I'm reading a novel published by a smaller press. Sometimes the reason why novels don't get picked up by a big publishing house (or picked up at all) is a mystery. But in this particular case I have some thoughts. Its really a very good novel in many ways–compelling subject, lots of conflict, interesting situation. Yet there are a few things that jump out at me, and in this, I'm realizing, it is as instructive to read a not-so-good novel as a top of the line one. So here goes.
Cardboard characters. This is not always true all the time, but in too many instances the author isn't able to create fully rounded characters. What makes a fully rounded character, you ask? Excellent question. Too bad there's not an easy answer. But in this novel, the characters tend to be all bad or all good. A couple of them seem like stand-ins for idyllic causes. Also, at times they don't act credibly.
Unbelievable actions and responses. Sometimes the characters in this novel don't act believably. Their actions seem to be devised for the sake of the author to move them around or to create more conflict, but its not conflict that is organic to the story and thus doesn't ring true.
Superficial viewpoint. No glaring viewpoint violations, but the viewpoint lapses at times, nonetheless, because the author hasn't thought through exactly what the character would see or know. Sometimes a viewpoint character describes things about the location that, given the fact she just moved there, she wouldn't know.
Meandering scenes. The scenes aren't well thought out. They don't spike, or drop. Often they start with one emotional tone and end on the same one. There's no movement. In addition, sometimes there's a monotony to the the order of the scenes. They are like the same size pearls strung on a necklace, when they'd have more spice if the necklace featured all different size beads. Just as a scene must have rising or falling action within, so to must the order of the scenes.
And yet, I'm still reading the book. Why? I think the main reason is that the author does manage to create a compelling viewpoint character most of the time. And the conflict that the character faces is well presented.
So if you find yourself reading a "bad" novel or even a not-so-good one, see if you can define what it is that makes it bad. You might learn a lot about your own writing in the process.