Last week I asked: what gets you to read a book?
What works to convince you to pick up that book and start reading?
That post generated over 180 comments.
It’s actually pretty enlightening — I’d suggest that writers and publishers and anybody peripherally related to the publishing industry poke through those comments. It’s a long read, but contains some surprising answers (f’rex, blurbs figure in more than I would’ve imagined).
This week, I want to look at the other side of the question:
Once you’ve picked up a book, what gets you to set it down?
More importantly, what ensures you won’t likely pick it up again?
What is it about a story, the writing, the author that stops you from reading further? What for you is the story-killer? Something about the wordsmithy? Something about the content or about a character? I will, as always, hang up and wait for your answer.
256 responses to “Bookish Turn-Offs?”
Graphic abuse of women and children. I’m not opposed to the abuse itself. Sometimes it happens. But there’s a way to write it so it doesn’t read like the writer is getting off on it.
Overuse of sentences that begin with a participial phrase, especially when the sentence creates an impossibility (for example, “Running down the hall, Bubba unlocked the door.”). I see this often in indie books. Hire an editor, for crying out loud.
Bad character names. If all the characters sound like rock stars I’m gonna be rolling my eyes. Unless they *are* rock stars. Characters in their 20s and 30s with very fashionable names shared by several children currently attending my son’s preschool. Character names that look cool on the page but are impossible to pronounce.
And of course, uninspired writing, bad formatting, predictable plot, cliches, too many dialogue tags…
Does this sound like I’m condoning abuse of women and children in the real world? Hopefully not. Where’s my editor? LOL
I rarely put down books as a conscious decision. Often, I’ll start reading 2-3 books, and one will be more interesting than others, and after I finish that one I add another to the current mix of 2-3, and focus once again on the more engaging ones. This way, sometimes I’ll start a book and won’t come back ever (after sitting on the bedside table for about 6 months, I take pity and put the book back into the shelves).
In contrast, as soon as I think a book is bad, I experience layers of guilt over putting it down – but the author is a person, look at their effort and baring of the soul, and it got published so someone liked it, etc. I tend to finish reading in an attempt to “get it”. And when at the end it’s still not for me, I tell myself to trust myself and just give up earlier next time. I figure, enough such regrets, and I’ll be pickier.
Otherwise, two main things for wanting to give up books:
1) flat characters
2) the point of the book being too advanced for me to relate to. Sometimes I’ll read and see good writing, and the potential emotional satisfaction of connecting to the book – but it’ll require more life experience than I have. I like coming back to such books though.
I don’t often put a book down but the last book I remember starting and not finishing was a freebie kindle book. I loved the characters but two thirds in the plot started to drag with the obstacles being repeats of other obstacles. Nothing seemed to be happening. I want to know what happens to characters. Think I might just read the end pages.
A while ago the father of a friend highly reccomended the Thomas Covanent series and lent me the first book of it. All was fine until the main character raped a sixteen year old who had been nothing but helpful to him (and until then seemed to be written as a potential love interest. And there was no ambiguity to whether he thought it was rape.) I struggled on a while longer because I loved the world and the supporting characters but finally had to give up because Thomas’ head was such a poisonous, bitter, entitled place to be.
Wandering POV also gets to me, where a scene starts tight 3rd and kind of drifts into omniscient and back again. I really like Michael Sullivan’s Ririya series but having to mentally back up amd figure out whose POV I was in got tiring (although that improved as time went on.)
I’ve read the first two Thomas Covenant books. And yes, his POV is very bitter, poisonous, and entitled. It was part of the point actually. However, I could see that as difficult to get invested into such a character. He does feel some remorse later when he’s confronted by the “reality” of what he’s done. Although, as he doesn’t entirely believe the alternate world he gets tossed into, he still gets emotionally attached to the people he meets. It’s kind of a weird book. But yes, the unbeliever is not someone that you feel sorry for most of the time.
I had this exact same experience. Didn’t even make it more than a paragraph past the offending event.
I have (and have read) the first six (Covenant), but I forbade my children from reading it until they were grown up. Once they were and gave it a shot, neither stuck with them.
I’ve toyed with the idea of geting the last three, just to complete the collection, but have no real desire to reread the first six just to get back up to speed. Which is a shame, because the world and the other characters are very well realized.
But TC’s head is just such a horrible place to live … and I develop this VSE tic … 🙂
I had the exact same problem with Covenant – I think I finished the first book, but barely. I never even bothered with the rest. I was super disappointed, because I’d loved the Mordant’s Needs books (A Mirror of Her Dreams / A Man Rides Through), which I read for the first time as a freshman in high school. I still love them, and still cannot bring myself to try to read Covenant.
Ugh. I had to stop reading a book recently because it was all tell, no show. They did this. Then they went here. Then they hung out. Just put me out of my misery already.
Poor writing craft, which is such an all-encompassing term that it might as well be meaningless. Some of the things that set me off though are: characters talking on an empty stage (no scene setting) particularly when the author is sloppy about speaker tags, confusing scene settings or narrative, really bad omni, info dumps in the middle of action, anything that’s laughable but was meant to be taken seriously. Someone once suggested I read Kathleen Woodiwiss. I got to page six and saw “heaving bosoms” and had to put it down.
Anything that sets off my Mary Sue radar early in the book. I can stand a Mary Sue at times, but the book has to have a lot going for it.
Gratuitous sex. I don’t mind sex in books, even though the majority isn’t written that well and I skim, but if it starts out with sexual thoughts in the second paragraph and the deed on page six, I know the book is going to be more about the character’s sex life than any plot developments, and I want more than that.
