Monday, November 9

The Difference Between a Writing Problem, and a “Not For Me” Issue

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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?
Taste matters a great deal in how much we enjoy a novel. As writers, it’s helpful to develop the ability to step outside our reader selves and look at a piece of work objectively.

Have you ever noticed a bias in your reader preferences? Have you ever judged a novel unfairly? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book 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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19 comments:

  1. Hear, hear! It drives me wild to read reviews of the type 'I don't like stories about affairs and therefore I give Anna Karenina a 1 star review' (for example). There are personal preferences and there are legitimate concerns, and I like the way you distinguish between the two.

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    1. Thanks! It makes it harder to trust the reviewer as well. Is the book bad or is it just not the reviewer's taste?

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  2. Great post and even better advice. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. You make a very good point. If only more people would understand the difference! I've had a few 3 star reviews of my latest book which say ' It's a well written book, but I didn't like it because I don't like X in general', which is a perfectly valid review because they're clear about WHY they didn't like it. Of course, if they'd given it a one star, I'd have been quite miffed...

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    1. At least they said they didn't like X in general. I wonder how many of those types of reviews are written by professional reviewers who read whatever gets handed to them? It's their job, even if it's not their type of book.

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  4. Excellent points about the difference between actual problems and matters of personal taste. I feel I should mention this, though, because there's one point I'm not so sure about.

    A thriller that lacks depth of character is perhaps forgivable because of the genre, but genre isn't an excuse. Character development is important to any story--genre simply dictates how much most readers will accept as enough.

    I ask myself this question, in that situation: How can I care about the dangers a character is facing, if I don't care about the character? I learn to care about them when they grow and develop. The thrills aren't everything, and in fact, character development and thrills aren't mutually exclusive.

    Genre shouldn't be treated like a prison, where rigid rules must be obeyed and never shall you stray outside its boundary. Genre is a guide. In fact, a thriller that does have character growth might just stand out from the crowd.

    Character development itself is not a personal matter. If a story doesn't have it, it's a problem, unless the story simply does not focus nor rely on its characters. How much development characters should get is part of personal preference and differs from genre to genre. But it shouldn't be completely lacking. And it shouldn't be ignored just because the rules of the genre say so.

    That said, it is very important to understand what the standards of a genre are, so that your review of a book in said genre is fair, and not falling into the "I don't like romance, so I think your book is terrible" category.

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    1. Oh absolutely, I was just using that as an example about how wide the range of what's "good" can be per genre. What's required for one genre might just be a bonus for another. A thriller needs to thrill. A thriller with wonderful characters and a rich world that also thrills is likely to be a huge success.

      Thanks for going into more detail on this!

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  5. This topic illustrates a BIG part of why my early beta-reader experience for "Gabriel" were so frustrating. I was swapping critiques with a lot of writers of varying experience levels and publishing experience, and most of them didn't get animal fantasy is not confined to picture books, clan based warfare (like "Redwall"), or is not a clone of "Stuart Little" or "Charlotte's Web."

    I now understand that often they're just default answers for those who don't know the depth and variety these stories can and do have. But at time it really frustrated me (especially when "Writing About My Book" seemed to devalue "Writing the ACTUAL BOOK" and I still struggle to work through that)

    They read "Gabriel" as if I'd written an overly complicated picture book, OR a YA novel with a too mature (or immature) focus.

    Even though I made it clear this was a novel, not a picture book or a chapter book (Each of which with their own unique yet sometimes related limitations) this misconception continued, regardless of how I tried to frame it.

    While many authors, including Janice (correct me if I'm wrong) have told me we can get great feedback from writers who don't "get" our genre or type of story we're telling, it can sometimes be disorienting, as hard we try to be open to feedback we can use.

    Even when someone gave the "I'm not X reader, take with a grain of salt" qualifier, I felt the way they phrased their concerns (to put it nicely) made me not just worry about getting better with the technical issues that were in my own writing, but about the state of our boys and men in society at large.

    My writing aside, this issue was bigger than me and my book, and despite some on both sides of the gender divide making light of it, I kNEW it was real, and one day I hope to start a movement to give boys and men outside the mainstream or debunk common myths and misconceptions about boys and men-and give boys and men today the hope and support I didn't have growing up and had to create myself to the extent that I could.

    To be continued...

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    1. This topic illustrates a BIG part of why my early beta-reader experience for "Gabriel" were so frustrating. I was swapping critiques with a lot of writers of varying experience levels and publishing experience, and most of them didn't get animal fantasy is not confined to picture books, clan based warfare (like "Redwall"), or is not a clone of "Stuart Little" or "Charlotte's Web."

      I now understand that often they're just default answers for those who don't know the depth and variety these stories can and do have. But at time it really frustrated me (especially when "Writing About My Book" seemed to devalue "Writing the ACTUAL BOOK" and I still struggle to work through that)

      They read "Gabriel" as if I'd written an overly complicated picture book, OR a YA novel with a too mature (or immature) focus.

      Even though I made it clear this was a novel, not a picture book or a chapter book (Each of which with their own unique yet sometimes related limitations) this misconception continued, regardless of how I tried to frame it.

