If I were a child today, I probably would have been so jacked up on baby!speed that my movements would have been more like the three-toed sloth. My brain spun on high gear almost all the time, but when I was absorbing something interesting, I could sit down and watch something for hours and hours at a time. If it wasn’t interesting, I’d be bored, and then I would be bad, because being bad is better than being bored.
And oh, my god, can writing sometimes be so boring. I was a prolific young thing (I think I wrote a book that took me the whole year and it ended up being close to 300,000 words. Totally unusable, of course, but it took a thousand pages to print it all off.) Then two things happened. I watched Blown Away, with Tommy Lee Jones, and I reread the thing from the beginning. Those things had to happen in that order because I realized, for the first time, that some movies could be bad movies even if they were playing in a movie theatre *and* that my story was boring too.
Most of it had been written out labouriously in those baby blue ballpoint pens with the baby blue translucent barrel that Bic put out. You know the set I mean. There was a baby blue and a baby green and a baby pink in it. And after I finished watching Blown Away, I realized that all those times I sat down to transcribe what I had written out on long hand but couldn’t finish more than a page or two was because I’d been bored the whole time retelling a bit in the story in which nothing happens.
And the worst part of boring parts of books is that quite frankly, a character who is moaning about how bored he is is the exact opposite of interesting. So if I’m bored reading a boring section with a bored character, that book is going down and sometimes I would never pick it up again. And, unfortunately for the author, even when he/she/it puts out another book that seems interesting, I always defer to the memory about that book I didn’t finish because it was too boring.
The only exception to this is Shadow’s Realm by Mickey Zucker Reichert:
In which in the start of the fourth book, one of the characters picks the pocket of a NPC in Ye Olde Nordic Tavern. They’d just completed their last one in a million chance of surviving and now they’re recuperating at the start of a book getting ready to do the next thing they need to. One of the characters, Taziar, is a thief. The other Larson (Vietnam vet brought into Midgard so he could fight Loki).
Tazier: I’m no thief!
Larson: Then why did you take this?
Larson: Sport! Let me get this straight. We capture a god in the form of a wolf and battle a Dragon the size of Chicag– (he catches himself because there is no Chicago where he is) Norway. As an encore, we face off with a Dragonranked Master holding a bolt action rifle. You’re still limping from the bullet wound, for god sake! Forgive me if you find my life a little bland, but isn’t that enough excitement for you?
Tazier: (whispering) That was more than a month ago.
So, yes, if you’re going to have a character be bored, is it important for him to be bored, or do you just not know what he’s supposed to be doing? If he is, what would he do to stop being bored, and how is that decision going to turn him around.
Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever start your book out with your main character actually being bored. If she is bored when I first met her, I’m bored with her already. It’s kind of like horse-training where they say if you are bored with the activity, your horse has been bored with it for the past five minutes. If your characters are bored, I’m so bored I’m probably cleaning my kitchen right now because even that was more interesting than starting to read about a character being bored but doing absolutely nothing to stop it. Even if she can do nothing because of Serious, Heavy Consequences, she should at least be doing something, anything, that is more than just idiotically being bored.
If you find that you are rereading your work, either on the printed page of transcribing it from long hand, be very sensitive to how it makes you feel when you’re reading. If you can’t stop thinking about all the other things you’d rather be doing than reading the scene, there’s something really wrong with the scene. You love your characters more than anyone else does in the world, and if what they are doing is boring you, no one else would care. Does anything at all happen in that scene? Can you cut to that instead? If they’re just arguing about the same old same old argument, can you switch it up so they’re fighting about something entirely new and now new feelings that hadn’t been exposed to this line of attack be hurt? Can they fight at a deeper level, not so much arguing over what they’ve always argued about they’re now arguing over why they always really argue. Can the problem your character’s barely have to lift their feet to step over like a root on a forest path suddenly become a ten foot tall barbed wire gate with armed guards and killer attack dogs foaming at the mouth? Does anything really change in the scene at all from the scene before to the scene after? If there is no making more interesting things happen on the page for that scene, that scene has got to go.
This isn’t to say that you should cut your characters from being happy, so you can have scenes that don’t have a lot of conflict and tension in it, but there is still an emotional connection with the story. I want to talk more about making your characters happy, but this is not the place.
The best piece of advice anyone has ever given me came from the same Tanya Huff interview, and she said, roughly paraphrased that most real writers are real writers because of how much they cut from the story, not how much they write. It’s so hard to look at a perfectly serviceable piece of writing, whether it be a sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter, or whole part of a book and think, this isn’t working I have to cut it. I cut 40,000 words from Misbegotten’s old sequel because the motivation was wrong and I got 40,000 words into this new version of Misbegotten at the start of last year and I got to just where things should have been heating up but they were fizzling down and I forgot that core thing that was driving the story together. I know it is hard to cut words that you’ve struggled over and fought for and still have a few cute lines in them despite it not going anywhere. They don’t say murder your darlings if that thing you’re murdering isn’t really your darling, it says murder your darlings. But first run them up a tree, release the killer bees, and set the tree on fire before hitting them with rocks.
When the books and all the pros ask you can you put your story in a sentence, it’s important to be able to understand what they mean as soon as possible. Because once you can start to sum up your story in one sentence, you can use that like a chainsaw on a gigantic slab of ice. Anything that does not drive that sentence forward throughout your story is superfluous to your sculpture and could be cut. I’m not saying must, because you can use things that aren’t driving the story forward, but they’re the background or the foreground or the pillar holding the story up. They’re not part of that thing you’re trying to hack out of the ice that everyone has paid to see. But having a background or pillar that completely eclipses the thing is not an awesome background, it’s a really bad sculpture.