What I call romantic emotional wibbling. “Ooooooh. Who should I sleep with? He’s so hot but he’s so bad! Or should I sleep with this other guy who’s just as hot because all the author can envision is hot hot hot guys!” I see this in UF with female protagonists all the time. It makes them weak, and makes the book dull and shallow when it could be all about slimy monsters and kicking ass. Maybe equally shallow, but not dull.
Protagonists who are stupid, or who engage in asinine behavior. Rachel Morgan and Chess Putnam come to mind.
Over the top for the sake of being over the top. Goes for movies as well as books. Character names along the lines of John McBumbledoor, Thadeus Smokesdacock. I couldn’t make it through harry potter because of this. It is distracting to the point of annoying.
I’m so glad I’m not alone.
Lots of flashbacks.
Too much “stage setting” or character background given in a big chunk.
Slow pacing in general.
Sex scenes don’t make me put a book down, but they bore me.
The only books I’ve ever really put down are fantasy novels. I tend to plow through with other genres — I guess my fantasy-tolerance meter is too finely calibrated or something.
Here are the worst offenses, in my opinion:
1) Needless Apostrophe Syndrome. “I am Xhula’hurr of the Das’tani.” BLEAH. You need to be beaten with a stick. I’m a language geek — real-life languages fascinate me, and made-up ones can also fascinate me if they make some kind of internal sense. The apostrophes have got to go, folks. The first time I saw a copy of James Clemens’ Wit’ch Fire (with its heroine, Elena Morin’stal, and her companion, Er’ril of Standi, facing the Gul’gotha invaders), I had to restrain myself from hunting the author down and beating him to death with it. Wit’ch? WIT’CH? I think I’m gonna H’url.
2) SCA/D&D Societies. There are, roughly, a bazillion (it’s true, I’ve counted) fantasy worlds which are variations on the standard Idealized-Bits-Of-Middle-Ages-and-Renaissance-Europe-As-Dispensed-Through-A-Cheeze-Whiz-Can. We really don’t need any more. EVER. And we really don’t need these settings explored in Trilogies, Quadrologies, Pentologies or Jordan-esque Dodecahedrologies. Your setting isn’t really interesting enough for one book, let alone multiple ones. This is the literary equivalent of being cornered by the socially-inept gamer and told, in loving detail, all about his campaign. It’s an essentially pastoral feudal setting, with magic? You don’t say.
3) Protagonist AnachroCulturalism. Despite growing up in your pastoral, feudal setting, steeped in the cultural beliefs of their people — your protagonist just happens to be a Fiercely Independent Woman Who Chafes Against the Expectations of Her Gender….or a Sensitive Artistic Man Who Deeply Believes in the Worth of All Beings. Ah-hah. Yeah. That developed how, exactly?
4) Races As Cultures. The Elves are refined, artistic and intellectual. The Dwarves are doughty, hardworking craftsmen. I’m sorry — but why would two Elves be any similar than say, a Human from England and a Human from China? Why use non-human races at all? Human cultures come in a myriad of interesting varieties in the real world — why not in the fantasy world as well? Most fantasy races could be made into distict human cultures with no loss of wonder. Why create a race of mountain dwelling non-humans, when creating a unique culture of mountain dwelling humans would be equally “alien” to your protagonists? Sadly, the underlying reasons for most non-human races in fantasy: laziness (characterization short-hand) and perhaps some actually icky underlying views on race (“all X are like Y”).
Amen to all of that.
I’m a big fan of fantasy myself, but I need bribes to touch most sword-and-sorcery stuff, because so much of it smarts of Tolkien. I loved Tolkien and all– but I only want to read about his world when it’s got his name on it, not an expy.
As far as the AnachroCultural protagonists– the more I learn about history, the more this drives me crazy. Not that the characters are acting like this, but because the rest of the world is as flat as a medieval painting– and not one that’s been looked at too closely, either. There were strong-willed women throughout all of history, and there were sensitive, artistic men in the same. Homosexuality and ethnic diversity within a given population aren’t recent inventions, either, but they’re almost always whitewashed out in the name of “historical accuracy”. It drives me up a wall!
Gareth, I agree 100%. You made me laugh too!
Predictable stuff I hate most, violence is ok, life is violent sometimes but not violence just for the sake of, that’s like unnecessary car chases in movies, right?
Cheesy romance with muscular tall heroes and buxom, innocent broken hearted girls tend to be big no no, too! As do pointless sex scenes, I’ve had sex, lots of it, I know what’s realistic, I guess not everyone does.
I like wit and humour in anything. I hate corny or wanna be stuff, i.e. the new Steven King or the new John Grisham, why bother?
Consistency of character is essential too.
Good stuff, thanks for enticing me in, regards Peter
Endless description, jolting language (I read a historical where one of the characters said: groovy. It was not a typo. It was a word that didn’t exist in that time.), boredom, not liking or caring what happens to the main characters…or worse, wishing they’d die and be done with the story so I can move onto another book. Books that are written by those service representatives whose accents are so heavy you can’t understand a word they’re saying. Bad story.
Front-loading the story with too much exposition.
Characters the writer makes so precious/adorable/perfect s/he dares you not to love them.
Self-consciously clever dialog.
Preaching of any kind, even if I agree with the point of view.
Dull or poorly conceived concept. (I usually catch that before I pick up the book, but blurbs can be misleading.)
Figuring out exactly where the story is going very early on.
Characters with no complexity. Worse if characters of one gender are complex and the other are not.
