Apr

15

2013

I Did Not Finish Reading Your Book

by Steve Laube

unfinished-books

In the past year have you started a book, fiction or non-fiction, and did not finish it? I have. Many times.

There are many reasons for this to happen. Here are a few examples:

Fiction:
I didn’t care about your characters.
The plot fizzled.
The story became ridiculous and unrealistic.
It was too easy to put down. Or in other words, it was forgettable.

Non-Fiction:
It became repetitive. I already got the point, why say it three or four different ways?
The conclusions were obvious, to the point of cliché.
The author lost focus and began to meander.
The whole book felt manufactured. As if it has been an assignment and not a passion.

What about you? Have you had a similar experience? Love to hear your comments below.

To be clear, I did not say “the book made me mad because I disagreed with the author.” In fact that is usually a good reason to finish a book so you can craft your own response to a particular position. Instead the small sampling of answers above are a reaction to poor writing craft.

As I’ve written before, every reader brings their own story to your book and thus creates their own new experience. But if the book is poorly written or poorly organized or long-winded, the reader is pulled out of the experience and the “critic cap” is put on and the book is put down.

If your book breaks the trust of its reader it will be hard to get them to read your next one. This is why agents and editors are constantly talking about the value of a well written story. Make those opening pages incredible and then sustain that genius throughout the book. Let me give you one example (among many)…

At a writer’s conference a few years ago I read the opening chapter of an aspiring and unpublished novelist and literally gasped. The craft was stunning. I met with her and during the ensuing months the author worked hard to revise the rest of the manuscript a number of times before we shopped it around. The book, Words by Ginny Yttrup, was published by the B&H Publishing Group and last year Ginny received the Christy Award for “Best New Writer.” (A few of those first pages can be found in the Look Inside feature on Amazon  or on Barnes & Noble.) It is interesting to note that the beginning pages you read in the finished book are exactly the same as the words I read that first day. Ginny had crafted them so well they remain unchanged.

I finished reading her book.

Maybe yours will be next?

 

36 Responses to “I Did Not Finish Reading Your Book”

  1. Faith Bogdan April 15, 2013 at 4:59 am #

    Hi Steve,

    The reason I most often put a book down before finishing the first page is that it’s poorly written. There seems to be a growing number of these nowadays. How would you advise agents and editors to respond when they have the opposite experience you did when you first saw the manuscript for “Words”? I wonder, with the ease and convenience of self-publishing, if there are too many people trying to become authors without actually being writers. Is it always right for conference faculty to encourage those individuals to try to polish something that may not be worth polishing? It may sound harsh (and I certainly don’t mean to be), but the analogy for me is singing. I have a decent singing voice, but I’d never attempt to go to Nashville and cut an album. Or if I did take it upon myself to try, I hope someone would be honest with me and prevent me from wasting precious years of my life going after something I wasn’t created to do. Why don’t we treat the craft of writing the same way? Where does one draw the line between “this person has potential” and “this person has chosen the wrong field?”

    • Michael Kistner April 15, 2013 at 7:23 am #

      I’d say if you want to go to Nashville, go to Nashville, but treat it like every other ‘business plan.’ Read a book or two on the market you’ve chosen, and understand what customers in that market are buying. Are customers buying products similar in quality and style to what you’re offering? If so, you have a shot. Remember, art is like every other business, and most new businesses fail. But that’s okay. Failure usually grows character. And it’s not our job to facility this process. That is the job of the author/artist. As someone who mentors artists, I never discourage anyone from doing art. I just advise them to examine their expectations.

      • Faith Bogdan April 15, 2013 at 7:55 am #

        I’d never want to come off as arrogant in this regard. Though I’m a traditionally self-published author (with some pretty good endorsements, thanks to the goodness of God), I’d never attempt a novel at this point in my life. I’d personally need to take a lot of classes and saturate myself in the genre first. Yet I’ve seen non-readers writing and trying to sell fiction! Yes, perhaps more realistic expectations are in order.

  2. Carol McClain April 15, 2013 at 5:21 am #

    I just finished a book about a woman looking for her biological parents. I couldn’t stand it–she was sulky, ungrateful and not one other character was unlikeable. I had to finish it because I was judging it for a contest. Otherwise, it would have been tossed in the trash.

