Writing Traps

I can’t tell if Jon Mollison wrote his recent post “The False Façade of ‘Smart’ Writing” in reaction to this one of mine. I don’t think so, because (a) Jon seems like the kind of guy who would say so if he was, (b) we’re talking about two different things, and (c) I happen to agree with Jon here (emphasis mine):

Complexity is Not Clever

Anyone that’s ever dealt with higher level mathematics knows that the guys at the top of that particular field spend a great deal of time searching for ways to reduce complexities in their proofs. A concept that can be proved using 100 pages of matrices and high order differential equations is nice, but it’s so much more satisfying when the same concept can be proved using three simple equations? In the same way, a door stopper of a novel that chases six independent plot threads that interweave all over three continents to bring them together in one big final resolution can be satisfying, but it’s so much more satisfying when the same concepts and themes can be fully explored within the confines of a single story. Some of the most powerful mathematical proofs are the most beautiful.

Assembling complex tales require a lot of effort, but so does digging a ditch.  We instantly recognize that effort doesn’t translate to brains in the latter, so why do so many want to believe that spending inordinate amounts of time and effort bolting extraneous details onto a simple exploration of a theme translates to proof of higher order intelligence?  Particularly when the authors who brag of their epic achievements typically go on to brag about how hard it was to craft the story and track all of the little details.  A case could be made that a straight-head writer who bangs out prose and plots by the seat of his pants would need eidetic memory and a level of creativity bordering on insane to build a tale like that, but most writers feel the need to humble brag about how extraordinarily hard they worked on their masterpiece, how much effort it took, and how long it took.

If you’re working that hard, maybe you aren’t as smart as you think you are, ace.

Well, I agree with him here. To be fair, I did discuss my writing process in my post, but it wasn’t to brag. In fact, a very good writer I respect very much described and recommended a very similar approach to me. And in fact, check out my last bullet point:

  • Less is more. I’m always on the lookout for eliminating needless words, sentences, and paragraphs.

This is all by no means a humblebrag about how long writing took. I’m talking about a 90,000 word novel (that I pared down from 120,000 words) I worked on in my spare time, for God’s sake. I’m embarrassed by how long it took.

Jon makes another great point I happen to agree with (emphasis mine):

Adult Does Not Mean Smart

Another sleight of hand that the midwits like to pull to justify an inflated sense of worth is equating “adult” with “smart”, and it’s just as much bunk as the first.  This is not to say that all adult media is always dumb, just that there exists a lot of space in the venn diagram where those two terms do not overlap.

Hell, most of the “adult” novels I’ve read were half-witted excuses meant to justify the author’s own inability to grasp the basics of morality, duty, and honor.  But the nihilists among us have adopted a self-satisfied smugness that all too many people on the left hand side of the intelligence bell curve mistake for genuine ability, and they at least have enough cunning to wrap their bleak and ill considered worldview up in a nice little bow of “live for today and let tomorrow care for the consequences”.

But as for me, I’ll take genuine wisdom and intellect over the feigned superiority proclaimed with great volume and repetition by those who mistake influence and connections over talent and skill.

Even if that precludes me from winning any major awards or ever being listed in the annals of woke history.

I couldn’t agree more. I hate snark, nihilism, and moral equivalence as much as Jon. If you are an existential who thinks life is meaningless, there are plenty of French authors for you to read. Go be depressed and depressing somewhere else. I’d rather read about spaceships and swordfights, thanks.

Unrelieved bleakness, endless moral ambiguity, amorality, and immorality (Shock! Transgression!) are what angry teenagers think is “adult.”

To Jon’s last paragraph, the funny thing is I do consider Jon a top-tier writer. I also realize I don’t have a review of his novel Sudden Rescue on my blog! I could’ve sworn I reviewed it after I read it. This will need to be rectified.

Anyway, if Jon was referring to me and my slightly strident post, well, he has every right to do that. I would just find it strange since we seem to be of one mind on these things.

And if Jon wasn’t, then carry on as usual all of you.

Note: Normally, I’d just be leaving comments on Jon’s blog instead of writing reaction posts, but comments don’t seem to be working on his site for some reason.


