Several months back I invited readers to share their reading pet peeves. While there were a lot of great common writing problems, there were also a few issues that fell closer to the “not for me” side than an actual problem.
This is an important distinction in writing. I’ve read many a novel that was well written, even if it did things I don’t particularly care for as a reader.
For example, I’m not fond of distant narrators. It’s nearly impossible for me to connect with a distance third-person omniscient narrator. No matter how well the novel is written, I never feel like I’m in the protagonist’s head, and can’t lose myself in the story.
This is not the fault of the author.
This is the preference of the reader.
If I criticized a novel for this, I’d be doing the author a disservice. I know it’s a taste issue, and I can’t expect every novel to be written with my own personal preferences in mind. The novel wasn’t written badly, it just wasn’t for me.
Basically, if you don’t like science fiction, don’t give a science fiction novel a one-star review because it was too “science fiction-y.”
Being aware of our writing preferences can aid us both as readers and critiquers. It helps us avoid unrealistic expectations when we pick up a novel, and put us in the right frame of mind to read something a little different from our norm.
I don’t expect a lot of deep character building when I read a thriller, for example. The novel isn’t about that, its about the thrill and the plot (there are variations of course, but generally speaking). I know that going in, so it doesn’t bother me when the characters don’t grow or not a lot of time is spent on personal struggles.
But if I pick up a character-driven novel about a journey through personal struggles, I expect a lot of character work. Give me a shallow, two-dimensional protagonist who changes in the last chapter for no reason, and I will criticize it--and rightly so.
What could be a pet peeve for one story, is an actual problem for another due to genre.
Being aware of our preferences also lets us be objective when giving feedback. It’s easy to give advice of what we’d do with a novel, but that’s not always what the author wants to do with it, or what's best for that story. If they’re writing a romance, and you dislike romances, pushing it in that direction won’t help the author one bit. It’ll also probably wreck the novel if that writer follows your advice.
I’ve found adding a quick, “I’m not an XX reader, so take this with a grain of salt, but…” type qualifier puts the comment in the right light. I share my thoughts with the author, but also let them know my comment might be biased by preference.
How can you tell if you’re being too hard on a novel?
Ask yourself (and be objective):
- Is this a real problem, or a matter of personal preference?
- Would you have the same issue if something fundamental about the story/writing was different? (Such as first person vs. third person or a different genre)
- Do you have the same issue with multiple novels, regardless of how well they’re written?
- Do you not have this issue with novels in your favorite genre?
Have you ever noticed a bias in your reader preferences? Have you ever judged a novel unfairly?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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