Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Leave Out What Readers Will Skip

Edit RuthlesslyWhen I start reading a galley and I realize that the book just isn't my thing, I always feel guilty about putting the book aside. After all, someone let me preview a title so I could review it, but I also have the nagging feeling that life is too short to read books I don't like. You know what's even worse? Having a bad experience with a galley and turning to another book with a proven track record and being disappointed again. I know. It's easy to dismiss me as too picky, and I'm sure there's some truth to that, but I'm happy to report that I started reading Rescuing Patty Hearst: Memories From a Decade Gone Mad by Virginia Holman, and I like it so far. So, yes, occasionally, I do find books I like even when I'm in a picky mood. In case anyone out there is writing to keep me and people like me happy, I have some pointers for you. If nobody cares about what I want to read but believes in the art of picky reading, please read on and know you are not alone.
Remember Your Elmore Leonard
Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing is a fun and quick read. Most of his suggestions are common sense for writers with a couple of unpublished novels under their belts. (Oh yes, those of you who are looking for a flexible day job who gasp at that, it's not a typo. Getting published takes a long time and a lot of badly written pages.) My favorite rule in the book is to leave out the parts that the reader will skip. So how is anyone supposed to know what a reader like me will skip? I mean, I'm pretty weird, right?

Reading[Day12]*Reading Should be Entertaining
Even when I'm reading galleys to help get the word out about new authors, I do it in the interest of keeping reading fun. It's an old form of entertainment, but it's still popular. Yes, reading is great for your brain, and Mom and your teachers said it's good for you. I get that. I don't read because it's good for me. I read because it's fun to get into someone else's head.

What do readers skip?
Description is a favorite for readers to skip. Unfortunately, a lot of writers seem to enjoy writing it. I don't really understand the compulsion. I don't like reading description and I don't like writing description. If I wanted a travel log, I'd turn on the Discovery Channel or Food Network. Even Bill Bryson's books on travel are less focused on travel than they are on the psychological effect it has on the traveler and memories associated with the places.

If you're getting annoyed because you've taken a Donald Maas workshop and believe description can convey emotional states and all that good stuff, take a deep breath because I totally agree with you. Interesting description is wonderful. Even so, it helps to keep it to a minimum, but if you must include description, make it relevant to the people in your story.

Cannery RowA lot of writers love to focus on setting as in the location where the story takes place. Maybe they want the story to take place in Seattle because they love Seattle. Whatever inspires you is fabulous, but keep in mind that the reader probably already has at least an intellectual idea of what Seattle is like. The reader might not even want those ideas challenged. If they pick up a novel, it isn't to read about Seattle.

Here's another thing about setting: it's not just a place and it's not just a city. The time and culture is important too. Is this story contemporary? Historical? Futuristic? What is the political climate? What type of neighborhood does the character live in? What is the character's family like? How is this time and place related to the conflict in the character's life?

Any setting chosen for the "cool factor" is a waste of ink!

The same can be said for descriptions of "golden" sunsets, fluffy clouds, etc.

Cliches and Passive Voice
Every aspiring writer needs to read Trimble's Tips on How to Write to be Read in Writing With Style. I received a condensed version of his tips on a one-page handout in my 9th grade English class and I still keep these tips in mind when I write and they make a huge difference. One tip that will improve anyone's writing is to use the active voice.

One place I disagree with my English teacher is on the use of "was." While the use of that three letter word is a sign you've stumbled into passive territory, it's not a sin on its own.

Another writing instructor described passive voice in a way that I find much more helpful: anything that hides the identity of the speaker. For example, "It has been determined that your shirt is ugly." That is passive construction for, "I think that shirt is ugly." We don't like the message in either version, but I think it's easy to see that the latter is easier to understand and would land someone a punch in the jaw much sooner.

Cliches are annoying because they take up space on the page, and they make it seem like the writer is saying something when she isn't. Some people describe them as "worn-out metaphors." I'll buy that. I don't read them and I don't think anyone else should have to.

What Gets Read?

  • Dialogue--provided it is good dialogue. No movie/TV antics. Leave out the Hi, Bye, and trips to the bathroom, please.
  • Authentic emotion
  • Action
  • Tight and tense scenes--keep the reader invested in your characters and maintain tension on every page.