Misfit Monday: Why I Stopped Reading

As an author, every time I put a book down, I try to learn from the experience. By analyzing why didn’t that book work for me, I can hopefully pick up some tips on what not to do in my own books in the future.

It’s also something fun to discuss with readers (again, to learn) and useful to discuss with authors. Not the author who wrote the book in question, although that’s exactly what ended up happening last time I wrote a post like this. No, it’s honestly just for my own learning. I don’t want to call anyone out – last time, the author recognized her book, and she was a top-notch, class act, but the next one might not be. So with that in mind, I’m going to leave out the details, and focus on the problems.

I’d run across this book a few times and it looked like something I might enjoy, so I downloaded the sample. And boy am I glad I just got the sample, because I couldn’t even get through that. Actually, I caught myself starting to skim by page 2.

I can’t dig a book with too much dumping – of background information and baggage, that is

It wasn’t badly written. The author has a firm command of language, and I didn’t notice any problems with grammar, spelling, typos, or bad formatting (and note that some of the worst formatting problems come from the big publishers). S/he also had a good grasp on point-of-view, and evoking sympathy for the characters. But it just wasn’t enough to draw me in. It took a couple chapters for me to figure out why, but once I did, it was face-palmingly obvious: those two chapters were full of backstory dumps, repetition, and cliche situations.

Quite a bit of information was repeated, sometimes twice, as if the author wasn’t confident enough in the reader and had to give us a nudge, nudge, get it? There were also repeated words and phrases to the point that I once saw the echo phrase three times on one page – and that’s on my Android phone. It was so bad it got a song stuck in my head. It had some other problems too, but the repetition and infodumps were the main reason I stopped reading.

Who knows, maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just pickier, being a writer myself, and one who’s been at this thing for years (I’ve been writing seriously since 1999, and messing around with writing since I was a kid). Romance novels are especially prone to backstory dumps – big, long explanations or flashbacks into a character’s past – given that the main conflict in a romance novel is between the female and male lead, and it’s often this kind of emotional baggage that keeps the characters apart for most of the book. And since it’s such a common issue, it’s one that many romance-specific craft workshops and articles touch on. So maybe I’m more sensitive to it because of this.

In the author’s defense, my early efforts had these problems too, so maybe it’s just early work (it may or may not be – OTOH, some people never learn). Either way, eliminating repetition and the other issues are all skills that can be developed.

What do you think? Have you put any books down recently? Have you ever put a book down because it was too cliched, repetitious, or had too much backstory or worldbuilding infodumps that stop the forward action? If you’re a writer, did your early work have these problems?

Jennette Marie Powell writes stories about ordinary people in ordinary places, who do extraordinary things and learn that those ordinary places are anything but. In her Saturn Society novels, unwilling time travelers do what they must to make things right... and change more than they expect. You can find her books at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, iTunes, and more.

17 Responses to \

  1. Now thers the idea. Instead of tossing it and sighing, “For pity’s sake, I can do way better than that” I should be analyzing why it didn’t work so I can avoid the trap. I guess we’re never too old to learn something new. Thanks for the tips, Jennette.

  2. Thankfully, I haven’t come across a book I purchased with those problems. I’m guessing this book you read was probably self-published and not edited (or critiqued) all that well. Those are the kind of things I notice when I critique and I always point them out. I’m not doing them any favors by ignoring them.

    Sometimes my work is the opposite. I don’t put in enough info, just because I’m afraid of putting in too much! Ha ha!

  3. One of the hats I wear is “Indie Book Reviewer,” so speaking with authors about why I loved or hated their books is something I’m used to. And thus far I have yet to encounter an author who flew off the handle when I gave his or her work a bad review. In fact, they’ve all been pretty awesome, so I wouldn’t worry too much about naming names.

    As for reasons I might not finish a book? The three big ones are:

    1. Poor or non-existent editing. If I think, for even a second, that I’m reading a first draft I stop reading.

    2. Rambling. Over-description kills my inner child. If an author can’t change locations without giving me 500 words on wallpaper patterns, I’m outta there.

