25 Reasons Why I Stopped Reading Your Book

I don’t read novels like I used to.

I want to, but can’t. That’s for a lot of reasons — for one, it’s time. I write a lot. I have a five-year-old. Life intrudes. My reading is also broader, now. Writing comics means I read more comics. I also do a lot of research and read non-fiction — more non-fic than fic, I think. The other thing, though, is that I know how the sausage is made. I know because I make it every day. My hands are unctuous with narrative pigfat. I find that as you do a thing more and more, you become more persnickety about that overall thing. Example: there’s a farm-to-table ice cream place not far from us, and the owner has very strong opinions about ice cream. Who gets it wrong, who gets it right, what techniques are best, or laziest, or who is sexier, BEN or JERRY. I don’t have those kinds of strong opinions about ice cream because fuck you, it’s ice cream. Bad ice cream is better than no ice cream. Shove it in my bone-cave. All of it. NOW PLEASE.

But! I have strong reactions to novels. Stronger than I used to. I’m like a stage magician where it’s harder to fool me with your magic because I know all the tricks. I can see the misdirection coming a mile away. That means I probably start and put down four novels for every one that I pick up and finish. I don’t throw those first four down in rage before urinating upon them. I just quietly set the book aside, say “This book is not for me,” and then I urinate on it. No rage at all. Only smug beneficence paired with my steaming asparagus pee!

Kidding, kidding. No pee.

But I thought, okay, it might be interesting to unpack a little bit why I pick up some books and then put them down after five, ten, thirty pages. This is true of manuscripts both published and unpublished. And it’s important to note here that none of what I’m about to say is gospel. Some of these books reached shelves. Many of these books do very well despite what I’m telling you here. Which is to say, the list of reasons I’m about to give are intensely personal to me and not in any way good guidelines to follow. Why even include them? First, because I want to unpack it for my own curiosity (and this blog is for me before it is for you), and second because maybe the conversation will trigger something in your thoughts about your own work, or it’ll inspire some interesting and spirited conversation in the comments below.

(I encourage you to use the comments to answer the question: what makes you put down a book?)

Let’s begin.

1. I just don’t want to read it. This isn’t a helpful comment by any stretch of the imagination but it’s vital I get it out there — sometimes, I pick up a book, I start a book, and it’s a puzzle piece whose nubbins and divots don’t line up with mine. Book’s not for me. I’m not for it. End of story.

2. I have no context. None. Zero. Crafting the first thirty or so pages of a book is itself a vital and elusive art. You are required to pack so much into so little while at the same time not overdoing it. But the greatest thing missing from too many books is context. Books that begin with characters just doing shit or saying shit or thinking shit are fine — but from the first page, I want context. I don’t need all the details, but I need some sense of what’s going on and why. I need to be rooted in the story fast as you can get me there. You can meander, but goddamnit, meander with purpose. I need to know why you’re writing it, why the character is here, and why I should give a hot cup of fuck in the first place. This isn’t easy to do! Writing those early pages is a combat landing in terms of narrative — you’ve got to pull us all the way from the atmosphere to the ground in a thousand words. It’s hard, but WE NEEDS THE CONTEXT, PRECIOUS. *gums a fish*

3. Another thing I need that you’re not giving me: stakes. This is tied into the context. But if I don’t know the stakes — what can be won, what can be lost, what’s on the table — then why am I reading? Why are we here? Where are my pants?

4. Too much action. Once again, this is tied a little into the context problem, but I really hate books where I start them and suddenly we’re thrown into BULLETS WHIZZING AND KARATE WHALES AND A THOUSAND CREAMY PASTRY NINJAS and it’s five pages of cool-ass katana action and yet I have no idea what’s happening. Every punch is clear as day, but the motivation behind the scene or sequence is invisible. Realize that the mechanisms for resolving conflict are not the same as the conflict. A fistfight is not a conflict. Why they’re punching the beefy fuck out of each other? That’s the conflict. Jealousy. Stolen property. Revenge. Whatever. Conflict is the reason behind the fight, not the fight itself.

5. The book is all surface. A story isn’t just one thing. It can’t just be what you see, what you read — it has innumerable added layers, all invisible but still keenly felt. Like, okay, consider a sports car. The fanciest fastest motherfucker you can think of. The love child of a Lamborghini and a SR-71 jet. That car isn’t a model. It’s more than its frame and its paint job. Some of the interior you can see: seats, dashboard, steering wheel. Some parts you can see only if you look hard: the engine under the hood, the dead guy in the trunk. (I know cars like that don’t have trunks you can use to store dead bodies, but just play pretend.) Other parts will never be seen by you: the engine’s deepest interior, or the endless human and machine hours put into designing the car and the engine and the experience of the car. The car is more than just its function, too. It has style. It has a vibe. Designers don’t just plunk down a seat thinking, WELL THE DRIVER NEEDS TO SIT. It’s that, but then it transcends function. It becomes, how do we want the driver to feel? How do we want him to look in his own head and to other drivers? The car has a theme, a mood, it has a message. Your story is like that — or, it should be. It can’t just be CHARACTERS SAY SHIT AND DO SHIT. That’s there, but it’s just the paint job. A story operating without deeper layers is a shallow narrative, and I ain’t got time for that.