    Many books are too formulaic. The authors can’t think of facial expressions other than quirking a smile or raising an eyebrow. I get through them by reading only the first lines of the paragraphs. Every other sentence in them is unnecessary.

    So, I quit books primarily because: 1. The character has no redeeming quality (and I like tortured, problemed characters) and the writing is trite.

    And the sad part is, these books have gotten agents and publishers interested. Sigh.

    • Faith Bogdan April 15, 2013 at 5:52 am #

      Carol,

      I’m reading a novel aloud to my kids and we laugh every time the phrase “raised a brow” appears. Which is so often, it’s become a joke!

      However, I feel this particular author has potential; this is her debut, and I’m looking forward to seeing how her writing has improved in future books.

    • Elaine Stock April 15, 2013 at 5:53 am #

      Carol, what you wrote in your last sentence always amazes me too! And that’s why I’m not giving up my writing :)

  3. Pegg Thomas April 15, 2013 at 5:26 am #

    I almost always finish a book if I start it. Almost. Last year I started a “historical” with a plot that was too modern, dialog that was too modern, and history that was shaky at best. Couldn’t even finish the 3rd chapter of that one. Oy!

  4. Diana Harkness April 15, 2013 at 5:34 am #

    I almost didn’t finish Jane Austen’s Emma because I disliked the character, but I’m glad I persevered. I frequently finish books I don’t like because I have agreed to review them, or because the author is one of my favorites. What causes me to stop reading? Poorly developed characters, unbelievable situations, errors an editor should have caught, use of obscure or archaic words, use of technical terms with no explanation, too many adjectives and adverbs, similes and metaphors that don’t fit the time or place, and the list goes on. Fortunately, I rarely waste money on a bad book. I wish that more authors would hire good editors so I would never have to read a badly written book. My novel is scheduled to be edited this summer by Steve Parolini in my attempt to make you finish my book!

  5. lisa April 15, 2013 at 5:49 am #

    I do put down books. I also find myself skimming non-fiction or fiction with excessive description. I hope people will want to finish my book. That’s a great reminder to have in your mind when you’re writing. Don’t let anyone want to put it down :)

  6. Elaine Stock April 15, 2013 at 5:50 am #

    While enjoying, or not, a novel is totally subjective, I agree that it is the character that will keep me reading. I also enjoy a riveting plot, but have forced myself to keep reading through hokey plots if, and only if, I am concerned about the character and want to see what happens to her/him.

  7. Connie Almony April 15, 2013 at 5:55 am #

    One of my pet peeves has been books that start beautifully, but then the writing becomes vague and distant as the story unfolds. It’s almost as if the author spent so much time on the first chapters she got tired of writing by the end. To a reader it feels like “bait and switch.” One flaw I too often see is slow pacing in an action scene. I know it’s supposed to be exciting, but I just don’t feel it.
    Having said all this, I also realize sometimes it’s a matter of taste. I have put down books friends have found extraordinary and inspirational, but I could not relate to the characters in the least. I no longer call a book bad (unless it is rife with telling, clichés and redundancies). I’m more likely to say it’s not for me.

  8. Nancy B. Kennedy April 15, 2013 at 6:25 am #

    I become frustrated with authors who haven’t done their research, and my opinion of a book is colored by errors that easily could have been avoided. For example, one author has a character, a regular lap swimmer, rubbing her stinging eyes after getting out of the pool. Sorry, lap swimmers wear goggles… no stinging eyes. Another author has his character, a woman reminiscing about giving birth, saying that it was an easy delivery, that she pushed for only two hours. Pushed for two hours?!? In what universe is that an easy birth?!? I pushed for twenty minutes and would have welcomed death at that point.

    • Iola April 15, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

      I so agree about the need to get the facts right (and about how two hours of pushing would not be an ‘easy’ birth).

      I recently stopped reading a thriller, because by 80% of the way through, it just wasn’t thrilling. I didn’t actually like either main character enough to care whether they lived or died.

      So then I picked up Stress Test by Richard Mabry, which reminded me what a thriller ought to be: a start that makes you want to keep going, fast pace all the way through, characters you can relate to and root for. All in all, so much better than the first book. After reading Stress Test I realised the first book had just missed the boat, so didn’t feel at all guilty about not finishing it.

