I have several favorite authors such as Laurell K. Hamilton, Charlene Harris, Robin Cook, and Michael Crichton, just to name a few. Even though I really love their style of writing and their storylines, I admit that I have skipped my way through some of their novels. And not just a page here or there, but sometimes as much as 10 pages at one whack. With Stephen King, I have skipped over entire chapters. With the last 3 books of the Twilight Saga, I skipped over entire chunks (especially when she started going from Bella’s viewpoint to Edward’s to Jacob’s and back again. Bad move, Meyer).
Last year I was forced into taking a Public Speaking class as part of my core requisites for my degree. Our very first speech was to discuss three things about ourselves. A woman about a year younger than me said she was an avid reader. This, of course, immediately grabbed my attention. But then she told everyone that she was a speed reader. Not only was she a speed reader, but she had finished the last Harry Potter book in under 6 hours, a book that would keep the average reader busy for a good six months.
As a reader, I was disheartened. As a writer, I was absolutely livid. It got me to thinking. Now I will admit that I do not know much about speed reading and have no desire to learn. I did an internet research and came up with basically this when it comes to speed reading: you pick out only the essential, or important parts, of the work at hand and focus on just those few words. And I do mean “few” words. Apparently if you get really good at it you will be down to picking out only the subject and verbs of sentences. Well, I decided to pick a passage at random from my in-progress novel, The Red Fang, and try my hand at only picking out the subject and verbs. I wanted to get an idea of exactly what a speed reader would get out of a book when they Speedy Gonzales’ed their way through it. By doing this, I thought I might also get some insight into what people are getting out of, and essentially missing, when they skim and skip their way through a novel. Here is a random passage from my own personal novel, The Red Fang, with only simple subjects and verbs picked out (yes, it’s been a while since I did this, so bear with me).
Paragraph 1: man gave. Stealth knew. was heartbeat. smell gone. one did not. Vampire.
Paragraph 2: Ethereal looked. It would be. she didn’t. Nikkolas was. Joshua hadn’t. They were.
As you can see from reading this, you don’t know a whole lot about what is really going on in this story. Sure, you get a basic idea. A man gave something to Stealth (we don’t know what or in what context). About the only thing we can decipher from the remainder of that passage is that someone is a vampire. But who is Stealth? Who is a vampire? What is a vampire? The smell is gone out of what?
In the second passage we know that Ethereal looked. The rest of that is utter jibberish that leaves us with more questions than answers. She didn’t what? And who is she, exactly? Nikkolas was what? Joshua hadn’t what? They were what? Who is “they” exactly?
Now let’s sit and think about this for a minute. There are people out there who will actually speed read their way through a book. But most people won’t. What they will do, however, is flip through pages, possibly even whole chapters, and sometimes even whole chunks of a novel to get back to something that they deem “interesting.” So where does that leave us as a writer?
The fine art of Bull-Shit. Now I know that everyone has their own opinion in regards to who is a good writer. For me, that opinion lies in Anne Rice. This woman knows the fine art of Bull-Shit. Even though I really enjoy reading other writers’ works, I have rarely skipped through any of Rice’s work. And the reason behind that is because, again, she knows the fine art of Bull-Shit.
What am I talking about? Have you ever read a book where you get to some point in the story where it kind of starts rambling off about something that really has nothing to do with the storyline? Or you will periodically notice that the writer’s use of adverbs and adjectives get excessive in some parts of their work while appearing nonexistent in other parts?
In a word, what I am talking about is “filler.” Some writers are so bad at the art of BSing their way through their own storyline that you know when they are adding “filler” to their own story to get the word count up. But some writers, such as Anne Rice, are so damn good at the fine art of Bull-Shit that you will read practically every single word that they write because the “filler” that they are using is so well written that you don’t even realize that it is “filler” for the story. In other words, it is not just ‘being wordy’ but is eloquently written.
So how does one learn the fine art of BSing their way through a story? Practice. Lots. And lots. Of practice. It is something that comes with time. And not everyone will be any good at it or even want to use “filler” in their stories. If you are the type who likes to get to the point and just be done with it, then the fine art of BS will not only elude you, but will probably work against you in the long run. The fine art of BS is not for everyone. If you can learn to use it effectively, then it can be a very valuable tool. And, of course, not everyone will use the little tricks of the trade the same way. Others will make up their own little rules and tricks for adding filler. That’s okay too. If it’s working for you, don’t try to fix what isn’t broken.
