Significant part of my blog presence is writing reviews of books I read and at the end of the post, rating them as well. As someone who looks at reviews and to some point ratings when choosing my next read (more about that process some next time), I decided to share a bit how I do that.
First, I understand that the process is subjective for every individual reader and different people will look for different things in books, which will affect the rating and that is discounting the fact that one might choose a books that’s outside of one’s preferences or even out of comfort zone – which will most likely impact the reading experience.
I also have to say that I am quite easily pleased reader. Make me interested in the story and the ending, avoid obvious plot holes and “WTF?!” moments and it’s quite likely I’ll give 4+ of 5 when using Amazon/Goodreads scale. Now, on to some details. Long post incoming.
This is the most important part for me. As hinted in the last paragraph: make me interested in how the story ends. It is why I read books, to read a story that will draw me in from the beginning to the end. I’d say this makes at least 2/3 of my final score. in other ways, if the book draws me in, I’m unlikely to go below 70% unless the book is filled by any of the downsides I’ll mention later. The more interesting the story, the more willing I am to overlook small things.
This is greatly tied to the main point above. If you can relate the main character(s), understand why and how they are doing something, it helps to draw me into the situation.
This is also important. The story itself can be good and well written, but if you can’t understand what, and most importantly WHY, is going on then the reading experience will take a hit. Of course, that does not mean that everything needs to be revealed at the beginning. The point is to avoid moments where something will be potentially confusing due to something that I believe should’ve been mentioned earlier.
The big bad guy
One of the parts that can make me interested in how story ends is the arch enemy. Story that’s well done will draw me in, because I want to know why it went down the way it went down, why the bad guy did what he did and what his plans are – and, in the end, how are the good guys going to deal with them. Well written enemy will build more anticipation for the final showdown, which increases immersion.
These are things that can shift my verdict in either way, based on how they are done.
Point of view
What I’d like to say here is more about execution than anything else. There are books that have one PoV and do well, there are books that are doing well weaving several PoVs and others that might fall short on that, because the PoV shifts are far too sudden and/or poorly done in any other reason.
Multiple PoVs can add depth to the story, give the reader information the main character does not have and make them think about how the hero will react to the revelations. Yet, they can also reveal far too much and hurt the suspense just the same.
By my personal opinion, PoV shifts are quite tricky in case of first-person books, where too many might cause it to get confusing even more than third-person books.
This goes to what I mentioned when reviewing the ‘Wolf of the North‘ trilogy. There are books that, apart form the story itself, have a narrator that sets up the story (or even each significant part, as in Blood Song) which also has its risks. First is the potential confusion if the PoV shift from a character in the story to the narrator is too sudden and disrupts the plot itself. Second is that this also risks revealing too much and poor timing can cause significant hit on the suspense. As said when I was reviewing the second book of Wolf of the North a few weeks ago, saying too much will change the reader’s question from “how it will end” to “how it’ll get there”, which is much less appealing. More so if the time difference between the narrator and the ‘main story’ is several years, let alone decades.
Of course, the story will end at some point (unless it’s discontinued series, but that’s different point which I’ll not touch today). If you look up Goodreads page of Inheritance, the conclusion to story of Eragon, the first question is: “Is the last 60 pages worth reading?” What I want to show by this is that complex story will have the conclusion reach further than just death of the evil mastermind.
In story that has complex relationships between factions (kingdoms, races, whatever it is), any significant event will inevitably cause changes in the world as a whole and death of a bad guy might not be enough to repair the damage that was done. The power that was in evil hands will now be reached for by the survivors, each with their own goals, and these matters should be either closed (the mentioned last 60 pages) or at least hinting what could come from it (potential spinoff book or even series).
It is some disappointment when I reach the end of a book that obviously shows that not everything was settled, yet at the same time shows it won’t be settled ever. In other words, leaving far too many unanswered questions, far too many loose ends, does not make it feel like ending and instead might feel like unintentionally discontinued story.
I am not someone who would make speeches about how everyone should avoid bad words, don’t worry. It’s not black and white after all, some types of characters (outcasts, criminals, heavy workers) might have tendencies to swear more, just like in reality, and it can add some touch to the characters just as bad words in bad situation can. The main point is for these words to not be out of place and the frequency to not be disruptive.
This is not as much about the length itself, but how well it is used. Sometimes, world-building needs some space which will make the page count rise without negative impact (that’s not saying that world-building and detail can’t be overdone. They can).
Long books can be done really well, using every bit of the length to show more about the characters and the world or showing backstories. On the other hand, even short book can feel endless if they are written badly and can’t build the suspense.
Of course, there are things that will inevitably lead to decrease in rating, or at least to decrease in enjoyment, with varying level of impact.
I understand that a typo here and there is something that can happen, more so in case of self-published books. I can understand some types of mistakes as someone who has English as his second language.
Problem begins when a book has far too big density of typos and grammar errors. No matter how much I am able to ignore (again, second language experience), at some point it can become disruptive even for me and might hurt enjoyment of a good story. If I see the author is likewise someone who has English as second language, I’ll be merciful in this aspect if the story is worth it. I’ll most likely mention the fact that it suffers from poor grammar in my review, but might not hit the score much.
Does this need any deeper analysis? Plot holes are bad.
Same as above. If I have to stop and think or even look back because something most likely escaped me because it was mentioned poorly, it’s not good. Problems can be varying – from overlooking something when writing through bad explanation to self-contradiction when (and this touches mostly fantasy) a someone is able to do something the story’s setting would make seem impossible. If a character suddenly changes his rank or title (because it changed in drafting and some mention was not replaced, for example) then it’s small thing I’ll ignore. If a character is last seen on the verge of death and makes miraculous recovery without any explanation for how it happened, then something’s not quite right.
I’ve seen opinions that in present-time self-publishing, one needs to write fast and push out at least three books per year to keep any kind of presence on the market. If such opinion is overrated is something I’ll leave to individual reader’s judgment but truth is that if someone pushes out a work that is not in good quality, it’ll lead to the opposite.
This might tie in to the language problem I mentioned above (lack of editing), but I have one a bit personal experience. After a talk on Goodreads, there was an aspiring author that had idea that could be good, yet he went out to the world far too soon (something he admitted to me during that talk).
The result? The book feels more like trailer with ~60 pages (I should probably say sample, ‘trailer’ feels too much like movie term) and to this day, has exactly one review on Goodreads, the one I wrote. If by any chance an aspiring author reads this… please don’t rush your work and if you think that pushing it out to the world at second draft will mean you’ll get some money sooner, know that it’s shooting yourself to the head.
I hope I did not forget something. I intentionally mentioned no numbers that would lead to some rules for my final rating. Even though all the factors might make it look like complex decision, in the end it’ll always be about my feeling for that specific book. Everything mentioned above will affect it and contribute to the final score. Book I really enjoyed and was easily immersed in will most likely end up in with 85%+ and as long as I found no significant flaws, 70%+ is assured if I enjoyed reading it and wanted to read it to the end.
When it comes to converting to the 5-star scale, 10-29% gets 1/5, 30-49% gets 2/5, 50-69% gets 3/5, 70-89% gets 4/5 and 90+% gets 5/5. The 0-9% is missing as that would be “Did not finish”. If I managed to finish it, I’d most likely give at least the 10%.
Fortunately, I so far managed to avoid books I would struggle finishing with (save for school reads, which is some time ago and I can’t really count it).