11 January 2012

What Makes a Bad Book Terrible?

Reading along over at (frequent commenter to the blog) Angie Lofthouse's blog post "What Makes a Great Book Great?" yesterday, I couldn't help but be inspired to write a companion piece, thus my post today.

Having read several great books, I've also read a lot of stinkers. Not to get into a self-published versus small press versus major publisher debate, but many of these have come from the two former categories. And as I foresee the trend to be for more and more authors to begin venturing into those realms, it's going to be important to have your book stand above the pack.

So, what drives a book to be so terrible that it never gets off the ground with readers?

1. Poor editing: Yes, this is a bit of a generality, but it deserves to be said. Books absolutely HAVE to be edited, there is no getting around it. And like it or not, there are a lot of authors out there who don't want to spend the money to get their books edited. Which is perfectly fine, if you have a significant background in editing, and have plenty of honest beta readers, and can look your own work over with a highly critical eye.

That's a lot of ifs, by the way. So, make certain you're not just taking the cheap way out by eliminating an external editor.

And if you do get with a small press, make certain your editor is doing you justice. If they give you back your manuscript with a few spelling and error corrections throughout, then perhaps it's time to start looking for a new publishing home.

2. Major errors with points of view: Nothing is going to drive a reader more crazy than a book that goes back and forth between first and third person, not sticking with the character's point of view you've chosen (head-hopping), or lacing everything with a load of author intrusion. Not to say that it can't be done, because it can, but you definitely need to know what you're doing.

The best advice I had was reading a book on POV, in which they likened it to watching a film. First person is all seen from your main character's point of view, and you can only see what they do from the camera, with that character narrating as they go. Same goes for third person, but the camera isn't being held by any particular character. Thinking of this analogy reminds you that you're not going to be able to tell things to the reader which they can't see from the camera's vantage point (author intrusion).

3. Playing a game of red-light/green-light with the reader: People like fairly consistent flow through their reading. No one likes to be going along and then all of the sudden, the author tells them to "STOP!" This could happen in any number of ways, including making large jumps in the timeline of the story that make the reader stop to figure out where they've just been taken to, and what happened in between then and now. If you find yourself trying to fit a huge timeline into a single novel, perhaps it's time to ask yourself whether it can be condensed into a smaller timeline, and whether more continuity could be had.

There's also the problem of being in the middle of a scene while you're trying to get your bearings, and then the author decides now is the best time to go into a bunch of infodumps, which bring the reader's enjoyment of a story to a screeching halt. Avoid these at all costs. Readers like to find things out about the characters and the worlds you've built, but just like when we take cold and flu medicine, we don't like large doses at once. Sprinkle it around a little, spread the joy, and you'll find people still get the same amount of information, but love every minute of it.

I could go further (and maybe I might for a later post), but for now, I'll let everyone digest this information for now...and as always, I do love comments, criticisms, and other interactions, so feel free!


  1. Yes, yes, yes! Poor editing will kill a book dead. And without a solid POV, I never can connect to the characters or care about them. Great post. Thanks for the link!

  2. Great post and a perfect companion to Angie's post yesterday. :)

  3. I read Orson Scott Card's "Characters and Viewpoint" recently, and it was a life-changing experience for me. There are lots of subtle gradations of POV you can employ in your writing.

  4. Hey, that's *exactly* the book (which Kurt mentioned) where I read about the camera example...great piece of reference for the writer, and I highly recommend it.

    Yes, Angie, poor editing will kill a book...and sadly, I've read more than my fair share over the years that fell into the six-foot-grave. Just glad it didn't come off like I was hijacking your post. ;-)

  5. And a big thanks to everyone for stopping by!

  6. Some other factors - flat characters and a plot without stakes. The plot doesn't have to be original, few are, and that's where well-rounded characters come in. If a writer makes us care about the protag then we can put up with a low-stakes plot.

  7. Depends on how low the stakes are...sometimes even the best characters can't redeem a story.

    Thanks for stopping by!


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