Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What Makes You Put Books Down?

Yesterday I discussed my resolution to stop reading bad books midway if they don't improve, breaking my lifelong habit of finishing everything. It was wasting my time, keeping me from works I enjoyed, and maybe even making me some enemies. This leaves me with two questions for you, exalted audience:

1. Do you abandon books?

2. If so, how do you decide what to ditch?

Do you look for particular qualities in your Science Non-Fiction, your Horror, your Paranormal Gothic Romances or whatnot? I've noticed the most people ditching books for having too many typos early on. Sloppy writing, sluggish pacing, and generally being boring are other common complaints, but I don’t know if these are reliable, and they worry me for my genre.

Yesterday I mentioned how I find the first hundred pages of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones to be the dullest in the series. Excluding the prologue, they are a static period that introduces character upon character, where the biggest actions are riding and eating, and where most everyone stands around being discontented in some way until I just wanted to punch them. The book only hits its stride a few hundred pages later, where it becomes one of the best works of contemporary Fantasy I've yet read.

If I ditched all books because the openings were unappealing, I’d have missed out on some great late nights under the lamp. Right now I'm tearing through N.K. Jemisin's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and I can't properly express how much better the second hundred pages are than the first. Once the double-soul stuff comes up? Yeine becomes much more interesting, as do the gods around her.

This concern for A Game of Thrones and Hundred Thousand Kingdoms extends to all Speculative Fiction. I really couldn't have figured that either book would improve as drastically as it did from what was laid out early on; their early periods are handled like typical setup periods. In all the contemporary SpecFic I’ve read since graduating college, fewer than ten novels hit the ground running. You know the typical start, don't you? Tell me if this sounds familiar:

The prologue doesn’t plug into the first chapter. World-building is overwhelmingly described more than it is depicted, you're told about characters rather than watching them behave, and there are inevitable hefty tumors of dialogue between people we don’t care about yet. We're supposed to care when authors set up conflicts, but because we're not really into the narrative yet, it feels more like consuming a documentary than an action flick. Exposition rules this zone, and unless that exposition is cleverly written or about something highly unusual for the genre (think Terry Pratchett, or Weiss & Hickman), it’s a chore to read.

You all know this stuff. This is the rite of passage into The Good Parts. Secondary World fiction particularly need you to set up the stage; once it’s set, the characters will (God willing) do cool stuff. And usually they do! While only ten books may have hit the ground running, many more turned out well.

Until I had this resolution, I unthinkingly put up with weak openings while simultaneously nodding at an industry that ranted about pacing and exposition. It’s either hypocrisy or paradox. I’m not sure which.

But this leaves me with the big question: what do you look for in your openings? Are you good at spying out which books will pan out well? What are your reliable indicators?


  1. I'm likely to abandon a book if I don't care about what's happening to the characters, or what is likely to happen to them. I'll accept a lot of failures in a book if I'm invested in following the people. I stopped reading The Handmaid's Tale for that reason. I found that I didn't really care about the fate of the people involved.

    Of course, even if I start out caring about the people, if NOTHING seems to be happening to them, that's a kiss of death, too. They go here, they go there, they do this, they do that, but if there is no progression toward some goal? If there is nothing that is changing them, or has the potential to change them? Forget it. Drifting is not interesting to me.

  2. I put books aside constantly, even really good ones, because there are more I want to read than I will ever have time for. And it's a bad habit. In the end it wastes time because when I do get back to the book I often have to backtrack to refresh my memory. If I stick with one book until the end without going to another it's because I love it so much I can't tear myself away, and it may also be because I want to write about it.

    I abandon books if they are poorly written or if the author is making choices that I just don't have a taste for. And I don't feel guilty about that at all. Life is too short.

    A reliable indicator of how a book will pan out is to read the last page or even the last few pages. I do this with novels. If the novel comes with a preface I read that too. "Spoilers" don't bother me at all. I like to read the last page and then the first page, then put the book down and wonder how the author got from there to there. I might then flip through the book and just read a few sentences at random, to see if I like the flavor of the language. As you point out, openings alone are not enough of an indication of the value of a book.

