters are the death of any book or story. Readers, especially reviewers, tune out as soon as the stereotypical “bad cop,” “cutesy kid,” or “reincarnation of Hitler” shows up in a manuscript. Remember that your readers expect you to be original. Not every inner city ethnic teenager is a drug addict; in fact, more drugs are sold in the suburbs than in the inner city. Even the worst character has at least one redeeming trait, and all heroes have an Achilles heel. Good guys don’t always wear white and bad guys don’t always wear black. The best example I can give you is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The reader sees the monster as only a monster, until he plays with the little girl. Even though he’s a man created without a soul, a man who has killed, he shows a soft and gentle side when offered friendship by the innocent child.
9. Remember that your friends, your mother and your maiden aunt aren’t the best judges of your work unless they happen to be editors. They all love you and will tell you that they loved your manuscript so they don’t hurt your feelings. Join a writers’ group, exchange works with another writer, ask an English professor at the nearest college to read your work, and if all else fails, beg your high school English teacher to read it. Caution; don’t let someone who doesn’t read the genre your writing in critique the story line. My dad edits my work for grammatical errors and continuity, but never offers an opinion on my content because he doesn’t read or like fantasy. If I wrote war stories, or westerns, I’d take his advice on story line in a New York minute.
10. Take pride in your work. Make it the very best you can before turning it over to an agent or publisher. Your manuscript is not only a representative for you as a writer and a person; it’s a piece of your soul. You’ve worked hard on it; you’ve bared your soul in it. Just as you wouldn’t go to a White House dinner with a dirty face and uncombed hair, don’t send your manuscript out without giving it every chance to succeed.
11. And finally, once it’s in the mail, move on. You’ve done your best, now the work will have to stand on its own merits. Don’t dwell on what you should have changed, or should have said. If the work is accepted for publication, your editor will make suggestions for needed changes. Start your next project and give it all your attention. It’s your second chance at immortality and the Pulitzer Prize.