Are you a member of the clean plate club when it comes to reading? Or do you leave books unfinished? How much time do you give an author to convince you to keep reading? What makes you stop?
Note: I was once given the formula 100 minus your age = how many pages you “owe” an author.
Life is not long enough to read all the novels on my list, so I will read the first chapter of a novel, however long or short it is. If the first chapter doesn’t capture my interest, I won’t continue reading the book.
Seems only fair, TL. I have to stop feeling guilty for not finishing what I start.
I don’t know if it’s because I once worked for a publisher and always had a huge to-read pile or because I have a low tolerance for boring, but I’ll give it a paragraph or two. No, that’s a lie. I have been known to stop after a sentence.
Life is way too short to waste on a boring book.
Gives new meaning to “the first sentence has to be a grabber”
Sister Theresa Mary, my fifth-grade teacher who instilled in me the love of genre fiction (she loved detective stories!), had a 150 page or one-third-of-the-book rule. I have cut that down to three chapters.
As a writer, you give me more hope than Cyn. Thanks for your feedback.
Sister Polygrippa in second grade taught us that it was cool to be a martyr. That may be why for many years I’d finish every book I started, no matter how awful. More recently, however, I drop anything that is painful to read. I gave “A Confederacy of Dunces,” by J.K. Torquemada, four pages to engross me. It grossed me, instead. I didn’t even get out of the library parking lot before going back and tossing it down the chute.
Too few years, too many good books to spend time on one that doesn’t engage me.
But exactly how many pages depends on my mood. I’ve put down books, only to try them again later, and love them.
Agreed. Especially last year. I started a book by a familiar author, but the violent opening, coming at a particularly violent time in the ‘real world’ made me put it down. I did go back later and finish it, and that scene was not the tone of the book, just the inciting incident, but it put me off for quite some time.
We’re told “open in action.” Words to live by, for an author, but it tends to put the awfulest stuff up front, regrettably. I like to write leisurely openings to set the mood and scene (“IWADASN…”), but I’d rather get published, so be prepared to skip over the awfulness.
“Action” in openings has a very broad definition. Something needs to be happening, but it doesn’t need to be violence.
My list shows eighty novels read in 2020. Nearly all were mysteries/crime stories. Sixteen of those are labeled “DNF”: Did not finish. I dropped most of the DNFs after 10% or less.
Reasons for stopping:
-The writing is too hackneyed or banal.
-I don’t like the characters’ personalities or behaviors: stupid, silly, or just too exaggerated. Some of this may be generational–it tends to be young people’s behavior that gets to me. But often it has nothing to do with whether the character is young or old.
-The book is going somewhere I don’t want to go. (I’m a wimpy reader.)
-The book is boring. (One book, by a well-known and well-published author, was thirty pages in and I didn’t have any idea what the crime or mystery would be or any reason to be interested in the MC.)
There are probably other reasons for stopping that I’m not remembering.
One curious fact: Sometimes I’ll start a second book by an author and reject it, where I didn’t reject the first. In one case, I stumbled on a romance that was original and creative in the stories of the two main characters and the interactions of their stories. I started another by the same author and quit it because it seemed an unoriginal hash of the rich girl-poor boy (with abusive father) trope. I quit another book by a well-known author because the characters’ “dialogue” was preachy, and I felt the novel would be too preachy.
Thanks for sharing, Eric. I’ve picked up new series by authors I’ve liked, but couldn’t get into the characters, or the premise. Scares me a little, since I have 4 series out there, but I tell myself I’m offering different things to different readers.
I just copied Eric’s list into my notebook. With you 100%.
I second the motions by Laura and Eric above.
I agree with Laura as to how far I’ll read before I quit, and I often do go back and try some more. I’ve often pushed through the first few chapters and finally found myself engaged.
I agree with Eric as to reasons for quitting. My list is pretty much the same.
Thanks for saying it for me Laura and Eric.
Thanks, Steve, and I’ll say you can use my responses to them as my response to you. 🙂
I used to be a finisher out of respect for the author, until I found authors who were so far away from competent that I had to cave. My answer is that “I try” and will often stick with it well past the point a reasonable person might. But I no longer feel compelled to read a horribly written book.