A little trick that I like to do with my work is write little spin-off stories from the primary novel and then work them into the storyline somewhere. Now some of these stories are just little snippets that really have very little, if anything, to do with the story. If taken out, it really would not have any bearing on the overall plotline. But if used correctly, taking little side trips with your audience can work in your favor.
Use this little trick cautiously though. Not all readers will want to take a side trip. That story in itself will have to be interesting or else your readers are going to be skipping over it as well. Timing is everything when using this trick. If you have the same few characters doing the same thing for 100 pages, then people are going to get bored really quickly. Work in a little side trip, like a flashback or a recantation of a story in an effort to take your reader’s mind off the fact that your characters have been doing nothing but talking for the last 30 pages. It peaks the reader’s interest since you now have new content, and once the little side trip is over, your readers will be more open to the idea of going back into the original story because it will seem fresh again. It’s kinda like eating salty chips. You keep eating them and soon your taste buds get bored. Give yourself a little something sweet and suddenly when you go back to the salty chips they are not nearly as boring as they were a few minutes before.
Now the fine art of BS is not just about adding filler, but about keeping your audience interested enough in your work that they are not skipping over whole pieces. After all, if I am going to sit down and take the time to hammer out this plotline and commit it to paper, the least a reader can do is have the courtesy to read the damn thing in its entirety, right? Unfortunately, that’s just not the way our minds work. It gets bored, it’s ready to go on to more interesting things. A good writer recognizes this and does everything he can think of to throw kinks into the storyline to keep the reader interested. However, if you use this little trick to make a normal 100,000 word novel into a 1 million word novel, you stopped being eloquent and tumbled head-over-heels into ‘wordiness’ land. That, my friends, is a place that readers will also avoid like the plague. If you have doubts about whether or not you are being wordy or adding in too much, then stop. If you have to wonder if the storyline is getting too long, then the answer is always going to be ‘yes’ if you ask a reader. Remember the law of word of mouth advertising: one person praises it, one or two people will go out and read it. One person trashes it, you’ll have dozens who will avoid it like the plague. It’s simple human nature. We forget to tell people about good things, but we climb the highest tower and shout our distaste for something to the rooftops…and anyone who will sit still long enough to listen to us.
How to keep the story interesting ? The answer to this question is as varied as the writers who use them. Side trips, introduce new characters, have a flashback…the list goes on and on. And a lot of the tricks that can be used depends upon what is going on in the storyline. Characters sitting still for 40 pages doing nothing but talking is going to get boring. Throw some action into the midst. If you cannot change things around and you must have a long interval of the same characters doing the same thing, then close out the chapter and start a new one with different characters in a different setting. You can always come back to those characters and pick up where you left off. If that’s not possible, then try tossing in a new character. If nothing else, have the dog steal food off the table and send everyone chasing after the thing. ANYTHING to break the monotony of a storyline gone stale.
Okay, so you get the picture. The fine art of Bull-Shit can really help some writers. But as I mentioned, it takes lots of practice. And even then some writers will not ever be able to use this fine art form, or even want to use it for that matter. However you decide to keep your writers interested, just try to make certain that you do. As I said, if you are going to take the time to sit down and commit the storyline to paper, you will want to do everything you can to ensure that your reader takes the time to consume the work in its entirety. After all, if they are only reading this:
man gave. Stealth knew. was heartbeat. smell gone. one did not. Vampire.
Ethereal looked. It would be. she didn’t. Nikkolas was. Joshua hadn’t. They were.
Then they are missing out on all of this:
The man gave Stealth an evil grin. But Stealth already knew what he was. There was no heartbeat, no movement of breath in his body. The smell of human flesh was already gone from his dead form. Only this one did not smell of human blood; he smelled of the blood of the undead. Vampire.
Ethereal looked around her at the concrete. It would be more difficult to call forth, would require more energy. But right now she didn’t have much choice. Nikkolas was on the ground, his body so riddled with bullets that he could no longer stand. Joshua still hadn’t made it to Tatum and the others. They were losing, and to lose here would mean lives lost.
N. C. Matthews