If you subscribe to my private email newsletter, I’ve kept you posted on my novel-writing progress. (If you’re not subscribed, you can subscribe here.) But here’s the past, present, and future of my writing projects. I’ve also got some short stories in the works not listed here.
Like any other writer, I live or die by reviews of my books. However, while many people say they love my books or admire my writing, very few write book reviews—even if I ask them.
Perhaps it’s because readers aren’t sure how to write a review. Let’s solve that problem.
Here’s a simple and easy way to write a one-paragraph fiction book review.
1. Take notes as you read
The best way to remember what you liked (or didn’t like) about a book is to jot down your observations as you read, as well as any great quotes you’d like to mention.
I keep an index card handy as I’m reading a book. You can too. Make notes about:
Characters—Who were the main characters? Were they credible? Properly motivated? Did you sympathize with them? Who was your favorite character, and why?
Dialogue—Was it realistic? Revealing? Humorous? Engaging?
Genre—Did this book fit a particular genre, such as horror? Or was it a mash-up of several genres? Do you think the author did a good job of conforming to or breaking out of genre categories?
Plot—What was the story about? Did the series of events make sense? Any great twists?
Writing style—Does the writer write like another author you like?
2. Summarize your opinions
Jot some notes about your views (yes, it’s okay to express your opinions about the book):
Did you like the book?
What was your favorite part?
What did you like least about the book?
If you wish something were different in the book, what is it?
3. Make your recommendation
Would you recommend this book to other readers? If so, what type of readers would like the book? People who dig H.P. Lovecraft? Lovers of ghost stories?
Remember that a writer has spent a lot of time and effort in producing his or her labor of love. Although you may criticize, don’t forget to be constructive and kind. If you mention the author’s name, use his or her last name.
Writing the Review
A book review is not a long summary of the book, rather your brief commentary on it. Here’s the how-to of writing your paragraph review.
Start with an interesting sentence that grabs the reader’s attention. You could make it a question: “Have you ever wondered…,” “Ever wish you could….”
Introduce the subject of the book. What’s the genre? (horror, crime, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.) “Book Title is a horror novel about…” Then write a one- or two-sentence summary. Be careful not to give away the ending!
Do you think the book measures up to the goals the author set out to achieve? Be honest yet tactful. Include some examples supporting your opinion.
Who will enjoy this book? “If you like early Stephen King, you’ll love this book.”
Book review paragraph template
If you’re having trouble getting started, use this paragraph as a template:
Have you ever wondered _______________ (hook). Book Title is a ____________ (genre) novel about ______________ (subject matter). In it, _____________ (main character) tries to _____________ (main story goal) but encounters trouble when _______________ (some complications or opposition). The characters were realistic, and I especially related to ___________ (character name). My favorite part of the book was ________________. [Optional: But the author could have done a better job at _________________ (something that needs improvement). For example…] The dialogue was excellent and moved the story forward. It was fast-paced (or something else you liked). I really liked this book because ______________ (your opinion about it). If you like reading early Stephen King (a comparison), this one’s for you.
The Book at Dernier is about a young man’s obsessive quest to learn about the dark and mysterious Marcus Phineas and his arcane rituals that led to past deaths in the superstitious town of Dernier.
Protagonist Paul finds a book by the late Phineas full of symbols and secret writing. Determined to crack the code, Paul succumbs to the thrall of bloody rituals. I feared for him and dreaded the results his search would lead to. As he descends into madness and the death toll mounts, can Paul solve the mystery? Will he escape a devastating fate?
Lienhard’s skillful writing drew me in and led me quickly to the chilling conclusion. Recommended for appreciators of Lovecraftian fiction.
That’s all there is to it.
Proof your review and post it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or wherever you bought the book, Goodreads, Facebook, and on your blog.
Be generous with the stars: starred reviews encourage other readers to buy and read.
And why not let the author know you’ve written a review? It will probably make their day. I know it would make mine.
Throughout the month of February 2019, sign up for my private email newsletter, and you’ll be entered to win a proof copy of DEATH PERCEPTION.
I recently had new cover artwork done and ordered this proof (with a “Not for Resale” banner on the cover) to check it out. It looks great, and there are no marks or notices in the pages of the book. This piece is a signed collector’s item.
Drawing for the winner will be on March 1, 2019.
Subscribe to my email newsletter here and be entered for the giveaway:
Although fiction is a product of the imagination, if it’s set in the real world at least partially, there will be some real-life things you must get right. This means being accurate with your facts. In a contemporary story, if you’ve got a seasoned outdoorsman who drinks water directly from a still pool in a stream, you haven’t done your research.
