As a writer, I’m fairly forgiving of books that I read; fully appreciative of the long hours, sweat, anguish, mood swings and sheer number of hours required to write a book. I hope that few readers take books for granted. Writing is hard work and takes a lot of time. Knowing this, if I spot flaws in a book, I am lenient and always willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt.
That said, here are my top 7 peeves as a reader:
- Plot believability: Readers are smart. They will spot those huge holes in your plot. They will scream at the page “Why would she do that?” or “All he had to do was…”. The classic example of this is demonstrated in Hollywood B-movies where everyone in a haunted house splits up, or the girl walks into the dark cellar by herself without a light. If you can’t make your plot work without making the reader groan, then go and rework the plot. Deus ex Machina is the term that comes to mind here.
- No info dumps please: Don’t be a lazy author. Please take the time to dribble your backstory and setting details as the book progresses. Work those details in naturally. Let the reader discover them bit by bit at a moment that fits the scene. Don’t vomit all that information at me in a ten page description. I don’t need to know the full history of every character the instant you introduce them. It’s far more interesting to learn about how he/she nearly drowned as a kid, at the point in the book where the adult character has to take a boat somewhere. Now you have tension and emotion. Similarly, just because you did weeks of research on horses, or armor, or the pine forests of Canada, that does not entitle you to info dump all that research: “Lumber mills in Canada began in 1721, when…” Yawn!
- Don’t slack off in the middle: Most books I read, slump in the middle. Great start, big bang of an ending but yawn-yawn in the middle. Don’t stop the momentum. Don’t pad the middle. Go back and cut the slow stuff and make the middle more exciting. You can’t coast until the climactic ending. Put in more twists and turns, reveals, plot twists, etc. Make it fun.
- Give me a neat ending: Don’t concentrate so much on the big bang ending that you come to an abrupt “The End”, leaving the reader wondering what happened to that poor guy left in the cell in Chapter 4, or the missing magical goat, or did those two minor characters hook up in the end? There should be an aftermath at the end to wind things down and tidy up some loose ends. You don’t have to answer every single thing, but resolve the major issues. This dovetails with “Deliver on your promise” (below). If you are writing a series then you clearly have more leeway to leave things unanswered. That said, as a reader, I like every book in a series to have a good clean ending just in case I don’t read the next book.
- Cut the mundane: Every scene should advance the plot, or reveal character or setting. If not – chop it. Some authors put in mundanity for the sake of realism, but no, I don’t want to read about that uneventful ride through three kingdoms to get to the capital city, if nothing relevant happens. Don’t have two characters head-to-head in dialogue about the weather because “that’s what real people would do”. Don’t describe Mary putting on her makeup, having breakfast, getting into and starting her car unless it reveals something about her character. Just start with her racing out of the driveway, late for an important engagement.
- Deliver on your promise: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” – Anton Chekhov. Don’t trick the reader by introducing the promise of an action or dramatic scene, and then it never happens. Of course red herrings are allowed, and plot twists occur, but they must make sense. If you don’t want the rifle to go off, then fine, but explain why not. (It’s a fake, it isn’t loaded, in the heat of the fight, the old man can’t reach it, etc.) There was a Hollywood movie (that I won’t name) that had a man chased by a stalker throughout the entire movie, finally going man to man at the end in the classic fight. Then, at the last minute, a cop rushes in and shoots the stalker. No! Don’t cheat me of the hero besting the stalker. If the cop is a valid part of the plot, then that’s ok, but foreshadow that, don’t just have the cop come out of nowhere.
- Show don’t tell: This is one of the commonest author fails. So much so that every single writer has done it, and some continue to, to a greater or lesser degree. Give the reader something dramatic to read. “Mary was sad”. Ok, but such a lost opportunity. “Mary’s shoulders drooped, and she blinked back tears, chewing her lip to prevent it from trembling.” A little flowery, but you get the point.
I see these errors time and again in books that otherwise are fantastic reads. What are your pet peeves, dear reader?