Confessions of a Book Reviewer

By Elaine Viets

A reviewer for a major print magazine complained to me about a novel he was reading, when it dawned on me – this was news writers could use. If we know what’s wrong, we can fix it before the reviewer writes about it, for all the (mystery) world to read.
This reviewer is not some crank who looks for excuses to rip writers. If he has to give a book a bad review, he agonizes over that decision.
But here are some writing wrongs that upset this reviewer.

(1) Padded Middles. This is my reviewer’s number one problem – novels that slow down in the middle. “The padding doesn’t advance the narrative,” the reviewer said. “It’s pages and pages of the thoughts and feelings of people who aren’t very interesting. They offer no valuable insights. Sometimes, I wonder if editors make writers add this unnecessary information because big books are so popular. Most books I’ve read recently are 20 to 30 pages too long. Often, there’s a good book buried in that excess fat.”

(2) Switching names. “The character is introduced as Joseph Smith. Then the author proceeds to call him Joe, Joey, Joseph, and sometimes just Smith. It’s hard to figure out who the writer is talking about.”

(3) Who’s talking? “A character is introduced in the first 50 pages, and then shows up 200 pages later with no ID.” Take tax accountant Mary Rogers. She has a brief scene in chapter 2 and then in chapter 25 we see this line: “I think the suspect embezzled half a million dollars,” said Mary Rogers.
“I’m frantically pawing through the book, trying to figure out who Mary Rogers is and why she’s saying that. If the author said, ‘I think the suspect embezzled half a million dollars,’ said tax accountant Mary Rogers’ that would make it easier for readers.”

(4) Writers who fixate on a certain word. “Like ass. I read an author who used ‘ass’ constantly. His character fell on his ass, showed his ass, got his ass kicked and had his ass handed to him. He dealt with asshats, ass clowns and of course, assholes.” Cuss words are necessary for realism, but don’t overdo it.

(5) Dumb and proud of it. “Writers who want to assert their real-people identities trot out lowbrow snobbery. Their favorite phrase is ‘I don’t know anything about . . .’ Then you can choose one or more of these – opera, classical music, gourmet food, Shakespeare.” Assume your readers are intelligent – after all, they bought your book.

(6) The hero with the drinking problem. He – or sometimes she – “is haunted by the awful things they did when they were on the sauce. Yes, people drink. And some authors handle this well. But most of these characters are tiresome cliches.” Reading these novels is like getting your ear bent by the garrulous drunk at the end of the bar.

(7) Writers who don’t do their research. If you really want to frost this reviewer, have your hero open a Heineken with a twist-off cap – there’s no such animal. And Jack Daniel’s whiskey always has an apostrophe. If you’re writing a thriller set in Nazi Germany, you’ll score extra points with this reviewer if you don’t say “Hitler was elected president in a democratic election.” You’ll find plenty of people who’ll write that, but the Website says it’s complicated.
“In America we hear ‘Hitler was elected President in a Democracy’ a lot,” the Website says, “but the sentence is so semantically wrong . . . In summary, the whole thing is almost too complex to apply the ol’ ‘Hitler was elected democratically’ quip to, but since it is important, perhaps it is best phrased as, ‘Hitler and the NAZI party seized power in a democratic system.'”
Got that? Good.

(8) Basic copyediting errors. “These are turning up in books by major authors,” our reviewer said. “I’ve seen ‘grizzly murders,’ when I’m quite sure the local bears are innocent. Clothes are tossed down a ‘laundry shoot,’ and people ‘tow the line.'” If you really want to see steam come out of this reviewer’s ears, mix up “it’s” with “its” and “your” with “you’re.” Granted, we all make mistakes, especially when we’re writing quickly. But somebody should catch those errors before the book is printed.

(9) TMI in the first chapter. Nearly every one of us at TKZ has written about this problem. Overcrowded first chapters slow the pace of your novel. Our reviewer said, “It stops a good book dead when the first chapter has an overlarge cast of characters and I can’t keep them straight.”

That’s all for now. Readers, what stops you when you’re reading a novel?

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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book.

32 thoughts on “Confessions of a Book Reviewer

  1. Funny you should ask~ ?

    I’m currently reading another highly recommended author and finding several of the above making me wish he followed TKZ…

    From the list above: #4 – in this case it was not profanity, but the repeated use the specific type of boat – about 6-8 times over 3-4 pages, in lieu of just calling it a boat after the first time. (I had a similar experience where the scene was set in the Oval Office of the White House, and the author referred to “the Oval Office ash tray,” “the Oval Office window,” “the Oval Office door” – I’m glad there wasn’t a spitoon).

    In a combination of #2 and #4, the current read introduces some characters with an honorific – Dr., Major, Colonel, Frau, – dropping it for some characters, but carrying it consistently for others (creating the deeded “speed bump” every time that character is in a scene).

