Literary Red Flags
As many of you know, this week I’ve been spending my days reading rather than writing as both a nice mini-vacation and a way to look through as many of the recommendations for January Indie Blog month as possible. Sidenote: Is it too on the nose if I call that event the Drewgos? Yeah, it probably is. Anyway, the point is that since there are far too many books on the list for me to read, I had to start with samples and see which ones held my interest enough for me to keep going once we passed the 10% mark.
In going through it like this, however, I’ve started to notice more of the red flags that I pick up on that tip me off to the fact that perhaps a book needed a little more polish before going out into the world. Since critical reading is a big part of being a writer (at least when reading your own work) I thought it would be worthwhile to share some of my red flags, why they exist, and why even when I see them I’ll sometimes keep on reading.
Flag #1: First Person Narrative
Relax everyone; I’m not saying that first person is a bad way to write stories. It is, in fact, a really powerful tool that’s responsible for some truly great pieces of literature. If I’m settling in with an author I trust, then it’s not even a red flag for me. However, when exploring books by new authors seeing first person automatically makes me worried over what I’m about to step into.
I’ve talked about it here and there on other blogs, but my issue with first person is that while it’s in fact one of the hardest narrative perspectives to do well, it’s also the default choice for a lot of new writers. I’m not crapping on others from a hill here, my first attempt at a book (never published or on the net, thank god) was first person and it was horrid, this was a lesson I learned firsthand. First person seems like it should be easy, because it’s looking at the world from a single person’s perspective, and that’s what all of us do already. But the truth is first person is very limiting, yet you’ve still got to do all the other work a story demands through that one viewpoint. You have to build a world, other characters, tension, ambiance, and so much more all through one set of eyes. And that shit is hard. So it’s not a knock that most people, especially new writers still finding their style, don’t use the narrative especially well. It’s a good tool, and one that should be used, just not without reason.
When people ask me about stuff like this (I can’t believe it either, but the emails do come) I try to tell them that if you want to use first person, you need to have a reason for it, not assume it as the default. For me, I used first person for the Fred series because seeing the world through the filter of the character was important to setting the tone and general humor. One of my fellow web-serial-turned-ebook-writers did the same with Continue Online, where the limitations are important because uncertainty and discovery are big themes of the book. To use a commonly known example, from a well I’ve admittedly drawn from many times, Dresden Files works great as a first person because Harry Dresden has limited information, so you as the reader do to, which makes for a more thrilling read as the cases unravel. Like I said before, first person narrative is a great option to make solid stories, but it requires care and precision to be used well.
Flag #2 Starting with Worlds over Characters
In several of the books I’ve been looking at, especially the ones geared toward the fantasy genre, there has been a heavy emphasis on creating the world over introducing me to the characters. Now, I know some people with disagree will me here, but to me that reads as flawed storytelling. Yes, your world is very important, especially at the start of a new series, however there’s almost no chance it’s more important than your characters. The world is a setting, perhaps a grandiose and lovely one with endless possibility that a reader wants to dive into, yet still a setting. Characters, on the other hand, are the emotional hook that draws a reader in and makes them care about the world in the first place. Using the early sections of a book to establish how awesome and historic a world is can seem like it’s laying a foundation for awesome story-telling later, I get that. The problem is that if you don’t give a reader enough story to draw them in then they’ll never stay long enough to see it. Without a strong connection to the characters we’re basically reading a fictional history/geography textbook, and there’s a pretty small market of people who enjoy that.
I’m not saying world building isn’t important, mind you. It is, it really is. And I’m not even saying you have to eschew it entirely in the beginning. I’m just saying go slow, be sparing with what you give. All I need to start a book is where I am in a given scene. Give me that piece of the world first, and maybe sprinkle in some hints at what lays beyond that. A nice farming village where they occasionally find debris from an ancient battle, a kingdom’s capital where the threat of war hangs in the air, an island community made up of those who came for reasons unknown (for now) generations ago. Start small, and then slowly expand outward. Make each piece of the world interesting first, then let us see more of what’s beyond the boundaries as the characters move there. People, emotions, common experiences or desires, these are what ground us in a world no matter how mythical. Lay that foundation first, and then move us into the world.
Flag #3 Poor Editing
Look, I know I’m the last person who gets to talk shit about this. My editing skills are horrendous. It takes me two editors and a wonderful beta group to get my books to the state they’re published in. But part of me thinks that because it’s my area of weakness, I can say this to my fellow authors without sounding like I’m talking down to them: you need an editor. There might be people out there who don’t require one, geniuses and prodigies do exist, but never assume you’re one until you’ve got the track record to prove it.
I try to read a lot of indie, and that means I see a loads of books with real potential and awful editing. I don’t just mean typos and misplaced commas; though yes plenty of that too. I’m talking about badly structured discussions where it’s unclear who is speaking, whole chunks of exposition dropped into conversation without so much as a pause for someone else to ask a question, continuity errors large and small, and so much more. An editor is more than an expensive version of spellcheck, it’s a person who looks for these sorts of issues professionally and brings them to your attention. They may not always say what you want to hear, but if they’re good then they’ll tell you what you need to hear, and your book will be better for it. Even if you don’t take their suggestions, it will force you to look at the issue and find a way to improve.
In a pinch, if cash won’t permit paying for a true editor, then workshop the shit out of your book. Get critique partners, there are dozens of sites dedicated to matching up authors so they can look over one another’s work. Make sure someone else, someone impartial and not concerned about hurting your feelings, takes a long look at your work. Because there are mistakes there, whether you’re Neil Gaiman or an indie nobody like me. You need the input, the edits, to make a work stronger. We all do, and there’s no shame in that.
I think that’s enough red flags for this time around. I just want to take a minute to thank everyone for all their suggestions for January’s upcoming event. Despite how this blog might make it seem, you folks tossed out some great stories I’ve had a ton of fun reading, and I’ve still got a lot to get through. Thanks for sharing the books you loved with me!