Critical Thinking: The 5 Factors that Earn 5 Star Reviews!

An excerpt from: Paul Goat Allen | March 12, 2018, Writer’s Digest. Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.

Novelists live and die by reviews yet uncovering what garners a gushing ovation or blistering takedown is often a mystery. A professional critic lays out what it takes to earn five-star book reviews. For two decades I’d been working as a freelance genre fiction book critic for outlets such as BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and the Chicago Tribune. After sharing my credentials with the group, some of the writers began telling stories about mediocre or bad reviews they’d received at different points in their careers from one or more of the companies I’d listed.

As a reviewer, not much has changed since then. I enjoy all genres and have reviewed thousands of titles in hundreds of sub-genres ranging from apocalyptic fiction to zombie erotica. (Yes, there’s such thing as zombie erotica.) In the end, genre categorization matters little to me—it’s all about the story. With that in mind, I decided to formalize a universal framework through which I process and analyze my various reading experiences. While there are undoubtedly specific narrative elements I look for in-particular-genres (pacing and tension level in thrillers, for example), there’s a pyramid of qualities—a Hierarchy of Needs, if you will—that I seek in every story. While highly simplified, it’s this structure that dictates whether I give a book a positive or negative review.

These five criteria will not only provide a glimpse into how a veteran book reviewer dissects and evaluates a novel but, hopefully, make you look at your writing in a different light. See for yourself: Does your work-in-progress have what it takes to earn a positive review?

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.

  1. Immersion

I define immersion as the ability for me, the reader, to not only lose myself in a novel (I call these “stay-up-all-night-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. Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View

  1. 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.

  1. 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!

  1. 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 a kind of spiritual and/or existential wisdom, a 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 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.

Evaluating a novel is a cumulative process. Those with masterful character development but zero immersion will still receive a poor review, for example, while a thematically profound read with excruciatingly bad readability will receive a terrible review.

May this Hierarchy of Needs not only make you more aware of how your writing is experienced by readers—and jaded book reviewers like myself—but also offer up a few invaluable insights that can be used to improve your craft. Who knows, maybe my next starred review will be yours.

Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.

 

 

Interview with Writer and Author, Charles F. French, Part 2

 

 

 

 

Good day to you Professor Charles F. French!  Thank you  for taking time, in your busy schedule, between teaching literature at two universities in eastern Pennsylvania and writing great horror novels! I just read your latest horror novel,  Gallows Hill, and it is a blockbuster of a horror novel!  I am very interested in discovering more about why reading, writing, and teaching is the love of your life.  Thank you for answering the following questions.  I know your readers are as anxious to know all about you as I am.

1.  How do you get your ideas for writing books, such as Maledicus, your first published book, but not the only novel you have written?

This may sound odd, and I do not know what it says about either me or the creative process, but I see characters and wonder what their stories are. I begin to think about them, and I jot down my ideas. And I never seem to run out of ideas.

2.  Do you feel that novels should have a moral dilemma that must be addressed?

I do not think that all novels should have a moral dilemma in them—that must be up to the author to decide, but I can say that in my novels, I always have at least one, if not more, moral dilemmas that the characters face in the course of the action.

3.  Do you research your story before you begin to write a novel?

I do not have a set pattern when it comes to research for my novels. I usually do the research as I come across something I do not know for the books. Then I attack the research to learn as much as I can about it. Because I never outline a book, I cannot be sure what it is I will need to learn until I reach that point. I am not suggesting that anyone else should follow my way of research, only that it is what I do. Each writer must find his/her own paths.

4.  In your latest novel, Gallows Hill what single idea inspired you to write this story?

Its origin is found in the first book in this series: Maledicus: The Investigative Paranormal Society, book 1. The three men who create the ghost-investigation group all have lost someone very close to them to death. The first book focused on Roosevelt, and this one focuses on Sam, who lost his teenaged son, Josh to suicide. Sam carries deep grief with him, and the book is about his search to find answers about his son’s death. So, the theme of the past intruding on the present also informs the creation of the supernatural villain of the book, a former executioner/fundamentalist preacher who just cannot seem to let go of his need to punish those he considers to be sinners.

5.  Are you presently writing another novel and can you give us an idea of what it is about and why did you chose this subject matter?