A plot that relies very heavily on Deus Ex Machina. Flat or cliched characters. Lack of realistic consequences for actions/mistakes. Telling and not showing. A plot that goes “and then and then and then…”
Example: There was an author created a really interesting world/universe. It started out great, but after a while, the characters would get caught in impossible situations and something would just happen on accident that would save the day (an unguided missile just happened to strike the fuel reserves and destroy the bad guy ship, etc.) Also, the consequences for mistakes was always minor. In one of the books, the main character discovered some ancient religious texts that completely invalidated an entire cultures belief system. The end result? Nothing much. The existing religious leaders were grumpy, but no civil war, etc. It was really sad for me to put it down because he had some awesome world building in place, but a great world doesn’t make the book awesome. Also, there was very little emotion in the book. The MC, female, meets boy. No problem, but “they embrace” or “they kiss” doesn’t give me a sense that they are really into each other. In that respect there was a lot of telling and not any showing.
I never used to put down books… but the older I get, the less time I seem to have for things that are more irritation than interest.
— Glorifying abuse in a relationship. I put up with this at first, over looked it, tried to see the relationship beyond it. But now it’s become evident that it’s some bizarre trend, and oddly mostly in books written by women. I will halt a book if the love interest becomes abusive and the protagonist is making excuses. Unless I have gone into the book *knowing* it’s a book about an abusive relationship. If you’re trying to pass abuse off as romance, we can’t be friends. Sorry.
— If the book reads like a cheesy sitcom, but the synopsis implied something deep and meaningful, we can’t be friends. I don’t watch cheesy sitcoms because I don’t like them. I am definitely not interested in reading them.
— If an author doesn’t know how to use a comma and everything turns into a run-on sentence and the sentences just starts to read like an excited teenager talking really really fast with no breaks and no air and my head starts to spin because of it. We can’t be friends. I can deal with a unique take on grammar rules… but if I consistently have to re-read sentences or paragraphs just to understand what it says due to punctuation, or lack there of, then I find it more work than is necessary to continue reading.
— If the descriptions are sparse. The sentence structure is boring. And choppy. And unimaginative. My eyes start to bug out. Especially if when a sentence finally tries to be interesting, it turns into a simile. My inner editor produces a red pen. And I become tempted to edit chapter one and send it back. We can’t be friends.
— Obnoxious repetition to show that a character is… something. Doesn’t matter what you’re trying to show me… stop repeating that particular line, sentence structure, word, etc. A quirk of your character shouldn’t be that she has a habit of repeating the same line, repeating the same line, repeating the same line. This alone won’t get me to put down the book, just annoy the crap out of me, unless you add in other repetition. Like sentence structure. Repetitive dialogue and sentence structure reads as lazy writing to me. If you’re lazy about writing your book, I’ll be lazy about reading it, and by that I mean I won’t read it at all.
— Various things that should have been caught in editing… like plot holes big enough to drive a semi truck through, inconsistencies, and inaccuracies. If your werewolves have a heightened sense of smell, you can’t trick a pack into thinking that boy is still a human, he’d smell like a dog to them now. If she put the drinks on the side table, she can’t then walk down the hall carrying the drinks, they’re still on the side table. If your story is set in a city you’ve never visited, you better research it well enough that the people who live there don’t say, “that is NOT how the streets are arranged… what map did you look at to write this book?!”
— If the character is too stupid to live… I can’t keep reading. I didn’t get past chapter 5 of City of Bones because I just wanted a demon to kill Clary and let someone not to stupid tell the story.
— And of course, the issue authors and publishers have no control over, if I don’t care about the characters or the story… I won’t keep reading. I’m reading The Great Gatsby for a reading group and I can tell you, if I wasn’t forced to finish it with the group, I wouldn’t. Go ahead and call me whatever names you like. It’s superficial and reads like a 1920’s sitcom. The “symbolism” is actually what the story is already beating you over the head with. Therefore, I don’t care. And if someone tries to tell me that’s the point… then bravo, still not interested.
Most often I find it’s YA that I’m putting down. As if writing for teenagers means the writing can be lazy because teens don’t care anyway, right? They’re really just waiting for the movie to come out. There have been adult books I’ve put down as well which all follow the same issues listed above. And if a book has multiples… I shudder at the thought.
I forgot one, which is why I shouldn’t type up things while getting ready for work.
— Reader is an Idiot syndrome. If the author is over explaining and adding in definitions, seemingly for the sake of making me understand the deeply complex work, I put the book down. If you think you’re writing to an audience full of idiots who don’t know what the word “congealed” means, you might want to re-think your target audience. And I’m talking about books published during the Age of Forensic Television, who doesn’t know what “congealed” means these days? This usually happens in YA or in overly pretentious adult literature. And since I’m intelligent and hate being talked down to, I put the book down. Because I’m clearly not that authors target audience.
Good post! I agree with a lot of your points.
Oh, I completely agree with the repetition thing. In the most recent Dresden book (and I LOVE Dresden books, so don’t get me wrong) I felt like Harry kept repeating himself, and I wanted to smack whoever Jim Butcher’s beta readers were for not catching it and telling him to fix it.
I have a peeve about weird language. Once, I tried reading a fantasy book that got hundreds of 5 * reviews, but I couldn’t get past the excessive use of the word “wattle” in the first chapter. I’ll admit it, at that point I didn’t know what the hell a wattle was, so I looked it up. To those who don’t know, it’s that saggy, jiggly, wrinkly neck skin that swings back and forth on older folks when they talk. Instead of brandishing the word “wattle” like a shiny new toy, why not describe the hangy neck skin in all its glory? That would have given a much clearer picture of these ancient sages.
