Confusion is the enemy
I have finished a second book – it’s out to beta readers as I type, and waiting on the cover artist. Hopefully, by the time you read this, I’ll be getting ready to publish it!
In the interest of learning from my mistakes, I sent this one out to more beta readers, and asked most of them the same few questions – “Where did you get bored or confused? Where did you really enjoy it? Where did you skim or skip? What did I get wrong?”
In the last thing I published, I had several reviewers who noted that they were confused at the beginning, but if you stick with the story, it’s worth it. One, Pat Patterson (great guy), noted that he was confused, he’s still confused, and he really liked the story anyway! (Glad you liked it, Pat!)
…Okay, so clearly I need to NOT confuse people. Unless I intend to. In the course of a couple rounds of revision with patient beta readers (Thank you, beta readers!), I found a few things to watch out for.
1. Never time-skip in an action scene. If a Molotov cocktail goes off and the minibus that’s now on fire skids over the edge of the mountain, don’t mention next that one guy is shooting everyone until they’re over the edge, rolling and on fire.
Instead, it’s the Molotov cocktail hit the oil slick in front of the minibus, and the one guy started shooting everyone inside even as it slid backward. He kept calmly picking off every head he could see until one tire caught the edge of the road, and then the minibus rolled down the mountain, shedding fire and shattered glass and bodies all the way.
Otherwise, at least one reader is going to think “Okay, the first minibus rolled down the mountain, so she must mean that one guy is shooting at a second minibus until it follows the first?”
2. If the information is important to understand what’s going on, like foreshadowing, you need to repeat it roughly three times.
Because sometimes I put the information there. Sometimes I even took a deep breath and put in a major infodump (For me, that’s about two sentences.) But different alpha readers didn’t catch different bits in there. Maybe they weren’t paying attention at that point. Maybe they just didn’t connect the dots. Doesn’t matter – if you end up with confused readers, you as the author needed to be clearer. Sometimes, clearer isn’t longer, it’s more often.
So I went back and mentioned the same information a couple more times in a few other places, and the next wave of beta readers weren’t confused about any of those things.
3. If you are using something that’s similar to but different from what readers expect, hang a lantern on it.
I’m used to scientists using Greek – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta – for a naming system, while pilots and military use the international English phonetic of Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta. But not everybody is used to the system variants. So if you’re writing something that has scientists naming stuff but is going to be read by soldiers – make sure you note multiple times that it’s the Greek system, and Gamma really does come before Delta.
My husband gets this one, too, every time he writes a space navy thingie that’s based on the British navy, instead of the American.
…So, that’s where I’ve confused my readers.
Where have you confused yours, and what did you do to fix it?
edited to add: Oh, yes, sorry, I did fail to point out this was the first book in question. Oops! The second, Shattered Under Midnight, will be along soon.
Or, for those with adblock on, Scaling the Rim. A whole lot of determination, a little luck, and sneaky amounts of competence can change the world…