Wednesday, May 1, 2013

What Do You Skip, What Do You Read?

"I try to leave out the parts that people skip."  So wrote Elmore Leonard, and I have seen that line quoted many times. On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. Like most soundbites, though, it means less the more we reconsider. I mean no disrespect to Leonard. He's a prolific writer, his novels are great fun, and his advice for writers is generally useful. Even this phrase is useful if it helps writers weed out the overwritten and the padded and the just plain dull.

But there are problems with it, too.

The first problem I see is that different people skip different things. I know many people -- including writers -- who swear they never read a preface or introduction or acknowledgements. I'm one of those people who does read all of the above. I like knowing what's behind a book. Knowing who the author thanks and how they do the thanking gives some insight into the author's personality and life, and I'm enough of a voyeur to enjoy that. I also like to learn more about why the book came to be, and that information is often framed in an introduction. One argument against those "peripheral" materials is that the book should speak for itself. I agree. I just think that "the book" is everything between the covers. Come to think of it, the front and back covers count, too.

Even if we stick to the main part of the book, though, the "skippable" parts vary with the reader. My husband skipped the long passages on church history and semiotics in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. As a student of folklore/linguistics/anthropology, I read and reread Eco's novelistic treatment of signs and symbols, and found the convoluted politics of the medieval church fascinating. But then I read "the whale chapter" in  Moby Dick. Several times.

Really, if we think about it, we can't avoid writing the parts that people skip because (and I know this is hard for the writers among you to read) some people will skip everything we write. I have personally skipped every word of quite a few books that simply didn't interest me. I've skipped everything past the first whatever number of pages or chapters in books I found boring or offensive or poorly written or.... I've skipped chapters that didn't interest me. Haven't you?

But back to Leonard. I think the real wisdom in the pearl I've quoted is the directive to consider what we include, to be sure it matters in the context of the story, the essay, the poem, the play. As writers, we have to exercise our critical muscles on our own work, and we have to be willing sometimes to delete. We also have to be willing to stand up for the parts we believe should be there, even if some readers skip them.


What parts do you skip when you read? What do you read that other people say they skip?


Please come back Friday to see what my guest p.m. terrell has to say about suspense. You won't want to skip any of her post!



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  2. Sheila, I'm with you! I read everything about the book, beginning with the back cover and then the acknowledgements, etc. I have skipped plenty of scenes or narratives when I wasn't particularly interested in that part or that character. I bore easily, so if the writer doesn't hook me quickly, I'm gone.I can only hope that as a writer I flex my creative muscles in the best way to attract and hold readers. Good post!


  3. I love reading all the extra information to understand the writer more personally. I skip parts that are too slow and telling. But what I think is slow or boring may be what everyone else loves. I find this part of editing very challenging. Since I write for MG, I actually have a group of students read my chapters. They are very up front with their suggestions. I need more than one person to comment on the same spot before I change the wording.

  4. I love introductions, sometimes skim through acknowledgements, but I will NOT read inside covers!
    I don't want any amount of spoiler and all too often those covers have several. I want to feel things and characters as they come along. I don't want the main aspects of the story before I even turn a page.
    However, I will qualify this with, I DO read covers (at least partially) if I have no idea what the book is about (as when browsing a library or book store) or if I suspect that the title and cover photo may be deceptive as to content. It is amazing how many titles contain "dog" or "horse" and have nothing whatsoever (or very little) to do with either animal. It should be against the law!
    I never watch previews to TV shows either, if I can help it.