  3. Poor writing, slow openings, and no connection to the characters are the main reasons I will put a book down. I will keep reading (despite these issues) IF the book has been highly recommended and I want to see what all the fuss is about (THE HUNGER GAMES- I hated the first half of book 1 and never would have finished if the movies weren't coming out. Probably the same as you felt about GAME OF THRONES), if I was really drawn into the plot based on the blurb and I want to see what happens, or if it's for my book club and I have no choice. :)

    I'm a fairly forgiving reader when it comes to writing styles, but I want a good voice and I want to be entertained. I don't watch a lot of television or movies and when I sit down to read a book I want to be engrossed in that world not bored to tears. I do take into account what genre the book is. We read a lot literary works for book club and I've read fantasy and steampunk based on recommendations from friends and I am willing to give it a little time to develop, but I can usually tell if a book isn't for me and that's when I put it down. Mostly, it's just subjective, like a movie or a song or anything else. If it doesn't suit my taste (well written or not), it doesn't suit my taste.

    Personally, I don't have the patience for sci-fi, fantasy, steampunk, dystopian, etc. For me, the pay off isn't worth the upfront investment. My time is limited and the genres don't speak to me enough to put forth the effort. That being said, one of my favorite books last year (INCARNATE by Jodi Meadows) had strong fantasy and utopian elements, which I normally hate, but the characters and the writing were so engaging that I didn't notice the world building. The same with another book I just read, A SLIVER OF SHADOW by Allison Pang. Most of the book takes place in the feary kingdom (which is so NOT my thing), but it was the second book in the series and I love her characters and writing so I didn't mind that it didn't take place in the modern world.

  4. Odd you should mention the two books I couldn't finish. I haven't given up on game of thrones, but Hundred Thousand Kingdoms bored me. If it gets better, I will give it another shot.

    I stop reading a book when it bores me, when I don't care about the characters, and when I can tell it blatantly ripped off some other book. That last thing doesn't happen too often.

    Though, yeah, bad formatting and typos turn me off too. It's why I can't read the arcs from netgalley on the kindle. The formatting is terrible. Just terrible. It's like paragraphs and lines have no meaning. I have to read them on the computer.

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  6. I don't give up on a book if it is boring or hard to read or if the pacing is off. I abandon it when I find that, halfway through, I still wouldn't care if a meteor hit the entire cast.
    On that note: It took me two years to finish Les Misérables. It was horrible. It was so long and so detailed and the language seemed to fold in on itself in an eternity of embedded sentences. Never before have I tried turning a page and just staring in resigned terror at the wall of text in front of me. It never stopped being hard, but I never forgot it either. I had long months of just staring at it resentfully, allowing dust to gather on the cover, but always picking it up again. When I finally read the final word on the final page, I was laughing and crying all at once. To this day it remains one of the best novels I have ever read.
    So. The opposite of love is not hate. It's indifference. If you hate a book, there is still something in there to take with you.

    1. I had that exact same experience with Les Mis. I've often thought of reading it again, but the never-ending walls of text are what keep me at bay, even though I loved it somehow.

  7. Just last night I put down a fantasy book because the dialogue was stilted. Some girl is getting the snot beat out of her by her father, yet they still talk as if they were being presented at court.

    Another thing that I really get annoyed with are the "As you know Bob" moments which the afore mentioned novel that I put down had plenty of. "We're escaping from this city, but you need to keep a low profile because as you know the tensions between us and our neighbors is very high." Or something like that.

    Typos don't really bother me unless they are all over the place and distract me.

    As for Les Miserables, Nat, I had the EXACT same reaction. That last page can still bring to tears just even thinking about it. And when I first read it, it took me about half an hour to gather myself and get my eyes clear enough to read the final words. When he starts going on about the candle sticks and bishop...oh crap I'm tearing up...anyways beautiful.

  8. I really hate to give up on a book. If I get to 100 pages and I'm lost/bored, sometimes I'll "skim" the next 100 pages and see if it picks up a bit. This has salvaged quite a few books that began with a longish back story or dull beginning and put me off initially.

