Reading For Writers 101: Books I Did Not Finish… 3+ Reasons Why

101 photo 1I always have a pile of books on my bedside table. This month in particular I checked out more books from the library than I had time to read. At one point the pile was twelve high! Craziness! How could I possibly read them all? Well, since I have a job and stuff I’m trying to accomplish (like finish my own novel), I can’t. There’s not enough time to read every book that has a nifty premise or garners great reviews or wins awards. So the simple solution is… don’t finish every book.

[Insert collective *GASP OF HORROR* from reading purists.]

Some people believe if you start a book, you must finish that book. But why? With over 2 million books published each year, there’s no reason to settle for a book you’re just not that into! I’d rather not waste my time. Then again, reading is never a complete waste of time for a writer. Even when I don’t finish a book, I learn from it…

Today’s lesson: Books I Did Not Finish… 3+ Reasons Why.

We all have different likes and dislikes, genre preferences, time restraints, etc. A novel I put down after 50 pages could be someone else’s favorite book ever! With that in mind, the reasons listed below are mine alone and certainly don’t apply to everyone…

1.    Boredom. This is the #1 reason I put down a book. I read because I want to be entertained, not put to sleep. But boredom is a broad term, so I’ve broken it down into sources of boredom:

  • Protagonist has no goal. A goal is what makes me interested in the main character. Without that, I have no reason to stick with this character for hundreds of pages, no matter how witty or mysterious she may be. But if the protagonist has a goal, I’ll keep reading to find out whether or not she achieves it.
  • I don’t care about the protagonist. Even if the character’s goal is to save her lover from certain death, if she is unsympathetic, robotic or annoying, I won’t care about her plight. And if I don’t care, I’m bored and moving on.
  • Nothing happens. The character wants something and is totally likeable / sympathetic / interesting… but doesn’t take action. Nothing bores me more than a character who just thinks about what to do instead of doing it.
  • No conflict. The character is pursuing her goal and stuff is happening… but there’s no conflict. One action just leads to the next without obstacles (physical and emotional). If the journey is too easy, the goal too attainable, I get bored.

2.    Writing Style. This is definitely a matter of personal taste, but here’s what makes me stop reading…

  • Pacing. Too slow is usually my reason for putting a book down. This is probably why I read more YA than adult literature. YA novels are generally paced faster. Though if the pace is too fast an author runs the risk of the reader not getting to know the characters well enough to care. But honestly, I rarely encounter that.
  • Dialogue. Some people don’t like novels with a lot of dialogue. I’m totally fine with dialogue as long as it’s good. As a screenwriter, nothing makes me cringe more than pages of conversation so wordy and on-the-nose no one would ever say it. Tip: read dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds natural.
  • Description. I used to say that I didn’t like too much description, but I now realize that’s not true. I love description. In fact, if I can’t picture what is happening in my head, I feel the author’s prose is lacking. BUT the key is to describe only what matters. I’ll stop reading if the author constantly chronicles details that are irrelevant to the protagonist’s plight.

3.    Believability. This doesn’t mean I only read real-life stories. I love reading sci-fi and fantasy too. Believability isn’t “that can happen in my world”, it’s “that can happen in the world of this novel.” If the story isn’t believable, I lose faith in the author, and that’s another reason to stop reading.

  • Authenticity. Authors have leeway with this if they’re creating their own fantasy or sci-fi world, but authors writing contemporary or historical fiction better have personal experience or do their research. Or both!
  • Science. The popularity of action movies shows many people don’t care if the laws of nature are obeyed. Personally, I can look past cars exploding that would never actually blow up from a single gun shot, but I can’t look past the protagonist who was shot in the leg and is running like an Olympic gold medalist the very next day.
  • Character. I get mad when a smart character does something stupid without good reason. The thing is, writers can make their characters do anything as long as they set it up properly. Does that smart character always lose her head when a certain someone is around? Well that explains why she messed up! Bottom line, if she does something uncharacteristic, there must be a reason or it’s not believable and the character ceases to be real in the readers’ minds. And when that happens, I lose interest in the character and, you guessed it, stop reading.

These reasons for not finishing books have become a “What Not To Do” checklist for my own writing. Especially the “Boredom” category. I’ve noticed if I’m struggling to write a scene, it’s usually because I’m bored with it. Why? Have I forgotten about my character’s goal? Is there a lack of conflict? Is my character acting like a robot? It’ll be one of those things, and I’d better fix it and not give anyone a reason to stop reading my novel.

What about the books you didn’t finish or struggled to get through? What made you stop reading? What did you learn from them and how has that helped you become a better writer?

Next Up from Heather… Write, Revise, Repeat – Are You Stuck in a Rut? (Or am I?)

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Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a cartoon screenwriter, YA novelist, small town fugitive, and late-blooming gymnast. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

2 thoughts on “Reading For Writers 101: Books I Did Not Finish… 3+ Reasons Why”

  1. I enjoyed this article so much! I think I’ve put down books basically the same reasons you have.

    I read ebooks and it’s become a habit of mine to underline passages that make me feel like the book won’t be for me. I also underline passages that keep me reading.

    If I decide to buy the book I get information on what keeps me reading. I’ve learned a lot about what I like this way, things I didn’t know about.

    If I decide not to buy the book I learn what I dislike enough to kill any interest in following a character’s story. This little exercise has been even more surprising. There’s a tipping point at which the bad outweighs the good and I decide to use my time reading something else.

    1. That’s really interesting! I have a more general approach where I note plot points, but I have never noted actual lines and the exact pages the appear on. I may have to try this. Thanks for sharing!

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