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August 2022
 
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Thoughts on Writing

#08: God Made The Mosquito

by Seanan McGuire


This was one of the ones that turned out to be a little difficult to summarize, hence the oddly Vacation Bible School title of today's essay. Still, it's true that, as writers, we often assume that we're going to be the final authority and our own work. And sadly, that isn't always the case. Hence today's thought:

You are the author. That makes you, effectively, God. God created the mosquito. Sometimes, God can screw the pooch in a very big way. Being the author doesn't mean that you're incapable of being wrong. Sometimes, you'll write things that are out of character. Sometimes, you'll write things that are out of place. And sometimes, you'll write things that are just flat-out incorrect and inaccurate and insane and wrong. That's not a bad thing. The bad thing is refusing to admit it.

Essentially, I'm saying that no one gets to be infallible, not even the people who supposedly are. Oh, sure, we can cover it up with claims of being all-knowing, but that's not going to stop the spread of malaria. Today we're looking at authorial mistakes, learning to spot them, learning to resolve them, and having the will not to be ashamed.

Let's begin.

If I'm Writing Fiction, How Can I Be Wrong?

It's true that as authors of fiction, we are responsible for creating and defining entire worlds. Even authors who work primarily in 'the real world' have to create their characters and make decisions about which elements they're going to change. Chasing St. Margaret is an essentially 'real world' book. It contains no magic, no monsters, and no major scientific advances. It does, however, contain a lot of made-up people and even some made-up places, because otherwise, it would have been a very short, very boring read. 'There was never a girl named Margery, and she never went to England or had wacky adventures. Also, she never kept a journal, so this volume's conceit doesn't work.' This little snippet of deathless prose* would have been followed by a list of non-fiction works that would take more than fifteen seconds to read. There is no way to write fiction without making some stuff up. That's what writing fiction is.

But here's the thing. Good mathematicians still make mistakes. Oh, they can generally get four every time they try adding two and two, but when they move into the big equations, they're going to start slipping. Fiction works the same way. It's difficult to make mistakes with something really short -- 'Jane ate a sandwich. It was good. She got some milk, and went to watch television.' This is a pretty straightforward little sequence of actions, and it doesn't contain any essential flaws. If it were part of a longer story, the potential for error would get proportionately larger. What if the paragraph prior to Jane's arrival talked about her brother using the last of the bread? We are now assuming that either a) Jane brought her own bread, which I should have mentioned, b) Jane is using something in place of bread, which I, again, should have mentioned, or c) Jane defines 'sandwich' as 'a jar of peanut butter and a spoon.' Errors have been made.

That's just a continuity error. Continuity errors happen to the best authors in the world, and the only way to really avoid them is to keep copious notes and have really picky editors watching you every step of the way. I'm very talented when it comes to continuity errors, and once managed to introduce one in the very first page of a book. That was sort of awesome.

It's also possible for an author to be just flat-out wrong. Take, for example, one of my most recent projects, a supernatural romance called Discount Armageddon. It's a fast, somewhat fluffy book, and I'm having a lot of fun writing it. Only when I first started the book, I wasn't having fun. I wasn't having fun at all. It was slow. It was painful. And it was dead on the page. I was putting down the events of the story, events that I knew should be frothy and interesting and enough to hook you into the world I was trying to build, and even I was getting bored. What the hell was going on?

I was wrong about the book's appropriate point of view, that's what. I was trying to write the book in third person; the book wanted to be written in first person. Without correcting my approach, I was never going to get something I was willing to share, much less something other people were going to enjoy reading. As soon as I stepped back and rewrote everything to reflect the correct perspective, the text came to life, and while it still isn't perfect -- I'm going to make a lot more mistakes before I'm done -- it has the potential to be much more than it could have been before.

I have been wrong about the names, genders, religions, and racial background of characters. I have been so blinded by my own first impression of a story or situation that I couldn't see the finer details of something that I was the one writing. It happens. There's nothing wrong with being wrong, as long as you're willing to admit that it can happen, and more, as long as you're willing to take steps to fix it when you see the problem.

How Can I Write Something Out Of Character When They're My Characters?

The easiest -- or at least most universal -- example of this is television. Everybody watches television, and everybody's seen that episode where a character who normally behaves one way very blatantly behaves in another way for the sake of the plot. It's the smart character who's seen a lot of horror movies going into the basement of the abandoned mental hospital all by himself, at midnight, on the anniversary of the local tragedy. It's the dumb character who suddenly reveals an intimate knowledge of calculus just because otherwise, they're all going to die in a death trap. It's the sworn enemies working together for no applicable reason, just because they were both under contract for this episode.

It's entirely possible to write a character that you created, nutured, and know inside and out behaving in a manner than makes absolutely no sense. Maybe you were tired. Maybe you were in a hurry to get to the next part of the plot, the one that's really exciting you right now. Maybe your idea was just too cool not to use, and so you crammed it in wherever it would fit. Regardless, yes, you, the author, can totally break character. The trouble is that when you do that, it becomes canon, and you have to live with it. So if your character with the deeply rooted spiritual objection to swearing says 'fuck' in the middle of a firefight, and you don't catch it during revisions, you're going to be explaining yourself for the rest of time.

Some of it is authorial carelessness, and some of it is that we genuinely live in a different world than the one inhabited by our characters. In Toby's universe, for example, the fae have a very strong cultural taboo against saying 'thank you.' It's a huge deal for them. So when one of the characters in that world says 'thank you,' it's supposed to be this huge thing, literally earth-shaking. And in my early drafts, they all regularly thank each other. Not because I'm stupid or careless; just because I come from a world where you say 'thank you' to people who do things for you. I go through the manuscripts at least twice a draft, hunting and killing 'thank you' wherever it appears.

