When Nothing Happens

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I don’t buy every book I read.  I wish I could, because I know what sales mean for authors, especially those who haven’t hit the big time yet, but there’s only so much money to go around.  So I check out books from the library.  Between requesting books from the consortium (a group of libraries in my state that have come together to share their catalogs with each other to help patrons find what they want more easily) and placing orders through the national inter-library loan system, I bring home a whole lot of books every week.  But I’m also writing my own books, which means that the books I get my hands on had better wow me right off the bat.  I give each one fifty pages – if I’m still paying attention to the page number at that point, I’ll give up and move on to the next book.  I’m too old to waste time on books I don’t love.

Sometimes I just can’t connect with the characters.  I don’t even require that I love the main character, as long as someone in the story takes hold of my heart.  If I get to page fifty and realize I wouldn’t care if the Great God Lumpcrush reached down and ate every single character in the story, I know it’s time to move on.  Sometimes the story doesn’t progress in a way that makes any sense.  JoeBob and Angelixa set out on a quest to find her missing magician father, but along the way Angelixa ditches JoeBob, forgets her original quest and decides to join a woman’s knitting cult.  Yeah, nope, don’t care any more.  There are lots of things that can go wrong in a story, and an author worth her salt knows when things have gone off the rails, knows when to take her story in hand and make sure it’s still doing what she intended.

The thing that bothers me most, though, is the author who has an amazing grasp of language, who weaves a gorgeous tapestry of world around me, enveloping me in the velvet smoothness of description and beauty, but who never tells me a story.  When I read a book, first and foremost I’m after a story.  I want things to happen.  Describe the world in the loveliest language imaginable, but it won’t matter if there’s no story in the end.  I’ve picked up more than a few books like this in the last few years.  Most recently, I was listening to a book on CD.  It was unabridged, so I could hear every word, and I was excited to get my hands on it, because it had been lauded up and down the internet for months.  Surely this was going to be a fabulous read.  I put the first disc into the player.  By the second CD, I was ready to return it to the library, because in all that time, nothing had happened.  Oh the characters were fully fleshed.  They were so well-described I’d have known them on the street.  The world was as real as anything I see outside my window.  But nothing was happening.  I couldn’t even guess what might happen in the future.  It was a little like a painting done with words instead of paint.  A beautiful moment in time, completely expressed, but standing still.  That doesn’t work for a story.

A story needs to be many moments, moments that don’t just show me a world but that build on each other and come to a climax that I care enough to stick around for.  Description is important, and world-building is vital, but I don’t care who you are, how magnificent a vocabulary you have or how impressive the publishing world decides you must be – if nothing’s happening in your words, then you haven’t written a story.  Throw me some conflict, some troubles, and a lot of action.  Make me lean forward to catch every word.  Trust me, I’m waiting to listen.

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22 comments to When Nothing Happens

  • wookiee

    I usually will give a book more than fifty pages, I really hate giving up on a novel. What’s really odd is the books I _have_ put down were from authors whom I’ve read lots of other stuff and liked:

    Earth by David Brin – gave up after 70 pages
    Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson – gave up the whole series after several hundred pages
    Embassytown by China Mieville – gave up after 100 or so

    Those are close to all the books I’ve ever given up on. Each of those authors has produced other books I’ve voraciously read. I wish I’d paid more attention to the specifics of _why_ I was putting each down, so I could clearly contrast the differences and share that; but I think I was just too eager to move onto another book I’d enjoy.

  • Read a book like that a while back. Like wookie, I hate giving up on a book, but if it hadn’t been a paperback it would’ve been a chihuahua killer and I was literally halfway through the book before something happened, which IIRC, encompassed one chapter and then went back to nothing happening. And this was supposed to be one of the best sci-fi series’ ever written, so said reviews. Yeah, that’s why I try authors I’ve never read at the library first. I prefer the screenplay rule of something happening in the first 5 minutes (IMO, equivalent in novels as something happening to grip me within the first chapter), but I will forgive a slow start, as long as the rest of the book hits like a runaway train. This one got too caught up in its political systems to be interesting and there were so many characters the author was focusing on that you didn’t get to stay with any one of them long enough to actually care. Heck, who knows, the rest of the series might have been good, but I’ll never find out.

