The Art of Reviewing: Part Two: What I Look For

Author: Anastasia V. Pergakis // Category:


Here we go! This is an expanded post about what I look for when I'm reviewing.

Like I said, before, it doesn't matter why I'm reviewing a piece, I always look for the same things. If the writers asked me to look for something specific, then I try to put more focus on that but I still check all the other areas!

Again, I pick on Greg - this was the original way I wrote the guest post and as you can see, it's a good thing I shortened it a bit! But what can I say, I'm long winded!

Title: This part is sometimes hard to determine in the first few chapters. It is very important to have a title that works and fits with the story. I'll pick on Greg for a moment with his novel "Land of the Blind". His title fits perfectly with that story. Titles are to give readers an insight into what the story is about and his is a perfect example of that. What thoughts come to mind when you read the title "Land of the Blind"? While it can conjure many different ideas, as you read the novel it is very clear that the title he chose is the right one. When reviewing, I look for that same perfection. Does the title match the story, the theme? If it doesn't how can it be improved? I always try to give suggestions in a review. To me that is what a review is about - helping another writer improve.

Hook: Many people may think this applies only to the first chapter or prologue. That's not true. Yes, the beginning needs to have a big hook to keep the reader going past page one - but what about the hook you need to get the reader past page twenty, or one hundred? Each chapter needs to have its own hook to keep the reader going! I do not mean that every chapter needs a major plot twist or action scene. However, it still needs to keep the reader feeling "I have to know what happens next!"

Plot: This part is usually the hardest for me to review. It encompasses so much that it can be hard to summarize it into a succinct and clear paragraph or two for the author. I ask myself, is the plot clear and concise? Meaning, did the author present the meat of the story, the story itself in a clear way that readers can understand? Were the sub-plots relevant, how did they impact the main plot? Again, conciseness is very important here. While a plot and a sub plot are great they may not work well together.

Another point I think about is the uniqueness of the plot. According to Christopher Booker, author of "The Seven Basic Plots," there are only seven categories that all plots fit into: 1) Overcoming the Monster, 2) Rags to Riches, 3) The Quest, 4) Voyage and Return, 5) Rebirth, 6) Comedy, and 7) Tragedy. However, each plot still needs to be unique in the sense that the details, the characters, and the 'personal' events in the story are new and fresh. I'll pick on myself this time. In my novel "The Faery's Tale", the plot falls under the "Voyage and Return" category. But what makes mine different than the others in the same area? It is different because the characters react to situations in their own way, each character has their own personality. It's different in the way I present the story, the way my voice sounds. The details, the mystery, the suspense, ALL of it is unique to that story.

Voice: Each author has their own voice. A unique fingerprint in the way they tell a story. Some might be thinking, then how can you review that? While each author has his or her own way of telling a story, there are still certain 'rules' to follow. For example, I will admit that I curse a lot more than I should. But, when I am writing a novel (or an article like this one), it is not a good idea to 'talk' the way I normally speak. This can be applied to all other manners of speech as well, including slang terms and even some simple terms. An example: Which description of a beach at sunset would you rather read?

The way the light hit the water was awesome. The colors in the sky were like a cool painting made by God.

OR

The way the sunlight reflected off the water was breathtaking. The reds and oranges made the sky God's masterpiece.

Do you see how changing just a few words can make a difference in the way the story feels? Yes, if the first part was a characters dialogue - it is perfectly fine. Dialogue has it's own sets of rules to follow!

Style: This part deals with sentence structure mostly. Is it repetitive? When writing it is really easy to fall into the trap of "this, then this, that, then that" patterns of sentences. I do this myself all the time. Changing the format or structure of the sentences can make a huge impact on what it feels like to read. The scene can be a great scene, but if it is written with a boring sentence structure, then it doesn't get the point across to the reader - it doesn't evoke the emotion.

I also watch for passive sentences, especially during action scenes. This is really a hard part to review and it took two extra English classes in college for me to finally understand it fully! However, it is very important. I could easily write an entire article about just this topic! Passive sentences are sentences that are "soft" and "slow". They may show an action, but it is not presented in a way to give that feeling of "This is important!" Here is an example:

"Running across the clearing, Dave pulled his knife from his belt. He raised the knife over his head, screaming a war cry."

See how it sort of dragged and took away from the actual action of the scene? Here is the sentences rewritten in an aggressive or active style:

"Dave sprinted across the clearing. He pulled his knife from his belt and raised it over his head. All the anger and rage rushed out of him in a loud war cry."

