When to give up on a story

ClarkesWorldCover

Cover of the latest issue of Clarkesworld, a sf short story magazine I highly recommend.

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?

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54 Responses to When to give up on a story

  1. Brett says:

    I’ve been following the Amazon kindle preview standard as well, which worries me – I can think of books where it would have lead me astray, particularly with nonfiction works.

    Usually I give a fictional work 50 pages to entice me before quitting. I’ll try out 2-3 chapters of a non-fictional work, not necessarily in linear order, before quitting.

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    • I’ve noticed that for a lot of non-fiction books, the Amazon “look inside” feature includes pages scattered throughout the book, which has often helped me decide whether or not to buy a book. I haven’t noticed that on the Kindle previews, although that’s most often what I use these days for fiction.

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  2. James Pailly says:

    When I find that I really don’t like a book I’m reading, I usually push my way through it in the hope that I learn something about what not to do. I also promise myself that once I’ve finished, I’ll re-read one of my favorite novels.

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  3. I didn’t use to abandon works partway through; then I tried reading “Battlefield Earth”. I got halfway through it before I decided it wasn’t going to get any better. I not only gave up on it, but decided I wouldn’t invest that much energy in a book I was not enjoying.

    I don’t finish reading most of the books I attempt. How long it take before I abandon a book? It varies. For some books, I can tell in under 10 pages that it’s not for me. In other cases, it may take 20. Sometimes, the book is worth skimming.

    I realize I may be missing out on good works this way, but I also know that my time is limited and there are tons of books out there. Besides, my experience has been that if a book isn’t working out for me early on, it’s not likely to start working out for me.

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    • We’re on the same page. I actually read Battlefield Earth as a teenager and generally enjoyed it, although I found his later series, which I attempted to read as college student, to be unreadable. All of that was before I knew anything about the author and Scientology.

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  4. D.I. Ozier says:

    I used to find it very difficult to abandon a book without finishing it. Even if I hated the characters, the plot, the setting, the writing, I still wanted to know how the story ended. It was almost pathological.

    However, after working in the publishing industry and being forced to evaluate a large number of manuscripts in a short amount of time, knowing when to quit has become especially important. Now, I give a book up to three chapters to hook me in before I give up.

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  5. M. Joelle says:

    I have a mild compulsion about finishing books, even if I hate them and find them boring. If I start it, it must be finished. I do this with TV shows also. Even if I show I used to enjoy has taken a sharp turn for the worst, I have to see it through for some reason.

    I’m dragging my heels on Doctor Who though. It just might be the show that sets me free!

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    • Often, my first clue that a TV show isn’t working for me anymore is when the unwatched episodes start piling up in my DVR. Orphan Black appears to be the most recent case. I was completely into it in its first season, found the second season okay, and have only watched the first episode in season 3.

      I struggled a bit with Doctor Who last season. I make wide allowances for the story content in DW because it’s usually at least fun. But this season really pushed me to the limits of that tolerance with less fun. But I’ll probably watch at least the beginning of the next season.

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      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        Think any of the Doctor Who issues have to do with Peter Capaldi? I, also, was less enthralled with this past season, and I’m not sure why (but I think it’s having trouble accepting Peter Capaldi after such amazing seasons with Matt Smith and David Tennant). Capaldi is a deliberate harkening back to earlier, older, more irascible Doctors, so I’ve been trying to adopt a “wait and see” stance. It’s also possible that the current “artesian well” has begun to dry up. That does happen.

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        • For me, I don’t think it’s Peter Capaldi per se. Many of the stories just became too silly for me. ‘Kill the Moon’ was the low point of the season (I felt moved to blog about that one), and the afterlife stuff in the finale wasn’t much better. I can take silly if it’s at least fun, but the plots were dark. For me, if you’re going to do dark, my tolerance for silly is lower.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Those are good points (I’ll have to go read your post about the Moon episode). I guess I don’t see those as being a night-and-day difference from other episodes (the Star Whale, for example), but I can totally see how one might have reached a threshold and had enough.

            I think, for me, the factors are different, so I’m more forgiving (at least so far). I do like the dark streak the show has (and always has), and the silly didn’t quite cross lines for me.

