Discover more from sweater weather
the virtues of the boring draft
hot writing tips etc
The other morning, the finished copies of my new novel The Late Americans arrived. The novel comes out May 23, and I hope you will consider preordering it in your preferred format or asking your local library to get a copy. Preorders matter a lot for books. You might think, oh, Brandon you have published a few books now and you have a social media platform, my little preorder doesn’t matter, don’t you have enough attention already. That is a sensible thing to say. Perfectly rational.
But the reality is that no matter how successful you perceive an author to be, publishing a book does not get less risky or become less of a gamble. Excepting a few authors, there are no sure things in publishing. Your favorite author with like 100K Instagram followers could flop tomorrow and nobody would even hear the book go under. So, yes, your preorder matters. You support matters. And not just to my book. Any book you are excited about, or want to see do well—talk about that fucking book, friend. Tell people about it. Ask your library to carry it. Suggest it to someone you think might like it. Nothing is too small. Plus, it’s fun to talk about things you like.
Also, it got a great review from the Claire Messud in Harper’s, very exciting, here is my favorite part, which is maybe the most beautiful thing a person has said about my work:
The relationships move like an eighteenth-century quadrille, at once restrained and spritely. Each of the characters is granted interiority, even when they don’t quite know or understand themselves. People pass in and out of intimacy; several older men, more and less sinister, serve as catalysts, altering the choreography. Taylor’s vision is unsparing, but never bleak.
So, there is my plea.
Now, to the subject of this newsletter: writing boring stuff.
For the last year, I have been teaching creative writing. The work has been challenging, demanding, and, honestly, a lot of fun. I often leave class feeling energized and wanting to write or at least to keep talking about writing. There are not a lot of things for which that is the case! Teaching has also had the curious effect of healing a lot of my own residual MFA trauma. Partly, this is because I get to see my students treat each other’s work with a great deal of seriousness and generosity, and partly, it’s because being on the other side of the desk has given me a new appreciation for my own teachers. Or at least, I’ve started to understand them a little more.
One of teaching’s other effects is that I’ve come to realize that I have a bit of an approach to fiction. Or a way of thinking and feeling about narrative. That perhaps seems obvious, but in my defense I’d like to say that mostly, I just move through life having impressions and thoughts about fiction without ever having to express those thoughts or impressions in any kind of systematized way with any kind of regularity. But teaching is a manner of focusing implement, one that accentuates all my tics and habits and obsessions and turns them into a pedagogy or framework. I’ve come to understand that there are some things that matter a great deal to me in narrative and in fiction and some things that matter less. And that these things expressed at regular intervals is what some people might begin to call a philosophy or at the very least, a stance.
I find myself giving very similar advice in office hours and in workshops and even in the editorial letters I write to my authors as an acquiring editor. I don’t mean to say that these authors write the same sorts of things that draw out the same sorts of responses from me. Their work has been remarkably varied both in subject matter and style, not to mention form. Instead, I believe that the consistency of my advice says more about me than about them. A person can only preach from whatever particular mountain top they’ve climbed. One has perspective from up there, but it is just the one perspective.
I’d like to talk about one of the more common pieces of advice or feedback I give because it always makes me laugh when I feel myself about to say it. The advice goes something like this: try to bore me.
Now, I know that seems silly. After all, the one rule of writing is often taken to be: you can do anything as long as you do not bore the reader. And I believe that. Truly, I do. Boring the reader is a bad thing. It’s the cardinal sin of narrative and storytelling. Going on and on while the reader is bored is actually a sign of disinterest and disrespect, perhaps even immoral depending on how Protestant you are. But I have this theory that most boring patches of fiction stem from a writer trying to avoid being boring, and that such patches can be avoided by trying to bore the reader. Let me explain.
When I tell an author to try to bore me with their manuscript, I am usually responding to a lack of information. Why is this character acting this way in the scene? Well, you find out in Chapter 4 that their mom died, but I was saving that for later. Why is this character being a jerk to the bank teller? Their dog died, but I didn’t want to be really obvious about the grief. Why are these two characters not speaking to each other in this scene? They had a fight in chapter 6, but I didn’t want to keep bringing it up, so I didn’t mention it even though it’s just the next day and they’re stuck here for the whole summer. When does this scene happen in relation to the other scene? Also, what is her job? Also how is that other character related to this thing that’s happening in this scene that also seems very important? I didn’t want to make it obvious, so I just didn’t put it in there, do you think it matters?
