A Plot is not Just to Grow Potatoes - Debbie Bennett

Am I too old for this social media lark? Being slightly the wrong side of 50, I’ve always been transparent and open in who I am. Maybe that’s naïve in the new online world, where things last forever and once said, can never be unsaid this side of the (zombie) apocalypse.

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….


JO said…
Agreed - if I read a sample (in any genre) that makes me want to get out a red pen and slash words, then I abandon it. There are too many wonderful books waiting to be read to spend time on something that irritates me.
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said…
What was competently written? The YA novel or the review?

The problem with commonplace advice like this is that it can help someone write a competent novel, but not a really good one. And competent writing is often very boring indeed.
Debbie Bennett said…
That's exactly the point I'm making, Lee. Break the rules - be innovative and exciting, but do it deliberately and not because you don't know any different.

And a book where 50% of the words are adjectives and adverbs - and there is no plot at all - is very boring indeed to me.
Susan Price said…
Debbie, I thought this post could be taught in workshops as an example to all beginning writers! Spot on.

Which is the point, Lee. All craft starts at the beginning. Learn to grind paint before you paint the fresco. Learn about the grain of wood before you create the breathtaking cabinet.

And before you can write wonderful, ground-breaking, rule-breaking literary fiction that raise the bar for the next generation - well, perhaps you should know about the basics so, as Debbie says, you can break the rules 'with purpose and confidence.'

If you're already writing wonderful, ground-breaking, rule-breaking literary fiction that raises the bar for the next generation - fine. Have away and do it. Debbie wasn't addressing you.
Excellent post, and yes - these things are basics and you need to know at least some rules in order to break them. I'm a firm believer that self editing is a skill that should be taught because we are all trying to find out what kind of writer we are - but we need to know why something works, and why something might be problematic - even if we then go on to break the rules for a purpose, rather than breaking them out of ignorance. The most valuable piece of advice I ever had was from another writer (I was very young) and he told me I was 'watering my Dylan Thomas adjectives and watching them grow.' He didn't tell me what to prune, or what to do. But that observation was like a light bulb going on inside my head. And he didn't say delete all adverbs and adjectives either. He just said 'choose carefully, quality is better than quantity'. Similarly another writer who was gently mentoring me in writing for film, pointed out that most speeches in film scripts could be drastically pruned because the actor feels it, the camera sees it and as the writer you have to be seeing it too. But I think there is nothing wrong with learning the craft aspects of your work.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Very well said Debbie. This post could also be read by those starting on their writing journey as a guide to plotting and sentence structure. Thanks
The mistake many indie writers make is that they usually writing for themselves, rather than trying to communicate with a reader. They often think they want someone to read their work, but only on their terms. No negative comments! Many write for self affirmation or as therapy. It gets annoying, because they're convinced there's a key to getting published, that they'll find if they write enough words. Not so. You have to abandon yourself. It takes a good measure of humility to be a published writer. You have to get strangers on your side, not through your qualifications, social standing, wealth, influence or good looks, but through what you have to offer to the market place. You have to listen to what they're telling you, especially when it's not what you want to hear. It's not easy.
Dennis Hamley said…

I have a feeling that we may be in for whole lifetimes of overblown prose from new writers unless we head it off at the pass. The new guidelines for writing in the primary school have come out and they make disturbing reading. The Scattered Authors Society is sending a letter to the DfE, Ofqual, etc, pointing out their folly and I guess they'd like extra signatures. So here's the draft letter, written by Celia Busby. I think she'd like to get even more signatures.