6. The characters all sound the same.

7. The book starts off too, um, genre-shellacked. What I mean is, if it’s sci-fi, it’s loaded for bear with bewildering sciencey stuff, or if it’s fantasy it’s all funky names with magical apostrophes, or if it’s horror it’s more interested in soaking the pages in raw, red gore and horror tropes. Context is king, yet again. Character is everything. Root me in the character. Make me care. Then layer in the genre elements. It’s like a cake — it’s easy to make icing taste good, but too much of it is gross. (Don’t tell this to my son, who will vacuum the icing into his maw while discarding the cake part. The little barbarian.) The cake is the foundation. It’s what holds up the rest of the stuff. Cake is character, character is cake. Now I’m hungry. I want cake. Someone get me cake. YOU THERE IN THE THIRD ROW. CAKE ME. NOW.

8. Speaking of genre, I’ll put a book down if it feels too samey-samey. It’s not that you can’t do interesting things with well-wrought tropes, but usually, I can tell when you’ve performed the narrative equivalent of a Human Centipede — where you digest one kind of fiction and then excrete that fiction back out into the world. It’s like Taco Bell — you’re just renting it and returning it to the ecosystem without actually processing it. I’d rather you make the genre yours. I’d rather you read more broadly and bring outside influence to the work.

9. No voice at all. This is a personal preference, to be clear — some readers want an author who disappears into the background. I don’t. I want the author to emerge a little, like a shadow in the rain. Sometimes that means word choice or sentence construction or rhythm. Sometimes it’s in the themes that present themselves. The book isn’t ALL YOU, ALL THE TIME, but I still want to see your bloody fingerprints at the margins of the page. I’ll put it this way: Dan Brown’s work is, to me, about as cardboardy as it comes. No harm or foul, because hey, his books are whiz-bang successes. But then you look at someone like Stephen King, whose work always reads like Stephen King. His ease of storytelling doesn’t betray his voice. Daniel Jose Older’s work feels like Daniel Jose Older’s work. Victoria Schwab’s work feels like — drum roll please — Victoria Schwab’s work. (I like these authors because when I read their work, it’s not that I know what I’m in for, it’s that I know I’m in the company of a capable, confident storyteller. Some authors view this as a brand, but a brand is about a pre-existing set of chosen permutations — a brand is about comfort. I want voice. I want to trust in the story even as it brings me discomfort.)

10. Too much voice will kill my interest, too. Comes a point where you gotta get out of the way of your own story. (Again: Stephen King is amazing at this. His work feels like his work, but he’s also not tap-dancing in front of the tale — he sits very comfortably behind the curtain.) Your story isn’t a stunt. It isn’t a stage. You’re playing drums, not playing lead guitar.

11. I’m bored. I get bored easily, to be clear. In this day and age, I’ve got a lot of very dumb stuff competing for my attention and I fall prey to it too easily — it’s a lot easier to check Twitter than read a novel. People could read a book, or they could hunt Pokemon. At the same time, though, I don’t think it’s an unfair ask when I say it’s important a story be interesting. One of the most vital goals of a storyteller is to capture attention. It’s like trapping a fly in a cup. It is necessary to be able to — from the first sentence — snap your fingers and hypnotize me with the tale at hand. And that means being interesting. The question of what’s interesting, however, is a many-headed, snarly beast, but at the very least, look to how one tells a story in person. Think about how you would keep people’s attention. How would you spark their interest? How might you give them just enough to keep listening? Worry, danger, conflict, desire. Imagine telling a story in such a way that if you just quit in the middle of a sentence, you’d leave people hanging with a HOLY SHIT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT look on their dumbfounded faces. Write a book like that.

12 . The balance of mystery is off. Mystery is tricky. Every mystery is a question mark, and as I am all-too-fond of repeating, a question mark is shaped like a hook for a reason. It sticks in you and pulls you along. But too many question marks and you’re pulled into asplodey viscera like that guy from Hellraiser. We need mystery early on — little mysteries that tease us forward without overwhelming. Or one big mystery that will cast its void-like shadow over everything. We still need a rope to feel for in the dark, though — something we use to pull ourselves a long. Too many questions, too much mystery, and we feel lost. We have no rope, no anchor. We have only hooks and darkness. And also cake. What I mean is, I’m still hungry for cake, you bastards.