            This may be along the same lines as how I rather like Sunshine, but you find it unwatchable. I see the things you object to, but they don’t cross the line for me given the parts I like. Whereas I suspect the situation will be reversed for Interstellar.

            It’s a complex phase space of pros and cons that ultimately puts us at a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” point — which is exactly the point of your post! (So “thumbs up” on that! 🙂 )

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          • Thanks. I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve given up on Doctor Who. It never suffered from the DVR neglect that Orphan Black is currently getting from me. And I do plan to watch DW next season.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Likewise. I still consider it the best SF on television.

            Liked by 1 person

      • M. Joelle says:

        Yes – TV should be fun or interesting or poignant. There’s enough work we have to do in life, we shouldn’t feel encumbered by passive entertainment too!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. john zande says:

    I had to give up on Rouge Genesis, by Ceri London. Good lord it was painful. I was going to write a stinging review, but figured that would just be being nasty, and a waste of everyone’s energy. Still, a shockingly dull story.

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    • Hmmm. Never heard of it, or her, although the Amazon sales rank is impressive for a self published book. That said, the listed reviews make me doubt it would be my kind of book. I’m generally not enthusiastic for paranormal stuff, even with space opera mixed in.

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  7. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Giving up happens for me more with movies and new TV series than with literature (and more with non-fiction than fiction). It might be due to most written material being better than most visual material. I have an increasingly low tolerance for “dumb humor” and slapstick; I’ll give up on something that only offers that — and little else — pretty quickly unless there’s a good reason to watch. I’m also generally not big on stuff that sets the intelligence bar really low. When my brain cells start complaining too much, I move on.

    I had to think for quite a while to even come up with a fiction work I’d abandoned, but then I remembered Greg Bear’s Anvil of Stars, which is his sequel to the quite good The Forge of God. I’ve tried to read Anvil twice now. First time, I put it down after a few chapters and never got around to picking it up again. Second time I got nearly all the way through — nearly to the point where interesting stuff finally starts to happen — and realized I just didn’t care. I’d been so mind-numbed by the first 3/4 of the book I just didn’t care.

    Bear’s Eon series was pretty good, and I really did like Forge, but Anvil was a fail for me.

    As a counter-example, Stephen R. Donaldson’s work can be hard to read, but worth the effort. First time I read the The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series I spent much of it wanting to throw the book across the room (the main character is a total prick). But it’s one of the richest, most interesting, fantasies I’ve ever read. Turns Tolkien on his ear. LOTR has the theme that power corrupts, but TCoTC is about the need to wield power. Dark, dark, dark, but an amazing work. If you can get through it.

    As you indicate, it depends on a lot of factors. Usually if there’s something there that engages me I’ll keep going. It’s when I realize I’m getting zero out of it that I’ll jump ship. (And that does happen way more with current TV and movies because, let’s face it, Sturgeon’s Law applies big time there. In fact, it may be an under-estimate there.)

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    • My cousin read Thomas Covenant. I think he said he stopped when the character raped someone. At the time (I think it was in my early teenage years) it didn’t sound like anything I wanted to read, and I’ve never had occasion to revisit it. Although I’ve heard many people describe the world as rich.

      I agree that there are many factors. I think a good part of it is that there have to be characters that I at least care a little bit about. I remember when I gave up Torchwood, a Doctor Who spinoff. It happened when I realized that I didn’t really care for any of the characters on the show. (Although I was later mesmerized by the ‘Children of Earth’ season.)

      Although for Orphan Black, I still cared about the characters, but the season 3 opener used plot gimmicks that I had already found tedious in the second season, which threw me out of the story and made me lose interest.

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      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        “I think he said he stopped when the character raped someone.”

        Yeah, that’s definitely one of those points where you want to throw the book across the room. As it turns out, that rape starts a chain of events that are crucial to the plot.

        The basic set up is that Covenant, who has leprosy (!), and whose wife and daughter have left him, and who is hated and feared by the townspeople, is transported to The Land — Donaldson’s (very rich) fantasy world. Covenant believes he’s dreaming or imagining this as an escape from his problems.

        The people there view him as “the one” who can save them from Lord Foul, the Despiser — the villain in the piece. Covenant — who is healthy in The Land — refuses to believe and refuses to help. It’s his suddenly restored health and belief he’s dreaming that leads to the rape.

