Tag Archives: mistakes

Copyediting: the agony and the… whatever.

This month, I have got no writing done whatsoever. This is because I’ve been copyediting someone else’s book. Well, copyediting sounds a bit posh; what I was actually doing was reading it and marking comments in the margin like: Terry Pratchett says using more than one exclamation mark is a sign of insanity. And: Meteorology is the study of weather; metrology is the study of measurements. It is important not to confuse the two.

The interesting thing here is that my friend had already edited it himself and given it to someone else to edit, and he thought that two passes through would have got rid of all the stuff that needed getting rid of. This proved not to be the case, and I made enough comments to justify my continued existence. It was, however, a learning experience all round.

The most important thing my friend learned, of course, was that he hadn’t caught all the errors. When you’re self-publishing, this matters. You can blame your publisher if you like, but when that’s you, it’s a bit counterproductive. If you’re an indie author, when a reader spots the error, he doesn’t say “Poor author, why couldn’t his publisher pay for a decent editor?” – he says “Why is this bloke publishing a book? He’s clearly illiterate.”

Take home lesson: three sets of eyes is good. (Different people, obviously. Otherwise it’s… unusual.)

For me, I learned:

  1. Two people can read the same sentence in quite different ways. (“Oh, so that’s what you were after. I get it now.”)
  2. You have to concentrate more when you get to the climax because you’re more likely to miss things. (“This is a flying saucer battle! And you expect me to concentrate on whether a comma or a semicolon would be better?”)
  3. I’m quite good at spotting errant commas, and I have an unnatural love of, or possibly obsession with, semicolons.

I also learned some things about writing; copyediting someone else’s work forces you to slow down and think about what you’re reading. Pacing was the main one: my friend’s book was beautifully paced. Everything flowed naturally, the plot cantering along, until it accelerated into a gallop for the climax, and all the threads came together. It’s something I shall have to try to replicate in my own writing, if I can.

All in all, it’s an experience I would definitely recommend to anyone else thinking of self-publishing. If only because once you’ve checked someone else’s, it should be relatively easy to guilt them into doing yours…

The Ordinary Hero

This week, I read four books from two different series, both of which featured what I’ll call an ‘ordinary heroine’ – that is, someone who doesn’t use kick-ass powers, but is actually quite powerless (at least, in comparison to the characters around them). This is an Everyman sort of character; the ordinary Joe who steps up when the plot descends on him, wrecking his humdrum life, as opposed to someone who is already in a traditionally plot-prone position, such as a private investigator etc.

Written In Red by Anne Bishop

Written In Red by Anne Bishop

The first and second books were Written in Redthe first book in the Others series by Anne Bishop, and the follow-up book, Murder of Crows. In these books, Meg Corbyn isn’t quite an Ordinary Jo, because she can see the future when her skin is cut. However, that ability (in-universe, she’s a cassandra sangue – blood prophet) has meant she has been kept a prisoner for her whole life, forced to prophesy to make money for her captors. When she escapes, therefore, she has no life skills and no money. She therefore accepts a job as Human Liaison to the Courtyard in the town where she ends up. The Courtyard is where the supernatural creatures live, and in this world, the supernatural entities are in charge, and they eat humans.

Meg’s job is basically to be in charge of the post room, taking in deliveries and making sure that they get to the right place within the Courtyard, which actually appears to be quite a large compound. Human Liaisons don’t tend to last long – they either quit or get eaten, and even while alive they tend to be pretty uninterested in actually doing their job right.

So, moving on to what makes Meg the Ordinary Heroine. Despite her power of prophecy, she’s decidedly underpowered when living amongst vampires, wereanimals, a being that all the others are scared of, and elementals. However, she maintains her position as centre of the story not because she’s some kind of human MacGuffin, but because of her attributes as a person. She is the first Liaison to take the job seriously and actually do it right, and this means she becomes valuable to the fairly terrifying creatures living in the Courtyard. She also tries to go beyond just being a glorified post-girl, and tries to find solutions to problems – sometimes, due to her lack of experience of the real world, in innovative way. This leads to the supernatural creatures starting to see first Meg herself, and then other humans who work for the Courtyard, as something other than prey. Since she has been kept prisoner from birth, and has no experience of real life, the reader also gets to see Meg learning how to cope with the outside world – even deliberately trying out different types of music and writing down whether she likes them or not, for future reference.

