I used to feel guilty if I started reading a book but found myself not wanting to see it through. Some author sweated and bleed for that book. We can learn so much by exposing ourselves to styles and even ideas we don’t normally enjoy or agree with. Books cost money. We can develop perseverance by making ourselves do things that we don’t particularly want to do. I preached all these reasons and more to myself in trying to power through books that I just… didn’t like.
Life. Is. Too. Short.
We’re all busy. There are more books in the world than anyone could possibly read in a lifetime. Here and now, I want to give you permission, reader, to just let it go. If you’ve given that book a good 100 pages to spark you’re imagination but you’re just not enjoying it, it’s ok to acknowledge that and move on. Books don’t have feelings. The author already made their sale. Art is subjective. It’s ok.
I want to talk about three specific examples that lost me. These are all well-known titles from reputable publishers. I won’t name them, because I don’t want to use even this small platform to harm another author. That is not my purpose with this article. Rather, I hope to highlight the specific things about these tales that failed to resonate with me, personally, and apply lessons from those near-misses to my own writing. Ok, disclaimers out of the way, let’s look at…
Abandoned Book 1: Thick Paranormal Historical Fiction
A couple of years ago, I picked up a thick volume with a striking title and a strong hook. It explored one of history’s greatest mysteries with a supernatural twist. I am completely there for that. I love history. I read the heck out of fantasy and horror. I was ready to be thrilled, terrified, and intrigued. 300 pages in, the story was not nearly halfway done, and showed no signs of picking up. It plodded along at a glacial pace, bogging the narrative down in details of inventory and routine. Literally. I understand that given the theme of survival and endurance that that was part of the purpose, but I don’t personally want to “endure” something that I read for pleasure.
Reading this book really hammered home to me the lesson that brevity is a virtue. Worldbuilding is like peanut butter. It’s an essential part of a PB&J, but if you dump a whole jar on a single sandwich, it will not only overpower the other flavors, it will be impossible to eat, and you might choke in the attempt.
Abandoned Book 2: Angsty Wizard Drama
I was really intrigued by the setting of this fantasy series about a kingdom with two types of magic: one dominant, one oppressed. It promised conflict, mystery, and sweeping social upheaval. I was excited! I finished the first book and started the second. As the story progressed, it started to feel cyclical. The bulk of the text focused on two mages, one from each magical tradition, one from each associated social class. They spent most of their time arguing about their friendship. Not about any external or interpersonal conflict – about the relationship itself. This was disappointing, but would have been tolerable if their debates were about different topics. Instead, they circled around to the same subjects repeatedly. These were two heterosexual men. There did not seem – to me, at least – to be anything romantic between them, at least through the first book and half. The way they spoke to one another did not ring true based on my experience with friendships with other men. For the most part, we don’t talk about our feelings in the same way this book presented, particularly about the relationship itself. That is probably a bad thing, but it is the truth I have lived. When we do, those conversations tend to be short and action-focused, i.e. “when you did X, that wasn’t cool.” The cyclical arguments along with the growing lack of relatability ultimately took me out of the story.
Reading this book reminded me to first, not repeat myself, and second, to do my homework when it comes to representing people on the page who are not like me. Our world is a diverse place, so our books need diverse casts, but it takes work to authentically present those different perspectives. Believe me, reader, I see the irony. Straight dudes are probably the most represented group in fiction. I’m not going full “Men’s Rights” on you. This book gave a small taste of what women, LGBTQ folks, and readers of color probably experience every time they pick up a book written by a person who looks like me. I would never say that I’ve experienced anything remotely like the same thing, but it did give me a feeling to hold on to, to remind me to do the work. Do my research.
Abandoned Book 3: Popular Dark Fantasy Epic
You’ll probably guess what this one is about. A few years ago, I read the first three books and started the fourth in a popular epic fantasy series. It was chocked full of political intrigue, action, and high stakes. Two things about this series grated on me. First, the darkness really wore me down. It is one thing for bad people in fiction to do bad things, especially when the text treats it as a negative event. It is another for bad things to happen and the text to shrug. Some people love that. It’s
probably definitely more realistic. It left me very nearly depressed. But, these well-written, action-filled epics drug me along for three long books…. then the fourth came. A series that ostensibly tells one story should do just that. We expect forward momentum and strong plot connections between books. By the end of book 3, the major plot threads were mostly resolved. I expended so much emotional energy slogging through the darkness of the first three books, I had nothing left to invest in new characters with new, seemingly unrelated problems. I put it down and never looked back.
These books taught me about the cost of emotional investment. If I am going to present evil on the page, it must mean something, and point to a satisfying resolution. Readers care about characters. Because of the way our brains process imagination and memory, we feel like we know them. If our books are doing their jobs, readers experience the trauma we impose on our characters, if not exactly as if they were there, then very similarly. It is worthwhile to be mindful of the degree of stress we ask our readers to endure.
So, What Now?
We often learn more from failure than from success. In the same way, these books and series that for one reason or another I could not finish all taught me lessons that I can apply to my own writing.
If you are not a writer, and if you need permission from some arbitrary outside source, then please, consider this that permission: You are not required to finish every book you start. You can place any book down for any reason that is significant enough to you. Life. Is. Too. Short.