I read a lot of books.
I try to read a lot of authors.
Somewhere in the mists of time, I seem to remember starting to read romances when I was about eleven years old... the timing may be as late as when I was thirteen, but I think it was earlier than that. I'm a couple of months shy of 37 now. That's twenty-five solid years of reading romance.
I've read categories, Bantam Books, historicals, Mills & Boon, pirate books, Loveswepts, westerns, Zebras, rape fantasies and scottish lords. I've read secret babies and time travel aliens and marriages of convenience and firemen, cops, and a thousand different versions of the rescue fantasy. Kidnappings and Cinderellas and more deflowerings than any sane woman should have in her head have all passed over my eyes and through my brain. I don't recall ever getting through a Regency--but maybe I just didn't know what they were filed under at the time.
My point is, when I talk about romance, I come to it with a fairly significant background in the genre and reading history. I know what I'm talking about.
I have also read books on How To Write (Plot, Character, Sex Scenes, etc.) in order to help me figure out how to write better for myself. Initially, after reading those books, it ruined my pleasure reading for me. I couldn't pick up a book without deconstructing it, watching how the author built problem / solution puzzles, noting the deliberate inclusion of a time-lock, seeing where the author included a flaw in characters to make them more appealing, or reading sex scenes for the emotional development instead of the hawt sexxoring.
As you can imagine, this had the effect of pulling me out of the story, so much so that I could no longer enjoy it for the escapist fiction I desire. Combine that with the demands of grad school, and I went off romance reading for about five years.
When I came back, I still had all of that technical knowledge in my back pocket, but I was able to bury it long enough to enjoy the story. This understanding has helped me tremendously in my writing, but more than that, it has really helped me identify why a story I'm reading isn't working for me. (To my chagrin, it doesn't necessarily help me know why a story is working for me, but I'll take what I can get.)
On this blog, I try very hard to respect the efforts of other authors by not naming names when something doesn't work for me. I mean, first of all, I'm going to be published myself*, so I don't need to invite that kind of negative karma, but more than that I don't see a flaw in a story as authorial failing so much as I see it in terms of story failure. It's something the editor (or agent) should have caught before letting the story go to press because it's her job to make the book as good as possible before putting it out in the world.
If I, an amateur, with nothing but a big brain and a love of stories can see how and why a book isn't working, surely an editor who is paid to address these things can see it. No, it's not the editor's job to write or re-write the story, I'm not saying that. I'm saying that it's the editor's job to tighten the story and address obvious flaws so that I, the amateur, can't point directly to the problem in a story and say, "this is why it didn't work."
There is no perfect story. There are no perfect authors. We're all just doing the best we can with what we have--be it time, knowledge or resources. It benefits no one for me to stand on my rickety high horse and point to another author and say, "You suck! And let me tell you why..." But I can stand on my reader high horse and say, "When someone (anyone) does that in a story it doesn't work, and let me tell you why..."
Hopefully, the latter approach, given in general terms, can help anyone who reads my tiny little slice of the web see what may or may not be missing in the book they're reading or writing. Thus far I've written about the Character Dump, the Perfect Hero (twice), the Hero Who Isn't Ready**, the Cast of Characters, the Multi-Author Series, Doing Right by Your Character (twice), and Inconsistent World Building (twice), as well as a dozen other little things related to building a good story.
I try to focus my critiques on things that can be avoided and fixed with a bit of attention to detail. I don't get hung up on character names, author names (I still can't believe anyone cares), plot bashing or even cover art. None of these things are about the quality of the story. The thing that I care about is execution. Did they do it right? If they didn't, it's to everyone's benefit to say why.
Currently reading: Wolf Tales IV
Currently reading: Breathing Room
Currently reading: The Reluctant Cinderella
Just about to start: A Hunger Like No Other
*No, I don't know when. I don't have a contract. But I am confident and I'm OWNING it, dammit!
**I broke my rule about not naming names there, but I hope Ms Ward will forgive me as I doubt anything I say will influence her book sales or ever come to her attention.
Need your query critiqued? Yes, I can be had
53 minutes ago