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They Put Your Book Down, but Don’t Take it Personally


I’m a polygamist reader—I have at least three paperbacks going at any one time as well at least one audiobook in progress. It has something to do with my mood. Will it be a dystopian world or sixteenth century Amsterdam? Maybe I’ll get lost in the hallways of Rockvale High School. I have my favorite genres, for sure, but I read widely to keep up on what’s selling, to improve my craft, and to understand the difference in genres and styles for my freelance editing work. But one thing I’ve noticed about my reading habits—regardless of genre—is that certain issues ALWAYS make me put a book down. What are they, you ask?

Bad Dialogue: The number one offender for me is stilted dialogue. As soon as the characters sound like paper doll cutouts instead of people, I’m done.

Awkward sex scenes:  I mean…what a buzz kill. You’re falling in love with this couple and then the narrative turns to “Insert tab A into slot B” and it’s just awful. Another problem is when the main character talks in her head nonstop through the bedroom scene. At this point, the character needs to SHUT UP and let the events unfold so the reader can get lost in the heat.

Clunky metaphors that don’t quite work:  Bad metaphors are like nails on a chalkboard. Mixing metaphors, weird comparisons, two sets of ideas that are opposed to one another or incongruous…ACK. It makes me grind my teeth just thinking about it.

Whiny protagonists:  I’m not a fan of the victim in real life so it’s no surprise to me that whiny characters, or those that sit around and feel sorry for themselves (beyond a shortish allotted time), get on my nerves.

Reading tastes vary drastically, however. What makes my eyes roll back in my head may not bother you at all. I was curious what other professional writers had to say about this topic. I wondered if we were more or less aligned on the reasons we stop reading. Their answers varied as much as their novels do.

For some, it’s all about the craft.

“If I find myself taking out an imaginary red pencil to rewrite sentences or mark queries while I read, I’m out. This signifies to me that the book’s voice, plot, or characters aren’t quite developed enough yet that I can lose myself in the author’s “story world”—which is where I want to be as a reader. You have to be able to suspend your disbelief, not get caught up with critiquing the writing.”—Kris Waldherr, author of Lost History of Dreams [1]

“I can’t hang on with a story if I feel as if the details ramble and are inconsequential. I have to care, or I stop reading.”—Amy Nathan, author of Left to Chance [2]

“When the book purports to be contemporary fiction and the dialogue could not be read aloud with a straight face. I don’t give up easily but unrealistic dialogue is a deal-breaker for me”—Amy Impellizeri, author of The Truth About Thea [3]

“Generally shoddy prose will put me off. It doesn’t need to be flowery, but it needs to have some grace. Info dumping drives me nuts. But at the end of the day, the two biggest factors that will turn me off are bad pacing or characters I don’t care about.”—Aimie K. Runyan, author of Daughters of the Night Sky [4]

For others, it’s all about the characters.

My biggest reason is insufficient motivation. If I don’t buy that a normal, rational person would do X, then I won’t read to see the consequences (yes this boils down to lazy writing). It’s my biggest pet peeve!”—Katie Moretti, NYT bestselling author of The Blackbird Season [5]

“I will abandon a book if I just don’t care what happens to a set of characters. Let them lead their life without me. For me, it’s never all about storyline, so I also stop if the writing is uninspiring. I read partly to become infected by the virus of excellent writing. Pedestrian craft isn’t worth the time.”—Sally Koslow, author of Another Side of Paradise [6]

“Characters that I wish had already died and writing that makes me nauseous.”—Sonja Yoerg, author of All the Best People [7]

Sometimes, it’s all about subject matter.

“Graphic, gratuitous violence is hard for me to handle. I know some people love it, but gory scenes (especially depicting horrific violence against women or children) is where I draw the line.”—Nicole Lynn Baart, author of Little Broken Things [8]

“With three teen daughters, I immediately shut down a book if it has a graphic rape scene. That is my line in the sand.”—Lisa Barr, author of Fugitive Colors [9]

Which brings me to my point, at last.

You can see how subjective reading is, so then, how are writers to know what to focus on, how to avoid making a reader close our books? The simple answer is to write the best book you can. The more difficult answer is to let readers go. Put them out of your mind. Your book isn’t about them, ultimately, or their needs and desires and wishes. Your book is about yours, and about the needs of the story and the characters. You can’t control how others will receive your book, nor can you control how it will be reviewed—rejected or exalted, hated or loved. It will likely be all of those things. This is what it is to be a creative. Your work will never be “enough” to please everyone, and your work will never be the best, because there really is no such thing. So don’t take it personally. (I know, I know. That’s SO easy to do.)

What makes you put down a book?

About Heather Webb [10]

Heather Webb is the international bestselling author of historical novels Becoming Josephine, Rodin’s Lover, The Phantom’s Apprentice, and Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of WWI. In 2015, Rodin’s Lover was a Goodread’s Top Pick, and in 2017, Last Christmas in Paris became a Globe & Mail Bestseller. To date, Heather’s books have sold in multiple countries worldwide, received national starred reviews, and have been featured in print media including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, and more. As a freelance editor, Heather has helped over two dozen writers sign with agents, and go on to sell at market. She may also be found teaching craft courses at a local college. When not writing, Heather feeds her cookbook addiction, geeks out on history and pop culture, and looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world.