A couple years ago I started giving myself permission to not finish a book if I didn’t love it. The result has been that I rarely finish books anymore. This year I gave myself a Goodreads challenge of finishing 12 books. With 39 days left in the year, I have finished 3. So I’ve decided to take a look at the list of the books I didn’t finish and why. I think this is a useful exercise as a writer, to consider what might cause a reader to stop reading your book. You can’t please everyone, and obviously some of these books have been very successful, but as I revise my own novel the reasons why someone might stop reading are things to keep in mind. I should also add that each of these books had good qualities, they just weren’t enough to get me to finish the book.
The Martian by Andy Weir – I made it about half way through and then couldn’t take it any more. It is extremely difficult to build tension when these are journal entries so you know he survived the latest catastrophe that is about to happen. And there are too many “Oh no, there’s a weird noise!” entry breaks. I liked the narrator and wanted to see him live through each problem, but it was really obvious that he did. In addition to the lack of tension, there are only so many catastrophes that can happen before they start to feel repetitive. Things kept exploding or tearing or breaking down and it is hard to believe this botanist really has all of the necessary skills to solve the science of every problem. This would have worked much better as a short story or novella. Maybe I’ll watch the movie.
Diplomacy of Wolves by Holly Lisle – This is another one I read half of and then put it down. I actually read the series in middle school and loved it. Rereading it as an adult, there is a constant threat of rape that is unappealing and there had been two on-screen rapes by the time I gave up, one of them necessary for plot reasons, the other not at all. It could have been a mugging. It could have been any kind of crime you might expect to encounter in an alley. But instead it was an extremely graphic rape. For no reason. Add to that the fact that every single man is secretly in love with the heroine. Literally dudes keep revealing their secret passion left and right. It seemed like maybe it was her karnee/werewolf magic that was attracting these men to her and thus there was a pseudo plot reason, but mostly it felt unnecessary and annoying. I was reading this during my commute and one day decided to read something else.
The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas – I knew this book and I were off to a bad start when the first scene ended with the line “There’s something so sad about broken concrete” and in the margins I wrote “No there isn’t”. First of all, the book starts too soon and too slow and is trying too hard to be literary. Maybe there are reasons revealed later why the beginning scenes matter, but they were so dull. In particular, there is an astronomical amount of step by step narration of really tedious things in the first two chapters. Second, I did not understand why the heroine found the troposphere so addicting. Sure, getting there the first time made sense, she was on a journey of academic discovery. But the place was actually kind of boring so why was she so desperate to go back a second time? And third, why do these characters never go to the police? There is a missing person. There are people stalking the heroine and claiming to be from the CIA, which doesn’t have jurisdiction to arrest British citizens. Why aren’t they going to the police??? Fourth, the book seems like it is trying really, really hard to be clever, to be a puzzle and it isn’t. I did get an inkling of a “big reveal” that if it proved to be correct would be really lame, but that’s it. Yet again about half way through I got so annoyed I stopped reading. Maybe I’ll give it another try some day. I did kind of like the heroine.
Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas – How in the hell is an eighteen year old the greatest assassin in the kingdom?!? I finished the first chapter, started the second, and gave up. I had no sense of personality for the heroine other than that she was feisty in a very generic way, the framing device seemed contrived, and I found the backstory implausible. Maybe it’s all explained later on, maybe it gets better, but I found myself not asking how or why when I should have been. All I could think was “this is so stupid.”
The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner – There was a guy who may have been a villain and was very mustache twirly and it seemed like he was supposed to be scandalous but he was just dull, and there was a heroine who at the end of the first chapter I knew nothing about beyond she comes from a Complicated Family (TM). I had no sense of her personality, had no reason to care about her. Very easy to put down.
Banner of the Damned by Sherwood Smith – Crown Duel is one of my all-time favorite novels, so I was excited to read this novel set in the same world. But it was dry. And slow. There was a *long* build up of will this character who according to the back of the book is a scribe get to become a scribe? And what will her assignment be even though we know what it is from the back of the book? And how will the generic high school politics among this group of type A students resolve? Oh and by the way there is this horrible noblewoman who we briefly see and she might have been an interesting villain but then she disappears for a long time. After a few chapters I gave up, never actually encountering what had been described on the back of the book but sounded really cool.
A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab – Recommended to me by multiple people so I thought I’d give it a try. Nope. Great big nope. Again, I didn’t have any reason to care about the hero. There was a bucketload of really obvious foreshadowing. There was a long info dump, most of which could have been saved for later. The concept of parallel Londons was cool, but not enough to keep me reading.
The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg – The book concept sounds so interesting – a magic system based on manipulating materials, and you are bound for life to a single material. The book is inspired by Howl’s Moving Castle, a book I loved, which is another plus. But then I tried to read it. In the first two chapters the heroine is immature and completely lacking in agency, nothing is explained, the plot is predictable, and it reads more like a rapid succession of events than an actual narrative.
I think the two big lessons from all of these books are: 1) Hooking the reader with the protagonist (or point of view character) is more important than hooking them with cool world building. Maybe it’s the voice, maybe its the stakes, but they have to feel like a real person and the reader has to have a reason to want to see what happens next to this person. The world building can be explained later. 2) Conflict for the sake of conflict is annoying, tedious, and potentially off-putting if the conflict is something like rape. It has to all mean something, it has to move the plot forward.