13. Not enough cake in your story.

13. Fine, here’s a real #13: JESUS GOD THIS BOOK IS SLOW. I don’t need every book to have thriller pacing, though I admit I do prefer a snappier, zippier narrative. But while I do not require your book to read like it’s duct-taped to the back of a cheetah fixed with some manner of rectal rocket, I do want to feel like we’re getting somewhere in a way that respects the story and respects the time of the reader. Some books I read I feel like that stormtrooper on Tatooine — “Move along, old man in a landspeeder. Go on, just go, c’mon. Vertical pedal on the right, Grandpa Kenobi, chop-chop.” A story is liquid. A story moves. It doesn’t need to be a raging rapids, but don’t let it be a stagnant puddle. That’s how you get mosquitoes.

14. The story is too busy, too early. Cleave to simplicity. Simple goals are better than complicated ones. You can build up to bigger conflicts, but at the fore, think conflicts that are primal, that are easily parsed by the largest number of us. A lost child. Revenge for a death. Grieving over someone gone. Broken love. Simple, forthright things will grab us and root us. Common, fundamental problems are key — then you can spin them in whatever way fits the story (A DRAGON WANTS REVENGE ON A LIVING STARSHIP BECAUSE IT KILLED HIS ROBOT LOVER). Start small. Begin simple. Complexity comes later.

15. Also, this is true with language, too. If your book’s language is muddy or bombastic, I’ll check right out. Aim for clarity above any kind of GRAND MAJESTY OF THE HUMAN TONGUE. You’re not trying to impress us with frippery. Writing is a mechanism. It is a means to an end. Writing conveys more than itself. Writing is a conveyance for story, for idea, for character, for theme, for vision. Seek substance over style. Pursue precision in language over a noisy parade of words.

16. The character has done something I hate. And this is a weird thing, because it’s not a character’s job to be likable or to perform actions perfectly in line with my own morality, but if by page five I find out he’s a puppy-kicking baby-shitting rapist, I’m done. Sorry. Maybe this is a tale of his redemption or maybe you just want me to empathize with this horrible person, and that’s fair. I’m just not going to do it. I don’t need characters to be likable. I do, however, need them to be livable — meaning, I need to find some reason to want to live with that individual for 300+ pages. Some things are dealbreakers, though, and a character who is too vile or somehow unredeemable by my own metric… then I just can’t stay in the story.

17. Whoa, way too heavy a hand with the worldbuilding, pal. Ease back on the infinite details, okay? The worldbuilding should serve the story. The story is not just a vehicle for worldbuilding. I want to eat a meal, not stare at the plate. The plate can be lovely! You can work very hard on the plate. But not, I’m afraid, at the cost of the food that sits upon it.

18. Similar to the above? Your book has way, way too much exposition. Exposition is not the devil. We like exposition… ennnh, within reason. I like to treat exposition as if it’s a dirty necessity. It is an unpleasant act that must be fulfilled — it is, in a way, like air travel. Nobody likes air travel. These days, air travel is basically just SKY BUS, full of as many dubious weirdos, like that guy who keeps taking off his shoes, or that other guy who sweats hoagie oil, or those people who were somehow allowed to bring on a Tupperware tub of warm sauerkraut. But if you wanna get to that place you wanna go: you hop on the plane and you get it over with. Exposition is an act that is best served by figuring out how little of it you can get away with while still serving and continuing the tale. Get in. Get out. Get it over with.

19. OH MY GOD I AM BEING CRUSHED BY THESE WALLS OF TEXT. Stories are beholden to rhythm. Short sentences, long sentences, diverse paragraphs, mixed-up word choice. But if I open a book and it’s just one epic paragraph after another, after another, after another, my eyes start to become tired. I pee myself and pass out. It’s not a good scene.

20. I’m confused. No idea what’s happening. Have to keep backtracking to find out.

21. I gain no sense of why now? Every story you write should begin with that essential question: why is this story happening now? If we are to assume that a story is a break in the status quo — and to my mind, stories are exactly that — then the timing of the story is vital. What precipitated the narrative? What events inside the story make it necessary, and necessary at this moment? Did someone just steal the Death Star plans? Is this a Christmas party set in a building just as German terrorist-thieves are about to initiate an, erm, hostile takeover? Has there been a wedding? A funeral? A discovery? An attack? HAS THERE BEEN AN AWAKENING AND HAVE YOU FELT IT? Some stories lack an answer to that question, why now, and I can feel it. It undercuts the urgency of the tale. And urgency is everything. Creating urgency makes the story feel vital and it keeps people reading. (Lending the narrative that urgency is a lesson unto itself, of course.)

