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Cruel to be Kind: Don’t let your characters off too easily

‘If there isn’t any fighting, it’s not a proper story.’ – My four-year-old son.

During my romance-editing days, I read an MS that’s stuck with me for years, although not in a good way. The conflict-packed synopsis was much as follows. (I have removed/changed all identifying details, obviously, while reproducing the essence of the problem.)

Hero is a single dad with an important job. Someone is trying to sabotage his work / kill him. Heroine is a spy and dedicated career woman. Sparks fly, but she doesn’t want to settle down from her exciting life and he needs stability for his child. While she’s saving his life, can he change her mind about love?

Let’s take a look at the challenges facing our couple, and how they cope.

Is he the kind of alpha male who struggles with being protected by a woman?

No. He has no issues at all with this, being totally without gender politics issues, and a perfectly reasonable person who accepts her professional expertise.

He’s a single dad. He can’t have a relationship with someone who might get shot at any time, plus she has to win over his child.

She meets the child in ch 2. They love each other on sight. Heroine decides to abandon her career by ch 4, without difficulty. Turns out she didn’t like the job anyway.

Someone’s trying to kill the hero.

It was a hilarious misunderstanding. There was no threat to his life or safety.

Etc. The synopsis methodically set up a row of problems, which the narrative defused as soon as each came up. It was enragingly pointless. The author basically couldn’t bear to have bad things happen to the characters. Without which, there is no suspense at all, romantic or otherwise.

If there’s no stakes, there’s no story. If your characters are getting on fine, if the threat is ineffectual, if your characters’ problems fall away as soon as they appear, the reader can’t take any more than a passing mild enjoyment in their success. Your characters earn the readers’ commitment and support by what they have to face and overcome, or cope with, or even just survive. Every time you take away a character’s problem (rather than making them deal with it) you weaken your book.

And it is very easy to do, even when you don’t realise that’s what you’re doing. In my thriller Non-Stop Till Tokyo (coming out with Samhain next year), the heroine Kerry’s best friend Noriko has been attacked and left for dead by yakuza gangsters. She is in hospital with brain damage and can’t be moved, so the yakuza use threats to her as a lever against Kerry, thus forcing our heroine into an impossible position – a helpless lone young woman against a mob. (Although she’s not entirely helpless, of course…)

About 2/3 of the way through the first draft – and I am embarrassed to type this – you know what I did?

I killed Noriko. I went for the big dramatic scene of Kerry’s grief and swearing steely revenge etc, not noticing that I had just taken away one of the main pillars of the plot and there was now no reason for Kerry not to run away from the yakuza and the rest of her troubles. Unsurprisingly, my story’s tension and credibility melted like ice cream in a toddler’s hand. Once this was pointed out by a wiser head than mine, I resurrected Noriko, Kerry’s problems increased exponentially, and the tensions and rhythms of the story, and consequent reader involvement, fell right back into place.

Don’t take away your characters’ problems. They might thank you, but your reader won’t.

Being an Editor: The other stuff

– This contract is asking for a definition of ‘Editor’, can you supply something?

– How about ‘irritable, tea drinking pedant’?

– I’ll put that in the boilerplate.

What editors do all day has been brilliantly summed up in this handy pie chart from Sarah Fletcher (www.sarahjhfletcher.com and @sjhfletcher).

being-an-editor

I can’t better that, but it made me think of some of the other things that I have done as an editor aside from make tea and swear at Word.

  • Briefed an illustrator to draw an invisible dragon.
  • Negotiated swear words. (‘You can have all the twats and both pricks but we have to lose the shit.’)
  • Written the hitherto untyped sentence, ‘We’re going to need a lot more accordions in this.’
  • Fielded calls from men pitching erotic novels who want to explain the ins and outs of the plot. Tip: the purpose of their call may not be to pitch a novel.
  • Measured the slush pile with a ruler. (9 feet 4 inches.)
  • Let a particularly loquacious author keep talking on the phone just to see how long she would go on unchecked. Cracked at 1 hour 20.
  • Edited a book translated from the Chinese, where the author had used English quotes for the chapter epigraphs, translated them into Chinese, and now couldn’t supply the originals. Spent a day in the library attempting to source original quotes based on text that had gone into Chinese and out again. Speed read Tom Jones in the process. Didn’t find the quote.
  • Worked out what had gone wrong when the MS included several big chunks of text like this but extending to entire paragraphs:

 Ks,rd ;sihjrf jrstyo;u/ |Upi do;;u ;oyy;r yjomg.| jr rcv;so,rf/

and retyped it into English.

