What Writers Argue About

Writers argue about everything.   We hold different views on what other writers *should* write about, what topics are too something (ordinary, fantastic, political, politically naive, mundane, exotic, narrow, broad…) or not enough something (same list), how writers should handle certain topics, if writers should use some hot-button term, whether a phrase in common use 150 years ago to mean X can be used now to mean X when its more common contemporary meaning is XZ, and if the work is a historical novel, does that make any difference or not.  We don’t agree on what is meant by “strong characters” with any adjective you might insert between “strong” and “character.  We don’t agree on the validity of many terms that describe writing, and even if we agree the terms are valid, we won’t agree on the examples.  We don’t agree on whether readers should be allowed any (and how much) pleasure from reading, or whether the reader should be treated harshly, like a student in a prison school.

So what does this mean for readers?  Whatever they want it to mean, in one sense.  Readers disagree just as much about books and writers as writers disagree about books, readers, and ways of constructing stories.  Or nonstories, if they’re on the other side of the canyon from me.  If you read literary criticism, or any criticism, you will run right into the flamewars and catfights, with general agreement on very few things.  Reading lit-crit is, however, educational (even when you disagree with it) but I always take an entire box of salt with me when I indulge.  I recommend the same caution to you.  Writers writing about books, or other writers, or the writing process are not always right.  Least right are those laying down the laws they think govern writing.   Exceptions are everywhere.   I would say (laying down one of my laws) that if you want to write fiction, you should not take any one writer as having all the laws that apply to you and your writing.  There is one fundamental law that I don’t recall seeing in any article on writing–not as direct as this, at least.  Don’t bore the reader.  You can write anything and find someone who loves it IF you don’t bore the reader.  What bores readers is highly various: some like explosions and car chases and are bored by long conversations about the meaning of life.  Others like long conversations about the meaning of life–or a discourse on some odd thing they didn’t know before–or a stark and vivid sex scene–but find explosions and car chases boring.

So it may seem that Don’t bore the reader is useless, because you can’t know what everyone who looks at your story is bored by.   Luckily, there’s a  useful  gloss on that law.  Since you can’t ensure that every potential reader will be interested in everything you write, you must take care (in any topic, any genre, any action or description or conversation), not to bore the reader who is already interested in that topic, genre, etc.   Your target audience.  The people you have the most chance of entertaining.   Unfortunately,  most of us have found that not every book or short story on a  favorite topic works.  As a child I read every horse-related book in our local library and school libraries.  “Horses” was my favorite topic.  But I found some horse books boring despite being intensely interested in the topic.  Among the horse-besotted friends of mine, we usually agreed on which weren’t worth the time.   Don’t bore the horse lovers with your fictional horses.   Or the car enthusiasts with your fictional cars.

What was boring to us in those books?  Moralizing about horses.  Black Beauty, for instance.   Most of us had read a child’s picture-book version and liked it well enough.   The full-length book, however, was a disappointment: it was a sermon about horse abuse, not really the story of a horse (to us.)  Going on and on about stuff we already knew about horses…infodumping.   Details that–though about horses–weren’t in character for the human, or plotworthy for the story.  We didn’t know, in the years I was reading all those horse books, how to define what was boring, but we sure knew how to skip those sentences or paragraphs.   While writing, I often include whatever comes to mind while I’m writing a passage–but I don’t expect it all to survive the Chainsaw of Correction during revision.   I may need to explain, for myself, why a character is doing something, but the reader usually doesn’t want all the explanation.   I need to show the emotional motivation, not infodump it and its relatives.


6 thoughts on “What Writers Argue About

  1. Interesting take on writing. Of course if people will neither buy nor read a book then no matter how good it is it will not survive. When I look on Amazon, as brick and mortar bookstores do not sell ebooks, I see literally hundreds of book in the science fiction and fantasy field. Back in my real book days, I had many first volumes of series – some of which I never even finished. I pick a new author very carefully – usually expecting the worst. But boring is a relative term – Dickens would take a hundred pages to describe a scene the have one half page of action. But the descriptions are so good that his books have survived.

