Writing Right with Dmitri: How to Reference Without Being Self-Referential

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Writing Right with Dmitri: How to Reference Without Being Self-Referential

Editor at work.

As everybody including Slavoj Zizek knows, quoting people is where it's at. (See last week.) So is 'referencing', which is postmodernist-speak for everything from parody to downright plot-, trope-, and meme-stealing. Everybody's doing it. It makes you seem in-the-know. It lets you seem self-aware. It's a debonair literary pose. It lets you look clever.

Except when it doesn't.

Are you referencing more, Binky, and feeling the love from your audience less?

Are your readers staying away in droves?

Have you overheard mentions of your oeuvre that are less than flattering? Is eyerolling involved, real or metaphorical?

Here's why.

You either:

  • Pile on the references without regard to their irrelevance to the matter at hand, or
  • Obsessively reference things in which your target audience has no interest whatsoever, or
  • Reference things your audience couldn't possibly be expected to know – and then refuse to clue them in.

No matter what you privately believe, you cannot dictate audience behaviour. You're a writer, not God. No, I don't care what your dream life tells you, you aren't in charge. Learn to live with it. Here is why each of those things is a reader/viewer turnoff, and what to do about it.

Irrelevant Referencing

The Saint did not seem to be aware that he was multiplying miracles with an easy grace that would have made a Grand Lama look like a third-rate three-card man.

Leslie Charteris, The Saint Versus Scotland Yard

How does Leslie Charteris get away with these references? Because Charteris was one of those snobbery-with-violence hacks from the mid-20th Century whose audience ate up stories that combined the exotic, the British upper class (the opposite of exotic), and criminal slang (rather exotic, but the opposite of upper class). The word 'grace' meant something to them, because they liked their heroes to be cool, like Zaphod Beeblebrox1. They sort of know what a Grand Lama might be: an exotic holy man who wouldn't be welcome in their living rooms unless he were very, very important and hopefully, rich. But still, he must be cool, because the Saint said so. On the other hand, a third-rate anything is declassé, don't you know?

They would actually have known what a 'three-card man' was. If I'd wanted to explain it to a Greek, I'd have said, 'a swindler who plays Pappas'. Aha. In the US, it's called 'three-card monte', the playing-card equivalent of the shell game.

Now, if you knew all that already, and you love snobbery-with-violence, and you don't find British twits with an inborn sense of superiority insufferable, then you might really enjoy 'Saint' stories. Otherwise, you will run, and not walk, in the direction of something better, say a Buffy, the Vampire Slayer comic. Which has its own lore but less sexism, racism, nationalism, and etc.

Charteris also gets away with this kind of referencing because it is on-topic for the kind of story he's writing. He's telling us (for the umpteenth blinkin' time!) that his character is cool. So cool you could keep a side of beef in him for a month.

It's otiose, but it's on-topic. The audience ate up that kind of referencing. But Charteris knew better than to suddenly throw in a reference to, say, medieval plainchant. That would have driven the champagne-cocktails-at-six crowd away, but good.

On the other hand, Dorothy Sayers could throw in a plainchant reference. Her readers were into intellectual-snobbery-with-violence. Big-time.

Ancient Mariner Syndrome

Akin to the idea that your referencing should reinforce your audience's interests (and not yours, necessarily) is the idea that the references should be interesting. Interesting to the audience, Binky, not to you. If they ever get the slightest whiff that you are writing this to entertain yourself, they'll walk away. I'm not lying. Letting people know that you are writing this for personal therapy or to amuse yourself constitutes serious breach of contract. They'll never forgive you.

This is why, when an editor says, 'You have been going on for three pages about how to build a birdhouse, and quoting all kinds of birdhouse-building authorities. Take this out: it has nothing to do with the discovery of the corpse,' you'd better listen. Don't…

  • Make lists that interrupt the action.
  • Ever subject the reader to a table or a diagram. Who do you think you are, Agatha Blinkin' Christie?
  • Go on for more than one paragraph on how to do something like cook, clean a gutter, prune a rosebush, or build a birdhouse. Just cut it out. Unless, of course, this part is vital to the plot. In that case, interrupt frequently with more fun stuff. And make it interesting to read.
  • Go on and on about other works of literature, art, animé, or what-have-you, just to show how much research you've done. Nobody will be impressed.

Worse than them getting the idea that you're amusing yourself with your referencing is them getting the idea that you're one of those bores who feels that, now that you have their attention, you're free to drone on and on about whatever interests you. Please remember: even if you're crass enough to pull that stunt on a live audience, you can't get away with it in print. You know why? All they have to do is put down the book or change the webpage. The problem with being an Ancient Mariner is that they aren't at a Wedding Feast2. They're in their own homes. They have more control of this situation than you do.

Obscure Referencing

You know how we're always saying, 'do the research'? That goes for your audience, too. Know what they know, as much as you can. An education cartoon I designed almost 15 years ago started a bicoastal (US) email consultation on the subject of whether 15-year-olds would say 'da bomb'. Philadelphia said yes, Seattle wasn't sure. In the end, Philly won out, and my animated cartoon had a voiceover that said, 'Letitia says these shoes are da bomb,' along with a closeup of some very dangerous-looking platform heels.

How did I know teenagers said that? I listened to them in public. Unobtrusively, guys: don't be creepy about it.

If you use language your audience won't use, you may come across as old-fashioned, dorky, too intellectual, whatever. If your references put you squarely in a specific niche, the audience that doesn't belong to that niche will probably go away.

Someone once tried to get h2g2 interested in Pokemon fanfic. It turned out nobody who read h2g2 was into Pokemon fanfic. Even more surprisingly, nobody seemed willing to memorise page after page of character descriptions in order to understand the stories. Wonder why that was?

Don't make up endless 'lores' for your stories. Nobody will read them. Make your stories accessible. Explain as you go. Include readers, don't exclude them. Draw them in, don't shut them out. They'll learn to love your work as soon as they are reassured that you are writing for them, not yourself, and that you'll explain as you go.

It's a skill worth practising….as the actress said to the bishop.If you don't get that reference, you have a pure mind. Ask an English person.

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

07.01.19 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1You get that reference because you're reading something on h2g2.com.2Apologies if you didn't get that reference because you aren't a Samuel Taylor Coleridge fan. The Ancient Mariner buttonholed a guest at a wedding, and went on for stanza after stanza about a blinkin' albatross. Most students just read the Cliff Notes version. Oh, dear, did you get that reference? This is getting complicated….

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