Your Inner Reader Knows What to Skip

sun stormElmore Leonard famously said of his writing: “I try to leave out the parts people skip.” Solid advice for writers of all levels of experience. But what exactly are “the parts people skip?” How do you identify whether you’re managing to leave them out of your writing or not?

I had a couple of encounters this past month that immediately made me think about that quote– and made me think about its relevance in a new light. The first was a conversation I had with my oldest daughter a couple of weeks ago. We were about to start reading a book together–one that my daughter had already read by herself and wanted to share with me– and I cracked open the cover and started reading the prologue.

Bella: Why are you reading that?

Me: Because the author wrote it. She thought it was important enough to work hard writing it, so we should think it’s important enough to read.

[Bella sighs. If thought bubbles could appear in the air over people’s heads the way they do in cartoons, hers would read “Oh help, my mother is talking like an author again.”]

Bella: Mom, look. *patiently flips pages and points to the words ‘Chapter 1’* This is where the story starts. Right here.

That’s kind of profound, if you think about it. My daughter is seven. She’s only been reading novel-length books independently for somewhere around a year and a half. And yet she’s already come to the conclusion (not from me, obviously) that prologues are something to be skipped, that the actual ‘story’ starts with Chapter 1. Which happens to be exactly the argument made by people (Elmore Leonard was, in fact, one of them) who claim that prologues should be avoided.

Which brings me to my second encounter of the month.

A few days later, I happened to read a blog post by Rachel Aaron about accessing her inner reader as she worked to construct her stories. I highly recommend it, it’s an excellent article. Essentially, she talks about the difference she noticed when she thought about stories (both other people’s and her own) as a writer vs. simply a reader. As someone wearing a critique-oriented ‘writer’ hat and someone reader purely for entertainment. Now, as an author, I’ve written prologues. Out of respect for other authors, I will read them in other people’s stories. I’ve never been a believer in the common internet dictum about ‘never’ writing prologues. But as a reader, have I ever absolutely fallen in love with a book based on the prologue? There are exceptions to every rule, I’m sure, but I can’t think of many. Far more often, I’m kind of slogging my way through the prologue waiting for the story to start, to be honest. Note my off-the-cuff answer to my girl (even though I wasn’t at all thinking in those terms at the time) was about the author, really, rather than us as readers.

The post overall made me consider other times when as a reader, I’m either slogging or tempted to skim. The parts I want to skip, in other words. Here are the couple of others besides prologues that I came up with:

  • Dream sequences. Especially when they’re written in italics. I’m not sure why– I suspect it may be because the italics are an immediate signal that the passage is occurring outside the ‘reality’ of the story– but I really have to work not to yadda yadda my way through a dream.
  • Internal reflection that goes on for pages and pages.
  • Long descriptions of setting. This one is trickier because there are some books where the setting itself is a character, and a wonderful one at that. Books where I read and re-read the descriptive passages because they’re just so beautifully painted. But at other times, I know I’ve felt like a long description of a room or house or office just stalled the momentum of the story and made me want to skim to get back to the real action.

Now, as an author, I’ve included every one of those components into books at times. And again, I’ve also read other authors’ books where any and/or all of those were pulled off brilliantly. But thinking about the parts I tend to skip as a reader did make me more aware and I hope more critical of the choices I make as an author. If I decide to write another dream sequence, I’ll make absolutely sure it’s necessary. If I find an passage of internal dialogue stretching on and on, I think I’ll be inclined to see whether it can be worked into an actual dialogue between two characters instead. All in all, I’m looking forward to applying both Elmore Leonard’s and Rachel Aaron’s advice to my future books.

Although– full disclosure– my husband proofread this article for me and fell asleep.  Maybe I’ve still got a ways to go.  :-)

What about you? What parts (if any) are you tempted to skip? Do you find a difference in your attitude towards a book when you read as a writer vs. as a reader?

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About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.

