Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
April 2013

Don't Be Boring

I am sure I am not the first person to have suggested that the most important rule of writing is not to be boring, but I am going to reiterate it anyway. I went to a talk recently about preventing injuries, given by three different sports injury physicians in the local area. As an avid runner and triathlete, I had hoped it would be interesting. I ended up wishing several times that I could leave early without disturbing other people. I walked away, shaking my head, and hoping that I was not that boring when I talked about running or triathlon. Since I have a book coming out shortly called Ironman, about my journey from couch potato to athlete, this is more than just an idle hope. I need to make sure that I do not bore people when I talk about my experiences.

You've all been in one of those situations, I'm sure, where you were bored to tears and couldn't get away. If you're bored anyway, you might consider thinking about what is boring you and why. You might ask yourself if there were any way the same material could be presented in a way that wouldn't be boring. Does it need a personal twist to it? If someone told an emotional story that connected with the talk, would that make a difference? Or is it a more mechanical issue? Is the person speaking doing so with a voice that has no rise and fall? Or is it impossible for you to understand what the person is saying because there is too much else going on in the room at the same time -- too many distractions? Is the jargon too technical, so that you have to work so hard that you give up and let the information flow over you? Is someone reading information from another person without caring at all about it personally? Or is the person conveying the information just lacking in certain social skills that might help make it more interesting -- eye contact or the right pauses or an ability to anticipate questions from the audience?

I admit that boring can mean different things to different people. At the same talk on injury prevention that bored me, my husband was mostly riveted. Or so he claimed to me. The very jargon that I found off-putting, he parsed easily and enjoyed. He wanted the specific terms. He wanted to hear about the difference between "eccentric" and "concentric" muscle contractions. He wanted to know exactly the amount of increased oxygen it took to run a mile downhill at the same heart rate as to run a mile uphill. I summed up the entire night as "If you want to run a race, mimic the race course as much as possible in the weeks leading up to it in your training." But he felt like there were a lot of more interesting bits of information in the talks, and that I was oversimplifying what we had heard.

Some people are bored by any kind of science fiction. I have met some of these people and find it puzzling. They aren't bored by science necessarily. They aren't stupid people necessarily. It is simply not a genre they get excited about. They have tried it and they don't like it, just like I have tried raw salmon sushi and don't like it. I can accept this, though it is sometimes painful to me when I recommend a book to a friend that I have loved and find out that they either loathed it or simply found it boring. Actually, it's possible that the boring response may be more troublesome to me than the loathing one. At least, I can engage with loathing. Boring means there isn't much of a conversation. What didn't you like? All of it.

So if one person tells you that a certain part of your book is boring, that's only one data point. But if multiple people tell you that a section of your book is boring -- or dragging -- especially if these are people who regularly read your genre willingly, you might want to reconsider that section of the book. I suspect that being boring is the number one reason for people putting down books and not buying them. An editor or agent will likely say the same thing. A few typos, problems in the timeline, even downright misinformation can be corrected. Being boring is much more difficult to work with.

It is important to note that a boring book now might not have been boring a hundred years ago -- or even twenty. I am frustrated by my children sometimes, who really do not like to read books written more than even five years ago. Why? Because they are boring. They are so slow. Some of my favorite classics, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James -- authors who are excellent prose stylists and whose sentences are so beautiful I want to frame some of them and keep them above my computer desk -- they are considered boring today. Why? Because they talk about things that no longer matter or do not exist anymore. And they use language that is outdated and feels awkward. I am not trying to argue that Austen, Eliot, and James are, in fact, bad writers. Of course they aren't. But if you want to sell a book today, you are going to have to write in more modern language with a modern sensibility.

And you don't have to go back nearly so far in time in order to be outdated. I have read numerous novels in workshops that are written as though the author has not read anything written in the genre in the last twenty years. This is true in science fiction and fantasy, and it is especially true in young adult and children's literature. Roald Dahl is brilliant in many ways, but I think there are parts of his books that are boring to modern readers, not just my children. Heinlein and Asimov were great writers of their time and arguably classics of American Literature. But I am not sure that your average teenager will pick up their books, pay money for them, and recommend them to friends. And that is what you want, word of mouth spreading because your books can't be put down.

More than that, you need a book where the characters are so likeable, and in so much danger, that not only can the reader not put down the book, but the reader has to buy the sequel to find out what happens next. If your reader merely likes the book and the world and the characters, but isn't dying to find out how you resolve things, you may end up with sluggish sales for the next book in the series. Even if you aren't writing a series, you want the reader to love your book so much that any book you write immediately rises to the top of the to-be-read pile. Boring has to have no part of this at all.

