I start many novels; I finish few. After years of writing, editing, and evaluating works of fiction, I have reader ADD. I read mostly crime/mystery/suspense and some sci-fi, but here’s what makes me put down a book:

  • Slow start with too much day-in-the-life detail or too much backstory (I like it when a novel makes me think Oh shit in the first few pages)
  • Protagonists who do stupid things (especially before I start to like them)
  • Stories that jump back and forth in time for no good reason
  • Characters who have cutsie names or are obsessed with their pets (Sorry!)
  • Detailed gratuitous graphic violence
  • Detailed graphic sex scenes (They’re all gratuitous unless you write erotica)
  • Characters who bicker with their siblings or spouses (I’ve seen a lot of this lately!)
  • Too many characters introduced in the first few pages with no real explanation of who they are
  • Pages and pages with no dialogue
  • Protagonists who engage in immoral acts, like harming an innocent person (I need at least one person to root for)
  • Long, meandering side stories that take me out of the main plot
  • Serial killers (No offense if you write them, I’m just burnt out)

What makes you put down a book?

  1. Intriguing. I think that warrants a post. I was just trying to come up with something to write about seeing my day was rather “ho hum” for blogging purposes. That’s a great one!

  2. All of the above and then some, including bad editing, grammar and missed spelling mistake. And don’t get me started on the serial-comma usage.

    It’s funny you should write this post, as my friend and KBV colleague, Mark, and I have been writing about this very subject, and just how many submissions we receive so full of plots holes you could drive a bus through them.

  3. All of the above except for the last one (since I write thrillers!)

    How about a novel touted as “literary” but has pedestrian prose an eighth grader could have written.

    If a book has no plot, fits no obvious genre, they wrongly call it “literary” as to just plain old “fiction” (like they did in the old days in bookstores).

  4. Great points! I would add that I have to care about the characters – I’ll put up with a lot in terms of overall writing as long as the characters draw me in and make me want to know more. I don’t have to like the characters or agree with their choices, but they have to be richly drawn enough to make me want to keep reading.

  5. This doesn’t always kill the book for me, but one thing that severely wounds it is a description of a character that compares him or her to a movie or TV star, e.g. “he looked like an older/younger/blonde Harrison Ford.” It’s just lazy.

  6. “Historical” fiction where there appears to have been no attempt at basic research into the historical era.

  7. JD
    I did that once in The Sex Club and wondered if that’s what you were referring to. Interestingly, in a list serv discussion on this subject, some readers said they don’t like this convention (saying a character resembles someone famous), yet others readers said it helps them visualize the character. For sure, I’ll never do it again.
    Question for discussion: What if a character says it in dialogue? People do this in real life all the time.

  8. I confess, LJ, TSC is still on my TBR pile on the bedside table, so no, it wasn’t directed at you.

    In dialogue, one character to another, it’s different.

    In fact, Spider Robinson did a book in which people constantly remarked about the main character’s resemblance to a certain celebrity, which in the end provided an explanation of a very weird (and probably forgotten by now) news story featuring that celebrity. It was pretty funny.

  9. “Detailed graphic sex scenes (They’re all gratuitous unless you write erotica)”

    *All* detailed sex scenes are gratuitous, unless the book is in the erotica ghetto? I agree that a sex scene can very easily be gratuitous, but on the other hand so can a food scene.

    It’s one thing to say, “I don’t like detailed sex scenes, I always put down a book when I find them,” that’s just a matter of taste, and certainly inarguable.

    It’s quite another to say, “Unless the book is specifically written to titillate, then no sex scene is ever needed.” I’m sorry. That’s just way too broad a statement to leave out there.

  10. I knew someone would take issue with the sex scene reference. But I did say “detailed graphic sex scenes” not all sex scenes. I should have added romance to my exceptions. For crime stories, long sex scenes seem unnecessary … to me.

  11. L.J.,
    What really ticks me off about a novel is when they explain in pain staking detail what the character is wearing. Unless it has something to do with the storyline I find it useless..
    For example: Her shoes were leather and brown which matched her khaki pants, she wore an anklet of gold and her tshirt was so crisp and clean and blue. She would have worn a blue hat but it wouldnt have gone with her shoes so she decided to wear her tan sun hat which featured a delicate rose on the side yada yada yada…Who cares..

  12. A novelist friend of mine said, “In Coitus Veritas.” People can be at their most vulnerable when they’re having sex, and sometimes there’s no better way to illustrate some element of character, or to pivot a relationship, than to have it happen in the heat of a sexual encounter.

    Part of this whole question may hinge on what you mean by “detailed.” One person’s gratuitous smut is another person’s tasteful rendering.

  13. I never called it smut. Let’s not forget that I wrote a novel called THE SEX CLUB. Also I’m an editor, who has clients who write erotica. And that convention should have been at the bottom of the list. I’d much rather have too much sex than too much description, especially the clothing detail Romanuks mentioned.

  14. I’m not fond of explicit sex in novels. I don’t want to read where the lips wandered, sorry. It will make me put the book down. Also, too many dangling thoughts… that make me want to scream, “What? Tell me, don’t just leave me dangling!” Lately, I’ve found an overuse of italics for the protagonist’s thoughts, many of which don’t add to the character or move the plot forward. They pull me out of the story. Finally, foul language or overdone vernacular. Those are my least favorites, because it’s just too much work to plow through tiresome dialogue.

    Yeah, and sex. Too much of it puts that to the top of the list. I think it’s why I read cozy mystery that has a little romance. I’m just too old for any kind of gore. 🙂

    Join my brand-new group:

  15. I suspect my grandmother’s accounts of the Great Depression rubbed off on me in a million ways. It’s hard to leave food on my plate because someone else might be hungry. The same way, it’s hard to walk out of a movie or put down a book I’ve paid for. You just don’t waste things. I’ll stick with a bad book/movie to the bitter end, even if I’m not enamored.

    This is why I finished Neuromancer, even though it was a cold, nihilistic story that left me feeling empty. I even made two of my friends read it to see if I was mistaken. I wasn’t.

  16. I have to weigh in on the gratuitous graphic sex comment, because, in my first book, my detective is seduced and then framed for a murder by a woman who plants his DNA at a crime scene. I tried to handle the scene tastefully, but felt that it needed to be there. Later, there’s another intimate scene that’s pivotal to the plot. The narrator leads up to the moment where the characters decide to have sex (both are still fully clothed), then picks up the narrative again afterward.

    Several people later said to me, “I noticed that you have some very graphic sex scenes!” Others said, “You know, I noticed that your sex scenes aren’t very graphic.”

  17. More evidence pointing to how subjective the reading experience is. And clearly “graphic sex” means different things to different people. I won’t even try to define my label. I’m no longer sure.

  18. For me, it depends on the context and how well it’s done. I’ve read some that were more graphic but didn’t seem like it because they were so well and tastefully written, and I’ve read others that were less graphic that just made me say, “Ew.”

  19. The characters have to grab my interest in the first chapter or the goes down. I’ve waded through some very long, boring passages describing bubbling brooks and soft forest breezes hoping to find some interesting people. If they don’t show up by the end of chapter 1, I’m out of patience.

    Great blog Lj. It’s given me idea for a follow-up – and it’s not about sex.

  20. I agree with too many characters. If I have to flip back a chapter to remember who’s who, I’ll find something else to read.

    More recently, I’ve been turned off by first person POV. Not everyone can write this POV well and it’s simply not appropriate for some stories.

    Don’t get me wrong, I use it myself, but sparingly. I don’t want every novel I read to come off sounding like a memoir.


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