    And then there’s the character introduced as having lost arm, but in one scene a few chapters later he’s got both hands before going back to having his empty sleeve pinned up a few chapters later.

    Frustrations like this make the story more of a search for next irritant than an immersive escape.

  2. #9 on steroids. The book I picked up at a conference because the back cover copy looked interesting. Murder on a train. I’m about halfway through (and don’t ask why I’m still reading; it’s become a challenge to see when/if there will be a story in here somewhere) and the first chapter was an inch by inch inspection of the train, inside and out, with a short digression to back story about the protagonist’s family. Next chapter. One by one, each character was introduced as they boarded the train, including what compartment they were in. Another chapter, we follow the protagonist as she makes dinner reservations for everyone.
    The author clearly did her homework and dammit (can I say that if I use Gilstrap’s preferred spelling so it doesn’t look so much like profanity?) if the reader isn’t going to see every bit of it. Still searching for a story in here.
    The thing is, reader reviews at Amazon say they’re loving the train details.

    • “The thing is, reader reviews at Amazon say they’re loving the train details.”

      And that’s the thing with cozies. People love the recipes or the quilt-making instructions as much as the story.

      And sometimes with legal thrillers. I just finished a legal thriller where the first 75 pp were all back story–a battle and a budding romance. The narration of these events provided very little that was necessary for the main plot (a lawsuit against the government). The bits that were necessary could have been presented more briefly and/or woven in later.

      But if lots of readers enjoy these “bonus” narrations and descriptions, who are we to condemn?

      • If it were only 75 pages! There’s still no story after 116 pages. Nothing has happened. But yes, there are books for all sorts of readers, and her publisher must have liked it, because it’s out there. She’s written a bunch of other mysteries, in a series, so maybe this was a one-off (or she wanted to write off a cross-country train trip?) 🙂

        I don’t begrudge anyone else their reading tastes, and if I had to write a paper about train travel in the 1950s, this is more interesting than a text book.

    • I’ve come across that Amazon mystery, too. At first I thought those rave comments for a so-so book were by the author’s relatives. But in this case, I wonder if it’s model train enthusiasts. Ever meet one at a party?

      • I looked at the editorial reviews as well, Elaine. While I could understand “Railfan and Railroad Magazine” there was one from Library Journal and the Oakland Tribune. Of course, I also know how to cut the “money quote” from a review.

  3. Most of the above, but the real killer for me is a bland writing style. I know that makes me an outlier, but I just gave up on a perfectly serviceable novel because the writing itself was less than compelling. Too safe, maybe?” I’d rather read George V. Higgins or James Ellroy and have to hang onto the plot for dear life than something a high school English teacher would find checks all the boxes.

    • Amen, Dana. For reasons unknown I just finished a really bland book because I wanted to know the end — and there was no resolution at the end! I should have known better.

  4. If I had a dollar for every time I read the word had I would have had a huge bank balance by now. I’ve had enough of had. 😉

  5. I would add a bit to number 5. Dumb main characters really annoy me. Or the forced “everyman” characters. Sure, we all hang out with these people in real life, and manage to enjoy it sometimes, but I’m not going to voluntarily ride along with someone who can never figure out what’s going on. Percy Jackson just barely cuts it for me; at least he learns something by the end of each book and carries his experiences over.

    A personal pet pieve: I absolutely hate it when characters start complaining about driving. I stopped cold in the middle of a series once because the first chapter was a howling fest about how the MC had to learn how to drive RIGHT NOW, and how her life is OVER if she doesn’t learn, even though she’s been running all over town the previous books on the bus. There are some people here who will never be able to drive, and we don’t need this.

    • Ditto on dumb characters and extra points on dumb female characters. The driving issue never occurred to me, but I’ll keep it in mind now that I’m working on my next book.

      • This thread reminded me of another: thrillers where, when the “everyman/everywoman” protagonist is faced with several options, they invariably choose the one most likely to make the situation worse. I understand about raising the stakes, but after a while I stop caring about these dumbasses and start rooting for the bad guys.

        • I’ve only ever rooted for the bad guy once, and it was definitely due to a group of pathetic main characters. Also, you can’t torture a “bad” character and still expect me to hate him.

  6. As a reader, number 2 is one of my pet peeves. I’m okay with different characters in the book referring to the protagonist by a special nickname, but this should be established early on.

  7. #8 – Seeing “your” when it should be “you’re” or “it’s” in the place of “its” stops me cold when I’m reading. Sloppy workmanship — like a builder forgetting to leave a space for the refrigerator in the kitchen. It makes me think the author doesn’t care about the product he/she is creating We’re supposed to be the people who know how to use language.

    #4 – Profanity may be part of the real world, but I’ve read a lot of books that managed to be real without the use of curse words.