That same book waxed poetic on how “nut brown” the assassin’s eyes were, and that basically killed it for me. I probably missed out on an awesome read, but I don’t care.
The word “swath” is also a mood killer for me. I’m not sure why, but the word automatically snaps me out of the reading experience. I physically cringe. The fact that writers who use the word use it to excess doesn’t help matters. He had a broad swath of gray hair, she settled down on a swath of green grass, the city boy marveled at the swath of green pasture before him… UGH! The mood is killed now.
Stick to Prize Winners! Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle Award, etc. these winners are your best bet. Read Shields, McCann, Franzen, Kingsolver, Egan, Diaz, Saramago, McEwan, DeLillo, Nabakov, Roth, Marquez, Bukowski, Allende, Morrison, Joyce, Hemmingway, Faulkner, Wolf, Dickens, Shakespeare, Dante, the Greeks…to name very few. I haven’t even mentioned poetry!
There are so many great books whose authors understand the craft (how to tell a fabulous story), create unforettable characters and sentences that dazzle, build bridges for readers into outer and inner worlds of complex wonder, challenge intellectually and emotionally to stretch the reader and broaden h/is experience. Why bother with all the poorly written, creatively impoverished blather that hasn’t one iota of relationship to literature? The NYTimes Book Review offers choices one can trust, most of the time.
I will confess to reading the books my writing group members publish because I know each has been well taught and that each has struggled (years) to write well. Writing well is an heroic act I respect and admire. However, for pure pleasure and to discover (uncover technique) aspects of the craft, I read with great discrimination. There is only so much time.
lol, here’s how books are very much like art. A reading experience is just as subjective as looking an experience watching a sunset or looking at a painting. Just because a book has won a prize or is considered a classic doesn’t mean everyone will enjoy it.
Hemmingway? NOT my favorite author. S’cool that you love him, though.
I like finding new authors and little gems of books that I didn’t know existed. Sometimes that means wading through crap to get there — and we all have different definitions of crap– but it’s worth the risk and the journey to do it.
I’m not trying to be hostile or anything, but that’s kind of a closed-minded way to look at things. By reading authors that have already established themselves, you close yourself off to newcomers who might not be as talented as prize-winning authors, but who still deserve to have their books read. And just because a book has been given a prize or is considered a “classic,” that doesn’t mean that it is literature or that it is a pinnacle of literary craft. I can name many books that I consider to be poorly written wastes of time, but that other people would consider “classics.” Also, I never let reviews tell me what to read.
Books, like any other form of art, are subjective. Just because someone else thought that a book was a complete masterpiece, that doesn’t mean that I will too.
Mmmyea… no. I’ve read some excerpts of Ulysses. I’m sure it’s steeped in all sorts of deep and meaningful stuff, full of witty and poignant insights. To me, it read more like a very sick sheep had vomited up a bunch of words all over my monitor, and then somebody had come along and grabbed a million of the vomit-words and called them a novel.
Dickens, definitely. Joyce? No thanks. I made more sense out of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’, and that was translated from ancient Greek.
Present tense is a hard sell for me. The book itself has to be fantastic (like Holly Black’s White Cat trilogy). I’m reading a YA that looked cute when I saw it on Goodreads, but I should have checked the writing before buying it; not only is it present tense, the main character’s entire life is centered on her now-ex-boyfriend, which makes her seem needy, weak, and boring.
Female characters with no apparent interests outside of the men in their lives turn me off a book fast. Female characters who have to be repeatedly rescued by others (usually men) is even worse–especially when it’s a main character. Seanan McGuire’s first Toby Daye book was like that, and I was so disgusted I haven’t read anything of hers since (that book had a lot of other problems too).
I immediately put down any book that proves how bad the bad guy really is by having him rape someone. I also intensely dislike torture scenes; the more detailed, the more likely I am to put the book down. I almost always stop reading a book where a character hurts an animal or child, unless it’s important to forward the plot in some way. The problem is, a poor writer doesn’t understand that “important to the plot” doesn’t mean “I can’t think of a more subtle way to arrange my plot.”
If I get bored by the story and also don’t care about the characters, I put the book down. Life is too short to read bad books.
I started reading a book once that introduced five viewpoint characters in the first five chapters. For all I know, each chapter had a new main character, but I stopped reading. I’ve started but not finished many, many books where interesting things happen in the first chapter, but at the end of that chapter the main character dies and chapter two starts the actual story, which is never as interesting. I hate that and never, ever read a book that starts this way.
Bad endings obviously won’t make me stop reading a book (by the time I’m there, it’s about over anyway), but will stop me from reading the sequel. Any book that turns out to be a set-up for a sequel drives me crazy with rage. By that I mean there’s no closure for the first book, no sense that all the emotion and time I invested in the book was worth it. Barry Lyga’s book I Hunt Killers did this; it was excellent right until the end, but Lyga didn’t give his character even one sentence to breathe a sigh of relief that It Was All Over before dumping him into Things Are Now Worse territory for the sequel. As a result, I felt cheated out of an ending. I won’t read the sequel, and I am much less likely to read any of Lyga’s other books.
I throw down the book (as opposed to the gauntlet) when I see gratuitous violence, ugly treatment of kids/women (read: rape/sexual assault) and any viciousness to innocent animals. This kind of stuff makes me think that the author fantasizes endlessly about committing these crimes himself. Creeps me out big time (and not in a good way, in a “throw-down-the-book-and-warn-other-friends-not-to-read-it-either-way”).
