GoodReads is just a fantastic website and my go-to place for book reviews when I’m deciding on purchasing. When I get in my mind about buying a book, it’s less about actually doing it and more about which one (or two or three or who’s counting!?). Of course, each review can be based on personal tastes but some feedback can be very revealing and useful to a writer working on their book. For instance, looking at reviews from some of the books I’ve loved, I found some harsh criticism that I overlooked such as the pace of the book, character flaws and usual tropes being used. This began a three-day bender on looking at my favorite books, at reviews on books I’ve heard of but haven’t read yet, and for indie books that reviews were solely based because they were given a free copy for an honest review (also, any authors reading this–I am completely available to write a review for a free book!). I have come to realize that people who have never seen my work are sick of the same old descriptions or find certain characters unlikable or are brutally honest at the lack of writing skills – as they should be. But this is exactly what a writer should be obsessively looking for because these readers are the audience.
Looking at YA (and really several books in different age groups), there were a few things I found interesting and can completely agree with:
- The main love interest (male) does not need to have dimples. This plagues YA books, making the perfect guy with the perfect dimples and it makes us perfectly sick. To be honest, I don’t remember the last guy I met who actually had these cherub dimples every under-20-years-old protagonist melts over. Can we make a slight cleft chin hot?
- Characters who state who they are instead of showing it through a story can be really annoying. ‘I’m funny’. Ok, thanks, but I read this book and there is no evidence of this characteristic. Saying one thing and being flat and dull doesn’t at all create an urgency to read the book and be enveloped in the story. I see this too often in writing and stress in my own, trying to juggle character development and plot in a ring of fire.
- Don’t let the blurb give the entire plot. Just don’t do it. If you begin to, slap yourself in the face and walk away. This is for any genre or age-targeted audience.
- Not every single main character can be awkward or at least remain awkward. This is a really tough concept with YA and New Adult because you’re dealing with adolescence and an age group that is generally vulnerable. You are awkward during that time and once you hit your 30s, if you are still awkward then you’re just labeled eccentric. However, awkwardness in a character who doesn’t grow or if there’s no real motive behind the awkwardness and it’s just a quirk are archetypical characters that bring nothing new.
- If you are going to make your character an unlikeable POS, then go all out like Libby Day from Dark Places who was a total asshole but it matched the content of the story or Amy Elliott Dunne from Gone Girl. There is a science to soulless protagonists/anti-heroes so go big or go home.
- Don’t deny lustful thoughts or actions. If we are being realistic, sugarcoating is not always the best route. Readers want authentic and relatable. Not perfect, nice and a good marketing character.
- Beware of the small towns. I feel as if every book I pick up happens to take place in small towns in the south – like my hand is purposely shuffling through the rack and picking up a story that parallels the woes of small places still attached to southern aggression. When not doing that, it’s usually a Maine setting (thanks, Stephen King). Unless you’ve been to a small town, do not make assumptions or be too vague. I wouldn’t consider where I live a small town – more like a small, coastal city with highways within reach but compared to Boston, it’s small. Where Editor Joe lives is a small town and so is everything surrounding Gardner, MA.About a year ago, I went to visit these little pockets of Massachusetts and realized how small towns work and how wrong some of the books I’ve read about them were. For instance, one town near Gardner, MA has a lake which is surrounded by private property and own the land but the water is public property. In order for one to swim (who doesn’t own the land), you’d have to get in by divine powers of not touching the ground or taking out the old helicopter and being flown in. Good luck with that. This also doesn’t suggest all small townies are narrow-minded. I know plenty of people from many places that are like that. The assumption appears to be that small towns are swarming with idiots but if I have learned anything from Twin Peaks, small towns are full of strange and interesting people.
- Some stories, especially with YA, follow similar plot lines: Small town, someone is new (most likely the girl), intense, sexless love, everyone is keeping them apart, etc. This is fine if there is a stronger plot within it but it seems that is what many YA stories, especially in paranormal section, rely on.
- Stories are afraid of humor – even if it’s romance or adventure, writers (and I can certainly identify at times) are afraid to have humor–to laugh at the protagonist. I’m not talking about the character cracking a joke, but to generally make humorous situations or responses, which is a normal human thing–you don’t always have great moments in your life but you learn to laugh about things, make fun of yourself, laugh so hard you pee yourself in public. Nothing is worse than a flat, boring character with no sense of humor. Now, if it’s a murder mystery novel, I might get that humor, but a skilled writer can find ways so the whole book doesn’t have an overcast of drama the entire time.
- If the main character you are writing is the opposite sex as you, then please talk to people of the opposite gender. I find it challenging to write male characters because, ah, I’m not a dude but that doesn’t mean all of my stories are a full female cast. It doesn’t work that way (well I guess it could but I prefer all genders to be included).
I’m going to explore areas among others but how do you deal with criticism of your favorite books? What’s your take on reading reviews to improve your own writing? Got something to say, leave a comment!