Everyone has a different breaking point.
No, I’m not quitting writing, or anything else in life. This observation comes from my first ride on a new horse.
I’m currently without a horse of my own, which is a cause of much wailing and gnashing of teeth on my part. Luckily, a friend has, as he put it, “three horses and only one butt,” so he lets me ride them periodically. I normally ride Jack, who is little, black, and occasionally bad-tempered. But recently I got to ride Sonni, who is all legs and has a perpetually worried look.
I’ve pontificated before about horses and their distinct personalities, and got a few reminders of that when I rode Sonni. See, Jack likes to stay home and rest, and thinks that if he walks very slowly when we’re leaving the barn, I’ll suddenly decide not to ride that day, and he doesn’t have to work. He also gets a little nervous around large vehicles, though in his defense, eighteen-wheelers are big, scary, and loud, especially when they’re bearing down on him at forty miles an hour.
Sonni doesn’t care about vehicles, and he doesn’t mind leaving the barn. But he’s extremely wary of trash cans (and just my luck, it was trash day, so there were bins in every driveway) and can’t walk in a straight line for the first half an hour of any given ride.
Everyone has their little quirks. And when a person (or horse) is pushed, cracks can appear in the most unexpected places. I fully expected Jack to go ballistic when the eighteen-wheeler drove by. I didn’t expect him to bolt halfway across the road when I leaned down to adjust my stirrup (looking back, maybe he thought I was going to hit him?).
People do weird things under stress, or when they’re in a new situation. What does this have to do with writing? A lot of things, I’m sure; indie writing/ publishing in particular is a fast-changing field, and writers have to be adaptable. Taking up writing as a career, instead of a hobby, can also cause weird stresses in one’s life.
But I’m thinking about the cracks that appear when one writes in a new genre. Trying to appeal to a new audience requires a whole new set of characters, plots, and tropes. And lots of practice. The intelligent writer does a bit of research beforehand, or plans to edit heavily when they finish a story that doesn’t meet readers’ expectations and won’t sell. I, having been sentenced to thirteen years of public school, hate doing research and have to trick myself into it.
This leads to some very weird cracks in my cross-genre writing, like my attempt at giving a Regency character a hobby (I was bored to death and wanted to make writing interesting again). She and the love interest were supposed to bond over a shared love of gardening, which is all well and good, except that they live in a city. So now the story has stalled (I know how to un-stall it; I just need to make myself do it, which goes back to the need for heavy editing).
Or, let us amuse ourselves with an excerpt from one of my early fight scenes, from A Kingdom of Glass:
There was no time to be afraid. Zara flicked her wrist and her knife fell into her hand. She flew at the thief’s back and plunged the blade into his neck as hard as she could. And again, when he didn’t fall immediately. And again, because he still wasn’t going down and she was scared that he would turn on her and why wasn’t he letting go of the sword?!
Hours, days, years, might have passed before the sword clattered to the ground in slow motion, followed by the man who’d been holding it. Suddenly terrified that it was a ruse, Zara flung herself away from the wounded man, stunned by her strength and trying to avoid the falling body. As if she was watching through someone else’s eyes, she saw Téo twist away from his distracted captors, snatch up his sword, and hammer the red-coated man with it. The blade cut through his shoulder like a knife through butter, then stuck fast in his spine.
Téo instantly let go of the sword and faced down the skinny thief. It was over in a few heartbeats. Even with a wrenched arm and no sword, Téo was faster and stronger than a street thug who’d never learned how to fight without his gang as backup. There was a sharp cracking sound like dry twigs breaking and the thief collapsed, his head lolling at an unnatural angle.
There was one more thief but not for long. Zara had been so focused on the fight in front of her that she’d missed Hanri’s duel. By the time she came back to her senses and looked behind her, the man was lying on the cobbles, his fingers frantically seeking the sucking chest wound Hanri had inflicted upon him. She watched, horrified, as the thief gasped a last few breaths and expired. The entire fight had lasted less than twenty seconds.
Okay. It’s not awful, just heavy and ponderous. And I now know that there’s no way a teenage boy like Téo could break a man’s neck with his bare hands. But let’s leave that aside.
My writing style has always been slow-paced. Discovery, not action. And while that works for my usual Regency romances, and even for a lot of epic fantasy, it’s not so good during a fistfight or a battle. At the exact moment the reader needs to be turning pages as fast as they can, I’m likely to go on a series of tiny tangents about the character’s mindset and how they feel about what’s happening. See the cracks?
There are ways to fix the cracks in one’s writing. I need to read more books that have action and battles (oh, look- my TBR pile includes the latest of The Saxon Tales, by Bernard Cornwell!), see if I have any style books lying around, and practice like crazy. I’m actually thinking of going back to writing some fanfiction for practice- I don’t have to worry about establishing characters, only about conveying what they’re doing.
Sometimes cracks don’t appear until after the story is finished, or worse, already published. I wrote the above bit of A Kingdom of Glass three or four years ago, and at the time, it was the best I could do. Now I look back at it and see both its merits and faults. It’s not so egregiously bad that I’m likely to take the book down for editing and republishing, but I can do better with the next one.
It’s possible to paper over the cracks, usually by distracting the reader. Vivid language, lots of action, a plot twist- all are useful in moderation, but start to look like cheap shots if used too frequently in a genre that doesn’t require them.
The better solution is to practice and get it right. You probably know that; I’m reminding myself, because research and practicing are the boring parts of this job.
And I should get to it, lest I be relegated to the garbage can of history as one of those writers who refused to do their job. So, talk among yourselves. What weak points have you identified in your writing? How have you tried to strengthen your skills in these areas? What resources have you found helpful? Do you notice when a writer has tried to paper over the cracks in a book?