22. Not enough sodomy. Okay, just seeing if you’re still reading. But seriously: cake and sodomy.

22. Okay, real #22 — the plot exists outside the characters. They do not control it. They do not contribute to it. Nobody is directing it but you, the Overarching God-Author. You’re like a railroading DM who has the adventure set one way and any time the party wants to try something different (“We’d like to make friends with the Demogorgon!”) you short-circuit and punch the plot to do what you want it to do, not what feels natural to the characters, their motivations, and their actions. Plot should be internal, growing into the narrative like coral, like bones, but yours is external: it’s all exoskeleton, all scaffolding.

23. The plot exists only because of stupid, wrong people and their very bad, very stinky decisions. I’m not saying characters cannot and should not make mistakes. Characters needn’t — and shouldn’t — be perfect. But if the plot only exists because they’re jerky dumdums who just make jerky dumdum decisions, then ennnnyyeaaaah not for me. I prefer you treat your characters as if they’re all intelligent with respect to their own worlds. That doesn’t mean high-IQ. It doesn’t mean a plumber knows how to build a fucking teleporter. It just means within respect to their own life and experience they have some smarts going on.

24. Your characters aren’t acting like people. They’re acting like plot devices. This is related to #22 and #23, but what I mean is, you can feel how they’re acting against logic and their own emotional intelligence to further plot points. They keep secrets when keeping secrets is neither prudent nor interesting — it’s just that the secret is what keeps the plot alive. They lie when it makes no sense to lie. They perform actions like the victims in the horror movie, just stumbling into danger because they need to die to chain to the next scene in the sequence of events.

25. Everything is just a series of scenes. Scenes need to connect. They are bound by a throughline. But yours just feel like disconnected bits — vignettes and moments and setpieces that have been placed next to each other but given no connection. They are rooms without doors or windows.

* * *


“Think Thomas Harris’ Will Graham and Clarice Starling rolled into one and pitched on the knife’s edge of a scenario that makes Jurassic Park look like a carnival ride. Another rip-roaring, deeply paranoid thriller about the reasons to fear the future.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Out 8/16. Preorder now:




213 responses to “25 Reasons Why I Stopped Reading Your Book”

  1. What makes me put down a book…your number 2 is my Number 1. Context. If I have no context, I have no life. Also, underdeveloped, or over development of characters. It’s like too much sauce and not enough cheese on a great pizza.

  2. I like this list–#16, as others have said, does it for me too. And as one comment noted, Thomas Covenant. Yep. Had a friend (a guy) who was all “this is the BEST series EVER!!” He did warn me about the rape, but even with the warning, once I got to it, I was like NOPE!!

    There aren’t many books I haven’t finished. One vampire series from the early 90s (I think). I got to a horrific rape/murder scene (it was the bad guy) and I just couldn’t keep going. That was the first book (serious) I had never finished, and I was about, oh, 24.

    And grammar/style. I know, I know, great writing isn’t 100% correct. But if I wince at least once a page because something is either 1. wrong or 2. just ugly then I can’t. I’ve finished books like that for the story, but I’m not sure I’ll be buying more.

    And, finally, I read a whole lot of NF too. I’ve read a lot of celebrity stuff lately. John Cleese, Felicia Day, Jen Kirkman, The Blogess, Allie Brosh, Angelica Houston, etc. Houston’s books are awesome, esp. the first one, because it is ridiculous. “I was raised in a castle in Ireland…” I mean it is like reading a fantasy novel–so over the top!

    So, what NF do you read?

  3. I’d love to hear any suggestions for books that handle #3 (stakes) particularly well. That one seems really tricky to me, since it usually involves a much larger scope that the focus of one scene. How do you indicate “what can be won, what can be lost, what’s on the table” in the first few pages without falling afoul of one (or more) of the other issues?

    • It’s pretty bold to critique the post and follow it up with a link to your website with so many nav links you have to scroll to real content. #GlassHouse and all that.

    • Er…maybe that’s not the /best/ way to promote your work. (Also, coming from a social media manager here, that’s not how you hashtag. No one’s gonna search that hashtag. Maybe just go with #mousehouseyears or something similar?)

  4. Too, too much flogging and sodomy in the Outlander turned me off. And yet, her sales . . . her television series . . . clearly, I know nothing. I, too, want cake.

  5. Weird names. Not fantasy or sci-fi weird, just weird. I love JAWS and I love tentacles, so I was psyched to read Peter Benchley’s BEAST, but I only made one chapter before we meet the hero—Whip Darling! I can’t spend 300 pages with this name. It was all I could do to follow Ig through Joe Hill’s HORNS. Oh, and prologues.

    • This is one of my big ones. I can give a pass on nicknames most of the time, but if I struggle to come up with even a barely logical reason some parent would sit down and actually name their child Rhage, I’m gonna give it a miss. I mostly come across this when authors want the character to seem dark and mysterious, but their names just make me cringe and/or laugh at them.

