Monday, March 29, 2010

Why stop now, just when I was hating it?

http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2010/03/voice-of-the-fans-what-books-have-you-stopped-reading/

Books I have stopped reading... This is one of those fascinating ideas that every author, agent, publisher and even retailer should be investigating and at the very least thinking about 'why?' Now the above blog article obviously doesn't come under the heading of serious research, (it's nearly as systematic and statistically relevants as say... raw bookscan numbers. The sort of thing that might act as a vague pointer, but needs to be taken with thought and care, because it's pretty obvious that this is a small self-selected group, not necessarily representative of readers in general) but it's the best I have right now, and there are a few interesting things to be gleaned there. Keep in mind that one man's meat is another man's poison (and SUCH small portions).

Let's take some the things that kept cropping up: Didn't like the characters. What the commentators by in large didn't say was why they didn't like the characters (well, okay some did say 'cardboard' and 'stereotyped' - which, um, hasn't stopped various authors being very popular even the ones no admits reading or liking but everyone has (often repeatedly). David Eddings for example.) But having read a good few of the books mentioned what I felt was that the characters failed to be ones readers could identify with.

Heavy 'literary prose' - well now there IS a shocker! Who would have thought it? It's plain however that if you're an agent or an acquiring editor - if you actually NOTICE the prose - it's a bad buy. And if you're an author wordy-prosy might get you a literary prize but it won't attract many readers. On the other hand it does seem to get bought, despite this. So... maybe if you can fool both sides? Editors, agents and readers? Hmm. Maybe.

Difficult styles/voice - as above. But it isn't always wordy/prosy/literary. I must admit for eg I struggled to read (although enjoyed the story) the early Cherryh books. It took a while of sitting analysing line-by-line to get the style - and - despite admiring the author's ideas and work, deciding I wasn't going to go there.

Boring story - this came up time and again. I think the message here for us writers is that a structural editor can be a lifesaver. For the record I work on no more than one non-action at all chapter (of no more than 7 pages) in a row. I sat and analysed a lot of books to reach this figure. Therefore it's probably wrong - or at least there are authors who can get away with breaking it. But I think that failing on this one - dead simple though it may be, has crashed a lot of authors into the 'boring' wall. YMMV.

Books with series inflation - aaaaaaaaargh. Rule I made up for myself (and this is HARD for me too) each book may not be longer than the last. I don't know if it works, but I'm trying it.

And the most important question: why did they try to read them in first place?
I'm not going to try and answer that one. It's over to you to think about. But I think it has a lot to do with why our industry is in trouble, not - as it should, by all historical precedent - be making an absolute fortune out of the economic downturn. (Cheap entertainment is historically counter-cyclical, going up when other economic indicators go down - and the reasons why also should be something all authors, agents and publishers are thinking about.)

So: books you couldn't finish? TBARs? And what it was that got you to try them and drove you to abandon them?

34 comments:

Jonathan D. Beer said...

Excellet post Dave, and I think you are right - every publishing house should be looking into this, and writers should could an eye open as well. On a tangental note, my housemate showed me an article last night regarding Xbox achievements and user records; a psychologist has been given access to 18,000 Xbox players logs of play, so he can see what gets played and for how long etc etc. Just to show, this sort of research is already being done.

For myself, there haven't been many books recently that I have flat-out refused to finish. In fact, since the start of the year there has only been one (although it should have been two - the other was part of a series I knew to get better after it).

The one I struggled through suffered from appalling pacing (action action action), awful writing (very badly written action), and laughable characters. But, interestingly, that wasn't what made me so annoyed at it. It was the fact that the author had so tremendously fluffed what could have been a great idea. The sense of disappointment with the story annoyed me as much as my frustration with the terrible writing did.

The other book, well, that was genuinely thrown across the room in disgust. I bought it because it was the first offering from an author who has just been signed (for a trilogy!) by the publisher I will be submitting to, and I wanted to do so "opposition research", so to speak.
This book had a loathsome protagonist, a paper-thin excuse for a walk-here-walk-there storyline, dialogue which was laughable when it wasn't outright atrocious (a lady who is being violently groped by a drunkard in the street cries, "Oh sir, where are your manners?" - it was at this point the book became airborne"), and in general should never have been allowed to get to the printing stage.

