A Plot is not Just to Grow Potatoes - Debbie Bennett
I’ve always been me online. My accounts are always as near to my name as I can get, and I don’t hide behind pen-names or aliases. I can understand why people do, but I’ve never felt the need until now.
Because this post is really about editing. And I’ve done editing to death on this blog and others, but here’s a different slant on it. Take this book I read last week. Young adult fantasy and the blurb looked good and it was reasonably-priced with an OK cover. But I can’t review it. Why not? I hear you ask. You’re a writer – surely you know the value of reviews? Well, yes, of course I do. But I can’t review this one. And I haven’t. Because it’s YA fantasy and I can’t give it 5 stars and a glowing write-up. And if I give it anything less, there’s a real possibility that the author and/or her fans will hunt me down across the internet and 1* all my books in revenge. It happens, especially in YA fiction – I’ve seen it in action. I’m not hard to find online – just google my name and I’m top of the first page. And that’s a shame, because future readers need all reviews, even those that don’t think the book was damn-near perfect. It’s not even always the poor author’s fault that she has an unknown army of rabid teenagers guarding her back online. I think maybe I’ll create a new amazon account just for reviews.
But back to editing. What was it about this book and others that I’ve read recently? I don’t buy books where the sample is full of typos, so those writers have already lost me as a customer. No – these are the books that on first glance seem well-written with few typos and nicely-constructed sentences. They’re just … boring.
The YA fantasy started off well, but by 50% of the ebook, she’d barely met the strange boy from another world. And after clues as heavy as bricks, she hadn’t realised she herself was Not Completely Human. I mean come on, darling – you’d have to be pretty thick not to have worked it out by now. Instead we have pages and pages of getting up and going to school and having a shower and going out with the family – none of which advances the plot, or illuminates character or does anything really except make me shout Get on with it! And by the end of book 1 in the series, she’s had just one (small and meaningless) encounter with the Bad Guys and that’s it. Over. Buy book two for the next thrilling instalment. Or not.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d never write a review like that. It was competently written, there were no typos, homophones or spelling mistakes I noticed. But it was crying out for a structural edit. It needed 50% of filler removing, the adding of a plot and a bit of pace, some sense of danger – and probably books 2 and 3 brought into the same story to provide a satisfying read. Editing is about way more than proof-reading, you know?
And there’s the adult thriller I’m reading now. Great cover, good premise and the writing again is competent. But it’s all over the place and the author has clearly never heard of adverb and adjective slaughter. Every noun has at least three adjectives attached – do we really need to know that a very minor character wears a watch that is old, tarnished, etc etc. It bears no relevance to the character or plot. Now I’m not against adverbs and adjectives – used sparingly they can add subtle flavour to a novel, but over-use them and you drown the story completely. He urgently picked up his x,y z jacket and quickly tossed it into the a,b,c laundry basket before going for a shower … I’m so stuffed with extraneous words that I may just urgently vomit into the empty, grey wire bin underneath my old, light-brown wooden desk.
I’m seeing more and more of this now in indie work. Less typos, but the stories lack plot, pace and a recognisable structure. They ramble up and down the leafy lanes of the author’s imagination without thought to the journey’s end or even a vague direction sometimes. I know the three-act structure is more film-orientated and rules are indeed made to be broken, but many books are written that way because it works. It’s satisfying. And I’m not talking litfic here – I’m talking thrillers, crime, fantasy where there are genre expectations and if you don’t meet them, you may well lose your reader. Break the mould by all means – but do it deliberately, with pride, purpose and direction, and not because you think the word plot only relates to the land down the allotment where you grow your potatoes….