If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com.

September Interviews

9/2 Dianne Freeman, A Lady's Guide to Mischief and Murder

9/9 Ellen Byron, Murder in the Bayou Boneyard

9/16 Marilyn Levinson, writing as Allison Brook, Checked Out for Murder

9/23 Rhys Bowen, The Last Mrs. Summers

9/30 Sherry Harris, From Beer To Eternity

September Guest Bloggers

9/19 Judy Alter

WWK Weekend Bloggers

9/5 V. M. Burns

9/12 Jennifer J. Chow

9/26 Kait Carson


For The Love Of Lobster Tales by Shari Randall is now available to download free for a limited time. Go to Black Cat Mysteries at: https://bcmystery.com/ to get your free copy! Thanks for the freebie, Shari.

Keenan Powell recently signed with agent Amy Collins of Talcott Notch. Congratulations, Keenan!

KM Rockwood's "Secrets To The Grave" will appear in the new SinC Chesapeake Chapter's new anthology Invitation To Murder, which will be released by Wildside Press on 10/6.

Congratulations to our two Silver Falchion Finalists Connie Berry and Debra Goldstein!

Paula Gail Benson's "Cosway's Confidence" placed second and Debra Goldstein's "Wabbit's Carat" received Honorable Mention in the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable 2020 short story contest. Congratulations, Paula and Debra!

Susan Van Kirk's Three May Keep A Secret has been republished by Harlequinn's Worldwide Mystery. The WWK interview about the book can be accessed here. We're so glad another publisher picked up this series.

KM Rockwood's "Burning Desire," and Paula Gail Benson's "Living One's Own Truth," have been published in the anthology Heartbreaks & Half-truths. Congratulations to all of the WWK writers.

Please join Margaret S. Hamilton's Kings River Life podcast of her short story "Busted at the Book Sale" here. Congratulations, Margaret!


Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Four Ways to Lose a Reader (especially with an increasingly impatient reader like me)

By James M. Jackson

Over the last few months, I have become an increasingly impatient reader. I blame it on COVID-19.

Stress applied over a long time affects each of us differently. For many, it strips away layers of adaptive behaviors and exposes our core values. Generous people often become even more generous; those who view the world as a series of threats become even more fearful. My theory is we seek to find comfort. The generous feel better about themselves by giving of themselves. The fearful feel better by preparing against the possibility of others trying to take away what they have. They stockpile necessities, or purchase weapons, or retreat to a like-minded community. These coping mechanisms leave us more comfortable.

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.


E. B. Davis said...

I agree with all of your points, Jim. It shocks me when I actually put down a book unwilling to read it anymore, but I do now. Sometimes after doing so, say after a day or two, I try to think back on the book and mentally reconstruct the plot. More often than not, I can't, which only confirms that my decision was the correct one.

My reading hasn't changed much, but my attitude toward what I'm reading has. Previous to the virus, I liked cozies, but I didn't love them. I find myself liking them more now--perhaps I've found them a comfort.

Kait said...

Count me in on all your points, Jim. These days, if a book doesn't attract by chapter 2 - I'm done. Pre-pandemic I soldiered on to the end of almost every book. If the book read like nails on a chalkboard I told myself that there was a how-not-to-lesson involved. Sometimes I was right and there was a nugget to be found. One of my favorite quotes came from a book that dented my wall in several places. I no longer remember the title, but I do remember the quote!

I tend to read mysteries, lately I've been concentrating on cozies, but as time goes on, I've begun to add thrillers and biographies back into the mix.

KM Rockwood said...

The major change in my reading habits is that I am not getting to the library to browse, especially the new book shelves. I do miss it!

I check a few on-line sites to see what they have (especially on sale for my kindle) but that doesn't substitute for actually holding a book in my hands and skimming through it.

Other than that, I rely on authors who I know will give me a good read, and "listen" to what other authors are saying about books.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Similar reaction when I can read. My mind, which usually juggles a million things isn’t, so I am prioritizing. Sadly, my go to comfort has fallen to a non-daily event.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I have a huge stack of new releases from the library, and can't read more than a few pages. It's hard to avoid the news (is there any good news?) I look forward to the new Daniel Silva every summer, but this year, it seemed thin, probably because the horrors of daily life are worse than what he writes about.

Judy Penz Sheluk said...

