Why write what you know can backfire heavily

Right now I’m reading The New World series by John O’Brien. They are entertaining books, and John O’Brien is pretty much who I wanted to be when I was a child. He used to train fighter pilots, then he transitioned to special forces. He writes the books first person present tense for the most part, with weird and random sections from other characters point of view.

The books are generally poorly written. Not that I’m brilliant, but I keep seeing all these things that are the kind of things I have read not to do a million times in various writing resources. However, those things aren’t the most jarring pieces. The most jarring bits are the sections that are highly detailed and highly technically accurate. Remember, this guy trained fighter pilots. He knows the hell out of aircraft systems, and when he describes flying he’s describing how to actually fly military aircraft. The reality is most of the audience doesn’t have the reference framework to understand what he’s saying. Unless you are actually a pilot every single word he’s saying is just white noise. If you are a pilot, you already know this stuff and you can shorten it. The same is true for things like his descriptions of combat. It took me a while to get used to him describing, in detail, exactly what each bullet does after it hits someone. He describes things like how many pieces the bullet breaks into, how it mushrooms when it hits bone, the velocity it travels through brain matter. It’s not offensive to me or anything, and now that I’m used to it I kind of just skip over it, but damn, it’s just white noise. Maybe use it once, but at this point, I’m pretty sure it’s just upping his word count.

Now, I don’t mean to pick on the guy (seriously, he could snap me like a twig – John, if you are reading this, I like your books… please don’t kill me), they are entertaining to read and have an interesting story. However, this is a case where the depth of this man’s knowledge in some really amazing fields actually gets in the way of the reading. Sometimes it’s good to write less of what you know, to write to the level of your readers.

I have tried to do that in A Long Walk, to write things like what Parkour feels like, not the details of exactly how to do it. I think I haven’t done a perfect job at it, but I will get better, and thanks to Mr. O’Brien (again, please don’t kill me) I have an example of what not to do…

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