On Saturday morning, I decided that this novel-writing gig had got out of hand.
I was watching an episode of Bookaboo, as you do…
Okay, maybe I should explain. Bookaboo is a wonderful English TV show that celebrates and promotes children’s books. I don’t have any small children in the house. I watch it for my own amusement and delight, because:
- good picture books rock
- they’re read by interesting people who obviously love it and
- the star (Bookaboo) is a puppet rockstar dog who can’t play the drums unless he gets his story. Do I need to explain more? I don’t think so.
Anyway, moving on…
So, I’m watching Bookaboo and they’re reading a lovely story called Don’t Wake the Bear, Hare. It’s a gripping tale of a group of animals setting up for a picnic, preoccupied with the need not to wake the nearby sleeping bear. Naturally, they assume that he will break up the party if he wakes. (For those who worry, I should tell you that when he, inevitably, wakes up, he turns out to be sweet and a honey-bringing party animal and all is well.)
This was all lovely. But in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help wondering why they had set up the party right next to the bear in the first place. There was a whiny actor voice in my head saying, ‘but what’s my motivation?’
I think I have been writing this novel for too long.
But… (You knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you? Is that effective foreshadowing, or telegraphing punches? Paranoid writer wants to know…)
While it may not be necessary to worry about such things in a child’s picture book, it’s very important in novels for grown-ups (and young adults, I’m sure). If you rely on co-incidence, or characters behaving stupidly, or in ways that are inconsistent with their character, just to serve your plot, at least some of your readers will notice and they will not thank you for it.
Real life is chock-full of things that make no sense, people who act with no clear motive and co-incidence. But use them in your fiction at your peril.
There are many ways to guard against this. Your own instincts are a good place to start. If you feel uneasy about a circumstance in your plot, trust your gut. Take a long hard look at the action that led to the circumstances. Do they ring true for your characters? Is it what they would do? Is it how they would act, or react?
And if the circumstances aren’t the result of any character’s action, if they just ‘happen’ and it is more than a quarter of the way through your novel, then you’re in trouble – at least in any kind of genre fiction. Plot is important, but if it isn’t driven by characters, it’s hollow and will be unsatisfying to the reader.
One of the reasons we read fiction – or genre fiction at least – is to reinforce our sense of agency. In other words, we like to see that actions have consequences; that good is rewarded and evil punished. It’s hard to see that if your characters just drift along, buffeted by fate.
It’s also hard to like them. We like to see characters who are brave and noble and strong. Not ridiculously so, and not all the time, but we identify with characters who, when the going gets tough, act the way we wish we would, in the circumstances. Or at least (because we don’t have to like every character, even main ones) act consistently and understandably.
So how does this link to my title?
Simply, sometimes it’s hard to see these things clearly in our own manuscript. As writers we know much more about our characters than will ever get on to the page and that is as it should be. But sometimes, that can lead us to make mistakes. It can lead to actions on paper which make perfect sense to us, with what we know, but which don’t ring true for the reader because we haven’t put enough – or the right things – about what we know on the page.
This is where an intelligent, clear-sighted and plain-speaking beta reader can be invaluable. I have two and I value them more than rubies. I set up an agreement with them at the start that they would tell me what they liked and, more importantly, they would tell me without fear or favour what wasn’t working for them.
If it doesn’t make sense, if there are weird time or space jumps, if the writing is lumpy or the story dragging, they tell me. They aren’t crit partners. They don’t tell me how to fix it. They just tell me TO fix it – and to get it back to them because they want to know what happens next.
This is not meant to downplay the value of critique groups or partners – they are also wonderful. But sometimes they have the same problem that the writer does, in that they know too much about the characters. I am very careful not to talk to my beta readers about my writing process for this reason. I learned the hard way that it is really important that someone read it who has only what is on the page to go on.
My wonderful beta readers are a kind of insurance – a reality and sanity check. They’re people who can answer the question, ‘does it make sense?’
What about you? Do you have beta readers?
How do you make sure you aren’t losing the plot?