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General Discussion > "Critical Thinking: The 5 Factors That Earn 5-Star Book Reviews"

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message 1: by Steph, Just keep swimming … (last edited Mar 12, 2018 01:53PM) (new)

Steph (angel4492) | 28263 comments Paul G. Allen wrote an article for WriterDigest.com entitled "Critical Thinking: The 5 Factors That Earn 5-Star Book Reviews". This totally fits with my thoughts on rating and reviewing, but more times than not my rating and review is all done emotionally rather than critically. While I wholeheartedly agree with Allen's points, I don't typically take the time to think through each of these before rating. How about you?
Hierarchy of Needs

The Book Reviewer’s Hierarchy of Needs: How to Earn Five-Star Book Reviews

1. Readability

A book’s degree of readability is the base layer of my reviewer’s pyramid, and the foundation for any good story. The quality of a novel—narrative clarity, narrative fluidity, having a coherent storyline—is directly related to the number of times I put that book down. Some are so bad, so poorly written, that I struggle to get through a single paragraph without wanting to walk away. Others have such a fl uid plot that I find it virtually impossible to stop reading—Tad Williams’ The Witchwood Crown and Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass being two such examples of utterly readable, page-turning novels.

I’ve read a lot of “unputdownable” books over the last few decades, and the vast majority of these all have something in common beyond a clear and fluid narrative: The stories have noticeably strong chapter beginnings and endings. It’s a small thing, but a great way to compel readers to keep reading. How can you put a book down when every chapter begins and ends with a cliffhanger sequence, bombshell plot twist or powerful statement? When I consistently find these elements in a novel, I know the author fully understands the significance of readability.

Conversely, novels that aren’t as readable—that are poorly written with awkward sentence structure, a confusing storyline, weak chapter beginnings and endings—are almost asking to be tossed aside. This may sound obvious, but if you can’t compel a reader to read your story, then you need to focus more on your craft before penning another book.

2. Immersion

I define immersion as the ability for me, the reader, to not only lose myself in a novel (I call these “stay-up-allnight-till-your-eyes-bleed” reads) but to experience the story intimately, living vicariously through the characters.

This trick is accomplished through a continued focus on setting, rich description and atmospherics. I don’t want to experience the story as a detached viewer looking down at what’s happening—I want to feel like I’m in the story.

The litmus test for this is easy. If I become so engaged with a book that I lose track of time—if I glance at the clock and hours have passed by—you’ve succeeded in drawing me fully into your read. Writers who are absolute immersion masters (think Cherie Priest, Justin Cronin, Charlaine Harris) are so good at captivating description that weeks, months and oftentimes years after reading their novels I can still vividly recall specific scenes.

This layer is where many writers stumble, and here’s why: While they may excel at world-building and meticulous description at the beginning of a novel, once the action and adventure ramps up, they not only lose focus but completely ignore description altogether. I’ve seen this happen countless times in every genre: rich description for the first 100 pages or so, then almost nothing in the final 200.

It’s called literary escapism for a reason. If I can’t lose myself in a read—from beginning to end—then I haven’t fully escaped.

3. Character Depth and/or Plot Intricacy

Three-dimensional, interesting and identifiable characters bring emotional connectivity and intensity to the read. If your readers aren’t emotionally invested in your characters, then the narrative impact of your story is inevitably going to be negatively impacted. Emotions wield power. If you can bring your readers to tears, make them laugh out loud or scare them to the point of checking under the bed, then you’ve succeeded on some level.

Creating authentic characters to whom readers can relate is a solid achievement—but an obvious word of warning: Stay clear of clichés and stereotypes. Overused conventions—like the Chosen One in fantasy who is consistently a white male, or the emotionally damaged billionaire entrepreneur in erotic fiction who needs to sexually dominate his love interest—even if brilliantly rendered, will underwhelm and disappoint more than a few readers (and reviewers).

Now, the reason I include an “and/or” between character development and plot intricacy is because, in some rare cases (particularly in mainstream thrillers), a novel with an impressively knotty storyline can still succeed with relatively cardboard characters.

Which is why plot intricacy is key: Why read a novel where you can accurately predict what’s going to happen after a few chapters? (I do that quite often. After reading the first chapter or two, I’ll jot down a prediction in my notes. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve guessed the ending correctly.) I just finished reviewing a brilliant historical mystery for Publishers Weekly that was filled with so many plot twists I was left guessing until the last few pages.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a fantasy or a thriller or a romance—the plot has to be intricate enough to keep your reader simultaneously engaged and a bit off balance.

4. Originality and Innovation

This one ties in with embracing originality, be it atypical characters or unconventional story structure. So many books out there today are built upon unoriginal, rehashed, derivative storylines. I read a lot. And I get bored easily, especially when reading the same basic story arc again and again.

My advice? Don’t play it safe. Write a story that you’ve never read before. In a 2016 Goodreads interview I conducted with fantasy novelist Michael J. Sullivan, author of Age of Myth, he said, “It doesn’t matter if it’s been done before. It just matters if it’s being done well now.”

