Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Boring is not a four-letter word…but it might as well be

by Miriam

This short piece in Salon (originally a letter in the Reading Club) last week got me thinking about boredom, specifically the kind of boredom that we publishing folks experience on an almost hourly basis. Of the thousands of queries and manuscripts that we sift through every year, a significant percentage suffer from a serious case of boring. The good stuff is exciting, thrilling, energizing, and…not boring. The very bad is tragic, hilarious, depressing, and baffling, but, again, not boring. Then there’s that other category of submissions: the inescapably, suffocatingly, mind-numbingly boring. For me, getting through these is the hardest part of my job. Saying “next” when it’s an unsolicited query or manuscript that’s dragging you down into the arms of Morpheus is one thing. It’s quite another when it’s a manuscript by a client or a client’s referral.

When it comes to explaining to a client why his or her novel doesn’t work, “Because it’s boring!” is not an option. You have to dig around for problems of plot, characterization, themes, etc., and that entails reading much more of the material than you can stay awake for without the aid of artificial stimulants. The biggest problem is, of course, that the book is boring, but people who will happily take eviscerating criticism about their prose style or their lack of character development would run you over with their SUVs if you mentioned the “B” word.

Which is why I was so amused by this phrase in axelrod’s letter regarding MFA workshop critiques: “If we didn't like a piece, we could talk about anything but the one thing that mattered, the awful, dreaded taboo word: boring.” Heh. I know just what he means.


  1. Can you sort of quantify, in craft terms, what makes something boring for you? Are there general categories? I know that it's probably hard to describe.

    Is it just predictable? Cliche? Maybe it's too experimental. The characters don't do anything. Nothing happens. You are distracted by lots of errors and other things pushing you out of the text.

    Or maybe it's best decribed by what it's not? A compelling book has lots of things happen. Characters are not stereotypes. The rate of revelation is high. Setting is used really well.

    Hmmm. I'll have to think more about this.

  2. But why is it boring? Bad plot? No plot? No conflict? (Those are the 3 big ones to me but I went to ISU when David Foster Wallace was still teaching there so I read a lot of people trying to write like him...and being boring about it).

    It's boring is a valid criticism but people get mad if they don't understand why. On the other hand, if you give them the reasons why, that doesn't mean that they can fix the bofing part. They might just shift it so it's boring in a different way...

  3. Sometimes boring is just boring. You might not be able to explain why you thought X movie was boring, it just was. Same with books. Same with queries and manuscripts, I imagine. If a critique partner tells me a scene was boring, and can't explain why, it doesn't matter. It was still boring and it's still my job to do something about it... even if "something" means "completely rewriting" or even "deleting."

  4. Diana: But aren't we in the business of trying to explicate why in craft terms, even if our readers can't? We writers have to try, even if only to ourselves. If we don't understand it, how can we fix it?


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