What makes a reader throw your book across the room? Well, I can’t speak for everyone out there, but I’d like to give you a little insight. Lately I’ve been reading quite a few books, and a shameful amount of them have been rated with 1 or 2 stars—most of those reviews will be coming out on my blog shortly, so keep your eyes peeled!
I hate 1 and 2 Star reviews. Let’s get that straight right off the bat. A 2 Star review means that I literally couldn’t find a single positive thing to say about a book. A 1 Star review is the kiss of death—it means that a book was so awful that I couldn’t push myself to finish reading it. I try not to let these reviews happen. If I dislike a book, generally I’ll set it aside for a few days and come back later. Sometimes this is procrastination in writing those dreadful 1 and 2 Star reviews, but I tell myself that it’s because I want to be sure that I’m not rating a book badly just because I’m tired, or not into reading at the moment. Occasionally, this works and I can pick a book back up and finish it, but usually my first impression stands. Sometimes books are just bad.
Giving 1 and 2 Star reviews makes me cringe. I write, and I know a lot of authors, so giving low-score reviews feels like I’ve just told someone their literary baby is ugly and stupid. I don’t enjoy doing it—but I pride myself on being an honest reviewer, and sometimes that means calling literary babies ugly and stupid. Sometimes they just are, and the absolute worst thing about that, is that the author never expects it.
So, after writing yet another 1-Star review last night, I decided to come up with a list of reasons why I may give someone a low-score review and give you a bit of a check list to look over. Maybe it will help someone avoid the painful blow of the unexpected 1 and 2 Star reviews.
The number one reason I’ll throw a book across a room is technical errors. You need a professional editor. Hands down. No exceptions. It’s not okay to publish your book at a point where I can open it up and find more than one glaring error per page (and I’m being generous here). If you cannot construct a complete sentence, you have no business publishing. The last book I threw out had 80 (yes I counted) comma issues in the first chapter. I wish I were kidding. They were misused, and left out in almost every sentence—and a misplaced comma can change the entire meaning of what you’re writing. It drove me nuts.
You cannot write your dialogue as if it were narrative. Think about it for a moment before you nod your head and agree with me—because most people don’t realize they’re doing it. People don’t speak like narrative. They speak in stilted half-sentences with pauses, fumbles, and stutters. They don’t speak in long monologues (because people would interrupt them!), and they don’t speak in poetic, constructed sentences. It’s not realistic! Take a minute, and put quotation marks around this paragraph. See what I mean? It’s awful. If I were to turn this into dialogue, it would go something like this:
“You can’t write dialogue like narrative. Seriously—quit shaking your head. Stop!” I held up a hand and let the moment hang until I was sure I had the audience’s attention. “People ramble and screw up, and…well… whatever, you know what I mean. We aren’t perfect,” I said. “Monologues are something cartoon villains do, not real people.”
Dialogue is personal… familiar, and usually thrown around in it’s simplest, most direct form. It’s full of emotions, actions, and personality—and while you can argue that narrative too should be full of emotions, actions, and personality, it isn’t the same as dialogue. Dialogue breaks the grammar rules, and that’s okay!
You should always read your dialogue out loud when you write it to make sure that it sounds natural. If you can’t get through a bit of dialogue without cringing, you’re doing it wrong. The side effect, of course, is that your characters will start to sound silly—and not in a good way. Silly isn’t good when you’re writing a paranormal thriller or a murder mystery.
You’ve heard it, but I’m going to say it again: Show, don’t Tell. It’s a hard thing to master, and I’ve written articles about it before—so click the link, I’m not going to reiterate—but the general gist is: I don’t want you to tell me how your character feels, or what they realize. It’s boring. I want your character to react to how they’re feeling and realizing. Example:
Suddenly, I realized that this was it–the end—last chance. I wasn’t going to get another opportunity to tell him how I felt. I’d pined over Cole for the last four years, and now I had four seconds to condense that all down into something audible. I told myself I could do this. I had to. I took a deep breath. “Cole—“ It had taken me so long to speak, that by the time I said his name, he was gone. I’d stalled too long, and the four seconds had passed.
That was telling. This is showing:
Shit. No more chances. How do you condense four years of longing into four seconds?
Deep breath, Jamie.
“Cole—“ but four seconds had already passed.
Word count difference? 65. Same message, but more direct, and with a lot more tension. I didn’t need those 65 words to tell you what was going on. Yes, weak writing pads your word count nicely, but it also sucks the tension out of your writing. It doesn’t matter how high your word count is if your readers get so bored that they put your book down in the first chapter.
Writing doesn’t necessarily need to be bare bones, but it shouldn’t spend 10 minutes meandering around before coming to the point. I want to know what’s going on, and I don’t want to spend an entire chapter figuring out that the whole point was to tell me something you could have said in one sentence. Be concise. Get to the point. Spend your word count on something more important than “I realized…”
If nothing else, your story needs to make sense. I’m not saying you can’t have crazy things in your novel. You want talking dragons? Fine. What I’m talking about is your character’s actions and dialogue. Their choices need to make sense. Now this doesn’t mean that every character in the book has to understand their choices, but your audience definitely should. I recently read a book where this was a problem. Let me set it up for you:
The main character was a princess who’s father, the King, had recently died. As the only heir to the throne, she needed to have a coronation. Unfortunately, the author chose to have the King’s funeral and the Princess’ coronation held not only on the same day, but in the same room, at the same moment. “Why? Why is this a thing?” I asked myself. I couldn’t help but think that this wasn’t normal.
If the King dies, you have a grand, stately funeral. Yes, you may throw a coronation the same day for the Princess, but you should give it a few hours. Let the Princess, and the kingdom mourn their King. The coronation should also be a grand ceremony… this is something that the people of the Kingdom are going to want to know about. Unfortunately, the author of this book choose to have no ceremony. The Princess signed a document, put the crown on her head, and then walked out of her own coronation/Father’s funeral.
I was shocked. I mean—really? She walked out? The series of events lead to too many questions and didn’t make logical sense. The direct result is that I shook my head and said “WTF?”
Another example is from another book that got a 1 Star rating. Growing up, the main female lead had been told by her grandmother that she should cut her hair. We’re talking years and years. Her mother too, was told throughout her life that she should cut her hair. It was odd. Whatever. As the story drags on, the main female lead learns that she is not entirely Human, and her hair gives off a smell that attracts Shifters to her. She doesn’t want Shifters to find her—it’s imperative that they don’t. What does she do? She creates a complicated magical potion to mask her smell for a few hours.
Soak that in.
Why didn’t she just cut her hair like everyone has been asking her to? At one point she even says that she doesn’t particularly care about her hair, and will cut it off if she needs to…. but still uses the potion. *throws hands into the air*
Your character’s choices in action and dialogue should make sense.
Just about everything else that can be wrong with a book isn’t book-breaking. Yes, sometimes one-dimensional characters can be annoying. Stupid, impulsive characters can be annoying too—but rarely do these make me throw a book across the room. They may lower the star rating, but never into the 1-2 Star range. If you can master the four points above, you’re going to get at least a 3-Star review. If you can’t master at least two of the points above, you have no business sending your book to reviewers. We are tough critics. We read dozens, if not hundreds of books a year—if you think we aren’t going to notice these things in your writing, you are sorely mistaken.
I’ll read just about everything. I don’t care about the genre, the synopsis, or whether you’re an Indie Author or someone who’s got an agent and a publisher.
Couldn’t. Care. Less.
I just want to get through the first chapter of your book without wanting to throw your literary baby at your head. Low expectations.