Monday, September 09, 2013

Is Your Novel Too Much Work to Read?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

My mother is a voracious reader, reading one to two books a day. We were talking about books once and she mentioned she'd stopped reading one because it was just too much work. It wasn't a bad book, in fact, she said it was a great idea and well written, but it did some things that made it hard to read, and she'd found it just wasn't worth the trouble.


Not worth the trouble? That's a hard blow for a well-written book.

But it happens. I've also read books that fell into that "too much work" area. Series books that I'd loved early on that faltered, books by authors I admired. The only thing "wrong" with them was something they'd done to make reading them more work than the story benefit of doing so.

Before I go on, it's important to note that there's nothing inherently wrong with a complex or complicated novel, or one that does any of the things I'm about to talk about. Tastes vary and what one reader thinks is wonderfully layered another might find tedious to get through. It's all very subjective. But there are things that can be possible red flags that the story is pushing the limits. It's up to the writer to decide if the story is working or if it's becoming unwieldy.

5 Red Flags That a Novel Might be Too Much Work to Read

1. It frequently requires readers to do extra "research" by reading inserted newspaper articles, poems, songs, etc. that aren't part of the narrative but contain valuable information for the reader to know to get the story or plot.

It's the writer's job to convey that information through the narrative, not to make the reader do all the work and feel like they're doing background research for a report. A short bit here and there is usually no problem, but the more these extra pieces appear, the more likely it is the story is asking too much of the reader. (Books like epistolary novels, where the whole point is to read the letters or articles don't count here, of course. )

2. It has way too many characters.

I stopped reading a favorite fantasy series because the author had introduced at least 50 characters by chapter three and I couldn't remember who was who by then. If readers can't remember who people are, they can't connect to them or even understand why what someone says or does is even important. If it requires a cast of characters list before page one, that's typically not a good sign.

3. It has way too many points of view.

In the same vein, readers can only remember so much before it all starts to gloss together, and if scenes are constantly changing from character to character and it's several long chapters before the same character or plotline comes around again, salient details can get lost. It's also a tension killer since whatever was important five chapters ago probably isn't any more. Even worse, too many points of view usually goes hand in hand with too many characters, because every POV will have its own cast. It's not long before all those secondary and minor characters are overwhelming.

4. The names are all too similar, or too hard to pronounce.

Names that start with the same letter (Anna, Andrew, Arianna), names that are all the same size (Joe, Ted, Ann), names that look similar, (Lawrence, Terrance, Vance) all make it hard for the reader to remember who's who. It's not a bad idea to list all the names in alphabetical order and see how they look together. It's an easy way to catch potential confusion and change anything that might be too similar. Genre names can also be a problem area, with names that are unpronounceable or impossible to tell if they're a person, place, title, or item.

5. There's not enough backstory or reminders in later books of the series.

After all the books are out, a reader can go from book one right to book two and not miss anything. But if there's a year between books, and book two starts right where book one left off with no reminders of what's happening or who the characters are, it can leave a reader feeling lost. Especially if what's being talked about or happening in the opening chapters is important and the hook hinges on it. If readers can't remember who a character is, they won't understand why the protagonist is having such a hard emotional time over it. Making a reader struggle to keep up in an opening chapter is never good.

We want our stories to feel effortless, drawing in our readers and holding them in breathless anticipation. The more complicated the story, the harder than can be, but if we take a little extra time to consider how the reader is going to move through the story, we can make that journey as easy as possible.

Have you ever stopped reading a book because it was too much work? What made you stop? Have you read any good examples of books that did anything on this list? 

If you're looking for more to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. This hit home! On the one hand, I think my novels might be hard to read (many POVs). On the other hand, they're about Demonology professors ... so I think I can make a few assumptions about my audience.

    Back in the day when people used omniscient, wasn't half the fun in seeing what different characters thought?

  2. I think a lot of these problems arise from newer writers being unaware of changes in the market and in readers' tastes. It used to be, especially in SFF, that readers were expected to put that extra effort in to get through a book. They had to remember character names and look up appendices to figure out what was going on.

    Because so many older, successful, authors are regarded so highly, newer authors can get caught up trying to emulate their icons instead of coming up with their own voice and taking into account what modern readers want from a book.

  3. This is excellent to keep in mind. I take all comments to heart and check my ms ( for any of these eras. I just read a blog about word count. I'm flabbergasted. It makes me wonder how some books EVER got published.

  4. Oh yes, I've been had to put down a book or two or three in my lifetime because they were too much work to read. I won't name names, but let's just say these books were bestselling or written by bestselling authors. Well-written? Maybe. But, not enough for me to suffer through them.

    Pet peeve: I hate when I'm hooked on a series and can't wait for the next to come out and then when it does, the author changes the POV from a single MC to two or three POVs and they're all in first person. I've encountered a few times this year, mostly in YA.

  5. Leave it to your mother to tell you the truth. Kudos to her and you for listening. Great to my wiki it goes!

  6. Yep, I gave up on the Robert Jordan fantasy series Wheel of Time and honestly haven't been into high fantasy since. Couldn't hang on long enough for Game of Thrones (yeah, I'm sure I should be shot) and absolutely can't read All the Pretty Horses due to lack of punctuation.

