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Monday, February 16, 2009

Ten Things That Make Me Stop Reading

Hinging off Matt Staggs' recent post on the same subject, I thought I would talk about what elements in a novel make me stop reading.
I'm a notoriously picky reader, especially when it comes to novels. Some of my TAs at school have learned this, and others are probably oblivious, but when I'm not entertained by a book, it instantly becomes a chore and, thus, difficult for me to actually get through (sometimes I stop reading entirely, even though they are school books). Since I already have to read so many novels, I find myself largely becoming uninterested in books that don't immediately grab me and, thus, I develop a more sophisticated (not necessarily better) taste in literature.
Here are ten things that will almost always make me toss a book across the room:
  1. Unrealistic Sex Scenes
    I realize that the uber dork meeting an attractive woman and then having an all-night-romp of passionate, intense love making is appealing, but it's also incredibly unrealistic and somewhat pathetic. What about nerves? What about guys who aren't reincarnated sex machines? Most men aren't super lovers who can go seven times in half a day (I'm looking at you, Greg Bear; that scene in Blood Music was absolutely absurd and seemed too much like a personal fantasy). Of course, most men won't admit this, but that's not the point. The point is that sex isn't perfect. Not everyone who is inexperienced will magically be good at it. Most will suck. Let's put some of that into our novels, please. The unrealistic inexperienced lanky guy who gives his partner five O-moments in one night is a bit, well, overused and easy to see as poorly disguised personal fantasy.
  2. Rape (Used Poorly)
    Any time when rape is used for shock value, I'm out. The same can be said for scenes following a rape in which the victim seems relatively un-phased. I don't find rape entertaining; most people don't. Rape should be put into a story to serve a purpose. This is why I couldn't stand The Hills Have Eyes 2: the rape scene was there only to be shocking, not to develop a character in a certain way or drive the plot or anything (it was an opportunity to do something disgusting in order to make our skin crawl). I will drop books that do not address rape as an important and emotionally devastating thing. It's no walk in the park and I want to see that in the writing.
  3. Violence For the Sake of Being Violent
    I don't mind blood and gore. But just as with rape, it has to have a purpose. If you're just showing me limbs being chopped off because you like it, then I'm likely to drop the book. I want violence that takes itself seriously, that tries to convey a scene realistically and with logical consequences. If a character is involved in a war and manages to survive relatively unscathed after seeing all his friends get chopped to bits, how does he respond to that? If your answer is anything like "he goes off and dances to lively elven music while remarking how awesome the battle was," then I'm out.
  4. Being Artistic For the Sake of Being Artistic
    Consider this literary snobbery, if you like. I absolutely despise novels that try to do new things with language or story for the purpose of being artistic. The problem I have with a lot of literary fiction is that most of the people who write that stuff are so focused on the art form that they have forgotten how to tell a story. Literature is here to tell and show us stories. Novels that don't give any attention to the story and all the attention to language and style are ones that eventually get dropped by me. Entertain me with your pretty language; don't bore me to death.
  5. Laggy Beginnings
    If it takes more than fifty pages for something to happen that is interesting, then I'm not likely to finish the book. In a 300-page novel, it's not much to ask for a bit of action or something in the beginning, even if it's something small. Set up a question or show me something crazy. Do something. You've got more space to get me interested in the rest of the book than you had with your editor. The ending shouldn't be boring, period.
  6. Crappy Writing
    This one is pretty obvious, right? I'm going to lob all forms of crappy writing in there: bad style, lots of spelling/grammar errors, poor plotting, etc. I don't think I need to go beyond this except to say that how you tell a story is extremely important. If reading a work is like trying to decipher ancient hieroglyphics, then clearly whatever it is I'm reading doesn't deserve to be published.
  7. Poor Science Played Off Like Legit Science
    I'm perfectly fine with letting slide things like faster-than-light travel, aliens that look human-ish, etc. What I don't like is when a science fiction author writes a story filled with explanation about some "new" science that, in reality, is actually a load of absolute nonsense. If you want to write fantasy, then write fantasy. If you want to write hard SF, then stick with sciences we know. The one thing that non-hard SF writers do successfully is represent their "fantasy" tropes as just that: tropes. FTL for them is simply there, thus allowing them to focus on the story rather than trying to explain how their FTL works without violating the laws of the universe. Don't explain to me how FTL works, just tell me it does and move on.
  8. Confusing Names and Other Bad Worldbuilding Crap
    Names need vowels. Fjfjcbvyx is not a name; it's what happens when your cat runs over your keyboard. The thing that bothers me about some fantasy novels is the endless repetition of the unpronounceable name. This alone isn't enough, though. There have to be a collection of worldbuilding-related things working together to get me to drop a novel. These include, but are not limited to, such annoying things as invented languages that are too obviously derivative of Tolkien's elven tongues, reinventions of fantasy creatures that are too absurd to be fantastic anymore, and perfect heroes.
  9. Too Much Telling and Rambling
    I absolutely cannot stand when an author tells me things without showing them, especially when at the most random of times. The same can be said for long infodumps and ramblings about stuff that actually has nothing to do with the story. Show, don't tell. Seriously. I know that there are exceptions, but it's not that hard to show me when someone is upset rather than just saying "Bill was upset." Use your words like a big writer.
  10. Too Many Characters and Switching POVs (in the middle of a scene)
    For the record, it takes a hell of a lot of POV characters before I drop a book. I hate being confused when I shouldn't be and stories with more POV characters than I can count on my hands are ones not worth reading, to me. I also don't understand why people randomly switch POVs in the same scene, without a break of some sort. It gets confusing and it's amateur. Even good writers get this wrong. Being confusing is bad. Avoid it.
And there you have it. What do you think? Anything you disagree with? What about you? What do you consider to be deal breakers?