Water can be contaminated with a variety of things risky to health and isn’t safe to drink without some kind of treatment, including filtration, chemical disinfection, or boiling. Boiling is best. If this isn’t possible in your story, you’ll get points for realism and accuracy if your character knows the dangers and does his best to mitigate them. If you don’t know your outdoor lore, readers who do will detect your gaffe and call you on it. (They may also quit reading or complain in a review.)
So it pays to know your facts when you write. And that’s where research comes in.
For instance, in DEATH PERCEPTION, my latest supernatural crime thriller, protagonist Kennet Singleton runs the crematory at a local funeral home. When I first got the idea about a young man who can discern the cause of death of those he cremates by toasting marshmallows over their ashes, I knew nothing about funeral homes or cremation.
One of the first things I did was conduct a general Internet search to acquaint myself with the processes of cremation and embalming. Then I went to visit a funeral home with a crematorium. A friend arranged for me to meet the funeral director, and I spent an hour there one afternoon learning about their process.
Being a technical writer, I took copious notes and made sketches. I even tape-recorded the session so I could go back to it if I later couldn’t make sense of my notes. Back home I typed up the document, making computer diagrams from my sketches, and ended up with a 15-page document that I later referred to when I wrote scenes in which cremation took place.
I also read a lot of books on the subject of death, funerary tradition and processes, and cremation. I still have a carton containing these titles:
Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America by Stephen Prothero
Cremation in America by Fred Rosen
Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial by Penny Colman
Round-Trip to Deadsville: A Year in the Funeral Underground by Tim Matson
What Happens When You Die: From Your Last Breath to the First Spadeful by Robert T. Hatch
I Died Laughing: Funeral Education with a Light Touch by Lisa Carlson
One Foot in the Grave: The Strange But True Adventures of a Cemetery Sexton by Chad Daybell
Cemetery Stories: Haunted Graveyards, Embalming Secrets, and the Life of a Corpse After Death by Katherine Ramsland
Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? by Kenneth V. Iserson, MD
Some of these books were more useful than others, but I gleaned something from all of them. I used this knowledge to build a foundational structure based on facts about death, embalming, cremation, funeral homes, and cemeteries.
I likewise did research on personal care homes. And more on marijuana growing, poisons, prescription drugs, sexual fetishes, crime, guns, and police procedure. (Yes, all of these are in DEATH PERCEPTION.)
All this said, must you know everything about everything? No. You can’t. Other funeral directors may do things differently in their places of business, and that’s okay. But my facts are accurate according to how one funeral director operates his crematorium.
As readers, we’ve come to expect the fully developed protagonist. After all, if the main character is a pasteboard creature, who wants to read the story? So writers spend a lot of time developing their protagonists, and, perhaps, their “helper” characters.
But one thing I’ve learned to do is to give my antagonist equal treatment. Early in my writing career, I created antagonists—what I called “villains”—for the sole purpose of frustrating my hero and his goals. This led to “cardboard villain syndrome.”
Your protagonist and plot are only as strong as your antagonist. He or she (or it or they) must also have a backstory that has led to the development of certain weaknesses, strengths, fears, desires, and goals. He might be an evil bastard, hell-bent on destroying your protagonist, but he also might be a decent guy who just wants the same thing your hero/ine wants, and has the gumption to compete for it. Or he wants the exact opposite of what your hero/ine is striving for, and is willing to fight for it.
Your villain cannot be a skeleton (unless we’re talking about that story I wrote in second grade). He/she/it/they must be fully fleshed using the same development tools you used for your protagonist.
The best information I’ve encountered in 20 years of reading and writing fiction—and reading about writing fiction—I discovered recently in Robert J. Ray’s The Weekend Novelist, in the sections “Weekend 1” and “Weekend 2.” (If you buy this book, be sure to get the original 1994 version, not the revised version.)
Ray leads you through the process of writing a brief character sketch (the broad strokes), plotting a timeline for life and story events, developing a backstory by asking “what if?” to probe motivation, and building a wants list—for your protagonist, your helper, and your antagonist, exploring where desires mesh and clash.
I followed such a process in DEATH PERCEPTION, my latest supernatural thriller tinged with horror and peppered with dark humor. My tag team of antagonists turned out to be well-developed and interesting characters equal to (well, not quite) the hero, Kennet Singleton.
By devoting as much effort to your antagonist as you do to your protagonist, you will have a stronger story, one that readers will love. Flesh out your villains, and you’ll flesh out your fiction.
