I posted a casual question to my Twitter network about whether or not I should struggle on, reading a book I wasn’t enjoying.
The answers turned out to be a valuable lesson for anyone writing a book.
Reading between the lines, I saw that most people have a set of definite and personal rules about what it takes for them to keep reading — whether they realize it or not.
The responses seemed neatly divided between those who struggle on at all costs and those who gaily cast the book over their shoulder and waltz off with a new one, with nary a second glance.
1. Is The Writing Good?
As you’ve probably guessed, I considered myself firmly in the first camp for years and years (probably a product of a British upbringing, where it is understood that certain literary works are ‘worthy’ and ‘must’ be read, even if you hate them).
But now? With so many books and so little time? Why soldier on?
Well, if the writing is exquisite, if it moves something inside me, I’ll keep picking up the book even if I hate the characters or think the plot is dull. I might never make it to the end, but I’ll continue to feel like I ought to make the effort.
Books in this category for me include:
Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, which was worth sticking with and opened up a whole world of ‘magical realism’ books to me.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke . This took me well over a year to read because the language was so dense that I had to keep putting it down and coming up for air. But I kept going back to it and consider it totally worth the investment.
If the writing isn’t amazing, then reading this book isn’t even improving my own writing, so why am I reading it?
2. Are the characters compelling?
I read a terrible Harlequin romance recently. In fact, I say ‘terrible’, but it obviously wasn’t because I stayed up into the wee hours just to finish it. The plot was predictable, the language made me cringe — often — but the characters…something about the characters made me keep turning the pages just to find out how they ended up together. (Oh, and there were racy bits that were fun). The pacing was good and the writer part of me was fascinated by how this writer was keeping me hook even though I shouldn’t have been.
If I care about the characters and the language is at least readable, I’ll stick with pretty much any book.
I gave up on “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith because her characters, though finely drawn, had nothing for me. I’m struggling with Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” because, even though I can see that it’s “important” I dislike every character – including the omniscient narrator. I’m giving up on a mystery novel because the characters all sound alike, except when the author is using them as a punchline.
3. Am I Learning Anything?
Even if I’m not loving the characters or the plot, I might keep reading if the setting is well realized. If the author has really done their research and is painting a gripping picture of life on a Martian colony or how to build a medieval cathedral (or an elevator to space), or what it would be like to grow up in Venice, I’ll probably keep reading.
That mystery novel I just shelved? It’s supposed to be set in England but the author writes like an Anglophile who has learned about Britain from Agatha Christie novels (Tips for Anglophiles: no-one has stopped for afternoon tea since the 1930s, though they might stop for a tea break consisting of a cuppa and a nice choccie biccie. No English policeman would make an internal comment about being ‘blue collar’, but he’d probably be proud of his working class roots. People in Britain don’t talk about their car’s speed in kph, even if we are supposed to be metric.)
A good setting can be spellbinding. A poorly researched or written one will get you shelved.
4. Am I pressed for time?
There are a lot of books out there and, in the midst of every day life, I’m going to get resentful pretty quickly if I think the author’s wasting my time.
If, however, I’m on holiday in a cabin in the woods with no-one asking me for anything, I’ll be much more forgiving. I’ll wait for the author to get to the point. I’ll struggle on to find out what happens, even if the author doesn’t seem in a hurry to get to the climax.
On the average day, though? Many people subscribe to this philosophy.
As a writer who wants to be read, you need to revise and revise until your language is the best it can be, your characters utterly compelling and your setting is spellbinding.
EDITING AND REVISION SEMINAR
Editing your writing is hard, but it’s one of the things that makes the difference between a first draft and a published draft.
On Sept 9, come and learn about the different levels and stages of editing with StoryADay.org’s own Julie Duffy.
In this teleseminar you’ll learn about:
- Understanding the different levels of editing and how to use this knowledge to keep from being discouraged,
- How to figure out what you need right now,
- DIY editing,
- How to effectively get editing help from others.
You’ll also receive an exclusive money-saving offer on my upcoming series of writing seminars aimed specifically at short-story writers.
Sign up for the Creativity Lab to hear more about the free editing seminar.
(The Creativity Lab is different from the StoryADay Advance List, which is only about the challenge. The Creativity Lab is an infrequent newsletter, chock-full of tools and information to help you in your writing life).