Wednesday, January 24, 2007

When to Quit?

I’ve heard there’s a complex mathematical formula (based on your age) which dictates how many pages of a book you should feel obligated to read before you are allowed to decide it’s not worth reading. Of course, I can’t remember what the formula is.

Therefore, I abide by several different rules, depending on why I’m reading the book and why I want to quit reading the book.

My book group requires me to slog through 100 pages of whatever volume we’ve chosen for that month. To be fair, I’ve only exercised this option twice in the six years I’ve been a member of this group. Generally, we read really good stuff and I’m glued to the pages to the very end.

When I’m reading for my own pleasure or edification, these are my self-imposed guidelines:

1) If the writer massacres the English language in the first paragraph, I skip to the beginning of Chapter 2 to see if there was some really good reason for this. If the author is still fracturing grammar or (my pet peeve) using vocabulary which clearly came out of a Thesaurus without any regard for its connotation or usage within a sentence, I toss the book without any feelings of guilt whatsoever.

2) If I dislike all the characters after 25 pages, the book goes.

3) If a truly horrific act of violence occurs at any point in the book, I drop it like a hot potato. I can see that on the news; I don’t need to encounter it in my fiction-reading.

4) The hardest decision is what to do if I’m just plain bored at some point in the story. All writers struggle with the sagging middle, and often the reader is rewarded if she just perseveres a bit longer. On the other hand, many books are bought by publishers based on the first 100 or so pages. All too often, the rest of the novel doesn’t live up to that promising beginning.

So I try to judge how much momentum the opening chapters of a book should have given me. Did I love the author’s writing immediately? Did one of the characters worm her/his way into my heart? Was the set-up truly intriguing and does its resolution still interest me? If I can answer any of those questions in the affirmative, I give the book another chance.

Here’s what I’m wondering on Wondering Wednesday: what makes you stop reading a book before you hit “The End”?


Christie Craig said...

Great post, Nancy.

It reminds me that we all read for different reasons. I have a friend who will read an entire book because she loves the setting. To me, the setting just isn't a motivating factor. I know some readers who read certain writers because they love "how" they write. The beautiful proses, or a poetic tone. I enjoy these things in a book and appreciate certain tones, but craft, even beautifully written craft, isn't going to keep me reading.

What keeps me reading is “story.” And to me, what makes a story great is the perfect blend of characters and plot. But I also know that what I consider the perfect blend isn’t what others consider perfect. I write, and I enjoy character driven stories more than I do plot driven. Basically, I want great characters. I'll read a book with a so-so plot if the characters are great. But I will seldom read a book with so-so characters, even if it has a great plot.

Again, great post.


Nancy Morse said...

I find too much scenic description cumbersome, so if I like everything else about the story, I'll skip over the descriptions. Dialogue that sounds too stilted or contrived puts me off, as do token love/sex scenes. I like a blend of character/plot driven stories. If the characters are great but the plot is weak, I'll usually continue reading, but at some point the plot has to kick in, or I lose interest. I see no point in continuing to read a book that just doesn't do anything for me. And then sometimes you find a book that is so beautifully written, whose prose is so lyrical and moving that it doesn't matter if it's about protozoans taking over the world.

Nancy Herkness said...

I'm with both of you: for me it's all about character. I love Georgette Heyer novels--in which essentially nothing happens--just because her characters are so distinctive and so delightful to spend time with. OTOH, I love Dick Francis novels for both his characters and his plot. However, if it weren't for his characters I wouldn't be so interested in the plot.

Nancy M, you're absolutely right about that occasional special author who writes so spectacularly that you don't care what she/he's saying. I put Ian McEwan in that category, which is not to say that he doesn't have terrific characters and intriguing plots but I get pleasure from everything he writes, even if I occasionally do not love his theme or story.

JoAnn Ross said...

Wow, this is a hard one. I guess it depends. (picture JoAnn straddling the fence. lol) If someone hooks me early on with a compelling beginning/premise, even if I don't like the characters, I'll read for maybe 50 pages, hoping to see there's going to be an arc leading to redemption. If there's no sign of any change, or the conflict doesn't work for me, I'm out of there. If characters are engaging, I'll overlook a weak plot -- most often a mystery where it's easy to spot the bad guy -- just to spend time with them.