I am all well and willing to allow debut novels to be rough round the edges - hoping for the same leniency when my time comes - but this was in a whole other league. This doesn't really help with your research, Dave, other than to make the obvious point that badly-written books don't get read. Rant over (sorry about that - it was bottled up for a while).

Dave Freer said...

Jonathan - it's a reminder that you should never accept bad writing even from yourself (And yes, I set myself high standards. And I accept that I have often... well, usually not been as good as I want to be. But I know it and keep working. That's where so many established authors fall.'I'm good. I don't have to try'. I must agree you need to cut newbies a bit of slack... but sometimes I wonder: 'why that one, lord?' Over-action (and I am guilty of this one) is a good point. It's not as bad as the inverse, but it can be exhausting to read. Occassional changes in pace actually improve a book. And spare me implausible dialogue...

Jonathan D. Beer said...

Dave, you are entirely right. When I complained about this book to my friends (and my first-readers, for their sins), they said "well now you know where the bar is set." That really is not the attitude to take, and well do I know it. I think that book has acted as a spur - "my first novel is in no way going to resemble that".

The issue of pacing and action is an important one, I think. I agree that over-action is not as bad as under-action, but at the very least it has to be changed up - a book which consisted of grand battle after grand battle (no joke) wore very thin after a while.
Something Gav Thorpe wrote on his blog regarding how to write good action has always stuck with me, and that is that action is not just the battle, the thrown punch, the fired shot. As long as an event takes the reader from one circumstance to another, or alters their understanding of a character or location, then (well-written) it will hold the reader's attention just as much as the tense duel or the berserker's battle.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

The main reason I don't finish a book is that I have a life.

Let me explain -- when I was younger and had no kids, no real job (I was writing but no one was paying) and no real social life beyond Dan (i.e. the first two years of our marriage, when I'd left behind everyone I knew and he was living in a part of the country he didn't know anyone) I read EVERYTHING. By that I mean EVERYTHING, including nineteenth century biology materials.

We were very young and very broke, so we used to pick up the free books used bookstores sometimes put on shelves outside the door. (usually because they were water damaged, or torn or simply unsaleable) And we didn't have a TV or kids or cats, so I took these home and read them.

Then our lives became complex. And I stopped finishing every book.

For instance, I'd read the first three pages of a book, and a kid would scream. Book got put down, face down. If I didn't remember to come back to it, it had failed the test.

Good books call you back with a near physical craving. With Dragon's Ring, I kept making up excuses to go back to the hotel room at the convention, because I'd been unable to finish the book on the plane, and I wanted to finish it, dang. At one -- pathetic -- time I was reading it under the table WHILE on a panel. It's like sneaking sweets.

A variation on this is when for whatever reason I'm reading two books at once. Say, one in the bathroom and one on the bedside. Or one in the car, one in the house. There was the instance of two books failing at once when I'd mentally amalgamated the first half of the first book with the second half of the second and NOT realized until the end where a minor detail wasn't tied up. So I read different halves of each book. And they both failed.

A book doesn't have to be bad to fail that test. Just indifferent.

Francis Turner said...

Books I don't finish tend to be ones where I don't actually care what happens to the hero(ine) and frequently most of the rest of the cast of characters too.

If the character is likeable then even when (s)he does something totally bone-headed I'll cut some slack and keep reading. But when I don't like them then as soon as they start being stupid - or the situation does - I give up and go read something else.

matapam said...

I failed to finish one popular fantasy because it was written in short simple sentences. I suspect the usual reader was much younger than me.

Other unfinished books were notable for the stupid behavior of Characters - the one that comes first to mind had a woman living in a foreign culture for decades who wouldn't even restyle her hair to local normal. Obliviousness to the easily predicted future effects of one's current behavior, and that's without seeing if the author was headed that direction or not.

C Kelsey said...

