How to Make Sure Readers Don’t Close the Book

by Jami Gold on September 4, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Woman reading a book with text: Keep the Readers Reading

Many articles and infographics have tried to answer the question of what makes readers stop reading. They usually include a list of offenses like typos, too boring, confusing, etc. And those are all true. But a recent post took a more analytical approach to measuring problem areas.

Jefferson Smith started a reading program called “Immerse or Die.” Every day he chooses a self-published book to read while exercising on his treadmill. Each time a book forces him out of the story, that’s a strike. He gives each book three strikes—additional chances to not lose his attention again. At three strikes, the book is closed.

That “three strikes” rule probably matches how I approach new books as well. I can forgive one, maybe two strikes, as typos and mistakes do happen. But three strikes, especially in the first couple of chapters, adds up to a bad impression.

More importantly, I liked his approach because the number one piece of advice for story quality is:

Keep readers in the story.

Why do we stay up late, turning pages? Why do we read stories outside our normal genres? Why do we read stories about unlikable characters? Because we’re sucked into the story.

Good Storytelling Can Overcome Many Sins

Authors who keep readers immersed in the story can get away with so-so writing, and sometimes they can even get away with unlikable characters, characters who make stupid choices, lame subplots, sections with slow pacing, etc. We’ve probably all seen reviews of stories where the reader says “the writing was laughably bad, but I couldn’t stop reading.”

On some level, keeping readers immersed in the story should be our number one writing goal. Each time the reader is reminded that they’re reading a book—for whatever reason—we’re reminding them they have a choice to close the book.

Readers who are deep into the story don’t consciously think about the words on the page, much less the pages in the book. They’re right alongside our characters. Therefore, they forget they can walk away.

The Ever-Important Opening Pages

Jefferson recently reported on the 50 books he’s put through the program so far. His report contains several insights that I want to highlight here.

He found that two-thirds of the stories that struck out did so within 12 minutes of reading, about 4000 words. This is why sample chapters and Amazon’s Look Inside feature are so important for sales.

As readers, we know that for most books, either it will appeal to us right away or it won’t. If I make it to the end of the Look Inside excerpt, I almost always buy the book. But I don’t make it to the end for most books.

Since I’ve started checking the Look Inside excerpt before I buy, my book purchases have decreased. That’s bad for the authors who don’t make the cut, but good for those who do, as my Kindle is less over-stuffed and I’m more likely to read the rest of their story.

What Breaks Reader Immersion?

So what pulls readers out of the story and causes a strike against it? Jefferson came up with 27 categories, from weak mechanics (misspelled or missing words, etc.) to too-coincidental plot events, and I recommended checking out his chart (under “The Taxonomy of WTFs” sub-heading) for the full list.

But what he—and I—found most interesting was that five of those 27 categories accounted for half of the strikes. The top five problem areas he identified are:

  1. weak mechanics (spelling, grammar, etc.)
  2. implausible character behaviors (out-of-character actions)
  3. echoing (words, sentence styles, or imagery that calls attention to itself)
  4. illogical world building (elements don’t hold up or make sense)
  5. conspicuous exposition (backstory and info dumping)

Then he went on to analyze those issues deeper:

“I often think of the process of fiction writing as being arranged into 3 fundamentally distinct skill sets: story building, story telling, and text editing. And it takes mastery of all three of these areas to produce an engaging story that fans will love. …

    • Story Building Problems: These are weaknesses in the story design itself. Examples include tired old cliche plots, illogical economic systems, illogical or impossible physics, inconsistent or unbelievable characters, etc.
    • Story Telling Problems: Here we find the problems related to how the conceived story is translated and organized into text. This accounts for things like bad pacing, clichéd scenes, bad dialogue, show vs. tell, and so on.
    • Editorial Problems: These are the problems that could have been avoided with better copy editing. Spelling, verb tenses, missing words, words used incorrectly, etc.”

When he regrouped the 27 strike categories into these three major skill areas, he found that only 25% of strikes fell into the Editorial group. Story Telling accounted for 44%, and Story Building accounted for 31%.

What Does That Mean for Our Stories?

Those results tell me that too many authors aren’t benefiting from a full editing cycle. Years ago, when editors at traditional publishers actually edited, and not just “acquired” stories, books would go through several editing passes:

  • developmental editing
  • line/copy editing
  • proofreading

Now, I’ve heard authors from many publishers (traditional, small, and digital-first) say the only editing  they received was one of the latter two, copyediting or proofreading. For many authors, that’s what they think “being edited” means.