Being one of those who firmly believes setting is character, and who writes all my books with a very strong sense of place, I also agree that paragraph after paragraph of description can be so boring. But so can too much description of actual characters. The setting must play a role. . . for instance, in Impulse, the Wyoming wind, and sudden lack of it, becomes pivotal to my plot. No Safe Place is definitely set in post-Katrina New Orleans, which makes it a bit different from all the other books I've set in the city and bayou. My Southern books would never work in, say, Seattle or Boston, because I always picture Paul Newman in Long Hot Summer, or Marlon Brando in Streetcar when I'm writing them. So, the settings are intrinsic not just to the story, but to the characters, who either are products of that hot and steamy South, or outsiders struggling with cultural differences.

So, I guess, thinking about it, if I'm reading a book and I feel I could lift those characters out of their place and plunk them down anywhere and make the story work, I'll bail on that story pretty early on.

For pure style. . . I can get drunk on Toni Morrison's prose, and Dennis Lehane and/or James Lee Burke could rewrite the IRS Tax Code and I'd devour every word.

Nancy Herkness said...

JoAnn, that's really interesting that setting is so important to you as a reader. I'm going to have to be more conscious of how much a sense of place affects my own reading experience. I can think of a couple of novels where the setting has almost been a character but in most, it seems to hover around my subconscious somewhere.

I've never read Dennis Lehane or James Lee Burke but I'm going to put them on my TBR list on your recommendation. You have my full agreement on Toni Morrison; she's a magnificent writer.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Nancy, this is a good one! I'm sorry to have to say the more years I've notched as a professional writer, the more critical I am of others' work. Even -- or should I say especially --in my own genre, I can rarely find a book I love.

There are a lot of plot contrivances that have been so overused that I simply can't read them. One I especially hate is the female who passes herself off as a male. C'mon! Even if a guy's a wee bit effeminate, I can pick up on it in a minute in person.

Then there's the sloppy writing. I hate it when a book reads like the author threw it together in 14 days, and suspect a few category authors do this. Not to denigrate category. I know many fine and talented authors who write category romances for Silhouette and Harlequin.

Some of my pet peeves in this area are careless repetition of words or of stats, like the repetition of the hero's age.

My big bugaboo is what I call "lazy" writing. The author was so obviously confident in her mediocre skills that she didn't bother to try to use fresh phrases rather than hackneyed cliches, overused participial phrases rather than punching up her writing with active verbs, and generally wrote slop.

Then, I'm with Nancy. I cannot finish a novel if I can't pull for the characters.

Sad to say, nine of ten books I start, I refuse to finish for the aforementioned reasons.

Nancy Herkness said...

Cheryl, I tend to struggle more to find books I love in my own genre too. I think it's a function of having read such great romance novels that the not-so-great ones suffer in comparison. I'm vastly less experienced in, say, thrillers so I have a higher tolerance for mediocrity since I don't know any better. :-)

gailbarrett said...

I agree with everyone here. If I've made it a few pages into a book I rarely abandon it. Even if it isn't great, I'll usually slug through it and finish. Actually, I find it useful to try to figure out why a particular book wasn't that good and how it could have been improved (the same with movies). However, the one thing that will definitely make me stop is if there is gruesome violence or I don't like the characters. If that happens, the book gets tossed.

Samantha Hunter said...

Have to agree with much of the above, and I also don't like grapghic violence in books (though graphic sex is fine ;)

But mostly I have to like the characters -- same is true with tv and movies, if I care about the characters and really like them, I can put up with a lot of sins otherwise.

I actually haven't become more critical since I started writing -- I wondered why that was for a while, and I realized it was probably because I came to writing out of academia, where we anaylzed and critted everything, and even back then, I read for escape from all that. It's not so different now. I think when I come across a book I can't read or one I find disappointing, I just feel bad for the author, because I want to like their book, and figure maybe it's just me. My personal likes, or dislikes, etc or maybe I wasn't really the audience for the book.

Probably my biggest bug, though, is a rushed or pat ending, 250 pages of conflict and then a marriage proposal in a page and a half...

Nancy Herkness said...

Amen to the rushed ending, Samantha! If the book has been building to that proposal, I want the pay-off to be BIG.

Allison Brennan said...

It's all about the story. To me, story and character go hand in hand, but I need a backdrop--for me that's the plot. I need a compelling storyline, but the characters need to drive the plot. I think this is why I love the JD Robb books. They have terrific characters and the plots are compelling. If it was all about Eve and Roarke, I probably wouldn't care as much, but I love the multi-layered plot where their personal problems run parallel and intersect with the story plot.

I'll read in virtually any genre, including my own. My only problem reading in my own genre is that when I read a great book, I feel so inadequate and unworthy. Then I get over it and strive to do better. But for awhile it stings :)