  • err…wookiee. Looks like I missed an *e* there.

  • I will forgive a slow start, as long as the rest of the book hits like a runaway train.

    As will I. That’s why I give it fifty pages, on average.

    I really hate giving up on a novel.

    I used to never give up on a book. I’d read right through to the bitter end. But the older I get, the less time I know I have left. I’d rather die with an incredible book in my hand than struggling through one I didn’t love. *grin*

  • Pretty much right there with you on this, Misty. My reading time is way too precious to waste on books that bore me. I usually go 100 pages, but after that, if I don’t care, or, as you say, I’m still checking page numbers to gauge my progress, then it’s time to move on to something else. Bad wine, boring books, nonsensical movies, bland food — things for which I have no tolerance.

  • I do the same thing. I’m a very slow reader, work, and write. I probably don’t read nearly as much as I should, but I’m also quite picky about it. I will put down books within a few chapters if they’re not grabbing me, and as much as I “feel bad” about doing that (from an author-sympathy standpoint), time is a precious thing that needs to be accessed.

  • ACCESSED? I seriously let my eyes wander for ONE SECOND and I write “ACCESSED” because it’s on my screen. Awesome.

    AHEM.

    Time is a precious thing that needs to be used wisely.

  • I am the same in so many ways. If I find myself peeking forward to see how much mroe is left, then my interest has begun to wane. I will try to slog through it since once I start a story I must know how it ends. I usually will at least get some closure even if it is not a compelling close. For some reason, Lord Foul’s Bane of the Thomas Covenant series left me feeling that way – empty. But I guess that is a story for another time.

    It might be mad coincidence to you all that I can only get through about 80 pages of Sword of Shannara without chucking it against the wall, despite several attempts.

    As for my own writing, I am a great scene writer, but one of my greatest faults is putting scene after scene to make a narrative flow. I still struggle to go beyond the “awesome scene” to make a complete story.

  • Unicorn

    Mark – I fell asleep during chapter five of Sword of Shannara. However I adored Elfstones of Shannara, that was still a bit slow, but packed a lot more punch, and the ending was wonderful.
    I tend to entirely lose the plot occasionally. I’ve just realised that my W. I. P. in revision, “Sparrowhawk”, is not, in fact, a novel but a novel and a novella combined; the main plot takes a backseat while the novella’s plot stretches through the entire middle of the, for want of a better word, story. Oh dear. One day I will have to write a separate novella. For now… I have lots and lots of cutting to do.
    Thanks for the post, Misty.
    Unicorn

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I once made it through an entire book of nothing because I felt so sure SOMETHING had to happen soon. When I got to the end, I realized that the whole book was actually backstory – the parents and childhood of the REAL protagonist. It was clear the author planned that things really would happen in the next book, but I was too angry by that point to continue the series…

  • rebnatan

    I couldn’t read Demian by Herman Hesse, even though it was an assigned Engl. lit book. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t. On the other hand, I put up with extensive tediousness in the Wheel of Time series, having only not read the last one.
    In Eyeless in Gaza (Aldous Huxley, 1939), it takes a while to realize that a great deal is happening. It descends on you slowly, subtly.
    My editor had me cut 60,000 words from my novel, to ensure it kept on moving.

  • A few years ago I heard a writer–I don’t remember who and wish I could give them proper credit–say that the 20th Century would be remembered for producing “the best writing about absolutely nothing.” I wholeheartedly agree, though I wish it were otherwise. Nothing makes me want to pull every hair out of my head faster than gorgeous yet pointless prose.

  • I try to make it through anything I buy. I really do. It’s my cheap upbringing, I guess.
    Heck, I’ve rarely if ever walked out on movies, let alone books.

    I even sat all the way through Highlander 2. Yes, I wanted to claw my eyes out, and, but I watched to the end.

    The only book series that I chose to table was Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. One of my favorite writers, but there were too many separate primary plot lines, too many characters, and often there’d be slow transitional chapters for each plot line grouped together.