That impression leads to self-published authors taking the same shortcut. Not surprisingly, I’ve heard self-published authors claim their work was edited because they had a copyeditor.

Great! But that’s missing 75% of the potential problems in our stories.

Only developmental editing will catch Story Building problems, and most Story Telling problems as well. (Many line editors and some copy editors will also point out Story Telling issues like bad dialogue or show vs. tell problems.)

For the most part, copyediting and proofreading are about making what’s already on the page the best it can be. Whereas, in addition to looking for weak, illogical, or inconsistent elements, developmental editing also looks for what’s missing—what’s not on the page.

Only development editing will catch whether the story is the best it can be. Without that editing step, we’re potentially leaving weaknesses on the page in the plot arc, character arc, emotions, turning points, tension, conflict, stakes, themes, etc.

(And I swear I’m not just saying all this because I do developmental editing on the side. I’m not even linking to my editing page. *smile*)

But Editing Is Expensive!

Yes, editing is expensive. I fully understand why some publishers and self-published authors want to skip editing steps. But I also want us all to have the best stories we can. So how can we save money?

Option 1: Beta Readers

Many authors use beta readers instead of developmental editors. If we have great beta readers, I think this can work fine.

If we’ve received comments on the following elements from our beta readers, they’re probably thorough enough:

  • Story and Character Arcs (and if applicable, the Romance Arc): Do they have suggestions for how to make these stronger? Show more contrast from the beginning to the end of the story? Make a smoother flow?
  • Plot Events and Turning Points: Do they have suggestions for making the plot stronger? Less confusing, illogical, or coincidental? More emotional for readers?
  • Conflicts, Stakes, and Tension: Do they point out where these aspects seem weak? Or suggest how to make them more personal to the characters? Or how to make the antagonistic forces more difficult to overcome?
  • Pacing and Information Dumps: Do they point out slow sections? Or where we’re boring the reader?
  • Characterization and Likeability: Do they point out ways we could show more about the character through characterization? Or how to eliminate character problems such as unlikeability or “too stupid to live”?
  • Goals and Motivations: Do they point out where character actions don’t make sense? Or characters don’t seem to have a purpose? Or where characters seem to be puppets to the plot?
  • Story and Character Themes: Do they notice themes at all? Or have suggestions for how to strengthen them?
  • Other Writing Issues: Do they identify point of view issues? Or where we’re telling instead of showing?

*psst* We can use this list to evaluate developmental editors (or the editing quality of publishers) too. *smile*

Option 2: Manuscript Analysis

Some developmental editors will read through the whole manuscript and give an overview of the above issues. These analyses (sometimes called Manuscript Critiques) are usually cheaper than a full developmental edit because the editor isn’t making comments within the manuscript itself to point out specifics.

These overviews are very similar to the “revision letter” some publishers’ editors provide. As long as we’re able to take overall suggestions and apply the feedback to our specific scenes, this option works well and would cost hundreds of dollars, rather than over a thousand dollars for a full novel edit.

Option 3: Partial Edit

Some developmental editors will give feedback on a partial of a story. This can be a good option if we want to make sure those opening 3-5 chapters are as strong as they can be. Obviously, this would be cheaper than a full developmental edit as well.

I’ve recommended this option for those who think their self-editing and/or beta readers have caught all the big issues but want to make sure. Call it a “sanity check” that might relieve our worries or point out how we’re not quite there yet.

Option 4: Alpha Readers

As Jefferson pointed out in his post, when it comes to illogical plots or story worlds, we can also use alpha readers, those willing to help us brainstorm the development of our story. I think of alpha readers as “brainstorm buddies,” and I’m lucky enough to have a great reader in my family for this.

Others might have a close beta reader or critique group buddy willing to brainstorm with us. A few developmental editors offer story development service as well, but I’m not sure how that’s priced. Regardless of where we find the help, the point of brainstorming with alpha readers is to prevent story logic problems that will require huge revisions later.

Option 5: Self-Editing

Jefferson also noted that simply by being aware of these issues to avoid, we can potentially self-edit ourselves to better stories. Janice Hardy has a great post about being our own book doctor, filled with questions to ensure our story is as strong as it can be.

With this option, I’d recommend using a backup method for our first story or two, until we’ve verified that we’re able to find and fix these errors ourselves. Most of us aren’t able to see big-picture issues because in our head, the story is logical and the characters’ actions do make sense. So Option 5 shouldn’t be relied on unless another source has confirmed our ability to self-edit to the necessary level.

