Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Eleventh Rule

I gave myself permission a few years ago to stop reading any book I found myself not enjoying. It doesn’t happen often—my vetting system is sound—but I sometimes wonder what it is about a book that makes me give up on it. I a devoted blog post to what I called “bestseller style,” and why it was a pretty good bet to make me stop reading.

The other day I put down a book I’d been looking forward to; the vetting system is not perfect. A bestseller, it had the issues I cited in the other post, but it also brought about an epiphany as to what it is about bestsellers that so often turns me off: they violate the Eleventh Rule.

What is the Eleventh Rule? In Elmore Leonard’s justly famous Ten Rules of Writing*, he states:

My most important rule is one that sums up the ten: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Bingo. These books sound too much like writing. Their authors write as if ninth-grade English teachers loomed over their shoulders, poised to strike with metal-edged rulers (or worse) at the mere whisper of a split infinitive or dangling preposition. This type of writing constantly reminds me I am reading a story, taking me away from the vivid and continuous dream I want to be in as a reader. I don’t want to read stories; I want to watch them.

“But what about Chandler and James Lee Burke and Declan Hughes? Their use of language is so original—beautiful, even—you admit you read for that,” you ask. (You sure have had a lot of questions lately. Getting to be a pain in the ass, frankly.) That’s true, but, while I am aware it’s writing, their work never reads as such. I can still be lost in their prose, as if listening to a master storyteller or orator make a story transcendent through his prose.

Leonard made a point to append the Eleventh Rule to Number Ten: Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. Personally, I tend to skip things that sound too much like writing, even if that means skipping the entire remainder of the book.

(* - Leonard’s Ten Rules are often presented as a bulleted list, but they are best read with the explanations and caveats he provided in the original.)

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