The Science of Getting Good Book Reviews
October 1, 2012
Editor’s Note: You want a good book review? Heed this advice from a professional book reviewer.
Writers cannot assume that because they have heard of New York City, they know what it’s like to live in New York City, unless they actually live or have lived there, or done their homework – research. I recently reviewed a novel set in a city I have occasionally visited.
The author’s depiction of that city was so far removed from reality; I spent more time thinking how poor her research was than on reading the story. Presumably, by using the name of real places, the author gave her story verisimilitude; using a fictitious city would have served the novel (and its readers) better. Instead, poor research sabotaged the reading experience.
Writers should expect that some of their readers will know something about their subjects and will take issue with misrepresentations, misinformation, false presumptions, and commonly-held but inaccurate beliefs (such as rumors and urban legends).
Yet there are writers who routinely include inaccurate descriptions of places, items, and procedures in their work, giving readers the impression that they are lazy and don’t care enough for the story to get it right.
Many authors of police procedurals, thrillers, and mysteries consult law enforcement personnel to be sure their stories are authentic, but some writers contrive ridiculous scenarios to move their stories along. If a story needs an unbelievable event to move it along, the author doesn’t have a story. Unless a book is total fantasy, writers should know that there’s a good chance that someone who does the things the characters do will read their books.
If, in the course of a novel, there is a misfilled prescription, be aware that a pharmacist (or pharmacist’s spouse) who knows exactly what happens in such cases will be reading the narrative. If there is a character preparing lasagna, there will be readers who have often prepared lasagna. Guessing how things are done insults readers who know how they are done. Insulting readers invites them to avoid an author’s future works.
Writers cannot know the whole of their reviewers’ experience. In order to receive positive reviews, though, writers must acknowledge that reviewers – like readers – come from a variety of backgrounds. If something in a novel (or – worse – work of nonfiction) does not ring true, the reviewer may very well include that information in the review.
If the reviewer discovers many things in a book that are inaccurate or uneducated guesses, he or she has an obligation to inform readers. This also applies to typos, grammatical errors, and nonsensical formatting. Without accepting that obligation, the reviewer will lose readers who feel “burned” by recommended titles, or glowing reviews without basis.