Friday, February 21, 2014


*sigh* Another 5-page info dump!

I used to be a dream reader for all you authors out there.  When I plunked down $5.99 (or more) for a book I could hold in my hands at a brick-and-mortar bookstore, I considered that a contract with the person who wrote that book.  I made a commitment to give the book a chance.  And, unless the thing was truly dreadful, I read it through to the end.

In this brave new world of e-readers and digital publishing, of self-pubs and small presses and the decline of the bookstore and the book-in-your-hand, I’m not nearly so accommodating.  I may pay $5.99 or $2.99 or $0.99 or nothing for the books I read on Kindle; price is no longer any indication of anything.  But when I set out to read a book now, it had better be good.  I no longer have any tolerance for poorly-written stories.

There used to be gatekeepers in the publishing world.  The gates have been crashed and we readers are being overwhelmed.  By choices, yes.  But in some cases, by not-so-good stuff.  Reviewers do their best to sort it out and identify the good stuff, but we all know there are also trolls out there who like to spread the hate.  Tags help, but they are limited in scope, particularly when it comes to SFR.  Book clubs, websites, word-of-mouth?  Yes.  More, please.

So in an effort to stem the flood, let me just put up a few of my own levees.  I’m not an agent or an editor; I’m a reader who has been forced to act like one.  But for any of you newbie writers who might be wondering, there are reasons why readers stop reading in the middle of a book and hit Delete.  Here are a few of mine:

--I’ve been reading a fair amount of SFR lately, and the Number One killer of SFR stories, like their SF counterparts, is backstory, oodles of it, in info dumps of epic proportions in the beginning of the book.  This passes for “worldbuilding”.  Stop.  Let me discover the world your characters inhabit, little by little, not all at once.  Show me, don’t tell me.  And, by the way, the omniscient third POV was last used to good effect by Charles Dickens.  Or maybe Somerset Maugham.  You can’t talk about this character and that character on board a ship as if you are God introducing them to the reader.  Do it for yourself and keep it in your Notes file.  Leave it there.

--Whose story is it?  Pick a point of view and stay with it, at least for a scene at a time.  No shifting from the hero’s POV to the heroine’s in the same scene!  This is called “head-hopping”, and it drives me crazy.  If you shift POV, mark it with an ellipsis or an extra space between lines.

--And speaking of the hero and heroine, make them lively and likeable.  If they are flat, unbelievable, irredeemable or unmotivated by anything I can discern, then I won’t care what happens to them.  Then, make sure they meet within a reasonable length of time.   If this is a romance, your hero and heroine can’t spend half the book wandering around looking for each other.

--Pick up the pace.  Now, there are novels where a languid pace and dense prose are appropriate.  But unless you are Tolstoy or Proust, you probably want your readers turning pages a little quicker.  I recently gave up on a planet-based SFR adventure that bogged down hopelessly in the middle chapters.  Not only was the external plot going nowhere, the romantic arc was lost in a vague triangle with not much sizzle.  This book was part of a series.  I suspect the author plans to resolve all these issues in future books.  I’ll never know.

--A good story takes time (length) to develop.  Few of us are good enough at what we do to develop character, plot, setting, a believable SF world and a satisfying romance within the scope of 25,000-40,000 words.  Short stories and novellas take a special kind of writing; they are not just sketches of a longer novel with key pieces missing.  This is one of the most frustrating developments of the digital age.  You would think that with minimal production costs, length would be no object.  Instead, e-books are often much shorter than hard copies, and too many of them short-change the reader on depth.

--Spellcheck does not an editor make.  Your computer’s grammarian may suggest changes that are inappropriate for your style.  Equip yourself with a good set of dictionaries and grammar references and use them.  Then latch onto a good editor as if your life depended on it.  This may be one of your beta readers with professional experience, a pro that you pay for (if you are self-pubbed), or, if you are extraordinarily lucky, your editor at the publishing house that buys your manuscript who just happens to have time to edit your work.  In this day and age editors rarely have time to really edit manuscripts in detail.  Much of that is up to the author.  I still see way too many published novels with grammatical mistakes and diction errors that Spellcheck will not catch (“rein” in a horse; “reign” of a king, for example).

Some readers (and writers!) will argue that some of these things don’t matter, that it’s the story that counts.  I would counter that all of these things combine to make the story.  Without character, POV, pace, proper use of backstory and good use of language, there is no story, there is only an idea.  Lots of us have ideas—wonderful, creative ideas.  Very few of us are writers.  Readers can recognize the difference.

