On Gimmicks

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So I’m reading a book right now. (WAT.) It’s not a bad book, but there is one thing that is just buggin’ the begeebers out of me–so much so that every time this particular thing happens, I really just want to take a permanent marker to the pages so that the next time I read it, I can skip those parts.

It’s that bad.



This particular book was written by a well-established, well-respected author.  An author who has already proven themselves and who doesn’t need to stoop to cheap tricks to get people to read their work. An author who will find readers by simply slapping his or her name on the front cover because they’re just. that. good.

If this was a debut novel, I think I might be a little more forgiving, and I’m certainly not going to stop reading the book over something this trivial.  It’s just that I think know the author can do better.

Gimmicks can make writing seem so easy.  They’re short cuts.  They’re ways to get things done without having to work for them.

  • Is your character stuck in a dangerous situation that they can’t possibly escape from? Don’t worry–it’s just a dream!
  • Is your story a little outrageous? Claim that it’s “true”, and that you just happen to be the lucky person that stumbled upon the manuscript/audio recording/interpretive dance and decided the world needed to know about it.
  • Having trouble coming up with original material? That’s okay.  Just make it obvious that you’re intentionally alluding to existing work(s).  It’s called an “homage”, and it’s flattering, right?

That’s not to say these things can’t be used at all. I’ve read some fabulous books that successfully used these techniques.  The Bunnicula series was one of my childhood favorites, and not only did the authors present it as a true story, but they claimed a dog gave them the manuscript. It worked marvelously in a series intended for 6-year-olds.

But in my opinion, those are the exceptions to the rule. Most of the time, gimmicks are distractions that make it difficult for readers to really lose themselves in a story.  Just when things are getting interesting, that gimmick rears its ugly head and reminds us that oops! This is just a book. Don’t worry, it’s not real! Stories are supposed to temporarily suspend our personal realities, and when they fail to do so, they also fail to engage us.  We stop (or never start) caring about the characters and what happens to them because they’re not real.  Why does it matter?

Unfortunately, gimmicks are often just the outward manifestations of deeper problems:

  • Gimmicks show an author’s lack of faith in their readers’ ability to understand the story without help.

We writers need to recognize that our readers are smarter than we often give them credit for.  If we treat them like they’re stupid, we are only going to offend and alienate them. A friend here at Philmont once said that calling a child a “baby” is tantamount with telling them they’re the scum of the earth. Don’t treat your readers like babies (even if they are).

  • Gimmicks are a strong indicator of an author’s lack of confidence in their own writing.

Trust yourself. Seriously.  Just as we need to give our readers more credit, we need to give ourselves more credit.  We are our own worst critics.  Don’t be afraid to let that creative, original idea fly.  Sure, it’s scary to send it out into the world on its own and watch how our readers perceive it, but it’s so much more rewarding than taking the safe road. If you’re going to fail, fail with style. Some of the world’s biggest “mistakes” have turned into our greatest moments.  Remember that Christopher Columbus guy? Just sayin’.

  • Gimmicks are a sign of laziness.

Writing is hard.  Good writing is harder.  There is no room for laziness in the competitive publishing market. Maybe you’re a successful author who doesn’t feel they need to try any more, or maybe you’re an unpublished writer who hopes to hitch their wagon to the fastest star. Either way, you’re not doing yourself any favors, and laziness will come back to haunt you.  Even if your book goes on to be an international best seller and you make a million dollars over night, you’ll always know that you could have done better.

And you can do better.

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