However we approach story-level editing, the important thing is that we need to make sure those big-picture problems are analyzed and addressed somehow. If not, we’re likely leaving 75% of our writing issues in place. And that’s definitely not going to keep readers turning pages. *smile*

How many strikes do you give a book before you stop reading? When you close a book, do the reasons tend to be story problems or writing problems? What story problems have made you close a book? If you’re traditionally published, did your publisher provide all the editing phases? If you’re self-published, do you have a method for addressing each editing step?

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38 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee September 4, 2014 at 7:00 am

Frankly, how forgiving I am of a story depends on my mood. If I’ve just had to edit 3 people in a row who lacked character motivations, then I’m going to be a lot less forgiving of it in some random author I read.

That said, some of my favorite authors frequently have homophone screwups. (Ironically, those ones are traditionally published. My favorite self-published authors tend to have fewer objective errors than my favorite traditionally published authors.) The characters and story draw me in to the point that, even though I’ll wince, I’ll still enjoy the story.

But if I’m having to mentally edit it just to understand the story, I’ll likely drop it. Disinterest or disconnection with the story and particularly the characters will also lead to dropping a book. I’ve stopped some enjoyable books halfway through because I wasn’t eager to find out the end or how the book got to the end.

For my self-published work, I seek to address at least some of this by having multiple beta readers—ideally at least 1 of comparable background to me, and at least 1 of completely different background from me. The former particularly helps with spots where what I convey might’ve not been what I meant, and the latter particularly helps with spots where I’m missing a motive or transition for what I mean.

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Jami Gold September 4, 2014 at 8:22 am

Hi Carradee,

Very true! Our tolerance can be a mood thing. 🙂

As you said, I also think homophone screwups and the like are less impactful than things like nonsensical character actions. For one, I can wince and move on, and for the other, it makes me wonder about the quality of the story itself.

For those few books where I make it to the end of the Look Inside excerpt and don’t buy it, it’s almost always because I’m “meh” about the characters or story and don’t feel compelled to know more. I’ll usually leave that tab open a day. If I think about the story during the day, I’ll buy it. If I don’t, I won’t. *shrug*

Like you, I use multiple beta readers, so between them all, I’m more likely to catch issues. Any one of our beta readers probably won’t notice problems in every element, but added together, they might. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins) September 4, 2014 at 7:19 am

Like you, those “Look Inside” excerpts are part of my process, but sometimes (for non e-book only titles) I have to go into a OFFLINE bookstore (like I will later today, YAY!) and read beyond what the “Look Inside” excerpt allows before I can be sure I want to buy it.

While it’s true not enough attentive editing can ruin an otherwise good book, I do feel readers in general need to remember w’re human and not all errors are simply a matter of being “inattentive.”

I think it’s easier for authors to forget this because we have such high standards for our work, and some of that isn’t coming SOLELY from us, or about being pessimistic for the “Fun” of it, but precisely because we’re DEADLY aware what poor quality does to our writer rep, and if we’re not able to self-publish, we have to remember that we’re human, not pretend it’s not important, but to keep that angst at bay or it will tear away what little resolve and personal sanity we have.

There was a typo book in the (what I now is the LAST…Sobs) Hermux Tantamoq book, but I can with one typo, though if it ever gets reissued, I hope it gets fixed.

It does not stop me from recommending the series.
(I have the Fan Made Trailers to prove it!)

As you know, we’ve had many discussions about editing, and while I may sound otherwise at times, I do agree with you, I just wish there were more flexible ways to get that editing help if you’re essentially becoming your own publisher…(Which will be part of my author future, however distant…)

I was kind of having a mini-breakdown last week when I read Julie Musli’s guest post and the comments below, even before I chimed in, and I hope I wasn’t coming off rude, I get so emotional whenever the words “Editing” or “Professional” come up in relation to writing.

I still don’t think I’m a perfectionist as you are, if only because as a reader I do think I’m fairly forgiving, it’s just as a writer I don’t always feel as confident about “Being my own best critic” as you often seem to believe/project.

Which is probably why Option 5 doesn’t work for me, and I’ve TRIED, Jami! (LOL)

I appreciate outside eyes in general, the problem for me is that my primary genre/niche can be so licorice to people (taking inferior quality writing out of the equation!) it’s HARD to find the right beta-reader, and I’m talking just ONE, never mind a team of them, but my WIP (That I’ll soon be sending you the first half of for my blog anniversary prize) will need that team, and I’m glad you’re on it.