The redactions that can plague first or even second drafts have many possible sources. The one I’ve seen the most is a fear around being unsubtle or inelegant in one’s storytelling. People have a deep fear of being obvious. They think that if they tell the reader in too direct a fashion that a character is sad or that they are grieving (it’s always grief), then the reader will think their story is simple or easily reducible. Many fiction writers struggle with the idea that information that comes to us on an oblique is morally and aesthetically superior to information that is simply expressed. This probably comes from Protestantism, if we’re being frank. This notion that knowledge must be worked for, wrenched from the stone of the world by brutal effort. We associate that which withholds with the high and that which discloses with the low. No one wants to be called broad or obvious or accused of catering to the lowest-common denominator. These ideas and their attendant false dichotomies have a lot to do with what Fiedler discusses his brilliant and very funny book What was Literature. I won’t get into the moral and aesthetic mud-slinging contest over “difficult works” and the fear of the plain-stated, or whatever. I’m just saying that there does seem to be a vibe that causes many writers to pursue subtlety as a main aim without really understanding what undergirds and makes subtlety possible. Chiefly, clarity.
Here is my pet theory. I think sometimes a writer in pursuit of an elegantly indirect means of conveying information ends up withholding information instead. They delay disclosure because this simulates mystery and depth though they are not the same thing. I believe this mistake comes from a related mistake. There is a difference between what a character knows and what the “story” knows. However, sometimes, the writer forces the reader into the position of knowing less than both the character and the story, and they imagine that this creates a sense suspense or mystery or tension when in fact all it creates is confusion and frustration on the part of the reader. I believe that mystery is achieved when the reader has come up against the very edge of what the story knows. But this can only be achieved with clarity and precision. Not from under-furnishing your story with facts and integral figures. There is no mystery in the absence of clarity.
Let’s think about Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” If you are not familiar with the story, a brief summary: in a small village, there is a strange ritual that takes place. Every person in the village—no matter how old or young—draws lots to see who will be chosen. The story opens on the day of the lottery, and moves around the village as people get ready for the ceremony, the true nature of which is only revealed to the reader at the very end.
This is how Jackson opens her story:
The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took only about two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.
We begin with descriptions of the weather and the climate. We get information about the gathering and we get some sense that similar gatherings are happening elsewhere. We don’t yet know what this lottery is, but we have the sense that it is a part of village life like a town picnic or fair or something like that. We know also that compared to other places, this particular village is small, just a few hundred people, and we know that the time scale of the events of the story will be short, just a few hours.
The story follows as people gather in the square. The children, then the men, and then the women. And then the families begin to assemble and come together as we find out a bit of back story about the lottery. The lots are pulled, and we watch with horror and awe as the events get under way. And here is one of the keys to the mystery of this story, at least for me. The end of the opening paragraph, that final sentence, “it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villages to get home for noon dinner” interests me for several reasons. For one, there’s the fact that the ceremony and its horrific outcome are brief, like any kind of boring municipal civic activity, like voting or something. There is that contrast between the mundane and the horrific. And then there is the fact that these people, after engaging in this brutal activity, will simply go home to noon dinner. They’ll return to their homes and their lives and probably say grace and bow their heads and eat and go on as though they’ve not all just partaken in something gruesome.
It's that communal aspect of the barbarity that redeems them all—it’s a painful and icky feeling, this idea. And yet when I think of it, I get chills. Because Jackson doesn’t come out and spell it out for you. In fact, you are thinking instead of Mrs. Hutchinson in the terminal moments of the story:
“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
We don’t see them go back to their homes after they do the horrible thing that they do. We don’t see them sit down to their meal and smile at each other or even as they wash up and put the stones back where they found them. We don’t see the village disperse back into a flock laughing kids and gossiping teens trying to flirt under the watchful gaze of the parents. No, Jackson ends the story right as the violence begins and leaves us to ponder the after. Though she’s already told us what the after will be, right up top. And so as Mrs. Hutchinson’s final words ring out just as the story goes silent, we feel something large and strange moving beneath us, backward, realizing that all the while, the story isn’t about the lottery. It’s about the village as glimpsed through the prism of the lottery. The strangeness of our customs. And how easily, how readily we can be conscripted into evil by means of banality and tradition.
Though there is some question as to what the lottery is for as the story proceeds, Jackson is never unclear about what is happening. We know who is talking. We know where they are going. How the kids are behaving. What the adults are thinking about. The circumstances of the characters are clear. Our understanding of their situation—narrative events unfolding around them—is virtually identical to that of the characters except for one key thing. That is, we the reader understand by subtle cues of tone and language, that something is going to happen while for the characters in the story, the thing that is about to happen is known to them. They know what is going to happen. They are pulling lots for something they do not want. This is not a mystery to the characters. And their actions and attitudes as they pull the lots reveal that whatever is on the other side of that selection is not a thing that any of them want for themselves though they would be happy to see it happen to someone else.