Yes, I have written the first of a Young Adult series that I am currently pitching to agents, and I hope that I can break through into traditional publishing with it. It is an environmental post-apocalyptic novel, informed by the middle ages. I am also working on the first draft of the first book in a fantasy series that I thought would be midgrade but now I realize is adult fantasy. The themes of the evils of the world and how they intrude through fantastic events into the lives of several youngsters is too powerful, vivid, and horrific to be anything but adult fantasy.

6.  I have been told you that have also written another novel that has not yet been published. What is the name of this novel and when will it be published?

The name of the next book in the paranormal investigation series is Evil Lives After: The Investigative Paranormal Society, Book 3, and it will come out around Halloween in 2019.

7. Is there anything else that you would like to add to this discussion?

First, thank you to K. D. Dowdall for conducting this interview with me. Second, I want to say to all writers out there: continue to do what you do, and never lose hope or dedication to your craft and your art.

 

 

An Interview with Charles F. French, Writer and Author, Part 1

 

 

 

 

Good day to you Professor Charles F. French!  Thank you for taking time in your busy schedule, between teaching literature at two universities in eastern Pennsylvania and writing great horror novels! I just read your latest horror novel,  Gallows Hill, and it is a blockbuster of a horror novel!  I am very interested in discovering more about why reading, writing, and teaching is the love of your life.  Thank you for answering the following questions.  I know your readers are as anxious  to know all about you as I am.

  1. How old were you when you started reading books?

I was three years old I believe. I know I cannot remember not being able to read, and I know that my mom always read to me from a very young age.

  1. What kind of books, when you were a child, interested you the most?

I loved reading any kind of adventure, fantasy, or science-fiction the most. By the time I was in elementary school, I remember reading the Tarzan series and several of the Jules Verne novels such as Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

  1. What is the name of your favorite book when you were a teenager?

This is a more difficult question to narrow down to one at that time, but if I had to choose one, it was Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse, a novel about two friends of different backgrounds and interests and how their lives intertwined. When I was a teenager, exploration of mysticism and spirituality, both issues in this novel, were a part of many people’s lives.

  1. What was it that made you interested in writing books about horror stories?

I have enjoyed horror novels and movies since I was young. I read both Frankenstein and Dracula as a young teenager, and I always enjoyed the Universal Studios horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s. As I grew, I came to understand that horror in novels is often a metaphor for the true horror of the world. I do not see it as a way to escape reality, although reading is very useful to do that and it is fun, but as a prism or lens through which light can be focused on very real problems in life. Does that make sense?  So, I have tried both to tell interesting stories in my writing but also to explore important problems in the world in them.

  1. What made you want to be a professor of literature?

I originally wanted to be an actor. Theater was my first love in terms of profession, but I soon found out that I was not good enough to stand out from the others and unlikely to make a living from it. I also did not want to spend at least 20 years trying to make it as an actor. My whole life story is one of following unusual paths, but without going into great detail, I will say that I had dropped out of college, then after working as a steel-worker for several years, wanted to go back to school. I did return to college while working full-time as a janitor. I earned my degree as an adult student, and I realized then that I had both a talent and a passion for teaching, so my course was set.

  1. Why do you think it is important to spend a great deal of your time mentoring?

I have had the good fortune in my life to have had several professors go out of their ways to help me when I needed it the most. As I have become older, I realized that not only do I have much to pass along as a teacher of literature, but also I can offer whatever knowledge I have to younger people, including adult students, about life, books, and writing. I hope I do not sound full of myself in this answer.

Tuesday, February 27 – Part 2 of my Interview with Charles F. French, Writer and Author!

*****NEW RELEASE LIVE ON AMAZON NOW!****** 

Search for Maylee – A Review

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quoting the author of Search for Maylee, “It’s a cold dark world we live in, and Autumn is about to find out just how cruel it can be. Strength and determination are on Autumn’s side and she will do whatever it takes.”

Autumn, no stranger to grief and lost, is inconsolable when Maylee, her much loved niece is abducted a month before her high school graduation. Autumn has not given up hope of finding her – alive. She believes and is frustrated by what she sees as the detective in charge of Maylee’s case doing next to nothing to find Maylee.