Comments

  1. says

    Unlike your husband, I did not fall asleep reading this! When I am reading a really exciting book with lots of fast paced action and I just want to know what happens next, I skip all the subplot characters/sections and jump forward to the temporary resolution to that part of the action.
    I may then go back and read the rest, but not always.
    Interesting that you mention dream sequences, internal reflection and long descriptions of settings. I am ‘guilty’ of all 3 in my new romance novel because I think it creates a great atmosphere which permeates the writing. However, maybe I should edit them and make them shorter now I have read this.

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    • says

      Sherry, as I say, I’ve been ‘guilty’ of all those things, as well. They can absolutely be pulled off to great effect, I just got to thinking how often in books I’ve read they’re not necessarily done in a way that adds to the story, and it made me think harder about my own choices.

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  2. says

    Anna-

    Do you have a yellow highlighter? Take an average paperback off your shelf and read it with the highlighter in hand. Draw a yellow squiggle down the page where you skim. Leave the interesting parts untouched. When you’re done, look at the ratio. How much have you skimmed?

    Horrifying, isn’t’ it? Even more horrifying is the thought that those yellow squiggles are what’s happening in readers’ mind when they read *your* work.

    How can that be when you labored so long over your pages, going over and over each one countless times? Read your own writing and every single one of your words is riveting. Well, of course they are. You wrote them.

    On the other hand, if you follow Elmore Leonard’s rule faithfully you up with not only many fewer pages, but a manuscript that’s anorexic. Your story winds up reading like James Patterson, or becomes mostly dialogue like Elmore Leonard’s own work.

    Moreover, there are many writers whose style is lush, prose heavy, full of atmosphere, descriptively dazzling and luxuriously interior. Whole chapters can go by when nothing happens. And yet *those* writers get hardcover, starred reviews, sell well and get juicy renewal contracts.

    What gives? Why do some writers get away with what the rest of us cannot? Where do you go for that papal dispensation, a double-O license to sin? Oh, you must have to please the gatekeepers. They decide. So random, so unfair. Right?

    Or.

    Perhaps what makes anything on the page highly necessary to read and impossible to skim isn’t whether it’s dialogue and action versus prologue, dream, internal reflection or description.

    Maybe when those things work it’s because they’re infused with something that most writers find, unknowingly, easier to create in dialogue. (Although not always then.)

    Your inner reader is a valuable teacher, but your inner writer can achieve tenure. That happens when you learn the advanced methods of making every word necessary to read. Where do you get that arcane knowledge?

    I’ve written about that arcane knowledge and teach it every chance I get, and I’ll tell you where I learned it: From novels. From my inner reader.

    Our inner reader can teach us what not to do, but also how to do what seems forbidden, what for others is the yellow squiggle stuff. Even prologues.

    Once you know how. Our inner readers are smart. Thanks for reminding us to listen, Anna.

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    • says

      Such good points, Donald.
      I love what you say about authors who break the ‘rules’ having learned something that eludes other writers who may follow said rules blindly.

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    • says

      There are no hard and fast rules in writing, but there are some good guidelines.

      1) The text should be readable.

      It doesn’t matter how beautifully crafted your prose is if people can’t read it. Dream sequences or flashbacks in italics, dense blocks of text without paragraph breaks, and needlessly long and complicated sentences are difficult to follow and give readers headaches. People skip things that give them headaches.

      2) The story should go somewhere.

      That elusive infusion of “something” that holds a reader’s interest is simply “change.” Whether you’re writing a prologue, action sequence, internal monologue, setting description, or anything else, the story has to move. Moving doesn’t mean that things need to “happen;” it just means things need to change. The story world; the reader’s understanding of it; the reader’s emotional state; or, if you’re very ambitious, your reader him/herself should be different at the end of the passage than at the beginning.

      People skim descriptions and internal reflections because they often don’t go anywhere. It’s possible for a scene to be action-packed yet incredibly boring, if it feels pointless and advances nothing. It’s also possible for the “no-no” elements to push the story and the reader forward. The short prologues in the Sammy Keyes series (middle-grade mysteries) tantalize and excite young readers to turn to Chapter 1.