This is why I sometimes get hostile with the “Story Trumps All” mindset. But I agree I have my share of books that have authorial pet peeves that get to me.

As you know, I’m possibly the OLDEST fan of the “Geronimo Stilton” series (who isn’t a parent or educator), and the “Adverb” thing in those books gets to me a bit. As I made similar mistakes here in the beginning.

Some of that might be due to they’re being translated (originally in Italian which I can’t read) and aid the readers they’re aimed at, but they’re funny and love the illustrations in them.

But that’s the only thing that really bugs me about the books, otherwise I wouldn’t own nearly all of them! (The main series, I haven’t explored the spin-off series yet, and I have one of the comics, where the art style’s a bit different and some character names are changed)

Hope I stayed more tame in my response this time. Take Care.

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Jami Gold September 4, 2014 at 8:46 am

Hi Taurean,

Good point! Sometimes I want to know just a bit more than we can tell from a Look Inside excerpt before deciding on a story. Usually that’s because I want to reach the First Plot Point (about 25%) and see where the story is heading.

For example, I might know a story is a vampire story, but there’s a big difference between a vampire story where the conflict is about keeping it a secret from the love interest and one where the love interest knows and there’s other conflict. Many blurbs aren’t clear enough about the main conflict to know for sure. If the story is structured well, we’d see the story conflict around the 25% mark, yet the Look Inside feature is for only the first 10%.

Yeah, Option 5 doesn’t work for me either. LOL! I may be “my own best critic” in many (not always helpful) ways, but self-editing isn’t one of them. I have such a photographic-type memory that once something (of my own writing) is on the page, it’s hard for me to see other ways it could be worded or addressed until someone points it out. Mentally, it’s like I see the full picture and can’t pick out the puzzle pieces that make it up until someone points out one piece. Then I’m like “oh yeah!” (Luckily, I don’t have that problem with others’ writing. 😀 )

No amount of letting a story “cool off” helps me with that. (I have one story that’s sat for years that I’m still clueless about how to make better.) So I desperately need beta readers and always will, I think. But I understand that it’s difficult to find beta readers at all sometimes, much less a team, much less good ones.

As much as we might grumble about these difficulties though, as you noted, when we’re readers, we see the same issues. So while we might wish for reality to be different, we also know that’s tilting at windmills. :/

LOL! at your analogy of your genre being licorice. Yep, some things are a love or hate with nothing in the middle. Here’s hoping you can find readers who fall on the love end of the scale. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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R. A. Meenan September 4, 2014 at 9:31 am

Some excellent points here. I tend to follow that three strike rule as well, and honestly, poor characters or characters acting out of character are two of my biggest turn offs.

It’s good to keep these things in mind while writing too, because some day someone’s going to read your book with those things in mind!

I loved your section about good story telling and good writing. Sometimes someone can be a totally amazing writer, but not a good story teller, so it’s hard to keep me in the story. Inversely, sometimes someone can be an amazing story teller, but a bad writer, but I’m so engrossed in the story, I don’t notice it.

Honestly, I always thought Harry Potter fell into that second category. Rowling is an AMAZING story teller, which is why I got hooked, but probably she’s only a so-so writer. She breaks a lot of writing “rules” that sometimes takes me out of the stories (like changing world facts to cover up plot holes, or overusing the same three adverbs with every dialogue tag), but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy her stories!

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Jami Gold September 4, 2014 at 10:10 am

Hi R.A.,

LOL! Yes, there’s a longer list of great (and well-known) storytellers who are only so-so writers than the reverse. As you said, some would put J.K.Rowling into that category, and I know I’ve seen others put Dan Brown (Da Vinci Code), Stephenie Meyer (Twilight), and E.L. James (50 Shades of Grey) into that category. Yet millions of people enjoy all those books anyway–because of the story. 🙂

I’ve seen some reviewers come up with the label of “crack-tastic” for books that are like crack cocaine–bad but irresistible. 😉 Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins) September 4, 2014 at 5:41 pm

Well, for those of us who can’t coast on storytelling chops alone, or who just care about a well crafted sentence AS MUCH as dynamic characters and a riveting plot, it’s not that cut and dry.

You didn’t say that, Jami, I’m just speaking for me here.

I don’t that makes me a weaker storyteller than they are. It just means I have to give more, and you know what? I take pride in that. Granted, it’s hard to say that when I’ve little , but whatever, it’s my truth and that’s all that matters.

