“But I don’t know anything interesting” — Part 2

Or maybe you know way too much.

In the comments section earlier, Daisy wrote: 

“I’m a biologist (okay, research associate at a biotech company, but that’s a lot of words for “what do you do”) and I have never managed to write a decent story in a scientific setting because I keep getting hung up on the details and the need to explain what everything is.”

Her problem is not unique.  As I’ve mentioned before, I teach an annual course for doctors who want to become novelists, and one of the most common problems they have is “explainitis.”  They know too much and they want to tell you everything.  So they do. 

Readers don’t WANT to know the intricacies of the Krebs cycle.  They don’t want to know the biochemistry of digitalis.  They just want to know how these things affect the character they love.  Yes, you have to include enough detail to make the setting and the story accurate.  You have to use enough jargon to make your character sound like he really is a doctor or a biochemist.  But in the end, it’s not the technical stuff that will be interesting.

It’s the characters.

I find that aspiring novelists who are highly educated or intensely cerebral have trouble understanding what makes popular culture tick.  They’re good at writing elegant phrases that have no emotional content.  They think that anything else smacks of melodrama, and good heavens, that’s like watching that horrid Jerry Springer!

Well, imagine this.  You’re sitting in Starbucks, and the couple at the table to your left is having a deep discussion about the merits of Proust.  And the couple on your right is arguing about the affair that one of them is having.  Which couple would you listen to?

There’s a reason Jerry Springer was so popular.

No matter how unusual your occupation, no matter how much you know about quarks and ion propulsion and string theory, if your novel isn’t at heart about people and their conflicts with each other, then it’s not going to hold our attention.  Yeah, string theory may be interesting — but how does it affect the lives of John and Jane Doe? 

A lot of us don’t have what could be called “interesting” jobs.  Some of us have downright boring jobs.  But we do know what it’s like to grow up, to argue with our parents, to fall in love, to care about a cause that’s bigger than ourselves.  We know what it’s like to lose someone. 

We know what it’s like to be human.

And really, that’s all you need to know to write a book.

16 replies
  1. Daisy
    Daisy says:

    Wow! I’m not sure if I should be thrilled to be quoted or embarassed to be a bad example. I think I’ll go with thrilled on both counts. After all, everybody knows bad girls have more fun. ;>

  2. hkennedy
    hkennedy says:

    This is so true! The best novels I’ve ever read were written by amazing story tellers, not authors with six degrees after their name, and it was recognizing this that inspired me to chase my dream of becoming an author.

  3. JanetK
    JanetK says:

    The Jerry Springer comment reminded me of a quote by Jim Harrison:

    “The novelist who refuses sentiment refuses the full spectrum of human behavior, and then he just dries up … I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass.”

  4. JA Konrath
    JA Konrath says:

    Dam it! My next book was going to be all about the Krebs Cycle!

    I was going to call it: “Acetyl-CoA + 3 NAD+ + FAD + GDP + Pi + 2 H2O + 1 CoA-SH → 2 CoA-SH + 3 NADH + 3 H+ + FADH2 + GTP + 2 CO2”

    Now I guess I’ll have to settle for writing about characters with conflicts…

  5. Therese Fowler
    Therese Fowler says:

    It took me two failed novel attempts to really understand your point, Tess–that’s it’s the emotional weight of a story that matters most.

    I was good at writing pretty sentences, but had to learn how to dig into the emotional core of the story.

    So when my agent called me to say editors who’d read my third effort were calling her in tears, I knew I’d figured it out. I made them cry! In a good way! Which of course made ME cry!

    It’s all about emotions. 🙂

  6. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:


    I agree with you wholeheartedly.
    The details in novels are what add verisimilitude, but if overdone can be distracting and interfere with the narrative flow.

    One must be a slave to the plot and have interesting characters to make your audience care about what happens in the story. The set design and costumes should enhance but not distract.

    That works whether or not your story is on the screen, on the stage, or on the page.

    One of my favorite books about drama was written by Michael Shurtleff, “Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part.” I’ve read it countless times and I use it to remind myself of what good drama is.

    Here are a few snippets:

    “An actor is looking for conflict. Conflict is what creates drama. Plays are not written about our everyday lives or the moments of peace and placidity but about the extraordinary, the unusual, the climaxes…If they featured the humdrum, who would leave home to go see a play?”

    Similarly, why would anyone continue reading a book that drones on and on about monotonous things. Giving detail is great, giving insight to your profession is great, but only if it enhances and does not interfere with your plot.


    (P.S. If anyone wants to read more of my adulation of Michael Shurtleff’s book you can read a post about it here: http://tinyurl.com/y93x7x )

  7. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:

    Sorry folks, I tried to do a tiny URL thing, and then after I posted I tried clicking on it just to verify things and for some strange reason it goes to a motorbike page. Gremlins in the system I think.

    Here’s a longer URL that I know works:

    Sorry for any inconvenience and for double posting.

    (:face palms: – That’s never happened to me before with Tiny URL – I’ll test it first next time.)


  8. Vanessa F
    Vanessa F says:

    I agree wholly. I think Patricia Cornwell is a great example of an author who uses just enough technical detail to fascinate those of us who love detail but not so much that other readers get bored or the plot beco,mes lost. And of course your books are the same 🙂

  9. Cornelia Read
    Cornelia Read says:

    I just wanted to say that Daisy is in my writing group, and I’ve never read anything of hers that wasn’t excellent and VERY interesting. She has huge talent. Also, she’s really funny. With great shoes.

  10. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    I’m feeling pretty good about myself right now, because I don’t know a damn thing. 😉

    I understand the Krebs Cycle is giving Harley-Davidson some stiff competition, btw.

  11. Gabriele
    Gabriele says:

    Lol, I would listen to the Proust discussion. 😀

    That doesn’t mean I write philosophical novels, though. I take my examples from Rosemary Sutcliff, Bernard Cornwell and the Illiad, lol.

  12. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    Recently I asked a couple of my beta readers to critique a chapter filled with “necessary” technical details about the disease process in my biomedical, thriller-in-process.

    To a (wo)man, they came back to me with, “What the hell was that about? I’m completely lost.” Thankfully, they both made a very detailed list of terms they found confusing and superfulous.

    I actually thought I had dumbed and pared it down to the bare essentials. Obviously, I was wrong. I’m now reworking it, trying to see it through the eyes of “normal people” who have no background in gobbledygook. After all the research that went into the story, it’s very difficult to leave most of it out. But I will. Because that’s what readers want.

  13. RaquelBlevins23
    RaquelBlevins23 says:

    I had got a dream to start my own commerce, but I didn’t have enough amount of cash to do it. Thank heaven my mate said to use the credit loans. So I used the commercial loan and made real my desire.

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