Finally, Autumn decides to take matters into her own hands and gathers a strength within herself to search for Maylee – by herself, alone. She even moves across the country to find the man that abducted Maylee and to get Maylee back from him.

This fictional story is exceptionally well written, ominous, compelling, riveting, and portends the truth of what often happens to abducted young women. The same young women that we so often see in Newscasts, Internet, and in local newspapers, with pleas from family and friends to help find their loved one.

These abductions often cross our visual paths, but then, it is as quickly forgotten. But, what we don’t know, is that it is much worse than we ever thought possible. I highly recommend this spell-binding story, Search for Maylee.

 

 

 

THE STONE ARCH SECRET – A New Novel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My new novel, The Stone Arch Secret, a romantic mystery, is to be published in January on Amazon! Next week I will publish Chapter One, here on WordPress, please let me know what you think!  My Beta Readers have given The Stone Arch Secret a thumbs up and I am so excited.

Anyone who has written a novel knows how very complicated building a story can be, let alone development of believable characters.  Mysteries have their unique challenges too, for someone like me who is a fantasy writer.  Another challenge, and a very important one, is choosing a title and cover that works for the story content. For me, developing a title is agonizing!  I probably had five or six different titles until this one and this one fit perfectly.

Deciding on a cover that reflects what the story is, is more than challenging, it is exhausting, especially for the designer when the writer doesn’t really know what the cover needs. Fortunately, I have a wonderful, talented Cover Designer, Judy Bullard who understands and is there to present what the author envisions.  She does wonders with whatever title and content needs to be represented, You can find her at: customebookcovers.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE GIRL IN BLACK

The Girl in Black

The Girl in Black” by Kathy Lauren Miller, is a hauntingly taut murder mystery as well as an awesome page-turner! The mystery begins with high school senior, Kate Mckenna who happens to live in an old Victorian manor that is also the Mckenna Memorial Funeral Home. Her father, Dr. Brendan Mckenna, happens to be the county’s Chief Medical Examiner.  Shy Kate, whose social life as always been nearly non-existent until she is thrust into the limelight when the promiscuous prom queen, Ashley, is found tortured and murdered.

Accusations run rampant in Kate’s High School concerning several male students that were involved with Ashley.  To make matters worse, Ashley’s remains now reside at the funeral home where Kate lives. Kate and her best friend Cooper, a computer nerd, and Kate’s unattainable heartthrob, handsome Shane, all become involved in Ashley’s murder.  Suddenly, Kate finds herself in the cross hairs of the sadistic killer and the vengeful ghost of Ashley, the murdered prom queen. What happens next is beyond Kate’s worse nightmare.  The Girl in Black is a fascinating and terrifying murder mystery that will keep you guessing until the end. I highly recommend this book.

 

 

 

A Review of Aggravated Momentum by Author Didi Oviatt

Reading Aggravated Momentum, a murder mystery, by author Didi Oviatt, is like stepping into the life of a real serial killer.  Adding to the story are two sisters, Kam and Markie. Markie has no idea that a friend is plotting the deaths of her other friends and even Markie herself. This friend is meticulously good at hiding his murderous deeds and enjoys every step into murder with glee.

The writer also allows the reader to see, from the victims’ point of view, the terror, fear, and shock as it is happening in real time – as the victim begins to realize what is going to happen with disbelief, and no amount of reason, begging or pleading will change the outcome. At first, you don’t have a clue who the murderer is, but then the murderer lets you in on his murders and his plans for more murders, as he licks his lips with sexually sadistic anticipation.

The author has fashioned this murderer in such a way that you get to go inside his mind, see how he thinks, feel his emotions, his thought processes and his sadistic appetite for torture.  Aggravated Momentum is so well written that you are taken into the story in a very real way, knowing that this kind of murdering individual could be anyone you know.

The realism is so incredibly well done that it is one of the most terrifying depictions of its kind that I have ever read.  It will terrify you and you may never look at your neighbors and friends in the same way again. The idiom, “you never really know anyone”, comes alive in this story like never before. Aggravated momentum lives up to its title in a very real way and you can’t even guess the ending. I highly recommend this journey into the mind of a real-to-life, sexually sadistic murderer. 5 Stars !