The Next Seven Book Reviewer Complaints

Mistakes authors makeEveryone had so much fun with the last seven complaints I had while reviewing books, I thought I’d give them a chance to get right down to some more. Some are a bit esoteric, but when a reviewer is really busy and looking for an excuse to go on to the next book, a few of these will do the trick every time.

8. Information Dump

This is feedback from everyone in comments on the earlier post. NEVER, EVER, EVER bore the reader with an Information Dump. I know you need us to know the whole life story of the main character, but we don’t know we need to know it, so why read it? So we put your book down after Page three.

When is an information dump not an information dump? Never. The only time information is okay is when we don’t notice it, or, best yet, when we want the information. If you can set up a situation where the reader feels like, “Why is he doing that? WHY is he doing that? WHY IS HE…? Oh! That’s why!” then you’ve got it nailed.

Part A: Developmental Errors

9. Deus ex Machina

The Ancient Greeks were religious types, and their dramas were part of their religious festivals. It was therefore de rigueur to make sure that whatever god they were worshipping got his due in every play. Consequently, the usual plotline had humans getting into troubles they had no way of getting out of, and the god descending from the heavens on a crane of some sort (god from the machine) and ending the play by solving everyone’s problems.

Readers who live in secular democracies don’t think like that. We believe that humans have the ability to solve our own problems, and we like writers who have the ability to write plots that are solved by their characters. So having the alien spaceship (or the cavalry) show up at the last minute to rescue the hero ranks right up there with telling Mommie when your brother teases you.

10. Character Mangling

This kind of thing happens most often in TV serials, but popular writers like Danielle Steele are far from immune. The character may be the nicest grandmother in the world, but if the plot requires her to suddenly become faithless and mean, then there she goes, bopping Grandpa on the head and running off with the milkman.

You see, we readers know that in real life people change; they turn out not to be what we thought they were. But we’re really suspicious if the author uses that technique to further the plot. Is it just lazy writing? Unless there’s a bit of preparation: just a couple of hints (foreshadowing) about grandma’s secret personality, so we can say, smugly, “Oh, yeah. I saw that coming.”

11. And While We’re Talking about Preparation

“Then he picked up the gun he found lying there…”

Please stop dropping in plot elements out of the blue, just because you happen to need them. Just like the sudden character change or the deus ex machina, you don’t realize how obvious it looks to the reader when the author throws in an element that he suddenly needs because he’s written himself into a corner. Yes, we know you’re the author, it’s your setting and if you want a door in that corner, you can write one in whenever you like. But remember, we also know you cheated.

Gordon’s rule of three: a necessary plot element can only be used on its third appearance. The more crucial the need, the more obvious the previous mentions. This goes for characters as well.

12. Too Many Characters (Especially at the Start).

They say you have to experience a word seven times before it becomes part of your vocabulary. Think about that when you’re adding X&p’th, the third jK’lian warrior, who will now stand around and do nothing for the next thirty pages until he’s needed to save the princess. The reader is just not going to remember him.

Unless you want to confuse your readers completely, start your story with a small number of important characters. Then, as you slowly add the others, give each one his moment in the reader’s regard, with some memorable act to perform, and have people say his name several times.

12A. And while I’m at it, putting apostrophes in names of Fantasy characters went out of style a long time ago. As in, just after it started. The only reason to have an apostrophe is if there’s a letter missing, and you’d better know what that letter was. See Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider names if you want to experience the apostrophe used correctly.

Same with all those extra characters that aren’t letters. If you want to call your protagonist @#$%^&, well, that perfectly expresses my opinion of your creative skills.

Part B: Sure Signs of the Absence of an Editor.

These are picky, but when my slush pile is huge and I’m booking reviews 3 months down the road, I get picky. If I see a couple of these errors, I ship the novel back, suggesting the author get the book edited, and then I’d be pleased to look at it.

13. Poor Word Usage

13A. Never use the word “existential.” Take it from me, you don’t know what it means. I took a graduate seminar on the subject and I’m still not sure. I know what it seems to mean. “Existential” contains the idea “existence.” Thus an existential problem threatens your existence. Wrong. By that thinking, a “perquisite” is something the perks you up, and if vegetarians eat vegetables, then what do humanitarians eat? The English language just ain’t that logical.

If you want to know, “existentialism” used in a literary sense has to do with free will and the individual’s ability to make a moral choice independent of the influence of the rest of the universe. My Theory of Philosophy 501 prof would probably give me a C+ for that one, but it’s a good working model. After all, the philosophers who invented the term couldn’t agree on it either.

So do us all a favour and don’t bother. It doesn’t make your writing any deeper or more important. And for all of us who think we know what it really means, it makes you look pompous. Which we, of course, are not.

13B. Another error made so often that it’s almost become part of the language; please don’t spell “all right” as “alright.” Yes, I know that a lot of people use it, and I’m sure it’s in all sorts of dictionaries and spellcheckers, and I guess using it makes you feel cool and hip and trendy and rebellious. But for a certain percentage of your readership, use of sloppy writing like that is the first symptom of… well… sloppy writing. And when that percentage of the readership includes a lot of reviewers… I mean, is it that hard to learn “all right?”