Jackson achieves this not by flaying the characters open and spilling their interiority all over the place, but through careful and meticulous accrual of details that might seem boring or uninteresting but which together form a dense matrix of meaning. Everything is lucidly rendered, leaving no excess ambiguity. What ambiguity remains, the drop-shadows of implication that shade in around the edges of the story, are intentional. The story feels as though it is taking place in a particular world at a particular time among a particular set of people. It all feels whole unto itself. What Jackson leaves unilluminated, that vast shadowy region beyond the very bright edge of the story is mystery. It’s mystery that makes a story feel like it’s happening in a world, a continuous moral field. It’s mystery that makes it feel as though what we’re watching unfold has some meaning, that it matters to the people to whom it is happening. But we can’t have mystery without clear illumination of the narrative field. If we don’t understand what is happening and to whom and how they feel about it, we never arrive at the bright edge of the known story world. We can’t appreciate how vast, how dark the sky because the whole world is pitch-black and vague.
I believe that you arrive at such clarity by including in your story a lot of the things that you might consider boring, or obvious. Things that when you are drafting them make you roll your eyes or which feel too big to try to put into a couple sentences. Grief. Pain. The agony of jealousy. Desire. Love. Hatred. Terror. The big feelings. The nature of relationships. Who is dating whom. Who is whose brother. Who is whose father. Who is broke. Who is rich. Who has what job. Whose dog is that. And why do you struggle to include these things? Because you think it will be boring? To write about the material reality of your characters? Shirley Jackson describes the weather in the start of her most famous story, but you’re too good to tell us that your character has a sister who died and now she’s going to the family home where they were terrorized by a mean nanny when they young? You want the mean nanny to be revealed somewhere around page eight? Rather than page one? So we just have to watch your character drift through rooms with a forlorn look on her face amid half-snatches of memory?
When I tell authors to try to bore me, to dedicate space and time to the listing of details about the circumstances of their characters, I am trying to get them to stop thinking in terms of psychology and abstraction. I am trying to get them to move away from their very excellent and refined taste, to forget the examples of the books they have read, and to focus instead on the surface of their story. Have they considered the most basic facts of their character standing in a room of strangers for the first time? Why have we not told the reader how the character has arrived to such a place? Why have we not told the reader what they hope to get out of being in such a place?What is the temperature of the room? What is the temperature of the wine? Is there a skin on the gravy at the buffet? What are the people talking about? Really, what are they talking about. The tax code? Lacrosse scores? Basketball? Politics? Religion? Are they telling bad jokes? Naughty jokes? Are the women eating? Are they pointedly not eating? Does the room smell like it’s been smoked in? How long have they been waiting in this room? What are they waiting for? Is there a chance that this might be the moment their life changes? Is that what they want? Are there children? Are the children laughing?
Fill the draft with information that you think is unnecessary. Make yourself write all those boring connecting sentences. Ask yourself that one extra question as you compose a scene. Go for that one extra detail. Ask yourself, would a five year old be able to imagine this as written? Would a five year old have questions about this? Have I absolutely told the reader what they need to know in order to furnish this world and to make it bright and alive in their minds so that they might be able to glimpse the shadows beyond? Look for murky patches, places where you feel particularly subtle, places you’re proud of turning very elegant language. Take those sentences and throw them out and replace them with information. Ask yourself if it is better, clearer.
I give this advice for the same reason that Ayanna Mathis once told my classmates and me that our sensibility would never betray us, no matter how hard we tried to be something other than what we were. I didn’t really understand that advice at the time. But I think she’s right. In telling authors to write the boring draft, to try to bore me, what I’m trying to do is free them up from judgement and to get out of their own way, knowing very well that they probably won’t bore me at all. They are good writers. They are strong writers. Asking them to be boring for a draft is just a ploy to get them out of the rut of their usual thought patterns and to invite them into a different mode of engagement with the worlds of their making. I want them to see their world naively, without the benefit of knowing what is next and without the terrifying acuity of having read a great many books. What would a person, upon first encounter, think to ask of this scene, this moment, these people? Forget that you know the answers. Forget your beautiful plans and your elegant schemes. Humble yourself before the reality of the story. Who are you without your god-like mantle?
I ask for boring stuff because of something one of my teachers, Charles D’Ambrosio, said to my class, which was that we were very good at depth and what we should focus on was surface. I didn’t really get that either. I was trying to write psychologically astute fiction about the souls of contemporary black faggots. I wanted to write think-y books. But more and more, I’ve come around to his way of thinking. People are really smart now, and I think it’s making our writing worse. Sometimes what you need is fidelity to the concrete, surface reality of a story world. Jackson’s opening paragraph with the trees and the weather and the date. The way she captures the daily rhythms of life in the village. Or, even, to think of Tolstoy, the long descriptions at the start of Anna Karenina, in which we hear about the slippers and the sofa and the rooms. One needs the boring stuff. It makes the story feel cozy. Lived-in. But also, it directs the reader deeper into the world of the fiction. It’s the very engine of show, don’t tell. The material world of the story.