Best of any genre can transcend readerships, and personally, I think JKR’s a more solid writer than she gets credit for sometimes (I wouldn’t HP in the same class as FSG, but that’s me), maybe a tad wordy, but frankly she’s not the first author who bends the rules, and also frankly, anyone who can make a normally book-resistant child or teen willing read a 300+ page opus has to be doing something right!

I know most readers who hang here are more into romance and/or paranormal than middle grade animal fantasy that I read and write, but I’m going to insist that anyone who reads this who cares about well crafted writing AND a good story read the following-

“Time Stops For No Mouse” by Michael Hoeye
(
Check out my fan book trailer for it
, if you get hooked there are three more books waiting for you, and I’ve got fan trailer for them, too!) Plus, there are no cutesy critters on the cover so you won’t be embarrassed in public, personally, I’m glad to be out of that phase.
(I’m not judging, I was 16 once, I’ve been there)

“The Wainscott Weasel” (
Check out my fan book trailer for it
)
(Being Re-issued this fall, just in time for the 20th anniversary)

And if you really think what I read/write is only for “Babies”, think again, and read “The Bear Comes Home” by Rafi Zabor.

Need convincing? Check my fan book trailer for that, too!

It’s more expensive than the average paperback, but I promise you it’s worth it (or see if your library has a copy), smart, witty, and satirical in all the right ways. I’m still getting through it (it’s like Beatrix Potter for Grown-ups, but novel-length, sadly no awe-inspiring illustrations, but you can imagine so vividly your own interpretation, that works, too…)

When I finally get around to adult fiction (which unlike some kidlit/YA/NA writers, I want to engage readers longer after school daze) this is the gripping and complex tale I want to tell without having to worry about using a word more than three syllables, and I’m half-serious on that, what’s the point of getting kids and teens to love books if books for their eventual mature years are all junk?

That said, I’ll be WAY lighter on the swearing and innuendo, the latter especially can turn me off (this is why I’m not into erotica), but in this book it works for me.

That’s like teaching someone how to ride a bike and then traumatizing them to never want tot even LOOK at another bike again! It’s simply not right or even true, and those who say otherwise just didn’t find the right books for them.

Which is what us children’s authors are forever trying to do for kids and teens who don’t find reading an entertaining experience.

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Jami Gold September 4, 2014 at 5:49 pm

Hi Taurean,

I hear you. I take pride in wanting to do more than just coast too. 🙂 And yes, I wouldn’t put JKR in the same universe as FSG. LOL! As you said, she certainly does far more “right” than “wrong.”

Thanks for sharing your recommendations for stories that combine good storytelling and good writing! 🙂

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Kitt Crescendo September 4, 2014 at 12:55 pm

You know, I’ll forgive a lot of the grammatical stuff if the writer keeps me engaged by the story or the characters. I understand that occasionally autocorrect fails us and adds an apostrophe to our its or can sometimes change a word regardless of our intent. 😉 I’ve even seen where a character name got typo’d in 5-6 spots.

The biggest things that put me off are unrealistic or stories that just don’t entertain. Or characters that are either not likeable or come across as cardboard. Don’t get me wrong. I know some authors who actually manage to have successful careers purely on their character sketches and no true depth to their books….and that’s great for them, but it’s not my cup of coffee. I love interesting stories that engage me at an emotional level of some sort.

So I guess the guy is right…LOL! 3 different categories that can kill a book for a person. Check.

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Jami Gold September 4, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Hi Kitt,

Oh yes, when I draft, I mess up sound-alike words, apostrophes, missing words, etc. all the time. Editing catches most, but there will always be some.

I think I remember one of the Harry Potter books used the wrong character names once. 🙂 So no one is immune from that. Thanks for sharing what works–and doesn’t work–for you!

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Serena Yung September 4, 2014 at 1:48 pm

Actually, I find that I care more about subject matter than about writing and storytelling ability in judging a book, like how I judge the tastiness of food more by the ingredients used than by the chef’s culinary skills! E.g. for some bestsellers or classics out there, they very likely have great writing and storytelling, but I don’t really like their subject matter. Maybe I don’t like their type of characters, or their type of story, or think it’s way too depressing, etc.

Disliking their characters could be because of their personalities, habits, behavior, immorality, or something else. (There was a book we read for an English course where the protagonist was this guy who regularly rapes his wife and even cheats on her—and despite all this, she’s still in love with him; what the hell?) Sometimes, I just don’t like the kind of people all of the main cast are. And I in general really really hate adulterers and womanizers.