      I haven’t yet read Words, but I’ve read Ginny’s latest book, Invisible. So good, and I can see why Words won a Christy even without reading it – the writing is that good.

  9. Cheryl Barker April 15, 2013 at 6:30 am #

    I’m one of those who has a hard time not finishing a book once I start it, but every now and then I just have to set one aside. Sometimes it’s because I don’t like the characters or other times I’m simply not enjoying it and can’t bring myself to give it any more of my time. Ginny’s book Words definitely did not fall into that category. Read it earlier this year and loved it!

  10. Jeanne Takenaka April 15, 2013 at 6:34 am #

    I love reading this, Steve. I have put down books, and usually for the reasons you described, though I didn’t put words to those reasons at the time. I just knew I didn’t like the book. :) One book I read had a hero hating a woman and wanting to kiss her two pages later. It so did not work in terms of plausibility.

  11. Robin Patchen April 15, 2013 at 6:52 am #

    I hate it when I don’t finish a book once I’ve really gotten into it. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve given up in the first few pages, though. If the writing is bad in the first chapter, where presumably the author has worked the hardest, it isn’t going to get better, and I can’t tolerate bad writing.

    Paradoxically, if I find a book disturbing, I’ll read it as fast as I can. I did that with Gone Girl. I couldn’t not finish it–it was so compelling–but it was really depressing. I just finished Opening Moves by Steven James. Great book, but some parts of it were too graphic. But I had to finish it, so I read it in two days so I could move on. (And, graphic or not, I’m looking forward to his next one.)

  12. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 15, 2013 at 6:58 am #

    In one sentence – I stop reading when I get tired os spending time with the author.

    I’ve stayed with books that became rpetitive, where the plot wandered into a swamp, and when the characters stopping changing facial expression, having one eyebrow permanently raised in a quirky smile.

    I did that because I simply liked the author as a personality shining through the pages.The gaffes were inconsequential; like a frined telling the same joke three times in a long evening.

    • Heather Day Gilbert April 15, 2013 at 12:17 pm #

      Andrew–good analogy to a friend telling the same joke 3x in the same evening…and that raised eyebrow/quirky smile combo had me chuckling.

  13. Pegg Thomas April 15, 2013 at 7:07 am #

    In defense of the raised eyebrow, I’d much rather read that – when it’s the appropriate response in the story – than some of the facial gymnastics authors contort their poor characters with while trying to avoid it. And even if the facial gymnastics are cute, if it draws me out of the story to think about what a cute phrase he/she used, how is that good writing? It drew me OUT of the story! Better to raise an eyebrow at the appropriate time than to toss the reader out of your story. IMO, of course.

  14. Meghan Carver April 15, 2013 at 7:44 am #

    Just last week I put down a book, so incredibly disappointed with the first line. It was written by a best-selling author, and I thought I should check her out. But I was stunned at how boring that first line was. I had absolutely no motivation to read on. The first few paragraphs are so important! Thanks for starting a great discussion, Steve.

  15. Marci Seither April 15, 2013 at 8:16 am #

    I think a lot of book boredom is not because of the content, but rather the motive. I have read a 5 point sermon on a topical study published as a 12 chapter book, often at the expense of weakening the message. Despite the catchy title or cover design I am reluctant to applaud the writer as well as the publisher.

    There also tends to be a validation for being a published author. I am often approached by aspiring wordsmiths who inform me they feel the Lord has put it on their heart to write a book about their lives. I encourage them to write it down with the thought in mind that many of the words they write might never be published on paper; many times the words we write are meant to be imprinted on our own hearts. That doesn’t mean they are not a writer, they just have a very small audience, much like the person who enjoys hearing themselves sing in the shower. Some decide to perfect the craft and pursue publication, much like Ginny. Others become what I consider “faux writers” who continue to search for validation without having to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work. Readers can distinguish the difference.
    Thanks Steve for bringing up this topic… I read the whole thing.

    • Michael Kistner April 15, 2013 at 8:44 am #

      ‘Readers can distinguish the difference.” This was my point above. If quality doesn’t meet reader’s standards, the business part kind of works itself out. If the author is discouraged by this, then that is part of their own journey, not the reader’s. Often I see readers (mostly readers who are also authors) take offense to a poorly written book. I don’t understand this point of view. No one’s ever been able to explain it to me.