    3. Characters who are only approximations of humans. If I’m confronted with a cast of soulless robots who seem to exist only to drive the plot forward, I usually close the book pretty quickly.

    Otherwise, I can get through pretty much any novel without too much trouble.

  4. I have stopped reading for several reasons, mostly because I was just plain bored. I haven’t noticed that exact problem, but there have been several books I’ve read in the recent past that have saggy middles and are very anti-climatic. It’s like the author just put some words there to make the book longer.

    I’m still struggling with back story management myself but at least I’m aware of it and try very hard to fix those problem areas, all the while showing and not telling. It’s hard work this thing they call writing.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  5. how wise you are Jenn. I have so much trouble trying to analyze a book – either I get caught up in the story or I don’t and Im never sure why. I hope this book had a song in it – then it isn’t mine. LOL

  6. Prudence, if I can learn something from a book I didn’t enjoy, it’s a consolation that I didn’t waste my time reading!

    Stacy, aren’t you glad for free samples? At least I didn’t spend my money on it! And LOL – I have the same problem as you – I leave out too much sometimes! Thank goodness for my awesome beta readers!

    Jeff, thanks for your input! Those are all reasons I’d stop reading, too.

    Patricia, that’s what I was experiencing here – I was bored. Quickly, too – because of all the repetition. It’s definitely a challenge to get the right amount of backstory in at the right time, but knowing to look out for it is most of the battle!

    Louise, sometimes it takes awhile for me to figure out why a book didn’t pull me in. I don’t remember encountering any songs in it, and I don’t want to identify the author, but it definitely wasn’t you. 😀

  7. I’m with you Jennette. I have stopped reading. And I try to figure out why I cannot keep reading. Often the reason has to do with a lack of characters that draw me in. But too much back story and treating the reader as if he/she is an idiot turn me off also. I have also put down a book because it didn’t give me the reading experience I was looking for and later learned it really was about character and story, again. For example, one science fiction book I picked up was a large scale satire – I could not find the humor in the satire (others did, at the time I assumed the subject was something I was particularly sensitive about) Another science fiction book I picked up was a tongue-in-cheek treatment of the fans and writers of science fiction that was also a murder mystery. That book made me laugh and keep reading. So revising my estimation of the first satire – it was too much about the satire and not enough about characters and story. (I also try to analyze the books I love for the good stuff!)

  8. Kindle has made me a horrible reader. I have so many books waiting that I don’t have much patience for poor writing. I’m also much more prone to moods. If I’ve had a tough day, I usually read romances. Or non-fiction. So I switch a lot between books and start new ones before finishing the old ones.

    Here are some of the reasons why I stop reading:

    1. The book lacks that something that makes me connect. The characters don’t click and the writer’s voice doesn’t really speak to me.

    2. The book starts slowly and I’m not hooked to turn pages and find out what happens next.

    3. Too quirky or goofy world building. I also take names very/too seriously. One fantasy book had a character named Dies Irae on the first page and I stopped reading. If your cover blurb says you have Vampyres or Faerys, you’ve already lost me. J.R. Ward drove me crazy with her character names like Phury, Rhage and Zsadist. But her writing was strong enough that I struggled on and grew to tolerate the silliness.

  9. I’ll stop reading if something’s boring. Info dumps usually are. When I read my own writing and get bored, I realize I’m telling, not showing, or sharing more info than needed.

  10. Ive stopped reading books for many of the reasons others stated above. One book had “theyre” instead of “their” over and over, and it was so distracting, I stopped reading. The story line was good, but that was a huge mistake made repeatedly.

    Another book had too many long, convoluted, strange names on the first page. Too hard to follow.

    Another had a cliche plot, flat characters, and wasnt believable, so I stopped. I usually keep reading, though.

  11. Lynette, so much of it does come down to our expectations, doesn’t it? And it’s such a great surprise when a book exceeds our expectations!

    Reetta – I totally pick a book up according to mood! And I did the exact same thing with the Black Dagger Brotherhood books – I put off reading one for years because of the silly names the characters had, but ended up really liking it!