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  1. i don't like nauseatingly long-winded descriptions of characters' appearances that are only hyper realizations of stereotypes. mainly, authors describing how absolutely beautiful the characters are in a way that just makes them seem like pin-ups or cartoon characters. it gets too much into the stupid adolescent thing...

  2. Oh, that's a good one. I agree :).


  3. aliens that look human-ish

    That one's a deal breaker for me. Two arms, two legs, a torso and a head, that's fine. Its a basic body plan that would probably be common in a universe where intelligent life is common (though surely only one of many).

    But when the book depicts an alien species as only cosmetically different from humans I read no further. Its one of my prime SF pet peeves. Early Star Trek had little choice due to limitation of special effects and budget so they can be forgiven (its still annoying though and probably a big part of the reason I'm not much of a fan of the series).

    A novelist, though, has no excuse.

  4. Oh, I agree. There has to be something inhuman about them (physically). Just making them look different isn't enough (at least, not in novels; TV can get away with it form time to time).

  5. "Fjfjcbvyx is not a name; it's what happens when your cat runs over your keyboard." That cracked me up. Good observations, and I pretty much agree with all of them. Too much telling and not enough showing is a pet peeve of mine, also. I'm also really sick of Tolkein derivative fantasy. I love LOTR; it's one of my favorite series of all time, but come on, creative writers should be able to come up with something besides elves and dwarves! (Especially if they're called something else and the writer is trying to pretend they're not elves and dwarves, when it's obvious that they really are).

  6. Haha. Glad you thought that was funny :). I try. Comedy is really difficult to write...

    I think if you're going to use elves and dwarves, you absolutely have to do something different with them. The typical stuff doesn't work for me that much anymore (unless it's a darn good writer telling a fantasterrifical story).

  7. I don't really mind that they use conventional types of nonhumans in fantasy so long as they tell a good tale.

    But I've never a frequent reader of highly Tolkien derivative fantasy anyway. My favorite fantasy series are Lawrence Watt-Evans ETHSHAR books and Jack Vance's DYING EARTH. No elves or dwarves in either.

  8. The thing I most feed up with in fantasy (and some science fiction too, especially movie SF) is the idea of the "chosen one". For me that was the most irritating feature of the Matrix Trilogy (second only to the ridiculous human battery concept).

    No more chosen ones. PLEASE.

  9. That's why I like ETHSHAR. Stories about pretty ordinary people in a world where magic is real stumbling into strange adventures.

  10. I'm a bit tired of chosen ones as well. I've tried to avoid it or leave it somewhat ambiguous in the WISB series, primarily because I don't want James to be a chosen one, but just an ordinary individual doing extraordinary things on his own (rather than based on prophecy, etc.). Not sure if it's worked, though.

  11. Torture. Any way shape or form.

  12. Bad spelling or bad command of the english language. Or even a bad use of punctuation? Just writing for the sake of writing and you can tell is just bad. I have put down many books just because they can't put one word in front of another! I am also a very picky reader. When you read a lot you know how books should go.

  13. Connie: I suppose torture is a personal taste. I don't like it, but if it's done well in a story it can add power to things.

    Jodi: That's usually a killer for me too. I put that up there as "Crappy Writing." It's also sort of a given. If you can't even read the darn thing, it's not going to hold your attention, now is it?