Sunday, August 29, 2010

What do book reviewers look for?

Our guest blogger today is Jim Napier, the crime fiction reviewer for the Sherbrooke Record. Yes, Jim actually reviews books for a paper newspaper! Sherbrooke is a small city in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, an area familiar to readers of Louise Penny's Three Pines books. Be sure and have a look at Jim's web site, Deadly Diversions, a comprehensive resource for crime writing including interviews and reviews Jim has done for his paper.

When Vicki invited me to guest-blog a few weeks back, the topic was a no-brainer (resist the obvious, folks): what makes one crime novel stand out from the rest, and causes reviewers to recommend it?

The answer, of course, is good writing! But before you search for a length of rope to lynch me with, let me explain.

Despite the fact that the publishing-and-book-distribution world has been turned upside down over the past couple of decades, it’s never been easier to get into print. Small publishing and self-publishing firms, together with blogs, tweets, and Facebook to help spread the word, provide a wealth of opportunities for those who want to see their name in print. The result, sadly, is that there’s a lot of, er, trash out there—much of it, I hasten to add, coming from well-known publishing houses.

So how does a poor, overwhelmed reviewer sift through the mountains of chaff to get to a single kernel of wheat? The answer, cricket, lies in returning to the fundamentals: good reading begins with good writing. That means a tale well told, about characters we can care about.

It sounds easy, doesn’t it? After all, we all grew up using some language or other. But using language, and using it well, are two different things. (An important aspect of using language well is avoiding words such as things, but I digress). A good writer is disciplined, and avoids distracting side-trips (or, come to think of it, parenthetical insertions). One of the better writers around today is Peter Mayle, he of A Year in Provence fame some years ago. But Mayle also writes crime fiction: caper tales to be precise, and his novels are textbook cases of thoughtful, disciplined writing in which each paragraph is a marvel of organization, following from the previous one and setting up the next in a way that keeps the reader involved. Have a look at Mayle’s most recent foray into things criminous (there’s that word again) in The Vintage Caper.

The quality of writing out of the way, there is still the annoying detail of plot. Although it might seem canny to hop on the bandwagon and adopt the flavour of the month (did I mention avoiding mixed metaphors?), it’s not generally a good idea. These days novels about vampires, zombies, and the supernatural are selling like hotcakes (metaphors again, not to mention clich├ęs). But resist and desist: besides passing out of favour very quickly, such themes announce to the entire reading world that you, a creative writer, haven’t an original thought in your head. So spend a bit more time before you put paper to pen, searching for a story line that is not directed at eight-to-eleven year olds (unless you’re writing Kiddie Lit), and come up with a plot that readers can identify with and perhaps even learn something from (I know, prepositions…)

Once you’ve settled on a plot, get into it! Recently I read a novel that took —and I kid you not—243 pages to get to the plot; the rest was backstory about the main characters and their interrelationships! It was well told, however, and I stuck with it, much like a person watching a car-crash in slow motion. When I finished the book I had to admit that it was an interesting tale; but likely I won’t be reading another by that author anytime soon.

Finally, and not least, set your story around a group of characters that are both believable and interesting. Notice I didn’t say likeable. They needn’t all be likeable, and unless it’s a tragedy at least the villain (such a quaint word, that) should have some less-than-attractive trait or characteristic (greed is always a good one, lust generally striking too close to home).

If you’re contemplating a full-length work (or even better, a series), consider the relationships between the characters: are they complex, setting the stage for conflict? Is there room for the characters—at least some of them—to evolve? One only need look at the novels of Tana French and Giles Blunt to appreciate how they take the reader back in time, and do so in a way that helps to move their story forward.

So if you want reviewers to look at your work, simply come up with an original tale, populate it with interesting and believable characters, and tell it well. What’s so hard about that?

(Final parenthetical note: eagle-eyed readers will notice that I didn’t mention setting, which is every bit as important as plot, character, and quality of writing. Maybe another time.)

—Jim Napier reviews crime fiction for the Sherbrooke Record, and is the creator of the award-winning website, His articles on crime fiction have also appeared in January Magazine, Spinetingler, and The Rap Sheet.

1 comment:

Donis Casey said...

Speaking of a car crash in slow motion, though, that is exactly the way Nancy Pickard's "Virgin of Small Plains" begins, an entire chapter of a car crash in slow motion, and it is spine tingling.