Okay, I’m a wimp. But I read a lot of different genres–(I love Mitch Rapp, Frodo Baggins, Harry Dresden, and of course, Double Dead Coburn!) I know good guys and bad guys can be complicated characters. But I also don’t need to be hit over the head with gore, torture or any other device to show me who the Bad Guys are, and why they are “the Bad Guys”. Less is more when it comes to scary. Like the whole movie technique of showing only the tooth of the monster, or just an eye or a leg. To me that’s waaaaay scarier than seeing the whole magilla, and knowing its’ size and shape, thus being able to put the thing in some kind of context. Choosing little elements to show me a bad guy instead of slathering the whole joint in blood and gore is much more frightening. I think so anyway.
Also, I agree with other postings about language. If the folks of that era didn’t use certain slang, certain references, gestures or behaviors, don’t use them. Do your homework.
It’s nothing to do with plot or subject matter. Its dense prose and pages of description. Keep the sentences succinct with plenty of dialogue and I’m happy.
I almost had a problem with Blue Blazes, Chuck, but I trust you and trust the story. I’ll absolutely divulge as soon as I’m done.
Poor editing or even complete lack of editing.
God this, God that, God the other thing. I sat down to read a novel, not a rehash of the Bible.
Weak, flimsy characters; I make an exception to this one when they are intentionally written this way for a fun, fast-paced, usually comedic story.
Plagues. Zombies. Plagues of zombies.
I am far more prone to put down an e-book than a paper book.
I’m a fairly forgiving reader and will read most anything – because when I read, that’s my “away” time; the “i’m not a mom of a thousand kids right now” time. So I’ll put up with a lot of inconsistencies or grammar problems or crazy premises, just to escape from real life now and again. But if it insults my intelligence, preaches at me, or pushes me out of the book because I have to decipher world-speak, I’ll put it down and find another. My to-read pile is not lacking for titles or authors, so I don’t feel bad for not finishing something that was wasting my time.
Here’s how an author can piss me off:
1- predictability. If I know how the book is going to end because every guess I’ve made so far has been right, and I didn’t even have to work hard to make those guesses, I don’t need to read the book, and I feel like the author was LAZY. And I want to yell at the acquiring editor. WHAT WERE THEY THINKING???
2- Too easy. It’s hard for the protag, but not-hard, because he/she gets saved or solves problems by blinking or making a wish, and I wonder why there’s even a story at all because no one has to do any work. How did this get published??
3- too much description. Now, this one’s subjective. If I love the plot and the characters, I’ll just skim over the blow-by-blow fight scenes or the fifty thousand colors and types of plants on the hill (yes, I skimmed Tolkien, because really? Two pages about plants? Tell me it’s pretty and I’ll fill in the details, thank you.) If I have to slog through paragraph after paragraph of minute details about setting, I’m just going to stop caring about the plot or the characters and give the book right back to the library or donate it. To be fair, though, epic fantasy gets kind of a pass here. Kind of. I have to love the character to tolerate the set-up.
4- Stereotypical/flat/bad characters. I guess this goes with number 1, because stereotypical characters are predictable. Or preachy characters that no other character in the book argues with. Ever. If an author has a point to prove, fine, but make people believable, not just RIGHT. If a book comes at me with a mallet to hammer an idea into my brain, I’ll throw it across the room, give the author the finger and make it a point never to read them again.
5- Slow. Again, this is subjective, because if I fall in love with the character, I’m totally fine if it takes some time to ramp up to the action. But if nothing happens in the first chapter to pique my interest – boring dialogue, boring action, oh, look, more of the same-ol-same-ol… yeah, I’m moving on to another book. I have a book my daughter gave me that I’ve attempted to read and haven’t made it past page three. I should not be yawning with boredom by page three. (–snarls at authors who give free vanity published books to elementary school kids who then think they’re giving their mom an awesome mother’s day present.–)
If an author’s going to lose me, it will be in the first three chapters. Sometimes I’ll give them five if I’m at least a little bit curious. One book – one very big book that is now a movie – I read the first three chapters, skipped to the middle to see if it was interesting, read half a chapter there, then skipped and read the last two chapters and didn’t feel like I’d missed anything. I don’t consider that reading the book, although in that case I did make it to the end, but it was more like playing chutes & ladders than reading, and I was very glad I hadn’t bought a copy of it.
I read some books because my aunt recommended them, and she loves the thrill of the chase. Me too, so ok. And the author puts himself in every book. Is that a famous writer thing?? I don’t get it, I don’t like it, it totally pulls me out of the book in a WTF moment. That, coupled with the fact that every fight scene lasts five or ten pages, determined that they’re just not for me. The third book of his I tried, I got two chapters in and shook my head, closed it, and moved on to the next author. In cases like this I love the movies more than I love the books. I’m glad he’s out there writing because he makes my aunt happy, but his stuff’s not for me.
Monotony is a big issue for me. If an author uses the same bland list of descriptors over and over again I start to get bored and begin wondering if the poor bastard was forced to write in Kathy Bates house with nary a thesaurus to be had. Bad editing is another huge problem. If I come across a misprint or just a really awkward sounding bad sentence then the story had better be fucking riveting or I’m going to write in the correction myself and return the book from whence it came. Then there’s that thing some writers do where they try to make an obvious plot less obvious by confusing the structure of the story. I love a good modernist tale of weird whatever, but sometimes writers mistake being modern with being a sloppy, incoherent mess that makes no goddamn sense. Even if it’s a very strange story of strangeness with monsters and raccoon unicorns and junk the plot should at least sort of make sense. The point is to entertain and engage the reader, yes? If I can’t figure out what the point of the story is, who the characters are and why they are doing what they are doing, then why should I care? Oh, and I hate when writers try to use the vernacular of youth. I put stupid .com teen dialogue on my personal top five list of annoying shit and it is all Diablo Cody’s fault!