        I first read it late in college, and I’d think it would be too dark and twisty — too adult — for a teen. I suspect it’s also something you have to read twice to really grasp (like you have to see The Sixth Sense twice to really “see” the movie).

        I’ve read the first two trilogies three times over the years and appreciated them more each time. Truly one of the least accessible — but worth the effort — pieces I could name.

        I’d almost recommend reading his Gap series first. It’s as dark as the Covenant series, but more an SF (in space) story and — I’d think — more accessible. But both are stories that almost challenge you to keep reading them.

        Torchwood… I didn’t love it, but didn’t hate it until the fourth season. Mostly I hated that CIA Rex character.

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        • Yeah, I’d probably be a lot more willing to attempt a work like that now than I was back then. My cousin, on the other hand, has become pretty conservative and I think is less likely to attempt it. (Although he is enjoying Game of Thrones, so who knows?)

          I don’t know if you’ve ever read Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels, but the protagonist in those books is a despicable (if incompetent) character. The books work because most of the characters he goes up against are equally or more despicable. But you never have any illusions about that character unlike, from what I’ve heard, many people have toward Covenant.

          On Torchwood, I’ve never caught the full fourth season, although the episodes I watched were enticing. The third season was the Children of Earth one, with Peter Capaldi playing a tragic character that I thought stole a lot of the show.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Yeah, I was bummed the third season was only five episodes. As I understand it, the makers of Doctor Who have a plan for explaining how the Whoniverse now has two Peter Capaldis. 🙂

            No, I’ve never read the Vance novels. (One more item to add to a growing list. 🙂 )

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          • Hmmm. Technically, if they consider Torchwood canonical, there are three occurrences of Capaldi. The official in Children of Earth, the Roman senator (or whatever he was) in the Tenant episode, and the twelfth (actually thirteenth in the universe) doctor. I suspect they’re only going to worry about the Roman senator one, if they even bother to that extent.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Oh, right! There are three Peter Capaldis in the Whoniverse! Looks like they are going to weave it into the plot…

            I found this quote from Moffat on the Wiki page for Series 8:

            I remember Russell [T Davies] told me that he had a big old plan as to why there were two Peter Capaldis in the Who universe: one in Pompeii and one in Torchwood. When I cast Peter and Russell got in touch to say how pleased he was, I said, “Okay, what was your theory and does it still work?” and he said, “Yes it does. Here it is…”

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Who_(series_8)

            And this is mentioned on the Wiki page for Twelfth Doctor (Capaldi is #12 — John Hurt is the “War Doctor”):

            This situation was alluded to in “Deep Breath”, when a confused Doctor is reminded of Caecilius when he examines his face in a mirror.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelfth_Doctor

            Now I need to watch that episode one more time!

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          • Hmmm. I suppose they’re not going to explain why there are two Karen “Amy Pond” Gillans in the Whoverse. (She was a minor character in the Pompeii episode.)

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Yeah, that ship has sailed, I think. 🙂

            (Distant relative from another branch of the family? The Romans did get to Briton.)

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          • Interestingly, her husband was a faux Roman centurion for several centuries; maybe there was some kind of interlude? Or it could have been Amy on some kind of assignment from the later Doctor. Or lots of other scenarios. Someone could write an interesting Doctor Who novel or short story on that. (For all I know, someone might have done it already.)

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  8. I abandon a book when I lose interest. No need to feel guilty about that! For school, I always forced my way through, but why do that now? The other option is to just skim through it to see if there are parts that might be interesting (more for nonfiction, of course).

    I abandoned a novel at the hospital after getting halfway through it and realizing it felt like reading Jack Kerouac (I figured someone else there could read it). And I abandoned “Anathem” at somewhere around 700 pages because I realized I never cared about the plot, only the dialogue and ideas. The ideas seem to have run their course, so I’m done. I loved some parts of it and the whole idea of it, but it could have been done in less than half as many pages. Long descriptions of space suits bore the hell out of me.

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    • Agreed on quitting when we lose interest. I think as I’ve gotten older, that has a tendency to happen sooner than it used to.

      On long descriptions, I think that’s my criticism of a lot of science fiction, that it’s often far longer than it needs to be. It’s one thing if there is story and character development to fill that extra length, but often it amounts to describing scenes in intricate eye glazing detail, rather than providing a framework for the reader to fill in the details, usually in service of an overly strict adherence to the show-don’t-tell philosophy.