Laurie, you found some great things on the News Feed!  I particularly loved the “Five Things That Cost More than Space Exploration”.  We seem to have such skewed priorities in this world!  I missed ABOUT TIME.  Guess I’ll have to catch it on Netflix.  STARCROSSED has already been panned by reviewers as being dull as deck plating, but I’ll watch Colin Farrell in anything, even if it’s called THE LOBSTER. :-)

Pippa, this business has more ups and downs than the Dow Jones, and takes as much resilience, I think, as acting.  So, Keep Calm and Carry On, as the saying goes on your side of the pond.

Cheers, Donna


  1. Donna, I think you pretty much hit all the points that turn me off a book, aside from one I came across recently. The only bit of SciFi was some tech the hero had implanted, and other than that it was all about the characters having sex as quickly and as often as possible, and for no other reason than each character found the other hot. Sorry, that's not enough story for me. While I don't mind reading sex, there really needs to be more to it.

  2. Donna,

    I am schooled! Seriously, thanks as a reader for pointing out some of the basic 'must haves' and 'please don'ts' for sci fi rom authors.

    We all have our perfect shade of the trope, and there are a few quazillion more than fifty, but good world-building and characterization should always be in play.

    The problem is it's all in our authorly heads, but it takes a good editor and often beta readers to remind us we either forgot to get that bit out onto the paper or we dumped it all in one page.

    My sci fi is heavy on character and romance as that's what I enjoy. Brave new worlds, similar to Earth but with new and even humorous possibilities for getting into trouble and then struggling back out of it.

    Viva la difference, but let us do it well!

    Cathryn Cade

  3. Great points, Donna.

    I actually don't agree the story is the most important thing. I have read MANY books where I was so enamored of the author's voice I really didn't much care what the "story" was up to.

    For me it comes down to a tipping point. (I'm speaking not just of leisure time (HA!) reading, but also of the submissions I review for SilkWords. When I start reading a story, I WANT to fall in love with it. If the writing is strong, my little heart pounds. The characters are interesting too? Squeeeee! Wait, this plot point doesn't work at all. Do I reject on the basis of that? For a story with a great voice and interesting characters, no way.

    On the other hand, if I can see the writing will need a lot of tightening, I'm not sure I like the heroine, and then all of a sudden the plot takes a hard-to-believe twist -- well, that's a story I probably don't have time to work with the author on. (OR to read, if it's something I've bought for myself.)

  4. It used to be that maybe 7 out of 10 books I read, I liked. Now I'm down to 2 or 3! For me, that says it all.

  5. Loved your take, Donna, and I enjoyed reading all the comments, in particular Sharon's editor's POV.

    Okay, you've inspired me to write a follow-up. I think it's good for a writer to look at things from a readers' perspective. It certainly helps me put my own work under a microscope.

  6. You hit all my points too! My biggest gripe is why the heck are so many ebooks--where cost of production is not a factor--so damn short? I'm looking for a read to last me longer than a leisurely meal. I like meat in my stories, rich worlds, complex plots. You can't do that in sub-50K.

    I've never been a reader of category-length fiction because it's too short. I wish people would stop being so afraid of length and put out a decent sized book. There is so much SFR I pass over because it's too short. I'm the kind of reader who isn't the least bit intimidated by the length of a George R.R. Martin book, and the kind of reader who devours a 700+ page romance in four days then reads it AGAIN.

  7. I totally agree on the length issue and especially for SFR where alien cultures and sometimes entire universes need to be crafted. I think the trend toward shorter lengths are partly due to declining attention spans brought on by popular media and partly due to a lack of patience when reading e-books when the reader can't physically see their progress.

    It would seem the success of The Last Hour of Gann proves that a lengthy novel with detailed storytelling and world-building still appeals to a large audience when done well.

  8. Yeah, I relate to this. I'm a decently fast reader and sometimes have trouble justifying not finishing a book since it wouldn't take much for me to do so (and I want to have gotten the whole picture before I say negative things about it in a review, which I very well may do), but everything you've mentioned is what makes me want to stop reading too. Especially the backstory. Usually the author seems to think the backstory is really important and they choose a time to drop it on us that distracts us and distances us. Backstory should never feel like backstory. You shouldn't feel like you are humoring the author, you know?


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