Present tense annoys the piss outta me. Entire books read like “A guy walks into a bar.”
I can’t stand RomanceLand problems. Only in RomanceLand will a woman refuse to give an amazing man a second chance because he hurt her feelings once twelve years ago. Only in RomanceLand do women not go out with incredible men who pursue them for bullshit reasons like “I had a bad childhood.”
Generally I loathe first person novels as well, especially erotica. I don’t want to read “He thrust his cock into me.” That sounds like Penthouse Letters, thinly veiled sexual fantasies, not fiction.
Boring characters. Lifetime movie of the week plots. I don’t care if the characters are good or evil as long as they’re interesting and believable. Basically I’ve given up reading fiction.
In order of annoyingness:
1. Clunky prose: repetitive sentence structure, using the same word too frequently (particularly if it’s not a concrete noun or active verb), clumsy turns of phrase. Also: Some authors have an inability to describe where characters are in space, and yet often these authors persist in writing fight scenes. I always wonder if the editor has the same inability to visualize movements, and so writes off the incoherence of the scene as their own fault, not that of the author.
2. Boring prose: lots of equivocating modals and progressive verb tenses, too much verbal ormolu, abstract nouns and verbs.
3. Cliches, either in the prose or the characterization.
4. Plots driven by characters either being stupid, or not talking to one another when there’s no reason to keep silent.
5. Very obvious plot holes. I’m astounded by how often they happen–does the author have really stupid beta readers, or does the author just not care?
I use a “middle of the book” reading-sample test. If I can open a book to a middle page and start reading in the middle of a scene, and still find myself wanting to know what’s going to happen next to these characters I don’t even know anything about–well, that’s going to be a good book. This method almost never yields a false positive (though it probably generates false negatives).
Bad editing, bad exposition, or overexplaining/pandering to the reader. I’ll often put a book down if I get bored, and then fight with myself over whether it’s worth it to keep going and see what happens. Sometimes it is, but more often it’s not. If I feel like I’m plowing through it at all, I usually give up.
Turn off in the first few pages: Too much telling, not enough showing. I don’t mind getting backstory in dribs and drabs throughout the first chapter, if the backstory is relevant to the current action. But don’t give me your characters’ life stories on the second page. I stopped reading The Da Vinci Code after Dan Brown went on a tangent explaining that his main character was afraid of elevators because he fell down a well as a child. But Brown never *showed* the character being nervous or afraid on the elevator, he just wrote “Whathisface doesn’t like elevators. He was traumatized as a child.” It felt like I was reading stage directions or character notes, not an actual finished book. It took me right out of the story. If you must have backstory, keep it short and sweet, and tell it in a distinct voice.
Biggest turn off after the first few pages: If it’s boring. I know, that’s terribly subjective, but if the characters keep going round and round in circles and nothing new ever happens then I’ll lose interest and put down the book.
Other, more subjective turn offs:
– Going hand in hand with the “if it’s boring” reason: if the characters in a thriller/mystery are all behaving like idiots. There’s dramatic irony, and then there’s stretching the story out for another two hundred pages because apparently all of your highly trained detectives and federal agents don’t have the critical thinking skills God gave a hermit crab. If the plot hinges on everyone being too stupid to live, then you don’t have much of a plot, and you certainly don’t have a plot that I’d be interested in.
– Too large of a cast/too many points of view for me to keep track of. If you story crawls to a stop because we always have to check in with all two dozen narrators before advancing to the next plot point, I lose interest. (I’m looking at you, J.K. Rowling and The Casual Vacancy.)
– The author using characters as mouthpieces. I understand that a person’s views – be they social, political, ecumenical, etc. – often show through in their writing. But there’s a difference between your writing being influenced by your world views, and using your fiction as a soapbox. Even if I agree with you, it’s still going to put me off your writing.
– Sexual assault/abuse without there being any reason for it. If it’s necessary for our understanding of the book/character, and it’s handled delicately and with great empathy for the victim, then I don’t have a problem with it (although I’ll still probably choose not to read about it). But if the abuse only serves as a plot device, or as lazy shorthand for “she/he’s emotionally damaged,” then I will drop that book with extreme prejudice.
Oh, also, I have a bit of an allergy to first-person narration, for various reasons:
1. I don’t want to see a character’s insecurities from the inside, particularly if I can’t see any reason for them. I understand that insecurities are irrational, but if I see the character’s irrational thoughts that closely, it just makes me want to smack them on the head and shout “Get over it!” (hat-tip to Cher in Moonstruck) It does not make me sympathetic. It does not make them likeable. Insecure =/= modest or humble.
2. Too many sound the same these days. If I can’t tell two books apart because their narrators sound alike, then someone is doing something wrong.
Cher’s line was “Snap out of it!”
Best line in the movie.
1. Bad writing or a writing style/voice that grates on me.
2. Graphic sexual violence against anyone. I don’t want to see it, hear it, or read it. There are plenty of books that handle it sensitively and I applaud them. But others – ugh. If Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander hadn’t been so fabulously written and already had me really invested in the story, the sexual assaults by the main villain would have turned me off. I couldn’t get through the second one because it alluded to more and the idea disturbed me so much that I just couldn’t finish it.