  9. I used to push through books and I can't remember one instance when a book turned out better by the end. Which makes the guilt I feel about putting books aside all the more illogical. I have noticed that I've been giving speculative fiction about 200-250 pages to get going, instead of my usual 100.

    I do try to quantify why I'm giving up on a book. Most often, it's because I don't care about the characters. If I don't care about the characters, any other flaw in the plotting or world building is the end of the line. Occasionally, it's due to the style of writing.

  10. good openings doesn't necessary you'll like the book. I usually check out the opening and if I like it, I would read that book. boredom is one reason I stop reading a book. but I think it's a matter of taste. I'm sure there are books that people rave about but I don't like.

  11. I invariably read the prologue if there is one. Then the next two or three chapters. Then about half of the final chapter. Somewhere in there my attention needs to be engaged. Essentially as one of the earlier commentators said: I need to care about what happens to the characters.
    Novels in particular with two many characters with similar names may get the flick because I can't keep them straight.

  12. I won't put a book down if it is boring. I usually can find something about the prose or story to analyze / learn from. However, I will put a book down if the style of writing bothers me / doesn't agree with me. There are some writers whose styles I am incompatible with, even if the stories and content is something I'd ordinarily enjoy.

  13. I don't generally drop a book until after the first 100 pages unless the flaws in the story are really egregious. My insta-drop trigger is if the author makes it clear s/he is racist or sexist. For instance, if the female characters are being treated (by the story, not one or two characters) in a way that makes me wince, bye. If the author has made it clear this woman was assaulted and abused and she's wary around men, and then she meets this hot guy who basically grabs her and they have sex AND SHE'S FINE during and after... no, bye. Same with the author who is supposedly writing from the POV of a Chinese man in a book set in the future... and he's calling his white employer a "white devil" with no trace of irony or anything. If your character of color is such a stereotype that I notice? Bye.

    1. This is such an interesting conversation, John! Agreeing with some of the above comments, I'm mostly a character person myself. If I can't care about a character in a book, I find it hard to care about the story he/she is part of. Occasionally an author's writing will keep me reading, even if the characters don't capture me, but style alone doesn't give me any big issues to wrestle with, which bothers me. Of course, were I a writer myself (knowing about such matters as dangling prepositions), the way the words were put together might be reason enough. No, with me it's character first, plot second, but if the book doesn't make me wonder or think, it's not a 'good book.'

  14. I put down Danielewski's House of Leaves for a single 'then' rather than 'than'. I picked it up a month later and finished it. Great book—recommended, even—in spite of that small speed bump. I was in a vicious anti-then/than phase.

    I did Game of Thrones as an audiobook and hated it. It became Same ol' Drones—background noise for the traffic all around me.

    Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of those books in which the first hundred pages were arduous but then something about it evolves and captures the reader. I was on the precipice of setting it down.

    I trashed Palanhuik's Pygmy on Goodreads. I never finished it. He tried to write in the vernacular of some foreigner visiting the United States and failed. Miserably. It was hard to read and I just gave up. I think all his main characters are really just one person, so if you read one Palanhuik—you've read them all.

    There have been quite a few nonfiction books I picked up because they set out to say something interesting and take two or three hundred pages to do what could be done in ten.

    Most everything I've rated on Goodreads with a one-star rating was put down before completion. For me, that's what one-star ratings are for. There was one author who didn't like my one star rating after asking me for an honest review. If you can't handle the truth...

    Turns out, she had a few different versions out there and I got one of the lesser editions. Just to shut her up, I changed my review—something I'm not proud of. Her incessent use of 'then' for every instance of needing a 'than' was like driving through a parking lot of speed bumps when you gotta go...knowaddamean?

  15. I virtually never abandon a book. Probably cos by the time I decide I really don't like it I figure I might as well finish it. That said I won't read a second book in a series if the first is bad.

    For me its TV that I ditch. I'll leave something by the fist ad break if its too tired.


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