Seven reasons to stop reading a novel

Randall Payleitner reads more than I do, and the books he recommends are always worth reading. Here are his thoughts on what’s not worth reading.

(1) It has sustained periods of boringness. Plenty of good books have slow spots, but if you’re fighting sleep or reading pages at a time without retention — maybe it’s time to move on!

(2) It’s offensive. If you don’t want unhealthy moral or spiritual content filling your brain space, don’t let it.

(3) The argument or storyline is weak. Whether the author lacks perspective or rigor, it’s not your problem. If it’s poorly put together, find a better argument elsewhere.

(4) It’s not living up to its billing. When you discover a book isn’t what you signed up for, feel free to let it go.

(5) It’s too long (without good reason). Some of the best books ever written are really long — but they have to earn every word!

(6) It’s irresponsible. There are typos. Half the text is bold or ALL CAPS. The design is confusing. It’s an obvious money grab. When the creators of a project don’t take it seriously, why should you?

(7) You keep thinking of things you’d rather be doing. Unless you’re studying for something, reading is voluntary. If your “gut-feeling” says, I wish I were done with this, grant your own wish.

How to stop reading a novel

A novel may be a friend, companion, and traveling partner — but it’s not a person. If it isn’t working out, let it go! No one will be hurt, and you’ll have more time for the next one.

Here are two ways to walk away from a novel — and tomorrow we’ll explore seven reasons why you should stop reading one (a guest post from Randall Payleitner).

The slow fade . . . 
When a story doesn’t interest me, the characters are artificial, or the writing is vapid, I wander off. Readers can be drawn into anything — even a giant, floating peach. But if the peach isn’t floating your way, drift elsewhere.

Rejection . . . 
I’m patient man, but we all have boundaries. When my good faith interest in a story is violated by a celebration of the intolerable, I don’t drift off. I walk away. Fiction is not theoretical — it’s experiential. The reader lives in the story, and if the story repeatedly violates my convictions, I choose different company. Which is OK. That author probably wouldn’t choose to spend time with me either.

The feel of a book

When an author makes you feel, she has you.

I remember reading a manuscript, enjoying the characters, and wondering where the story would lead. Then, in the middle of a conversation, one of them cocked his head. Something wasn’t right. A noise that shouldn’t be there. I felt a chill.

Suddenly, those wonderful characters — high school students — were engulfed in horror:

The first thing I noticed was the blood. It was everywhere, all over Kyle’s clothes and arms, soaked through the back of Daniel’s shirt and already dripping onto the sandy grass near Mani’s knees. It was so much darker than I had thought it would be — almost black — until I touched him, and my hands came away red.

A week later I was still replaying that scene, and I wasn’t alone. When it came time to title the book, one of the women on our team quoted a line from the story — and we all agreed. The author, Lisa McKay, had every one of us from that scene forward. What else would we call the book?

My Hands Came Away Red.

The geography of fiction

Novels are tricky. Is upbeat artificial? Is dystopian faithless? Are plot line and characterization exclusive? Robert D. Kaplan’s new book, The Revenge of Geography, hints at the link between realistic characters and complex scenarios:

Geography is common sense, but it is not fate. Individual choice operates within a certain geographical and historical context, which affects decisions but leaves many possibilities open. The French philosopher Raymond Aron captured this spirit with his notion of “probabilistic determinism,” which leaves ample room for human agency. But before geography can be overcome, it must be respected. Our own foreign-policy elites are too enamored of beautiful ideas and too dismissive of physical facts-on-the-ground and the cultural differences that emanate from them. Successfully navigating today’s world demands that we focus first on constraints, and that means paying attention to maps. Only then can noble solutions follow (from The Wall Street Journal, 9/8/12italics mine).

In Unseduced and Unshaken, Rosalie de Rosset points to the realistic characterization of Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet. “These women do not betray their convictions; they are not sentimentalists. [They] are ‘formidably self-possessed young women with detailed moral sensibilities’ who take themselves and are taken seriously. They don’t just respond; they decide what to do with their lives, every part of them” (from page 153).

The ultimate formula fiction: realistic geography + human agency = noble solutions.

100-Word Novels

There’s writing and there’s pruning. Both benefit from practice.

Here’s a pruning exercise to hone your valuation of words. Tell a story in exactly one hundred words. You can condense a novel (Les Miserables!), render some portion of a larger story, or make it up. Just give it enough arc to satisfy the reader and use one hundred words.

I’m fond of using Bible stories because every nuance is crucial — I take great care to not violate the meaning of the text. Here’s my attempt at The Good Samaritan. Try it yourself, then compare our efforts against the original (from The Holy Bible, King James Version, Luke 10:30-37):

The Neighbor

A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves. They stripped, wounded, and left him half dead.

By chance there came a certain priest that way. When he saw him he passed by on the other side.

Likewise a Levite looked and passed by.

But a certain Samaritan, when he saw him, had compassion. He bound up his wounds, set him on his own beast, brought him to an inn, and cared for him. On the morrow he gave two pence to the host. “Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, I will repay.”

Things you can’t say in words

As an author, the less you say, the better. Strunk and White ring this bell in Rule 17 — omit needless words.

But what if your theme eludes description? Novelist Jennifer DuBois provides an example of what to do in her Word Craft column from last Saturday:

In the middle of a novel about music (already notoriously difficult to write about), she gives us an autistic boy, Lincoln, who is fascinated by the pauses in pop songs. Lincoln’s subjective experience is unusually defended against efforts at description, and Ms. Egan’s approach to writing about it is elegant — she doesn’t.

One of the book’s most-discussed chapters is in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, composed by Lincoln’s sister. It’s an investigation of pauses in pop songs, and when we land on a slide that is blank — a pause — the effect is strangely haunting. Ms. Egan gets us closer to feeling what Lincoln feels than we might have thought possible. Instead of describing an experience for her readers, Ms. Egan actually gives them one.

My favorite writing challenge has always been, “say it better in half the words.” Now there’s a corollary. Say it better in no words.

Seven Things I’ve Learned About Writing Fiction (from The Hunger Games)

(1) Tension. Something’s not right about all this.

(2) Respect. A strong, competent hero.

(3) Empathy. Characters I care for.

(4) Conflict. Most of these characters are in mortal danger.

(5) Enemies. Opposition that is believable and overwhelming.

(6) Romance. Between characters I’m rooting for, but with plenty of #1, above.

(7) Resolution? Wrap things up, yet with nagging uncertainty. Unless you’d rather not sell millions of the sequel(s).