As a creative exercise in second grade, Teacher had her pupils write a story. “Be as creative as you can be, children.” I penned—penciled, rather—my debut horror fiction on a ruled school tablet. Teacher, ostensibly pleased with her prodigy’s genius (more likely concerned with a tow-headed eight-year-old’s mental health), passed my work to the elementary school principal. (“Children, ‘principal’ ends with P-A-L—the principal is your PAL.” Keep reading, and then decide…)
Unknown to me, Principal Sprunger, also the president of the local Lions Club chapter in Berne, Indiana, read my story to the men of our little Swiss community and then in good humor fined my father a dime because the preacher’s son had written such an “awful tale full of skeletons, witches, and blood.”
That is the story of money first changing hands in relation to my fiction. (That dime never found its way into my pocket. If it had, I would have biked down to the White Cottage and bought myself a small soft serve cone, for sure.)
I continued to write through elementary and high school. The Brookville, Pennsylvania, Jeffersonian Democrat newspaper printed our school newsletter, for which I’d written a grisly Halloween story. They decided to reprint my story in the town newspaper. This should have overjoyed me, but they printed it anonymously and didn’t pay me for it, either. Bastards.
I placed a short story and some poetry in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s New Growth Arts Revue. I stopped writing for a few years, but started again when I envisioned a scene about a young man who had been shot in the stomach and stumbled into an alley to die. I developed this into my first suspense novel for the Christian market, WHEN THE MUSIC STOPS, long out of print.
After completing my master of arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, I entered the publishing arena and compiled a trade paperback anthology of shorts based on the Ten Commandments. THOU SHALT NOT came out in 2006. It’s a great collection of horror and dark crime. Check it out.
I’ve placed a few short stories for pay in the past decade, but after hundreds of rejections, two years ago I decided to take a different route.
One of the reasons I’ve had trouble in placing my work, especially novels, is because they don’t cleanly fit into a genre slot. Why is this important? Because brick-and-mortar bookstores need to know where to shelve a book. So part of the writing-for-print-publication process is writing for a shelf spot. (And length requirements in genre fiction in part are based on how many books will conveniently fit in a cardboard carton for shipping.) I think that’s just ridiculous.
I had been working on a novel proposal for Dorchester Publishing/Leisure Books. But after the debacle with their selling ebooks without remunerating authors, I stuffed that idea down the disposal.
In a nutshell, since second grade, I’ve learned that publishing by the traditional route is inorganically restricted and highly improbable. The royalties paid (if they pay)… well, suck.
So I recently published my second novel, THE SIXTH SEED for e-readers and trade paperback. It cost me nothing to post it, and I’ve been selling downloads at a 70% royalty. And I can add meta tags with no concern for a shelf spot or how I will otherwise categorize “a dark paranormal fantasy fraught with suburban Pittsburgh horror—family drama with aliens.”
I followed the same path for DEATH PERCEPTION, my latest supernatural thriller tinged with horror and peppered with dark humor:
Nineteen-year-old Kennet Singleton lives with his invalid mother in a personal care facility, but he wants out. He operates the crematory at the local funeral home, where he discovers he can discern the cause of death of those he cremates—by toasting marshmallows over their ashes.
He thinks his ability is no big deal since his customers are already dead. But when his perception differs from what’s on the death certificate, he finds himself in the midst of murderers. To save the residents and avenge the dead, he must bring the killers to justice.
So, you’ve written a novel and done your revisions and polished it as best you can. Is it ready to send to an agent or publisher—or to publish yourself? Hard to tell.
Instead of crossing your fingers and exposing your manuscript to the risk of immediate rejection, why not first let someone read your book and provide feedback? If they spot any problems with story, plot, characters, or writing, you’ll have a chance to improve your work before you send it to someone who’ll buy.
Writers have been doing this forever, passing on their finished manuscripts to a close circle of trusted readers. But for the new novelist, it’s one more step along the path of learning to become a published and professional writer.
Whom should you choose? It’s best not to choose someone who isn’t an avid reader, who doesn’t like the genre you write in, or who won’t give you honest feedback (meaning both praise and constructive criticism).
A good beta reader is someone who reads widely, reads in your genre, and can discuss with intelligence the elements of fiction (characters, plot, description, setting, dialog, narration, etc.). Your best bet may be another writer whose back you can scratch at a later date.
If you’re working to deadline, it’s wise to set a date for the review to be completed. Just make sure you give your reader plenty of time to read, and agree on the deadline beforehand.
If there are specific issues you’re concerned about—for example, “Does Mrs. Gulliver seem like a fully formed character to you, and are her motivations understandable and sufficient to fuel the brutal murder she commits?”—you may want to communicate these up front so that your beta reader can be on the lookout as she reads. And make it clear that you’re looking for constructive feedback to make your story better, not just ego strokes.
