Friday, June 25, 2010

Skipping

By Russel D McLean

(please excuse any grumpiness this week, Russel's dealing with the trauma of leaving his twenties behind as of the beginning of next week)

Two things caught my attention this week.

#1 was egotistical, a review of THE GOOD SON on The Drowning Machine. A nice review, but here’s the line that caught my attention:

One of the things I most like about this book is that the author doesn't get in the way of his story. He knows when to shut up.

Its that last part. Knows when to shut up. Believe me when I say that’s a huge compliment.

And it brings me to #2.

Over on twitter, I’m following the supremely talented Anthony Neil Smith (once you’re done here, do yourself a favour and go buy his books. And while you’re waiting on them, go read his incredible zine, Plots With Guns­). Now, Smith’s clearly a guy who’s shy with his opinons, so it was interesting to read his reactions to THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO:

Tried reading DRAGON TATTOO. Bored myself silly for 130 pages. Gave up and shook my head at the world's collective bad taste.

It brought me back to something I’ve always said about that book: It doesn’t start for at least 100 pages.

Larsson is of course a publishing phenomenon. And I have said some nice things about the books. But with more time to reflect, I have come to realise that for all the intriguing stuff going on, by God, those books could have been edited down. I couldn’t quote you a line of dialogue from any of them, although I could tell you that I liked the character of Lisbeth Salander a lot, and it was really her that kept me going through the books.

Both of these things – the review and ANS’s reaction to GWTDT reminded me of that rule of Elmore Leonard’s I keep telling people:

Leave out the parts the reader tends to skip.

I am a huge believer in that rule. I find I love it as a reader, and as a writer it disciplines me to get straight to the point, to say what needs to be said. And no, its not about attention span, its about clarity. Not simply of prose but of purpose. A story doesn’t need to trap itself in purple prose and overlong explanatory passages. It needs to punch the reader, to get them to sit up and pay attention. To really focus on the words by making each one as important as the last.

Otherwise, we’re bulking up the story so that readers can drift in and out. So that they don’t have to pay attention. So that they can be spoonfed.

I remember – although I can’t find it – an interview with David Simon in The Guardian where he talked about how the audience had to watch every scene to get the pay off, how they couldn’t leave the room to make coffee or chat on the phone for five minutes, how he wanted to change the way we watch television.

To work with the show. Not passively observe on a surface level.

This is how it should be with stories. The reader should do some lifting, because in the end the real reward we get from a book comes not from the passive act of reading but from the way we engage – emotionally and intellectually – with the text. And if we’re skipping swathes of text or reading them so they can fill in the parts we didn’t want to work to understand, then are we really just wasting time with these things?

So what’s the lesson today?

Make every word count.

Don’t lose your reader because they feel they can drift in or out.

In the end, if it’s a good story, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve written one hundred thousand or one hundred and fifty pages. If every word counted, your readers will thank you.

5 comments:

Sandra Ruttan said...

As a reader, I've learned to just go by the rule that most authors repeat themselves silly, so I only read every fifth paragraph and am now able to read books the length of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in less than 5 hours without feeling like it was work.

(Kidding. I doubt I'll ever read the Larsson books.)

Ron Earl Phillips said...

I read THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO last year when it was released in trade. I struggled at least 200 pages to get into the rhythm and keep enough motivation to keep going. If it weren't for the Lisbeth Salander segments I wouldn't have hung in there.

The story really needed to be paired down, maybe even rewritten. I get a feeling that the first book before he discovered what a strong character Lisbeth was, was really about Mikael Blomkist as the central protag. Why so many events involve him, why we needed to learn about the trial, the women, the troubles with Millennium. A lot of which had very little to do with the story of the missing heiress.

Of course the second half of the book was more captivating and the payoff was worth the struggle.

I did buy the second book when the trade came out. I hope that it's not as overwrought as the first.

Enjoy your 30s. I kind of wasted mine, so I'm going to try to make the most of my 40s.

Dana King said...

Comment Number One from a 54-year-old man: You're 30. Wah. I have aches older than you.

I'm not sure what's up, but this is the third blog I've read today about DRAGON TATTOO. It's the most overrated book I've ever read. Not the worst; the most overrated. Larson's greatest gift as a writer was an innate ability to spend too much time on things that didn't deserve it, and not enough on things that did. That's death to any story.

Steve Weddle said...

I enjoyed Dragon Tattoo.

I also like 200-page noir punches to temple.

Sue H said...

I've been intrigued by the Larsson books and even more intrigued by the public fascination with them.

I wonder if I should read them, just so I know what everyone else is on about - but then, can I really afford to use my time reading something that appears to me to be a case of "Emperor's New Clothes"? I think I'll pass, thankyou.

BTW - Russel, turning thirty is no big deal.

In your forties everything starts to fall apart - physically speaking. Then you hit mid-life crisis.

Wait until you're in your fifties and then life gets really interesting - finally with the kids off your hands you can spend money on yourself for the first time in years (and have still have cash left at the end of the week!)

;-)