      But prologues full of info-dumping and description make readers impatient because they paint static pictures with no obvious purpose or movement. And dreams and flashbacks are often merely bloated embellishments that interrupt the story to convey information that could have been integrated in a more natural and interesting way.

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    • says

      Mr. Mass:
      Different readers, different highlighting, wouldn’t you say? An alternative way to consider questions of style, pacing, etc., is to look at what people bring to the table as readers. The liberally educated reader will have been guided more often to appreciate slower-paced books that call for reflection–they studied canon writers in college. Readers trained to solve discrete problems, with little or no exposure to the liberal arts will be less likely to appreciate–or even tolerate–books that are more demanding. Like such readers, Anna Elliot’s seven-year-old Bella doesn’t know what prologues are for. But her mom’s a writer, so Bella is looking at good odds: she’ll grow up with books, lucky girl.

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      • says

        I agree with you Barry about different readers being able to appreciate different styles, and those who are widely read seem to savor books rich with wordage others would skim.

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      • says

        Barry-

        First off call me Don, okay? All friends here. Without a doubt different readers enjoy different styles of writing, and value different dimensions of novels.

        I’ll say this, though: When *anything* on the page holds our attention and causes us to read ahead it’s because it creates in the reader some level of tension, uneasiness, curiosity or wonder. It has what I call micro-tension. You can give it many names and create it many ways: big or small, overt or subtle, loud or subliminal.

        There’s a reason we are compelled to keep reading all of 350+ pages and it isn’t just taste. That’s my firm belief.

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        • says

          Fine, Don it is.
          I think I understand what you mean by micro-tension. As you say, it can take many forms, which accounts for the rich variety among good and great books. But I will add one caveat, and I don’t think it applies to most readers (if it did apply, many bestsellers would be lastsellers). I’m talking about devices, tricks of the trade aimed at manipulating the reader. You mentioned James Patterson, and I see him as a perfect example of a writer who relies on such tricks. But for readers who know when gimmicks are being used, the house of cards just collapses. These days, when I read a passage obviously meant to rev things up–galloping and breathless, charging through smoke and fire–too bad, game over, over the shoulder and on to the next. But when a scene rivets me, when I am lost in the moment with no thought of being “had,” I know–that is, when I come to–that I’ve been reading a gifted writer.

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  3. says

    I am not a big fan of prologues, but, like you, I read them. As a writer, I want to find out why the author chose the prologue and what significance it might have. I don’t like dream sequences either, though some of my writer friends defend them. Pages of back-story are a turnoff, though I’ve noticed best-selling authors can get away with doing this. Another turnoff is preaching by the author. This is often done through the voice of the character but I can spot when the author is advocating his/her views as opposed to organic, natural dialogue. As for reading books through the prism of a writer, I am guilty as charged. Thanks for a great post, Anna.

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  4. says

    I tend to skim descriptions of characters. Maybe it’s just me, but no matter how hard an author tries to put her image of a character into my head, I’ll just create my own based on dialogue, actions, setting, etc. (no, I do not give all the female characters big libraries).

    I also get bored when a character goes on too long about his negative view of himself. I’m listening to Barry Lyga’s “I Hunt Killers” on audio right now. I love Barry. I want to be him. And this book rocks. But I did get frustrated when Jasper just went on and on about his fears of becoming a serial killer like his father (can you say “awesome concept”?). I think we get that the boy has issues. End the pity party and move on. Which is pretty much what the girlfriend said in the story. And the reader is ready to get on with catching the killer.

    As far as prolouges, keep ’em short or I enact my super hero power of speed-skimming. I stayed awake through your entire article, btw.

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    • says

      Listening to audio books can be really eye-opening, as well, I’ve found, because you can’t skip and skim. You can fast-forward, of course, but that’s actually missing whole chunks of the book. Listening to the parts that I would probably skim if I were reading has made me think more deeply about exactly what went wrong with said parts and why they were such a chore to get through.