  16. Ron Estrada April 15, 2013 at 9:02 am #

    I’ve found myself intolerant of “hooded” eyes lately. I think that one has run its course. My wife reads for a romantic suspense book contest every year. We tried to count how many sets of “chocolate” eyes appeared between the pages. I told her that if she thought I had chocolate eyes, I’d be concerned about losing them. I also get annoyed when an author tries too hard to stick with the rules. If there is never an “-ly” word in your novel, that stands out as much as a novel full of them.

    • Heather Day Gilbert April 15, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

      Ron, the “chocolate eyes” is a GOOD thing–what better to compare eyes to than some good dark chocolate?! Ha. But I know what you mean. There are limited things to liken brown eyes to, but it’s nice when someone comes up with a new way to say it. And I’d rather have the depths of the person BEHIND the brown eyes described than just their superficial looks.

  17. Patty Smith Hall April 15, 2013 at 9:20 am #

    I have a hard time staying with at book that is badly written–head hopping in particularly. There is one best selling novelist that has sold millions of books but I just can’t read her stuff because she head hops more than a bunny rabbit during an Easter egg hunt!

  18. Heather Day Gilbert April 15, 2013 at 9:47 am #

    I do think this is a problem with cookie-cutter, trendy plots that might ensure a book gets published quickly, but in the end, we could care less what happens to the main characters. I hate it when I meet an MC, know her hair/eye color, but none of her deeper motivations or what makes her tick.

    I love books in which I can’t forget the MC, long after the book. Books like TALKING TO THE DEAD by Bonnie Grove or A SOUND AMONG THE TREES by Susan Meissner. In short, the books I tend to stop reading are the books that are formulaic. I take the same approach to my writing–I can’t write formulaic to save my life, because I want to write books that LAST.

  19. Steve Myers April 15, 2013 at 10:33 am #

    I’ll often grade more on a curve for an established author than someone like myself as a pre-published writer.

    I read or was reading Mary McDonough’s nonfiction LESSONS FORM THE MOUNTAIN (which is a tough read of her challenged life while on THE WALTON’S series) about 65% into it. But I rarely do that.

    I won’t mention the ACFW Writer (who I admire so greatly) but their first in the series of four books had an ending that was a cross between Walker Texas Ranger and a Crime Show. I just did not like the ending 25-30% the way the rest of the book was outstanding. But I pressed through it and went on to read their other 3 novels in the series (and they were brilliant). Those were 110-120k novels.

    My mentor Margaret Daley suggested a year ago to consider writing for Harlequin Love Inspired but I’ve got to admit both reading and researching the 55k novels was and sometimes still IS a challenge. So much has to happen so quick and the characters must marry or engage by the end of the book (usually in Contemporary, Historical or Suspense books). Some write better than others in this genre and while they are not really formulaic there is a pattern to them that H/LI prefers or provides guidelines to write.

    Now I love Margaret Daley’s books (in Contemporary and Suspense), Arlene James, Allie Pleiter and a newcomer Noelle Marchand whose third book in the series (the one I picked up) was so good (in the 8 hours of reading it) I went back to e-purchases for the other 2 in the series. But I rarely do not finish reading a book. More nonfiction than fiction that is.

    What stops me (my greatest enemy) is the enemy in my mind that says my work is not good enough. Fortunately my editor critique paid person of choice suggests otherwise. They reason is that during a WIP or setting it aside for a while I’ll read friends books in the ACFW or the ‘great authors,’ and become discourage my 1st or 2nd draft is nowhere as great. But I have to remind myself I’m reading their 5th, 6th, or 7th draft after many edits when mine is only in its 2nd draft. The goal always is to write a book someone will want to finish and not st it down.

  20. Natasha Crain April 15, 2013 at 11:19 am #

    A book has to be really awful for me not to finish – I feel compelled to get to the end if at all possible! I only read non-fiction, though, so it’s easy to skim if that becomes necessary. The two things that keep me from finishing are: 1) Excessive detail in history books (I love ready history, but not when the big picture is lost) and 2) Lack of tangible take-aways (e.g., parenting books that stay at the conceptual level too long).