    • #8 is a real turn-off for me, too, Kay. I don’t mind a little light cussing, especially if it tells me about the character. But gratuitous F-bombs, etc. are tiresome.

  8. My Microsoft Word spelling “genie” wants to correct it’s every time I write it (wants to make it its.) Luckily I”m in charge.

    I read psychological suspense at the moment to familiarize myself with the genre (as that’s my next book) – I’m truly surprised how the back cover copy promises twists and surprises and I get 1/4th of the way through and yet see nothing happening yet. Maybe they are saving it to shore up that saggy middle (so it’s #1 but in the beginning)

  9. Microsoft Word has many sins to answer for, Maggie. Sometimes the back cover copy is far more exciting than the book. I hate getting 1/4th through a book and NOTHING has happened. Everyone is sitting around a kitchen or a detective’s office talking. BLEH!

  10. I do sometimes make corrections in books, even library books, as a public service. An occasional slip might be unavoidable, but more than a few is sloppy.
    My students made me aware of the confusion caused by characters having too-similar names, and that’s true of other traits as well.
    The worst failing, IMHO, is the cliffhanger ending. I want resolution, dammit!
    Thanks for the work that goes into well-written books. <3

    • Yes, the cliffhanger ending is supposed to make us buy the book — I just want to throw it against the wall. And similar names is another thing that’s difficult.

  11. Anyone who says, these days, that the difference between traditional big publishing and small press and self publishing is the quality of the editing (copy, content, etc.) doesn’t read. I’m appalled by what I read. If I were a bestselling traditional author, I’d pay to have a few editors go over my novels so I wouldn’t be so embarrassed by the sh*t that isn’t wiped up.

    My personal copy-edit pet peeves are “tighten the reigns” instead of “tighten the reins.” Horses riding, people. Also, the lack of the vocative comma.

    Since I’m not teaching writing right now, most of my writing blog content is from the disasters I read. It’s just sad that writers don’t learn or respect their craft.

    • Many major writers do pay for an extra copyedit, because some houses don’t edit like they used to. “Tighten the reigns” also makes me grit my teeth.

  12. Heroes with drinking problems is my #1 pet peeve in any genre. The love of a good woman, or the dramatic resolution of an unsolved case is not going to solve that addiction by the end of the book. I know fiction isn’t reality and I enjoy suspending my disbelief, but I think fiction needs to mirror reality in that instance.

    I read a lot of romance (I’m a romance writer), but I have to roll my eyes every time a woman is referred to as a “spitfire”, “feisty” or “spunky”, or any other adjective which makes me think the hero’s only there to mould her into his mother and tame her; she’s not a dog or a horse! Give me a heroine who shows strength in her vulnerability, and accepts her flaws by the end of the novel, and give me a hero who wants her, warts and all.

    Of course, the flip side of that is that I absolutely adore dark romance (the darker, the better), but that’s a different ballgame.

    Misspellings, a few grammar mistakes, and poor proofreading make my eye twitch, but if I’m engrossed in a novel, I’m prepared to overlook it. Same with research; I’m prepared to overlook some of the more intermediate details if the story’s good, but get the basics of your topic wrong and it’s a no from me.

    Of course, the saggy middle. I agree that some novels can be culled by about twenty or so pages by tightening up the middle. I need to see alternating beats of action and reflection. All reflection and downtime doesn’t cut it. Show me the mirror moment, show me the all is lost moment, but make me sit on the edge of my seat, too!

  13. “Heroes with drinking problems is my #1 pet peeve in any genre. The love of a good woman, or the dramatic resolution of an unsolved case is not going to solve that addiction by the end of the book. I know fiction isn’t reality and I enjoy suspending my disbelief, but I think fiction needs to mirror reality in that instance.”
    Love this description, Mollie. And here’s to more heroines like you described. Off to the gym to work on my sagging middle.

  14. Head hopping does it for me. I stopped reading one novel solely for that reason. The character POV changed with every paragraph without any indication except the male or female pronoun. Drove me crazy.

    Some of the other things I can ignore if the story is entertaining enough.

    Interesting post and comments. I took notes, and will watch for these in my own books.

  15. I’m a blogger and reviewer specialising in Christian fiction so I don’t get #6 much. I do get #6 a lot. One book earned a stinking review because the back cover said it was set in Germany in the early days of World War II, but the story actually started in June 1942 i.e. almost halfway though the war. It also bugged me because the heroine was American and had been in Germany since 1933, yet was obviously too stupid to notice Bad Things Were Happening. So that’s #5 covered as well.

    And #9 – I’ve just given up on a book after 20% when the most interesting thing that had happened was that one character cleaned a toilet. Another character found a secret room behind the bathroom, but she didn’t seem especially excited by it, so I wasn’t either.

    I’m also not a fan of headhopping or omniscient POV.

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