Image: Matthew Loffhagen
People give up and put books down for any number of reasons, but if we understand the most common causes, we can intercept them during the writing process. As writers expend all their energy actually writing the book and expend all their sleep freaking out about publication routes, it’s easy to lose sight of this one pressing question: are people going to want to read this book all the way to the end?
Here are the core reasons people put books down before they’re done and how to make sure your book isn’t one of them.
1. Homogeneous reading experience
Complexity is your life support. If a book is too sad, too happy, too erratic, too predictable, too erudite, too preachy, too anything, your reader is going to hit a point where they feel like something different and give up your book in favor of variety. Even people who pick up Fifty Shades of Grey eager to read something kinky reportedly put it down because the kinkiness gets old. Complexity not only caters to the 21st century’s short attention span, it also reflects real life.If your book only does one thing, it’s unlikely to keep your reader’s attention.Click To Tweet
Your book may have some predominant colors. That’s fine. But add an unexpected splash of orange or a tinge of purple along the perimeters. Trace in the laughter at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Emulate the ironic quips in Flannery O’Connor that put just enough humor in the darkness to make it palatable. Weave passion into the social commentary of Brokeback Mountain. With the right amount of texture, your readers won’t be rolling their eyes and casting your life’s work aside.
For a deeper dive into this issue, check out Your Book’s Journey Is The Secret Ingredient To Amazing Marketing.
2. Slow/confusing start
Books that are too scattered, too cryptic, or take too long to make their point will prompt readers to give up early. Catch 22 or One Hundred Years of Solitude are classic examples of books that everybody talks about but almost nobody reads to the end. They’re too disjointed. You need a user’s manual to find your way through One Hundred Years of Solitude (and I say that as someone who actually liked the book).
The beat poets had their heyday when everybody was still pretending to like them, but a more common response to Kerouac’s rambling, disseminated On the Road is reflected in Truman Capote’s famous denunciation: ‘That’s not writing, that’s typing.’A slow opening is the easiest way to discourage hesitant readers.Click To Tweet
Other books, like Barney’s Version and Carter Beats the Devil, are so initially confusing (or even boring) that many readers never find out how good they are. If it weren’t for a glut of book clubs and a stellar audio version, I’m not sure A Gentleman in Moscow would have survived. Not because it isn’t gorgeous and charming and a breath of fresh air and everything else the reviews say it is, but because for the first third of the book, I kept thinking, ‘Well this is pretty, but is anything ever going to happen?’ If you’ve read it, you know it blossoms… it just takes its sweet time.
Get to the action early on, be clear, and don’t show off at the expense of moving forward. For more on this advice, check out “Start With The Action!” – What It Means And When You Should Do It and Are You Killing Your Book With Too Much Detail And Explanation?
3. Lack of hook
If your readers aren’t staying up too late to find out what happens, chances are they’ll get busy or bored and give up in favor of another book.
This probably feels like a tall order. It is. Your characters need to be interesting. Your plot has to be unpredictable without being erratic and unbelievable. Your setting has to be convincing. Your stakes have to matter. There should be cliffhanger moments (but not in excess). There should be strife and respite, summit and valley. There should be something that gnaws at the reader while they’re at work or tempts them to page ahead.What does your story do that hooks the reader’s interest? Nothing? Uh-oh…Click To Tweet
Look no further than Moby Dick for evidence of this. Granted, the book was not written for our times any more than the horse-drawn cart was made for the journey from New York to L.A., but people still read it because – despite things like Melville dedicating a whopping 3,645 words to the whiteness of the whale – there’s something for people to root for, wait for, hope for, and dread.
If you don’t feel 100% impassioned about what’s happening in your book, set it aside. Start another one. Sometimes, authors have a good idea, but it’s not clear to them or fully absorbing. For one reason or another, they’ve decided ‘I really want to make this work.’ Yes, a book is hard work, but that shouldn’t be all it is.
Take a tough stance with yourself early on – what about your story makes the reader need to keep reading? If nothing, what can you add to fulfill this purpose?
There’s an exception to every rule, in art more than anything, but your reader is not a loyal partner. Keep them interested or risk them being wooed away by a book with a more enticing hook. For more on this, begin with Hook Your Readers: 6 Tried And Tested Tips.
4. The writing is weak
Sometimes, a certain style doesn’t jibe with a reader. That’s why it’s helpful to align your genre with as wide a target audience as possible and pepper familiarity with a few surprises. Be careful, though, not to conflate an under-developed voice with a style that ‘just doesn’t appeal’ to everyone.
If you have an amazing story, you owe it to that story to fine tune your craft. Take classes, read books on writing, read books not on writing, hire an editor, buy your friends copious amounts of their favorite food/drink/bath gel in exchange for feedback. By the time you are done editing and re-editing and having-somebody-else-do-the-editing of your book, you’re going to be sick of it. And at that point? You’re probably still not done.
True, there are times when weak writing is overridden by good marketing (we’re looking at you, Dan Brown) or sex appeal (Fifty Shades et al), but there’s a lot of luck that goes into making that happen. Relying on luck is not a good strategy.
Honor your story. Do what it takes so that the writing showcases the story instead of distracting from it or, worse, killing it. Uninspiring writing is a step up from writing that gets in the way, but writing that actually enhances the story is the goal. This is a constant journey for any author worth their salt, but you can check out How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words as a good place to start.
5. Misleading expectations
Sometimes, your reader opens your book and discovers that it’s not at all what they expected. Here’s the thing – you’d have been fine if they’d never picked it up, but now you’ve got an irritated anti-fan who’s eager to spread the word about how disappointing they found your work. Not only did they give up early, but they’re encouraging your target readers to not even bother.Attracting the wrong kind of reader can easily backfire.Click To Tweet
This one’s all about advertising – make sure your decisions relating to the cover, the blurb, and other marketing are about getting the right readers, not just pulling in as many people as possible. Want to know more? Try Do You Waste Time Marketing Your Book To The Wrong Readers?
Don’t invite the reader to give up
The internet means a saturation of almost every market and corner of society, and literature is not immune. There are millions of books. 130 million, if you asked Google eight years ago. It’s easier to quit books when there are so many to choose from, and when your e-reader allows you to discard one $1.99 book for another without any landfill guilt. You can’t just write a book and hope people will finish it. You have to write something worth reading – all the way to the end.
Pulling that off is difficult, but hey, that’s what makes being an author so amazing, and the payoff is worth it. Get a reader to happily finish your book and you’ve encouraged them to actively search out your next one. It’s a process that has built countless literary legacies, and yours could be next.
What makes you give up on a book before it’s finished, and what makes you stay up half the night just to read a little more? Let me know in the comments.