  6. Good points all and I agree with every one..except for one thing…too much, too long. At #15, I found myself asking, “How many of these things are there?” and scrolling to the end to see. Nevertheless, I dogged it through to #25 because I had to know how it ended. You didn’t mention misspelled words, bad grammar, or misuse of homonyms…or would that go undef #19? I also enjoyed the continuous demand for cake.

      • I used to think so too until the day I found him infesting my ventilation system. I asked him what he was doing in there and he said he was promoting his new book, Invasive. I inquired as to how that involved my vents and he started chewing through the wiring. That was three weeks ago. I think it’s fair to say I have been thoroughly advertised to. I think the midnight screeching is what really won me over.

  7. #23 made me reflect on the guy who I’ve always felt made it a point to avert this trope hard: Donald Westlake. Dortmunder may have been a sad sack with horrible luck, but he was no fool. There are plenty of scenes in his books where he seems to set up a clichéd plot contrivance, only to reveal that the characters are nowhere near stupid enough to go there. Then it struck me that none of these 25 sins had ever been committed in any Westlake/Stark book I’ve ever read. Then I concluded that Donald Westlake was one of the finest writers America has so far produced. Then I decided I need to read some Westlake.

    I really like Donald Westlake, is what I’m saying.

  8. Predictability is a big problem for me – if too much is too obviously telegraphed, I’m gone. I figured that was one of the unavoidable and unfortunate side-effects of becoming a writer – knowing how it’s done, if it’s too easy for me to see where things are going, I lose interest. I’ve used a magic trick analogy before trying to timidly explain myself.

    More surprising, it’s grown harder over time to make room for new fictional worlds in my imagination – a fresh offering has to prove somewhat quickly that it’s worthy of carving out brain space. The more I develop fictional worlds in my writing, the harder it is for new outside ones to take hold. I can easily read and enjoy a new story in an older setting, some Dune thing, or Star Wars novel, for example – those worlds are already “established”. A new setting needs to pique my curiosity in order for me to build it up in my mind.

    Someone said cake, I defintely heard that.

  9. If I pick up a book and it has a great sounding premise and I start to read it and chapter one is fine then I go onto chapter two and it’s dual point-of-view, I lose it. I will put it down and never pick it up again. I DNF books with flat characters too. I get lost in gorgeous descriptions but I’m with you in fantasy with all those weird names with no vowels. I prefer action at the beginning. Being dropped into the story where the main character is running from bad guys/zombies/werewolves/vampires keeps me reading. A long, boring exposition about contemplating your navel does nothing for me. Great list!

    • Well, enjoyed your article, chances are I’m going to read your book.
      Check out John D. MacDonald. Hugely influenced Stephen King. My go to author. His Travis McGee series, written in the early ’60’s to 1986, best thing ever.
      First page in A Deadly Shade of Gold, 1974.
      A smear of fresh blood has a metallic smell. It smells like freshly sheared copper. It is a clean and impersonal smell, quite astonishing the first time you smell it. It changes quickly to a fetid, fudgier smell as the cells die and thicken.
      When it is the blood of a stranger, there is an atavistic withdrawal, the toughening of response, a wary reluctance for any involvement. When it is your own, you want to know how bad it is. You turn into a big inward ear, listening to yourself, waiting for faintness, wondering if this is going to be the time when the faintness comes and turns into a hollow roaring and sucks you down. Please not yet. Those are the three eternal words. Please not yet. When it is the blood of a friend…. When maybe he said, please not yet… But it took him and he went on down….
      It was a superb season for girls on the Lauderdale Beaches. There are good years and bad years. This, we all agreed, was a vintage year. They were blooming on all sides, like a garden out of control. It was a special type this year, particularly willowy ones, with sun-streaky hair, soft little sun – brown noses, lazed eyes in the cool pastel shades of green and blue, cat-yawny ones, affecting a boredom belied by glints of interest and amusement, smilers rather than gigglers, with a tendency to run in little flocks of three and four and five. They sparkled on our beaches this year like grunions, a lithe and wayward crop that in too sad and too short a time would be striving for Whiter Washes, Scuff-Pruf Floors, and Throw-Away Nursing Bottles.

  10. Am having a bit of a giggle about the cake and sodomy part, but these are all fair reasons to put a book down. I noticed it once I started to take writing seriously, the way I read changed, so this was pretty interesting to read. I looked at story telling in any media differently too, especially tv. The writers are constantly discovering and developing the characters but they’re constrained by what’s already released.
    Have learned to keep opinions on books to myself anyway, no one else notices that a best selling author used the word “puce” about eight times to describe something red and rave about how well written the book is.

