I’m a total prick when it comes to reading these days. Novels, comics, scripts, anything. Having a writing career and a six-month-old child and a burgeoning
heroin er pornography er Skyrim habit leaves me with less time to read than I’d like — so, when I hunker down over a story, my first (and admittedly worst) inclination is to actively seek reasons to put it down. Seriously. Imagine you came to my door and were selling cookies or Bibles or weird rhino-based aphrodesiacs and you open the door and there I stand with a pistol in your face and I’m all like, “Make your pitch, but say one wrong thing — if you even blink in a way I find disagreeable — then I’m going to shoot your face through your head.”
I went to a Christopher Moore signing way back when and the man said something there that stuck with me, and I’m paraphrasing the exact details but the notion remains true just the same:
If you can get someone to finish the first page, they’ll finish the second. If they finish the second page, they’ll get to page ten. If they get to page ten they’ll get to page 30, if they get to page 30 they’ll get to the halfway point of the book, and so on and so forth. The idea is that with each page of strong writing and good storytelling you’re buying time from the reader on credit. And your credit line increases the further they get and the more completely you grab the reader’s attention.
Lose their attention and they’re going to put that book down. And go do something else, since we are creatures bombarded with entertainment choices, from games to Netflix to sports to coked-up monkey fights in the back alley behind the methadone clinic.
Last week I told you the reasons you’ll keep readers hooked, but now comes the time to look at the reasons you might lose your readers. These are, at least for me, the reasons I’ll close your book and not return.
1. At Best: First Chapter, At Worst: First Page
If I’m feeling gracious, I’ll give you the first chapter to lose me. If I’m in a bad mood, you’ve got one page. Maybe less. In fact, that’s often how I determine what new books I’ll pick up: I’ll read the first couple pages of a Kindle sample or of the book in the store. I’ll know then and there if this is a book I’m going to want to read or want to drop-kick into a barrel fire. A first page or chapter that doesn’t hook me — doesn’t introduce an engaging premise or a fascinating character or fails to wow me with its seductive prose — tells me the rest of the book isn’t going to be much better. Make those first pages count. It’d be like going out on a blind date dressed in your ugliest outfit. “I know. The Spongebob cardigan and my old dirty Cherokee moccassins do not a strong impression make, but if you just get to know me…” BZZT. Wrongo, mutant. I’m not going to take the time to get to know you. Please leave, you smell like sour cabbage.
2. Typos And Errors
Pay attention, self-publishers: if your work is riddled with typos or grammatical errors, you’ve gone and ruined it. Doesn’t matter how inventive your story is if you cannot communicate it using the essential tools a writer is given. You can have the coolest idea for a house in the world but if you hand in blueprints drawn in shaky crayon I’m not going to let you build it for me. Bad craft kills good stories.
3. Introducing: Mister Snoozeworthy And Missus Snorebucket
Ugh. Nothing worse than a character duller than pre-chewed cardboard. Characters without strong motivation? Characters who are passive rather than active (meaning they experience the story rather than drive the story)? Characters who are indistinguishable from one another (or worse, indistinguishable from a room swathed in beige paint)? Blech. Blargh. Fnuh. No. This, by the way, is the danger of the Everyman protagonist: go too generic and “common man experience” and you rob from the character all the things that make him interesting and unique.
4. Prose Limp And Lifeless As Driveway Earthworms
You know when it rains, all those sad earthworms come crawling out and then when the rains pass the asphalt is littered with the lifeless gray water-logged mush of worm carcasses? Yeah, don’t let your prose be that. Don’t let your prose be as interesting as gray worms on gray macadam on a gray day. Bring life to language. Look at the shape it takes on the page. Find variety. Take risks. Most important: be confident. Wishy-washy prose that refuses to assert itself and relies on junk language and passive constructions to convey a story is prose that might choke that very story.
5. Awk! Awk! Awk!
Awkward language: when the quality and clarity of your prose fails to meet the intention of the writer. Put differently, it’s when your writing is clunky, clumsy, and the greatest sin of all, unclear. If I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me, I will put a bullet in your book’s brain and bury it out by the marigolds.
6. A Web Spun By A Drunken Spider
Confusing and illogical plots stop me dead. Newsflash: I need to know what’s going on. And what’s going on needs to actually make some fucking sense. I don’t want to feel like I’m machete-chopping my way through your snarled and tangled pubic thatch just to get to the good stuff.
7. All Answers, No Questions
Certain things kill the mystery in a new relationship. It’s why on the first date you don’t leave the bathroom door open and let your potential new mate see you, erm, taking out the biological garbage. “I need to go change into something comfortable. And I also have to poop. Wanna watch?” The mystery is dead. The romance? Stabbed in the face by too much information. “TMI” applies to fiction, too — if I’m reading your book and you’re hellbound to give away all the secrets and answers right from word one, then I’m going to catch the whiff of narrative desperation and end the date early. Don’t let your book show me its poop-squat.
