The reader’s dilemma: What to do when you stall out

All right, I”m going to confess. I’ve been reading the same book for the last three months. Which is to admit that I haven’t really been reading much at all. This is embarrassing for a writer with a reading list so long it stretches out the door and down the street.

Here’s the problem. This book just hasn’t grabbed me. It’s not terrible. It’s about some of the same themes I wrote about in my last novel, themes that obviously interest me. And a friend recommended it, so I purchased it AT FULL RETAIL from an actual bookstore, partly because I was feeling guilty for not buying enough from actual bookstores.

Every chapter I think, “Well, that was pretty clever.” But I don’t really care what comes next. I can’t get through more than one chapter at a time. Often, I fall asleep before I can talk myself into picking the book up at all. Honestly, the only reason I’m compelled to keep going is that I PAID FULL RETAIL FOR THIS DAMNED BOOK.

I will finish this book if it kills me. I think I only have another chapter left. I thought I was done last night. I even thought the last paragraph was a very good conclusion. Imagine my horror when I found yet another chapter followed it.

This is the last time, I tell you. The next time I stall out, I’m done!

Novelists, go read Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel if you haven’t already. Seriously. Your novel needs to grab people by the throat and not let them go. Or at least politely tug on the reader’s hand and keep pulling her down the road with you.

Don’t just lightly tap, and then walk away, wandering from one side of the road to the other as a patch of flowers or something catches your eye.

Yeah, I know some literary types look down on potboilers. Even a literary novel, though, needs some suspense to pull readers along to whatever sublime point is being delicately made. Otherwise, you basically have a fine performance of technique that only critics and other writers will appreciate — and even they may start skimming.

Plus, critics get their books for free, and other writers are too small an audience to keep the mortgage paid. The best case scenario is that your book gets such good notices that everyone thinks they have to read it, so they buy it even if they never finish it. (Here’s William Falk complaining about that very phenomenon.)

This is what I’m thinking about at the moment, anyway, as a currently irritated reader. And no, I’m not going to say whose book it is, because that would be mean, and maybe it’s just me. And I should have quit two months ago. (It’s definitely not The Goldfinch, which I have in my Kindle account but won’t start anytime soon after reading Falk’s piece.)

I just hope the next book is absolutely merciless in demanding my attention. As I’ve expressed on Jenny Milchman’s blog “Made It Moments,” I want to be TAKEN HOSTAGE by a book. I think we all do.

So even though my reading list is already too long, tell me what books you’ve read recently that did that for you — that just couldn’t be put down, that were brutally captivating.

Because I need one of those next!

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8 thoughts on “The reader’s dilemma: What to do when you stall out

  1. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. Grabbed me and did not let go. There was almost no technical suspense to speak of: we are flashing back from an apocalypse so we already know what’s coming and who survives. The how of the apocalypse was already answered in the previous book. What kept me hooked was mainly what was going on on each page. I couldn’t get enough of these characters and their cult and its leader and his sermons. If pressed, I guess I would say the suspense was — how/what are THESE people going to do when the apocalypse hits.

    Great book! I highly recommend the audio book version.

    • I’ll have to add this to the list. I’ve always meant to read Oryx and Crake, but I’m afraid it will make me even more paranoid about GE than I already am! The book I mentioned to you the last time we were talking about post-apocalyptic novels — but couldn’t remember the title of — was INTO THE FOREST by Jean Hegland. I enjoyed it. Read it out of the library, so it’s been a long time.

  2. EVERY book I finish is a 4 or 5 star book, because otherwise, I can put it down and find a book that IS 4 or 5 stars. I never finish a boring book except, recently, I finished one because I was supposed to review it for a newspaper, but then they didn’t want it because it was so negative. So I left a scathing review of this nonfiction book on Amazon that basically said, “Everything this authors says is absolutely correct, but that’s not enough for me. This is just TOO BORING!” In retrospect, it is a really funny review to read because any reader would be thinking, “If she hated it that much, why didn’t she just put it down?”

    • Maybe they’ll think, “She must have paid full price for it!” I just finally finished this book in a park while I waited to go in to see Hamlet. FINALLY! May choirs of angels sing it to that great repository of books I probably won’t remember for very long.

  3. The last book that really grabbed me was The Ribs and Thighbones of Desire. Not flattery, just the truth. Before that it was Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. I’m one of those who hasn’t finished The Goldfinch. I would recommend that author’s first book, The Secret History, instead.

    • Well, I’m flattered anyway, Mary. (It has occurred to me that writing this post is practically begging somebody to tell me my books are boring! And no doubt they are, to some.) I’ll have to check out An Untamed State.

  4. The last two books I “read” were “Ribs and Thighbones of Desire” and “The Goldfinch,” except that I also didn’t finish “The Goldfinch” and it was and audiobook. The Goldfinch is good, but it’s LONG and the main character only reacts by saying “huh” to his much more interesting friends. That gets a little old.

    • I found myself wondering if everyone comments on the last 20 pages because they skipped ahead, or maybe they all finished it and only wanted to comment on the last 20 pages. I do want to give it a try, but I need an easy book next. Honestly, I was contemplating Outlander or something like that. I want some book candy. The last one had too much bran.

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