The Journal: Reader Pet Peeves

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* An Important and Informative Post
* Topic: Reader Pet Peeves: Preconceived or Contrived Stories
* Of Interest

Quotes of the Day

“No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Robert Frost

“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” Robert Frost

The first item in “Of Interest” links to a very important and informative post.

If you currently use video (Zoom, etc.) or audio (podcasts, interviews, teaching, etc.) or if you think doing so might be a good idea for you as a writer, please don’t miss John Gilstrap’s “The Virtual You Redux.” Really good stuff.

Topic: Reader Pet Peeves: Preconceived or Contrived Stories

Really this is a continuation of the topic in yesterday’s post. That post was getting long so I decided to continue in a separate but related topic today.

Also, today’s post was originally titled “My Two Biggest Pet Peeves as a Reader,” but I went all Vesuvius (grin) and this one ran long too.

So I’ll talk about my first pet peeve today and the second one tomorrow. Also, I changed  the overall title just in case a third or fourth occurs to me.

Preconceived or Contrived Stories are my number one pet peeve.

No surprise there, I’m sure.

Let me just say up front, I bear no ill-will and intend no disrespect toward those authors who still want or need the safety net of character sketches and outlines and “signposts” and all the rest. Hey, you do you. We’re all at different places on this journey. Every writer is different. Still, no matter how you write, it’s better to keep your process to yourself.

True story — Back in early 1971 a guy in El Paso had a portable hamburger stand. One of his burgers was piled high with jalapeños. He called it The Afterburner. I wouldn’t buy it because I knew I’d have to stay close to the toilet for a day or two afterward. Forewarned is forearmed. And hey, I don’t buy anything that gives me fair warning of impending trouble, like the potential result of eating a burger called The Afterburner.

I don’t buy anything that gives me fair warning of impending boredom. Like what happens when I read a book that’s written from an outline and is carefully plotted and contrived. The problem is, when the writer “figures out” (conscious, critical mind) what’s coming next in the story, so can the reader. And without much effort.

So this and The Afterburner really are the same thing to me. If I get fair warning, I’m not gonna wander into a morass. I have a distinct aversion to amberries. You know, ’cause they grow on ambushes. Hence my advice yesterday to be careful how you present yourself and your process. And yes, that’s true no matter how you write.

A lot of readers, if they find out it took me only a few weeks or a month to write a novel, won’t risk buying my book — a lot of them won’t accept a free book — because they still believe quality storytelling requires months or even years of intensive, mind-wrenching, torturous labor.

As some of you have learned, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Yet when those same readers buy a novel that was carefully plotted or otherwise contrived, for some reason they’re bored. Most of them don’t realize it’s because they know at every turn what’s coming next.

Eventually they find the James Lee Burkes and Stephen Kings and Lee Childs and Jack Higgins of the world and enjoy their stories. And they never question whether the story was written from an outline.

So in my own reading, to keep things simple, I won’t buy or try to read a novel if I know in advance it started life as a carefully plotted outline or was otherwise contrived. Because I don’t want to know what’s coming next, and I don’t want to know in advance how a story situation will turn out. When I realize I know that, I close the book. I’m done.

If I don’t know how an author writes, but the genre, cover and sales copy entice me, I might take a chance and buy the book. But the same filter applies: the moment I recognize the influence of the author’s critical mind, I’ll delete the ebook from my device or toss the paperback into the Donate pile and read something else.

Because I agree with Robert Frost: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem [or story] must ride on its own melting.”

How succinct and beautifully expressed is that?

Or as Bradbury put it, when writing you should “Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” In other words, have faith in yourself and what you’ve learned.

Bradbury also spoke to the secondary nature of plot: “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by … the chart that remains when an action is through.”

Of course, if the writer chooses to follow Frost and Bradbury and countless others and NOT preconceive and manipulate the characters, situations and story, the reader can (and will) STILL try to guess what happens next. He just won’t be right most of the time. Which, really, makes for a much better story, meaning one that is more difficult to walk away from until it’s over.

I suspect we can all agree that the best twist or turn or outcome in any story situation is one that surprises the reader even as he slaps his forehead and says, “Of course.”

The simple truth is, that sort of twist, turn or outcome doesn’t come from the conscious, critical mind. That sort of twist, turn or outcome is the kind that only occurs naturally as the characters live the story — if you’ll only trust them.

For those of you who write into the dark — When you get that scary/exciting sense that you have absolutely no idea where the story’s going and that it might well be going off the rails, hold on, trust your characters, and write the next sentence and the next and the next. The characters are living the story, and you’re only observing. Trust them and they will lead you through.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss the second big pet peeve that aggravates me as a reader: a thin or shallow story. Ugh.

Talk with you again then.

Of Interest

See “The Virtual You Redux” at

See “Music Streaming and The EU Digital Single Market Copyright Directive” at Also see PG’s take.

See “Kristine Kathryn Rusch Starter Kit” at For any fans, the latest Kickstarter.

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.

4 thoughts on “The Journal: Reader Pet Peeves”

  1. As I read this post, I instantly thought of one of my all-time favorite RS writers. I love her work. Though, now, I have to add a caveat. I love her work published by ONE specific publisher. Another publisher also publishes some of her work, and I HATE that work. I mean, so badly, I was convinced a totally different author actually wrote the books and the publisher slapped her name on it. Imagine my “ah ha!” moment when I was involved in a discussion that involved her and she admitted that one publisher publishes stories she writes intuitively, while the other requires her to plot/outline the story to death for their preapproval before she writes it. Guess which publisher puts out the work I can’t stand? Three guesses, but I’ll bet you only need one.

    • I don’t doubt that for a second, Dawn. Awhile back, DWS mentioned that back in the day he was occasionally “required” by New York to submit an outline (like for some of the Star Trek novels or the Men in Black novels he wrote). He did so, but when the outline was approved, he trashed it and just wrote into the dark. Nobody every complained. Other times, he submitted a mss and it was returned for rewrite. He said okay, then let the mss sit for a couple of weeks and sent it back unchanged. They thanked him for the rewrite and published it. Go figure.

        • Yep. And the editor of one magazine (Rose & Thorn, now not suprisingly defunct) used to demand right in the guidelines that a short story had to be revised or rewritten at least 16 times before they would even look at it. How she would know how many times a story had been edited was beyond me, but it was far easier not to submit at all than to lie about such a silly thing.

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