Since Covid, I've been reading more and buying more (online) without the library. I've been discovering new to me authors, and different genres. Of course, I have spent spring/summer at our camp on Lake Superior, which leaves lots of time to read. But I am more critical than I used to be and I'll post tougher reviews on Goodreads. I don't trash books, that's just wrong, but I am definitely more critical.
As for overused words, I just reread my current WIP and found a dozen "given that this and that happened." One or two givens, okay. A dozen? Not so much!
Good post as always Jim.

judyalter said...

Thought-provoking, Jim. Initially I thought quarantine would give me lots of time to read. It hasn't worked out that way as I got involved in a new novel and ended doing a lot of cooking for my family. But I have noticed that I am pickier now. Used to be a book had to be pretty bad before I put it down, but my Kindle is now too full of partially read books. I wonder if it's not that we take everything--from life itself to books--more seriously these days. I find myself most impatient with the first of your four points: I don't want to give characters or plots the benefit of the doubt. If they're flimsy, foolish, unbelievable, I move on. On the other hand, I've discovered some books and series I've really enjoyed. Won't start naming names here.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

How I get my books has changed. I spent a lot of time on the websites of some indie bookstores. I placed orders even if they would have to get the book from the publisher so there would be a long delivery wait. The books cost more than Amazon or the other online retailers but the indies are a precious resource to writers. I am also grateful that the two library systems I patronize are doing reserves with no-contact pick up. I can browse the websites for hours. As to reading, I was on deadline the entire pandemic (handed in ms. last week but am immediately on deadline again.) When I am writing a novel I generally read short mystery fiction because when the story ends--it is back to work for me. Normally I read cozy mysteries and American history and political science books. (Poli Sci major here) While working I can still read the non-fiction while on deadline because those types of books are much easier to put down and pickup again.

Laurel said...

I am definitely more impatient. I have forced myself to read more serious books during this time (because I've had the time), but I'm unwilling to deal with bad writing.Life's too short--and maybe that's part of it, too. Even though I have more time, I feel time much more keenly.

Shari Randall said...

Yes to all these points! How I long for that book that makes me fight sleep! I, too, love to get wrapped up enough in a book to read to the "white parts" but it hasn't happened in a long time. Instead I've turned to TV comfort cozies, like Murder, She Wrote and Brokenwood.

Jim Jackson said...

It's interesting to see how everyone's reading habits have changed: most are as I guessed, heading toward our comfort zones. And it's good to know I'm not alone in getting pickier. That good news for quality writers, which I think is good news for everyone!

Leslie Budewitz said...

Excellent points, Jim. All are deal-breakers for me as a reader. As a writer, the hardest part is always finding and maintaining the amateur sleuth's motivation and keeping it realistic -- while being aware that in real life, no sensible lay person would get involved! The key for me is the emotional conflict that connects her to the victim, suspects, or other aspects of the situation.

Like others, I haven't read as much as I would have predicted, pre-pandemic. Though I've ordered from indies several times, it's also been a treat to find books on my shelves that I'd forgotten and that weren't my usual fare -- probably from mystery convention book bags -- and discover some excellent reads.

Kelly Brakenhoff said...

Great post, Jim. I thought during the pandemic I would get so much reading and writing done and boy, was I wrong!

Distractions are everywhere, even when I'm home most days. I have always had a 50 page rule, but last week I found myself a few chapters into book that wasn't engaging. I checked the page number and it was only page 29! I felt a little guilty for not giving the author their 50 page due, but like you said, life is short and so is my attention span.

As a writer, I am struggling most with that character motivation piece right now, and wondering if it's because of my own lack of motivation seeping into the pages of my WIP? I appreciate the tips and your observations.

Jennifer J. Chow said...

Great points, Jim. I'm definitely a more impatient reader during these tough times. I used to give a writer a few chapters as a buffer, but now, I even stop after reading the first chapter if I'm not enjoying a book.

Grace Topping said...

Excellent points, Jim. I find I have less patience with books that are poorly written. I’m also avoiding books with violence and turning to things that I find more comforting. Perhaps I’m an ostrich with my head in the sand, but I need something to calm my spirits after listening to the news.

leslie Wheeler said...

Your piece really spoke to me, as I approach a big revision of the first draft of my WIP, especially the part about character motivation, which I know I need to work on. Your focus on how reading habits have changed during the pandemic also resonated with me. I went through a stretch where I couldn't find a book that grabbed me enough to want to finish it until I found an action-packed thriller with a clearly motivated protagonist who has to defend herself again an evil, but believable, antagonist, who keeps coming up with new ways to torment and even destroy her. Still, it's not bedtime reading for me. If I want something calming, I turn to amusing and quirky "Talk of the Town" pieces in The New Yorker.