But sometimes, it could just be that I think the subject matter’s boring. For some reason, I am instantly turned off if I learn that the story’s about war. (No offense to those who like war stories!) I feel better if it’s a war in a fantasy or sci-fi world, though. Yet the post-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, and dystopian wars are getting a bit old…

IN CONTRAST, for a story with more mediocre writing and storytelling ability, if the story is one of the types I LIKE, especially if I love the characters, and even more so if this kind of story is uplifting, inspiring, or just makes me happy or laugh, I would be far more interested in reading these stories than in reading stories by great authors that have plot and characters that turn me off or sadden me.

Interestingly, my tastes have changed over the years. When I was somewhat younger, I would rather read a story that is by a famous or fantastic writer, even if I dislike the subject matter. But recently, I would rather read a story with subject matter (plot and characters) I LIKE/ LOVE, even if the writer’s skills are so-so.

You know how I told you that when deciding what book next to read, I would rely mostly on recommendations and fame (bestsellers and classics) of the book? I still have a bit of that, but nowadays, I’ve reverted back to the “shelf browsing” habit, where I go randomly to a shelf in the library or bookstore, whether online or offline, or on online story sites, and choose what I want to read from there! The great thing about this method, is that I really get to “tailor” the stories I choose to my specific tastes. If I go by recommendations or fame of the book, I often have to put up with subject matter that I don’t actually like (just to see what everyone’s talking about); but with stories I choose myself, I get to read the stories I GENUINELY like. 😀

So for your question about how many strikes I give books before they’re out, I may be considered a “very kind reader” (lol) in that I’m willing to give books that have neither much fame nor recommendations a chance, and also because I’m a pretty forgiving reader. I told you already about that online story with MANY confusing sentences (to a rather frustrating extent), some “I don’t understand why that character did that” moments, but I still stick to it because it has a very intriguing plot (to me) and a very fascinating heroine that I like. I quite like a few other secondary characters too. So…saved by the characters and plot! 😀

Another reason why I would be a “very kind reader”, is that I almost always feel an obligation to commit to books till the end. I think I already told you this. It makes me uncomfortable to leave any stories unfinished, so I usually stick through till the last page, lol.

Of course, I think most readers are not “very kind readers”, so most books will have to try harder than that to keep readers!

As for how much time I give a book before I decide to commit to it, if we’re talking about online stories, it depends. When I’m being very picky, I may only give them the first paragraph’s chance to interest me, otherwise, next story! But other times I read many more paragraphs down the page, and sometimes I read the entire chapter (the length of an online story’s chapter is usually significantly shorter than a book chapter) before deciding. As for published print books, it’s similar: from only a “1st paragraph only” chance to a “several pages” chance depending on my mood.

About clichéd plots, I still think clichés are not always bad. There are SOME clichés I like, e.g. the childhood best friend turns into lover romance, the discovery of a secret fantasy/ sci-fi/ battle society or a secret other universe, the very clichéd but will never grow old (to me) theme of FAITHFUL romantic love (because I’ve read too many depressing stories about cheaters and adulterers). Another cliché I love is the action/ adventure plot where every main character specializes in a particular skill or ability, and they all work together to beat the bad guys. 😀

Since I have reverted very much to the shelf-browsing habit, the NAME / TITLE of the story also really affects whether I would want to pick it up in the first place. There are SO many stories (perhaps even the vast majority) with such clichéd names that I tend to avoid them instantly. Clichéd titles I see a lot include the “clever metaphor/ imagery title”, the “profound sounding title”, or the “typical genre title”, etc . (For the latter type, one example is having the word “Sword” or “Soul” in the title of a fantasy/ action-adventure story, lol.) I find that the titles I most like, are the ones named after the protagonist(s) (Jane Eyre!), or at least named after the identity of the protagonist(s), as long as the latter doesn’t sound too overused. So one example I liked was The Cheeky Rabbit Demon (approximately translated from Chinese)—this title may sound awful in English, lol, but it sounds great in Chinese, partly because my translation’s bad and partly because we don’t have the concept of “rabbit demons” in English mythology and folklore (at least not that I’m aware of.) And it also helps that I really like rabbits, haha.

Editing:

Woah, I’m very appalled that some authors consider themselves edited when they have only had line/ copyediting or only proofreading, especially the latter!!

This list made me hunger for Beta Readers even more. (Not the disturbing image, haha, but you get what I mean. XD) Now how to get Beta Readers for Chinese stories…argh! My story being super long doesn’t help me either, yikes.

