What Makes a Reader Put a Book Down?
I read a lot of books. At least one a week for this blog…and more. Lately, I’ve been noticing poor writing, and not solely by Indie Writers. I believe a lot of self-published writers deserve the criticism they get because their books are published too soon and really need more polishing. Putting a book out is hard work, and it’s too easy to say, “Good enough.”
Take the time.
However, I have noticed well-known authors, acclaimed novels, and small house publishers also making major mistakes in producing quality books, causing me to stop reading and move on. It’s not just the new self-publisher doing this.
Kevin Anderson is one of the better known science fiction writers. He has made a name co-authoring with Brian Herbert whose father wrote Dune. They have taken Frank Herbert’s notes and done a credible job with authoring an extended Dune series. Then Kevin has several of his own series: Saga of the Seven Suns, Terra Incognito. Now he has a new series Blood of the Cosmos. Book two in the series sat on the library shelf, then slid into my hand.
I started to read. Eighteen pages in I was still wading through a narrative backstory. “He went here…then she did that…” Chapter One at least had dialogue and action, but by then I felt as if I had swallowed a bottle of Ambien and couldn’t keep my eyes open. This is not the only big name book that has done this recently.
I write a series and it’s difficult to weave in the backstory when you’re four or five books in, but a yawn of a long narrative at the front entitled,”The story so far” is not what keeps a reader turning pages. That book will get slapped back down on the library return pile.
So, then I tried Memory of Water, a novel by Emmi Itaranta. Published by Harper Collins, it has recently won several literary awards. It was also recommended as a book for our Powell’s reading group. So I bought it.
It is a debut novel that depicts a future where water has become scarce. At times and in the beginning the writing was lyrical, almost over the top…you know”literary” writing. A young girl trains with her father how to do a tea ceremony. In this case, the not-so-hidden lecture on ethical environment finally got under my skin.
If the author was chiding our current generation for not conserving water properly, then why was the villain of the book the water police? They try to arrest and kill those who break the water laws in an attempt to preserve what little remains. For me, that’s conservation in the extreme.
Noria’s father, as tea master, reveals to his daughter a hidden cavern with pure splashing water that used to be the village’s water source. Neither shares this secret, but they use the water for themselves and their garden. (At least as far as I read) Yet, she is considered the abused victim in the book.
I just don’t appreciate books who preach at me using the hidden guise of story-telling. Yeah, I hear you say that a lot of writers do it. Aesop comes to mind. I still don’t like blatant preaching.
My last admonition is on the formatting of a book. If the writer selects a small publisher, they must research them to ascertain if they’re competent. Often the excitement that any publisher would be interested overwhelms a new author, and they end up with a book that is poorly formatted by a publisher who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Often the writer puts in years of hard work to write a good story, but the reader doesn’t see that, only the amateur formatting and jumps to conclusions about the story .
Recently, an ebook I purchased had type that kept changing from regular type to bold and then back for no apparent reason. Sure, I use different type in Someone’s Clone to designate what Kayse’s computer, Lola, says as a contrast to his dialogue. But in this case, there appeared no reason for the continual change of font. That wouldn’t have been bad except the single spaced writing had almost no paragraph indentions or breaks of any kind, looking like one big block of writing.
I couldn’t catch my breath. My eyes hurt.
So why am I on a rant? I like to share books that I love and expect my readers might also. I don’t talk about bad books…normally. But, after starting four different books, both big name published and self-published, I still didn’t have a book for my blog that I felt comfortable recommending. I gave up and picked Tracker by my favorite author C.J. Cherryh. This is just out, #15 in her Foreigner series, and it is good.
The start is slow and relaxed, and yes, she does a bit of backstory narrative to begin, but don’t let the early “everything is fine” atmosphere fool you.
In one sentence, just as the reader relaxes their guard, the story gets turned upside down. An alien ship is sighted headed to the Atevi planet. Bren Cameron, human ambassador to the Atevi, is notified, and the clock begins to tick down.
Cheryl throws in dramatic Atevi and human politics…adding in Mospherii (from the planet) against Reunioners (from the space station) conflict also. Humans aren’t getting along and squabble among themselves as the alien ship continues its approach.
Bren lands right in the middle and drags in the Atevi dowager and the young heir to be the greeting committee on station. After all, those three originally met with the aliens they hopefully think are coming and understand them best. But both stationmaster and Captain of the planet’s one spaceship want to run the show their way and resent his interference onto their turf.
Even though they have no idea of what’s coming.
All makes for great reading devoid of odd formatting, grammar lapses and poor plot. Cheryl has won the Hugo three times, and she deserves it. Check out this interesting series about humans struggling to adapt to an alien society on an alien planet. And now, maybe another alien race will jump into the mix.
8 responses to “What Makes Readers Put Down a Book?”
I agree, Sheron, there are a lot of trees in the forest and not all are oaks.
Thank you Obi Wan Kenobi.
Everyone should read the new Red Coat Running even if it isn’t scifi
I can vouch for your observation that the editorial quality of traditionally published books isn’t necessarily better than that of self-published books these days. Makes me wonder if the big publishers are hiring fewer editors.
I have no data about that, but I would tend to agree. I have more respect for the editing job big publishers have done in the past now that I’m editing my books and finding it’s a lot of work.
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I think that, on average, trad-published books are less likely to contain blatant errors in punctuation (except that hardly anyone uses commas in compound sentences anymore *sigh*), grammar, or any of the other technical aspects of writing, where there’s such thing as a wrong way to do something. Whether or not an opening is too much of an info-dump is, after all, a matter of personal taste, and while an editor can guide an author toward something that will appeal to a larger percentage of readers, there’s nothing OBJECTIVELY wrong with a slow start or a lot of backstory.
That said, big publishers ARE hiring fewer editors of the sort who work with the author to make a book better. Editors with big (and medium-sized) publishing houses are mostly just the acquisitions editors these days; anything else is the author’s responsibility.
I put commas in compound sentences (or try to) on a famous writer’s say so. (Wink).
My soapbox is the rules editors spout at us, and then a well-known author ignores them, sells lots of books and gets acclaim. Backstory, info dumping, length…(Pat Rothfuss per ex.)
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I loved Tracker. So glad the story is finally getting back around to that stuff that was started in the second “trilogy” of the series. (Don’t want to spoil anything for readers who haven’t read ’em yet. 🙂 ) Also glad there was less in this book about Cajeri and his pet monkey-thing. (I like the kid, but enough is enough.)
I’m currently reading Neal Stevenson’s Seveneves, and it’s FULL of ponderous backstory, and info-dumping, and pages and pages of lectures about delta vee, etc. I’m still reading because there are interesting ideas lurking under all the info-dumping, but it’s slow going… At least the author has managed to deliver all the science lectures within the context of something happening, and without throwing a lot of numbers onto the page.
I have a hard time getting into Neal Stevenson. Thanks for the FYI as it was on my list to read.