Two authors come immediately to mind in the category of books that cannot be finished. Harry Turtledove, and Dan Simmons. They both tend to have wildly inventive stories that I really want to read. They both have editors that allow them to get away with using a hundred words, where two or three would do. That drives me insane. I've no problem reading an 800 or 1000 page book. But a book that long had better have some prose that keeps it moving along with a truly gripping story.

Amanda Green said...

Great post, Dave, and one that's made me think. After reviewing the comments at sfsignal, I realized I've started and stopped several of the books they mentioned and for the same reason -- especially the one where the man commented he had to put down a popular book or claw his eyes out. That had been my exact reaction to it.

I have pushed myself to finish books I normally wouldn't because of an author's track record. In those cases, I'm trying to analyze the writing and figure out what has made that particular author popular and if that book is an anomaly with regard to their other books or not. But when I do that, it's not for entertainment.

Of course, there are the books I've read before, often many times before, but I no longer can. Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern is one example. I have fond memories of the series but can no longer read it. It feels flat and dated to me. Maybe in another few years I can go back and feel differently.

I do like your idea of not letting books in a series multiply in page length with each successive book. I wish more authors followed, or at least tried to follow, that rule.

When I read these days, it is usually to either understand what is on the market right now in a particular genre or sub-genre I'm trying to write in or to research a novel. So, when I read for pleasure, I want to be entertained. Literary doesn't work for me. One dimensional main characters and plots that make no sense will send a book flying across the room. Sparkly vampires and emo werewolves will send it flying quicker. I want to be entertained and maybe even think about what I've read. Don't lecture, don't do massive, page upon page infodumps. And, most of all, don't as an author, take yourself too seriously. Now, if I can somehow remember to follow those rules myself....

RJ_CruzeJr said...

One of the things that stops me reading a book is when the reading becomes work, especially if the author hasn't given me anything worth caring about. Now, as I mentioned in earlier posts on other subjects, I'm a sucker for good characters. Give me characters I can latch on to, and I'll do my best to hang on through the difficult prose. No promises, but I'll give it a shot.

But make things difficult with no characters for me to give a crap about, and I'm outta here. Hell, even if the reading is easy, I'll still walk away if there's nobody to give a crap about. I've got a huge backlog of other books on my "to read" shelf to get to, and, if all else fails, a big stack of "comfort reads" packed to overflowing with Characters I Do Give A Crap About, so it's not like I'm missing out. Life's too short to force your way through difficult books with repellent characters -- and, no, I don't care how many awards it won or how many rave reviews it got. That just gives me one more reason to take awards and reviews with a grain of salt.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

One thing that gets me-- and it ties into series inflation-- is when over time a writer's bad habit not only calcify, but overwhelm their writing. Eddings, who you mentioned, is a classic example. "The Redemption of Althus" was a book of just his bad habits, boiled down to its purest form, and "Regina's Song" took his bad habits and tried to import it onto a modern gothic mystery. Those two books broke me off from giving Eddings any more chances.

Inflation is a killer, though. In many of those cases, it's as much the fault of the editor as the author. I can think of a few where I'm pretty sure the editor did not make cuts that otherwise would have been made because the author was a "big name".

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Good books call you back with a near physical craving.

That's it, Sarah!!!

You can't stop thinking about the characters. You have to know what happens next.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Amanda said:

I have fond memories of the series but can no longer read it. It feels flat and dated to me.

Writing styles date books, content, character behaviour. Very true!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Great post, Dave.

My daughter has a term for boring people, she calls them 'beige'.

Beige books are books that aren't bad or aren't good, they're just beige.

I picked up a beige fantasy series. Read book one, went onto book two and was halfway through book three when I realised that I'd read the last two out of order.

It was just so beige I hadn't noticed. I'd been persevering trying to make sense of the series. Looking back I can't believe I persevered that far with it before realising.

Dave Freer said...