Passive verbs are: is, am, was, were, be, being, been and any verb ending in -ing. I usually highlight these using the "find" and "replace" feature in Word - for my own work and work that I am reviewing. It is a great way to really SEE the passive words. No, you do not need to change every single one - but I have found that it is better to have more aggressive verbs than passive. As a note, this rule does not apply to dialogue.

Referencing: This is probably the easiest part to review. Basically I have to make sure that there are no Harley Davidson motorcycles in 15th century England, that a female character set in the early 1900s did not have the same rights and privileges they do today. This area still applies to fantasy and science fiction. Would an alien race talk or have the exact same culture we do on Earth? Fantasy characters would not act or talk the same as humans, having their own culture and traditions.

Scene/Setting: The main thing with this area is the amount of detail and how it was presented. The readers need to feel like they are IN the story, so detail and descriptions are very important. This applies to character appearance, character interaction with objects around them, and the scenery. Yes, this can be over done. In the days of Hawthorne, it was okay for him to take an entire chapter to explain the way a house looked. This is not all right by today's standards. The house still needs to be described, in enough detail to really give the reader a vision. They have to SEE it. This is where the adage 'Show, don't tell' plays a huge part. It is really easy to get stuck in simply telling what something looks like. "The walls were blue, with light blue trim. The wood floors were cold." But showing makes for a much better way to set the scene. "The blue walls reminded him of the sky on a clear day. The oak wood floor was cold under his bare feet." Adding in the character interaction to the descriptions is a great way to set the scene without just listing off the specs.

Characters: Here is another really hard part to look at when reviewing. Individual characters need to have their own voice, their own mannerisms. Even twins often sound or act different from the other in some way. That is merely the beginning. Characters must stay consistent throughout a story. They cannot be nice and charming in chapter one then suddenly turn into a cold hearted witch in the next. I can hear many of you saying 'But what about how they react in different situations?' Yes, it is true that talking with a friend the character would be completely different than talking with an enemy. However, there is a line that should not be crossed. This is shown through internal dialogue, the character's thoughts. In chapter one we could see Suzy has a warm caring individual but then in chapter two what happens if she ran into an ex-boyfriend? Sure, she may not be directly nice to the guy, but inside her head she would be having thoughts of guilt or regret at being that way - that's where the consistency is found.

Characters need to grow in a story. As I review, I have to watch for how fast the grow or change. Is it too fast? Is the change realistic or too dramatic? Is there enough detail to SHOW the changes in the character?

Grammar/Spelling/Punctuation: There are some people that think a review only needs to talk about this area. Yes it is true, you can make an entire review about only these areas. However, as you can see by what I have already said, it is not the ONLY area to talk about.

When the time calls for it, I usually present this area in a line by line edit. Meaning they see their entire chapter, word for word and my notes are interjected right in the middle of every thing - in a different color font. It is literally like having someone read it by hand, correcting anything with a red pen.

I do not have to do it this way all the time. I'll pick on Greg again to say that when grading his novel, I never had to do this. His grammar, spelling, and punctuation was always spot on! I think I've had to point out maybe a grand total of five sentences to him that had mistakes, out of 20+ chapters! Not all writer's can have this spotless sort of record. I surely don't. Spell check, the dictionary, a thesaurus, and even an extra set of eyes are vital (I stress vital) to a writer!

I'm sure some of you are wondering if I ever had a story with 'too many' mistakes. Yes, I have. There was more red than black font in the end. I want to stress that this did not make the writer a stupid person; this did not make the story bad. But - having correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation is very important. I know other people that would not have reviewed that piece because of the amount of grammatical errors. Why did I take the three hours to do it? Because I had someone take the time to help me with my novels and someone will again in the future. And underneath it all, I truly enjoy helping other people. That person went on and actually took extra English Grammar courses and is now a published author!

What is that you say? I'm forgetting about Dialogue? No. You see, I don't give Dialogue it's own section in the review. It falls under a few other sections depending on what part of it I wish to talk about.

Dialogue can fall under "Referencing" if a character is not talking the way they should for the setting. Medieval knights do not talk the same as we do today. Slang and even syntax were entirely different. It also falls under "Characters" as I might notice that a few characters sound too much alike (that the dialogue is not unique). I might repeat any findings in "Referencing" here relating to dialogue, to remind the reader that the character is not talking correctly with the times.