Again, I recognize that different genres have different conventions. In a romance novel, long conversations about love and past romances could be riveting. Not so much in a thriller. So you need to know the expectations of your genre. But if you are debating with a certain scene whether to keep it or not, I would generally recommend that you cut it out. Most books are better if they are shorter, rather than longer. I know that people might argue with me, but there are certain bestselling writers who could have been edited more tightly in the final books in their mega-international hit series.

A good rule of thumb for an author is that if you find yourself skimming over certain sections of the book yourself, they are probably boring. It can be hard for authors to see what will be boring for others, so if your own interest wanes even a little, that is a danger signal. If you don't feel energized at the thought of going back to a certain manuscript after you have let it sit for a while, it might be time to let it go (unless you are under contract, then you have to go back and keep working it no matter how boring you find it -- and it's perfectly normal when you go through that many edits to get tired of your own book at times). Asking beta readers simply to tell you any parts that bored them may be the most useful things that such critiques can offer. At an early stage, an overall look at what is boring and what isn't is a great way to start cutting to the manuscript and perhaps finding more interesting things going on in the same story.

Of course, like any rule of thumb, this can be taken too far. If you find yourself not finishing manuscript after manuscript because you got "bored" with it, it may not be a problem of being too boring. It may be that the problem is that you haven't figured out how to write past the easy, grabby first section of a book and you need to try it once, even if it it's hard. I am not saying that you should just accept that the middle of a book is going to be boring. It shouldn't be. Hopefully you can hone the book in later stages so that there are no boring parts. And remember that there are lots of parts of books that need to be written that do not need to be read. You may need to know information about characters and plot that the reader doesn't.

If you are writing a middle grade children's novel that is twice or three times as long as is normal, you should consider cutting it back a lot. Some middle grade novels are 40,000 words. Some are 60,000 words, but that is generally the higher end range. I hate giving word count estimates because I feel like it's a lot more useful to tell people to go and read books in your genre until you know how many words are in them. I feel like too many people try to write children's books in particular without having read any published in the last five years. But nonetheless, I am going to say that if your middle grade novel isn't fantasy, 100,000 words is too long. If it is fantasy, 100,000 is probably still too long. I know that Harry Potter was that long in the final books in the series. But think about how many successes Rowling had to have before she got away with that, and the level of success that it took to achieve that. Also consider how many characters and plot issues were being carried from book to book. In a debut novel, you should not have that many characters and plot issues to deal with.

In the YA world, the word counts are a little higher, from 50,000 for a contemporary to 80,000. I'm sure that editors will consider something that is shorter as well as something that is a little longer. I have never had an editor tell me that a novel was simply too long. But I have often had editors cut back my word count by 20-40% simply by going through and cutting sentence by sentence that was repeating something or otherwise making the story drag. If you think that I as an author am particularly succinct, it's not because that's natural. I tend to overwrite, but I have great editors, and I have the sense to listen to them when they point out that it's not necessary to tell everything. Readers can learn to infer and some things can remain mysterious.

In the science fiction and fantasy world, huge word counts may seem like the norm when you consider that George R. R. Martin's books have had to be cut in half even to fit into a binding and that Brandon Sanderson's finish to The Wheel of Time series were 300,000 words and more. But don't make the mistake of thinking that debut authors will therefore be welcome to be that long. It happens occasionally, but not often. Readers are willing to lug around a long book like Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, but he succeeds largely because nothing he ever writes is boring. Even if he is doing a lot of world building, he does it by telling stories about characters we root for as readers. I also recommend to debut authors in general that you avoid telling agents and editors that you have planned a 20 book series. You could mention that a book has "series potential" or even that it is the first book in a three book series, if the ending can't be read any other way. But if you are truly going to try to sell a 20 book series, you might wait until you have more of a track record to pitch it.

Word count isn't the only gauge of whether something is boring, of course. There are plenty of times when I have read something that is within the proper word count that was still boring. But it can be a tip off. You can also do something like trying to summarize your book and see what parts you leave out. It's one of the reasons that I think a pitch session with an agent or editor can be useful to the author, quite apart from whether or not you find interest enough to invite a submission. You will think of your book in a different way if you are forced to begin with the most interesting parts of it, and that's a good thing. Try pitching to a friend who hasn't heard about the book before, too. And above all else, don't be boring.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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