8. Too Many Questions, Not Enough Answers
On the other hand, too much mystery spoils the soup. “What’s in this stew?” “I’m not telling.” “It tastes weird. Is this a fingernail?” “Wouldn’t you like to know.” Yes. Yes, actually, I would like to know.” Look at a TV show like Lost, which for the first several seasons introduced a freaky new mystery every episode but failed to address, um, any of the prior mysteries. There comes a point when you as the reader become pretty sure the storyteller is just fucking with you, and while that’s the storyteller’s job, it’s also the storyteller’s job to mask that role. I don’t want to feel like the storyteller is behind me spitting in my hair.
9. My Character Will Now Infodump Into Your Mouth
Expositional dialogue. Where characters explain everything that’s going on, even to those inside the story that don’t need the update. AKA AYKB: “As You Know, Bob.” Heavy exposition is like stealing all the oxygen from the room. You stole all the air for yourself and left the reader none at all. Bonafide story killer.
10. Carpet Doesn’t Match The Curtains
Internal consistency means something for writers. All the parts have to play well together — if you’ve got tone running with scissors and plot running the other way with a bucket on his head, and the dialogue doesn’t match the characters and the theme feels like it’s been hastily staplegunned to the story’s head, readers feel that. They know that the stars are out of alignment. And if they’re like me, they’ll drop your book like it’s a soup can full of cranky bees.
11. The Broken Mirror Effect
I had this problem recently with a draft of a novel: all the plot pieces made sense, they just didn’t work together to carry the overall story forward. No throughline could be felt — each was a sad little boat bobbling independently of all the other boats, no lash nor chain connecting them, each drifting in separate directions. It felt, as my agent put it, episodic: and she’s right. Put differently, a story is best when it’s like a wolf-pack rather than a herd of cats. The wolf pack features separate wolves who move together. The cat-herd has no unity and each cat scatters. Because cats can be real dicks.
12. Rolling In The Same Muddy Wheel Ruts
If I feel like I’ve seen this before — that the story doesn’t even make a go at being original and is just another vampire tween romance or Bourne Identity rip-off or sexy equine cyborg erotica — then I’m done, I’m out, game over, goodbye. Bring something new to the table, even if what’s “new” is in the arrangement.
13. Strangled All The Fun With Dirty Lampcord
Every story needn’t be a laugh riot. It’s not even humor I’m looking for. But if your story fails to have even the tiniest glimmer of fun in it, I must politely eject. Even the darkest and most nihilistic tales need that little starburst of fun or humor — not only to break up the darkness but also to serve as contrast to the darkness. The darkness is meaningless if we don’t have any light for comparison.
14. It’s A Problem-Free Colostomy: Spoon-Up-My-Bottom
(Sung to the tune of, Hakuna Matata.) Just as yeast thrives on sugar and babies thrive on the sleepless frustration of their parents, a story and its readers thrive on conflict. Conflict is essential to a story, and yet it’s far too often I read stories that feel like the conflict has all the sturm und drang of a ball-less scrotum. “John wanted a robot pony and so he went and bought a robot pony” is a story, yes, but it’s a piss-poor one. Conflict is the fuel that drives the narrative engine. If your conflict is tepid and soft, the narrative will be, too. Which means: DELETED.
15. The Tiger Changes Its Stripes
Story pivots and narrative shifts are good. Usually. A story that defies what it’s been all along and becomes something entirely different can work and can be totally rock-awesome: but it can also betray the audience. (The book did well, so this is a clear example of how subjective this stuff is, but a book that did this to me was THE PASSAGE. No spoilers but mid-way through the tale experiences a dramatic shift, so much so it felt like an entirely different and possibly unrelated book. That horse bucked me into the mud.)
16. Death, The Thief Of Conflict
A character dies without meaning or purpose in the story? I’m jarred, jostled, shaken, speechless. And not always in a sexy, erotic asphyxiation kind of way. Listen, if one of the primary reasons I’m digging your story is a particular character and then you rob me of that character without warning or meaning, you might lose me. Yes, random and senseless death can have a purpose, but not easily, and not often. If we are to assume that the character is the vehicle by which the reader travels through the story, then a sudden death of such a character is akin to us wrecking our vehicle. A bad call, Ripley. A bad call.
