Monday, August 29, 2016

On giving myself permission not to finish books

A quick snapshot of one of our many bookshelves

Long before I was a writer, I was a reader. A voracious reader. At the age of 10, I had read through my local library's collection of children's books and had to have my mother talk to the librarian and grant me permission to take out books from the rest of the library.

I once tried to count all the books I had read - it was my version of 'counting sheep' when I had a hard time falling asleep - and always lost track, but even then, it was in the hundreds.

So when I say I've read a lot, you'll have to take it on faith that it means many thousands of books over a lifetime.

I never abandoned books before I began to write them. It felt disrespectful, somehow, to the sacred act of writing. So even if I didn't enjoy something, I finished it. That changed in my 40s and 50s. Maybe because now that I am a writer, I don't want to internalize poor writing or work that may be good, but I don't enjoy. Maybe because I realized at some point that there would be far more books published than I could ever read, even if I had several lifetimes to do so.

So now I stop reading and put the book away if I get to the 10% mark and am not in the least engaged. In the past 6 months, I've abandoned more books than I've finished. For the majority of them, it wasn't that they were 'bad' (however that is measured), but just not engaging. If I don't care about the characters or the story, then reading becomes work, not pleasure.

There is a common thread in many of the books I set aside: they tell me about the story instead of telling me a story.

The book I closed last night was a prime example. I felt like the author was relating the events of the plot, as if they were giving me a synopsis, rather than letting the story unfold.

Many times, this is a result of mediocre writing, but more crucial, of the author maintaining a kind of uninterested distance from the work. After pages and pages of 'this happens and that happens and then that happens next', I grew bored. There were exciting things happening - a mutiny aboard a space ship, a captain dying from some unrevealed disease or disorder, his need to protect a young woman under his care - but it was a color-by-numbers kind of presentation.

If the author passionately cares about the story and transmits that care THROUGH the characters, then I will happily read even a poorly crafted story. But even if the words are well crafted, I don't have patience to stay with a story that has no passion.

And lest you think that this is a dig at self-published work, understand that I am an equal opportunity critic. Several of the books I set aside in the past 6 months were Nebula and Hugo nominees. Several were self-published books.

What this tells me is craft and packaging is not, on their own, enough and sometimes craft and packaging are not the essential elements of a great story. What I have discovered is when passionate writing, craft, and packaging happen in one place, that's going to be an amazing book. 



  • Free eBook
  • Free/DRM-free short fiction
  • publication news


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I often don't understand how people can insist on pushing ahead through a lifeless story. Life is too short! What you describe here sounds a lot like the author is letting us see the story through his/her eyes rather than through his characters. That provides part of that "distance" you mention in many stories I put down. The story is a relaying of happenings rather than an experience. We get the latter when the author puts us inside the character's skin.