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?
Honestly, if I pick up a book and certain vulgar words are used on the first couple of pages, I won’t read it. To me it sets the tone for the story.
Best beginning? “It was a dark and stormy night.”
I think even Snoopy used that from time to time.
Carole Lehr Johnson
Jackie, I agree. Books that have vularity are not acceptable. I once threw a book in the trash that I had purchased.
Best opening line I’ve read lately:
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” –John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.
Oh, wow! That sends me to the book shelf for a copy. Great first line!
It’s a great book, but I warn you, it’s really long. John Irving tends to meander. (And despite that first line, it’s not a CBA book, so you might find some of it offensive.) Having said that, it’s a really interesting story with fabulous writing.
Robin, thanks for the “non-CBA” heads up, but as an editor, I’ve read a wide range of writing. Not all of it was pretty by any stretch of the imagination. The length will probably be my deterrent. I’m really snowed under right now. Guess I’ll just put it on my bucket list.
I’ve heard story trumps writing, and that may be true, but there are some books where the writing is so bad, I can’t force myself to find out how the story ends.
I also don’t care for books whose endings I can figure out on the first page, which is why I don’t read genre romance. Unlike you, if I meet the hero and heroine on page one and know they’re going to get together in the end, there’s got to be something really compelling to get me to turn to page two. I don’t read very many romance novels for that reason.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Robin, while I want to know the identity of the hero and heroine early, I do still want a fresh story. Since romance novels are all about the romance and the heroine and hero are the stars, romance readers want to be invested in them right away. So while the couple’s identity is never a mystery, how they will overcome difficult obstacles to their love is a mystery. Hence, a fun and enjoyable read. Hope you will reconsider and give romance novels another chance!
What makes me put a book down is pages and pages of backstory in the first few chapters. I want to get involved with the present story, not the past story. Give me the past details later, or just give me the most important snippets now. I think Lynn Austin does a brilliant job of giving the reader a story that’s moving forward while also providing vital past information without slowing the story down.
Favorite first line? I think the narrated part of the movie version of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is better than the book’s version. (Does that count??)
“There’s two things everybody got to find out for themselves: they got to find out about love, and they got to find out about living.”
Sara, I appreciate your comments about beginnings. After reading The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke I’m trying to put into practice many of the things you mentioned about riveting first chapters.
Unrealistic motivation will cause me to close a book forever. Example: I once began a suspense novel in which the main character was somewhat curious about a particular business and what happens behind the scenes. So, not only did she quit her job to apply for a position there, but she convinced her sister to apply to the same company–all because of mild curiosity. I couldn’t swallow it. Back to the library it went, unfinished.
Wow, Tamela. This is so insightful. I gleaned some good information, and put together a few pieces about one of my stories that has been commented on in contests. 🙂
Books that become unrealistic make me want to throw them against a wall. I read part of a book once that had a hero hating one of the characters, and about three pages later, he was thinking about kissing her. The whole set up was far beyond belief in my mind. There were other issues with that book, but this was a biggie for me.
Favorite first line: “For two hours a night, Monday through Saturday, Isadora Presley became the girl she’d lost.” My Foolish Heart, by Susan May Warren.
Things that keep me from pursuing a book are graphic violence, sex or language.
I can’t stand whinners! It makes me feel like I am on a long car ride with nap deprived kids. When the heroine starts to whine all I want to do is pull over and make her walk home.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Marci, closing the book is definitely a way to do that! 🙂
Pacing. If I’m skimming long passages to get back in the story, I’m not very tolerant of that unless the main conflicts are so strong I would be unable to live without knowing the resolution.
Best opening line I’ve ever read is from Nicole Krauss’s A History of Love (Not a CBA novel. A really, really good novel but peppered with language and grammar that will drive some to distraction.) Here is most of it (without the language).
When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day, it will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF–
What I love about it to this day is immediately I want to know how he knows he’s going to die soon and why he’s that utterly and totally alone.
It’s not the opening sentence, but the opening paragraph to Shirley Jackson’s immortal ghost story The Haunting of Hill House is the most effective, set the mood, draw you in, creep you out and keep you reading opening paragraph ever written, in an genre, perood.
Great post, Tamela! I’m reading a novel right now where the heroine falls into the “dullard” category. The author is working so hard to make the reader believe that the heroine dislikes the hero–and always has–that I just want to scream at said heroine for being so obtuse. Clues everywhere, which she blithely dismisses. Maybe I’ll finish the book, maybe not!
You wrote: 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 received a review that lowered the star rating because the reader didn’t want to read a book about a woman who was angry at God. I found that interesting. It wasn’t the book, it was the hot button of the reviewer. The point IS the journey from A to B. And people do have hurdles to overcome in their faith/life journeys. I think books that take us on the journey of change with the characters are where I learn the most and sometimes choose to change too.
