Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The 5 Worst Mistakes I Saw As An Editor

So, I've mentioned in the past that I've worked as an editor. While I'm not currently in the red business, I did a few years in the trenches, and I saw some bizarre things. Now, I'm not going to name names, but I would like to share some of the most baffling mistakes and decisions I saw fellow authors make.

I'd prepare to make this face, if I were you.

Mistake #1: A Villainous Monologue (In An Empty Room)

Exposition is a bitch, especially if you're not writing from an omnipotent perspective where you can share the thoughts and motivations of your characters with the reader. One of the best ways to solve this problem is through dialogue. Your lead is having an intimate moment with a friend, and shares a dark secret, for example. Or maybe your rivals are smack-talking each other, and so context for their feud can be organically injected into the flow of your story. Perhaps the most over-used version of this is the villainous monologue. You know, the speech every Bond villain gives when the super spy is in an "inescapable" death trap, explaining their motivation and plan.

The villainous monologue works best, though, if there's another character present.

Yeah, that was my thought, too.
To put this into context, the bad guy was an evil sorcerer who was trying to acquire some vague, but powerful, macguffin. So instead of explaining why it mattered to an underling, or examining legends of the trinket, he held forth at great length about what it was, and how he was going to acquire it. To an empty room.

This is probably the worst means of exposition delivery I have ever seen. Sadly, it's cropped up in other places, too.

Mistake #2: An Entire City Full of Seven Characters

Not all novels need a huge cast. Cormac McCarthy can create a compelling work with two guys in a room talking about philosophy, after all. But when your book is set in the middle of a major city (which tactfully goes unnamed, somehow), and your entire cast consists of about seven characters, you've run into a serious problem.

Especially when one of them might as well be this yob.
Now, I don't mean seven main characters; I mean seven characters. Because there were no descriptions of crowds, and no exchanges with wait staff, the lead's neighbors, or any of his co-workers (except the one who turned out to be a satanic dragon... another story for another day), the book took on a sense of unreality. Especially when two members of the cast weren't even given names; they were two, young women working as cashiers whose only lines of dialogue were to confirm for the reader how attractive our lead was.

Pro tip for authors who want their books to remain evergreen; don't compare your characters to movie stars. We've already reached the point where Brad Pitt is that old guy who just divorced Angelina Jolie; comparing your lead to him is going to have no meaning at all to a lot of readers in the very near future.

Mistake #3: No Historical Research

One of the great freedoms of being an author is that you are the captain of the U.S.S. Make Shit Up. You have no idea what alien life would be like because you don't have twin degrees in biology and sociology? No problem, just make them engaging! You're not really sure on the science behind giant monsters? Who cares, they're giant monsters, your audience can deal with it!

Most of the time you can pull the, "my world, my rules," card, and be pretty confident about it. When part of your story is set in an ostensibly real time period, though, you can't hold up that everything-proof-shield anymore.

The beautiful hills of... what do you mean this is 500 years too early for my story?
The story in question was one of those romance novels where the plot is that the two leads were lovers in a past life, and they mysteriously meet and fall for each other again in the here and now. So far, so saccharine, but a hackneyed plot device is still a mostly functional core to build your plot around. And, like many novels that chose to use this particular plot device, the book alternated between scenes set in the past, and scenes set in the present.

The difficulty was that the scenes set in what was ostensibly the Middle East, sometime around the 7th century, felt more like deleted scenes from Disney's Aladdin. There was no mention of the culture, the city we were in was never named (though I strongly suspect it was supposed to be Baghdad), and the few details that were mentioned either used language that didn't fit the culture and time period, or were flat-out ridiculous.

When half your book is set in a real place, in a real time period, you can't just hand-wave the details. Even if your villain is using magic, summoning demons, and using a bound djinn to do his dirty work, you need to make that past life feel authentic, or the whole thing falls flat on its face.

Mistake #4: No Clue How Fights Work

Now, it's perfectly true that you can write a compelling story where there's no violence. Or, at least, no onscreen violence. Cozy mysteries are a good example of how you can build tension, and create character arcs, without a single punch ever being thrown.

With that said, if you're going to have your characters throw down, make sure you know what you're doing.

Here's a knife... do something with the knife.
Now, not everyone knows how to fight. That's a fair point. But if you spend a lot of text leading up to a brawl, and then it devolves into nothing more than a rugby tackle, it might be time to go back to the drawing board. Especially if your character is supposed to know what they're doing, but when it's time to throw down it all devolves into handbag slapping. I laid out some additional advice for this one in Author's Fight Club: Rules For Writing Better Fight Scenes.

Mistake #5: No Concept of Personal Safety

Now, I edited primarily for romance stories, and there are just certain tropes you accept when that genre comes across your desk. However, in order for characters to remain believable, it's important for their actions to have internal consistency. And there are just certain things that real people do not do when placed in certain situations.

No one pets the bear, for example. No matter how friendly he looks.
As a for instance, you are a woman who lives alone. You wake up, and in bed next to you is a man you've never seen before. He's dressed in strange, foreign clothing, and you have no idea how he got in, or what he did to you in your sleep. You don't shake his shoulder, and ask him how he got there; you call the goddamn cops. Which can raise all kinds of issues if he is, in fact, a magical time traveler who has no fingerprints, no visa, and doesn't speak a language anyone knows (since languages change over time, and crusades-era Arabic would be difficult to understand).

These situations crop up all the time. A woman is being aggressively followed by a man she's turned down multiple times, and if he didn't have a, "I'm the main character," sign over his head we'd immediately expect him to be arrested for stalking. A man who seems fairly normal, and even likable, sits a woman down and explains with a straight face that they have been lovers through a dozen past lifetimes. That is not someone with a special soul; he's mentally disturbed, and a possible threat.

Even if the far-fetched and ridiculous happens to be true in your book, you need to massage the situation so it doesn't come across as threatening, dangerous, or bat-shit bonkers. Especially if there's no proof, or even circumstantial evidence, to back up what someone is claiming.

Think about the scene from Terminator where Kyle Reese first explains to Sarah Connor that he's a time-traveler from the future, and that she's the mother of mankind's savior. Not only that, but she's been marked for death by a cybernetic kill droid that will not stop until she's dead. That look on her face? That's what happens when someone tells you something insane with no proof that he's actually here to protect/fall in love with you, and isn't just a dangerously deluded man with a stolen shotgun.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing topic. It was a little self-indulgent, but I hope that some folks out there found it amusing. If you'd like to help keep this blog going, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a little bread in my jar? And if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

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