I am not a bad author. I am simply an author who can make mistakes with the behavior of my characters. I mean, hell, most of us can barely keep track of our own behavior half the time, and you expect me to be flawless with the behavior and beliefs and speech patterns of another eighty people? Yeah, not going to happen.

The issue is that sometimes, because we're the authors, and hence, the gods of our private realities, the urge to reply to 'this is out of character' with 'it can't be, I made them up' is pretty strong. It's a very stinging critique, and it really does speak straight to the core of the authorial ego: we are the creators! How dare you question us?! We made this place! WE ARE THE ALPHA AND THE OMEGA!

...the alpha and the omega really need to take a chill pill and maybe have a time-out before considering that critique again, okay? Because if you trust your editors and your test-readers and all the other people in a position to say that sort of thing, you really need to take the time to at least think about what they say to you. Not all critique will apply. I have a few characters who do things that may seem out of character intentionally, because there are things my readers don't know yet. Those are bits that stay. But frequently, my character-breaking moments get spotted first by other people.

What If I Don't See The Mistakes?

Learning to write cleanly isn't something that happens instantly; there's no secret formula anyone can give you for never ever ever ever messing up, especially once you're working with a really complicated universe. I wish there were, because if I was giving the formula out, I would presumably have the formula, and that would make me a very happy girl.

Writing cleanly is something like, say, learning how to beat a video game. It may take a few tries to beat level one, but eventually, you're going to be able to sail straight through, only making mistakes when you're sick or distracted or there's a bee in the room. Call this 'learning to compose a relatively error-free simple story.' Level two will be a little harder and take a little longer, but again, you're going to get it down. Call it 'learning to compose a relatively error-free, not-so-simple story.' And so on. This is a video game that doesn't have any pre-defined ending; as long as you're willing to keep playing, the game is going to keep presenting you with new challenges, and new levels that you'll need to fight through.

As you get better at the game, you're obviously going to reach higher levels...but you don't have to. In this game, you can keep playing the same level for as long as you want. So if you hit a level that you're comfortable with, feel free to stay there; that's where you know the terrain, and that's where you're having fun, and there is nothing wrong with that. There are good, successful authors who found their level early, and have spent their careers happily getting better and better at that one stage of gameplay. You don't have to keep forcing yourself to play the harder levels just because you think they're somehow 'required.' They aren't required. Writing a young adult novel is very different from writing, say, War and Peace. It takes different skills and different reactions. If you're comfortable writing one and not the other, feel free to stick with what you enjoy. They're your quarters, and liking your level is going to help keep you from making mistakes.

Abandoning that metaphor (at least for now), we're never going to be able to see all the mistakes we could potentially make in a piece, because the possibilities are endless. Everything from misspelling to out-and-out screwing up is going to happen at some point. I've written more books than I actually let myself think about, and I still got an edit back on one of my most recent manuscripts that read 'LOL SENTENCE FAIL.' There will always be errors, and we will always miss them. But we can learn! The more people point them out, the more we'll see them. (I've started to conquer my issues with the passive voice in early draft fiction because of this sort of brick-to-the-head approach.) Sure, maybe we're only learning in self-defense, but knowledge is knowledge, right?

So, Uh...How Do I Fix It?

Be afraid of nothing.

I'm serious, here. As I write this, I am in the middle of the fourth Toby book, Late Eclipses of the Sun. About a week ago, one of my test readers went 'do you realize that everyone in this block of chapters is an idiot?', and forced me to reconsider some text that I'd actually thought of as pretty solid. Once I started looking -- really looking -- I couldn't stop myself from seeing what she was talking about. And after I finished smacking my skull against the corner of my desk, I knew I had to fix it.

Repairing my own mistake required throwing out two chapters, replacing them with two new chapters, and then writing a third, completely original chapter to compensate for the changes this had made to my timeline and position within the text. That's a lot of dead darlings on the floor, and a much better book for having gone through the surgical adjustments. Did it hurt? Oh, yeah. I hadn't allowed for needing to do that sort of rewrite, and it threw my revision schedule for the weekend entirely out the window. I really liked some of the sequences that we lost. And more, I'm familiar with the text as it was before -- that's what I'm used to -- whereas this was a trip into the unknown. Not fun!

Very necessary. The book became visibly better as I worked, which is always a fascinating experience, and I feel a lot more confident in it now. Kill characters! Destroy chapters! Rip out and replant entire fields of plot! It's your book, and you can do whatever you want. Once you know the mistakes are there, be fearless in addressing them. The editorial machete is yours, my friend. Hack with pride.

Pride, I Can Do.

Just not too much pride, okay?

Look: every author makes mistakes. There is nothing to be ashamed about. I am not ashamed of making mistakes (although hoo-boy, would I be ashamed if some of those mistakes had gone to print); you shouldn't be, either. Join me in the shame-free club! We have juice.

At the same time, don't be one of those authors who smiles and says they've never done anything wrong, ever. People will listen to you will either a) know that you're lying and lose respect for you, or b) believe you. And that's worse. A lot of writers give up because clearly, they're the only ones who ever screw up. You and I both know that isn't true.

As Hannah Montana once said, everybody makes mistakes. Learn to fix them, learn to own them, and learn not to lie about them. You'll be a better author, and you'll be a lot more fun to talk to.

But the mosquito still sucks.


© 2009 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue will be published by DAW in September of 2009.

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