      700 pages? Wow. I think I’d have to at least go read the Wikipedia plot synopsis if I had gone that far into it.

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      • I tend to skim long descriptions unless they’re really well done and tell me something about the character rather than just some neutral, “objective” description. (You could say that there is no such thing, but I think you know what I mean.)

        Anathem just didn’t do it for me with the plot. Really I was never interested in the plot. The tension that could have been built up was dissipated by the long descriptions and too many characters (who were not well delineated), and I found myself not caring about them. However, there were wonderful diagrams in the back of the book (really they were like footnotes to portions scattered throughout the book) and I kept wanting to read on to find out what the diagrams were about. These were inventive flow charts of Platonic forms and other things having to do with Plato, so of course I’d find that interesting! I also enjoyed the long bits of dialogue in which ideas were discussed. Overall, though, not a book for everyone. Which is too bad…it could have been great if it had been edited more.

        I think a lot of people who don’t like Sci-Fi get the sense that it’s all about world building, and they just don’t care about that. I feel the same way if the book sacrifices too much to do this. Still, I don’t see that it has to be that way. Some people say that Sci-Fi has its own rules, but I tend not to agree with that. Good writing is good writing. World building doesn’t have to mean long boring descriptions.

        I agree about letting the reader fill in the details. Sometimes all that’s needed is a sketch, and what’s off the page can be just as important as what’s on the page.

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        • Wyrd Smythe says:

          I’m coming to think of SF as a “meta-genre” because for any (non-SF) genre you can name, you’ll find SF examples of it. SF is, perhaps, just an added dimension in storytelling rather than a distinct territory within it.

          What people might mean about “different rules” is that SF does seem to have more “permission” to be about ideas and things (as opposed to the usual human condition stuff of all fiction). Sometimes to the point of not having much in the way of that human condition stuff — sometimes it’s just a vehicle for the ideas.

          There’s nothing wrong that. Not all stories have to be great stories, and some can just introduce you to new ideas. (A lot of my very early science training came from SF. It definitely inspired me to pursue it.) The SF short story, especially, is fertile ground for exploration of ideas, and some of them are quite amazing. Little thoughtful gems disguised as stories!

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          • Well, I was told in a writing class that “info dumps” are okay in Sci-Fi. I don’t see why that’s true. There’s always a way around that.

            It’s true that writing about ideas—especially scientific—is really really tricky in fiction. But it can be done gracefully. Stephenson did some of that in his dialogue, which was his best writing. There’d be a couple of people discussing ideas, but scattered throughout were interesting observations, internal thoughts, interrupting humor, etc. My favorite scene was when the protagonist enters the “Saecular world” (which is actually something like the Bible belt) after getting thrown out of the “Math” (which resembles a convent of atheist-intellectuals, with the exception of a few Platonists who are looked down upon.) Anyways, the Math has no cell phones or TV, and they live a monastic life of thinking rather than praying. So while the protagonist is talking about big ideas, he’s constantly drawn to the inane junk on the TV which is blaring all around him. It’s just a short interjection here and there, but it brings a little humor into what might be a boring talking heads scene. We see that the protagonist is really not so special after all…he’s just like the rest of the “Saecular world” in his distraction, even though he’s a chosen genius. The fact that he’s an outsider and notices his inability to focus also casts a light on technology and our world…all these observations going on simultaneously, effortlessly. There’s a lot more going on than just the ideas, and it all feeds off of each other.

            Sometimes the idea is the concept behind the story itself. Then it’s of course fully integrated. I’d love to be able to pull this off.

            But you’re talking to someone who’s sick of reading literary fiction that doesn’t seem to have a point. I think all fiction should have ideas. Sci-Fi can stick to its rules as far as science goes, but it can also be well-written. It’s not either/or.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “I was told in a writing class that “info dumps” are okay in Sci-Fi. I don’t see why that’s true. There’s always a way around that.”

            In novels, I’d generally agree. Short stories are more constrained, and “info dumps” are more common with short fiction than long. Fans of science and ideas don’t always need a great story in addition to the science, technology, or ideas. If you love someone, it doesn’t matter if they’re well-dressed, poorly dressed, or naked. (In fact, sometimes that last one is preferred! 😄 )

            If I’m at a party and meet someone who introduces me to a new idea or area of knowledge, that discussion is enough to engage my interest. We don’t also have to be having an exciting adventure while we talk (although that would be pretty cool).