Dialogue could fall under "Style" if it needs a bit of sprucing up. Boring or dialogue that is too slow can make it hard to read or pay attention to. I can't tell you how many novels (published ones even) that I would simply skip over dialogue because it was too boring or cliche to read. I will also make mention of using the word "Said" too many times or perhaps too many adverb tags (like "said softly"). Of course it comes into play agan under the "Grammar" section to make sure that quotations and other punctuation are used the right way.

Again, do I mention all these points in every single review? No. If nothing needs to be fixed, I don't see the point in filling the sections with repeated "You did this great!" sort of lines. But I do look for every point in every novel. I only mention things that need to be fixed.

Of course, I do end each review with what I liked about the novel/chapter and leave with a few words of encouragement. That is very important! Tomorrow I'll talk about How to talk in a review, and how to really be polite and encouraging to your fellow writer.

*Update* If you have any questions about how I review, please post them in a comment during this week. I'll answer your questions in a post on Saturday!

8 Responses to "The Art of Reviewing: Part Two: What I Look For"

Eric W. Trant Says :
April 14, 2010 at 10:27 AM

Again, nice post. Something I'll need to reference, I think, as I'm slugging away my next novel!

I do have this question for you, though: In reviewing, how much lax do you give for style?

In other words, I decide in my piece that I want to drop the trailing apostrophe in dialogue,

e.g.: "I'm fixin to head to the pasture" rather than "I'm fixin' to head to the pasture."

Or I create words that are self-explanatory, but not in MW.

Or I violate grammar and structure rules while diving into a deep POV scene.

Or I violate POV altogether by head-skipping during a rapid, continuous scene, in order to prevent loss of pace.

Just asking how rigid you are with your reviews, and whether you consider the author's ~intent~ with the scene, and how violating the rules might have served a greater, intentional purpose.


- Eric

Harley D. Palmer Says :
April 14, 2010 at 1:35 PM

Wow Eric! Lots of questions! I don't know what you mean exactly by creating words that are self-explanatory. Can you explain further?

I'll make a seperate post just to answer these questions as the original answer got a bit long.

If anyone else has any questions about how I review, please ask. I'd be glad to answer them for you!

Kirsten Lesko Says :
April 14, 2010 at 1:48 PM

Very thorough post. This is helpful to me as a novel writer AND reviewer. Thanks!

Eric W. Trant Says :
April 14, 2010 at 2:04 PM

Harley, A separate post would be great! I always wonder how reviewers respond to stylistic pieces. The road for instance has no quotes around dialogue scenes. McCarthy doesn't believe in little tick marks cluttering up his work.

On the making up of words, I sometimes take liberty with my descriptions. For instance, in a recent piece, a boy in the woods heard the squirrels chittering, chattering, chuttering, something along those lines. I once used the word yurk to describe someone vomiting.

Not all of those are acceptable words, see, at least not until I add them to my local dictionary!

The main question is this: How do you review a work that intentionally breaks some of your rules, for the sake of moving the story along at a smoother pace?


- Eric

elizabeth mueller Says :
April 14, 2010 at 7:56 PM

Wow! How informative! You always write goldmines! With hooks, I feel that tension is a great hook and using a hook at the end of each chapter is just as important!

Harley D. Palmer Says :
April 14, 2010 at 8:09 PM

Thanks Elizabeth! It's nice to know I post such good stuff for you guys!

Dawn Embers Says :
April 15, 2010 at 4:03 AM

I know what you mean about titles. Having a short story contest on WDC, I always review the title. However, so many just put the contest name or the prompt used as their title and that annoys me from the start. I like to see an attempt at creativity when it comes to a story title.

I suck at passive voice. And I forgot -ing words were a part of the posse. *cries* I use that all the time, because if I didn't, it would be even worse. I don't know what to replace it with, and never have. When I would do school papers, the red line would show up marking it passive and every rewrite would result in the same problem. Eventually, I'd curse and leave it passive. I hate to admit, I kind of thought -ing words weren't passive. :-(

Nice, detailed post about what you look for when reviewing. Well done.

Dawn Embers Says :
April 15, 2010 at 4:09 AM

Eric: I know it's not directed to me, but I'm going to answer it anyways. :-)

As far as no dialogue marks "" are concerned, I don't think I'll ever willingly read a novel that doesn't, in some way, show who is speaking or even if someone is speaking.

Cry, the Beloved Country was like that (no marks used for dialogue) and I had to read it for academic decathlon. I couldn't follow it and in the end, found the movie to be better than the book because I could at least understand what was going on.

I need to know if there is dialogue and who is doing the speaking. Otherwise, I'm going to shut the book and/or throw it away.

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