Thoughts on Writing
#08: God Made The Mosquito
by Seanan McGuire
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.
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.
If I'm Writing Fiction, How Can I Be Wrong?
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
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?
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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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