Top Writing Mistakes I Notice as an Indie Book Critiquer

Gillian Sisley

Don’t make the same mistakes in your own promising work!

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I’ve been working for the last few years as an ARC reader — which stands for ‘advanced reading copy' reader.

What this entails is that with an exchange of a free book, a reader will read that book and offer an honest review of it. The author can then use these reviews as potential promotional material for the launch of their new novel.

Until recently, I’d been exclusively volunteering as an ARC reader. In my free time, I would read and critique or review the novels given to me, offering constructive feedback for the author so that they can better the book for future reading audiences.

And then, several months ago, the opportunity arose for me to turn this volunteering service into a professional one, where I could be paid to offer honest and constructive feedback to the manuscripts I’m reviewing.

I’ve been working through a third-party organization that requires me to offer a completely honest and fair critique of the content. The third-party involved in this process ensures that bribery cannot take place between an author and the critiquers, as well as ensuring that future readers are given realistic and ethical commentary on the quality of the work.

I really enjoy this arrangement, and have built it into part of my everyday job as a self-employed individual.

But as they say, there are downsides and hazards to every job — being a indie book critiquer is no different.

And when I say downsides, I’m not just talking about reading a book that you really don’t like.

Here are some of the hazards that come along with the job description:

1. Themes that are unexpectedly (and unnecessarily) offensive, violent or triggering.

A book synopsis cannot give you every detail of what the book contains.

And when you’re one of the early readers, whether it’s before the book has been released or shortly after, there isn’t always the necessary disclaimer following the synopsis to clarify that the novel may not be suitable for certain audiences.

I find myself encountering this very upsetting possibility now and again, when I stumble across graphic and violent depictions of murder, abuse or sexual assault.

As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I search for disclaimers on this kind of content before accepting a project— because it triggers my PTSD and trauma.

That disclaimer sometimes isn’t offered by the author.

I cannot express how important it is to consider your audience in these situations, when dealing with very sensitive themes. Give them the opportunity to opt-out.

Most of the novels I’ve critiqued have been quite good, and I really enjoyed them. I specialize in critiquing young adult fiction, crime or thriller, and fantasy novels.

But every now and again, I come across a novel that is so disturbing or upsetting for a variety of reasons, that really can make being a book critiquer a very unpleasant experience.

I’ve read young adult fiction novels which normalize very toxic and dangerous behaviours in romantic relationships, and contain extremely graphic and disturbing content that is absolutely not suitable for ages 11 to 15. And yet, it’s marketed as young adult fiction.

I can certainly stop reading a project at any given time, if I am being triggered.

That said, I’m very dedicated to my work, and when I start something I want to finish it. So there have been times that I’ve continued reading triggering material for the sake of finishing a job, and perhaps for the sake of my own pride.

I’m hoping that when a seriously damaging project that could negatively affect my mental health in a serious way comes along, I will have the strength to put my pride aside and decline the project midway through.

But just saying — a heads up is nice. Be considerate of your readers’ mental health when marketing your work.

2. There’s nothing worse than a boring and uneventful novel.

There’s nothing that pains me more than having to slog through an exceptionally boring storyline, with excessive descriptions of unimportant details, with unrealistic and gag-worthy interactions between multiple characters, and essentially a plotline that has no highs or lows, but is just flat.

Those are the book projects that I have the most difficulty with.

They don’t come around often, but they come around now and again.

And like I said, the synopsis cannot tell you every single thing about a book.

The synopsis can show that there is potential for a great storyline — but it could also have been reworked profusely by extremely qualified editors.

The synopsis is a hook to get people to buy the novel. As long as the novel has been purchased, the author has succeeded in selling their work.

But let’s just say, it’s a lot cheaper to pay a professional editor to tweak your synopsis than it is to pay them to actually edit your entire novel.

Some authors choose to go with this less expensive route, leaving readers duped when they read the actual novel itself, having expected far better quality.

3. Trying to overshadow badly built or written scenes with a fluffy love story.

I’ve seen a lot of authors make this mistake time and time again.