  11. I’m not sure if this is good or bad….I’ve never not finished a book I’ve picked up. I read the synopsis and then if that grabs me the first page. If i feel compelled to turn to page 2 i might just buy the book. If that first page fails to engage me by either selling me the point of the book, or by the writer talking to me i will put it down……maybe I’m too picky…….

  12. Poor research. I don’t expect writers to be experts on everything, but less than five minutes will let you know that the Etruscans were not Gaia worshipping proto-Greeks, but were polytheistic pre-Romans. (Yes, I encountered that exact mistake in a book. I immediately threw it down. It’s quite likely that only its status as a library book saved it from a stream of urine.)

    • Pooh, I’m with you. John Grisham drives me nuts with this. There is a scene at the courthouse in Flagstaff, Arizona and it is clear that not only has he never seen it or looked it up online, he describes the weather as 110 degrees– a temperature which has never ever been recorded in this mountain town. I’ve read an interview where he said he doesn’t bother with details. Ugh.

      • I semi recently discovered in a road trip, back in February, that it does in fact snow in Arizona. Car iced shut during an ice storm. In Flagstaff. This soul crushing discovery about the South West made it into a story I’m working on.

    • Research is so key and so often neglected. Unfortunately, authors can usually get away with it because most readers won’t recognize research mistakes.

    • It’s not neccessarily a DNF for me when authors do this, but it’s a pet peeve of mine when they write certain zoological things incorrectly. Like conflating venom with poison. Or not /quite/ getting horse terms right (especially when it comes to tack).

      • There’s a difference between venom and poison? (Googles quick explanation…delivery mechanisms differ.) Ah…so venom could be swallowed and be mostly harmless. Good to note if you are going to try and murder someone–fictionally of course.

  13. Related to #16, if a character does something completely incongruous with their personality as explained so far, I’m out. This happened early in the “Wheel of Time” series for me. Your character needs to be realistic. Lapses completely take me out of the world and I simply have to move on.

  14. Can’t stomach books that read like fleshed out collegiate outlines. As if the author found a template online entitled “how to write a novel” and just filled it in.(“first story arc…second story arc…blah, blah, blah) This is mostly true with serial authors. First book is fine, the next five are pretty much the same with a slightly different conflict. Like reading a math equation.

  15. “Kidding, kidding. No pee.”

    Back in the days before electronic submissions, when we wrote manuscripts on actual paper and hanging out at the mailbox waiting for the mailman was a daily activity, I once had a manuscript returned with a large yellow stain on the top pages.

    I remember thinking, “Oh God, please let it be the editor spilled a glass of lemonade.”

  16. #17. I’ve got to the stage where if a review says something along the lines of “every word is finely crafted and a jewel of the authors sweated blood …” I just don’t bother – it’s going to be hard work. I, too, want the cake, not the bloody plate.

  17. Intelligent and entertainingly written but my, my! What a loooooooooooooong list. It’s amazing you enjoy even one out of five novels (are you sure that ratio isn’t significantly inflated to mask the depths of your literary misanthropy?)

  18. I virtually never stop reading a book because I’m a meticulous screener–unless I’m fully sold, I won’t pick it up in the first place.

    About the only condition is if I not only don’t like it, but it’s also really long and slow-paced and feels endless. Gone with the Wind, basically.

  19. How do you even have time to read all these comments if you’re a writer? OMG! If I had a following this large on a post like this, (not that I would ever write something as discerning and incredibly entertaining as this post that would generate a following such as this) but, I wouldn’t know where to start or end.
    I give you five book kudos for the post. Those are like stars only better.
    Shall share this on my social media … in the hopes that you will have more posts to have to read through before the days end.

  20. Primary reason I stop reading a book: Description with no story/plot purpose. There are some fabulous authors out there who instinctively understand that we don’t need to know about the tree unless someone’s hiding in it. They don’t give you one detail about the setting/story environment that doesn’t drive story, whether it’s a tea kettle that whistles and reveals to the burglar that someone is home and hiding in the closet or a long street a victim has to run down to get away. I just don’t give a rat’s anything about cosmetic environment in a story if it doesn’t DRIVE the story. If we’re on a beach, please let a tsunami hit or Jaws be in the water or a cut from a seashell turn gangrenous. If you’re describing the house, hopefully it’s because it helps me understand someone’s wealth or poverty or life situation. Don’t tell me a guy is tall unless I will later see him in a situation where his height will matter. And tell me he’s wearing shorts because it helps define what a free spirit he is when you later reveal he showed up for court that way. Otherwise, stuff the shorts. Etc. ETC. It doesn’t mean every hotdog stand has to be part of the spy plot. A bunch of hotdog stands may just be there to emphasize I’m in a big city and I’m only eight, and my parents abandoned me on a visit they told me was a family vacation.

