There was a time when I would force myself to finish every book I started. (Though, I have to admit, even in those days, I quit Moby Dick three times. You can’t say I didn’t try!) But there isn’t enough time to read all the books I want to read, so now I refuse to waste time on books that don’t grab me. I’ll give them a few chapters to convince me, but after that, I’m moving on. So what is it about a book that makes me put it down? Sometimes it’s just bad timing: the next book on my to-be read pile is sci-fi and I’m in a magical realism mood, for instance. In that case, I might come back and try it again later. But a lot of times, there is something in the writing that is leaving me cold. Let’s take a look at the top four things that lead me to move on without finishing a book.
The story starts too slowly: A lot of unnecessary description or backstory in the first couple of chapters is sure to make me set a book down. By the end of the first couple of chapters, I want to care what happens to your main character and have some idea of the problems he is going to face. You can’t provide that if you spend four pages describing the scenery. Yes, readers need an idea of where the story is taking place and who is populating it, but we don’t need to know all of the details right off the bat. In order to care about your character, I need to see him or her as a person, and the only way that is going to happen is if you give them something to do. Hearing someone described is never as powerful as meeting them face to face, in the middle of some action. So, set your protagonist in motion and let us know what hijinks he’s going to get up to. You can provide that information about his previous relationship in dribs and drabs throughout the story, just when readers need to know it.
There’s an easily solved conflict: Conflict is what makes a book interesting. It’s what gets in your main character’s way as she tries to accomplish her goals. But too often, I see ginned-up conflict that doesn’t feel realistic. Here’s an example: Anne goes out to dinner with her girlfriend and sees her new love interest out with another woman. It’s just his sister, but she assumes he’s dating around and confronts him. She firmly tells him what she thinks, and the poor guy can’t get a word in edgewise. After she’s spoken her mind, she storms off, and he’s left there frustrated that he couldn’t defend himself. We’re supposed to be worried that this will keep the two from coming together, but usually it just leaves me worried that I can’t trust this author to provide meaningful conflict. This situation would never happen in real life. At some point, the love interest would blurt out that the woman is his sister, even if Anne didn’t give him a chance to speak. No one would allow themselves to be wrongly accused like this without setting the record straight, especially when all it requires is for him to say one sentence. If I see “fake” conflict like this in a book, I’m walking away and looking for an author that gives her characters realistic challenges to face. (For more on creating realistic conflict, see this blog post.)
The main character doesn’t feel unique: There are a lot of fictional characters out there vying for my attention, so I have to feel a pull to a book’s protagonist if I’m going to commit my time. If the character feels generic, why should I care what happens to her? Now, this doesn’t mean you need to make every character weird or edgy (unless that’s what your story calls for). But they should have a unique personality that comes through in their dialogue, thoughts, and actions. The way they talk and react to other characters should feel distinctly theirs. And the way they handle the conflicts that you throw at them should surprise us. Otherwise, why should we read your book, as opposed to the many others waiting for us?
Lots of typos/bad grammar: It is possible that, as an editor, I am slightly more sensitive to this than your average reader, but no one wants to read a book full of errors. It interrupts the reading experience and makes readers wonder how seriously the author takes their writing. If they didn’t think it was important to polish the book, should I trust that they thought it was important to write a compelling story? To create interesting characters? An occasional typo is no big deal. Even traditionally published books that have been looked at by several editors and proofreaders still contain the occasional “it’s” when it should have been “its.” But more than that and I will move on to an author who takes themselves, and their book, seriously.
I will never get through every book on my to-read list, especially since I am always adding to it. But I can make sure I am using my reading time wisely by moving on from books that aren’t keeping and holding my attention. Make sure you have done everything you can to make your book worth the time that a reader will give to it. And share in the comments what things make you put a book down.