When in doubt, some authors divert to putting all of the attention of the book on a fluffy and oftentimes unrealistic relationship, while downplaying or disregarding extremely important events that have taken place.

They do themselves, the story, and their readers a great disservice by trying to shove an unrealistic love story down the readers’ throats, and negating to shed light on the more complex human elements and situations within the book itself that could make for a really good story.

But that’s the thing, writers are told to write what we know. And if there’s something very complex or gritty that the author themself doesn’t necessarily have an understanding of, they may be uncomfortable writing about the situation in great detail. So, they revert to the thing that’s safest and most comfortable — sappy, ooey-gooey love.

For example, I recently critiqued a book that was being marketed as young adult fiction. The beginning of this novel starts with the main character, a deeply disturbed and psychopathic young man, lusting sexually for his mother, and then going out to a local supermarket, kidnapping a cashier through the use of chloroform, taking said cashier back to his creepy sex den in the woods, attempting to rape her, and then essentially facilitating her accidental death.

Yes, you read all of that right. Not only does this exist in an actual book being sold on Amazon, but it‘s also being sold to young adults between the ages of 11 to 15 years old.

After all of these very disturbing and graphic events described at the very beginning of the book, the psychopathic young male meets a cute girl at school, they obviously fall in love, and then the entire narrative of the book changes.

I’ve truly never been so disturbed reading a piece of literature before in my life — and I’ve read the beginning books of the Bible, that sh*t’s really weird and creepy at times (this is coming from a committed Christian).

I read the remaining 200 some pages of this ‘YA’ novel resentfully, thinking to myself,

“I don’t give a f*ck about the love story, when is there going to be justice for the young girl this psychopathic piece of sh*t murdered at the beginning of the book?”

Spoiler alert: the justice never comes.

In fact, the entire event is essentially swept under the rug like it’s no big deal.

The girlfriend of this psychopath even goes as far as to casually destroy all evidence of the kidnapping, attempted rape and murder, as a way to give her boyfriend the ‘fresh start that he deserves’, because he’s actually a ‘really great guy’.

This girl’s boyfriend killed somebody, and she’s like, “A good girlfriend protects the man she loves. I’m dedicating my life to fixing him, because love heals all things!”

  1. What an incredibly horrific and disturbing message to be giving to impressionable young people, and,
  2. It was completely and utterly impossible for me to enjoy a single word of the rest of that book after the completely unnecessary murder of this young girl, and the treatment of it not being a big deal.

I obviously have emotional responses to the books I critique, but that said when it comes to professionally critiquing, I can’t just come out guns-a-blazing.

Which brings me to my final point:

I must always remain fair and neutral with my projects — even when I despise them.

I’m not volunteering to offer reviews these days— I’m in the professional league of indie book critiquing.

Sure, I can want to mention how much I despised every element of a book fervently and passionately.

I can want to throw my eReader across the room every time a character infuriates me and behaves so unrealistically I could scream.

But I can’t do these things, because I still intend to approach this job as I do with all of my work — with integrity and professionalism.

That means being clear and fair when it comes to offering my feedback to a book I’m reviewing or critiquing.

Final word.

Not just anyone can write a book.

It takes a hell of a lot of work not only to start, but especially to finish.

I have completed one novel, and it took me 6 years.

I have an appreciation and respect for anyone who writes a novel, and even more for anyone who publishes their artistic work to the world, whether through a publishing company or through self-publishing.

But that said — with the power of words comes great responsibility.

For example: if you’re going to classify a book as YA fiction, it’s probably wise to not link the main character to the use of chloroform, kidnapping, attempted rape or murder.

Just saying.

The thing is, despite all of the difficulties and hazards, I really love reading the work of indie writers and offering helpful and insightful feedback so that they’re working at getting better and better. That’s something I’m passionate about, as well as something that I’ve received from other readers for my own work.

Book critiquing isn’t for everyone, but for people like me, it’s more often than not an enjoyable and fulfilling type of work which allows us as fellow writers to give back to the community in a really intentional and powerful way.

Hopefully, these examples of the biggest mistakes made in indie novels is a helpful guide to assist you in not making the same mistakes in your incredible work.

Happy writing!

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