            That all said, I’m expressing my tastes as a reader, and obviously your mileage varies as it does for everyone. I know that — at least the older — SF fans often fall into the group of “naked idea lovers.” For us, those stories are like meeting interesting people at parties.

            It may be why the “info dumps are okay” rule exists in SF… because of readers like us.

            I’m also wondering: Are we discussing what makes good, or great, fiction, or just what’s allowed in fiction? If we’re talking about great fiction, I agree without reservation.

            “It’s true that writing about ideas—especially scientific—is really really tricky in fiction.”

            Definitely! If an author is not skilled at writing good fiction, but skilled in interesting ideas, I’m fine with that.

            You mention Stephenson favorably in this regard, but you also mention that you abandoned the book at the 700-page mark because you only about “the dialogue and ideas” (emphasis mine).

            So, at least in part, the ideas were the attraction. Why forsake a work with great ideas if the author just isn’t that skilled with fiction?

            “Sometimes the idea is the concept behind the story itself.”

            Totally! The best ones are always that way. Dune is a good example.

            “But you’re talking to someone who’s sick of reading literary fiction that doesn’t seem to have a point. I think all fiction should have ideas.”

            Okay, I hear ya! Again, I’m not sure if we’re discussing what makes great fiction or what’s allowed… Does “being funny” rise to the level of being an idea with a point? Or “slice of life” stories? Or a “ripping good yarn” that’s pure escape? Those may not be great fiction (and no one says they are), but in my book (ha ha), they’re allowed (and even enjoyed).

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          • “Are we discussing what makes good, or great, fiction, or just what’s allowed in fiction? If we’re talking about great fiction, I agree without reservation.”

            I was talking about great fiction. I’ve become pretty picky about what I read since I do so little of it! 🙂

            That said, I love books that are simply humorous. Humor goes a long way for me. I can read some book that has a strong voice and great humor and no point. That’d be a great beach read for me. I love watching the show “Louie” for its utter unapologetic randomness.

            “So, at least in part, the ideas were the attraction. Why forsake a work with great ideas if the author just isn’t that skilled with fiction?”

            Well, the ideas seemed to have run their course and I got bored with it. The book got less and less interesting and I realized I was reading it only to say I’ve read it. It’s right on the verge of the climax, but oh well. Who knows, maybe I’ll go back to it when I have more patience.

            I would not have been able to tolerate this book had I not already had an interest in these particular ideas, which really were well handled. However, I have so many grievances with it on other points. The main one is the lack of insight into the characters. They felt wooden to me. The protagonist was clever in a normal way, which would have been fine if the others around him had more quirks, flaws, differing voices; in short, if they were more delineated. Then there was the standard love interest thing going on, but it was so weak and uninteresting that it actually irritated me the way formulaic romantic comedies do. (I watched one the other night that actually made me want to get my lazy butt off the couch to get cheese out of the refrigerator to throw at the TV screen. I kept watching, hoping it would surprise me. You wouldn’t want to be around me while watching one of these movies…I tend to get loud, as if I’m watching a sports event: “Please don’t pull out the ring your mother gave you that you must’ve gotten back from your ex in that mysteriously short scene a while back. Don’t get down on one knee and propose. Don’t do it on the beach. Oh damn you! Where’s my cheese?”) Not quite as cheesy in this novel, but still you have two people who barely know each other, and yet we’re supposed to believe that they’re madly in love. Plus, they were apart for most of the novel, so you can tell it was just thrown in.

            That said, there were good moments in the writing, and these tended to be the way he handled dialogue in scene. I just wanted deeper insight into the characters.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “I was talking about great fiction.”

            Yeah, then I’m with ya all the way.

            “…irritated me the way formulaic romantic comedies do.”

            Ha! Yeah, the rom-com is a very formulaic genre; boy meets girl, etc. Sports movies often likewise. (Ask baseball fans to name the greatest baseball movie ever, and you tend to get one of two answers: Field of Dreams or Bull Durham (some will pick The Natural). What’s funny about the first two isn’t that both are Kevin Costner movies, it’s that neither of those is really a sports movie. There’s no “big game” featuring a team (or player) with no chance of winning (but, of course, who does).

