So first, a disclaimer: None of these examples come from any of the indie authors I know personally. Most are from books I read before I started writing–that I can’t even remember the titles of–and the remainder are books I’ve run across while perusing Amazon for something interesting to read.
And here we go.
For a long time, I’ve been open about the fact I’m a pretty picky reader, though I don’t like to be specific on why–maybe because I can’t put a finger on it? But the fact is, it takes a lot to catch my attention and even more to keep it. Blame too much school, blame having a four-year-old, blame whatever, but I’ve got some pretty strong preferences that make it hard to find books that hold my interest and even harder to write books most readers want. I alluded to this here.
Ready? I’ll warn you, some of these are contrary to conventional wisdom…
1. It had a bad cover
Technically, this is a reason I won’t pick up your book in the first place. If it doesn’t catch my eye, I don’t look further. If it’s sloppy, I’ll assume, right or wrong, that the prose and editing is as well. Please, if you’ve written an amazing book, don’t slap a bad cover on it–I’m talking bad Photoshop, Times New Roman and Arial for your fonts, weird aspect ratios, no main design element, covers that aren’t genre-appropriate, and everything else. I’ve seen it all.
(Unless Baen is publishing it–in that case, go wild, I guess.)
2. The blurb didn’t hook me
So you’ve gotten past the first hurdle and have a nice cover. Great! Don’t get lazy with the blurb. One of the biggest issues I see here (with indie books in particular) are blurbs that don’t read like blurbs. Don’t ramble. Don’t explain the entire plot. End with a hook. It’s a time to show creativity but not with formatting. It’s like the amateur cover–if a blurb format isn’t similar to traditionally published ones, I’ll assume the rest of the book isn’t either. Catch my attention, and do it well!
3. The editing was poor
You knew this one was coming. I’m not talking about typos. I’m not even talking about the occasional grammar error (even the best copy editor misses things). I’m talking about typos in the first sentence. Grammar errors on every page. Hyphens used when the author meant to put em-dashes. POV slips (I recently read a NYT bestseller that was full of them, and I cringed every time). I could go on and on, but you get the picture. If you can’t afford editing and proofreading (and I get it–it’s expensive!), then learn to self-edit like no one’s business.
Ok, still with me? We’re going to get controversial now.
4. It had an in media res beginning
There’s probably nothing I dislike more in fiction than in media res beginnings, and unlike the rest of this list, I have been open about not liking them–as a writer and a reader. I find them trendy and confusing and usually poorly done, and I don’t use them as a writer (probably to my detriment).
Listen–if I can’t orient myself within a few paragraphs, down the book goes. This doesn’t mean I need a book to start with pages and pages of backstory (please don’t do that either), but a slow burn novel? Yes, please. Show me some status quo, even if it’s just a few paragraphs. A few chapters? Sure, I’m ok with that. Let me figure out who the POV character is before things go all to hell–yes, I’ve read some books where I can’t even figure out who’s telling the story at first.
The problem? Agents and publishers love them (see: trendy), so writers keep on writing them, and readers expect them. It’s a vicious circle.
5. It was too clean
Don’t get me wrong, I went through an Amish romance phase that lasted longer than anyone would have expected. Those books need to be clean–if they were interrupted by a sudden graphic sex scene, I’d have just as much of a problem (I’d probably laugh and shake my head before putting the book down, but I’d still put the book down).
But I’m in a space opera phase now, and very clean space opera novels seem to be written for a certain audience more than they’re written to tell a story. As an author, that bothers me. As a reader, it bores me.
Because here’s the thing: edgy or dark or whatever you want to call the opposite of clean doesn’t necessarily mean graphic. It doesn’t mean the f-word every other sentence. It doesn’t even mean the characters act immorally (well . . . maybe the antagonist). It just means, in the case of a lot of space opera, that the author doesn’t ignore the realities of a galaxy at war.
6. Your characters are completely immoral
“But Anne! Didn’t you just SAY–”
Yes. Yes, I did. And I like writing bad guys as much as the next person, as anyone who’s run across my fans on social media knows. But protagonists? The good guys? The heros? Call me unenlightened, but I don’t want to see the hero/heroine murdering people then smoking crack in their backseat before running off to find their next prostitute (note: this is a hypothetical book, so put down the pitchforks). I have a hard time celebrating the cheating husband finding true love with his mistress. And so on.
On the other (hypocritical) hand, if it’s clear the author doesn’t condone that behavior, I give the characters little more leeway. Sometimes the main character isn’t meant to be a protagonist, and I tolerate bad behavior there a bit more, too. But most of the time, sadly, it’s pretty hard to tell.
7. Your military stuff is all wrong
Ok, kind of specific to space opera and military scifi again, and I certainly can’t hold myself out as any kind of expert in all things military. But I am a military brat/spouse, and if I can find glaring errors by just skimming, you’ve got a problem, end of story.
There’s no shortage of people out there willing to help with military accuracy. Find them and use them and remember that no worldbuilding justifies . . . well, some of the stuff I’ve seen.
8. Over-the-top worldbuilding
Oh, boy. This is why I don’t read much epic fantasy, because this kind of thing is pretty much required in that genre, and that’s not going to change. But when it slips into other genres? When an author goes on a twenty page lecture on the politics of The Second Kingdom, I just can’t bring myself to care. The good news? There are TONS of readers who do.
9. You have more than X POV characters
To be honest, I don’t actually know what number X is. I know I prefer single POV books, since they’re typically written deeper and allow the reader an more intimate view of the protagonist and how they see their world. Also, since I always relate much more with one POV character than the others, I’ll skim hundreds of pages to get back to the one I care about, and who wants to skip half the book? It’s really more about making me care about all the characters vs. just one, and that’s not a craft issue–just a reader issue for me.
Granted, single POV is something fairly uncommon in many speculative genres, and that’s ok.
10. Present tense
Hey, I told you to put the pitchforks down!
Look, I stumbled my way through The Hunger Games and The Knife of Never Letting Go. I enjoyed the latter more than the former, but the entire time, I couldn’t help thinking, “This would be so much more enjoyable if it was written in past tense.”
And like most readers who don’t care for present tense, I can’t put a finger on why. I suspect it’s because it forces me to focus on the writing more than the story, and when I read, I want to be swept away in the characters and plot. Maybe it’s because a story by definition has happened in the past. I’m not sure–I only know there are so many books I’ve run across that sound fascinating, but I can bring myself to read them.
(That being said, my CP is currently writing a book is present tense, and I’m hooked. It’s also dual POV and somehow I care about both characters. Maybe she’s just that good.)
So now I’m curious . . . what makes you put a book down? And how long do you give it?