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      • says

        I listen to audio books, too, and though I can’t actually skip or skim parts, I do find that my mind can wander when it gets into boring territory (the book). If I find that happening and rewind and listen carefully, I usually find that is what happened, anyway. I can think I’m paying attention to something and realize I haven’t taken it in at all for minutes at a time. That can actually happen when actually reading, now that I think of it.

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  5. says

    What a good word. I have only recently declared that normally I don’t like reading dream sequences, especially long ones that make me feel confused or intoxicated. I don’t want to pick through clues in someone’s dizzying subconscious. I don’t really like feeling confused in my own dreams!

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  6. says

    I don’t think I skip or skim anything. It’s not the outcome that makes me love a story, it’s every bit of the journey.
    When I notice I get impatient and want to skip or skim, I usually put the book aside and read something else. Life’s too short to read stories I don’t really care about.

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    • says

      Agreed, Andrea– both that it’s the journey that matters and that life is too short to slog through books we’re not enjoying.

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  7. says

    Great post. I do my best to keep backstory, dreams, inner dialog, and description to no more than three or four sentences. This way I am forced to weave details throughout. It alleviates clunky prose. I believe I read this in a @DonaldMaass book or two.

    My prologue is an inciting incident fundamental to my story, so my editors kept it and called it chapter 1.

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  8. says

    I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. About a year ago, at the recommendation of a couple of fantasy writer friends, I started reading an epic fantasy series by Robin Hobb (The Farseer Trilogy). From the start of the first book (Assassin’s Apprentice), she seemed to defy every rule: starting long before ‘the story’ actually seemed to start, chunks of italicized backstory (that didn’t seem, at first, to pertain) at the start every chapter, longish chunks of character introspection, and so on.

    And yet, I could. Not. Put it down. I’ve been reading her since, selecting a new edition about every second or third book I read. I’ve finished ten, as of yesterday. And some things still drive the writer in me crazy (incomplete character arcs at the end of large books mid-series, complex set-ups starting late in those same mid-series books, some repetition of introspection on character conflicts, as in: “Okay, I get it, already!”). But she has a wonderful way of drawing me so deeply into those characters’ inner conflicts. Her world-building is patient and fantastically intricate. The layering is exquisite.

    I know she’s not for everyone (yes, personal taste plays into this). But for me, she’s one to study. The writer in me is still trying to figure it all out. Meanwhile, the reader in me can’t wait to start the next one (due out this June, I believe, just in time).

    Thanks for making this distinction, Anna! Great comments today, too.

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    • says

      That’s it exactly, Vaughn– and it’s what Rachel Aaron says in her blog post, too: any time an author breaks the supposed ‘rules’ and yet the result is impossible to put down, it’s hugely worthwhile to figure out exactly why their writing works so well.

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  9. says

    I just read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin – a wonderful sci-fi book, one of the “must reads” that has stood the test of time. But there was one part where the MC and his associate were getting ready to do something. And they had complications. And they were supposed to get out on the ice, but this happened, then that happened, then the other thing happened. It went on for way too long, and finally I just skipped ahead to when they got on the ice.

    So I guess I skip parts where it takes too long to get to the action. There should be obstacles in books, but sometimes it takes just too long. The same thing holds for when an author hints at something for too long. It’s good to string me along and keep me reading, but there comes a point when I want to yell at the book, “Just tell me already or shut up about it!” That’s not so much a matter of skimming, unless they are really going on about the mystery, as a matter of the author going too far with the suspense. It could be enough for me to put the book down. Can’t think of a prime example at the moment, except a WIP by a friend of mine, which I told her where my end of tolerance came, and she shortened the scene and it became perfect.

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    • says

      Agreed, Jennifer– I think in general if it’s obvious that characters are going to wind up doing X, yet the author keeps throwing glitches in the way, it’s a risk that readers may want to just skip to the X already. Not always, of course, but I can definitely think of a few cases where I’ve felt that way myself.