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        • I agree. As Wyrd discusses, there’s definitely an audience for idea driven work. One of the most idea driven works is an old classic in SF, Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Last and First Men’, which is essentially a future history of the human race.

          But I think the audience for good storytelling is much broader. There’s a reason why John Scalzi and James S.A. Corey are getting big deals and TV adaptations, and others like Greg Egan or Neal Stephenson aren’t. How broad or narrow of an audience you want to write for is a decision every author has to make. Egan seems happy to aim for scientists, mathematicians, or those well versed in those areas. Scalzi has said his goal is to expand sci-fi readership.

          The challenge for a sci-fi author is staying true to the ideas while finding a way to integrate it into a good story with engaging characters. I didn’t appreciate how difficult that is until I tried to do it myself. Here, outright fantasy authors have a significant advantage, since they can simply change any aspect of their world for story purposes. But a sci-fi author has to stay within the bounds of science, at least as understood by their audience.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            I agree without reservation with every point there, Mike!

            Liked by 1 person

          • “The challenge for a sci-fi author is staying true to the ideas while finding a way to integrate it into a good story with engaging characters.”

            I agree. And I agree that it’s really challenging. My novel isn’t Sci-Fi, but there’s a lot of philosophy in it. I’ve been using my non-philosophical writing group for feedback to get help with keeping things interesting for them (and also to see if the ideas are coming across). And the truth is, I haven’t had to sacrifice any of the ideas. I just needed to learn how to incorporate them into the story better. There are lots of little tricks you can do and these can actually make the ideas more accessible.

            There’s one bit I’m really struggling with. I have a math student explaining why the two middle sections on the Divided line in the Republic are equal. I spent three days doing math (ME? MATH?) and finally figured out a simple way to explain it using concrete examples. However, everyone except one person in my writing group said they skipped over the math. The scene takes place in a night club in Greece and there’s a lot more going on, but these tricks didn’t quite work. I may have to put this at the end of the book or shorten it. I know that if I were reading this section, I’d be very interested in the math since I’ve always been curious about this aspect of the divided line and I’ve never understood the math behind it, but those who are not Plato-loving philosophers might not care. (BTW, you and Wyrd would find this math extremely easy. The people in my group glanced at it and got scared, which I can totally understand.) So I’m still debating what to do with it. I might have to steal Stephenson’s idea and put it at the end of the book as optional reading.

            Liked by 1 person

          • The conventional wisdom is that math, as in formulae, are deadly for readership, even in books explicitly about science, much less in fiction. That said, I’m becoming annoyed with a lot of the conventional wisdom. As a reader, I don’t burst into flame when I see a formula. (I might burst into flame if the author expects me to actually do anything with it though. 🙂 ) If I recall correctly, Heinlein included the relativity time dilation formula in one of his books, and I loved it at the time.

            I disagree a bit with you on infodumps. It seems like many contemporary sci-fi authors are so scared of them, that they go to extravagant, often tedious, lengths to avoid being caught with one in their prose. I’m all for showing rather than telling if you can find a way to do it in a fun, dramatic, or interesting manner. But many authors frankly aren’t very good at incluing, often getting too nuanced, too subtle, or just assuming too much knowledge on the reader’s part, and leaving large portions of their audience confused. For them, I think judicious use of strategically placed and brief infodumps makes their work far more accessible, and I’m struck by the fact that the most popular authors make use of them. I’m actually thinking about doing a post on this, purely from a reader’s point of view.

            In any case, appendices are a nice way to get your cake and eat it too. It allows you to move any gratuitous info dumping to the back of the book in a section that readers have the option to skip. For works that I enjoyed, I’ve almost always found the appendices interesting. Lord of the Rings and Dune stand out as works where I enjoyed them almost as much as the main story. But it’s telling though that most people skip them.

            Liked by 1 person

          • For me, the math thing would be pretty deadly. It probably depends on how it’s done. I need for everything to be explained step by step in the simplest fashion. Treat me like the dumbest person you’ve ever met, and I’ll go with it. But in general, if I see math and I don’t see any reason to care, I’ll just skip it. I think you’re probably a minority on that one…but that’s a good thing! I’m thinking for my novel I’ll have to keep it brief or make it optional.

