"Once you start a book, do you feel compelled to finish it? If not, what causes you to put it down?"
- from Susan
If you had asked me this question three or four years ago, I would have said, “Almost nothing.” I felt I owed it to the writer, to my wallet from which the funds came to buy it rather than some other book, to the principle of “waste not, want not” to finish what I started, to eat everything on my plate.
But having written four books and being in the thick of the fifth, I’ve lost a bit of the sense of loyalty – duty? – and have learned more about what goes into a good story, and how to spot something that’s just not taking off. I’m also a few years older and have enough unread books to last me more than my allotted years. So, if I get annoyed, confused, bored in the first 70-80 pages, I’m out.
I can hear you: 80 pages? Way too long. Yes, but maybe the writer starts slowly and is about to crack the story open on the next page. Maybe he redeems himself with the next scene. Mostly, no, that doesn’t happen. What does happen is:
Four female characters are introduced and they are all essentially the same – same physical tics, same attitudes, same voices, same ages. By page 50 I can’t keep Mary, Pat, Nancy, and Barbara (generic names too) apart and the author hasn’t given me a solid reason to try.
The first chapter takes place in Cleveland 2006, the second in Atlanta in 1873, the third in Cleveland again but in 2000 and the time and place shifts are giving me vertigo. It’s fair to time-shift and to place-shift but you’d better make each place more distinctive than Southern accents and hoop skirts.
The plot is way too complicated and the more convoluted it gets, the harder it is to maintain any momentum or focus. If I accepted the main plot and the three sub plots, I promise I’ll close the book when, on page 80, the author drops in an entirely new problem that means new characters and relationships and doesn’t seem to fit with what’s gone before.
The dialogue is not real and it doesn’t take me anywhere within the story. Assume the writer speaks English as a first language. Assume he or she lives in the real world and speaks to checkout clerks, dentists, and other writers hanging out at bars during conventions. Why don’t his characters talk like that? Why do her characters spend whole pages discussing how slow the elevators are in speech patterns right out of 1940s propaganda films?
The harder I work to get these things right in my own books, the more I have come to lose patience with books that can’t seem to pull it all together. Even now, though, I feel as though I’m being harsh and snobby, and that means I’ll probably assuage my guilt by sticking with the next not-quite-ready-for-prime-time novel that comes my way. It’s hard to write a good book, and I’m in awe of my colleagues who do it book after book after book. Those are the ones I read – carefully – to see how to make my own next book better.