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  10. says

    What??? I LOVE A GOOD PROLOGUE!!!

    Well… what does “good” mean though?

    For me, it means brief, with tension, and hopefully a teaser/ mystery that ties into the story later. Then when you hit the relevant portion (ideally the middle of the book or so) you have this cool “a-ha!” moment. And you just feel so clever!

    I think Chuck Wendig, in his blog, exhorted the Writerly masses to Master the “Rules”… and then break them as needed, because at that point you are breaking them for a reason, not just by accident or ignorance.

    I think this relates a bit to some of what Donald Maass is saying, too.

    In other words, as a “rule” I think “get to the story, dang it!” is a good idea, and pleasing to many readers.

    But there are those writers who play with lavish prose or explore complex and rich settings, and they get away with it; more importantly, they have FANS who love it!

    I think partly it has to do with figuring out what you are really “good” at, playing with form and style, tinkering with story elements.

    (Also, to my thinking, if you are going to make your story exposition/ flash-back[ish]/ setting heavy, or what have you, make it very, very interesting/ different/ new).

    Partly it has to do with reader expectation – if you are a reader who loves the intricate minutiae of created worlds, then hopefully the author will cue you early on that “this is the book for you!” And vice versa, so people who aren’t into that will never spend money on it.

    And therefore partly… or maybe quite a bit… it has to do with finding the people who like what you have discovered you’re good at.

    Then… making sure they read (and buy) all your stuff!

    — Arley

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    • says

      Absolutely– there are no rules, really, beyond making sure that you do your utmost to serve your story in the best way you possibly can.

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  11. says

    All of the above (especially dream sequences), and also graphic sex scenes. If I’m enjoying a story I invariably find that a sex scene slows it down — I just don’t care how the characters have sex. I want to get on with the story!

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    • says

      Yes! I know many would disagree with me, but I find sex scenes are something I just skip or skim through a huge percentage of the time. It’s not that I have any opposition to sex scenes in theory, just that if they’re not done well, they tend to just slow down the story and be kinda . . . boring. At least for me.

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  12. says

    This is why one of my beta readers is always someone who’s a big reader but NOT a writer. And my number one question for them is, where did you get bored? Where did you want to skim?

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  13. says

    I think Elmore Leonard has also said that when a writer makes something work–never mind what you call it– it’s good, and if the writer fails to make something work, that’s not good. Anything that forces readers to “slog” has failed. I used a prologue in my first novel, and have reason to think it worked–captured my reader’s attention, made my reader want to know more. I hope the same is true in my mystery/thriller, The Anything Goes Girl. Prologue, Chapter 1 or just page 1, if slogging is needed, that’s definitely a part to leave out.

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  14. says

    I love prologues that give me a peek into something meaningful before the actual story begins. Kind of like inviting the reader in. Baxter’s “literary foreplay” is well said. Long descriptions? Ugh. But if the character has an opinion or anecdotal comment about what’s being described, then it works for me. And I do think in today’s era of the self-absorbed, obsessive ego that we see on blogs, FB, and Twitter, any long passages of interior monologues like that are deadly. Get your point across in a paragraph or two and move on. I like short interior monologues that are sprinkled throughout a story, not pages at a time. Great post, Anna.

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  15. Poeticus says

    I don’t skip, skim read. Parts I feel like, though mightily resist skipping or skimming, are immaterial at the moment. If a passage matters now, in the moment, matters to a reflector character, matters event-wise, matters setting-wise, matters expression-wise — antagonal, causal, tensional — I don’t feel a slump in the flow. I most feel a slump when a narrative strays in a manner that calls undue attention to the artificiality of the construct.

    Writer develops a highly arousing circumstance and strays into details needed, material that matters earlier or later in the narrative, or left out altogether, though not pivotal in the moment, before the natural antagonal, causal, tensional pattern and sequence of the moment is completely developed, creates a “cliff hanger” so readers don’t stray, skim, skip over the untimely, injudicious, though supposedly material matter.