I love that quote. Just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be re-envisioned or reimagined, but be innovative—put a new twist on an old mythos, turn a stereotype on its head. Have the courage to be creative!

5. Thematic Profundity

In the introduction to the 2006 reissue of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s 1960 Hugo Award–winning classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Mary Doria Russell writes, “You’ll be different when you finish it.” That’s my hope for every novel I pick up—that within the story there will be some kind of spiritual and/or existential wisdom, some kind of revelation or insight that will change the way I look at myself and the world around me.

A novel that holds this kind of thematic power—as well as the other aforementioned elements in the Hierarchy of Needs—will get a starred review from me every time. Stories, no matter the genre, have the power to change lives. Novels like Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We have irrevocably changed who I am. After all, that’s the ultimate goal, right? To write a commercially successful and critically acclaimed novel that is both entertaining and enlightening.



Valerie ~ Val Hall ~ | 8449 comments All good points but it's hard to fin d them in every books.


message 3: by Steph, Just keep swimming … (new)

Steph (angel4492) | 28263 comments If only we could find them in every book :D


message 4: by Sandra, Kindle Operator Licence Required (new)

Sandra | 23497 comments I generally agree with what he's saying, however, my point of view is slightly different.

Totally agree with Readability & Immersion, Characters & Plot, however, give me a book with lots of description and I'm sure to put it down and not pick it up again. Can't stand what I call prose...... which is why I don't read what is called Literature or Fiction.

And his #5 Thematic Profundity ..... nope, I'm running a mile away from a book like that. Sure if a book can sneak up on me, maybe, but I'm not going looking for a book that has the potential to change me.

I'm looking for engaging characters, and entertainment value eg Kate Daniels series.

And I'm with you Steph, I never critically review books, gotta be from the heart everytime. How did it make me feel??? That determines how many stars I hand out.


Valerie ~ Val Hall ~ | 8449 comments Sometimes you are looking for an easy, formulaic read too. You know it’s going to be predictable but you still enjoy it.


message 6: by Steph, Just keep swimming … (new)

Steph (angel4492) | 28263 comments Sandra wrote: "I'm not going looking for a book that has the potential to change me."

LOL! Agreed. Everything (mostly) I read changes my life in one way only ... that time ain’t comin’ back. Here’s hoping it was worth it. :)

True, Val. I’ve definitely done that.


message 7: by Sandra, Kindle Operator Licence Required (new)

Sandra | 23497 comments Me too Val. Quite frequently, and its probably why I enjoy re-reading books.


message 8: by Martha (new)

Martha (mkoopman27) | 346 comments Nice article, I agree with all his points. I won’t give a book five stars unless it has that life changing quality. On the other hand, these days I’m into enjoying what I read above all else and so many “important” books are also grim, depressing, and hard to slog through. So, I end up with very few five star reviews but that’s ok because I love my time with my four and three star books.


message 9: by Sandra, Kindle Operator Licence Required (new)

Sandra | 23497 comments Martha, I agree that "worthy" books are quite often depressing, so I won't read them. Get enough of that on the news.


message 10: by Steph, Just keep swimming … (new)

Steph (angel4492) | 28263 comments Ditto!


kittykat AKA Jo Tortitude | 324 comments This is a subject I've been thinking about loads recently because I'm a very emotional reader and rate/reviewer and would like to become more critical. At a quick glance, I'm not sure how much I agree with this. Will come back to this after reading the article...


message 12: by Nerdy Werewolf (new)

Nerdy Werewolf (halogen) | 217 comments Yeah, I have to agree with Kitty (seems to happen a lot, yes?), I tend to love or hate a book and rate accordingly.

Most of my reviews are 5-star and the ones I truly hated get none because I don't know who else out there may like something I hated.

This kind of makes me twitch, too, because I know all those 5-star books are not favorites that I would re-read. I feel like I need to work that into rating, somehow. Would I re-read? Would I recommend? Would I pay for it after reading it?

But then that makes me completely want to go back and un-rate everything I've already rated for years because it's a different system. That half sounds like a fun challenge and half like a work project...


kittykat AKA Jo Tortitude | 324 comments Great minds Holly, great minds... but that sounds like too much of a challenge for me!


message 14: by Steph, Just keep swimming … (new)

Steph (angel4492) | 28263 comments If you look at my yearly book stats, I rate the majority of what I read 4-stars with some 3 and 5-stars mixed in. I rarely rate lower than 3. GR says my average rating is 3.84, which feels pretty accurate without doing all the math myself.


message 15: by Sandra, Kindle Operator Licence Required (new)

Sandra | 23497 comments I'm the same as Steph I have to loathe a book to give it 1 star, rarely give a 2 and mostly 3 or 4 stars. My avg is 3.76 which I was surprised is lower than Steph's cause I feel I generally rate higher. LOL. But the stats in this case don't lie :)


message 16: by Steph, Just keep swimming … (new)

Steph (angel4492) | 28263 comments LOL! Or, do they?! >;)


message 17: by Janette (new)