            I agree with you on sometimes ignoring conventional wisdom. So much wonderful original work comes from ignoring the advice of writer’s workshops. I’ve never liked the “show don’t tell” advice. I’ve never really been able to make sense of it. If you think about all the great works, the classics, there’s tons of telling going on. Telling can be just the right thing to do. I guess it’s just a matter of knowing when, and perhaps it’s easier to tell novice writers “show don’t tell” rather than get into depth about how telling could work.

            I guess by “info dump” I mean a sudden appearance of information that stops the story in its tracks. I agree that placement is key. Have a separate section for information if you must. A timeline, a map, an appendix, a little explanation or definition before each chapter…or you could get even more creative and have footnotes (you’d have to be careful with this, but it could work). There are so many ways around it.

            I’m eager to read your post!

            Liked by 1 person

          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “I’m becoming annoyed with a lot of the conventional wisdom.”

            Good for you! 🙂 I’ve long believed that a lot of truly memorable art comes from departing from the rules. (Wrote a post on it, in fact.) The flip side is that it’s high risk. You might wind up with something great, but you also might wind up with something completely inedible.

            In the 1970s (or thereabouts) SF began to experiment with, shall we say, unique ways of storytelling, and some of those efforts truly broadened horizons (Harlan Ellison was part of that), but many of them were complete fails. But the effort was worthwhile and very instructive.

            “For works that I enjoyed, I’ve almost always found the appendices interesting.”

            Likewise. Robert Forward, who writes diamond hard SF, often has important and very interesting appendices. Maps are often pretty standard in world-building fiction, but diagrams of ships, or mini-physics papers and whatnot can really enrich a work.

            Liked by 1 person

          • I think it pays to remember that most genres start with a departure from convention. Breakthrough works are usually in the shape of their precedents except with some new twist or change that puts it in a new category, although usually only in retrospect. Of course, for every change that forges a new genre, there are many that are seen as just variations on established themes. If too many things are changed at once, the work is often considered excessively weird or eccentric.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Mos Def! True in every art form.

            Liked by 1 person

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        I read the thread between you and Tina about “show don’t tell” and I can understand her confusion in applying that to writing. The line does seem a bit fuzzy with literature. What exactly constitutes “showing”?

        I wonder if that bit of advice comes from an increasingly visual world. When I was in film school, it was a canonical rule regarding film — you never tell if there’s any way you can show. Film, after all, is a visual art, and some of the highest regard goes to filmmakers who can tell stories without any words at all. (I believe the opening 20 minutes of 2001 has no dialog at all, yet tells a compelling story.)

        Generally speaking, a film with narration or a text crawl gets points off for violating that cardinal rule. And it’s generally regarded that “info dumps” in film bring it to a screeching halt.

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        • I think that’s an excellent point. “Show don’t tell” means something pretty concrete in visual media, but in writing is a bit hazy.

          I think the most common understanding in writing is that you describe the details and let the reader reach the conclusions, rather than just telling them the conclusion. For instance, rather than just saying a character is embittered from life experiences, you should describe the details of those life experiences and their reactions. Or rather than simply saying that the spaceships use warp drive, your story should describe the details of the warp drive in action, etc.

          I think that makes a lot of sense for a major character or pivotal piece of the setting, but many take the attitude that they’ll never tell, just show. I personally find this makes for pointlessly tedious or confusing stories. Of course, there are detail oriented readers who love all that showing. The trick seems to be in finding the right balance for most readers.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “I think the most common understanding in writing is that you describe the details and let the reader reach the conclusions”

            That seems like a reasonable and workable definition. I suppose one could apply cinematic logic and take it further in the sense of not even describing the details but revealing them entirely through character actions.

            I’m slowly (one or two per night before sleep) reading another David Brin collection, and he’s written a couple now that are so lacking in conclusions that their interpretation is very open-ended.

            I mentioned the Von Neumann probe story to you; that’s one of them. Part of it is told from the POV of one of the probes, and that probe has an agenda that Brin never fully discloses, but only suggests. I think I know what it is, but I’m not entirely sure.

