At the first GCLS, I was on a panel about how to write a good book review. These are my notes from it. Please realize that they are notes, not a full how-to guide. Also, because they are notes, you should realize that I talk to myself in a really funny way, and these are a lot of me talking to myself.

Oh, and to anyone who was at the session who reads this, realize I had to cut it WAAAAYYYY down because one of the panelists went a great deal over her time and I wanted the other panelists to have time to say a few words as well.

By the way, the picture on this page was chosen because Cheri Rosenburg was also on the panel. Alas, the hot brunette between us was not.


How to Write a Review

Okay, so I opened my big mouth and it seems I’m supposed to cover my biggest pet peeves on writing good reviews.

To begin with number one, which seems a very good place to start, I’ve read too many reviews that make me laugh. Sometimes about my own books. I mean, really, due to editorial problems, my third book pretty much did suck, but when I saw the review that said, “When Some Body Disappears is an act of reader abuse so severe someone should contact Amnesty International,” I had to call another author and say, “I win.” (We’d argued about reviews before, and I taught her any chatter was good chatter since quiet is bad on the advertising front after all.)

But sometimes reviewers seem entirely focused merely on amusing themselves with their own wit. They toss off glib phrases without ever proving their basic theorem: That the book is either good or bad.

Glib can be fun on the rewrite. The first draft, however, requires thought and consideration and the use of supporting details (so don’t be like, “This is good,” or “This is bad,” without any proof or reason. Lack of rhyme is fine, however.)

For instance, a reviewer should explain exactly why the book sucked moldy moose meat. Because is a key word in such. For example, “This sucked more than Bush sucks the right’s ass Because… the author relied solely on coincidence. Her protagonist did no actual investigation but merely tripped across every single clue that led her to discovering that, duh, the butler did it. For instance, there was a big sign. Written in English. With an arrow and illustration. Pointing to the butler.”

I really have read a book that said there was no such thing as coincidence, which is, obviously, a realistic enough sort of thing to say. But then, within the next ten pages, the author really did write “and then, coincidentally” and she wasn’t joking.

Think back to high school chemistry… geometry – think theorems, proofs and hypotheses. (If you didn’t take such… well, good on you!) Prove that the author apparently thinks we’re all riding the short bus. Explain it. Use examples from the plot to prove your basic opinion—so instead of telling us the plot, you’re showing us that the book is either good or bad.

For instance, to use examples from some of my own reviews:

It is amazing that within the Prologue two people are killed, with another corpse quickly being added to the tally, but that at page one hundred, one is left with the feeling that nothing of any import has occurred. (That review goes on to say that tons happened in the first few pages, then the hero went to Europe to investigate several deaths, but instead went… sightseeing.)


…the writer also freely changes her point-of-view, oftentimes within the same paragraph (especially if she wants to add something she finds extremely clever).


While reading I wondered a number of times about the historical accuracy of the language and certain events, but I did not follow up on any of my thoughts because I assumed I was wrong. That is until I read the chapter wherein Mina Arenholt submits several of her poems to a magazine published by the Daughters of Bilitis. And she did this no later than 1941. Daughters of Bilitis was founded in 1955 and their publication, The Ladder, first appeared in 1956.

I had to work to get these facts when I read the book and wrote that paragraph. I was kinda homeless and didn’t have all my books with me. But I spent the time to ensure I was right, because with that one historical inaccuracy, a lot of other details came into question for me.

Noogie folks on things that need it, and prove your point.

Are we all getting this?

‘Cause I’m not allowed to talk for too long right now and need to hit my next point: Summarizing the book as opposed to actually reviewing it. It’s okay to give some details about the storyline, but don’t just say this happened, then that and then the other thing. It’s like that entire don’t tell, show thang.

Don’t tell what happens. Step back from the events and show what happens. Pretty much if you relate three events in a row, that’s likely too much. Or if you say anything that can come down to, “This happened, then this, and this.”

Step away from the keyboard and consider how the story makes you feel and think. Think not so much about what happens, but about what it’s about.

For instance:

Watts’ accents and linguistics flow so truthfully you’ll find yourself forced to read a few lines out loud just to hear how they might actually sound—and her colorful analogies, metaphors, linguistics and descriptions are never misused. Each one adds something to both the tale and the characterization.

And of course anyone who has ever read anything from the incorrigible Ms. Watts knows that nothing is ever safe from the magnifying glass she holds to the world—not the Virgin Mary, and certainly not feminine hygiene products. But Mixed Blessings is more than an extremely funny, wonderfully plotted, beautifully written book full of compelling characters that you grow to love. Watts speaks the truth, and that comes through with every sentence, compelling you to read long after your bedtime has come and gone. She gives you the knowledge that no matter what happens, or what you’re going through, life is something to be enjoyed, to be relished, and that no matter how bad things seemingly get, there is something better there as well.


Maney has her challenge ahead of her—not only to parody the popular fiction of Ian Fleming’s legendary spy novels, but also the popular perceptions of the world’s most resourceful agent, with all the conventions thereof. She does so admirably. A few pages into this fun book, I was quickly reminded of the Fleming novels I had read in my youth—with all their detail, pacing, and double dealing.

Judge the skill of the author, how they convey their tale, And if the writer does what she intends to do. If she follows through. Write about what it’s about—not about the series of events.

Think overview. Think broad terms.

I know that before I write a review, I look at some of my other reviews, to remember the voice I like to use – the voice and perspective I like to take for such. I worked hard and thought long about my first reviews, so now I sometimes simply emulate myself.

But I also write the reviews I’d like to read – so even if I don’t like a particular project, I try to respect the author enough to tell them how I think they might improve. I explain the good and the bad. I try to help them.

Writers deserve reasons for the words delivered for or against them. Don’t just say, “You are my god,” say, “This is great because…”

Or, at least, this sucked because.

A lot of writers pay attention to such things. Help them become better by giving them insightful, thought-out critiques of their work with suggestions on how they might improve, if they need improvement.

Or help them know why you like them the way you do.

So all in all, I like reviews that are well-written, but wherein the reviewer is trying to do more than simply amuse themselves, that use supporting details to prove their points, and that show what the story is about rather than just summarizing it.

And of course, well-written, positive reviews of my books don’t suck.

Other Writing: