6 Reasons Why I Stop Reading Novels

I give up on books if they’re too hardgoing. There was a time when I’d persevere. I did an English Literature degree and wouldn’t have got through Tristram Shandy or Ulysses without a bucketload of stoicism. But now I’m done with difficult.

My most recent read is a bestseller; copies of it are piled on tables all over Waterstones, and this is the worst part, someone recommended it to me – always a guilt inducer that, but 150 pages into it, I’m bailing out.

I have a short attention span. I’m easily bored. If a television series doesn’t suck me in from the get-go, I switch off. Conversations about the weather make me zone out, and as for books – there’s a pile of them that I’m taking to the local charity bookshop because they just didn’t do it for me. Page 150 is my benchmark. If nothing’s happened by then, count me gone.

Reading is an intensely personal thing, of course. One of my favourite authors, for instance, five-starred my latest abandoned read on Goodreads. And a close author friend of mine couldn’t stand one of my favourite books. But as I start writing another novel, I wanted to figure out why I give up reading certain books.

So here they are – six reasons why I end up a quitter

1 Lack of action

I need something to happen. Don’t get me wrong, I love patient books like Stoner, but if the book meanders without any sense of purpose, to me it’s the equivalent of downing a couple of diazepam – except that’d probably be slightly more enjoyable. Slow books make me grumpy. They make me say things like, ‘Christ, why won’t somebody die or something?’ If there’s no action, for the sake of my sanity, I just have to give up.

2 Dull characters

The most memorable books are ones with emotionally deep characters. I’m name dropping Olive Kitteridge all over the place at the moment. What a woman. I want to connect with a character. I don’t necessarily need to like her, but I do need to understand her. And if she or he makes me groan with boredom, well, it’s time to call it a day.

3 Outlandish plot

Weird shit happens, doesn’t it? Life is full of coincidences/ gifts from the gods – and I do like to stretch my imagination, but ask me to stretch it too far and my elastic tends to break. That’s probably why I’m not a massive fan of psychological thrillers, but then that’s just me. I like a fantastic story with a hint of truth to it.

4 Too many characters

When there’s a cast of characters so big that I have to jot them all down on a piece of paper, they quite often get diluted and dull because of it. A smaller cast with more emotional depth and I’m one happy page-turner.

5 Lacklustre voice

Sometimes I just don’t connect with the voice. Perhaps I find it a bit old-fashioned or riddled with cliche or maybe it’s trying to be too clever for its own good. Sometimes it’s chemistry – a voice just doesn’t jive with me.

6 Tension vacuum

I like a book with mood, a beautiful bit of description so we are know where we’re at (but not too much description or I’ll Zzzzzzz). Simplicity is key to begin with, a steady thickening of the plot. Oh, and make sure I know that the stakes are high, give me the sense that something’s at risk and I’ll stick around.

So 4,000 words into writing my new novel and I’m remembering just what a huge ask all of this is. But I’m up for the challenge. (Gets out INTO the Woods – How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke and furrows brow……

(Image courtesy of Unsplash)

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Trying to Write Like Your Favourite Author? Just DON’T do it

I tried quite hard to be Evie Wyld for a while. Instead of becoming a contender for the Betty Trask Award, what I ended up with was the sleepy novel equivalent of downing half a bottle of whisky with your Nytol. In a word, it was crap.

The husband falling asleep with an early draft of it on top of his face, and a successful novelist friend of mine saying, ‘The thing is, I really preferred your other book,’ failed to convince me that something was wrong. I carried on buffeting my female protagonist with dramatic gale-force winds and filling my hero’s mouth with histrionic piffle.

But finally I realised why, when I spoke about that book, all my friends tried to change the subject, and I went back to book one – the one set in motion by reading a Maggie O’Farrell book. The one that had ground to a halt because it wasn’t quite Maggie O’Farrell enough.

I ripped the whole thing up and started again and this time my head didn’t scream. ‘For God’s sake, it’s a lesser Anita Shreve.’ The words, ‘You’re not good enough to be the next Kate Atkinson’ didn’t repeat like a CD with a scratch down its centre. No, I just wrote.

Somewhere along the line, I’d shaken off the need to try and be a writer other than myself, and I ended up writing my heart across 330 pages. I think I might just have found my own writing style now. It can take years to find it, but let’s be honest, even when you do find it, it’s a slippery thing. Sometimes it turns up to do the hours; other times it slides through your fingers.