    I’m not just being a stickler. I find that story-driven description is more exciting and fine-tuned because the author knows it will be needed later. Description for description’s sake, as in, “Come look at my world,” tends to drone on because, duh, it’s not telling story. It has room to drone on.

    Great topic, Chuck.

    P.S. I read less too, these days. Various versions of media have shortened my attention span. Others are just fantastic competition for novels. And, in my Day Job, I read A LOT. And I’m talking arcane stuff. Your book has to be fab for me to finish it. Otherwise, I’m back at work. I like my job, but I also like to keep it there. I don’t want it on my living room couch with me while I’m reading. (In this Information/Technology Age, most of us read far more on our jobs than we used to. A book is just more WORDS in our faces. Has to be worth the eye time.)

    • Excellent point. Many fiction writers seem unaware that writing is a discipline. Only include in your story (or nonfiction prose) what needs to be there. Describe to reveal character, set a mood, or foreshadow something. James Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners does this. In Dubliners, Joyce tells universal truths using his hometown and its people. He adds just enough detail to set a mood and flesh out character, while not getting lost in his own descriptions. And in each story is an epiphany. Why can’t more writers do this?

  21. 1 reason why I stopped reading your post . . . Your first reason wasn’t a reason, just “I don’t like it’.

    • That’s a reason, and it’s the most important one here to understand — many of these points are, in fact, just opinions of mine and not gospel bedrock truths. Sometimes I put down a book because it isn’t clicking with me, and that’s an important consideration (for me, not for the author).

  22. I really enjoyed this blog. Having worked as an editor and worked with writers I do know how hard it is to write and write well. But I haven’t read a novel in quite awhile. I think the last one I read was Game of Thrones, I finished book 3 before I realized that the characters had no motivation, behaved oddly and erratically so you could never figure out who they were as people, the plot was so convoluted and over worked that it was impossible to follow it or even care anymore why the author bothered to write it in the first place. Anyway, that left a bad taste in my mouth for fiction. I guess I prefer more cake and less frosting.

  23. More than anything else typos or poorly constructed sentences that make me reread too many times on a page. Second is that I’m just not interested in the topic, it’s not exciting enough, or too much action, or I hate the character. You pretty much covered most of my reasons. I was just telling someone earlier today that writing has ruined reading for me. I find it very difficult to find a good piece of fiction to read any more.

  24. “…They keep secrets when keeping secrets is neither prudent nor interesting — it’s just that the secret is what keeps the plot alive…” O gawd yes, how annoying. The secret keeper is almost always noble and well meaning, but geez, tell somebody already! (Helloooo “Scarlet Feather.”).

    • Yes, this is annoying as hell. I notice it more on TV then I do in books but when the whole plot revolves around “I must keep this secret or else no one will like me.” I want to scream. Most of the time the secret isn’t all that life shattering even if the character (or author) thinks it is.

  25. All good reasons to not get hooked on a novel (or any kind of reading). I’ll give it 50 pages if the writing is good(ish) but find I’m less and less tolerant of poor writing. Language is a gift. Words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs should conjure up images, flow like a stream, like a river, like a comet in orbit. Cadence. Rhythm. Pull me along.

    Amazon’s feature of Look Inside has saved me a lot of money… an awful lot of published work just clunks along, no imagination, stilted dialogue – seriously, you’d think some writers have never eavesdropped on actual people taking.

    [going off in search of cake]

  26. Stereotypes. Whether it’s the black gangsta or blond-blue-eyed racist it’s just so cliched. And nobody’s perfect. We all have flaws and regrets, but that doesn’t make us evil people. We stray, we steal – we do things that make us human.

  27. Character names that are too similar in letters and spelling. I had a book I read once that must have broken out every arrangement of ‘e’ ‘x’ ‘y’ ‘u’ and ‘l’ for character names and I was hopelessly confused as to who what who by the third chapter.

  28. The best readers are the ones who work to see what the writer is getting at. The passive “entertain me” type should stick to television.

  29. I rarely don’t finish a book, however, I am noticing it more and more. I’m a writer as well and have noticed I have become way pickier than I used to be. What usually turns me off to a book is a trite plot and characters. I’m a giant stickler to having interesting characters and if everyone sounds and acts the same or are just tropes without a hint of a spin on that trope, I call it a day. Another thing when I’m reading historical fiction is when characters sound too modern. I’m not a purist by any stretch since before recording who’s to say how everyone spoke? But I don’t like it when characters speak in the sentence style most modern humans speak. It’s hard to describe other than I know it when I see it.