  • Used the word ‘tweak’ to describe both the alteration of a semi-colon to a colon, and a complete rewrite of the ending.
  • Had an email argument with an author over a single comma that lasted two full days and eventually covered three sides of A4 with closely argued reasoning, examples and citations.
  • Discussed the finer points of editing erotica including dubious consent with a colleague while out one evening. Silenced the entire pub.

So if you’re wondering why the editor still hasn’t got back to you on your MS…this is what she’s doing.

Or making tea. One of them, anyway.

Speech Verbs, and Why You Shouldn’t

My brother used to wind people up by adding speech tags in conversation.

Me: I was going to the shops –

Him: “She announced.”

Me: And I saw this bloke –

Him: “She revealed.”

Me: Will you shut up?

Him: “She demanded” – Ow, that really hurt!

Me: “He yelped.”

Speech tags can be just as annoying for a reader, plus you can’t punch the author. All the following horrible speech tags are real examples I’ve encountered as an editor, and all of them jar me right out of any immersion as a reader.

This is Not a Synonym For “Said”

“I’d like a drink,” she averred.

“It’s a nice day,” she opined.

“My name is John,” he pronounced.

See also ‘declared’, ‘asserted’, etc.

These are all (more or less) acts of speech, but they are attention-grabbing, a bit jargony, have specific meanings, and are absolutely not synonyms for ‘said’. I don’t need ‘opined’ to work out that a character is expressing an opinion, and if she isn’t expressing an opinion, then it’s the wrong word. The only reason I want to read ‘pronounced’ is if a character’s name is Xgafjbnvk and he’s explaining how to say it.

If a character is doing something with their speech that the author needs to convey – whispering, hissing, snarling or shouting – that’s fine. (If used sparingly, and if the dialogue supports it. Even better is to make the dialogue snarly or shouty.) But using a tag as a regular synonym for ‘said’, rather than conveying a precise meaning about how the character spoke… basically, just don’t.

This is Not a Speech Verb At All

“I agree with you,” he nodded.

You can nod your head till they give you a red hat with a bell on it and force you into a dubious relationship with an elderly gnome, but it won’t create audible speech.

“Wonderful,” she smiled.

Smiling is not speaking, nor is laughing, or giggling. This may not bother everyone but it bothers the hell out of me. They are different acts. Speak with a giggle, smile after you speak, rely on the dialogue to create the character’s light and joyous mood. Or use these as speech verbs and watch me have a brain haemhorrage on your MS. Whichever.

“I – I’m not sure,” she hesitated.

Yuk. Not only is this not a speech verb, but it’s one of those cases where either the action is made clear by the dialogue itself, in which case it’s unnecessary, or the action isn’t in the dialogue, in which case it’s the wrong word. Wrong on so many levels.

Yeah, Well, “Said” Isn’t All That Either

‘Said’ is a much more ‘silent’ word than other speech verbs, but it can still make its presence felt too strongly. I made great efforts to avoid horrendous speech verbs in my own writing, and then had my editor gently point out that my Hemingwayesque reliance on ‘said’ was heavily overdone and became obtrusive through overuse. (She put it much more nicely than that.) And she was absolutely right. I went through The Magpie Lord deleting ‘said’ and turning it into action wherever possible, and the writing sharpened up nicely.

Compare these three. Which is punchiest and most visual?

“You’re dead meat,” John threatened, reaching for the knife.

 The very definition of trying too hard.

 “You’re dead meat,” John said, reaching for the knife.

 What does ‘said’ add here? We know he said it. It’s in quote marks.

 “You’re dead meat.” John reached for the knife.

Snap.

So, down with speech verbs! Bin the thesaurus, lose the obtrusive or inaccurate speech tags, and make your writing visual and active…

… she pleaded.