Janette Yates | 14 comments Seems a lot of us are in agreement in some areas. 1. Readability. Totally agree with it, have picked up some books and at the end of the chapter I am forcing myself to read the next one and then tossing it down. Some are even books that are popular. I can remember rooting for the bad person in a book, of my god, she is so stupid she deserves to die and I never thought I would say that.
2. Immersion definitely. Read a book and gave it three stars when it really only deserved two, maybe even one. She kept bouncing from one group to another, it wasn't smooth, it was jerky. I've read some where it was so smooth that you didn't realize she had switched it was blended so well, yet you were still able to keep them separate. And you feel so connected to the characters.
3 Character and plot, which I just remarked on, if you can't connect to them, if the plot doesn't hold your attention, it can't be a five star book.
4. Original and innovative. So important but so hard to do, Makes me think of the movie Pretty Woman when Richard G. climbs up the stairs and asks Julia R. what happens when the prince rescues the damsel in distress, she replies, she rescues him. They both saved, rescued each other by bring something to them they didn't have.
5 Wisdom, change. Nope, I read a book to escape from the stresses of life, not to explore the mysteries of the universe. Or to seek spiritual enlightenment.


The list does, however, help in doing a review, to look past your emotional connections. Did it have enough of these to make it a five star, or close enough for a four star? Or deserve only a one or two and not give the three because you feel sorry for the author? Something to think about when I go to write a review.


Art (aka Whistler Reads) (art-whistlerreads) | 874 comments When I barged in on you folks and started playing SOS-BSB a few rounds back, I was pretty green as a reviewer. I've resisted writing reviews since the third grade(that's well over sixty years...)
I wish Paul G. Allen had written (and I'd seen) his article back then.
When I started Bingo, a book had to be a real "stinker" to get fewer than five-stars. I was just so glad to find new-to-me authors that I was wallowing in joy. But as I read more of your reviews, and was forced to compose more of my own, I became more and more uncomfortable with "***** geewhiz, wow" ... ... ... and I became aware that some of the stories(actually, the majority) that I was enthusiastically starring couldn't compare to a Nora Roberts, an Alexandre Dumas, an Asimov, a Heinlein or a Patricia Briggs. So now I've very nearly sworn off the five-star rating, it takes something pretty special for me to give one of those...
For me:
that One Star is often Negative One...
Two Star is flawed... just way too many mistakes, hard to stay absorbed...
Three Star in my opinion is a good solid well written story, probably a bit formulaic yet still very readable...
Four Star is one of those books that just kicks ass... you'ld re-read the last few to get "into it" when the next in series came out...
and @Steph, that Fifth Star gets added only when my guts are seized, my heart is twisted (I'm balling,sobbing)...

I still probably rate too highly, too subjectively. But I am willing to call a spade a spade, @Sandra. If it's a One or Two, I'll give it, along with reasons...
I don't wish to be pompous, but helpful.

So... That's My take on ratings...


message 19: by Steph, Just keep swimming … (new)

Steph (angel4492) | 28263 comments I love that BSB got ya sharing your thoughts on your reads, Art. 😁 When I look back at books I haven’t reviewed, only rated, I wish I’d taken the time to do so. But, I mostly review only during BSB, sometimes I will on other occasions if I have strong feelings one way or another and/or I notice few already reviewed.


message 20: by Art (aka Whistler Reads) (last edited Mar 11, 2019 04:59PM) (new)

Art (aka Whistler Reads) (art-whistlerreads) | 874 comments I guess I'm the same... I very seldom toke time to switch back to my laptop now that I have my Kindle Oasis, that if I am carefull, updates shelves and rates everything I read onto my Goodreads profile...
and of course it links (often) to the next in series on amazon...Just push a couple virtual buttons and you've spent some bucks and continue reading...

Like others, I'm guilty of wanting to downgrade most of my previous ratings by at least one star...

p.s.
where are/how do you find BSB team pages... I've forgotten already...
I'm sticking this page in my Round 18 bookmark file to make me a better rater...


message 21: by Steph, Just keep swimming … (last edited Mar 11, 2019 05:05PM) (new)

Steph (angel4492) | 28263 comments Amazon does make it veerrrry easy for us to keep on keeping on.

I won’t downgrade ratings on old reads b/c at the time that’s how I felt about it. A lot of my older favorites have fallen down on the list because of new faves, but at the time I read them they were at the top.

Also, the more we read, the more we’re exposed to, the more we differentiate between what’s good writing and what’s outstanding writing. 😁

Which BSB team pages do you mean? This one? https://www.goodreads.com/topic/group... or another?


message 22: by Art (aka Whistler Reads) (last edited Mar 11, 2019 06:05PM) (new)

Art (aka Whistler Reads) (art-whistlerreads) | 874 comments Thaaaaaaaaaat's the one,

the one with the "team assigments" page lost a bazillion listings down the page, just above Round 17...

IMHO, this (the team assmnts thread) should show at the top of the round 18 lists as soon as it becomes available...

...like... make it "BINGO R18 team assignments"


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