May You Write Interesting Books, part 1

I’m writing this as a series.  When it’s done I’ll compile it, clean it up and put it up for download in a few formats, for something like $3.99.  Might throw it on Amazon, too, if it looks worth it. Needless to say if you want to hit the donate button instead, and make a note on the paypal field
that it’s for May You Write Interesting Books, I’ll send you a copy when cleaned/compiled.  Oh, btw, I’ll also be taking suggestions for other seminars on writing.  I’ve considered doing something like a “self directed workshop” with suggested exercises you can do on your own or with your writing group.

Part One

This is prompted by a lot of my acquaintances who are beginning writers telling me the most common comment (or feared comment) on their writing is that it is boring.

I’ve been hesitant to do any series on writing, because I’ve realized half of the how-to-write books on my shelf are obsolete.  They were designed to guide a beginner into the safe harbor of a publishing establishment that no longer exists.

I’m not saying traditional publishing will go away, mind you.  I don’t think it will, though undoubtedly a lot of houses will.  I’m saying that it will go away in any form we understand and particularly in any form understood five/ten years ago when these books were written.

I don’t know what the entry ritual into traditional publishing will be in the future, but I doubt it will have anything to do with running the gauntlet of slush at a publishing house (which hasn’t existed in most of them for decades) or agency that marked the passage from newby to pro in my day.   Since a lot of those books had to do with getting past the prejudices and foibles of first readers or the editors who supervised them.  And that has all gone away as if it had never been, burned up before our eyes, leaving us with a new Earth and a new Heaven.

Poetic language aside, I realized being boring is still a cardinal sin.  Whether you’re trying to convince an editorial house that you’re the next coming of J. K. Rowling, or throwing your story on Amazon for the reading public to buy – or not – if your readers collapse in a heap of snores by paragraph two, you’re not going to make a sale.  And if your readers come to the end of your story and say “that’s all very well, but” you’ll either not make a traditional sale or you’ll find that the readers don’t go to Amazon and search frantically for your next offering.  Both are bad.

So, we’ll start by defining boring, shall we.  There are at least three types of boring when it comes to books (there are probably many more but for the purposes of this seminar, we’ll go with three) all of which have different cures.  I’ll define the different kinds of boring, then the cures.  Then I’ll take them in order one by one.  This is as much for your benefit as for mine, as I’m writing this the week before Christmas and am unlikely to keep any sort of structure in this if I don’t do so.

1 –
Diagnosis – Stone Cold Boring – this work is so boring that you’d chew your limb to get away from it.  By the third paragraph, you feel if you’re forced to keep reading it, you’re going to collapse and sleep like Sleeping Beauty for a hundred years or so, until revived with the kiss of a good thriller.

Reason for the affliction – most of the time this is just not knowing how to start a book.  You have all this information and proceed as though you were teaching elementary subjects to a class of slow children.  You can practically hear the pencils scratching on paper and smell that school room smell.  (Or the planners opening at a business meeting.)

Treatment – Start elsewhere, learn to Heinlein details, flashbacks are your friends, don’t be afraid to show yourself. [I’ll take on HOW to do these starting tomorrow.]

2- Diagnosis – The Boring Is In The Middle

This is a book that starts promisingly, and you’re going along fine, and then you hit the middle.  If you’re a reader, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  This is the point at which you remember you forgot to call your dentist.  Or that you really should put a new load of laundry in.  Or even that perhaps you should start cooking.  The book gets put down, face down, open, so you can return to it easily.  (Don’t do this if you own a kindle.)  Only you never do.  Three days later, when you’ve started reading another book, you come across this and frown distractedly, before closing it and putting it in the donation box.

Reason for the affliction – usually I call this “something happenitis.”  It come from three reasons.  Either you didn’t plot well enough that the events in the middle are inevitable; you plotted well enough but you shoved all the character development/slower bits to the middle; you seriously overextended the story trying to meet some imaginary length “requirement.”

Treatment – learn to plot (yes, I’ll explain); hot it up (make your slower bits more interesting.  And yes, I’ll still explain.); write it the length it needs to be (I’ll explain this as far as I can.  But some of it is learning to feel how long is long enough.)

3- Diagnosis – It Is ONLY Mostly Boring

This is a book you read cover to cover, but when you put it down you go “well, that’s nice.”  You don’t go “Uh, this rocked my world.”  You don’t even go “this was good enough I want to read the next one.”  No.  You just go “this was painless.  I can live with it.”  Which means that you will NOT look for the next book by the author.  Particularly in the new market place this can be death on sales.  In fact, you might not remember the author’s name even if you are at lose ends and want to look for it.

