Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, November 12, 2013 18 comments
I admit it. I'm starting to give up on books more often than I used to. A wise friend of mine has a rule of thumb about finishing books: "if you're under 30, give every book 100 pages to hook you. If you're over 30, give it 50." I think she understands the natural impatience of youth, and the often natural stick-to-it-iveness of maturity. Sometimes we need to give authors a chance, sometimes we need to cut our losses and move on.

As I've set aside a few books, I got thinking about what makes me, personally, cut my losses. And as I did so, I realized a very helpful blog series might grow around these areas. So today I'll be simply laying out "the problem" and ask for your input as well. In future posts, I'll address how to avoid these pitfalls in your own writing.

Top ten reasons I stop reading


1. Riddled with errors

photo by verbaska, morguefile.com

Frequent errors in spelling, grammar, usage, syntax, punctuation, and formatting immediately pull me out of the story and make me want to reach for my red pen. Frankly, I don't want pleasure reading to feel like work.

2. Annoying voice


I really love witty, sarcastic narrators, but there can be a fine line between sarcasm and obnoxiousness. The ones that make me shut the book rather than read on are deeply mean-spirited types who always put others down, and/or are self-absorbed complainers.

3. No one to root for


Yes, characters need flaws to be realistic. But if every character is all flawed all the time, it's as boring as reading a book full of Mary Sues. As a reader, I simply stop caring if none of the characters has a redeeming quality to give hope for change and growth. Because change is the essence of plot, and hope the one emotion your reader most wants to have stirred. So sure, bring on the scarred and damaged, but if they're all about simply lashing out or wallowing, I'm moving on.

4. Garbled action


To use a theatre metaphor, fiction needs to be properly blocked. That is, the key characters and actions should be put in a focal place (not upstaged by the extras), and all movements should be presented in a manner that makes sense and flows. Action scenes with too much going on all at once, with no clear sense where the characters are, and how they are moving in space--and in relation to one another--is simply confusing rather than exciting.

5.  Cliched


If the story feels like I've heard it before, all the characters are standard types, and no one does anything surprising, I'm bored.

6. Predictable


The predictable plot usually flows out of clichéd characters and scenarios. Or perhaps the plot complications are too obvious and obstacles too easily overcome.Sometimes predictability comes about because the writer hasn't mastered advanced techniques such as narrative misdirection--getting the characters focused wrong information some of the time (aka "red herrings"). If I get to page 50 with no real surprises, I tend to give up.

7. Implausible


Plots that hinge too much on coincidence make my skeptic-ometer alarm peal. Random coincidences seem to happen all the time in real life, but dig deeper and there's often some history that led to the moment. Cheap epiphanies, in which characters "see the light" after one minor shake-up, do not a plausible story make. Real change is slow, incremental, and includes some failure and steps backward.

In this category I also lump things like "insta-love" and "insta-reform" (the latter crops up in religious fiction far too often).

8. Stilted


If the writing lacks naturalness, either the narrative voice or dialogue, it pulls me out of the story. Contemporary stories need to sound like they're recording real people. Historical fiction, fantasy and SciFi similarly need to reflect the milieu in which they are set.

9. Thin


Some novels seem like only the skeleton of a story. There's a plot, but it zips along so fast, I never catch my breath. The characters' personalities and relationships are superficial. Thin stories tend to have only a main plot (no subplots) and secondary characters that are all essentially extras, like Detective #3 in a police procedural TV show.

10. Bad fit for my tastes


I have no stomach for graphic violence, and I prefer not to ingest much foul language or graphic sexual content. The proverb "Guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life," is something I consider when choosing reading material. I want books to help me become more empathetic, not harden me or encourage my vices. Others have different no-go areas and preferences.

What makes YOU stop reading? Any additional categories to add?

18 comments:

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    1. Thanks. I plan to do how-to posts addressing each area from a writing perspective--so we can all create works that readers finish with enjoyment.

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  2. Oh, I love your friend's advice about the age and number of pages. Very astute!

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    1. Definitely a useful rule of thumb. It helps me feel less guilt when I set aside books.

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  3. Yep. I have the same reasons. I used to be much more tolerant...but more and more I realize how many good books that I will love are out there--I just don't have time to waste on ones that are mediocre or simply don't interest me. I felt a little sad at first when I reached that conclusion (I felt I wasn't being fair), but it was necessary!

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    1. I know some friends who only give a book one chapter, so my friend's 50 or 100 page threshold seems more than fair. I agree that when time is precious, you should spend it on thing that feed or teach you.