  1. I think it’s hard to seperate quality from style in fiction, particularly when the style is one that you particularly like or particularly dislike. I am an unregenerate New Wave writer and reader–for my own enjoyment I’ll take bad Philip Dick over good Robert Howard any day.

    But I think it’s important to learn to recognize quality in writing that one does not particularly enjoy. What’s more, there are often techniques that one can appropriate to be found in all forms of writing.

    There’s no contradiction in my saying that I find John Brunner’s work depressing and preachy and also saying that I learned a great deal about how to imply a setting from minimal clues from “Shockwave Rider” and “The Sheep Look Up.” Nor is it a contradiction for me to admit that I adore many of the concepts expressed in William Burroughs’ Cut Up Trilogy, but much of the actual text I have to skip because it is flat out unreadable.

    One can praise the story while condemning the storytelling, or vice versa. The most enjoyable reading is that in which a story I like is told in a way that I like. Ray Bradbury, for me, is probably the pinnacle of that match of style to substance.

    But I think it’s a mistake for a writer to limit her or his reading to works that are an ideal match. It’s too easy to keep recrossing the same ground and becoming self-imitation or even self-parody.

    Liked by 2 people

    • “But I think it’s important to learn to recognize quality in writing that one does not particularly enjoy. What’s more, there are often techniques that one can appropriate to be found in all forms of writing.”

      PERFECTLY said, Misha! This is how I approach music. I should have clarified that I approach writing this way as well.

      I read Michael Chabon and John Irving, for example, mainly because they’re such good writers. The plots of their books often leave me cold—mostly they’re 70% good and 30% flaky agitprop, but that’s my personal taste.

      I don’t like to make it sound like I’m making blanket condemnations about certain things. Much of what constitutes “good” is objective, but there’s also a strong component of “what resonates with you.” Hell, I’m reading a book by John Scalzi just to see what it’s all about. He’s a technically very good writer, quite clever, but I am anticipating a snark overload. Something tells me the barely constrained snarkiness if his main character, entertaining for now, is going to get annoying. But we’ll see.

      Listen: I unrepentantly enjoy A Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby and books like that. I’m out of step in the sci-fi/fantasy world, but like you say, ill glean what lessons I can wherever I find them.

      “One can praise the story while condemning the storytelling, or vice versa.”

      Another excellent point. I have nothing more to add!


  2. I agree with a lot of what’s been said, I think. My main qualifier would fall under the point about complexity. Don’t get me wrong – I love good, simple, *lean* writing – it’s one of the things I most admire about REH.

    But there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that Howard and Niven and GRRM all write different and all know how to spin a yarn. Niven and Martin obviously aren’t to everyone’s taste, and their styles are more complex, but they know how to capture a reader’s imagination.

    Liked by 1 person

      • An additional point: Much of what Brian blogs about is AUDIENCE TASTE. If you’re trying to make a career in the publishing world, shorter works and long series of shorter works are what sells.

        The epic is not dead per se. It just smells funny.

        This pains me to write, as I have some epics in me (I’ve already written a few). Maybe I’ll shine them up and release them someday.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hah!

        Like many things, pattern recognition, statistical analysis, and trying to stay ahead of the wave on trends is more art than science, and a very inexact art at that.

        Someday, for example, I’ll record and subject you all to my 45-minute prog-rock epic and that sort of thing will be popular again . . .

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Big fan, brother, and a regular reader. I honestly don’t know how much of my post is a direct response t o yours. Our circle grows wider every day, and the ideas behind that post got fleshed out on the twit box, and no doubt your post lodged itself into the nooks and crannies of my brain. So indirectly, at least, yep – this is all your fault!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I take full responsibility for nothing and everything . . . I neither confirm nor deny (always wanted to say that).

      Seriously, your points are spot on. As Bushi said about “complexity,” you can have intricate plots and many threads without being confusing, as long as you as a writer actually have a plan. Say what you will about Robert Jordan and the Wheel of Time, the man said he had the ending written first, and after seeing how everything wrapped up I’m inclined to believe him.

      Liked by 1 person

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