Reason for the affliction – There are at least three reasons for this.  One, you’re writing someone else’s book (by which I don’t mean you’re a plagiarist, but only that you’re not that interested in this book.  It’s not your hot subject/character/topic/plot.) something that’s quite common when trying to break into the traditionals.  You’ve been told books of “x” type sell and you’re trying your best to write that book.  But your heart isn’t in it.  It can be quite competent, mind, but blah.  (Not that writing to order is always that.  I pretty much got told to write the refinishing mysteries.  I just made them mine.)  Two, you like the genre so much and took so many elements from it that your book should be packaged in a white container with a barcode and sold as generic.  Three, the topic, character, subject, plot are so intensely yours and cut so much to your heart you’re protecting yourself by not putting it on the page.  (I spent years doing this and The Brave And The Free was shelved until I could take enough of a deep breath to get into it again, which I’m doing now in my copious spare time.) A variant of three, of course of course, you think it’s obvious so it’s mostly in your head.

Treatment – One -There must be fifty ways to leave that book, and write what you want to.  (More about that, which will imply going into the new new market again.  Two – make it yours.  Come up with an interesting twist.  Yes, I’ll explain this.  Three – Open a vein and bleed on the page.  I’ll explain psychological tricks to do this.  Variant – how to determine if it’s too much in your head, and what to do about it.  (This necessitates a trusted helper, usually, unfortunately.)

I shall pick the topic up again tomorrow.

26 thoughts on “May You Write Interesting Books, part 1

  1. For me it was having the story start with “talking heads” and/or me not sure how to “give the reader needed info without talking heads”. [Frown]

  2. Thank you Sarah. My problem was not knowing if it was boring, being afraid it was… and not wanting to inflict that on people I like and would like to keep talking to me. Also, when I set out to do something, I’m arrogant enough to say “If I can’t do it well, I won’t do it at all.” I’m not sure I can stop writing, mind you, but if I was boring I certainly wouldn’t pursue publishing my work. You’re giving me hope that I can do this. Have been for a while, between you and Dave Freer. Your enthusiasm for the new order of publishing is infectious.

    1. Cedar, Beta readers are a fear of mine. I’ve been in critique groups that were *worse* than worthless – they convinced me to do things than made my story *bad*.

      I’m the same way — I don’t want to ask a friend who will tell me whatever I write is good, just because they don’t want to hurt my feelings. And the people I know who would be honest and give me the best feedback, I don’t want to bother because they’re writing *their* stuff. Maybe Sarah will give us some pointers about Betas (and pre-Betas!) at some point ::looks hopefully with huge, begging Kitteh-Dragon eyes::

      1. It’s a matter of definitions, Lin. A person who won’t tell you you’re doing something wrong, retreating to platitudes instead, is not a “friend”. A better word is “suckup”.

        First rule — no, the zeroth rule of accepting critique, by which all the other rules are interpreted: The thing being complained about is not what’s wrong, unless it’s trivial. Grammar, punctuation, spelling, &ct. are trivial in that context. You might think continuity is trivial, and it may be — but it may not. Critiquer complains that C. Wilson Protagonist’s hair was dark in Chapter 5, and is now blond. Did you just forget (trivial)? Or does it mean you didn’t properly describe the scene in Chapter 7, where Lester beheads the Magic Chicken and the blood droplets do something odd to everybody who gets splashed?

        Criticism and critique, up to and including savagery, can be useful, but you have to keep in mind that you’re in the position of the car mechanic, listening to the customer tell him “…well, it goes thumpathumpathumpa when I turn left. Sometimes.” It tells him there’s something wrong, but it could be a lot of things, and it may not be very useful in identifying the actual fault.


        1. Ric, that’s a wonderful description. What I have found — too many times to count — and what I was guilty of before a couple of very patient pros taught me better is that most folks don’t know what beta readers do and honestly don’t know what critique partners do. The grammar, punctuation, verb tense, basic formatting isn’t something that needs to be focused on until after the story has been written and the plot issues dealt with. The other is stuff to be done to make the story “nicer” for the reader and editor. But it doesn’t matter if the story isn’t there and the problems with it, if there are any, aren’t fixed.

          1. I think that depends on the reader, though. If I am so distracted by the grammar, etc., that I can’t focus on the story? I can’t say anything about the story because I’m busy going, “This is a sentence that is so tangled, it needs to be taken out back and shot. This one over here, it’s not clear if it’s a flashback or another tense shift or what. And the comma splices! My god, think of the commas!”

