What Makes a Reader Stop Reading?
I can now stop without guilt, thanks to my “zero tolerance” fiction policy
I don’t know that I was ever formally taught this, but for most of my life, I believed if I started a book, I had to finish it. No one ever sat me down and said, “Wash your hands before eating, make your bed when you get out of it, and finish every book you start,” so I’m not sure where I came up with this. (For the record, I do wash my hands regularly, though the bed-making is hit or miss, depending on whether I’m the last one awake. But . . . back to the book stuff.)
Perhaps it was easier back in the day when there were fewer books available for me to read. After all, there was no such thing as a digital book — or even a personal computer, for that matter — when I was growing up, so any books I read, I either owned or borrowed from the library.
When I was very young, I was afraid of someday running out of books to read.
Our town library was pretty small, and I plowed through the children’s section in short order, followed by the juvenile fiction a few years later. By the time I moved beyond that, though, I had no worries about a lack of reading material.
The good thing about “those days” was that I read and reread so many favorites. I can recall certain portions verbatim, or remember where I was when reading a particular book.
Much like a certain perfume can take someone back to a place or time, I can’t think of Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass without picturing my large, annotated hardcover (complete with super-hip 1970s artwork, shown above) . . . a gift from a favorite aunt for my eighth birthday.
In more recent years, the sheer quantity of books available online caused a sort of overload for me when I first got a Kindle.
All of a sudden I could have just about every classic at my fingertips, and most of them were free. I began to browse the “Top 100 Free” category with regularity and consumed fresh material at a rapid pace, finding new authors I enjoyed.
However, along with those good authors came some clunkers. A LOT of clunkers. I quickly realized that “Top 100” means “most downloaded” and not necessarily “top quality.”
It was then that I discovered my time was more valuable than I’d realized. I’m the person who can’t be bothered to waste seven minutes watching a news video because I’d rather read the transcript of it in less than sixty seconds, and yet here I was, committed to finishing an awful book that was poorly written, with the (vain) hope that it would somehow get better before the final page.
That was bad enough, but when I found myself doing this for one book after another, after another, after . . . you get the idea . . .
I knew I’d have to change my “finish or die” policy.
Since those early, heady days of “ALL the books at my fingertips!” and the resultant letdown as I read a plethora of bad ones, I’ve come up with a few general guidelines that help me to know when to keep chugging along and when to just chuck it and never look back. These guidelines have helped me with my editing as well, allowing me to give better advice to the authors I work with.
Now that I’ve given myself the okay to JUST STOP, I’ve found my tolerance level has gotten lower with each passing year and each subsequent novel. The hours in any given day are much too precious to waste on a bad book.
I read for money when I edit. I read to learn how to do my job better. I read the assigned books for editing courses I’m taking. If there’s any time left, I read for the sheer pleasure of it. Needless to say, if there’s no pleasure involved, I’m not going to bother reading for long.
Here are a few things that will make me put a book down and never look back (unless I’m physically throwing it over my shoulder in the trash):
- No edits. This is a nonnegotiable item for me. If there are grammar/spelling errors, poorly constructed sentences, misuse of words, or worse (though I can’t imagine what “worse” would entail), that book practically shuts itself.
- Characters that are caricatures or stereotyped. The bad guy who has no depth because he’s always bad, and not even interestingly bad . . . just “B” movie bad. The protagonist who’s good at everything: sports, school, parents love him, no zits . . . you get the idea. The mysterious stranger who’s not even mysterious for a good reason. The wise elderly person. The clumsy beautiful girl with low self-esteem.
- If I have no desire to read beyond the third chapter. I need to care about someone — anyone — or something that happens in those first few chapters, or I’m done. If I find myself skimming to see if it gets better, then why continue?
- Unrealistic dialogue. If an author writes a seven-year-old child into a book, that child should act and speak as a seven-year-old child, unless it’s a creepy book where the child is possessed by an ancient being who speaks like . . . um, an ancient being . . . and everyone knows this isn’t the way that child would normally speak.
- Plot inconsistencies. If I am confused, I tend to think that’s everyday life. However, if I’m confused while reading fiction, I’ll flip back through what I’ve read to see if I somehow missed a major plot point. If I haven’t missed anything and I’m still confused, then I’m going to assume the plot somehow went from A to C without a Point B in the middle. This happens when an author makes major structural changes from draft to draft but neglects to look at the work as a whole to see if it still makes sense. Every detail matters.
- Believability, also known as verisimilitude. Even the craziest fiction has to have some degree of believability or the reader will be drawn out of the story time and again. Things should at least seem like they could be real in order to keep the reader immersed in the created world.
What makes YOU stop reading?
Do you look for things I haven’t listed here? What’s your number one deal breaker that causes you to shout, “Enough!” I’d love to know so I can add it to my own list of things to gripe about.
And if you’ve read the list above and recognize something you do in your own books, then my best advice is STOP IT. Stop it and get an impartial reader to politely and tactfully tell you all these same things — before you publish.
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