Ooh, manuscript analyses and partial edits, 😀 Hope there are equivalent services for Chinese stories, because that would be SUPER helpful especially if I can’t find beta readers…

Cool, alpha readers. I’m not sure about asking them to brainstorm ideas for my story, since I doubt whether their brainstormed plot events REALLY happened in my story. But it could be helpful if their ideas really DID happen—it could be a long distance pantsing help.

Self-editing! I’m not a beginner writer, but I don’t think I’m up to this level of being able to self-edit a lot yet either, haha. I can identify a lot of problems and “room for improvement” areas, but I know there’s a lot that I miss. Also, being the writer herself, I am SURE to miss a lot of things. So I absolutely agree with you that it’d be better to use at least one of the other methods in addition to self-editing.

*After reading Janice Hardy’s post on being our own book-doctor*:

Ooh, she suggests letting it sit for a month or two. I sure do hope that will be enough for my current story! Letting it wait for a whole YEAR does seem a bit too much…

About the tone being consistent, I actually have a different opinion on this. I’m personally fine with a story containing large amounts of both dark and lighthearted parts; there really should be a new genre created called “darklight” or “lightdark”, lol. It could also be an almost equal mix of the very serious (or even philosophical) and the really silly or funny, so the “serious-funny” or “funny-serious” genre. (Very inelegant name, I know.) This is only my personal opinion, though, as I know a lot of readers really dislike those kinds of stories. Guess they wouldn’t like tragicomedies. (Tragicomedies would be a subset of the “darklight”/ “lightdark” genre.) But realistically speaking, many stories I’ve read are not purely comical or purely tragic. Even the most tragic stories had happy or cheerful parts, and even comedies can contain tragic subplots. (Much Ado About Nothing by Shakespeare is one such example of the latter.)

There are some questions on this list I wouldn’t use or that I disagree with (e.g. I’ve seen stories with consecutive scenes that are totally devoid of conflict and stakes, but are still very engaging to read), but for the most part, great list! I’m printing this list out with my PDF printer. 😀

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Serena Yung September 4, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Just a note: While I do prefer “subject matter I love but with poorer story writing or telling” books to books with “subject matter I hate but with great writing and storytelling” , I have to admit that the VAST MAJORITY of the former type of books I loved were page-turners to me, or at least were almost never boring. In fact, the vast majority of books with very long boring sections in them that I read, were literary classics, haha. (I might still like them though, for other reasons.) Modern authors, whether published or unpublished, tend to be really smart at keeping their stories engaging all throughout, I find. Or maybe I was just lucky, lol.

It could also be that I very easily find a book a page-turner, or maybe I’m just more patient than the average reader?

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Jami Gold September 4, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! I don’t know. I guess for me the best books that I would consider page-turners aren’t “just” engaging, but also compelling. Like, I’m compelled to read more because I have to find out what happens next. 🙂

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Jami Gold September 4, 2014 at 5:01 pm

Hi Serena,

Hmm, good point about how subject matter (or premise) can have a lot to do with our patience as well. There are some stories I have no interest in, simply because of the premise, and there are other stories where the premise is enough to make me want to buy it on the spot–without checking the Look Inside. LOL!

I used to be a “very kind reader.” A “do not finish” used to be rare for me–2 in my whole life. But if we count all those stories where I made it more than a page or two into (or even finished) the Look Inside excerpt, but didn’t buy the book to finish it, I have a lot of DNFs now. :-/

So that doesn’t sound much different from your approach to online stories. For me, the overriding question on a Look Inside excerpt is, “do I want to read more?”

Ooo, good point about cliches and plots. In romance especially, there’s a difference between a cliched plot and a trope. Tropes are considered “good” (or at least “normal”). Those are your best-friend’s brother, enemies to lovers, secret baby, etc. storylines. In other words, it’s part of a premise. Now the question is whether the author is able to do something fresh and unique with that trope in the plot itself. Yes? Good. No? Cliche. 🙂

And I agree with you about tone. My stories have their dark elements, but they also have humor. So I definitely like the mix as well. I guess as long as the mix flows well, it’ll work. 🙂 Thanks for chiming in!

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Mike September 5, 2014 at 4:22 am

My method of choosing/discarding a print book is to select a random page near the middle, if I want to read more after one or two paragraphs I check it out or buy it. I’ve been fooled by books that started off like the hare in the fabled race, and, just like in the fable, took a nap after the first couple laps.

