Saturday, April 18, 2009

I am an impatient reader

I really am. I want the story. I want to love the characters right away. I want to be surprised by the turn of events, and awed by the ending. I want to close the book wishing for more. I will skim the boring parts of any story, especially if a character spends three pages tying a rope to a boat, or building a fire -blah, blah, blah.

This constrasts with the way I write, which is slow and cautious, thinking about details of movement, setting, gesture, consequence even in the first draft. When a character needs to tie a boat or build a fire, I will spend an hour -or three- online, happily researching ropes and boats and the ways of building fires (for example).

This is not mere work avoidance. Well, okay, it IS that, but it's not ONLY that. There's a compulsive need to get the details right, even if I -the writer- am the only one who really cares. Yet I'm aware (even based on my own reading habits) that it's a fatal mistake to bore a reader.

Writer Elmore Leonard famously said that while writing, he always tries to "leave out the parts that people skip."

I'd be interested in hearing the points of view of writers and readers alike. Where do you locate the line between necessary story elements and unnecessary, uninteresting detail? Do you skim certain types of detail when you read? And do you include these same kinds of detail when writing?


  1. I am very much like you in that I will usually either love a book or hate it within the first few pages. I'm also more detail oriented with my own writing though. I think it's hard to find that line of required and too much, where details are concerned. For example, I could spend paragraphs detailing the movements of a horse as it responds to sudden movement or noise just off the trail. Horse people would get graphic picture in their head, maybe even think 'Yeah, that's just what Flo does before she lets out a rip roaring buck!' But anyone not horsey, will be lost, and it would be much more worth while to get it all in one sentence, like 'Thunder's ears flattened in sudden unease, and before Jenna could secure her seat, the gelding squirreled to one side, and then launched skyward, taking the bit in his bit and bolting off the trail.' Sometimes I have to write something, then read through it again and play with it and see what shakes out.

  2. Wow! Tough topic.

    I can say right off that I enjoy reading about setting much more than my wife does. I recall reading the start of Wizard of Earthsea. I loved it, but my wife's eyes just glazed over.

    That shows how subjective stories are.

    I liked A. Grey's comments about writing horse stuff. It makes me think that we, as writers, have a gift to offer. It might be writing about horses. You have to choose who your ideal reader is and go from there. If the ideal reader loves reading about horses, well cool. Go for it in detail.

    I have to wonder if there might be a danger at hand if we reign in our gift and don't let it run free because we are afraid someone might not like it.

    The more I write the more likely I am now to worry less about how much I am doing this and doing that. You kinda find a feel for the balance and just go for it.

    And, by the way, a few weeks ago I read the short story you had published in Reflection's Edge ("All that Glitters") and liked it quite a bit. I thought you did a nice job of balancing different narrative elements.

  3. I too an am impatient reader. Probably explains why I am not a big fan of fiction that's too literary. I want action. I want intrigue. I want to be on the edge of my seat, breathless, waiting to see if the killer suddenly appears from the shadow, with blood dripping off the knife.

    I like stories that get me going from the first sentence, and don't let up until the last chapter. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but at the end I expect some redemption.

    I don't like stories that leave me hanging. I don't like stories that leave me down. I'm a sucker for a story with a happy ending.

  4. I hate to read unnecessary detail, especially descriptions of clothing or the colour of someone's eyes. Unfortunately, I need to watch my own writing, because my descriptions can be spare to the point of absent...

  5. I am impatient, as well. But it also depends on the genre. If it's literary, and a classic, I am much more patient. I know that there is always more than meets the eye.

    I strongly believe that any scene or line that doesn't propel the story forward in some way or another is unnecessary. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm always putting the wrong things in my scenes. But that's what editing and rewriting is for. I'm like you... I research the heck out of stuff. It's one of the best parts of writing!

    I did a post on this idea awhile ago here

  6. I've always been moderately impatient. But the more I read the less patient I get. I just started two books in the past two days and I'm in the 2nd or 3rd chapter in both. It's not a good sign that I'm thinking, "God. Are we still introducing backstory?"

    It could be a reason why I read so many books at once. I'm hoping to be swept away immediately, but when it doesn't happen I open another book, and then another. Eventually I get to the point where the story really takes off, and I stick with that one book til the end, but those beginnings are killer.

  7. Great topic, Diane. Unfortunately, I think we're in a period where beginning backstory gets shot at without ever giving it a chance. Right now I'm editing the few chapters of backstory in my novel and do notice that, if taken out, the story would be the exact same. So, sadly, I must make the cut.

    However, I truly wish all readers were patient and enjoyed the prototypical (it seems) 'Chapter 2-3 backstory moment', because, as writers, we justify it as giving dimension to the characters, giving dimension to the relationships we are describing.

    Unfortunately, since I'm not bestselling writer John Johnson, who is on his eleventh book and can write whatever backstory he pleases. Annnnnnd, just because almost all 'classically written' traditional literary novels almost always have a bulk of backstory/history at the beginning....doesn't mean I get to do it.

    ...yet. =).

  8. I can definitely be impatient with beginnings of books. I like to be drawn in right away, I don't like to hear about what a town looks like for three pages before I know anything more about my character than simply his name. And I will definitely skim. I'll skim and skim until I see dialogue unless I am drawn into the action. Or unless I know the paragraph after paragraph description is going to pay off. But this is mostly with authors I read a lot and trust they're going to give me something good.

    In my writing, I tend to focus a lot on the characters. And I want the story to move. When I am writing, I will purposefully leave out description and specific facts just to keep the action going, to progress the plot. I think that's why my stories always end up longer after my edits than they were before. Because then I have to go back and add in everything I left out.

    But it works for me. At least for now :)

  9. A. Grey: Right. We have to take our audience into consideration.

    Dave: Maybe it comes back to whether a writer is established, and can afford to write the way he or she wants to. And thank your for the compliment on my story :)

    Douglas: I don't overly literary stories, either. I'm easily bored by them. I too like action and a happy ending.

    Merrilee: Nice to see you here! Sounds like your writing style ("spare" as you describe it) might be perfect for flash fiction, which seems to be getting more and more popular. Do you write any?

    Lady Glamis: I like researching things, too. As far as propelling the story, I agree, but I get interested in my own details and so I am not always the best judge of which elements propel my story.

    Venus: Do you tend to abandon books? I know I do, if I'm bored after a couple of chapters.

    Patrick: I think you have to cut your story, unfortunately. When your well and established, you can write what you want, but for now, I think you may have to follow the tastes of readers and editors.

    Cindy: That's interesting that you have to add description to your final version. You must have good momentum in the draft. I wish I could write more like that: momentum first, then detail. I get bogged down right away.

  10. Diane,

    I rarely abandon a story if I bothered to read those first 2-3 chapters of backstory. Usually the hook will catch up with the story and off we go.

    But sometimes I only skim (not read) those initial chapters - and if the hook isn't there by the time I'm finished skimming, or worse, the characters are cardboard with perfect little dialogue and perfect little angst, then I skim through a page a time at intervals of 10 - 20 until I get to the end. Just so I get my closure.

    Chances are though, if I'm skimming right from the beginning, it's not a good sign for the rest of the book.


Join the conversation, add insight, or disagree with us! We welcome your thoughts.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.