Thanks, Karla – and you bring another issue to mind. What’s “horribly written” for one reader might be a delight for another. At least that’s what I’ve seen when I’ve looked at review for books I couldn’t get into and found raves. (Or those are ‘reviews’ from friends and family, but when they number in the hundreds, I wonder if that’s the case for all of them.)
I’m a pretty good audience, and I’ll try to get through a book out of respect for the author. However, I’ll put it down if it’s too gross, too banal, or too violent for me, no matter where in the book I make that decision. If it’s just boring, I’ll keep going thinking it will get better. (I’ve finished some books on this premise that got never got interesting. Lesson learned.)
I love the formula “100 years minus your age.” Finally — deflation.
I’ve tended to hang in there as well, Kay. Lesson also learned 🙂
I always tried to finish book club selections (when I was in book clubs), but having someone tell me “the book starts getting good after page 200” was too much of an investment of my time.
I’ll try to give it a few chapters. Usually I stop when there’s a dull part, nothing happening. I was reading one book recently which wasn’t terribly well-written, but had an intriguing enough premise, but then the main character just sat around listening to music in a cabbin for a few chapters, so I dropped it.
Some pet peeves: sex scene or major flirting in the first chapter, a kid whining about not getting such and such, a female character carrying on about how she’s the only decent woman in her entire society, and of course someone just sitting and waiting for something that will happen “really soon.”
Often, my ‘reading’ turns to skimming when things get slow or boring. (I know the Hubster skims what he calls “the mushy parts” in my romantic suspense books.)
I have been a member of the clean plate club, when it comes to finishing a novel. When I have put a book down, it’s usually only after weeks of trying to finish it, putting it down, picking it up again. These days, with so much other media waiting to be consumed–web pages, streaming video etc, that means I’m not reading the next book because the current book is sitting on my plate, being unpalatable.
I like the 100 minus your age rule, which would mean 40 pages for me, which seems fair. At the same time, as a writer myself, I try to engage the reader right out of the gate, on that first page. I have editor friends who wade through mountains of slush, and can only give a story a page at most. So, I’d say 40 pages tops, but if it’s really a struggle from the first page, then on to the next book. There’s way too many books waiting to be read that will engage me.
Terry, thanks for an engaging Friday reader question!
Thanks, Dale. (I have even fewer pages to read following that formula). I find the writer part of me has made me a severe critic, so I will try to make some allowances, but the older I get, the more I realize that I don’t have to clean my reading plate.
I have the attention span of a Labrador retriev–SQUIRREL!
If those first couple of pages don’t show engaging action or compelling writing–preferably both–then I’ll put the book down. Books that come with strong recommendations from trusted friends get a little more leeway, but not much.
Quite a few years ago, I was a judge for the Edgar Allen Poe mystery awards. My category was Best Novel, which brought 492 books across my threshold. To be read and judged in a year. (Note to writers everywhere: your publisher is doing you no favors by submitting your book in December, just under the wire. Roughly 60 books arrived that December.) Since I was judging for “BEST” mystery, I gave the author 10 pages to grab me. After that, I pulled the eject handle.
I, too was an Edgar judge, although in a smaller category–we had a little over 300 books to read. I think they changed the submission policy and tried to get the books spread out over the year, but come to think of it, that’s when I became more critical in my personal choices for reading and was willing to set books aside, unfinished.
Sometimes I stop reading a book at page one: Overwriting, implausible situations, unlikable voice or characters.
Other times I stop reading after 10 or 15 pages for the same reasons, that had been camouflaged by clever writing.
It really steams me to read 50 pages and find padding. predictability and “obviousness” that insult my smarts.
If an author is “insulting my smarts”, I’ll give up. Good description, Carole.
In my twenties I used to think something was wrong with me. I couldn’t finish most books other people liked. But I also thought that if something got published it had to worth reading.
My tastes and tolerances might be different than most. As an example I hated the novel Jaws – loved the movie. Moby Dick bored me. I’m a love them and leave them kind of guy with books-that love affair needs to burn in three pages or it’s over.
