Recently I’ve seen a number of manuscripts by talented new writers who are falling into a trap. Writers are overcomplicating their novels, often by choosing unnecessarily experimental narrative techniques, or by deliberately leaving out important plot information. The choices range from switching, seemingly randomly, between past and present tense or first and third person POV, and hiding important aspects of the main character’s conflicts and agenda.
The resulting effect, put bluntly, is that the novels are weaker than they could be. I’ve talked to a number of writers who’ve been overcomplicating their work, on purpose or unconsciously, and I’ve found two major contributing factors, one historical and one psychological.
Science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction starts out from a disadvantage, historically speaking. From the early to the middle 20th century, the literary ambitions of most genre fiction was best described by the type of paper it was commonly printed on, pulp paper, which was cheap to produce and quick to fall apart. But over the past 70 years or so, the writing has gotten much better, and to a great extent science fiction and fantasy has grown out of this old and tawdry reputation. Signs that the genre passes literary muster can be found in many places, from the MacArthur Genius Grant awarded to Octavia E. Butler, to the number of Library of America volumes dedicated to science fiction, fantasy, and horror literature. Yet popular fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and horror in particular, is still seen in some circles as being simple or non-literary, either as a reaction to the history or even as a reaction to its popularity.
But genre fiction is not simple. From a purely mechanical perspective, science fiction and fantasy requires more work to create than straight-up literary fiction. Writers of contemporary mimetic (e.g. real life) fiction have to create compelling narratives, engaging characters, resonant settings, evocative language, and a story that grabs the reader’s attention. Science fiction and fantasy novels have to do all of that, plus create a unique setting that saturates the narrative. For some novels, the setting may require an internally consistent and binding set of rules for how magic works, invented governments and geographies, the practical economic and cultural implications of long-distance space travel, or any number of variations on these themes. A ton of thought and effort can be required to create a good science fiction or fantasy novel, even if the writer makes it look effortless. And even if writers aren’t aware of the history of the genre, they can be influenced by cultural perceptions of the genre they’ve chosen. Hence part of the authorial desire to overcomplicate, withhold, and generally make the reader work harder than strictly necessary, in an attempt to demonstrate the value of the genre.
The other main factor is psychological. I see this most often in new writers who are learning how to write, but who nonetheless gravitate to complicated stories and complicated ways of telling them. Many writers who are drawn to science fiction and fantasy, and the wide commercial and cultural influence that these genres have, are also overachievers by nature. Doing something well isn’t that interesting unless it’s also exceptionally hard. The problem with that attitude is that you risk turning an inherently difficult project into a Herculean one.
Of course you want your work to be good, to be seen, to be unique, and to be valued. Keep in mind your job is to entertain people, and even change people. A book at its most simple is an emotion delivery device, creating an immersive experience for the reader, with some assembly required. Start from the understanding that the reader will likely miss or misunderstand some aspect of your work, be annoyed or confused by something you thought was clever, and create interpretations that fly in the face of the story you intended for them to experience. If you’re writing because you want to reach people, the quality and accessibility of the reader experience should be at the core of all of your choices about the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it.
The drive to overcomplicate is to some extent inevitable in a saturated and competitive marketplace, full of hype and misinformation about how to get published and how to get noticed, and the unreasonably ambitious expectations these conditions can create. In a world where our technology is rewiring our brains to make us expect immediate gratification, and publication can be as simple as hitting the “publish” button, this heady mix of factors can end up creating a recipe for burnout, disillusionment, and worst case scenario, can risk tanking promising careers before they’ve had a chance to get going.
So as an antidote to overcomplication, I offer the advice I give to writers eager to break out: Learn your craft. Develop your strengths, and seek out your weaknesses and how to overcome them. Read widely and copiously, genre fiction and literary fiction, novels and short fiction and nonfiction, so that you can internalize what good writing feels like. Learn the business. Research the merits and costs of your publication options, set reasonable expectations for what success looks like, and make choices that help meet your goals. Yes, it’s work. No, it’s not easy. But you’re probably not writing novels because it’s easy.