Kiss of Death

Posted on 30 September 2012

At Bread Loaf, a friend related to me the uncomfortably honest piece of feedback another writer received during workshop. Apparently, someone told this writer that she never would have continued reading his piece if she hadn’t been obligated to as part of the workshop.

I was of course mortified on behalf of the writer. Hearing that someone only slogged through your submission out of pure obligation is one of the most painful things for a writer to endure.

But it’s also a form of tough love that many of us need more often than our good-intentioned critique partners are willing to provide — though I’d argue it could be delivered less harshly than this particular writer did. If our readers were more honest about when a piece of writing is boring them into oblivion, we would be better writers for it. (And, okay, maybe our sense of despair will be tipped a little farther into the full-on depression zone, but as writers, we already have to deal with that anyway.)

Whether writing is boring obviously can be subjective; a thriller writer might find your lovely but quiet literary story boring, and vice versa. Or, as Charles Baxter put it, a reader who declares a book “boring” may in reality be offering a statement about his or her “poverty of equipment.” (Don’t you love that phrase?)

But look. When I return to early versions of stories or novel chapters I submitted to writing workshops, I can now see that portions of some of them were boring. And yet I don’t think any workshop member ever came out and said so. There are many reasons for that — politeness, focusing on the specific aspects of a piece that aren’t working, turning to the infamous “this part felt slow” euphemism, taking a gentler and more diplomatic approach, etc. It’s also true that a blanket “boring!” verdict won’t help a writer on its own.  We have to find a way to convey this information without making the writer want to kill herself (or her story/chapter/essay). But I know I’ve been in workshops where inexperienced critique members sidestepped the boring issue entirely.

No one relishes hearing his or her work is not engaging the reader. But as Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich says in her post A Plea to Bring “But It’s Boring!” Back to the Workshop:

Once readers are obliged to read a piece, if there’s nothing technically wrong with it—nothing they can isolate and articulate enough to render feedback on, anyway—they will inevitably praise it. But a certain factor—let’s call it “blahness”—never gets mentioned. The workshop model in its premise has done away with what’s arguably the single most important question for a piece’s real-world success: would you read this piece if you didn’t have to?

Because, dear writer, I am sorry to tell you this, but no one can be forced to read your work in the real world except the people who love you—and sometimes not even them.

How do you address the “It’s boring” issue, and how is this information best conveyed to the writer?

Cartoon: Bo’s Cafe Life

11 responses to Kiss of Death

  • Lyra says:

    I was just, JUST thinking about this. As I’m typing along my masterpiece (you do here the way I’m saying that, yes?), I know there are parts that are atrocious. And I was thinking to myself, which of my dear friends would be honest enough to follow through if I tell them, “Please. If you want to stop, mark the spot and tell me.” It’s nothing one wants to hear, but when I thought about it, I don’t know if anyone would do that for me. I think it might be too much to ask.
    My husband would do it, but methinks that may be a bad marriage choice…

    • When I beta read, I will mark sections to tell the writer “I’m losing interest here” or “Okay, now you’ve got me again.” I always find that sort of running commentary helpful from critique members on my own writing; I only hope I manage to do it with the right mix of honesty and diplomacy.

      I have never asked someone to tell me exactly which place in my novel would cause them to put it down entirely. That’s a harsh truth and something a lot of beta readers wouldn’t be comfortable sharing in the first place. Let’s face it, we wouldn’t want to finish many of the published books out there, much less a draft of something new. Which reminds me: You shouldn’t be too stressed about anything in your novel draft feeling boring or slow right now. It’s a first draft, so it’s inevitable. And that’s what revision is for! (Ah, revision…the great black hope.)

  • Sarah W says:

    One member of my former writing group, after listening to me read five pages of a first chapter, told me that “no one cares about any of that.” Almost everyone else protested except the leader of the group, who took me aside later and told me that she thought I was still figuring out the characters, but encouraged me to finish the story and see if that part still fit once I was done.

    The first response made me want to quit the group, if not the story. The leader’s response made me want to write on.

    But I have told my betas to let me know what drags and where they would stop if they weren’t my friends. In fact, I think I told Lyra that—because there are people you can trust to be blunt and supportive.

    • Good example of how two people saying similar things can create such drastic results. I think the person at Bread Loaf was way too harsh and probably crushed the writer. It’s such a tough job, doling out honesty to us writer types — we need it, but a little too much and we might fold.

  • Teri says:

    There are many ways to express the boredom in a piece of writing without using the word, by saying “this isn’t working” or “nothing is happening” or “it took me until page 17 before I was really compelled forward into the story” etc…. These can be much more specific (more so than I’m even saying it here) and can help the writer.

    I believe that saying a piece is boring is more about the reader than the writer. The piece is being workshopped because it’s not finished. There’s a reason (or maybe many reasons) it’s not ready for the world yet. I would guess there are a lot of first or even fifth drafts of now-famous stories that were once boring because they hadn’t found their way yet.

    That said, workshops walk a strange line between honesty and politeness. There’s nothing worse than cruelty in a workshop environment, except maybe political correctness and being polite. Neither of these help the writer.

  • Josephine says:

    i struggle with this boredom issue all the time as of lately. unfortunately, it’s not even in a group setting…just me reading my own stuff and thinking, “blah, blah, blah.”

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