Johnathan - action is something happening. It is not scene setting or character development. I once waded through a book (I am not going to say by whom) that had 78 pages - from the start - of two characters angsting to each other while they walked down a road. Nothing else happened. I was bored already in half a page.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, heh, yes. Indifferent books - generic vampire/lotr-clone etc... I think they get bought because they're 'safe' ground, in the current trend. Yet I do wonder sometimes if some of the books bought by editors (who have to look at books, many of them, and whose viewpoint as to what is good must be affected by this) are bought just because they were unusual enough to get noticed. Rather like a chocolate factory worker thinking gerkin, green tea and milk chocolate might be the new hit - because it is at least one he hasn't tasted.

Dave Freer said...

Francis - care about the character does seem to be a resonant them on the sfnal post too.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, that's interesting... because I have a deliberate policy of hunting down and examining any sentence over 30 words. I deliberately use different sentence lengths -because it gets monotonous otherwise, but also as character traits (for eg I have a prosy old diplomat. He never ever says anything in less than a 15 word sentence - but the average for that book is 10.)

Dave Freer said...

Chris K - it's a problem with long-established authors and editors. And so frustrating...

Dave Freer said...

Amanda - both you and Chris and a later poster touched on something I am going to try and hammer into my head with a long stake - We do buy on NAME, recommendation, liking for specific niche. That is all ACCUMULATED CAPITAL. It can be wasted (as in the author writes a piece of rubbish for the money, whichthey can sell on their name - which then devalues their name) or built on.

As for taking ourselves seriously :-) someone has to. It's a dirty job, but we've gotta do it. I think it's a by-product of two extremes - fragile egos and a bit too much deference. Fortunately I have barbs to stop that nonsense.

Dave Freer said...

Bob, what about characters so vile you just read on to see them fail/ get their come-uppance? I've not done one (other than Cap - in among characters that people were supposed to root for)- but I have thought about it.

Dave Freer said...

Marshall - I think you nailed it very well in the last line.
"I can think of a few where I'm pretty sure the editor did not make cuts that otherwise would have been made because the author was a "big name"."

which of course works well for no-one. Sigh. And yes i can think of a huge number of 'names' who eroded the value of all that hard work because no-one had the balls to say 'you're getting wordy and boring'. It's partly an ego thing, and payback, I kid you not. As junior authors when an editor says jump frog, you say how high, even though you dn't agree. As the worm turns...

Dave Freer said...

Rowena,what about 'Taupe' :-) even better than 'Beige'

Dated books. Well, writing style has changed... but the key here is to FIND BOOKS THAT HAVEN'T gone out of style. Look for what makes Georgette Heyer still entertaining (and which of her books are not).

And... if you are aiming for long shelf life - books which center on current affairs (or a close-time prognosis thereof - some of Kornbluth's comes to mind)or on things like current feminine fashion (I was good - I said nothing to Lucienne) date very fast and actually end up labling the author as 'dated' - which is also a reputation that can attach to a 'Name'.

Brendan said...

With McCaffery I will read and re-read everything up to All the Weirs of Pern(excluding Renegades) again and again and nothing after that(She turns her books into bad Mills and Boon in space after that imo).

One thing that continually amazes me is she would write stories that were more misogynistic than anything her male contemporaries were writing at the time.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Dave - Absolutely! I always like to see an utterly despicable villain get a well-deserved thrashing. But it's a good idea if the writer drops a subtle hint or two that There Will Be A Reckoning -- just so I have the inkling that this won't be one of those stories where the Bad Guy comes out on top, while the Hero just gives up and wallows in a fit of whiny navel-gazing. I've seen far too many of those. Plus, the can of whupass being opened must be proportional to the level of evilness.

I also enjoy writing those kind of stories as much as I do reading them. In fact, if I recall correctly, I believe you read a story of mine in that vein a few years ago and gave me some feedback on it (and damn good feedback too!). At least I think it was you who did.

Dave Freer said...

Brendan - do you think that was a case of pleasing her audience, editors or herself ;-)? (or a case of if you're gonna be the black guy in the Klu Klux Klan, you need to lead the hanging party)

Dave Freer said...

Bob - the trouble with foreshadowing that too obviously is that you could wreck it. I'd take a light hand... or an author that readers TRUST. That's valuable, trust to a Name

Brendan said...