    Stay Safe and Sane,

    Jonathan up here in New Hampshire where I just saw a snowflake drift by.

    1. Boring is more likely to deter a reader than disgusting. Disgust can fascinate even as the reader is repelled. But boring, by the nature of boredom, doesn’t fascinate. Interest and attention are pushed away. And it’s highly various in readers.

      Like you, I find descriptions that are “so good” very much worth reading. Both the long ones that spend words on close observation (the good nature writers) and the short pithy ones that find the exact right word for a detail. But some readers just don’t like anything between them and whatever fascination glues *them* to the book.

      And my favorite descriptions to read are those describing places and things, not characters’ physicality, largely because the physical descriptions of the people in a story are often used to short-cut characterization. One thing I like about Ransome’s Swallows & Amazon books is the lack of description of the characters (there’s some, just enough) and the description instead of what the characters notice.

      But this is my personal preference, not everyone’s, and it’s changed over the years with more reading.

    1. Oh, we have a list of things we DO agree on. Publishers have all the power. Some copy editors should’ve been drowned at birth. Some editors are impossible. Publishers (the ones we’re annoyed with) jerk us around, change our book’s launch on a whim, blame US (by not giving us another contract) if a book flops because of *their* cover decision, timing, or acts of war like 9/11, some readers can’t, some reviewers can’t, either (how did you get THAT out of THAT book?), some readers are bullies, etc, etc. And yes, underpay most working writers…the ones who write year after year, and are accused (by elitist reviewers and snarky readers) of “churning out” their books w/o thought or effort.

  2. Ah the find everything with a horse drive. This is not a good idea when one is quite young (but a good rider) and you find the beautiful stallion on the front of what is now called Romance. I found it not the best way to get that particular education. I think the laws of “how to write” (esp. fiction) are probably the silliest because each author is a unique person and probably has unique ways of writing. Some like you have the Plot Daemon, others have to have a full outline and then fill in the bits. Both methods work for those writers and fail for the others.

    1. So many books had pretty horses on the cover. And no horse inside. There’s a book by Daphne du Maurier, The King’s General, that was on my mother’s bookshelf. It’s an historical novel, and the opening scene is rich people on horseback gathering for a hunt. Du Maurier, as you probably already know, is an excellent writer whose prose can drag you right in, so there I was, primed and ready for galloping through the countryside…turns out the young lady on the horse is thrown, crippled, and spends the rest of the book observing what she can no longer do, and it has a scene (not with her) that gave me nightmares for years. The horse never appeared again (I think it was sabotaged by someone who didn’t like the young woman, and died, but I don’t remember the details and am not going to re-read it) and there were no more good horse scenes in the whole book, but as a kid I thought if you started a book you had to read the whole thing, warts, nightmares, and all. Now I bail as soon as the book-horse starts bucking me off, kicking, biting, etc.

      Absolutely agree that rules on writing are mostly useless unless they happen to fit the person reading them like bespoke clothing. No, you don’t have to write short stories before novels. No, you don’t have to outline, or understand your protagonist to the core before you start, or have a filled-out character sheet (like an RPG player “rolling up” a player character.) You don’t have to write a specified number of words every day, or write every day (most, but not all), or have the right desk, room, view out the window, absolute quiet, the right music, read *this* book on writing, use *that* special software, etc. I do it my way because that’s what works for me.

      Lois Bujold and I, at AggieCon one year, discovered that we didn’t do it the same way in front of a roomful of her fans, who were obviously fascinated to find out that the reader can’t tell, from the work, how it was done. Only the person in “the room where it happens” really knows…in that small, bone-bound space, those tangles of neurons. We were surprised, too, by each other. I envied her ability to outline, to prepare, to know when she sat down what the day’s writing needed to cover…but that’s not how I’m “wired”, so thrashing through the undergrowth, getting on and off the trail, is just part of my process.

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