By James M. Jackson
Over the last few months, I have become an increasingly impatient reader. I blame it on COVID-19.
One of my many weaknesses is that I want to control my life. In the best of times, it’s a fool’s mission. During a pandemic, it’s nuts. Early in the novel coronavirus outbreak, I found myself obsessed with the news: where the infection was striking, how countries were coping, how people were coping. I reverted to math geek mode and performed my own projections of what would happen in the US. Based on comparisons to what had already happened in other countries and the measures we were or were not taking, I (rightly as it turns out) concluded the public US estimates of fatalities were way too optimistic. Developing my own story allowed me to feel a bit of control over the uncontrollable—but that is a different story.
We Writers Who Kill create mysteries, suspense, thrillers, and we are readers. I read for two vastly different purposes: to gain information (knowledge, insight) or to escape into another world. During the last months another of my weaknesses has demonstrated it belongs as one of my core values. I have become very impatient.
On the information side, I no longer tolerate those who twist facts to support a view rather than use facts to develop a view. Given we are in election season, there is much that draws my ire. While I could cite chapter and verse of yesterday’s or today’s perversions, what is more interesting to me is how I have reacted when reading to escape this world.
Pre-COVID-19, I would cut authors a fair amount of slack. Provided their characters were reasonably interesting and the story moved forward, I’d stay for the ride. I’ve always been more attracted to stories with action rather than those with luscious prose describing in exuberant detail setting or mood or character reflections. So, it didn’t surprise me that my escapism reading became exclusively action-oriented novels. What did surprise me was how impatient I was with mediocre writing. Hitting any of these four stumbling blocks more than once sent me searching for another book.
1. Lack of defined motivation.
Real people do things for a reason. They might not understand their reasons; they may even intentionally misstate them. But they have them. The same holds true for fictional characters that engage me. Nothing stops my reading faster than a character doing something that seems to make no sense for them. My response is What? Why?
Which can be a great thing in the hands of a skilled author if they make me want to understand the why behind what just happened. That why can even be the question the novel seeks to answer. To satisfy me, I expect something to tell me there is a reason, and that I must keep reading to discover it.
Authors have many tools at their disposal to gain my trust. Foreshadowing might be enough. The character could ask herself the same question: why did I do that? Or soon after, she could reflect on the action with remorse, horror, surprise—letting me know they, too, are confused and need to find the answer (for both of us). Another approach is to use a different character via dialog or point of view to provide insight that the reader does not yet have.
I like surprises, and they’ll keep me reading. But if I sense the character acted as they did because the story “required” it, my finger starts twitching to find a new read. And if this is not the first instance of the author’s needs justifying an action, then I’m gone.
2. Data dump
I have limited interest in long passages where nothing happens. These take two forms. Authors falling in love with their words and insisting on sharing their brilliance with their readers. Or data dumps of information the author thinks are necessary to understand the story.
Backstory is a frequent culprit. We often think of backstory providing a character’s history. In small doses it can be useful, especially to provide motivation! Often the skilled author can find ways to weave the salient information into the present. A little bit goes a long way.
Authors can also bore me to the point of leaving their story with too much location backstory. Do I need to know for a present-day story that the village of Broken Wheel, Indiana was founded because Josiah Everyman’s wagon wheel broke on the thirty-seventh day of his intended journey from Utica, New York to the newly opened territory of Oregon? Maybe, if it impacts the present. However, reading paragraphs about how Josiah decamped, leaving the wagon with its broken wheel in the middle of the trail, began selling off his supplies, realized how lucrative that could be, and instead of farming, started a general store, over the years added a tavern, lost it all in the panic of 1837, and all that is left today of the store is an historical marker that the protagonist’s dog pees on twice a day on its walks, has me scanning for something to happen.
And don’t get me started on beginning every scene with a detailed description of the weather.
3. Poor copyediting
We hate in others what we dislike in ourselves. In my early drafts I overuse certain words, every character nods, or chuckles, or winks—it’s always something new because I avoid my previous issues like the plague—except for using overused phrases, which for me are easier to include than taking candy from a baby. I can start eighteen paragraphs in a row using the same construction, create word echoes that make me think I have a personal vendetta against a thesaurus, and use homonyms like their free presence rapped under a Christmas tree.
I try very hard to correct these errors before publication. So, when I see multiple examples in something I’m reading, I figure if the author doesn’t care to make it right, why should I care to read it? Even when the story is otherwise compelling, copy editing abuses accumulate to the point where I can’t stand it.
4. Inept transitions between scenes
I do much of my reading in the evening before going to sleep. With great books, every scene ends leaving me with questions I want answered. And each scene begins in a way that draws me in. I must force myself to put the story down to sleep (or give up on sleep and finish the book!).
With good books, I continue reading until I become tired. Then I’ll read to the next “white space.” When I have time to read, I’m anxious to pick up where I have left off.
A clue that I’m not fully engaged in a book is if it drops out of my hands because I’ve fallen asleep. Or, I say to myself at the end of a scene– hey, if the character is going to take a nap, I will too! And finally I realize I need a new book.
And finally a question for you
Have your reading habits changed? I’d love to hear how and why in the comments.
James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. Furthermore, a novella is the most recent addition to the series. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.