      While many authors, including Janice (correct me if I'm wrong) have told me we can get great feedback from writers who don't "get" our genre or type of story we're telling, it can sometimes be disorienting, as hard we try to be open to feedback we can use.

      Even when someone gave the "I'm not X reader, take with a grain of salt" qualifier, I felt the way they phrased their concerns (to put it nicely) made me not just worry about getting better with the technical issues that were in my own writing, but about the state of our boys and men in society at large.

      To be continued...

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    2. My writing aside, this issue was bigger than me and my book, and despite some on both sides of the gender divide making light of it, I kNEW it was real, and one day I hope to start a movement to give boys and men outside the mainstream or debunk common myths and misconceptions about boys and men-and give boys and men today the hope and support I didn't have growing up and had to create myself to the extent that I could.

      To be continued...

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    3. Though I get and respect the challenges and injustices girls and women in and outside the U.S. still face, I also don't want my country of America to create a reverse gender scarcity that misrepresents boys and men of the 21st century who are a lot more nuanced and diverse across all ages, stages, races and intellectually diverse-regardless if they have degrees or not- and holds them up to the rigid, chauvinistic attitudes that they many don't even have in the first place!

      The boys and men of today are simply not the chauvinistic, even misogynistic monolith that existed in 1809 and throughout the 20th century, even though some narrow-minded folks still exist across the socioeconomic statuses on both sides of the race and gender divide on both the national and international stage, as the modern women's rights movement kicked up it's game, and despite demoralizing patriarchy in many countries, we can't see all men is "The enemy."

      While the majority of domestic violence and sexual assaults happen to girls and women, it happens to boys and men, too, and while the numbers reported for boys and young men are lower, part of that might be the stigma boys and men face, which can often be more covert than girls and women, whatever their age and stage.

      Why would we expect our boys and young men, no matter how tough and resourceful they may truly be, have the courage and maturity necessary to fend off someone who wants to physically harm, humiliate, and rape them?

      Boys and men can be victims, not because their weak or wimpy, but simply because this kind of situation is beyond their ability. This hard for decently equipped adults who know how to protect themselves (esp. if they work in law enforcement or in the medical field) so why are boys and men especially seen as "Less manly" because they were abused and didn't stop the abuser?

      While our justice system overly simplifies and at times make the female abuse victims feel like something they did or wore allowed this to happen, the few boys and men who are brave enough to come forward have to deal with the spoken or unspoken judgement that "This happened because you're too weak."

      Our veterans who come back with Even after all the studies, books and documentaries proving beyond doubt PTSD is a REAL condition, many in the U.S. military still see it as either "made up" or a fatal failing of someone who should never have enlisted in the first place. When you consider what our war vets have gone through and still go through throughout the generations, you'd think they'd get that war effects you even long after the battle ends, or you discharge and re-enter civilian life.

      Back when men of age were drafted against their will, I can just imagine the pain inflicted on those who given the choice knew in both their heart and mind knew this wasn't the life/career for them.

      This also inadvertently created the silly (or ignorant) assumption that those who couldn't face the horrors of war and put it behind them right away were weak and "Gay" whether or not that was their sexual orientation. But PTSD is like any Cancer, it doesn't discriminate, it can happen to anyone, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.

      It effects us all differently, but it hurts the same, and those who love us are too often helpless to stop it.

      At least people choosing to enlisting in the U.S. military today are not forced into it and know on some level what they're getting into.

      But that doesn't excuse those in the military who make like of PTSD for the same reasons DADT did so much (Secret) damage to the military's psyche.

      To be continued...

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    5. Typos...

      On top of all that, the fact that movies like "Failure To Launch" demonize all men who still live at home or aren't able to work, it blinds people to the fact that not everyone in that situation is only one way.

      It doesn't help that dating "experts" put money and status of a potential partner of other equally, or even more important, factors in choosing a life partner.

      Especially when you consider the cost of living has increased in expense across the board since 2008, that compounds the problem, it existed before, but it's worse now, and that's not solely the fault of any one person. Let's have more compassion for that already!

      I'm not saying there aren't people who sponge of others and don't work hard, but don't them speak for all of us. I really feel our need for financial independence blinds us from the other things we need in life money can't supply. I'm not immune to this issue, either, and because my autism delayed a lot of milestones in my life, I'm especially sensitive to this in boys and men in particular, because empowerment or outreach programs are geared to or are only for girls and women.

      IT's taken much of 20s to finally realize that even though I didn't become the "Worst Case Scenario" high school dropout, that didn't mean I was an "Entitled bratty slacker."

      When you factor in my African-American background, and the statistics for my age group,especially in my state of Michigan, it's hard to see yourself clearly and with compassion.

      I didn't do or sell drugs.

      I didn't abuse girls or women.

      I NEVER viewed them as "inferior" to me or anyone their opposite gender.

      I've never been in jail.

      I never killed anyone.

      I don't make light of being spared those challenges.

      Yet despite not falling into those traps, I still didn't graduate high school, and even though I knew from the start wouldn't be easy to both get in, and make money in publishing, at least there wasn't a mandate to be high school or college graduate to TRY.

