How to write a book

Are you bored? One writing rule you really need

‘Try to leave out the bits the reader will skip,’ said Elmore Leonard.

Sure, Mr L, but how do we identify them?

I thought about this recently when I read a manuscript that was heavy on technical detail. When I delivered my verdict – that many of these passages lost my interest – the author said:

‘I know what you mean – when I read other books on the subject, my eyes often glaze over at the technical passages.’

How interesting that he said that.

When editing our own work, one of the keenest senses we have is our gut instinct. Is it holding our attention? Or does it seem muddled, unconfident, lacking clarity? If we’re even just a tad dissatisfied, this means the passage needs more work.

Certainly, this requires a lot of stamina. Draft upon draft. I wrote a post about it here, when I was editing Lifeform Three.

This is a rule

There are few guarantees in making art. It’s hard to produce absolute formulae for what will work and what won’t. For every general principle – do show, don’t tell – there’s a valid anti-rule.

But this is one situation that does have an absolute rule.

Writer, if you are bored, the reader will be … oh do stay awake at the back.

This applies whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction.

So you’ve realised a passage in your book is boring you. Hooray. Now what?

How to not be boring

First, examine why you’re including this material. Is it out of a sense of duty? Is it an element you’ve seen in other books with a similar readership?

If so, do you have to be like those other books? Perhaps you do, and we’ll come to that next. But first, consider whether you could delete. Yes. Whip it out. Nuke it.

However, it’s more likely that some of this soporific sludge will be necessary for reader comprehension, or to maintain the book’s authority. What do you do?

The answer is obvious, isn’t it? You resolve not to be dull.

Three solutions

Realise this: you don’t have to try to be like the other books that bored you. You can offer something different or more interesting.

Channel your best bits

Look for other passages in your book where the narrative has a more lively spirit. That’s you at your best. Drink their energy. Often I find that an author who sends me to sleep in some sections is sparky and brilliant in others. They need to channel that all the time. Perhaps ask a reader to pick some out for you.

Next, rewrite your lifeless passages with the same outlook and voice. Had you realised your persona varied so much?

Channel a muse

Here’s another approach. Look at other books whose style keeps you unusually entertained. We all have writers whose style perks us up, even if they’re describing the colour of their socks. Try and say it the way they would.

Write for an unforgiving reader

Sometimes it helps to write for an imagined audience. In this case, imagine a friend who won’t tolerate much detail about your pet subject.

I have several pet subjects that end up in my books, and I’ve learned to apply the Husband Test. Husband Dave has a shrug level of interest in some of my deepest curiosities.

One example is the remnants of demolished stately homes. I could keep myself amused all day with them, looking for the lines of old walls in a cow pasture, a front door step half buried in grass, an ornate gateway that seems to lead nowhere. When I wrote about a particularly enchanting site in Not Quite Lost, I knew it would be easy to lose the reader so I kept Dave in mind as I edited. How would I get him interested in them? Something in these buried remains felt universal and exciting to me. What was it? I had to reach beyond my own intrinsic interest (walls! doorsteps! gateways!) to a deeper level (the sediment of passing time! vanished people!).

Imagine your least indulgent reader. Write as though you had to keep their attention.

Thanks for the sleeping person pic Sean Kelly on Flickr. Thanks for the sleeping people pic: Pixabay.

Over to you! Is this a problem you’ve identified in your own work? How did you overcome it?

PS There’s loads more on how to keep readers interested in my book on plot

PPS Speaking of edits etc, here’s what I’m working on at the moment

17 thoughts on “Are you bored? One writing rule you really need

  1. lol – it’s good advice and only took me about 10 years to master. These days I serve up necessary but boring things in small doses, disguised, where possible, as something else. I call it the ‘Osmosis technique’. 😀

  2. William Goldman says of movie scripts that “viewers love how-to”. He’s not talking about technical details themselves, but seeing characters using their technical knowledge to achieve something. So maybe the answer is not to info dump, but to embed any technical stuff you want the reader to know in character action and explanation. That way we feel we’re sharing their delight in expertise rather than just being spoonfed a bunch of facts.

    1. Incidentally a famous info-dump occurs towards the start of The Nine Tailors, when Dorothy L Sayers has the characters expatiate about campanology. It’s almost overwhelming, but it does have the advantage that for the rest of the novel we feel like we’re in the know about bells and bell-ringing. So it works, but only if you can get past the wodge of detail early on.