I quit one book club when the self-appointed group leader said she didn’t think it was appropriate to judge the writing in the books we read, because they were all published, and therefore had been edited.
EEK! Based on books I’ve seen, I’ve concluded that there are no editors in the publishing biz. “Look Inside” is a life-saver. I use it more and more for picking books to read and for rating contests.
I wouldn’t say “no” editors, but I think they’re overworked and often have little knowledge of the details of the genre they’re editing.
So, Terry, the older I get, the less I owe! I like those economics… 🙂
I have left books unfinished, but not often. I like to finish what I start-a holdover lesson from my dear Dad. (The only time I think I might give up altogether is if the language takes a nosedive, or the intimate scenes become trashy.)
Case in point: I finished a novel once that was poorly written. I kept expecting it to get better, but it didn’t. The premise was a bit unbelievable, and the heroine was like a cardboard cutout-nothing underneath or behind her to make her human. But, I persevered, and used it as lesson-time for myself.
Don’t write your novel like this one, Deb!
Great point, Deb. We can learn from books we don’t like. Thanks for sharing.
True of many things. The morning after seeing the worst play I’d ever seen, I started my first work for the stage, figuring I couldn’t possibly write anything that bad.
How long I will continue reading depends on what purpose my reading is serving. If I’m reading for fun, I’ll read until the fun runs out, however long or short that is.
If I’m reading someone like George R. R. Martin to study his style and craft, I’ll read until I have absorbed as much as my mind can hold at that point in time.
If I have an engine dismantled, I’ll read the shop manual multiple times until I can put it back together in working order.
I’ve spent too many years of my life doggedly pursuing some things I should have pulled the plug on much earlier. Now I’m not so generous with my time, playing in the last quarter of life does that.
Another good point, Lars, which follows Deb’s comment. Why we’re reading a book makes a difference (although then the book becomes a textbook, not a ‘fun’ read.)
I usually wait until the end of Act I – if there’s not a clear goal by then, I’m done. But I must admit it also has to do with whether I’ve purchased the book and how much I paid. If I got it on a BookBub deal for .99, I will quit earlier than one I shelled out $16.95 for a paperback.
Thanks for yet another perspective, Maggie. Yes, it seems “wasteful” to stop reading a book you’ve paid more money for. Reading more of the words based on cost per word. I know I used to look for the longest books possible. Imagine my surprise when the editors/agents I talked with about my first novel telling me 140,000 words would never be considered for publication.
I read once to go at least 50 pages. That being said, I remember DUNE needing about 300 pages to “get going”. Glad I finished it.
In general, I follow Eric’s list. I would add “too predictable.” My wife is a big JD Robb fan. She thought I would like it. I binged. Mistake. I was about 20 pages into book 4 and I told my wife who did it and why, who was going to get blamed, and the big clue. I also stopped binge reading authors.
There is one very popular book series. I picked up a used copy of book one. I almost didn’t make it to page 3 the grammar was so bad the author would have trouble leaving middle school. Millions of copies sold, I pushed on. The plot was so bad by chapter four it went sailing across the room to the trash can.
A definite problem with binge reading is things you wouldn’t notice if you read the books months–or a year–apart start to pop out. I remember one author used the same description when her characters were in bed–“only the thin cotton of her nightgown between them” which I doubt I’d have remembered had I not read one after the other.
I happen to be a big JD Robb fan, but confess to paying more attention to the developing personal relationships than to the crime.
For fiction, Amazon’s free Kindle sample or “Look Inside the Book” content will convince me that I’ve dodged a bullet. Deciding at the end of the first page works almost as well.
It’s different for nonfiction. I expect to have to study some kinds of nonfiction. I don’t expect to have to study non-literary fiction. A genre novel that can’t pull its train of thought out of the station on the first page has broken down as far as I’m concerned.
Yes, all the e-stores will allow a free sample, and I don’t buy until I’ve tried if it’s a new author, or a familiar author writing in a different world.
And for sure, nonfiction is a different game altogether.