When the boring draft is done, then it’s about the shaping, the selecting. Picking the right detail or set of details. Paring back. It’s hard to shape a story around a void. This is most common in stories of trauma or grief. Often, authors want to elide the difficult events because “my character just can’t face this thing, it’s too upsetting.” And they just go around not writing about the thing that is at the heart of the narrative as though the reader can just glean it from osmosis, and they consider this failure of courage to be subtlety. It is not subtlety. It is vagueness. It is one thing for the character not to think about it. It is quite another for the story not to think about it.
While I’m talking about it, I have something to say about all this grief in fiction stuff. It really grinds my gears. It’s a particular pet peeve of mine. Not that people write about grief in fiction. But that people do it so badly. The nature of grief is that we each negotiate a world that is filled with reasons to think about that loss and that pain and that person who is no longer with us. So what is the author to do? Well, if the author is honest, they’ve got to capture the difficulty, the cost, of not thinking about the thing that is at the heart of the narrative. They’ve got to be honest about where the character’s mind does go. Why there. Do other people bring it up? Do other people accidentally trigger them? Do they see signs and symbols that cause the thing to recur in thought or memory. Your job as a writer is not to make it easy for a character just to be vibing out in their static circumstances. Even people frozen by grief have thoughts. Feelings. They do in fact still live in the world. The world does not stop even though they may wish it so. Fiction is character in motion, in action—psychic, spiritual, emotional, physical, etc. We all can’t be writing novels of stasis. Some of y’all gotta move.
The boring draft is great for this, because if you get all that stuff in the first couple pages, you’ve got to spend the rest of the story dealing with it. Suddenly, the pressure of the narrative is not on revelation of information, but on the refinement of a character’s understanding of their situation and circumstance.
In my first year of fiction school, I put up a story for workshop. And my teacher said that the story was very elegant, but that it spent the entire twenty pages tracing the knowns of the world. He said that the story concluded without revealing a single thing that was wasn’t known by the character at the start of the story, and that I had confused revealing information to the reader for epiphany. I was…not pleased. Later, that story got published, and I felt very smug about it. But I have come to agree with my teacher. He was right to say that.
The story had submerged all of its conflicts and while the sentences slapped, tbh, there was only stasis because the character couldn’t bring himself to face the hardest thing in his life, that he was only with his husband because he’d once loved his husband’s brother and then that brother died. The whole story just spins around that fact, avoiding it and avoiding it and avoiding it. Because I didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t know how to write what would follow if the story faced that early on. So I sent the husband and their kids to the lake house, and I kept the main character at home and he had lots of alcohol and was sad in their huge beautiful house. But if I were to do it again, all that would be up front. I’d write the boring draft. I’d be obvious, perhaps too obvious, but I would get it down and I’d have it in the flesh of the story, and then I’d get on with the drama. There’s a moment in that story when the character fights with his husband about the fact that he never got over the brother. And, honestly, that should have come much earlier. Because that is not a revelation. I mean, it is to the reader, but not the characters. For the characters, nothing has changed. Not a single thing has changed. If it was the first time that they’d had that fight, I certainly didn’t signal that to the reader. Now that might have been a story. The first time they have that argument about the “I can’t be my dead brother, sorry” vibe of their marriage. But I didn’t do that. Instead, it seemed like one more of a long series of fights about that same issue. So the reader arrives at the end of a very elegantly written story in which nothing has changed, not even the character’s understanding of their own nature or situation. That is not a story, I’m afraid. I should have written more boring stuff in the first two pages, get it all out of the way.
Even now, in working on my fourth book, Group Show, I’ve found my way back into the novel by telling myself to be obvious, to write the most boring shit imaginable. People in an office, typing, what are they typing, why, who built this place, when was it built, how, etc, etc. The scene I am working on now has people out at a restaurant in Madison, and every time I’ve gotten stuck, I’ve just started asking questions like a five year old. Who is that guy in the corner. What is he drinking. Who is paying for this. Does my character know that they are paying. Do they expect to have to pay the cost some other way. What is air temperature? What is the view? Is that the lake or something else out there?
PS—I’m looking for regular, semi-regular tennis and table tennis partners for this spring. So if you are in NYC and want to hit some balls in either of these arenas, please let me know, lol. No, but seriously.
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