Meg, however, remains decidedly underpowered. Her position within the plot depends on the relationships she forges with the other characters, and their reactions to her. We also get to learn more about the supenatural creatures by the way they react to Meg. By the end of book 1, she has changed the dynamic between the Courtyard and the human town, and further changes are afoot. In some ways, she is a catalyst for change rather than an agent of change – but the setup works very well. Meg learns and grows, and in Book 2, she is more confident, has consolidated her position, and is starting to use her power as a cassandra sangue to benefit her new friends and employers in the Courtyard.

Dark Currents, by Jacqueline Carey

Dark Currents, by Jacqueline Carey

The second pair of books were Dark Currents and Autumn Boneswhich are the first two books in Jacqueline Carey’s  Agent of Hel series.

The heroine of the Agent of Hel series is Daisy Johannsen, hellspawn – the offspring of a human mother and demon father. She lives in small-town Pemkowet, MI, which is one of the places which have a functioning underworld (this one being run by the Norse goddess Hel) and thus magic works and supernatural creatures exist. Daisy is a part-time file clerk with the Pemkowet police department, and for reasons which are not entirely clear, she is also Hel’s liaison with the mortal world and thus responsible for keeping the supernatural peace in Pemkowet. Although Daisy’s emotions can affect the world around her, if she embraces her demonic birthright, it will (we are told, although it’s unclear why) touch off Armageddon.

I really enjoyed the first book; Daisy was kind of ditzy and made a lot of mistakes, but she was dealing with her first real challenge as Hel’s liaison. The plot was pretty good, with some interesting moral ambiguities. Unfortunately, the second book didn’t live up to the standards set by the first book.

Unlike Meg Corbyn, Daisy Johannsen didn’t seem to have learned anything from the events of the first book – she was still ditzy, still careless, and still making stupid mistakes which put those around her in danger. Furthermore, since the Agent of Hel books are written in the first person, the reader doesn’t get to see anything from any other character’s point of view, or any scenes where Daisy is not present. This is a problem because with an ‘ordinary heroine’, since the main character’s powers aren’t making them the protagonist, it has to be character. Why do the other characters in the book let her take the lead, or take any notice of her at all? Why do they rally round? Why does she make a difference? Why, in fact, don’t they just ignore her and roll right over the top of her? Meg Corbyn did her best to help people, and we got to see her working out how to deal with real life (and werewolves). Daisy Johannsen, on the other hand, didn’t really seem to be making much of an effort at all.

On the romance front, being paranormal fantasy, there are the obligatory Hot Guys. One, in the case of Meg, and three in the case of Daisy. It was pretty easy to see what the Hot Guy saw in Meg: she was hard-working, loyal, caring, and sweet. With Daisy, it’s a lot harder. She didn’t seem to be very good at her job, didn’t seem to be interested in improving, didn’t seem to have any hobbies or interests other than watching old movies with her mother, and, all in all, seemed to be a bit of an idiot. What was making all these Hot Guys pant after her? I could believe one (no accounting for taste) but three? Daisy’s attitude to adversity pretty much seemed to be to ignore it until it went away, which it promptly did. She spent as much time worrying about which Hot Guy to choose as she did potential Zombie Apocalypse, which not only made me wonder about her priorities but also rather destroyed the pacing of the story.

Comparing the two, we have two heroines who are underpowered compared to the other supernatural characters in the book. Yet they each maintain a central role. In the case of Meg Corbyn, this is accomplished not only because of her own actions, but also because of the relationships she creates and maintains with the other characters, producing a domino effect of change which goes beyond anything she could have accomplished alone. In The Others, we therefore have a group of central characters tied to Meg, all of whom we get to know. Meg, however, remains the centre of the story about whom all of the others orbit. Meg also grows and develops throughout the two books, so while she starts Book 1 naive and pretty helpless, by the end of Book 2 she has greater agency – and we can look forward to more in Book 3, as she consolidates her position within the Courtyard and learns how and when to use her powers safely for the benefit of herself and her friends.

