When do you quit reading a novel? If that question sounds familiar, it’s because I already asked it in another post. So the next question is … what about everyone else? Their secret “rules” may surprise you…
I send this question to my VIP Reader Email Club, and it’s one of my favorite questions I ever ask. I’m blown away by the volume of responses I get … and some of you are hilarious.
Turns out, whatever your personal rules are, a whole crowd of readers out there probably feels the exact opposite.
But_ _I’d rather let them tell you in their own words…
Quit? I CAN’T Quit!! (Or, the Curse of Reader’s Remorse…)
As a writer, my biggest surprise was the number of readers who don’t quit. Like, ever.
I can honestly say there have been very few books I cannot finish – despite begging myself (repeatedly) to do so.
I am one of those that one I started the book I have read the whole thing and see how the ending is. No matter how much I lose interest in the middle, I stick it out to the finish.
I have only ever quit three books in my life, all because they required too much energy to read. By that I mean that usually when I read it flows and takes zero effort to read.
Read to end no matter.
I rarely stop reading a novel before I reach then end, it has to be REALLY bad for me to do that.
How bad would that be? Here’s another reader who could only remember ever quitting ONE novel ever …
I only quit reading one […] I remember the protagonist had a fixation for cupcakes and would carry some in her purse. (How in the hell does one do that without squashing it?)
I love that image.
Yes, technically, this protag probably had the sense to buy those plastic bakery cupcake containers, which would at least prevent complete disaster. But it is so much more fun to imagine a heroine buying a big frosty chocolate special and then merrily tossing it into her purse’s open maw …
I don’t want to suggest that all finishers feel trapped. Some clearly relish their stamina and sense of exploration.
I always try to finish a book, because as you said they can and do surprise me.
Plus, many of these determined readers have a rigorous pre-screening process. They won’t quit a book once they start, but they’re very careful about which books they start.
I’ve had multiple readers describe how they choose a book, but this is one of my favorites:
The thing with me is that I always start off looking at the title name and the cover. If at least one of the two interests me, then I will continue onto the next part. Then, I look at the epilogue or a short part of the story on the back if possible. If that interests me, then I read the book. No matter how much I might want to stop, I have never left a book unfinished in my life!
Meanwhile, other readers can remember this sense of obligation, but they’ve since found a new freedom in letting books go…
I used to feel obligated to finish any book I started, even if I wasn’t enjoying it. Then one day I realized that there were about a gazillion books out there and I was wasting time reading mediocre or possibly-good-but-not-to-my-taste books.
I was 40 years old when I finally realized I didn’t have to read every book to the bitter end. I finished a lot of stinkers before I realized I could just close a book and quit.
I have found myself evolving as I age. I no longer feel I owe it to the author if I dislike the book; it is my time I’m wasting.
I have “given it a chance” far too often, when a novel begins by insulting my intelligence … Life is too short, after all, to waste it on trash.
I used to NEVER quit reading a novel. However, after a near death experience I realized that life is far too short to regret time spent reading.
Comments like this fill me with relief. You might think an author would relish the power to hold captive readers in thrall, but actually, the mere thought is terrifying. Novels are freaking long. My book, inflicting hours and hours of torture? Perish the thought.
Still can’t bear to quit? How about this simple but effective hack to get that book truly “finished” …
I tend to stick it out as long as I can before I just can’t stand it anymore. … I talk myself into just one more page to see if it is going to improve. And even when I have given up, I usually skim through to the end anyway. Just to see what happens.
Don’t underestimate this tactic. Sometimes the only thing keeping us reading is some open plot loop. Close that loop and we’re free … especially if the ending wouldn’t have been worth the time.
The Trial Period
Many readers seem to have worked out a sensible compromise: the trial period.
They give the book a certain amount of time, and if it’s a dud, they move on.
The exact amount varies: 3-4 chapters, 50 pages, 100 pages…
Some readers would tell me these amounts with an air of apology, like I would take authorial offense, but I feel just the opposite. Giving me three or four whole chapters, or a hundred pages, is amazing. If I can’t get the story together by then, you should move on.
Seriously, the writers I hang with have this idea that the average reader’s only going to give you maybe 1.2 pages before they flit off to check Instagram and you’re done. This puts a lot of pressure on us to craft these stupendous, mind-blowing openings that will wrench you by the neck and throttle you into submission.
This usually backfires. Who cares if some stranger is blowing up before we’ve even gotten a chance to know them? But that’s another article.
Mainly, I am incredibly relieved at how generous you all are with giving our books so much time. Thank you.
Of course, some trial periods are shorter than others…
The story better get going in a hurry. Ten pages describing the lake & the woods & I’m out of there! I’ve probably missed a lot of good stories because of that but so be it.
Violence and F-Bombs and Sex, Oh My!
As you might expect, many readers will quit a book that crosses their personal lines for swearing and graphic violence or sex. So if you have your own standards for this, you’re definitely not alone.