We are a group of children’s writers who have become increasingly concerned about the teaching of writing in recent years, particularly in primary schools. As professional writers, we often visit schools to promote reading and encourage creativity and enjoyment of writing among children of primary age.
All of us have noticed a very damaging tendency for children at primary schools to be steered towards certain styles of writing in line with the assessment criteria used to measure children’s levels of attainment. As a result their writing is in general less fluent, clear and engaging and has a tendency to be cramped, stuffy, over-complex and just plain poor in style. This has knock-on effects on their writing at secondary school and has been noticed by some of us in students at university level.
National Curriculum guidance on the use of ‘varied vocabulary’ and ‘imaginative language’ has meant in practice (and we have all seen examples of this in classrooms) children are taught not to use simple words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘small’ or ‘big’ but to always find other more ‘interesting’ words to replace them – such as ‘wonderful’, ‘terrible’, ‘minuscule’ or ‘enormous’. They are also taught never to use ‘and’ or ‘said’ if they can shoehorn in ‘additionally’ or ‘exclaimed’.
Because these words and constructions are in effect handed to children as ‘better’ alternatives to simple words, they do not come across them in context. They fail to understand the nuances of their use, and they also fail to realise that they are relatively unusual – that they are used sparingly in good writing. For every use of the word ‘minuscule’ in actual books, there are probably twenty uses of the word ‘small’.
We would urge the government, Ofqual and the Standards and Testing Agency to consider ways in which they can make it quite clear to teachers and assessors that complex vocabulary and complicated sentence structures should be used with caution and their use should always be subordinate to good, clear and fluent style. Otherwise we risk producing a generation of children who believe that a sentence such as ‘I bounded excitedly from my cramped wooden seat and flung my arm gracefully up like a bird soaring into the sky’ is always better than ‘I stood and put my hand up.’

Lydia Bennet said…
This is true Debbie and follows from my recent post on padding in fiction, and I'm finding it in best selling big publisher fiction as well these days. maybe some people like reading it! or just are used to skipping through books?
Umberto Tosi said…
I don't know about YA novels, but I do read a lot of books about writing, useful and fuzzy. I recommend "Stealing Fire From the Gods" by James Bonnet, as one of the most lucid guides ever for developing story dynamics. Bonnet eschews simplistic how-to material in favor of demonstrating the powerful psychological and mythological roots of storytelling and how the masters have used them, and in a most accessible way. As for sentence structure, I'm old fashioned, and tend to stick with Strunk. Excellent post. Thank you.
Ah, Umberto, you've opened a whole can of worms there about US usage (Strunk) and UK English. I find Strunk's strictures don't sit at all well with UK English. And I think that gap is probably widening. Although the advent of eBooks may have started to make a difference. I don't do American versions of my books and only occasionally now does somebody criticise (or criticize?) my usage and spelling conventions. Maybe we'll become more tolerant of our differences.
Lydia Bennet said…
Gosh Dennis I had no idea that was going on in schools. how appalling.
Wm. L. Hahn said…
Excellent points, and quite depressing about the revenge-motif in giving reviews. When you suggested fans possibly doing it, instead of the vengeful writer-- chilling!

For the writing itself, what else to expect? Folks like us can publish for practically nothing up front, and all the advice we're getting is about having lots of books in the pipeline. So we either stretch out the plot (more books) or chop up a novel into parts (:: raises hand, claims guilt ::) anything to have more TITLES on the virtual shelf and look like a prolific author. Whatever happened to the long view?

As for stylistic concerns, it will surely vary by genre a bit- epic fantasy carries a burden to explain an entire world where everything (potentially) is different, and you can't wait to tell the reader until later because they'll form their image around a default based on this world. So descriptive words and qualifiers become vital, or else you have something more like The Jetsons or Flintstones- a patina of fantasy over the everyday. Tough row to hoe! But fun.
glitter noir said…
Wonderful post, Debbie. And I love the line: 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.
SM Johnson said…
I think the primary issue is that the lack of gatekeepers (traditional publishing) has opened the gates for writers and books that just aren't ready for public consumption. I would guess that 60% of my reading list are "DNF" (did not finish) for exactly the reasons you describe - essentially - boring. The writer just hasn't developed the skill to hold my attention. Yet. They might someday, with more practice, with more books unde their belts, with more mentoring, or if someone braver than myself dares to write a critical review, or of their book sales fall flat. It will be interesting to see how this continues over time.

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