    Couldn’t go on.

  • Oh dear… I usually give it 25 pages. Am I showing my impatience? If so, then I claim my mystery/thriller background. A dead body on page one is my motto.

    Of course, my editor just made me write an entirely new fist chapter for Raven Cursed, to give some time for storybuilding. Hmmm.

    Okay, I need to up my page count for stories where nothing happens early.

  • Yeah – I used to pride myself on never quitting a book. Now I just can’t justify the time or the brain space for books I don’t really enjoy. I’m barely getting through the current one because I’m mildly curious to see how the author wraps it up. But I’m not engaged because the author spends so much time describing his world and then over explaining things that he never develops real tension or depth of character. I could take the slow plot if the characters were better fleshed out.

    Without naming titles or names, I want to say that my current read appears to be a good example of an editor and author getting sloppy because the author is a Name and doesn’t need editing anymore. Well, I’ve got news for you, folks. I’ve never read this author before and I never will again because now I associate this name with redundant, clunky prose and shallow character development. It could have been an amazing book – the set up, the setting, and the character list all have great potential. But the actual novel is dull as ditchwater and the author has lost a reader. Just more proof of what David and Faith and Ed have been saying – EVERYONE needs editing.

  • Another big turn off for me is when writers choose character and place names with random letters. Like: “A’Karonys” , “Aralt Arpat” , “Brullyg”, or “Korelri”. Those are actual names and places in Malazan Book of the Fallen series. That makes it impossible fo rme to read very much of it without me either stopping and throwing hte book with force, or making up new names in my head for the characters/places.

  • Razziecat

    I, too, usually borrow books from the library to see if I love them. If I want to read them again, then I buy a copy. I buyer fewer books this way, but I love the ones I own.

    I would add that not only do things need to happen in the story, they have to be important things. I was turned off one series because the first book seemed to be mostly the day-by-day activities and training of a soldier, with very little real conflict or plot development. I never finished reading that book & won’t read the rest of the series. And I find myself wondering why some editors want to publish books like these.

  • henderson

    I tried reading WISE MAN’S FEAR by Patrick Rothfuss, but I stopped after reading 200 pages. I just found the story too boring, and I was not interested in any of the character, including Kvothe.

    I find that I am a little more patient with a book, if the series is complete. For example, I found the first book of Dorothy Dunnet’s House of Niccolo series a little slow, but since I checked out the complete from the library, I soldiered on and continued reading. I read all eight books in less than a month, and I think it is one of the best series I have ever read.

  • Lance Barron

    I will generally read through a lot of slow material. That may explain why a reviewer at a conference wrote “ZZZ” in the margins of the first 15 pages of my WIP. I don’t mind reading it, and apparently I don’t mind writing it. But I’m trying to be better. For books I have bought, I will put it back on the shelf and try again later. Sometimes it works. Thanks for the post, Misty.

  • wookiee

    or making up new names in my head for the characters/places

    Yeah I do this too when an author gets too crazy with names. It slows you down to have to process > 3 syllable names in your head as you read. Then I discuss the novel with someone else and I talk about the characters/places with my shorthand names and they get all confused.

  • Stephen Leigh once told me at LJ that if a book doesn’t scream to be picked up, leave it down. I’ve taken this to heart to a certain extent, though, I tend to give 50 pages at the start. Thankfully, there have only been a few I’ve had to put down. Dead Until Dark and Eragon are the only two that come to mind, though I couldn’t stomach Simon R. Green’s novella in Mean Streets.

    This doesn’t count classics. There have been works that I’ve tried and not finished, or forced my way through where I would have otherwise stopped like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground (1864) and W. Sommerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915).

    Cheers,
    Dave

  • I have, in a place of honor on my bookshelves, the worst trilogy I’ve ever read! One dimensional characters, no plot to speak of, pages upon pages on not very good prose rife with cliche. Boring, boring, boring, boring.
    I’ve read the trilogy cover to cover. Twice.
    Why?
    This trilogy is my inspiration. If this idiot could get published, then surely I can too!
    Sometimes the bad ones are Golden is showing you what NOT to do! :-)