            The one I read last night did it again. It’s a first contact story where we find the galaxy teeming with civilizations. One, the Lentili, become our benefactor-mentor, but before they get here, the President of Earth reveals that we’ve discovered humans have a “talent” that is unknown to the Lentili. They have a mental block about something humans consider mundane to the point of never even thinking about past childhood.

            The President says we must conceal this talent, and we can do that by destroying all the indexes to our libraries. He knows some will not agree or participate, but it will be enough that most of us do and keep the secret. The Lentili will sub-consciously play along and ignore the “problem.”

            To aid in the deception the President says the cover story is to blame it all on him going crazy and inducing a weird night of craziness on Earth. The President, in fact, is dragged off the podium in mid-broadcast (“We interrupt this broadcast…”).

            Most of Earth does, in fact, go off to wreck library card catalogs and so forth. The President, before he was subdued, had used his power to destroy indexes of government facilities. (Note: not the info itself, the indexes.)

            The Lentili arrive and turn out to be wonderful benefactors, making life in Earth much better, and humans join the galactic civilization. But a few “believers” in the President always remember about the talent and always have a kind of low-level disdain for the Lentili. And somehow, people with those feelings are always on panels and delegations involving the Lentili.

            Brin never says what the talent is, and there seems a deeper implication. I hesitate to say more for fear of ruining your own deductions here. 😀

            But I love writing like that!

            I was in a college class once where I was told that, while Western readers tend to want it all explained and laid out, Japanese readers are far more inclined towards mystery in writing. Western writing, therefore, dots all the eyes and crosses the tees. Japanese writing often does not.

            There is obviously cross-over. Director Nicholas Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth) has said: You don’t know everything that’s happening in life; you won’t know everything that’s happening in my movies. And Quentin Tarantino has said of the famous briefcase in Pulp Fiction, not even he knows what’s really inside. It’s whatever the viewer wants it to be.

            Viva la Mystery!

            Liked by 1 person

          • I think an author has to be careful about what they implicitly promise in a story. Promise that you’re going to explain mystery X, then fail to do it, and the reader will feel betrayed. (I think rightly so.)

            I occasionally read or watch something that ends on a mysterious note, and totally enjoy it. I realize in those cases that explaining the mystery would ruin the experience. But far too many writers use that as a cop out. They write themselves into a corner, fail to explain a mystery that they introduced, and then claim they did it to leave us with that mystery. Most of the time it’s lazy writing masquerading as something profound.

            I think when I leave a story satisfied with an unsolved mystery, it’s usually with a mystery that was introduced late in the story (often in the final scene) while resolving whatever mysteries or issues that were introduced early in the story.

            If I sound slightly bitter about this, it’s probably because I recently read a trilogy rife with mysteries, none of which ultimately got resolved by the end. They may be the only books I ever left one star ratings on at Amazon. It’s pretty unlikely I’ll ever read anything by that author again.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            I quite agree. The tools have all been known for a long time; the trick in art usually is wielding them successfully.

            Liked by 1 person

  9. Steve Morris says:

    Before the age of 30, I never gave up on a book. I regarded it as a personal failure. My wife persuaded me to give up on Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, after I had been dragging it around for several years, trying to complete it.

    How liberating! Now I drop books at the first opportunity. My reading life is more fulfilling than ever before.

    Like

    • I think that’s the best part about being willing to just discard a book. I also find it’s a lot easier to start reading a book if I’ve given myself permission to drop it as soon as it’s obvious I’m not going to like it.

      Like

  10. Argus says:

    I read for education or amusement. If I don’t learn or if the info presented doesn’t carry at least a ‘ring of truth’ I give up quickly.

    To amuse me it has to make sense and conform (to a degree) with Reality. Hence my adoration for the genius of the late Terry Pratchett. His works seem written for someone already familiar with the scene, but if not you soon pick it up. Lightweight apparent nonsense, gently delivered, that packs a powerful wallop.

    I gave up on my first two tries (some years apart). On the third I was hooked, and never looked back.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read a book recently, ‘Wired for Story’, that noted that the reason humans are attracted to stories is to learn things. At least that’s the theory, but it seems to fit with what most of us do. Although it’s not clear what adults expect to learn from Star Wars movies. Those seem mostly about amusement.

      I’ve never gotten into the Pratchett books. Maybe someday.

      Liked by 1 person

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