My short story collection this year is a case in point. It’s been a neglected thing – what with trying to find an agent and all – but I did complete two shorts. One didn’t work out – I loved the concept and the twist, but the voice was too weak, too damn depressing. And my other story did work out, I guess. Sea Gift is a contender in this year’s Bristol Prize.

But the point is, writing without constraint, without thinking ‘I need to be as good as ……..[insert name of favourite author here], well, it’s full of possibilities and sometimes gleans grand results.

So as I stare at the blank page again – I’m about to start writing another book – I’m going to remind myself of this and take another gamble.

Meet the Writer: Fiona Mitchell

So enjoyed being interviewed by Grab the Lapels this week:

Grab the Lapels

fiona1

Fiona Mitchell is an author and journalist. She is the winner of the 2015 Frome Short Story Competition and has work published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology for the second year running. She is the author of the blog Writing Mad. All links below take you to various posts on Writing Mad. You can also socialize with Fiona on Twitter and Facebook.

In one of your blog posts you mention writing many drafts—five, in fact—as the result of input from others. Do you ever get to the point when you feel like the novel isn’t even yours anymore?

Now I’ve gotten to the stage where I feel my book The Maid’s Room is the very best it can be. I recently opened up my first draft and took a look. There is a hell of a lot of waffle in it and the plot goes off on…

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Do you finish books you hate?

When I read, I want a story to open up a space in my chest for someone to dance in. I want intensity. I want to feel, to believe. Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing and Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns both did the job.

But sometimes a book doesn’t slice my loaf – there are seven of those piled up beside my bed with an empty mug perched on top like an amateur art installation. ‘I’ll come back to you,’ I think. (I lie.)

It’s not like any of those books are rubbish, they’re just not doing it for me.

A couple of weeks ago, an editor asked me: ‘Do you read as reader or as a writer?’

And something has switched over the past year because I now read as a writer. I take notes, and analyse clues and complicated plots.

That’s turned me into even more of a quitter of books I don’t really like. I want to be inspired after all. Reading has become study. Rather than watching a magician do tricks, I’m leaning over to the side, having a good old nosey at where she’s stuffed her ace of clubs.

But I could learn something from my bedside pile. Just what is it that’s not working for me? Is the main character too much of a snooty toff to identify with? Or is it that the plot is too slow, the characters too passive?

Pressing on with a book that makes you groan for all the wrong reasons can pay dividends. I gave up with We Need to Talk About Kevin 100 pages in, but I returned to it a year later, and what a punch-to-the-gut read it was. Similarly, I toiled over the opening chapters of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but stuck with Dorrigo Evans to the bitter, beautiful end.

I had to exercise patience with both books, and boy was it worth it. I felt, I believed. Someone salsa-ed inside my ribcage.

So – oh go on then – I’m going back to my bedside pile.

What kind of reader are you – a quitter or a plough-on-until-the-ender?

In praise of the Short Story

I’m so enjoying short stories at the moment – reading them and writing them. You get yourself an idea; you spend hours researching it, then you bang away at the keyboard until it’s done. You can explore ideas that aren’t sustainable over 300 pages, and you might even get yourself a bigger idea. One that’ll morph itself into a novel. Failing that, perhaps you’ll meet a character that you’ll want to stay with for longer.

A few short story collections from my shelves….

A few short story collections from my shelves….

This year’s Costa Short Story finalists have been an inspiration. How I loved Zoe Gilbert’s Fishskin, Hareskin and the beautiful Glassblower’s Daughter by Lucy Ribchester. Benjamin Myers’ A Peacock, A Pig in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 7 did things to my stomach that hurt – it was that brilliant. And how I laughed my way through Kevin Franke’s A Visitor, runner up in last year’s Writers & Artists Short Story Competition.

So here I am without the big idea for book three, (Well, there is an idea, I’m just not sure it’s the right one) but I can’t stop writing littlies. I’ve written six over the past three months and I’m pleased with them, especially one particular favourite.

I was going to give myself a grand goal this year – a short story a week. But perhaps that’s a bit too grand, given that I’m job hunting – so here’s a lesser promise. A short story a month for the rest of 2015. I’ll have me a collection by the end of the year (well, I’m hopeful anyway) and maybe I’ll find that big book idea along the way.