    I think what happens with a lot of the items you mentioned on the list is it is writers who have listened too hard to giant pile of advice of how to hook a reader. The type of advice that comes down from editors and agents because it’s what supposedly what readers want and because it’s what has been passed down from generation to generation. It’s the same advice we read about on any number of websites and magazines. The same advice spouted in writers groups. One of my biggest issues is there is so much emphasis placed on that first chapter or first 50 pages that you can sometimes tell after that point less effort was placed into the rest of the novel.

  30. Someone who nails the voice thing for me and makes me enjoy every sentence as its own thing is Scott Lynch. I still love Orwellian prose, and that’s how I write, but it’s fun to read people who have that extra zing.

  31. I’m curious: what about classic? Do you cut them some slack, or do the same rules apply? I’m currently trying to read classics to up my writing game, and a lot of them are just obligation reads, as in I don’t really enjoy them. (I’m working through The Guardian’s 100 best novels list and a science fiction classics list of about 190 books, because that’s my chosen genre.) I feel like I should do my homework, even if it’s only so I can be part of the conversation. On the other hand, I have a huge pile of amazing books I’d love to read and would probably inspire me a lot more that the ones I’m reading. I do have one “fun” book in rotation at all times so I my head doesn’t explode, but sometimes I wonder if the classics are worth the trouble. (Right now I’m reading Proust’s Sodom and Gomorra. Nothing much happens, the paragraphs are super long, and boy, is it slooow. Beautiful description, though. I also started Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. The opening is pretty much gibberish.I hope it gets better soon.)

    Is it bad to read books somebody has decided are classics? Does everybody read the same books and there write the same kind of stuff? Should I just read the weird, offbeat stuff that I love?

    • It kinda depends why you wanna read the classics. If you’re trying to learn what makes them so, yes, persist. If you’re reading them for a level of entertainment or because someone canonized them — you’re not obligated, is what I’m saying.

      • Yep, trying to pick them apart to see what makes them tick. And I do think I’ve learned something from each one I finish, like the use of rhetorical devices from Ulysses. (By the way, is the name Miriam Black from that?)
        Maybe enjoying the book is a bonus? And they’re not all painful… It’s great when an obligation book turns into a fun book.

  32. 6. Characters all sounding the same was why I could never finish a John Green book.
    7-8. Yeah, I like books that have a new take on their genre, or the genre is mostly just background to the book.
    9. I actually can’t read two books by the same author because if I’m reading a book that has a really similar tone to a book that I love, I just really miss that book and want to go back and read it instead of the one I’m reading now. It’s definitely a personal preference.

  33. But to give context (#2) and to avoid random linked scenes (#25), and to provide stakes (#3), you sometimes need exposition (#18). I’ve been rewriting my first chapter for a long time and am trying to provide context in the first few (5) pages to set up a scene. Right now those first pages are exposition/backstory, but they are very directed. Not sure if that’s a bad idea.

  34. I printed this post out and will file it carefully for the future. I must craft my riveting saga of Karate Whales extracting revenge upon the cult of 1000 Pastry Cream Ninjas for kidnapping of a cake-obsessed sodomite writer. Their blubbery, bloody fingerprints were all over it. The Whales were hooked by this case from the first, and vowed that their revenge would make the Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves a pretty summer stroll. Cream would be shed, make no mistake.

    I loved this post, especially the first one. “Meh,” would also have been acceptable. It’s the reason I use most often.

  35. 15, see both Kingsley and Martin Amis, off-putting in the extreme.
    For me….. well let me give you my worst experience with character. I had to stop reading American Pastoral because I simply could not give a flying f@#k about the characters, none of them. I think i only kept reading for as long as I did in the hope that they would all expire terribly. But when all said and done when your mind starts wandering and asking you why you’re reading this awful trash, rather than becoming immersed in the story, it’s time…..

    • Many thanks that someone has finally used the ‘B’ word, cause that’s exactly what this breakdown was. Bloody brilliant!

  36. Trying to put too much of what you know into a scene; interesting to you, but maybe boring to the reader. Not everyone is crazy about automobiles and needs two pages to read about a character’s shiny, souped-up vehicle.

  37. I am suspicious of number #22, but cake. Yes, cake. What were we talking about?

    I have much the same reactions in my reading. Time is short. I write, I work, and I read. Voice is a big thing for me. That can elevate a story to next level. Character follows voice. A great plot will not compensate for characters nobody gives a shit about. If I don’t care what happens to a protagonist, I will stop reading.

    Sloppy or lazy writing is a turn off. It grates on me like nails on the chalkboard. I can tell when I am being lazy, and I can really tell when someone else is doing it.

    Good stuff, this. I wish more readers would post blogs like this. It is helpful as without readers, there would be no point to a writer and one day I’d like to have a point.

  38. Writers who mix up the Mongols with the Manchus; writers who set their characters in a fetish club but it seems more like a house of domination, etc. Research, research, research.

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