    Lynn, grammatical errors like mixing up their/there/they’re I’ll give a pass once or twice, but when I see it over and over, that’s a guarantee I’ll put the book down. The plot in the book I posted about was pretty cliche, too, so I’m with you there as well!

  12. Now that I’m aware of some of my own writing mistakes, I find myself automatically looking for it in other’s. Cant help it! 🙂 The big deal breaker when I’m reading is whether or not I make a connection with the character. A great story takes me along for the emotional ride. But I agree that cliches and mistakes can take me out of the story.

  13. Coleen, you’re right, I do think we’re more sensitive to these things when we’ve had to learn about them ourselves! And connecting with the character is essential. Why stick with the story if we don’t care?

  14. You’re talking about one of my books, huh? (Cringes with guilt) Luckily, several people have been brutally honest with me and it helped me to make my main characters more sympathetic and to concentrate on page-turning pace. I think it’s always fair for a reader to realize that he/she is not having a good time and to turn to a book that might be more fulfilling. If you have the guts to ask them “Why?”, you’ll get the best writing input you could ever hope for: a genuine reader’s opinion : )

  15. LOL Diane!!! Funny you should ask – because I finished your book last week and loved it! Although you bring up a good point – there was a lot of background info and flashbacks in the first chapter of Twixt, and they totally worked! It even had a prologue… and that totally worked too! (And I normally don’t like prologues, but…. yeah!) Now I’m going to have to go think about it and analyze why it worked there, but not in the book I’m talking about. I think because it really evoked sympathy for Rose, and gave the reader a better understanding of what was going on, and how the history was mingled in with the present?

    I guess this really goes to show, that anything can work if done well!

  16. I can stop reading in a heartbeat these days. Mostly because I’ve spent a lot of time in the trenches as a mom of small children, where you *have* to stop reading every other heartbeat because otherwise, someone’s done something horrible to the cat. 😉

    These days, I have little patience for erotica or really hot books whose sexual premise I just don’t buy, especially paranormals. However, having said that, I’ll totally jump on board the thinnest of premises if something else is catchy or unique. For example…I just backtracked to your last DNF post and picked up the book you said did not grab you…because the description of what didn’t grab you made me hella curious to see how she did it! (Also, the premise of that book appeals to my own genre-busting urges).

    It’s harder for us as writers to suspend our disbelief when we can see the scaffolding, so to speak. Sometimes, in some stories, I can almost tell which screenwriting book the author last read before writing that particular book, because I’ll see a “Save the Cat” moment, or a “Mentor” character exiting the on-screen activities at the exact moment s/he should.

    I’m also less forgiving in my own genre of romance, and I’m not quite sure why, except to wonder if maybe we’ve gotten so good at the marketing buzzwords that it’s easy to create an expectation that’s so specific that an authors unique way of fulfilling it falls a little because of its uniqueness, when that should be a strength. Kind of like the reason why I pass by most Urban Fantasy anymore because even if the story’s fascinating and unusual, the cover looks just like every other cover out there.

    But on the other hand, I will happily dive into a book with less-than-technical perfection in the story construction department because there’s something unique and captivating about it that outshines the murkiness of a weak conflict or pedestrian premise. Most of the time, I can pin it down to character–put a strong character in an overdone storyline, and I’ll hunt for the uniqueness more than I would if it were a stock character in a ground-breaking storyline.

    To use a TV analogy–Vampire Diaries left me cold because the characters were pretty stock. Veronica Mars was a fantastic discovery I watched until the bitter end because the characters were strong, faceted, and deep. Even though both premises were somewhat pedestrian (special girl caught between two supernatural love interests, and teen outcast versus popular crowd), Veronica Mars twisted the characters while Vampire Diaries plays it straight.

  17. Athena, I totally agree! Sometimes there’s nothing technically wrong with the book, but it’s so same-ol-same-ol it doesn’t hold our attention. I too am finding this a lot in UF and paranormal romance – and yes, the covers that tell me same-ol-same-ol make it much less likely I’ll even pick up the book.

    You should make a blog post out of this! 😀