Tuesday, February 21, 2012

TUESDAY TIPS AND TIDBITS – Two deadly writing sins that will ruin any book

Two serious ‘writing sins’ authors often commit can ruin a story and make the reading experience less than satisfactory. I’m not talking about authorial failures like bad plotting or poor dialog. I’m talking about two behaviors or attitudes authors often exhibit when writing. These are: ignorance and arrogance. Each alone can mar a story, but combined, they can be deadly.

IGNORANCE. This one is pretty straightforward. A writer who is ignorant of (or chooses not to bother confirming) accepted grammar/punctuation rules can make reading difficult, even unpleasant for readers. Likewise, a writer who doesn’t know enough background or support information about a subject that is crucial to his story can end up making the story seem implausible, even laughable. Things like police procedures in a murder mystery, or the logistics of space travel in a science fiction novel, should be based on reality and known scientific concepts to seem authentic to the reader, even if these fictional truths or technologies are purely inventions of the writer’s imagination.

So, the mystery/thriller/crime writer who doesn’t know the business end of a gun from a gum-shoe should at least spend a little time in the library or on the internet looking at how the police force in his story’s setting is structured, and take a look at some gun sales web sites to figure out the difference between a rifle and a pistol. Likewise, if a science fiction writer isn’t good at extrapolating scientific fiction ‘factoids’ from known science facts, then at least a quick visit to Wikipedia should be on his list of things to do before publishing his story. There are also many free web sites that explain various grammar grapplers, including comma usage, dialog punctuation, and so forth. There are even a free online dictionaries and encyclopedias available, although sites whose information is provided by volunteers should be double-checked elsewhere for accuracy.

It’s OK for a writer who is not sure of any aspect of his story to go ahead and finish a first draft and put in a few notations like ‘look this up later.’ But eventually that research aspect of writing has to be done. With all the sources available, there is no excuse for a writer to remain ignorant about the basics of writing or factoids necessary to lend authentic details to his story. But, sadly, many writers ignore this at their peril and to the detriment of their stories. At that point, writing flaws cannot be chalked up to ignorance, but instead laziness.

ARROGANCE. This is the worst of the deadly writing sins. And at the risk of stereotyping, I am going to go ahead and say that writers of high fantasy are the most prone to be guilty of this bad writing attitude. Paranormal fantasy writers can oftentimes be strong runners-up. The reason for this, I think, is that writers of fantasy believe that the fantasy genre gives them unlimited license to write any damn thing they want and, by virtue of ‘because I say so,’ expect their readers to accept it without question. That belief is simply not correct in the world of writing well.

Writers who use magic as the basis for fantastic things that happen in their stories have to first define the rules of how magic works in their world. The rules must be consistent and work as expected. That doesn’t mean there can’t be surprises. But any surprise that deviates from the rules laid down by the writer better have a believable explanation and a prior ‘fair warning’ set-up in the story so the reader doesn’t cry, “Foul!” Alas, many a quest/fantasy writer will pull the most unbelievable surprises out of his elven hat simply because of the arrogant belief that this is his story, and he can do whatever he wants with it. And if readers don’t get it or like it, then they are not true fantasy fans. (Yes, there really are authors who hold fast to this belief. None of them are published though, and if they are, their books are not very popular.) This type of literary snobbery can be seen in literary fiction too, where an author will write some stream-of-consciousness BS without any concern whatsoever for the difficult reading experience it creates. Why? Because, in this author’s mind, it’s not about the reader, it’s all about the author and whatever he feels like writing at the time. This kind of inappropriate, self-centered attitude most often stems from inexperience and a lack of understanding of what makes great literature great.