If you send an electronic file (.mobi, .epub, .pdf, or other), make sure the copy is marked “BETA” on the cover page. Ditto for a printed version. And if your printed version is looseleaf, put it in a binder to keep the pages from getting lost. Invite your reader to make comments in the margins as she reads.
This is your precious intellectual property. You may want to include a copyright statement and warning on the title page and in the footer of every page, along with the specific reader’s name.
On the title page: “BETA COPY 1, date”
In the footer of every page: “Copyright 2013 Your Full Name. Duplication prohibited. Beta Reader’s Name – Beta Copy 1 – date”
This way, if you create more than one version, even if a page is removed from the binder, you’ll know where it came from. Print a fresh version for your next reader with the footer changed appropriately.
Once you hand your reader the manuscript, leave him alone. Don’t call or text every day, asking about his progress and whether or not he likes it. The exception here is inquiring about progress as you near your agreed-upon deadline.
When the reading is done, it’s time for a talk with your beta reader. You may want to prepare and print a list of questions about characters, plot, description, setting, dialog, narration, and so on. If they fill it out, you have their answers in writing.
If you sit down to interview, make sure you put her at ease and encourage her to speak his mind candidly about his opinion. Then, let him talk, and keep your mouth shut. Resist the urge to jump in and explain everything (although you should answer questions when asked, or if you’re unclear about what they’re saying). Above all, turn off your emotions, turn on your smile, and THANK him for the hours he’s spent helping you.
If you get published, a nice touch is to mention him in the acknowledgments section, gift him a signed copy of the book, or take him to dinner. Or all three. If his feedback was valuable, you may want to call on him again.
Then, you evaluate the feedback. It may be a good idea to get another reader’s opinion before you overhaul your manuscript based on your first reader’s input. Fix obvious errors, naturally, before printing a fresh copy for your second reader. But remember that opinions are just that—opinions. No two readers will agree on everything about your book. However, if two or three readers point out the same problem, it’s a good sign that you need to do more work.
I followed this process with DEATH PERCEPTION, my latest supernatural thriller tinged with horror and peppered with dark humor. My beta readers were Kerri Knutson and Gary Reichart, whose feedback I appreciate very much. You’ll see them mentioned on the acknowledgments page with a few treasured others.
Backstory is everything that happened to the protagonist before the story begins. In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby calls this the “ghost.” The ghost is usually some negative event from the past that still haunts the protagonist in the present. This past trauma is the source of the hero’s current psychological and moral weakness. It’s his internal opponent, what Truby describes as the “great fear that is holding him back from action.”
In DEATH PERCEPTION, my just-released supernatural thriller, young protagonist Kennet Singleton’s backstory ghost is his father’s drunken violence, resulting in his father’s death and the loss of his mother’s eye. Lack of a good role model has crippled Kennet from striking out on his own; at 19, he still lives with his invalid mother in a personal care home and holds only a part-time job at a local funeral home.
However, Kennet’s natural hypersensitivity toward his father’s moods and abusive behavior birthed a psychic gift that blooms when an old prophetess lays her hands on him. Later he discovers that he can discern the cause of death of those he cremates—by toasting marshmallows over their ashes.
When he begins believing in himself and using his gift to avenge the spirits of those who have been murdered (ghosts of a different sort), Kennet finds the courage to stand up for himself and forge his way toward independence.
Good stories dramatize the process of a flawed character overcoming past wounds on the path to wholeness. Even in a tale of horror and supernatural crime, Kennet’s “ghosts” find justice—and peace.
Lee Allen Howard is quickly becoming a huge favourite of mine. He crafts his characters so well and gives them depth, flaws and realism that you expect from a much more seasoned writer.
DEATH PERCEPTION is a well-thought-out story about Kennet, a troubled yet gentle young man who lives in a nursing home with his elderly mother. He has a job in a crematorium working for a profit-driven, moral-less boss, but Kennet does his job with dignity and provides a graceful ending for all the people he deals with, regardless of cost.
Then people start dying in the home where Kennet lives… and the death certificate doesn’t quite match up with what Kennet sees as the cause of death. Kennet’s gift is to see how people die, and therein lies the problem.
I loved this. What a great read. Kennet is a character that I really want to read more about [because] he was brilliant. I loved his outlook, the way he related to everyone, his spirit, everything about him.
DEATH PERCEPTION is smart, funny, engaging, and endearing. A true work of art. I love this book and I hope there will be many more Kennet stories.