Somewhere Between Realistic and Noteworthy
March 18, 2014 39 Comments
I edit many books throughout a given month. Some are from established publishers, and some are manuscripts from author hopefuls. Some are rather enjoyable and I can foresee the author making a good career out of writing. And others? Not so much.
What’s the difference between the good and the bad?
What separates the talent from the terrible?
One word: Limitations.
Both in fiction and nonfiction I find people trying to break the boundaries of their genres or subject matter.
When you’re writing fiction, you’ve absolutely got to know your plot and your story.
Nothing irritates me more as an editor when I read pages and pages of material that has nothing whatsoever to do with the story. No one wants to read a page an a half of two people talking about dinner plans. Just skip that and get the couple to dinner already.
When writing, you can safely skip any ordinary event that happens in real life. Your readers will get that your characters have to go potty a couple times a day; you don’t need to remind us.
Some writers, it seems, just want to up their word-count.
One of the greatest movies ever made is only 81 minutes long. No one would want a single frame added to it, because it’s perfect just the way it is. (Can you guess what movie I’m talking about?)
If the writer isn’t breaking the limits of mundane and plot-driven scenes, then their breaking the limits of natural order.
Here’s an example.
Ever heard of the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind?
It’s okay if you haven’t. To really appreciate this story, you must know that I am a Nazi when it comes to finishing books. If I start a book, no matter how terrible it is, no matter how long, or how dull, I absolutely must finish it even if we were on the brink of the apocalypse.
I actually suffered through all of Swiss Family Robinson - that’s how dedicated I am.
So back to the Sword of Truth books. These are fantasy books that are over a thousand pages. I read the first one, and enjoyed it enough to pick up the second one.
But the rules of nature and reality were being broken left and right. I’m not talking reality was compromised because no one can find a secret world in a wardrobe, or it’s impossible to fly, or other worlds don’t exist. Those kinds of rules are okay to break because there really could be a secret world in your closet, and with the right amount of pixie dust and happy thoughts, you really can fly (can anyone point me to a happy thought, please? Just kidding, honey).
But when the main character is being tortured beyond endurance for over 400 pages and he’s still able to sword fight just because the author says so, it really makes it difficult to suspend disbelief.
So, in this thousand-plus page book, this book-completing Nazi closed it, and set it down for good – at page 989! I couldn’t take any more of it. I couldn’t read one more sentence about how Richard screamed at the top of his lungs in pain when in reality, he should have been dead by page 472.
I read it many years ago, and from what I can remember, there was nothing magical or fantastical that was keeping him alive, except maybe his love for the heroine (the girl, not the drug… or maybe he was on heroin…).
At any rate, embrace the laws of nature and use them to propel suspense in your stories. Don’t allow your characters to live just because you want them to. If someone gets decapitated by a semi, start writing that character’s obituary.
Know your genre and stick with it.
Know the story and stick with it.
Know what’s real and not real, then start breaking the rules. But please, keep it realistic, no matter how fantastical it is, but not so realistic that I feel like I’m reading a minute-by-minute account about my own mundane non-eventful Monday.
Does that make sense?
Need an editor? Hire me.