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  4. I've gotten into the habit of deciding what to read based on the Amazon sample pages and Goodreads reviews. So far, it's kept from hitting any DNFs. But I love how you broke this down into categories. The only DNFs I've had this year were arcs that didn't have sample pages or reviews

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    1. I've more than once been burned by a book that had a phenomenal opening, then fell flat before the 1/3 mark. The sad result of agents mostly looking at the first chapter or two is that some writers, when they don't find representation, go on to self publish, failing to realize they're agentless because of the unevenness of the writing over the manuscript as a whole.

      There's learning opportunities in the clunkers, though. So stay tuned for this developing series! :-)

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  5. Struggled through an ebook for days as there was grammatical errors on every page and the characters were cliché, didn't bother following the series. But I always finish, maybe I should be more cut throat.

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    1. Life is short, and every hour you spend on books you don't enjoy is time lost (unless you're learning from their mistakes).

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  6. Great list. These are all reasons I stop reading, too - although I have a guilt complex about not finishing books! If I encounter any of those things on the first few pages, I just won't buy the book at all. That way I try to give myself a fair chance to finish!!

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    1. Everyone has different dislikes. I've seen some books I call "thin" garner loads of 5 star reviews. Ditto with cliched books. Some folks just eat up certain kinds of stories even if they're exactly like 20 other books in the same genre.

      I hear you about the guilt. Sadly, that makes me a super-cautious shopper or even library user. Every once in a while it's nice for a book you thought you'd hate pleasantly surprise you.

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  7. I think your points boil down to "boring, or poorly written," but it's nice that you expanded them out to say what constitutes boring and poorly written.

    I've given up on a few books in my life. The most recent was "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." After hearing how great it was, I picked it up for my wife, who then never got around to reading it, and so I gave it a shot. Two shots. Both times, I got bored by the extended side trip to the island where the guy explains to the main character why he's going to investigate, or whatever. That part went on FOREVER. And not in the good way.

    Another book I gave up on was "Infinite Jest," by David Foster Wallace, which I found simply annoying. I am still mad that I paid $17 for it. I think that book was intended to be an insider-y (and not funny) joke at the expense of readers (hence, the title), and I don't understand the appeal of Wallace.

    There's other books I've read that aren't that well written but which have a compelling storyline, and so I stick them out. I'm reading one right now, "The Odds," by Amy Kinzer. I bought it not realizing it was YA, so it's written a little below my level (honestly, 90% of why I bought it was the cover photo), which is what I mean by "not that well written"; it's perfectly competent YA writing, not great, though -- but the storyline is a good one and I'm going to finish it.

    So I'd say a good idea or compelling characters can overcome some flaws in the writing for me, but all the good writing in the world can't save a boring story. (One such book, well-written in terms of style, prose, editing, etc., was "The Infinities," by John Banville, a book I regret having wasted my time finishing.)

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    1. Thanks for coming by, Briane. I've been out of town and am just catching up with new comments.

      Every reader has differing levels of tolerance for certain elements. Some savor slow-paced books and feel overwhelmed by action-packed fast pacing. Some hate "fancy" writing and advanced vocabulary, while others wouldn't pick up any book without it. My list is, well, my list.

      Compelling characters can overcome some flaws, I agree. I can tolerate a degree of predictability, cliche and implausability. When there's a perfect storm of all three, though, I'm less inclined to hang in there.

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  8. Great list. I agree with all these! I hate to quit reading a book, but there ARE so many to read, to keep up with what's out there. And I'm partly reading for enjoyment, after all!

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    1. The older I get, the more I feel life is short and will give up on stories that aren't grabbing me. There are plenty of instances where reason #10--it's just not to my taste--tells me to cut my losses.

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  9. I can't handle when characters don't do anything to further the plot and it seems like the other secondary characters are doing all the work.

    I always try to give books a chance, but if I don't have some ulterior reason (review, book club, etc.) to finish a boring book, then I don't.

    Good points in the post:)

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    1. Thanks for coming by, Sunny. I agree that overly passive protagonists who are continually upstaged makes for a less than pleasurable read.

      Before I had my daughter, I was in three book clubs simultaneously, which put on a lot of pressure to finish everything, even books I'd never otherwise have dreamed of picking up. Even without that club meeting looming, I still often feel I HAVE TO finish something I'm not enjoying. Writing this post was rather liberating. My dirty secret is out: I don't finish every book I pick up.

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