13C. Using “their” as a singular pronoun, as in “No writer wants their work critiqued so harshly.” Sure, the political-correctness mavens have tossed us a gender-equity curve. But there are ways of dealing with it, and good writers find them. Are you a good writer?

14. Last and Greatest

The worst, Worst, WORST mistake that an author can make is not getting the best editor you can afford to keep you from making all the mistakes above, plus your own homegrown set. I know it’s rather difficult to go out and pay good money for someone to tell you that you did it wrong, but that’s part of the professional’s pride as well. Pride in your ability to admit you made mistakes, because you know your work will be better because you fixed them.

And then reviewers will be asking you if they can review your books. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

14 thoughts on “The Next Seven Book Reviewer Complaints”

  1. Good list Gordon. I do think we need to be a bit easier on the “their” singular pronoun. It has become acceptable by most editors and publishers – even suggested. I try to avoid it because I’m not used to it either but …

    1. When any writing habit is iffy in any way, I take the coward’s way out and avoid it completely. A lot of people are using the second person to avoid “their.” Instead of “Nobody wants their work critiqued,” say, “You don’t want your work critiqued.”
      It’s the same way with commas. If my editor and I have an argument about whether a comma should be there, I rewrite the sentence.
      The point is that any usage that stops any percentage of your readers from their flow and enjoyment of your work, even if it’s technically correct, it’s a writing error.

  2. Gordon, I love your articles, and your humor! I love that you used the word “esoteric” in the first paragraph, and admonished us to eschew utilizing “existential” in our works (bit of my own humor there.)

    I’m with Yvonne about using “their.” It was absolutely horrifying at first, but by now it’s crept into our vernacular and put down roots. It saves us from repetitions of “he/she, his/hers, him/her.”

    “Gordon’s Rule of Three” is excellent advice. I remember you pointed it out in a beta read of my second novel, where my protag used a bandana as emergency handcuffs. I went back to the ms and did a search for “bandana.” Actually, I’d used that word four times already. But since it didn’t work for you, I figured there was no way it would be sufficient for anyone else. So, I added that word a few more times in the final draft. Maybe it’s in there *too many* times, now, and we’ll have to have a corollary: Candace’s Rule of Overcorrection?

    Very much looking forward to your next post. 😀

  3. All good advice, though 13B and 13C are evolving under our feet. I’m a stickler on the former, but one of my favorite copy editors does it the other way. I try to avoid the latter, but occasionally indulge in the singular they/them/their, because I consider suddenly switching point of view just as much of an offense. But these “rules” and others can be a bit precious and have been broken effectively by good writers since before Shakespeare’s time. English grammar is more flexible than many people would have you believe — especially those high school English teachers who tell students that good sentences never begin with a conjunction. I’m guessing they’re the ones who don’t write. Because those of us who do know better!

    1. You spend your first 5 years in karate learning the forms perfectly. You spend the next 5 years adapting them to your own personal style. Then you spend another 5 years going back to the original forms, because now you really understand them.
      Writing is the same, except it takes your whole career.
      Fortunately for me, I have had several good editors recently who beat my individualistic idiocies out of me. Now I try to make my writing style as transparent as possible, so my readers can focus on the story. And yes, sometimes I do use nonstandard syntax.

    2. I have given up on the ‘their’ instead of mangling ‘he/she’.

      I am an editor, as well as an author. Wearing my editor’s hat I’ve overseen six books by one writer since 1990.

      A few months ago while I was editing his latest – his sixth – I looked at how he had tried to work the ‘he/she’.

      It just looked awkward. I made it ‘their’ and ‘they’. He was grateful.

      As for ‘alright’ rather than ‘all right’. Correct.

      Cheers

      – Paul Corrigan, New Zealand (which is not Australia).

  4. A comment in general:
    Yes, the language is evolving under our feet. The question is whether we allow it do develop willy nilly, creating the kind of illogical though creative language we have, or attempt, because our writing influences a great number of people, to nudge the language in directions we think make it more exact and more expressive at the same time. I happen to think that changing a gender-specific usage to a gender-neutral usage leads to less precision. So I don’t do that.
    On the other hand, there isn’t really anything wrong with “alright,” and I only recommend against it because it labels your writing, usually in a negative way. I find myself proved right time and again. If I see “alright” in a story, I guarantee I’ll also find POV loosely applied, I’ll find misplaced modifying phrases, and I’ll come to the inevitable conclusion that the story has been written by an inexperienced writer, and has not been edited.

  5. -giggles- I did use the word ‘existential’ in my latest story but…it was in the context of ‘I don’t have time for this existential crap’ so I hope I’m forgiven. I’m a philosophy major, too, and I still don’t understand exactly what it’s supposed to mean. 😀

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I thought I was the last person in the world to get the hives over ‘alright’. Even started to wonder if I was wrong, and that doesn’t happen often. Now going on my way, rejoicing.

  7. Great stuff, Gordon! Am I in the right place to enquire about a book review? My apologies if I’m not. (Tried enquiring at your email address on Airborn Press, but for some reason my email bounced.)
    All the best,
    Dani

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