Got a basketful of books from the library yesterday, all with that blue library tape on the spine that reads "NEW" and the hopeful smell of glue and ink and tape still hovering about the covers. I've already gone through four.
Now, what I mean by that is that I tried to read them... but I just couldn't find myself committing beyond the first few dozen pages.
I choose my books based on several criteria, in loose order by impact:
3. The first 2-3 paragraphs
4. Page 70
Now, I admit that Cover/Title/Author shouldn't be more important than what's inside. But let's be honest, if I find a cover attractive and/or the title sounds interesting, I'm going to pick the book up and look inside. The opposite is true if I'm not pulled in by those things. Face it, would you pick up a book whose title was, A STORY ABOUT SOMETHING or HAPPY? Would you spend time and/or money on a book whose cover was about as exciting as the generic food labels back in the eighties?
All things being equal - meaning, you're looking at a shelfful of books vying for your attention - the one with the catchy title and cover is the one you're going to pick up.
As far as page 70 goes, it's a random metric. Basically, I want to know whether the promise made in the first few paragraphs is being delivered at least through the first several chapters of the book.
Now let's assume a book has made each of these cuts, how much time should I give it at home? Well, that's a tricky question because it relies on so many other variables: Was it recommended by someone whose opinion I respect? Is it an author whose work I admire? Is the writing off but the subject interesting (or vice versa)? Do any of the other books in my pile look more interesting?
Short answer: roughly 2-3 chapters.
I have a fairly low tolerance for writing that doesn't grab me, grab me and shake me and doesn't let me go. It's a high bar to set for a writer, I know, and more than 80% of the books I take home don't end up attaining this mark. But the other truth about being an overly critical reader is this: there are more than enough quality writers out there to satisfy my tastes. Why waste time reading stuff just to slog through it?
So, why am I bringing all this up? Because I try to keep these things in mind when I write. Does my writing grab and shake and not let the reader go from the first page to the last (acknowledging that I have no control over the cover and little input on final title and jacketflap)? And what if it doesn't? It's also helpful to remember my own tastes aren't universal; many of the books I've found to be blase are or end up being quite popular and well regarded.
So, where do you say "Enough is enough?"