For some, any graphic violence is a no-go. Others check out when the victim is innocent, like a child or an animal.
Some quit the book entirely, others will skim the rough patch.
Here is my favorite take on keeping it PG:
Dear Bill, I am a 73-year-old retired nurse […] If I am reading something I am enjoying and a very descriptive sex screen starts I just skip it. If I am not doing it I don’t want to read about it. Yes, 72yo enjoy having sex.
Beyond the question of what’s too disturbing, readers raised broader questions like believability.
For instance, multiple readers (especially nurses) complained about medical inaccuracies.
I quit reading if a character survives injuries they could not survive.
I hear that. I just started this TV series where an early episode ended with the protag getting pushed over a ledge onto a rocky beach. Not the water, the beach. A good forty feet. Not only was he up on his feet again after a brief hospital stay, he went back to the character who pushed him and they kept hanging out.
Other inaccuracies are more … subtle …
The other day I saw the Fate of the Furious. I could take the insane fight scenes, the implausible hackneyed plot without a problem, but when they were racing through Manhattan during the day instead of getting stuck in gridlock, they lost me.
That’s how I feel about “guess the password” scenes. In fact, my own empath detective, Mark, even complains about those scenes in Murder Feels Awful (before eventually guessing a password…)
Sins against Grammar, Style, and Language In General
Interestingly, some of the deepest reader outrage was reserved for a simple lack of language skills.
While I have your ear, may I also mention the grammar errors in ebooks are astounding!!
I can read just about anything, as long as the typos are at a minimum and the editing is decent. I cannot stand trying to translate what editors and betas have missed into English.
My biggest pet peeve when reading is poor editing.
Wrong words, i.e. heal vs heel — a book I read had a gal with, I kid you not, epic heals.
One creative reader suggested a simple solution…
I feel authors should consider paying a small fee to a local English teacher – at least they can help if an author cannot afford an editor … and no, I am not an English teacher. 🙂
Interesting Quirks I Hadn’t Thought Of
Meanwhile, other readers noticed issues I’d never really thought about. Very helpful for the striving author…
There have been some books where I just had to quit reading. The reason being that they referred to far too many quirky local in-jokes that other nationalities wouldn’t understand or I had to google them to understand what they were talking about because its a place or thing that is only known locally to where the story is based.
Frequent repetition of certain phrases or of a character’s (usually the lead character) idiosyncrasies or foibles. Makes the reader feel that they are dumb clucks.
I’d say the first real turnoff is when one starts out centered on the main character and the writer is Over Selling him/her to the point where it already has that false feel to it. Like say a prepper type book. The prot is ex special forces 6ft 5in 200 plus lbs!!!….. FAKE!
I do not enjoy books where the author feels it is necessary to tell me in 10 pages or more what the person in the story is thinking when someone in the book say hello to them.
One reader shared her multiple attempts across multiple years to finish a particular Stephen King novel…but when she finally did finish, she loved it so much she now rereads it every year or so.
From that, I learned to always go back to books I have tried. It may just not be the right time to click with you.
Finally, there’s always…
Character names I can’t pronounce.
(Okay, maybe I have had tricky character names … years later, sometimes I can’t pronounce them…)
The Nebulous Question of Quality
Beyond these specific items, there’s the larger question of quality. Which turns out to be hard to define…
No one thing makes me decide to quit on a book. It would have to be a mixture, like slow story line, and awkward tone. If the book reads like the author fell asleep in the middle, definitely gonna quit on it.
For me it’s all about the feels. If I’m feeling the book, onward. If not, I will stop.
I think the real clincher is a sympathetic or humorous character with whom I feel some kind of connection. To be honest, if I am to really love a book, there needs to be humor in it.
For me any book I read has to have a nice rhythm and pace so they slide from one scene to the next without stuttering if you will…. A great book has me falling into the story as if I were an extra character and part of the action.
One gentleman shared his wife’s interesting theory of averages:
She finds that for every ten books she reads TWO are of a good legible quality, THREE are passably entertaining and acceptable, the other FIVE she reads two or three chapters, decides if she wants to continue, if not, she deletes.
Personally, I find these numbers pleasantly optimistic. I would love to find out that, on the whole, twenty percent of the books we write are solid wins.
And then there’s … Love …
Reading all your thoughts on this has been so delightful and mind-expanding … thank you again for everyone who took the time to write me. I could have pasted in so many more … alas, even an epic blog post has to end some time.
But of all these most excellent replies, I’ve got to close with this:
But often I’ve sat through a movie not because I wanted to see it, but because someone else did. Handing my Lady-Love extra Kleenex is worth it. Likewise sitting through the tenth viewing of Veggie Tales that day works when certain granddaughters want to show me what they love. I now have 4….and expect to be doing it for sometime to come.
How about you? What’s your take? Comment below or email me — I’d love to hear your secret rules for when to quit a novel.