3. Nothing is happening – I hate it when I’ve read 50 or 100 pages of a book, waiting for the thing to happen that was promised in the blurb, and it doesn’t. If I stop and realize that basically nothing has happened, I’ll stop reading it. And I also hate when books are “stretched” into trilogies when the story really could have been told well in just one book.
The biggest thing to have be put down a book? Slow pacing. (e.g. anything in the girl with dragon tattoo line…)Next reasons to follow would be: unpalatable or relatable characters (e.g. (so if you’re writing from the antagonists view I better understand why she’s doing what she’s doing or make me root for him in some weird bassackwards way. Lastly, I’ll put a book down if something you know to be historically accurate is misused in the story, e.g. a blackhawk helicopter being used in Vietnam during the conflict. Um, no. The first flight was in 1974 on the tail end of the conflict. The Army didn’t start using until 1976 — AFTER Vietnam.Granted the UH-60 came into being because of the need the U.S. military found during the Vietnam campaign. This I found in a “best-seller” book . I put it down and didn’t pick it back up.
My reading time is limited these days (pressure of book deadlines!) so I’m more picky than I was when I was younger. Main DNFs are:
1) Prose style grates. It could be badly written, or it could just be personal taste. I tried reading Gail Carriger (Soulless) and couldn’t get past the first couple of chapters – it was like “Northanger Abbey” on a girlie sugar rush *winces*
2) Relentless misogyny. If practically every woman in your novel is defined by her gender and her sexual or reproductive behaviour (I’m looking at you, GRRM), I lose interest eventually. If every young/attractive woman in your novel is subjected to violence, particularly if it’s sexualised, I’m out of there FAST. As Alex B said earlier, I’d rather there were no women in a novel than that they were badly written or offensive.
When I can tell the author has done her research. By which I mean, the author obviously put a lot of work into finding out everything they could about x, and by god, they’re going to tell us absolutely everything they know about x, the history of x, all things pertaining to x and the biological implications of x in prehistoric Cleveland – especially when all or most of this information is conveyed through clumsy dialogue like, “Remember on the weekend, when we were discussing how x affects the migration of geese? Well, I was thinking about that and the research that Dr. Whoeverthehell did about x in the late 1800s and…”
I forget which one it is, but in one of his books, Heinlein very kindly saves people like me some time by putting a note to readers that if they’re not interested in the specifics of the ship’s propulsion, they’re better off skipping the next (I think 15) pages.
If any phrasing in the book is so poor that I have to go back and read it again – and especially if I have to re-read it more than once. A few years ago, I was reading cookie cutter YA Vampires-are-mysterious-and-sexy-and-blah book that my then 13 year old brother recommended and the protagonist must have been a teleporting time traveler, because she went from walking in the hallway at school to being in front of her locker THE NEXT DAY in the same paragraph without even so much as a “At school the next day…” I re-read the passage several times before I realized that the jump had taken place.
There isn’t much that can make me stop reading a book. That doesn’t mean there are books that I don’t particularly enjoy. Sometimes I resort to just reading dialogue. Occasionally, I’ve been known to read the first sentence of each page to get to the end. However, I recently gave up reading a book that was supposed to be excellent (and which was recommended to me by more than one person) because of the arrogance of the characters. The characters were both presented as well educated people, but in order to show that their dialogue and thought processes felt like overbearing cerebral vomit. Everything had a higher meaning (which was explained in excruciating detail by the author as if readers would be too stupid to get it). It seemed like the author was trying to prove their own superior intelligence, rather than telling a story. I reached a point about 100 pages in where I couldn’t take being talked down to by a book anymore and gave up trying to see why anyone would actually think it was more than self-important shit. The story could have been good if the writing hadn’t been so blatantly offensive to my intelligence. :p
Few things will get me to walk away from a book faster than an author assuming his readers are idiots.
If you mentioned at the beginning of a chapter that Flying Purple People Eaters can only come out at night, there’s no need to remind me of that every few pages in.
I don’t mind violence or sex, as long as they’re well-written. One “heaving bosom” and I’m out.
Also, don’t tell me what’s happening. SHOW me.
Lack of voice, and I am lost.
A preponderance of dithering scenes drowning in tea and coffee and idle chatter = be gone, foul book! Likewise, when every character, emotion, item, or movement (no matter how inconsequential) is suffocated by reams of details.
Almost forgot to mention overused unrealistic dialog tags… my girlfriend will go off on a 30 minute rant about 50 shades because of all the murmuring. Dominant people don’t murmur. They speak clearly to be understood and have their directions be followed completely.
“I agree,” she murmured.
Head-hopping. Lack of editing in general. Flat characters. Backstory for days. (Related to this: flashbacks.) Too much telling/info-dumps. Lack of internal logic.
If Chuck Wendig wrote it. :'(
LOL! “Cute” as if someone not liking your writing isn’t someone to be taken seriously? Can’t you handle anything besides a sycophant?
I think the point is that going to the author’s blog to leave graffiti on his wall and pee in his alley is sort of funny. If there were any actual, substantive explanation why a person would dislike the author’s work, then it’d be easier to take it seriously. But without, it comes off as a joke.
And the author seems to agree there’s a certain humor in it. Why not let him?
The alternative – moderating the comment out of existence – is less sporting.
I have a hard time getting past present participles and past tense in the same sentence. That will get me to stop reading fairly quick.
Oh, and when the story gets boring.
Writing, usually of the young adult variety, that tries to write using “hip” language. Usually it just comes off as annoying and like your mom is trying to fit in with your friends.
And predictability is one of my biggest turnoff’s. You don’t have to kill off the main character every time or anything, but put SOMETHING in there that I won’t see coming.
