Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The '10-To-1' Rule: OR, Don't Be Boring!

Writing fiction has challenges – the need for a coherent plot, realistic characters, story that flows, and the need to do it all in a way that isn’t boring. I say this because over the years I’ve been involved in the publishing industry I have learned one very important rule about writing. A kind of golden rule, if you will. Very simple: DON’T BE BORING.

This is always difficult to do. The balance between raw information and titillation is a lot like walking a high-wire over a pit of crocodiles. In fact, just seconds ago I moved back to the top of this post to see if I couldn’t add a little something to keep you from yawning before you got this far. Sadly, nothing came to mind off the top of my head, and I’m expected at my church to help with some setup work in a short while (Procrastinators of the World Unite…. tomorrow…. or even the day after, maybe….).

But back to the balance between factual information and entertainment: Every book has factual information – what does your main character look like? Where do they work? What do they DO at work (that one can be a snoozer if you don’t watch it)? All of this becomes doubly important when writing historical fiction. Especially historical fiction in a setting that isn’t its own genre (Western). If we don’t then the whole story can disintegrate into an anarchy of ‘telling’ wherein the author stops the story dead every few paragraphs to spoon-feed the reader another handful of shiny factoids discovered in the research process (assuming, of course, that the writer actually did any research; which often times is a whole ‘nother problem).

So how do we balance this in historical fiction? I don’t know how all of you do it, but I take the advice of professor I had in college in relation to writing history papers: For every one thing you tell the reader there are ten things you know but don’t share. That’s right: know something that you don’t tell the reader. “But….” the enthusiastic writer of historical fiction protests, having spent months researching the de-colonialization of Africa in the 60s, “I did SO MUCH WORK. How can I not include every single piece of neat (or obscure) information I found in my laborious endeavor?”

Short answer? Restraint.

The only reason you did the research was to enable you to write the story. And that’s why the reader is here: story. The end. If it doesn’t make a better story then leave it in your mind where it belongs. Enjoy your factoids. Impress friends at parties. Take them out of the dusty bins in your brain on rainy days and look them over fondly – just don’t bore your reader with self-indulgent tedium.

So, you might ask, why are you telling me this? Because I stayed up until 1am this morning reading every archived TIME magazine article on their website dealing with 1960s Congo and the Katangese secession…. And in defiance of my work I feel the need to share ALL of it with my readers.

But that would be boring.


Andrea Kuhn Boeshaar said...

Excellent post, Conlan. As a historical fiction writer, I do find it tempting to give a history lesson. But that's not what my readers want. I've come to the same conclusion. It's all about the exciting story!!

Lena Nelson Dooley said...

I think the balance is to add just enough snippets of historical information to make the time period feel authentic without hindering the story.

I'm still learning how to do that. But I'm getting better at it.

Jillian Kent said...

I can relate to your post, Conlan. Everytime I uncover something new that I didn't know during the Regency period I want to find a way to put it in the story. But you are right, alas, the word to remember is RESTRAINT.