The same holds true for writers of every other genre. Science fiction wannabe writers too are guilty of thinking that concept trumps everything, even logic and believability. I recently posted an article at http://penumbrapublishing.blogspot.com about fiction flawed concepts. But poorly supported concepts are not all that can plague science fiction. What I find most of the time when I read science fiction is that the author simply doesn’t think things through about the logistics of what is supposed to be possible in his science fiction universe. Time travel, faster-than-light space travel, and other technologies that clearly have not been invented yet in our reality, should have a believable timeline for becoming available, especially if the story is a futuristic extension of our own world reality. Oftentimes in less than 300 years, there are human colonies on other planets that have clearly had to be there for 300 years to reach the level of technology and the number of past generations apparent in the story, yet there’s no believable timeline for how and when those people got to those colonies before they physically should have been there to fit the story’s claims. Again, arrogance is most often at fault, with the author believing that the genre of science fiction gives him free license not to have to support his story hypotheses with facts or pseudo-facts based on facts.

And when you have cross-genres like science fiction romance, any attempt at explaining the technology that would be necessary to support the story usually just flies out the window with the spaceship. I have read some science fiction romance that was written by a former physicist, and that was technologically believable. But in that case, the author did have the science background necessary to make the fictional version of science believable. What happens in most science fiction romance, however, is that the romance totally outstrips the science fiction so that you just have a bunch of oddly dressed hunky men running after women on a spaceship. They could just as well be oddly dressed hunky men running after women on a desert isle, and the story would be no different because the believable science fiction basis for the story simply hasn’t been established well enough by the writer. Those kinds of stories are usually called ‘futuristic’ because they don’t even pretend to compare to ‘hard’ science fiction that’s more about the technology and the concept than personal character interaction. Unfortunately, there is no ‘futuristic’ genre category choice on most book distribution retail sites, so ... let the reader beware.

LOSE THE ATTITUDE, WRITER DUDE. On behalf of all readers out there (including me), I beseech newbie writers and lazy writers and writers wanting to try a new genre ... get rid of any notion that some genres gives you free license not to write well. Get rid of the snobbery of attitudes such as, “Those readers just didf’t understand what I was trying to do with this story.” Do your homework and research whatever you need to in order to make your story the best it can be in your hands. Think of the reader before your own ego, and write not for the market but for the reader hiding within you that wants to read an excellent story. When you do that, your story’s closer to being publishable.

Pat Morrison, Penumbra Publishing


Charles O'Keefe said...

Hi Pat,

Nice article! I agree that research and believability is important to a story. While arrogance and ignorance are anathema to it. If anyone has read the "Dark Tower" by Stephen King they know that by book 6 he just does whatever he feels like. Like having Dr. Doom look-alike, lightsaber, Harry Potter snitch throwing grenade robots (I'm not kidding!) as the villians (they also steal children to suck the brain fluids out of them) oh and the only way to kill them is to shoot at a tiny object on top of their heads. Vampires seem a lot more believable in comparison ;)

Natasha Larry said...

Well said. I don't think you start mastering your craft until you realize that you most likely suck. Then embrace that you don't have to. Its very liberating. I tell myself I suck at least... three times a day =)

Walter Knight said...

Vampire stories are allowed to suck.

Natasha Larry said...

I think there is a movie about vampire stories and sucking.... What's it called again?

Penumbra Publishing said...

That would be ... DUSK TIL DAWN ... one of the worst vampire movies ever. Well, there are lots of them, but that one did pretty much suck. It couldn't make up its mind whether to be scary or gory or funny, so it went for all three and excelled at none. Typical Tarantino. (And no offense intended if you actually like his work.)

I'm all for experimentation in writing, but I like to see it done well. Of course, as in everything, judging what's good is subjective.

Natasha Larry said...

LOL. I was thinking Vampires Suck, but that's a good answer too. I looove Tarantino. One of my faves is Pulp Fiction, I've never actually seen Dusk Til Dawn.

Julie Frayn said...

Great post - and love the illustrative pics. Almost every time I get a critique I think, well they just didn't get it. Then quickly kick my own @$$ and realize, they didn't get it because I didn't write it right. Then edit until it makes sense to someone other than me... :)

Natasha Larry said...

I think that's a great attitude to have, Julie. I'm pretty much the same way. Its a process =)

Penumbra Publishing said...

Yes, great attitude Julie. Critiques aren't fun, especially if you're expecting all kudos, but thank someone who'll tell you the truth. Treasure someone who can tell the truth and make it not hurt so bad...