I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction short stories lately. Many have been excellent. But some have not been my cup of tea. I’ve run into a fair amount of melancholic ambiance pieces where nothing much happens. But the stories I tend to enjoy have action, dialog, or at least a steady stream of concrete information.
As I’ve been going through the stories, I’m noticing an increasing willingness on my part to abandon a story before the end. This is part of an overall trend I’ve noticed over the years where, compared to when I was younger, I’m much more willing to abandon a novel or even non-fiction book if it’s not working for me.
Recently, John Scalzi, discussing his reading for Hugo award voting, urged anyone who would be voting to actually read all of the nominated stories, but noted that you always have the option to quit a particular story if you’re not enjoying it. George R. R. Martin (author of Game of Thrones) has issued similar advice. As someone reading both for enjoyment and education, their advice made me feel better, that maybe I’m not an attention challenged philistine.
So, how long do I give a story a chance to work before I abandon it? It varies with the format. When I was in high school, I recall being told that you should always give a novel at least 100 pages before giving up on it. That might have worked in the 18th century when people had lots of free time (at least those who could afford books did) and novels frequently spent the first chapter on the hero’s genealogy. But these days, I find one or two chapters is enough, or 20-30 pages, whichever is shorter. That just happens to be about what you usually get in an Amazon preview, which I find a very useful tool to use prior to shelling out money for a book.
I’ve also found this to be true for non-fiction books. If the author’s writing style and attitude aren’t working in the opening chapter, or if I’m already finding factual errors in that first chapter, I’ve pretty much learned not to invest additional time in the book. If the subject matter is something I’m intensely interested in, there are almost always alternatives out there.
But when it comes to short stories, I’m giving the author maybe a page, or the rough equivalent when reading electronically, which probably comes out to about 200-400 words. I’ve found that if the story isn’t clicking for me in those first few hundred words, it most likely isn’t going to do so overall. They might get another page or two if it’s a novelette or novella.
There are exceptions. If the author is someone whose work I’ve previously enjoyed, they’ll get considerably more leniency. Indeed, there are authors who I would likely read their entire piece regardless, because I have a history of enjoying their previous stuff. I’m also more inclined to give the author more time if their work has been recommended by people whose judgment I trust, or if it has had universal acclaim. But if I’m trying a new writer’s work for the first time, then the above cutoffs largely apply.
Of course, just because I make it past the opening portions, doesn’t mean I still won’t abandon the work at some other point, although the further I make it in, the less chance there is of that happening, if only because I’m reluctant for the time invested to have been in vain.
Is this fair? I know it makes me uneasy to think that everything I write is summarily evaluated in the opening passages. But from what I’m reading, that’s largely what happens when editors evaluate submitted stories or articles. They typically have hundreds of submissions to go through and it sounds like most get weeded out based on the opening paragraphs. One of the benefits of reading material from publishers is that their editors perform this initial weeding out.
But even with that, reading a book, story, article, or anything else takes time. And, being mortal, we all have only a limited amount of it. Particularly in the case of fictional stories, you should be enjoying the journey at least as much as the end. If an author can’t make that journey enjoyable, particularly the opening passages which are widely understood to be critical, asking us to fight through their stuff for a payoff we may or may not find rewarding seems unreasonable.
I fully realize that this approach causes me to overlook some works that simply have a slow boil before they start getting good. But I perceive that, at least for my tastes, these are few and far between. And usually they tend to be the exceptions described above that get wide acclaim. I always reserve the option to come back to a book or story, to give it another chance, if everyone is raving about it.
How long do you usually give works to hook you in? Do you ever abandon them once you’ve started reading? How long of an evaluation period should an author reasonably expect?