  21. Peter DeHaan April 15, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

    I have piles of non-fiction books I’ve started and never finished. Your four reasons apply to most, if not all, of them. It’s been way to long since I read a can’t-stop-reading non-fiction book.

    So my challenge is to make sure other people don’t feel that way about my books.

  22. sally apokedak April 15, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

    I can take almost anything if the story is great. I’m OK with the overuse of exclamation points or the stupid dialogue tags when people demand and remonstrate, if the story is good. I don’t even notice that stuff.

    The one thing that pulls me out of story every time is illogical action. A character who is not motivated to act as he does, but the author forces him to do something against all logic, because the plot demands it.

    The other reason I put books down, and this is the most common reason, is that even though the stories are well written, I simply don’t care about the characters. Sometimes I don’t care because there’s not enough conflict for me to worry about the character and to want to see how he fares. Other times I don’t care because there is a lot of conflict but I don’t know the character well enough to care if he is blown up by a bomb or not.

  23. Jessie Gunderson April 15, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    I’ve started a book where the author broke so many “rules” that at first I wanted to put it down – probably out of pure jealousy, how could she get away with it? :) But the characters and the intense plot line kept me reading until I got used to the unique voice and ended up ordering a 2nd book by the same author at my local library.

    On the other hand I’ve picked up a book by a top Christian author, whose other books I have enjoyed, and couldn’t get past the 4th chapter. The premise held promise and the historically based characters should have been great but the writing fell flat and I had to move on.

    “Why?” My husband likes to ask. “Why are you still reading that no name author and not reading the other?” Intrigue. Promise of something new. A plot that I have to get to the bottom of. These things keep me turning pages.

    Someday I hope to write like that!

  24. Martha Artyomenko April 17, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

    It used to be rare that I did not finish a book! I honestly had a shortage of books and read books that I disliked, out of sheer boredom.

    However, lacking time and having often stacks of books on my TBR pile, if I get to the fourth chapter and can walk away and either forget the name of the character, have no desire to know what they will do next or it was too cliche, I will set it aside and walk away. Sometimes that means I never finish it, but other times it means, it was not the right time of day for me to get into the story.

    I always give the author a shadow of a doubt, and also remember, if it is an older book, I give it more time. It is like a textbook more, it requires thought and not just eye candy, but there are some real sweets if you stick with it.

    There are some books though, that I have read, that the characters are still as real to me now, 20 years after I read them, as they were when I first read them. They are my friends, that I run my fingers over as I pass the shelves, just setting there, waiting for me to walk through their lives again.

    For me, that is the writing that I look for! I think sometimes, publishers have had to focus on the next bestseller, and often push for quantity, rather than quality all the time. I would prefer a slower author, that publishes fewer books, than one that pushes them out quickly, as often I know the work is going to be one to savor and cherish!

  25. Mary April 18, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

    The biggest thing that will make me throw a fiction book across the room (or wish to do so, if reading on my Kindle) is an abundance of typos or flat-out wrong words.

    Back in my AOL days, I remember telling Terri Blackstock that I loved everything about her very first Zondervan book except the part where the protagonist “wretched” into the garbage can. Spell-check won’t catch things like that – only careful proof-reading will. And even the best, most careful proof-reading misses things, which is why an occasional error won’t chase me away.

    But I was reading a mystery sometime this winter that was free for Kindle. It was a good story, and I liked the characters and wanted to see where it was going, but I had to push myself to keep reading it. Within the space of 3 “pages” on my Kindle, I found 3-5 mis-used or mis-spelled words. If it had happened in the first few pages of the book, I’d never have finished it. But it was about halfway through, and I wanted to see what happened next.

    A million years ago, when Christian fiction was still called CBA, and the Thoenes were still publishing in paperback, I started some type of Christian historical fiction set in Roman or Biblical times and had to walk away from it because the author was too busy teaching me about history instead of telling me a story.

  26. Brian Lloyd French January 31, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    Here are the bigger questions…
    Why are agents representing this dreg, why are publishers accepting it and how are they getting past copy editors in this shape.
    The biggest reason I drop a book is when 6 words are used when two would suffice. Hemingway said, “write your book, then take out a pencil and cross out all the adjectives and adverbs.”
    A good read builds in interactive relationship between writer and reader; and the reader’s responsibility is to imagine. If the author removes this need, he/she fails to engage.

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