Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

When do you stop reading?

Back in 2008 I wrote a four part series that dealt with when to stop reading a book that just wasn't working for you. Here are the four posts with a brief summary of each:

1. When To Stop Reading, Part 1: The Rules

There are systematic methods available for determining when one should stop reading a book. If a book hasn't grabbed me by page 100, for example, and there are other signs I'm not going to like where a book is going, I'll stop reading. Another one of those tests is the Page 99 test, which I talked about in the next post.

2. When To Stop Reading, Part 2: The Page 99 Test Put into Practice

The idea is what if page 99 of a book isn't gripping in some way then you should take a pass on the book. Personally, I've not always found this to be the case.

3. When To Stop Reading, Part 3: Short Stories

How do the rules apply to short stories?

4. When To Stop Listening, Part 4: Audiobooks

What about audiobooks?

There are other factors which come into play nowadays that maybe didn't apply as much back in 2008 when I wrote those posts.

One is the whole 'free' thing. Back in 2008, the indie movement, Amazon's Kindle, and eBooks in general hadn't taken off like they have today. 'Free' wasn't the marketing tactic it is today, either. Nowadays it's not unusual to have a Kindle full of free eBooks. I give these books much less consideration than I should and certainly less than something I paid $2.99 or more to purchase. Fact is, I give up on these books quite readily if they don't do something really quickly to keep my interest. It's no secret that I'm no longer a fan of freebies, so maybe I'm just biased in this regard.

The other factor which influences when I might choose to stop reading something is similar to free. That is low price. As in 99 cents or even up to $2.99. Anything $2.99 or less is really no big deal if I buy something I wind up not liking. I wouldn't want to do it too often—$2.99 a pop adds up after a while—but my time is worth more than such a small amount of money. This was not the case years ago. I'd finish something no matter the cost. But with age comes less patience, at least for me. It's part of that whole "I'm not getting any younger" mentality.

Then there's the usual factors which keep me from finishing something. You know, characters I can't identify with, storylines too cliché or already done to death, bad mechanics (spelling, grammar) on the part of the writer, or stories that explain, explain, explain. That last one really gets me sometimes. I'm reading Maelstrom by Taylor Anderson and while I really liked the first two novels in the series, this one is dragging with all of the repetition of what's come before. Too much telling and not enough stuff happening. I honestly don't know if I'm going to read the next book in the series if this one doesn't have a real good ending.

So what factors make you give up reading something?

When To Stop Listening, Part 4: Audiobooks

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A multi-part series where I address the question, When to stop reading?

So far in this series I've looked at various rules and quantifiable methods one can use to determine when it's time to give up on a book. I applied the 99 Page Test to my own novel. Finally, and most recently, I looked at when to give up on a short story. This time I'm going to break away from the printed word and take a look at audiobooks.

Audiobooks are not without their controversy. The debate of audio vs print is older than the digital age (think cassette or even 8-track tapes). Yet we often hear about how people are reading less and less and how the digital era spells the doom of the printed book, so maybe audiobooks through their inherent convenience might become a lifeline for some people who might otherwise never experience great literature again. Nevertheless, audiobooks are not so different from their printed counterparts when it comes to the question of sticking with it or stopping.

So, at what point do you quit listening to an audiobook? What are the rules (other than just your gut feeling, of course)? Tests like the Page 99 Test aren't going to work for obvious reasons. Neither is the Rule of 50 or the similar 100 Page Rule going to cut it. The 33% Rule, perhaps. You just need to count the number of discs (or tapes) or look at the total running time and divide by 3. If you hit that threshold and the audiobook ain't doing it for you, time to hit 'eject' or 'stop' or even 'delete' if you're that disgusted with it.

To answer the question, I'm going to do something different. I'm going to turn it around and instead ask what keeps you listening to an audiobook.

First and foremost, it's the narrator. The "right" narrator should satisfy the following criteria (as determined by Darren Barefoot):

  • They have distinctive voices.
  • They care about pronunciation.
  • They understand cadence, and adjust the pacing of their reading to reflect the story’s inertia.
  • If they do voice work, they do it well.
  • […] they sound like they care about and are invested in the work.

I couldn't agree more. The very first audiobook I ever listened to was Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, narrated by Lenny Henry. Henry did an excellent job. The best thing about his narration was his use of voices. When reading dialog, there was no question as to which character was speaking. Not only that, but the voice which Henry chose to use for each character is in itself a storytelling device because each illuminated my perception of that character. It's something you just don't get when reading a story yourself.

Yet this can have the opposite effect, too. I recently listened to Dragons of the Dwarven Depths, narrated by Sandra Burr. This one almost lost me when she started in with the raspy voice of the draconians. It sounded forced and I found it borderline annoying. Fortunately it was a small part in the beginning, and since I'd bought the audiobook from Half-Priced Books I only had a few dollars invested. I kept listening and (quite to my surprise b/c I loathe Weis and Hickman's writing style) I enjoyed the story.

There's also the quality of the recording. Though I have yet to listen to an audiobook that did not have "professional" level quality, with more and more amateurs recording their own audiobooks and making them available as quick downloads this may play a bigger role moving forward.

Of course, there are the usual factors, too: the quality of the storytelling (as written by the author), the choice of dialog, the characters, setting. These will always be amongst the best qualities of great storytelling regardless of the medium.