After years as an English major, I promised myself that I wouldn’t finish a book I wasn’t enjoying. I’ve mainly kept that promise with the exception of books so disasterous I couldn’t look away as a writing teacher. One book was so bad that I had half a dozen writing articles out of it in just the first few chapters. This author is now very successful with several series going and wins major awards. So, yes, you can survive a traditionally published horrible first book, but this writer was extraordinarily lucky that the editor saw something magical about a writer who couldn’t plot, make scenes, or keep a character consistent.
As a teacher, I can do what most professional editors do in that slush pile. I can tell if the writer has competent craft within a few pages, a sense of story within a chapter or two, and whether they’ll stick their landing within the first fifty pages. All those are toss the book away offenses, and, if I’m not happy as a reader, I’ll toss it away pretty dang fast.
And, as an addition, yesterday, I decided not to read a book because of the sentence premise mentioned in a review of a post-Apocalypse novel. Written from memory and for clarity, “After Yellowstone has a volcanic eruption that decimates a good chunk of the US, the heroine who lives in a safe area decides to take her young son and trek across the country toward family who may have survived.” Any mother who would take a small child into danger for her own selfish reasons is no heroine I’d want to read about. Selfish cow. Nope on that book.
Yes, the TSTL protagonist is a definite no-go for me.
Unless a book is super-awful, I will usually read the whole thing so I can say I gave it a chance.
Rarely I stop after a few pages but that’s because I am super picky about selecting books to read–I do a lot of digging of the author’s style and typical themes before I buy. The few times I have taken a general recommendation on a book, like a library recommendation–those are usually the ones that I quit reading after a few pages because it turned out to be a chance not worth taking.
If I’m curious about a book/author, I’ll either do the download a free sample thing or I’ll check it out from the library. A book/author has to earn my willingness to part with dollars.
My TBR list is long, with lots of other enticing pages waiting, so I’ll give a book 10 pages, tops. I like the fact that I can click on the cover on Amazon and read the first 10% (I think it is?) of the book. Or I just read the first few pages in a bookstore. I’ve rejected a lot of books that way and saved my money. I find that a quick and easy way to decide, after reading the book description (or back cover copy in a print version). But even if I’ve actually purchased the book and it doesn’t grab me by the end of the first chapter, out it goes and on to the next. Being a fiction editor also makes me more critical, even ruthless. My personal reading time is golden, so if I find I want to give the writer advice on how to improve the novel, I close it up and move on.
Someone once said, “Once you become a writer, you’ll never read the same way again,” and I’ve found that to be true for me.
When people ask agents how far they read submissions, the general answer is along the lines of “Until I have a reason to stop.”
Growing up, it was hard for me not to finish a book, fiction or nonfiction. The idea that you must finish what you started was deeply rooted in me until I got more to do with my time. Then I started caving.
But even as an adult, my job as a teacher of Literature compelled me to read every book prescribed for students, which we had to study together in class. A particular book was so badly written that the only words I saw were adjectives. For every noun there were two or more attributive adjectives, or five or more predicative adjectives. But I had to finish it still.
And just as Deb mentioned above, I don’t regret reading those books — though I can’t anymore — because I learned never to write like that.
Yes, Stephen, I think I can attribute a lot of my “have to finish” behavior on being raised by depression-era parents. Nothing was wasted. But being able to find the “good” in the “bad” is a learning experience.
For me, it is at about the 25% mark. I really try to give books a chance. I have read some phenomenal books that took a few chapters to get going. But if I get a quarter of the way through and it still doesn’t have my attention (or I still couldn’t tell someone what the book is about) then I’m done.
Thanks, Brett. Based on many other comments, you’re a generous reader.
So many good comments! I recently read “The Goldfinch,” which was a long, long, long book. It could have been just as good if 20% shorter. Something about it kept me going, and, yes, the philosophical subtext paid off in a thematic ending that I liked. I’ll probably never read (nor write!) another book that long.
When my book club chose “Hamilton” I opened a copy, looked at the dense narrative and the length and gave it a pass after reading the first page. Might have missed a good book, but not everyone likes every book.