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When reviewing fiction, there's a certain quality that's very important to me, which I can best describe as being "solid." By which I mean: the story is well thought-out, well constructed; it flows naturally and believably; I'm never struck by something that seems overly absurd, implausible, contrived, or manipulative.

Though in some senses this is a basic requirement for a story - you want your story believable and non-contrived, right? - I like to mention it outright in reviews. That's because a lot of stories don't feel solid to me, and that's because writing something that's both convincing and compelling can often be very difficult. So it's important for me to recognize the pieces that do manage this, and I'd personally see this as a significant recommendation for many types of fiction (because often, a story which is solid has the minimum requirements to be enjoyable - not necessarily much beyond the "light fun read" tag, but at least that).

My difficulty is that I feel that describing these stories as "solid" is damning them with faint praise. It doesn't sound like much of a compliment, somehow (though maybe I'm wrong on this?). Here's some other phrases I've used or considered:

  • "Competent" is another word that, taken literally, is an accurate description of what I'm trying to praise, but actually sounds really really bad.
  • "Flawless" would be nice if taken literally, but it's much too strong a superlative for what I'm actually trying to describe.
  • "Well-constructed" is a pretty close to what I'm looking for, but I don't think the average reader will understand what I mean by it - it sounds like generic praise that means "this is good in some way."

Can you think of other ways to phrase the positive criticism I'm trying to convey? Alternatively, do you think I'm being overly-sensitive in rejecting some of the phrasings I've already considered?

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5 Answers 5

I don't think there's anything wrong with 'solid', 'consistent' or 'well-crafted'. From the sound of things, you MEAN this to be faint praise... you're saying that the book has achieved "the minimum requirements to be enjoyable". It's what you say AFTER this that adds the shadings.

Like:

This book is a well-crafted, light beach read. It won't stay with you forever, but you'll enjoy the time you spend with it.

Or:

This book is well-crafted and truly memorable. The prose flows easily, the characters are unique and fascinating, and the conflict is gut-wrenching.

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There are entire genres that rarely attempt to be much more than enjoyable, light reads. Say, for example, that "Mr. Mystery and The Case of the Invisible Muppethunter" (#147 in a series) really held together, and did exactly what a series mystery whodunnit should do. It wasn't particularly outstanding in plot or concept; it just did a great job of providing everything I was expecting and hoping to enjoy about the book. How would I describe that quality of the book? –  Standback May 14 '11 at 19:12
    
How 'bout just how you did it in the comment? I mean, you're writing a review, right? Not a one-sentence teaser? It seems like you're trying REALLY hard to be concise, and I'm not sure you need to be... –  Kate Sherwood May 14 '11 at 20:13
    
To a large extent, you're absolutely right, of course. If I review, I get to explain myself. Even so, I feel this is a problem I'm running into frequently. Firstly, it took me a few paragraphs and an example to explain what I meant, and to do so I had to explicitly compare such pieces unfavorably to "heavier"/"deeper" pieces. That's a lot. And secondly, this is something I try to convey very frequently; often enough that brevity is both necessary and desirable - I don't want to reword the same explanation over and over. Does that make sense? –  Standback May 14 '11 at 20:38
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It's beginning to sound like maybe you're wrestling with a larger issue - not terminology, exactly, but rather the challenges of cross-genre comparisons? Does that sound possible? Like, is it 'fair' to make a book sound mediocre when actually it's a perfect example of exactly what it's meant to be... As someone who writes in the Romance genre, I appreciate the distinction you're trying to make! Maybe you can focus on reviewing books based on what they ARE, rather than what they AREN'T. More thought (and characters!) needed... –  Kate Sherwood May 14 '11 at 20:47
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I'm back. I think if your readers are aware of the genre, you don't need to spend too much time belabouring the point that the book isn't heavy or deep. If you review a book that's an excellent example of a series mystery whodunnit, and the readers are clear that it's a series mystery whodunnit, you don't need to say all the ways that it's NOT great literature. Just say how it's good at what it is. I think. –  Kate Sherwood May 14 '11 at 20:51

I think you're spot-on with your assessment. "Solid" is overly used and has become a word I simply gloss right over, it doesn't stick with me. If you were to use "Flawless" I would think that you were being hyperbolic and the credibility of the review would be questioned. And "competent" and "well-constructed" don't have much rhetorical punch.

Some words that might work as replacements:

  • Tight
  • Careful
  • Sensible
  • Cogent
  • Precise
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I'm not sure I like 'tight' and 'careful' - I would read those as criticisms, like the author is trying too hard. The others seem fine to me, though. –  Kate Sherwood May 13 '11 at 20:26
    
@Kate: "tight" actually sounds really good to me - it's very common to see a book described as "the tight, action-packed novel by...", and the "tight" part of that is very much what I'm aiming for. I'm not sure about all the other suggestions, but a lot of them look like they might be good fits for some of the cases I come up against :) –  Standback May 14 '11 at 19:05
    
@Standback - if it works for you, great! And I think combined with 'action-packed', it sounds fine to me, too. I'm thinking more of 'this tight, careful novel is technically proficient, but the author never really takes the chances needed for the book to soar.' Again, it all comes down to context. –  Kate Sherwood May 14 '11 at 20:15

I was watching a movie at the weekend that made me think about this question. I think when something is "solid" and "well constructed" whether this is proper praise or faint praise depends very much on one other criterion. Whether it is plain that the author was writing to some plan they had dug up from some where and ham-fistedly played a game of join-the-plot-points or whether they had constructed it solidly because of a thorough knowledge of their chosen genre/story and out of an implied duty of care to the reader to deliver a minimum standard of craft in their writing.

Which of these two you mean should really be conveyed before you deliver the compliment i.e. you either give the story a pasting and say that even though it was terrible it showed some knowledge on the part of the author of what a good story should be even though they failed to convey it. Or, alternatively, that the story was filled with imagination, well-crafted characters, deftly executed plot twists and was, in addition, solid and well constructed. In the former case it is obvious the author has paid lip-service to good writing whilst cynically filling out a checklist, in the latter it is clear a dedicated artist has applied technique and garnished it with brilliance and flair.

P.S. The movie was in the latter category, solidly constructed with care and attention to detail.

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The first one, I confess, doesn't sound too solid or well-constructed to me... The second one is what I'm aiming at - sometimes when the solid construction is one of the story's strongest points. As for the former, I'm critic enough to be able to come up with more cutting remarks than "solid." :P –  Standback May 17 '11 at 16:19

I like two words you use:

plausible and believable.

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Don't use adjectives.

Adjectives accomplish nothing.

Adjectives are the weakest words we have.

Find book reviews you respect, ones that make you think, ones that make you care about the book. Find reviews that are written by genuine critics who stand at the top of the profession and who have been showered with meaningful awards, and see how many adjectives you can extract from their reviews. Not many, I'll warrant.

Reviews that sing, reviews that make you run breathlessly to find that book by whatever means possible, reviews that make you grateful to be present in the same world with that book, are reviews that tell you what the book does, what the author thinks and why the author thinks that, why the book matters, how the book will change your life or someone else's, anyway, and what will go wrong in the universe if everyone doesn't experience this piece of art.

Life is very, very short. Don't waste it on adjectives.

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