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  16. says

    Ms Elliott:
    I agree wholeheartedly about Prologues, but as you
    acknowledge, there are exceptions to every rule.

    I cite Alan Paton’s Prologue, to that marvelous anti-apartheid work, *Cry the Beloved Country*. I used to be able to recite it by heart – but that was then.

    Keep creating,

    Jack Bybee,
    Author: *The Journal of Rudd*.

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  17. says

    I hope I’m not infringing copyright, but here is the Prelude (Prologue) to Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. I have the citation in the footer:

    Prelude to: Cry the Beloved Country.

    “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorne crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veldt. Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensburg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand.

    The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground, feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well-tended, and not too many cattle feed upon it; not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil. Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, gaurds men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed.

    Where you stand the grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. But the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and in falling, change their nature. For they grow red and bare; they cannot hold the rain and mist, and the streams are dry in the kloofs. Too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it. Stand shod upon it, for it is coarse and sharp, and the stones cut under the feet. It is not kept, or gaurded, or cared for, it no longer keeps men, gaurds men, cares for men. The titiyoha does not cry here any more.

    The great red hills stand desolate, and the earth has torn away like flesh. The lightning flashes over them, the clouds pour down upon them, the dead streams come to life, full of red blood of the earth. Down in the valleys women scratch the soil that is left, and the maize hardly reaches the height of a man. They are valleys of old men and old women, of mothers and children. The men are away, the young men and the girls are away. The soil can not keep them any more.

    — Alan Paton, Prelude to Cry the Beloved Country. 1948. 978-0-7432-6217-0

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  18. says

    Battle scenes. I’m never able to follow who is doing what in them even when well written. And they are rarely well written. If it’s not a particular plot or character oriented moment within a battle or fight, I’m skipping. There is only so much, “his sword flashed within inches of the enemy’s arm, but at the last moment he counter-thrusted, and defended the lunge.”

    Or whatever. The longer and the more people involved, the worse it is for me.

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  19. says

    My inner reader is very patient. Thus years ago I was willing, when my sister recommended I read M.M. Kaye’s “The Far Pavilions,” to stick with it on her advice that “Once you get past the first 50 pages, it’s great…”

    She was right. And that’s wasn’t the first or the last time I’ve kept going with a book that started slow. In fiction I am quite willing to read dream sequences, prologues, inner monologues, historical asides, stories within stories, discussions of medieval armory, digressions on winemaking or Zen Buddhism, extensive descriptions of other worlds, real or imagined, etcetera, etcetera, with pleasure if they are written well.

    I sometimes wonder if readers like me and my sister are a dying breed, so I was glad to see in the comments above that there are others who don’t toss the book aside when they encounter such passages.

    That said, I also sometimes skim or skip parts in books I’m enjoying when the story so intensely captures me that I have to find out how it ends. I often reread such books. Multiple readings have shown me that in “War and Peace,” Tolstoy’s lo-o-o-ong asides on Kutuzov’s strategy or his theorizing about Napoleon’s true role in history engages me at times, or Levin’s musings on the mystery of birth and death in “Anna Karenina,” which as a teenager bored me, now move me intensely.

    Not long ago I began to reread Louise Erdrich’s “The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.” The prologue is vivid, poignant, humorous, and utterly necessary.

    Long live books with deep currents and unexpected eddies and the authors who write them.

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  20. Priya Gill says

    I am late in reading your post. But wanted to let u know, it’s a great post. Funny when we write sometimes we forget the sections that we always skip and lo behold they are in our book too. (Especially when we believe that it has to be there, per the rules of writing). I remember, my first draft had near zero description of settings. (I rarely ever read them in books, so completely forgot about them) Then after reading a few books, blogs, I put in so many that I struggled to edit them, aka, got bored while editing. Finally I took out/ shortened/ made alive all of those and now at least I have an MS that I can work with.

    your post has brought out a great discussion on what others might be skipping. So thank you for that too, Anna

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