In the case of Daisy Johannsen, the same growth doesn’t happen. She’s as hapless at the end of Book 2 as she is at the beginning of Book 1. This is frustrating, because she never seems to learn from he mistakes, or to start to really take responsibility. The Armageddon thing, which is never explained, precludes her using her hellspawn powers, and many problems in both books are solved by other, more powerful characters, coming to the rescue (often because Daisy’s ditziness has created the dangerous situation in the first place). Although Daisy manages to have sex with two different men, both men are so two-dimensional that we don’t know what they see in her, and even Daisy doesn’t seem to have any interesting thoughts about them other than “he’s sexy”. Even an Ordinary Heroine has to grow and develop throughout the book/series – whether that’s power, skill, relationships, whatever. There has to be change. So Daisy not only fails to step up and really start to take responsibility as Hel’s liaison, but she also doesn’t grow as a person. Such a shallow, ditzy main character has neither the depth nor the grit to sustain an interesting plot over two books, so the plot of the second book fails. Or, possibly, if the plot had been better, Daisy would have had to develop some depth of character in order to deal with it.

The Ordinary Heroine (or hero) is one of the most difficult to write, because the character doesn’t have special powers to carry the plot and justify their central place in it. They have to have enough – well – character to make it believable that other, more conventionally powerful characters will follow their lead, or at least take notice of them. Even if they start out being pretty useless, they have to learn from their mistakes and use whatever skills or powers they do have to the best of their ability. Failing this, the story will start to come apart, or readers will lose interest in, or be frustrated by, a protagonist who does not seem to justify the way the other characters act towards her.

Reality check…

You know what really, really annoys me?

OK, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Actually, no, this is not going to be a list of things that really annoy me – maybe I’ll do that later. This is going to be about bloody careless authoring.

Any book set in the real world has potential pitfalls for the unwary author. Pure fantasy/sci-fi is easier because you can set things up how you want. But reality has been already set up by a different author, and you are not allowed to change it.

Take the book I am currently reading, Alchemystic, by Anton Strout.

The protagonist, Alexandra (Lexi) Belarus, is a twenty-two year-old woman. In one of the first chapters, she’s attacked by a guy with a knife. According to the book, he is behind her, holding a knife to her throat, and she kicks up backwards with her Doc-Martened foot, and gets him in the ‘nads. Upon which, he lets go of her, and she legs it.

OK. I challenge you to do this.

Not with a real knife-wielding maniac, of course; get yourself a nice friendly man who’s willing to risk being kicked in the bollocks. I used my ever-so-devoted husband when I tried this.

And guess what? Exactly what I expected to happen, happened. Or rather, didn’t happen. OK, so I’m short – only 5’3″ – but my devoted husband is not exactly Mr Tall. He’s only 5’8″. And, no matter how hard I tried, my legs were not long enough to reach his testicles when kicking up backwards. It’s a matter of geometry: my knees are low enough that the distance from knee to foot is less than the distance from my knee to his balls. So my husband’s assets were perfectly safe. If I had been a few inches taller (i.e., with longer legs), I might have been able to do it, but only with a short man. And it wouldn’t have been a very powerful kick. Also, as my husband pointed out, the minute he felt me going for the backwards kick, he’d drag me backwards by my neck. Or knife me.

So, to continue. Ms Lexi Belarus is from a swimming-in-it rich real estate family, and she’s going to inspect some renovation work being done on one of their properties. She discovers that the bad guys have killed the contractors and left their broken, bloody bodies on the premises. The other protagonist of the story (an animated stone gargoyle) crashes through the roof to save her when the bad guys attack her. He suggests disposing of the bodies of the contractors, and she tells him no, just leave them there and make it look like the roof collapsed on them.