    2. Hello Disvan! I think I know the William Goldman advice. Isn’t it about cool knowledge and special worlds? For some reason, bomb disposal springs to mind – that might not be the example he gives, but it would be a general example of the kind of thing. Viewers/readers love cool insider details, so sometimes you can take them through it straight. As you put it so well – the delight in expertise.
      But look at this word – ‘delight’. That’s not boredom.

  3. I’m currently re-reading Rachel Aaron’s book “2K to 10K,” and she approaches this issue from a productivity angle. Her chapter titled “If Writing Feels Like Pulling Teeth, You’re Doing It Wrong” points to boring passages as a primary cause of writers losing enthusiasm for their writing. If you find yourself resistant to working on your WIP, it may be because you aren’t engaged with the material. It stands to reason that your readers won’t be thrilled with those passages either. She uses those moments of waning enthusiasm as a red flag that clues her in to material that should be reworked or eliminated.

    I write magical fantasy adventure, which includes a lot of world building. After spending hours working through how the story world functions, it’s easy to include way too much of that detail in the story. My solution to avoiding info-dumps and keeping the story moving is to apply the “just-in-time” rule (which I’ve probably mentioned here before). I try to stay focused on the character experience and reveal details as the character discovers them or just in time for the reader to understand what’s going on. Not only does that approach avoid info-dumps, but it presents the details in a relevant context that (I believe) is more interesting and memorable to the reader.

    1. Hello Mr Marvello! You make such good points here. I love this idea of boredom as a sign that you’ve become disengaged – that’s exactly what I’m talking about. You simply must be engaged by what you write – or nobody else will be.
      And great points about the just-in-time information, staying with the character’s experience. It takes discipline and a lot of rewriting to do this effectively, but it’s a useful approach.

  4. I’m in the process of reading two books about the history of science fiction. Early SF (I’m talking the Gernsback era, 1920s and early 1930s) tended to be heavy on technical detail. BUT imagine the sort of proto-nerds that loved this sort of thing! In a world awakening to the possibilities of radio and aviation, without a lot of available knowledge on the subject, this was manna. Funny thing is, though, your description of looking for traces of old homes somehow spoke to that part of me!

    However, two factors are important in looking at this idea: That, of course, was then, and our world is very different now; and, second, the audience for science fiction in the 1930s was almost vanishingly small.

    One of THE best and most entertaining information dumps I ever read was in John le Carre’s book, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It occurs near the beginning of the novel, where the protagonist, George Smiley, brings the reader into the context of the novel — the complex world of hunting for a Soviet mole in the “Circus”, le Carre’s analog of MI-6 — in just a few pages.

    In my own work (historical aviation fiction) I try to integrate information the reader needs into something the character is doing. A pilot has to fly an airplane he’s never seen before, he’s puzzled by the different instruments and systems and flight characteristics. All VERY important things for a pilot (and, if done correctly, the reader, since it establishes what the character is about to do and face) to know. Perhaps a long-suffering crew chief helps the dumb kid out, or a flight leader tells him “remember this or you might end up in an aluminum coffin (bangs fuselage with hand) THIS ONE!”

    (Pilots are a lot like proto-nerds from the 1930s. I’ve seen them devour the driest of technical manuals as if it were the finest Nobel-quality literature. But…kind of a limited audience! And writing tech manuals isn’t my thing.)

    Good post and good advice as always, Roz!

    1. Hi Tom! You’re right – times and tastes have changed. Novels of a century ago could afford to spend time warming up. Now, the reader would probably lose patience. Also, as you say, SF was a very specialised niche and there weren’t many ways for them to get their fix. And if they’re sufficiently interested in the technical detail, it doesn’t matter how dry the writing is – however, you could argue that that’s not really storytelling any more, it’s facts (or faction, I suppose).
      I really like your approach with your aviation info – that’s a smart way to get around the problem.
      I didn’t know you were also geeky about abandoned buildings!

  5. I don’t like reading info dumps or pages and pages of worldbuilding, so when I write I’m hyper aware of this and often leave out necessary details in my more exciting parts. Fortunately I have a wonderful writing group that can point out where I need more details. They’re also great at highlighting any info dumps that slip through.

    Much like your advice above to write for an unforgiving reader, writing for unforgiving beta readers can be just as valuable. Getting feedback before publishing, especially for self-publishers who don’t have to have any editors if they don’t want them, can make a huge difference in the quality of a book’s story.

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