by Tamela Hancock Murray
Followers of this blog know that on Monday, Steve Laube wrote a superb post on why he doesn’t finish reading certain books. I have stopped reading certain books for those same reasons. And for different reasons.
When I was in grade school, one of my mentors said always give a book at least one chapter, preferably three, before giving up. I have followed that rule on any book I felt strongly enough about to begin. As a result, I have been enriched by many stories with slow starts, but incredible payloads. However, in today’s market, I don’t recommend a slow start. Do everything you can to draw your reader in from page one. Even sentence one. Caveat? Be sure the plot lives up to its initial promise.
I don’t care about your characters. I don’t even like them
An editor once told me she didn’t like my heroine. She said my heroine didn’t deserve the hero. I didn’t express my disagreement, but softened that character in my novel until the editor was satisfied. I trust that my readers liked her more after I followed the editor’s advice.
Another time, a critique partner told me she didn’t like my hero because he was superstitious. She didn’t seem to care that a plot point was the hero’s journey in overcoming superstition. I don’t know if that happened here, but I think sometimes writers hit on a reader’s pet peeve and cause a reader to take a dislike to a character. As writers, we can’t force every reader to love our characters, but we can do everything we can to be sure our readers are rooting for them.
I like your characters, but I don’t think you do
I’ve read more than one book where the author really seems to hate the protagonist. I don’t understand why a writer would work this way, and it’s a struggle for me to finish a novel with this kind of vibe.
I lose patience when characters refuse to take a course of action so obvious that no one should be that foolish. I don’t mind suspending disbelief, but I still need you to make me understand why the character is not taking the obvious course of action. To avoid this, make sure your conflict is sufficient so a solution isn’t too obvious. Keep the reader going by having her say, “If she chooses George, this will happen but if she leaves him, this will happen. What will she do?”
You didn’t follow the rules
I know some successful authors break the rules so as Jay Leno says, “Don’t write me letters.” However, the majority of successful authors write within the rules while maintaining fresh writing. And if you are writing about established lore, be sure not to break the rules because your readers will be disappointed. Want to create a vampire? Write a fresh story, but within the confines of established lore. Exploring mythology? Know each of the god’s strengths, personality, and limitations.
Who are your hero and heroine?
This applies primarily to genre romance novels, but I want to know on page one or certainly by page three the identity of your couple. Don’t mention the heroine’s best friend Matthew on page one unless Matthew will prove to be the love interest. If the heroine needs to interact with a man before spotting the hero, don’t let the reader get emotionally invested in him. Just say he’s Uncle Joe or Cousin Zeke and he needs to do or say something before the hero himself enters. If I have spent ten pages reading about Sally and Ned and have invested in learning about both, I don’t want to find out on page 15 that Tanner is the love interest.
I read widely. Of course, it’s great to find an author with whom I agree on hot button topics. I also find it useful to read books I know I’ll dispute. The mental exercise is healthy and forces me to see other perspectives.
I recently read a book that set out to mimic what Satan would say if he wrote a blog. This is one of those books that mixes “truth” in the guise of fiction. I didn’t realize Satan is an angry political liberal. Oh, maybe I did. In reality, I wouldn’t have minded reading an opposing viewpoint — indeed, as a devout Christian, I expect to disagree with Satan. I was hoping to be entertained by a wit who might provoke me to contemplation. Instead, the book was full of screeds, most hitting on the same points over and over, but I only stopped once to ponder a point. Believe it or not I think this lame portrayal does Satan an injustice – he is infinitely worse. Overall, not a good use of my time. I finished it, but not without skipping many large chunks. So you may as well say I didn’t finish it. Solution? Rant if you must. Then edit. Edit. Edit.
It’s not all about you
When I read a book, it’s all about me. I want be entertained and educated. If the book is masterful, both will happen. In nonfiction, be sure that your anecdotes are balanced with the facts. It’s fine to use your personal experience to illustrate fact, but be sure you don’t make it all about you. I’d say a fuzzy rule is one third personal story and two thirds insights.
Don’t sell me vitamins
I am interested in nutrition and peruse such books. But if the reviewers reveal that the author’s true motive is to sell me a product. I won’t even bother reading more.
What keeps me reading
With fiction, characters I care about who are involved in an intriguing situation.
With classic theological nonfiction, such as John Owen, deepening my relationship with God.
With contemporary commercial nonfiction, an author who writes like a wise, witty, and honest friend whose interest is helping me learn.
What is your pet peeve that will make you throw a book against the wall?
Other than “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” what is the best opening sentence you have seen in a book?
What will keep you from pursuing a book?
What keeps you reading?