  7. Would you mind checking if my Susan Pevensie fan fiction falls into this category?

    Not printed, and permission for later asked but not granted.

    Chapters are still missing, which will be filled in later, but where chapters connect, that might give you an idea.

    Here is the link to chapter 1:

    Susan Pevensie has a bad fright

    Chapters that connect are linked each linking to next in combox below so as to get you a good reading order. THose that are not yet connected to the next, where the next extant is not yet the next in final reading order at least links back to the list of extant chapters.

  8. There is a fantasy series that I started, voraciously, but by book 3 I was a bit exhausted by the multi POVs. I love the use of a bit of head hopping but it felt more like Dance, Dance Head Hop Revolution. lol!

  9. I can put up with multiple characters to a certain point...but I dislike too many POVs.

  10. So true. I would also add under the multi POV category where there is only two POVs but the head swapping happens multiple times in a scene. I recently finished a book where it switched every few paragraphs. Now that was exhausting! I loved the book characters and plot but I won't reread the book and probably not others from the author.

    I prefer the hero and heroine POV, especially in the romance genre, but I shouldn't have to back up and stop multiple times to figure whose head I'm in.

  11. Yeah, I think I'm going to put down GoT after A Feast for the Crows and just watch the HBO series!

  12. I felt fortunate that my editor gave me kudos for taking many characters and making them work. Keep the theme and point of view strong flitting off all else and a lot of trouble, especially with your mother will be avoided. BTW Janice Hardy I learn more off this blog in ten minutes then I have ever in weeks of classes et.

  13. I have stopped reading books that are too hard to read but couldn't remember why until I read your points! Yup, I've run across the first four.

  14. Oy, the similar names. I've read a popular book that had this problem. Took me a few lines of each point of view before I realized which character I was reading about.

    Excellent advice, as always!

  15. I stopped reading The Vampire's Apprentice before I got halfway through. It was sad really, because I like vampires, YA, and was interested as to what happens next after seeing the movie. (I knew there would be no sequels.) Why did I stop. Every freaking sentence ended in an exclamation point. It got to the point on one page, I counted. Literally, every sentence. That's when I decided nothing is worth that kind of distraction.

  16. Pat, that's always fun. There's nothing wrong with many POVs if it's done well and works for the book. You'll have to see what your betas say. Sometimes it's hard to tell when we're so close to the material.

    Paul, you have a point there. Tastes and expectations have changed a lot even in the last five years.

    Girl in the Jitterbug Dress, writing is so subjective and for everything that someone loves, another reader hates. It's good to have the variety, but it can make you shake your head sometimes.

    Christine, yikes, that's annoying. I had that happen with a sci fi series I enjoyed. Still liked the book, but it threw me for a while.

    Carol, she always does. I come from a big book family. Lots of readers.

    GSMarlene, at least with GoT there's the TV show, so you can still get the story.

    Angela, hehe, good analogy! Sometimes it's great and you get that epic scale, but sometimes it's too much.

    Handy Man Crafty Woman, same here. When I start to lose track of them I tend to lose track of the book.

    Myka, egads! That sounds like bad POV use to me.

    Sarthak, I haven't read the books, but I enjoy the series. I think I'd take all the deaths harder in a book.

    Harry, aw, thanks so much! I think POV is the silver bullet of writing. Nail that and 90% of writing problems go away.

    Southpaw, once you give up, it's even too much effort to try and figure out why :)

    Julie, at least the voices were different!

    Writerreese, ooo that's rough. I'm surprised that made it through editing.

  17. I really enjoyed this post.

    I once purchased a book based on a compelling premise, a cross generation mystery, only to face the immediate introduction of 20 'characters' without personality.

    I spend the next 200 pages asking myself, "Who was that again?"


  18. Sarah, on the bright side, at least these books are good examples for us on what not to do.

  19. I was about two years out of college before it even occurred to me that I didn't need to finish a book I wasn't enjoying. Now with two kids, a full-time job and writing on the side I ditch books very quickly if they aren't "worthy" of my limited free time.

    Too many characters is a big no-no for me.

  20. Cindy, life is too short to spend on bad books :) I'm with you. I give a novel three chapters or so to hook me, and if not, I move on. Sometimes I'll set it aside and try later, if I suspect I'm just not in the right mood for that type of book.

  21. Mood effects what I read to a great extent, Janice. I can't read certain books or authors in my genre because I know envy will taint the experience for me.

    But I know when I can set that envy aside (In terms of the actual writing and execution) I will LOVE that book.

    I also made a rule for myself not to read stories heavily involving war at night or it will keep me up at night in NOT FUN ways...

  22. Taurean, I'd guess everyone has topics they won't read about. I try not to read scary novels right before bed, too :) Made that mistake with World War Z (one of my favorite books ever) and kept thinking every thump and creak was a zombie.

  23. This article was right on. I read voraciously but lately have set aside books that have too much description. Everything is described in such extensive detail it takes away from the story. I won't name names either but I just read the most recent novel in a certain well known series and although I plowed through, I couldn't wait to finish the massive tome.

    1. Thanks! Description is one of the things I tend to skim as well. Kudos to you for getting through it!