Thanks, Tamela 🙂
I almost stopped reading this post because I thought I had read it already. Luckily (for me) I looked at the byline and read it anyway.
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it”.
Who is this boy and what did he almost deserve?! I must know the ‘it’ and why! Oh that rascal Eustace, hee hee. I may be biased since The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is one of my top 5 favorites, but that line, 60 years later, still makes me eager to get reading. Go Lewis!
This line is the first one I thought of, too!
Throw-against-a-wall-ability: Flat, predictable scenes. I can handle bad prose if there’s a bang-up concept to it, but it’s often a deal-breaker.
Good first line of late:
“I was born without a heart. At least, that’s what they believe.” – The Conductor, Sarah Quigley
I don’t really care about language, but generally, I won’t pursue a book if its sole purpose is to bring two people together, or if it has excessive graphic violence or gratuitous, obligatory sexuality. I’ve learned that I can’t read Nicholas Sparks (too saccharine) or Stephen King (too dark).
I’ll keep reading with genre writers who can take a classic trope and turn it on its head, or layered concepts that unfold over the course of the book.
Loooooong descriptions for no reason, and that seemingly ever-present phrase, “with every fiber of his being.” I catch myself literally rolling my eyes when I read it.
I actually just did a post on first lines of novels! http://kirabudge.weebly.com/1/post/2013/04/first-lines-of-novels.html
Honestly, I’m a book devourer. I’ll read almost anything, although I’m leery of lots of sex and violence. What makes me stop is if I just don’t understand what’s happening, period, or if the story is unrealistic and the characters sterotypical.
For nonfiction, three things cause me to stop reading:
1) When everything important is covered in the first chapter.
2) When marketing oversold the book and reality failed to meet my expectations.
3) When the author is more in love with himself and his brilliance than about communicating or being interesting.
For fiction, I too get mad over becoming emotionally attached to a nonconsequential character. But by the time I realize that, it’s too late to put the book down because I’ve connected with another character. (I also become upset when the author kills off a character I like.) The reality is, if I start a fiction book, I generally finish it.
I love this blog… So diverse.
I don’t finish books that I feel like I am “pushing” the main character to “do the right thing” like Tamara’s Dullards. Surprise me and don’t have the sidekick argue with EVERYTHING the hero suggests. I’m reading to escape my 2 year old
Tamela Hancock Murray
Kim, you made me laugh!
I’ve given up on authors who have an anti-Christian or anti-Conservative world view and are intent on driving that home. Now, I don’t mind if they have a liberal or atheistic world view. There’s a difference. After growing up on Stephen King, I finally had enough of his little jabs at my faith in his later novels. I also read one novel written by an extreme environmentalist. Again, I have no issue with her having her beliefs, but don’t take advantage of your publishing success to tell me what’s wrong with me. I keep that in mind when I write. I give my character a conservative world view, but know the arguments from the other side and insert those into my WIP.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Ron, that’s an excellent point! I don’t enjoy reading jabs about my faith, either, especially in fiction since I’m reading it for entertainment. I don’t mind being intellectually challenged by fiction, but I want the author to be subtle and provoke me to thought. Jabs aren’t subtle. They’re just jabs.
While I enjoy reading about characters who agree with me, I don’t need them to remind me every two pages.
I think characters’ opinions need to be organic to the story, and subtle.
When I read your paragraph on beginnings, I immediately remembered the opening scene of a book I read this winter. Here are the first two sentences of that book.
(quote)The snow was blinding as they slid through the ice-glazed intersection, completely out of control. Their SUV launched into the air at the summit of the next street, sailed aloft for a good ten feet, and slammed down on the surface of the roadway, the undercarriage tearing into the concrete as the vehicle resumed its whirling descent. (unquote)
In four short paragraphs the author drew me in to the story and had me wondering what the heck was going on. I *had* to keep reading to see how the protagonist had ever wound up in such a predicament.
It was a good story, and I’m glad I finished the book, but the author almost lost me a couple times due to a preponderance of mis-used/mis-spelled words in a short period of time. I don’t generally notice bad grammar unless it’s egregious, but words…I love words, and seeing them mis-used (e.g. wretched for retched, which would never be caught by a spell-checker) or mis-spelled will pull me out of the story faster than almost anything else, and if it’s not just an isolated occurrence, it can ruin the book for me. The “wretched v. retched” that I mention happened in the last chapter of a book, and was the only error of its type I’d seen in that one. But that was in the 90s, and I still remember the heroine “wretching” into the trashcan.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Mary: Ah, such is the fate of the poor, wretched trashcan. You have presented a superb defense on the importance of fine editors!
Sickly sweet non-plots with loads of backstory dumping at the beginning. I wouldn’t stop at the wall. I’d throw it out the window. I’ve got to have someone I care about as the protag, and it’s got to be a great ride through the story.
Misspelled words and bad grammar will make me put a book down really fast.