Dave, my guess it is all her. the same basic female character flaws come up over too long a time span for it to be pandering to a market segment or editors. During her career so many changes happened in attitudes to women but her writing doesn't reflect that at all. If anything as time went on her female characters got worse, not better.

Kate said...

Oh my. I see certain themes and problem trends on that list. Like "highly acclaimed but hardly anyone could get into" - when I see that, I've got to admit my first suspicion is literary onanism.

Of the books I haven't been able to read... McCaffrey has dated, not helped by all! the! exclamation!! points!!! - but what really killed it for me was a short story of hers in a collection that was so utterly gag-me nauseatingly wrong in so many, many ways I haven't opened anything of hers since (For those wondering, I think the short title was something like green fields. I have tried, with alas limited success, to blot it from my memory).

LKH... Not just the increasingly perverse sex, but the same bloody plot recycled endlessly, and pacing that never varied from book to book. "Okay, looks like a hundred pages or so left. All hell should break loose right about now."

Lackey - Stopping the plot one time too many to deliver an "all men are evil" rant, and breaking the character in the process.

Any number of authors I don't remember offhand for the simple sin of not catching my interest fast enough. I browse brick and mortar stores. If I'm not looking for anything in particular, I'll pick up a title or cover that looks interesting. If the blurb looks interesting too, I'll start reading. If I keep reading, I'll probably read to the end (There's a reason I don't keep ANY reading material in the loo. You'd never see me again). It takes a really egregiously bad book to stop me reading after getting past a dull opening.

Jordan... come on, 900 pages to move forward a few miles and two days?

And let's just say the later Harry Potter books could have profited from about a 30% cut in the middles and leave it there.

Not that I'm at all opinionated or anything.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Very good point, Dave -- foreshadowing can be a double-edged sword. Too much and you ruin it, too little and it's like no foreshadowing at all. And you are right: trust is the key. You want the reader thinking, "I have no bloody clue where he's going with this, but I'm going to hang on, because I know it's going to be EPIC!"

Dave Freer said...

Kate - many years ago Zelazny's LORD OF LIGHT and Herbert's DUNE tied for IIRC the Hugo (or was it a Nebula?) - two books which were not dead-easy reading but were enjoyable and had vast impact on the genre. That lent a huge amount of credence to the award and meant people took 'Hugo winner' as meaning "I really want to read that!" Now - mentioned severally in the SFnal list was the Mr Norrel thing. It also won at least one of these awards... And to be blunt, by boring readers into TBAR - devalued past and future winners. Abuse of these things has served neither the lit'ry w*nkers, nor the genre well.

Chris McMahon said...

Good post, Dave. Usually for me its something that does not make sense - something a character does that does not ring true to the set up. Followed by being too slow -- endless dialogue that is nothing more than a retelling and does not advance the story.

Dave Freer said...

Aha Chris Mc - they've broken suspension of disbelief which allowed you to enter the deception that fiction is. We all KNOW it's not real, but we're willing to suspend (if not abolish) disbelief and participate in that world. Thát's a good point that is. It's happened to me through poor research on the writer's part, a couple of times.

Anthony J Langford said...

I can relate to all of these comments. Good post. I won't reiterate what others have said. Ill simply add this. You read an interview with the author in question, or see them on tv, or a magazine or you hear some personal detail that makes you cringe and/or totally ruins the notion you had of that author. It's rare but it happens. As they say, don't get too close to your heroes. Some authors personal lives have turned me off their writing forever. Same as some musicians and sportspeople-they should be admired only from afar.

Dave Freer said...

Hmm. Interesting, Anthony. Now with writers to honest I have always found the opposite. Firstly if you're senstive to the voice - the speaking author tends to sound like the voice - in attitudes and often in choice of dialogue. If anything print waters it down. (Because I lived so remotely I met most of the writers i later met in person through their books, then e-mail / Baen's bar and then eventually in person. They don't look like the imagination coloured them... but Sarah, Kate and Chris (all of whom I've spent time with) are very like their writing in voice. Rowena of course is something else again. Print is not up to that level of dynamism ;-) - but yes, she uses phrases from her books in speech.