I get turned off when things go preachity. Even when I agree with the author’s viewpoints, I’m not interested in having a finger wagged at me, or receiving socio-political fan-service. Challenge me to think more about an issue, or to look at other aspects of it, but spare me the sermons or caricatures of this or that group being invariably stupid and/or evil.
Hmm… would you like some fries with that can o’ worms, Chuck? 😀
It will have to be really bad writing for me to put a book down, or failure to grab and hold my curiosity. If I don’t want to know what happens next, if I don’t really even care what happens next by about a third-way through, I will put the book down and not pick it up again.
If I’m not wondering what happens next at the end of a chapter (no need for a cliffhanger), I won’t read on.
My turn-offs include poor writing, not pulling me in fast enough, and blindly/badly introducing some game-changing aspect too late in the game (deus ex machina-like).
The first point’s pretty clear.
On the second point: I can’t offer a hard-fast rule for how to accomplish this — there are as many starts to stories as there are stories — but I know I don’t want to invest too much time in waiting for a book to pull me in. The sooner the better, of course, but I’m willing to give it a bit of rein. That’s been made much more simple since using my Kindle (and since signing up for a newsletter which emails me about a dozen free ebooks daily): if I’m not into the story at the point where I’m 5% into the book, I ditch it. If I’m kind of into it but undecided, I’ll give it another 5%. If I haven’t bought into it by then, I’m done and move onto the next book. If I have bought into it, I keep reading, usually to the end, but there are times when the above third point comes into play and kills it for me.
Two examples: I was just reading a book — an interesting new take on a vampire story — that was all about how serious and deadly vampires are but the protagonist risked facing them anyway anyway to solve her father’s disappearance blahblahblah. But then almost exactly half way through the book she gets bitten by a vampire intending to kill her. OH BUT WAIT, instead of dying, she inherits the vampire’s super-abilities, and it’s burdened in turn with newfound (human) emotion that it somehow got from her… a possibility that’s never so much as alluded to previously in the book. Granted, the writer did an admirable job of trying to now include that new angle on the story — one assumes the reason it was never mentioned before is, as we read, because even vampires had rarely ever heard of this kind of occurrence happening — but point being, that was jarring enough of a game-changer, which felt heavily deus ex machinish, that it totally spun me out of the story. It’s not that I can’t deal with twists in a story, of course, but this really felt well above and beyond that… enough that I put the book away and deleted it from my Kindle on the spot.
Ditto with another book I started last night that begins with the apparent protagonist, a viking, gleefully attacking people and raping/killing a woman and finally dashing the head of the rape victim’s infant against a wall to kill it, before walking away from the scene satisfied with himself. Being a number of pages into the book by that point, I still had no idea what was supposed to be appealing about it or who I was supposed to be pulling for. So… done.
I’ve got way too much to read (and getting more pretty much daily) to bother with anything that doesn’t satisfy me early on, and throughout, which I don’t think is an unreasonable bar to set for fiction. After all, to paraphrase a late friend, “Life’s too short to read shitty books.”
I’ll put it down if the writer has nothing to say and/or is saying it poorly. Run on sentences are good if used right (On the Road, Dispatches), and even slow/boring plot. A Farewell to Arms is dead boring but I loved it. Not reading something because its boring is like not listening to a music because its not catchy enough. Sometimes the slowest things are the most beautiful. Sometimes the pauses make the piece, not the notes.
I come to writing from a background in classical piano. Yes, the two relate. You’re telling a story, and you only get one shot at it. The rests matter in music, and the same applies to writing.
It’s usually about the voice for me. If it’s too frenetic or is told from the first-person POV of someone I find annoying (say, feeling it necessary to describe their physical appearance), then the insipient headache will make me put a book down. I can usually tell within the first five pages whether I’m gonna love a book or not–kinda makes me empathize with agents and editors re: their submission guidelines.
All I have to say for myself in general is: The Almost Moon by Alice Seabold. Perfect example, I had never untill that book wished I had given up sooner.
It’s rare that I stop reading a book in dramatic fashion. Not many throwings-at-walls. I just … stop, and fail to start again. Boredom is the most likely cause.
I generally want to test-read at least a few pages before buying; if I’m not hooked in enough to want more I won’t buy. Kindle previews, or reading the equivalent in a bookstore.
Character and voice are important. Give me an interesting person, and I’ll rarely put it down.
Too much of a feeling that the author gets off on the suffering of their characters (GRRM, I’m looking at you).
Not being able to follow what’s going on, because of the poor skills of the author.
When I was younger and had more time to read, the benchmark was higher. The rape scene at the beginning of the Thomas Covenant book was a pretty sterling example, though. Now, chances are I have left than half my life left, lots of books to read, and less time, so I’m pickier. Really bad dialogue will do it (paging Dan Brown!); an all-white, all-male cast will do it (too many to even mention names); a bad case of “tell, don’t show” will do it (Robert Jordan, I’m looking at you); excessive “rapiness” (G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Wildcards series); an excessively predictable plot may do it if there are no other saving graces like style and characterization (Dan Brown, it’s for you again!)
Another deal-breaker is harder to define, but it has to do with protagonists that act in stupid ways or against what you’ve come to understand as their characte, strictly in order to force the plot along past hurdles. The furthest I ever got in a series and been put off by this was Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series: great setting, lots of interesting characters, intriguing plot, even well-written adversaries, but by the middle of the third book I felt main characters were behaving in such plot-driven stupid ways, I couldn’t suspend disbelief anymore.