      It felt like the only option I had short of having people take care of me my whole life.

      That's my mother reality (due to her Schizophrenia) it's not mine, and I don't say that in a petty way, it's just fact as I see and wish to believe with all my heart.

      I love telling stories first and foremost, but despite my passion I had business ambitions, too, even if I don't see books as products in the same way as toothpaste or nail polish.

      To be continued...

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    6. Since working in publishing won't "pay off" anytime soon for me, I'm at a loss at what to do alongside. I'll have to take that wretched GED again until I pass the dang thing, but even then, I don't what I'd do in college, and I don't want to be in debt until my 90s should I live that long. Sorry if I'm coming off like a "Negative Nicky" here, but sometimes honesty isn't positive we'd like it to be. But I do have a tendency to overly dramatize things, but this is as honest as I can be without dramatizing it up.

      I didn't "Not Try" to take my education seriously.

      But I don't, and will not consider myself a "deadbeat dropout slacker" because that's not me. Not every But because the working world demands college degree barriers, or high school diploma bearers, and I have neither, right now I'm taking a break from blogging, publishing and writing to put myself first until January 2016. After a major breakdown over the summer, I had to full stop, and as much as I didn't want to "run away" from my problems, I would've put myself in the hospital from sheer stress and emotional collapse, that may sound dramatic, but given my autism, I'm being dead serious.

      As much as I need to find a way to take care of myself financially, I'm not going to let anyone tell me I'm a slacker who didn't care or try. I did but I got burnt out and even as I near 30, I'm still working through that pain and restoring my sense of self-worth.
      AS much as I need to figure out some kind of career path, there are things I need to do that gainful employment alone can't give me.

      While I don't fully believe the "All you need is in you" doctrine, there is truth in it I'm trying so hard to learn. Just because "Life is a marathon, not a sprint" doesn't mean I want to be 80 for things to get better, is that so unreasonable? Sometimes being a "late bloomer" isn't as romantic as it's sometimes put, even though I get that's meant to be motivating, and 9 times of 10 it is for me.

      To be continued...

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    7. While I don't at all want to sound dismissive of parents in general, the fact is that some parents/writers (most of which were mothers of sons) had very narrows views of what boys in general will read and what interests them. Lots of statistics an studies say boys prefer nonfiction over fiction, and what fiction they do read tends to star snarky, jerky, or "delinquent" boy characters.

      If that wasn't limiting enough, in some YA books with a female-centric cast, if the few male characters the young heroine's age are not the charming love interest (or two-timing perv), we're some super immature monolith.

      One thing I envy about picture books (Even though I can't yet write them well) is that in the past decade there's such diversity, and I'm not just talking about ethnic diversity (which is improving, even before the "We Need Diverse Books" movement began) but varied portrayal of MALE characters, as well as female characters, whatever their race is.

      As one of the many fatherless kids in the world, I appreciate there are more nuanced and competent fathers in the picture book landscape, they're no longer all either the bumbling goofball or the stern/cold-hearted "Head of the Household."

      As well as books that bring dignity and normalcy in portraying LGTBQ families, books like "Uncle Bobby's Wedding" (Sadly out of print), "Heather Has Two Mommies" (recently reissued) that were WAY ahead of their time, and most recently Alex Gino's middle grade novel "George" showing us even the tweens and preteens among us are grappling with their gender identity long before puberty sets in.

      Plus, there are books about boys being interested in what are often considered "female-centric" pursuits, most commonly fashion, nursing, and ballet such as "Ballerino Nate" (Which is also sadly out of print, but it's a charming story WORTH hunting down, and being illustrated by R.W. Alley, who's illustrated the iconic Paddington Bear certainly helps!)


      Maybe I just haven't yet found them, but I'm speaking to when I was in the target demographic for YA to make a broader point.

      Luckily I did meet some writer friends who "got" the book as my now editor for "Gabriel" (which I sold in 2012, just in time for Christmas to boot!) and it's improve a lot since my editor. Of course, it still had to get to a place that got it taken seriously, but finding the right beta-readers for my next book will be tricky for similar reasons.

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  6. Yikes, I got a bit off topic, but I hope I didn't offend anyone, and this is a topic that does get my heart bleeding. (not in the literal sense, of course, speaking in the figurative sense)

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    1. You can get good feedback from non-genre readers, but you can also get terrible feedback. The trick is finding the right readers for the author and the work, and that's more trial and error than anything else. It's also important to be able to know what's applicable advice for a genre vs non-applicable. And all that just takes time and trial to learn what works.

      It gets even harder when a story defies established "norms" as you mention. Readers expect A and if they don't get it, they feel it's the author's fault. Sometimes it IS the author's fault if they fail to set the right expectations, other times it's the reader's fault for not paying enough attention or having a book blind spot. We can fix it if it's us, we can't do anything if it's the reader.

      But it's important to keep pushing, keep doing what readers don't expect and showing them the diversity and variety of the world. That way, it'll be easier the next time they encounter something that's outside their expectations of "normal."

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