I hate when a book dies before it’s supposed to, and that’s why I hate most the two manuscripts I’ve finished. Great starts, but they fell of the track after a couple laps. Maybe they jogged to a local watering hole for a Fat Tire. ::)

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Jami Gold September 5, 2014 at 7:25 am

Hi Mike,

LOL! And that’s a good point about how some stories have better editing at the beginning than anywhere else. Some authors might have submitted that first chapter to contests (or for a partial edit like I mentioned above 🙂 ), and they weren’t very good at carrying any suggestions for improvement over to the rest of the story.

I’ve heard of some editors wanting to do a sample edit on pages from the middle of the book so they can see how much of a mess the story really is, so you’re not alone in your method. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Emma Burcart September 5, 2014 at 4:37 am

This is all such good information. It is making me think a lot about myself as a reader. I did realize recently that I hate reading books that lack figurative language. A book I read recently that had received tons of praise was so hard to get through because 1. the protagonist was passive and never made a decision, and 2. there was only one simile in the entire book. As I am in school right now many of the books are required, so I can’t put them down. Right now I’m reading a classic where the heroine is so weak and passive it makes the book difficult to read. I guess I like characters who make decisions and act. It makes me sad to think that publishers are now skipping an entire step in the editing process. As teachers we are always telling kids that revision comes before editing, it isn’t edit and done. But it seems that it isn’t just the kids who want to skip to the end. Thanks for another great post. 🙂

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Jami Gold September 5, 2014 at 7:37 am

Hi Emma,

Interesting! I definitely prefer active protagonists too. Passive protagonists are likely to make me frustrated and that’s not a happy reader. 🙂

Yes, I was so disappointed to hear authors of traditional publishers state they’d run into this lack of editing problem too. A group at one traditional publisher went to the head of the company to complain, and he denied there was a problem–even though multiple long-published authors pointed out that their only “edits” now were a handful of word choice changes. 🙁

Traditional publishing really will die if that attitude continues. What are they offering authors in exchange for their cut then? Marketing? Not likely. Print distribution? Maybe. What are they offering readers? Disappointment.

I’ve seen more and more self-published authors who want their quality to be as good as (or better than) traditional publishing. Maybe we can hope the attitude will turn around for everyone due to increased competition. 😉 Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Musil September 5, 2014 at 7:55 am

Oh, wow, this is golden! Thanks for sharing this with us. Those opening pages are scary-important, so it’s nice to get reminders about what we can do right. Thank you!

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Jami Gold September 5, 2014 at 9:34 am

Hi Julie,

Ooo yes, reminders of what we can do right are just as important as knowing what we do wrong. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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Shah Wharton September 8, 2014 at 8:01 am

This post and the many more like it are why if I ever won the lottery (or in any other way found the required sum) I’d hire you for every one of my projects. This is yet another post in my bookmarks, and another one I’ll copy into a word document. You are all over my computer! 🙂

Thanks so much for these great tips. I’m actually have a book professionally critiqued now (I nabbed an awesome deal in a generous sale earlier this year) so I’m feeling a mixture of excitement and terror while I wait. But I know I’ll learn lessons now, for future projects.

X

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Jami Gold September 8, 2014 at 3:02 pm

Hi Shah,

LOL! Aww, thank you! *blush*

And I understand the mixture of excitement and terror. I’m always excited to learn, but it’s terrifying to be told all the things we’re “doing wrong.” :/ Good luck with it and thanks for the comment!

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Deborah Makarios September 11, 2014 at 3:59 pm

What will make me toss a book across the room is either an unlikable main character or unconvincing dialogue. Or even, God help us, both!

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Jami Gold September 11, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Hi Deborah,

Ugh. I hate wooden dialogue. One of the few books I didn’t finish back before I became a writer was filled with “As you know, Bob” dialogue. Even back then, I knew that was a bad idea. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Anne Kaelber March 10, 2017 at 2:01 pm

Hi Jami!

I came across this post and have a question. I think you’ve mentioned Margie Lawson in your blog before. In the lecture packet for “Empowering Characters’ Emotions”, in her Welcome, Margie talks about anaphora: “Using the same phrase (or word) to kick off three (or more) sentences (or phrases) in a row. The repetition carries impact.”

As you mentioned in this post, Jefferson Smith’s “Immerse or Die” points out echoing words as a problem. It was one of the top 5 problems he encountered.

How do I balance between Margie’s anaphora and Jefferson’s echoing words?

As always, another great post (even if I’m reading it 2+ years later!)
Anne.

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Jami Gold March 16, 2017 at 12:01 am

Hi Anne,

That’s a great question! In fact, I think that deserves its own post. 🙂 Thanks for the idea, and look for my post for the answer!

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