17. Giant Paragraphs Smashing Into Other Giant Paragraphs
RAAAAR PARAGRAPH SMASH. Your prose is not a boulder to drop on somebody’s head. I’m not saying long paragraphs are by themselves a problem — sometimes, it’s what’s for dinner. But if every page is naught but a neverending series of cement blocks comprising turgid prose, then you haven’t written a novel: you’ve written the literary equivalent to a hot Ambien toddy. (Though with fewer hallucinogenic freak-outs, sadly.) Characters don’t need to speak in lectures. Describing a rocking chair or a cab driver should not take you half-a-chapter. The shape of the prose on the page matters; it should show variety, have erratic and inconsistent shape. Beware massive text blocks. Like boat anchors they drag the story’s momentum.
If I feel like your characters are stereotypes — Hooker with a heart of gold! Tortured angsty good-guy vampire! Pantsless author who rants about booze and profanity! — then I’m out. I will wipe my hands of your trite and tepid tale and go, I dunno, drink tequila and curse at the skies. The way you elevate characters out of stereotype is to make them complex and layered. Defy convention!
19. A Hollow Emotional Core
We all need to relate to your story and the characters that populate it. We have various in-roads toward such identification but one key one is the tale’s emotional core. We’re emotional creatures and so it becomes easy to find a common thread — no, I may not understand what it’s like to be a mailman or a secret agent or a sapient moon-tree, but if those characters play off of common emotional hooks (jealousy, rage, triumph, bliss, etc.) then we’re good. The problem is when I can’t find that in a story: some tales are too guarded and refuse to let me in. They’re all action, with everything living on the surface. No, thank you.
20. All The Energy Of An Incontinent Basset Hound
If your story ambles about like an old man out on a Sunday walk (or worse, a Sunday drive), then your story has all the urgency of feeding pigeons. And feeding pigeons is not a particularly urgent activity, unless of course the pigeons are bloodthirsty and what you’re feeding them is bullets. (I’d totally read that.) Stories need to feel urgent: you’re capturing these moments for a reason.
21. Don’t Want To Shack Up With These Characters
Characters don’t need to be likable, but they must be livable — I’m hanging with them for 300 pages (or in a film, two hours) and so they must be someone I want to hang out with. Truly vile characters? Execrable fuckers? Boring dillholes? Characters who do things that completely turn me off? That’s how you lose me. My studio apartment with the clanging pipes and the tricky faucets goes from “charming and quaint” to “I’m packing my bags” soon as it’s infested with roaches. By the way, I don’t really live in a studio apartment. I live in a treehouse. With a goat-faced gentleman named Professor Hoofstomp Q. Whiskerchinny!
22. Busted-Ass Broke-Down POV
Who’s talking? Did we switch characters? Different POV? Did that just jump from first to third? Are we in someone’s head now? Wait, did Betty rescue John, or did John rescue Betty? Keep track of your goddamn POV, people. Like I said before, keeping a reader in the story is like keeping a fish on the line: you go cocking up the point-of-view and you’ll set me free. Giving me plenty of time to go gloomily play with myself.
23. A Pulled Punch Sandwich
I can feel when an author is pulling punches, when the story is the narrative equivalent of lobbing softballs. This isn’t about being edgy or hardcore, I only mean to suggest that I know when the author is treating his plot and his characters — and, by proxy, the audience — gingerly. He’s not taking any risks. No danger in plot, no conflict for the characters, no risk in the prose one writes. Go big or go the fuck home. Every book is in competition with every other book, movie, comic book, porn movie, and breakfast cereal in existence. Put your back and your heart into it, goddamnit. Stop phoning it in.
24. I’m Not Your Audience
Sometimes, the break-up is like a real life break-up: “It’s not you. It’s me.” I’m just not digging your story because it’s not mine to dig. And that’s okay. You can’t please everybody. I mean, I can. Because I have fingers like French ticklers and seven hundred tongues. You, however, are beholden to your mortal form.
25. It’s Just A Bad Book
On the other end, sometimes like a real life break-up it’s all your goddamn fault. Once again this is leveled more squarely at self-publishers, but it’s also (if with reduced frequency) true of some “traditionally” published novels — a bad book is a bad book. What I’m talking about is genuine dog-fuck writing, shit-basket characters, a spastic control of language, a fumbling numb-nutted grasp of grammar and spelling, and an overall muffin-headed window-licking approach to storytelling. Not subjectively bad, mind you, but objectively terrible. If I see a book like this, obviously, clearly, plainly I must escape it’s foul mire and put the book down. In fact, if any of you see a book like this, it should be killed with fire, and the ashes should be shoved in a hermetically-sealed tube and then launched into the heart of a volcano.
Your turn. Do me a favor: get down into the comments and tell the world what reasons you have for putting a book down. What have you encountered that’s stopped your reading enjoyment dead?
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Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?
Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY
Or its sequel: REVENGE OF THE PENMONKEY
And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING
Or the newest: 500 WAYS TO BE A BETTER WRITER