OK, I’m British. Maybe we do things differently over here, but the Health and Safety Executive are pretty hot on work-related deaths. In Britain, the sensible thing to have done would have been to have rung the police and reported the deaths as murder (which, of course, they were) and disclaim all knowledge of why someone would want to kill a bunch of building contractors (other than the usual not showing up and taking twice as much time and four times as much money as they quoted when they do put in an appearance, obviously). Making it look like work-related deaths would mean the HSE crawling all over your entire organisation for weeks, looking at your safety procedures, checking that you are complying with legislation, trying to work out how the roof collapsed and why the guys were standing under it when it did… you get the picture. When you add this to an entire building collapsing on Lexi’s brother in practically the first chapter, this has the potential to be a health and safety disaster that will have serious adverse consequences for the family business.

Or is it different in the USA? Is it viewed as perfectly acceptable for people to work in an unsafe environment? Does death in the workplace count as natural causes?

I’m not even a third of the way through the book yet, and already the author has shown a lack of basic research. Surely he knows other human beings who would be willing to act out the knife attack scene and thus prove that testicles at the usual elevation are generally out of reach of a backwards-kicking foot? Or does he have abnormally low-hanging ‘nads?

But, to get back to my main point, as an author you have to know a little bit about everything. You don’t need to be an expert in building regulations – you just need to know what the likely results of an alleged workplace death are likely to be, and is it likely to be more, or less, trouble than a murder investigation? You don’t need to be a great martial artist – you just need to know how far a man’s testicles are off the ground (this is useful information in any case, even if you’re not writing a book).

These points may seem small, but they do add up. You read book reviews, and you’ll see lots of it. I know someone who was reading Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom. It’s a good book – I’ve read it myself – but it was pointed out to me that Sansom refers to the Portuguese shipping slaves to the Americas; unfortunately, the book is set some thirty years before the Portuguese started doing this. Duh…

There are more subtle mistakes to be avoided, too. Your characters need to act in a way that is believable. Again, in Alchemystic, Lexi and her friends discover a corpse in the private park to which Lexi (being rich) has access to. Some cops show up, and, to cut a long story short, right from the beginning the cops are unpleasant and aggressive, with much waving around of guns. OK, I’m British, and our police don’t routinely carry firearms. But I do know that drawing any kind of weapon immediately ups the ante. You’re always going to get the odd idiot who puts on a uniform and thinks he’s boss of the universe, but mostly the police response is to try to keep things calm and not let the situation, whatever it is, get out of hand. You do not go out of your way to offend people, or to put them on the defensive, and you don’t start waving your handgun around unless there is a need for it. Not only is that kind of attitude likely to bring in a complaint against you, but it makes your job harder. So why did the author write the cops the way he did? Their attitude seemed to me to be totally out of keeping with the way most police officers would act. Their attitude didn’t add anything to the story, so it wasn’t even narratively useful, although that would still be a pretty poor excuse.

You don’t have to be a psychologist, but you do have to avoid making a character act in an unrealistic way to satisfy some plot point (or just out of pure carelessness, which is worse). It may seem like a good way to achieve your objective, but in the long-term you fail, because by taking this short cut – by not thinking about a more realistic way to achieve your ends, even if it’s more difficult to write – you undermine the credibility of your storytelling as a whole.

Myself, I can forgive one or two little mistakes, as long as they’re not important to the plot, and they’re not too obvious. But big, obvious mistakes, or a lot of them, makes it clear that the author hasn’t even tried to do any research. And that, to me, not only says that he (or she) is a sloppy writer, but also that they have no respect for me as a reader. If they think they don’t need to bother to get simple stuff like testicle-foot geometry right, then obviously they have a very low opinion of my intelligence. And I don’t see why I should put up with being treated like that; I wouldn’t put up with that kind of lack of respect from somebody I knew – why should I put up with it from a stranger? I’m certainly not going to pay money for it.

OK, rant over. One day I’ll write something, and you guys can all come and rip it to bits in return!