"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Why Wasn't I Hooked?

Too many times, it seems, I find myself not being able to read a lot of the books I’ve piled on my reading stack. It’s become a bit disturbing. Is it me, or the books? It used to be that when I started a book, I felt obligated to finish it, no matter what. Maybe it’s just a function of getting older and seeing time shrinking, but I've come to the conclusion that there’s not enough time to read books that don’t interest me. I won’t say they are “bad” books, or poorly written, but there is definitely something in the way they're written that doesn't engage me. I can’t blame it on the subject matter, because I won’t start reading a book in the first place if the subject matter doesn’t interest me.

Naturally, I have to ask myself, “Why wasn’t I hooked?” Well, for starters, sometimes it’s simply the tone of a book, or the author’s voice and style of writing that I can’t relate to. For example, there's a “snarkiness” nowadays in our society that appears in many of the contemporary books. It doesn't mean it's bad; it's just something I personally don't care for, so I'll skip books with that particular tone. There also seems to be a trend for heroes and heroines to be “anti-heroes” and “anti-heroines” to the extreme; i.e., there is nothing commendable about them at all. They have no redeeming qualities. They are not people you would like in real life or want to have anything to do with. I’m okay with my protagonists having flaws and being far from perfect, but if they’ve got something really amiss, I'd at least like to see them trying to overcome it. In other words, a guy who’s a serial killer is not going to be my hero, no matter how you paint him.

Another reason I get unhooked from a book is because I’ve never been able to trudge through a lot of narrative, description, and introspection in the first chapter (or any chapter, for that matter). I have always preferred stories that dive right in.  Bore me with pages of “setting up the story” by “telling” me about a person, and you’ll lose me. I want to know just enough about that character that I get a sense of who they are, and the rest I’ll learn along the way. Don’t bog down the first chapter with this stuff! Don't slow the book's momentum with a sagging middle either. Give me information only in small, sweet, dark chocolate servings–please!–and in just the right place and at just the right time. However, I would like to say that I’ve read authors who can use, in abundance, everything I just said not to use and they do it brilliantly. Every word is a gem that can’t be skipped. So, as always, there are exceptions, but it takes the exceptional writer to pull it off.

I want a story to move forward. I want to feel immediate compassion or some other sort of connection to the main character. I want to get the sense that whatever started the turning point in the main character’s life (which is where the story should begin) is significant and that things are going to get worse before they get better. I want to feel that something is truly at stake for the protagonist, and I want to see how he or she is going to handle this life-changing situation through inevitable twists, turns, and bumps in the road. Even if the life-changing situation appears insignificant on the surface–i.e., something barely visible just beneath the surface of a pool of murky water–I want the sense of suspense and tension that will keep me engaged long enough to see what that “something” is.

I confess that I usually find myself analyzing every book I read from a writer’s eye, but I will also try to give another writer the benefit of the doubt. I will usually always trudge through three chapters before giving up. If I can get engaged in a story and forget to analyze it, then, to me, it’s a really good book. I get excited when I find myself slipping into a story so much that the writing becomes invisible. I find myself even more excited to actually complete an entire book and admit, “That was a darn good book!” Of course, the writer in me always asks why was it a good book. And the answer is always the same: the writer just knew what to say, how to say it, and precisely the right time to say it.

So, my last few questions are to those of you reading this post: “As a reader, what makes you start skipping through a book you thought you were going to like? What makes you give up on a book entirely? Are there parts of a book you always skip, like prologues or excessive narrative, etc? And, lastly, what makes you fall in love with a book so much that you wouldn’t think of skipping any part of it?”