With that, I'm curious what others think. What qualities keep you listening to an audiobook? Or do you not listen at all?

When To Stop Reading, Part 3: Short Stories

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A multi-part series where I address the question, When to stop reading?

This is part 3 in what's become an ongoing series on when to stop reading a book. Each post stands alone, but feel free to read part 1 and part 2 before jumping into this one.

We often think of only novels when someone poses the question,

"At one point do you give up on a book?"

Maybe the question is better phrased as:

"At one point do you give up on a story?"

Short stories, whether standalone or as part of a compilation, fall into the 'when to stop reading' conundrum just like novels. Especially those which infringe into the length territory of novelettes. The further we get, and the more our frustration grows, the more likely we're going to put (or throw) that book down.

For purposes of this discussion, I'm going to use an example: The Solaris Book of New Fantasy. TSBONF is a compilation of shorts by such notable authors as Mark Chadbourn, Janny Wurts, Jeff VanderMeer, Chris Roberson, Lucius Shepherd, Steven Erikson, and others. I just finished the book, so I'm at a good point to discuss it's highs and lows. In particular, there were stories I stopped reading simply because they were going nowhere or just weren't holding my attention.

Some people say you have thirteen lines in which to hook the reader of a short story. I found this to be more or less true as more often than not I knew just by looking at that first page whether or not the story was going to hold my attention. It's not a hard and fast rule, of course, but it's often easy to get a good feel for what the story is about and if it's your cup of tea.

In the following list I'm going to use some clever graphics to indicate whether or not I finished the story. "Thumbs up" means I finished. "Thumbs down" means I flipped through the remainder of that story and went on to the next one.

1. "Who Slays the Gyant, Wounds the Beast", by Mark Chadbourne

thumbsup

2. "Reins of Destiny", by Janny Wurts

thumbsdown

3. Tornado of Sparks, by James Maxey

thumbsup

4. Grander the the Sea, by T.A. Pratt

thumbsup

5. The Prince of End Times, by Hal Duncan

thumbsdown

6. King Tales, by Jeff VanderMeer

thumbsup

7. In Between Dreams, by Christopher Barzak

thumbsdown

8. And Such Small Deer, by Chris Roberson

thumbsup

9. The Wizard's Coming, by Juliet E. McKenna

thumbsup

10. Shell Game, by Mike Resnick

thumbsup

11. The Song Her Heart Sang, by Steven Savile

thumbsdown

12. A Man Falls, by Jay Lake

thumbsup

13. O Caritas, by Conrad Williams

thumbsdown

14. Lt. Privet's Love Song, by Scott Thomas

thumbsup

15. Chinandega, Lucius Shepherd

thumbsup

16. Quashie Trapp Blacklight, by Steven Erikson

thumbsdown

A quick tally shows that I finished ten out of the sixteen stories in TSBONF, or 62.5%. Six stories remained unfinished, or 37.5%.

I don't know what ratio indicates I didn't waste my money. I read ten stories, most of which I enjoyed. I remember a couple leaving me a little dissatisfied, but nothing like the sheer "WTF is this about?" I thought as I skipped through the six stories I did not finish.

For me, this is a lesson. Not only in what I like to read, but also what elements keep someone from putting a book down. I can only attempt to instill such elements into my own writing.

As always, I'll end with a question: What makes you put a book down?

When To Stop Reading, Part 1: The Rules

Frustrated-Man-thumb
A multi-part series where I address the question, When to stop reading?

You just put down some hard-earned moo-la on a new book. The copy makes it sound fantastic. You rush home just so you can start reading. You get about twenty-five pages in and it’s not grabbing you. Not a biggie—you haven’t given it enough time. You read on to page fifty. You’re starting to feel a little frustrated. When is this book going to get going? Still, maybe fifty pages isn’t enough, and you did just spend the equivalent of a couple of gallons of gas (or more) on it, so you read on. Page one hundred, and it still ain’t doing it for you. Frustration is spilling over, cause now you’ve not only wasted your money but you’ve got some time invested, too. Because of the latter, you press on, giving it one more chance. You reach page one hundred and fifty, and that’s it.

This goose is cooked.

It’s hard to simply cut off a book at a set number of pages. Some books are short, others are epics. It might even be just one book of many in a series, so perhaps you expect some slowness as it builds momentum. In those cases, perhaps a percentage rule makes more sense, like the 33% Rule.

Another one, the Page 99 Test, is based on a quote from Ford Madox Ford:

"Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

In any case, we all come to a point in a book that just isn’t doing it for us when we start thinking of putting it down. I used to never do such a thing. If I bought a book, I was going to finish it, no matter the cost. Now, however, I’m not above putting a book down when it fails to hold my interest, regardless of the investment. My own rule, however, isn’t so much based on page count as it is on the quality of the writing as well as where the story’s gone and where it might be going.

From a writer’s perspective, there’s an important lesson in all of this: Make sure you’re not only grabbing the reader’s attention but keeping it. Also, keep in mind that just because  an editor or agent requests the first three chapters doesn’t mean they’re going to make it even that far. Often, in those cases, you might have only a few pages to hook the reader.

So, how many pages do you give a book before putting it down?