            A certain level of grammar, etc., needs to be present for some readers before they can focus on the bigger picture without the distracting “noise” of typos. Know Your Readers.

              1. Buuuwahahahaaaaa….! In me, you are dealing with an individual who uses semicolons and em dashes as routine punctuation. My first actual editing pass is devoted to trimming them out, and my usual goal is to delete half the commas, all the semicolons, and three-quarters of the em dashes, converting parentheticals three levels deep into declarative sentences. Along the way I generally end up reducing the word count by around 10% or so. I once had a critiquer threaten to come to my house and superglue my comma key, forcing me to use ALT-044 to get one. I had to tell him (with some glee) that first he’d have to find all my keyboards…


                1. I LOVE dashes. Toni has told me to curb them. BUT they’re SO nice. Although first pass on DSR I outdid myself. I used italics, dashes, parens AND square brackets. I was clearly made of awesome at the time. (Awesome what I leave as an exercise for the class.

                  1. Hmph. All of the above, except for square brackets (which I consider gauche[1]). Instead I used German “double angle” quote marks «» and long inset quotes with typographic differentiation.

                    I know better now.

                    [1]Except, of course, to set off the lead to a footnote. I restrained myself from using footnotes, but, in the words of Tommy Traddles, “It was a long pull.”

                    1. Sigh. Do you know NOTHING man? For footnotes you use * with or without additional numbering. And I don’t why you restrained yourself. Pratchett uses them ALL the time… 😛

            1. Beth, if it is that bad, then most definitely it needs to be pointed out. However, it continues to amaze me the number of folks who think offering a critique is pointing out every comma fault and split infinitive or dangling modifier. These are also often the ones who don’t make comment one about the content of the story/novel or, if they do, you find yourself wondering if they wrote the same story you — and the other critiquers or beta readers — read.

              But, just as you need to know your readers, the readers at this level need to know their author and what the author wants/needs. Yes, that means the writer needs to tell them. But it also means the reader needs to know the writer and ask questions. Remember, we’re talking crit readers and beta readers here, not the reader who pays for the short story or novel.

              1. This is all true! Just pointing out that in general, writing advice doesn’t seem aimed at the extremes, and sometimes the punctuation really is that bad. (“I have no idea what you’re trying to convey here” bad…)

                “Is the punctuation really so bad that you can’t figure out what I mean” and “is the punctuation really so distracting” are both questions a writer might want to ask, to figure out where an otherwise good-in-the-past (beta)reader is coming from.

                1. When I come across those I send them Strunk and White. If they’re younger than I or have had the sort of education where all you get is gold stars, this fixes the problem so fast it will surprise you. Most of them didn’t KNOW there were rules. And I know that sounds terrifying. (And is.) My go to books to bring people up to the level I can mentor are Strunk and White and Dwight Swain. Send those to a favorite beginner for the holidays.

    2. Cedar one of the best things I did to figure out what worked in writing will sound goofy: Austen fanfic. No, seriously. From their comments you can see immediately what works and what doesn’t. Takes time. But, as a writing course, it’s free. 😉

  3. In re: Diagnosis 2, treatment = Hot it up

    I recently watched a program in which two characters essentially provided about two minutes of exposition or perhaps character/relationship development while sitting in front of the camera. Sounds horrible, right? Two minutes can take forever on your Telly, even if the dialogue is reasonably witty. Even if it is taking place in a bar with booming thumpa-thumpa music behind it. Even if there’s a scantily clad female in the background dancing with a pole. [N.B. – note “p” is lower case.] Okay, suddenly half your audience is paying attention to what’s happening on screen (even if they are missing nuances of line delivery.)

    Point being: when possible put things ordinarily dull in front of (in the midst of) things inherently interesting (or at least attention grabbing.) Why have your two male leads bond over single malt when they can do it during a bar-fight? Let the hero realize he loves the heroine (or verse-visa) while choking a werewolf to death, not while cruising through the Micky-D drive-thru (unless the werewolf is the attendant and instead of chucking the burger and fries at the hero hurls itself.)

  4. Thank you! This is a very useful post for me, both as a beta-reader and as an author who occasionally could use a beta. I have to laugh though at the comma comments. I teach grammar in college, and too often run into writers who think that grammar only counts to college teachers. I can’t read a story and not notice the grammar. Grammar and sentence structure is part of how the idea is being communicated. It matters. If the character is speaking in sentence frags there should be a reason; it shouldn’t be an accident. So unless the writer is fairly competent and there are few grammatical mistakes, I make a lousy beta.

    And in a gratuitous FYI, I’m about to begin offering Webinars on grammar.

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