The Twenty Percent Rule

I have a confession to make. I’m a terrible reader.

I’ve always struggled with reading. I suspect I may have some manner of undiagnosed learning disability, however innocuous, that makes reading an almost physically exhausting practice. My reading speed is glacial, and I often find myself repeating the same sentence three times in row (or more) before it sinks in. I will pause on words and force myself to read it forward, then backward, then forward again. Sometimes I’ll re-read an entire conversation with different voices in my head. I don’t know why this is, but it places a tremendous burden on me as a writer.

As I prepare to approach literary agents with my manuscript, I feel it’s appropriate to dig into current examples of published fiction in my chosen genre. This means lots of reading, a tricky proposition when it takes me an average of four months to complete a single novel.

This glacier will travel six inches before I reach the Inciting Event.

Allow me to add another psychological wrinkle into the mix. Haven’t we all been told we can’t have dessert until we finish dinner? Haven’t we been brow-beaten from an early age that one must finish a project before beginning the next? I certainly have, and when I find myself immersed in a slow-paced or otherwise unenthusiastic read, I tend to set the book aside and I won’t move on to a new book out of some misplaced sense of guilt.

Well, I had an epiphany this week, courtesy of Twitter. In a flurry of tweets discussing “dull books”, several editors and agents asserted that they give a book fifty pages before abandoning it.

What a revelation!

I have been so saddled with the duty to finish what I start, that I have never entertained the notion that not only am I allowed to give up on a book I don’t enjoy… I deserve it! More accurately, the book deserves it. No guilt. In fact, I should be the one offended, shouldn’t I?

Perhaps this is overstating the sentiment, but there’s a point in placing value in my time as a reader. After all, I push myself to write novels with crisp pacing, an opening the immediately hooks the reader, and a satisfying conclusion. Why, then, do I not hold the authors I read to the same standard? After all, it isn’t my job to maintain interest in their book. That’s their job.

So I pledge to myself the following: give a book until the 20% mark on my Kindle. If by that point I am not turning the pages with enthusiasm, I will allow myself to liberty to stop reading without guilt.

This Twenty Percent Rule may be somewhat arbitrary, especially as my threshold for focused reading appears to be thinner than the average person’s. However, I can name three books right off the top of my head which have captured my interest and held it firmly in place. Three books I have read in the last couple years that I have completed in three days. For me, that’s the speed of sound!

For the record, they are:  THE RUINS by Scott Smith, THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy, and THE TAKING by Dean Koontz.

Maybe the solution to my problem is to only read novels with THE and a NOUN as its title?

In Curse Merchant news, I have secured the services of Allyson Peltier and Ambitious Enterprises toward reviewing my query letter. I held a thoroughly enjoyable phone conversation with Ally last week, in which we discussed my goals and how her company could best assist me. For the first time, I received a professional’s opinion on my level of editing skill. The news was positive! My immediate plan is to craft the best possible query, and begin casting the net. If after a round or two of queries I find little more than form rejections, I’ll revisit the manuscript to see what isn’t working.

I am very close to sending The Curse Merchant out into the real world. The ultimate question remains: is it as good as it can be? For the first time in my life as a writer, the answer is “Yes!”

Image Credit: vichie81

One response to “The Twenty Percent Rule

  1. J.P., I have this same affliction, perhaps worse. 4 months is fast for me! I do like this 20% rule and may try it myself.



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