This is not an amateur’s manuscript, not a hopeful neo’s first offering. No, Dear Reader, this is a book by a professional writer of middle school fiction that I am reading to my daughter. It is a good book, and well-written in most ways, but somehow, during the editorial process, both the author and her editors (and proofreaders) lost track of an important element. Which prompted me to reread two pages and ask:
Madam, do you know where your characters are?
I am now asking this of any of you who aspire to the writing life. In all seriousness, in any given scene, do you know where your characters are and what they’re doing? Does your reader?
In one manuscript I edited recently, our hero was walking (or perhaps sauntering, for he was a cowboy), then he was on horseback, then he was walking again. First there was a mountain. Then there was no mountain then there is. (No, wait. That’s a song by Donovan.)
Will-o-the-wisp characters and objects indicate the scene is not vividly enough written to fix such an important detail as where the characters are in the writer’s mind. If you can’t picture where your characters are, your reader won’t be able to either.
How does this happen?
Sometimes a writer induces errors in logistics during the editing process, unintentionally deleting a line and leaving the heroine sitting in a chair by the window when he meant her to stand and cross the room to confront the villain. It’s a shock to the reader when the heroine suddenly slaps the villain across the face … from across the room. You can just imagine how the villain feels.
Sometimes the writer simply loses track of where the character is, perhaps because he wasn’t paying attention when he wrote the scene, because he wrote the scene over a period of time, or because the location wasn’t fixed firmly in his mind and he literally forgot where he put key features of the room.
What’s the antidote?
In any event, the antidote is careful editing. I know a number of writers who hate rereading and editing so much that they will do almost anything to avoid it (even paying me to do it for them). Why? I don’t know. Personally I find editing as much or more enjoyable than writing. It’s where I get to mold the details of my story. It’s where the characters develop nuance of personality and mannerism. It’s where the plot takes on new subtlety.
There is one “prefix” aid I recommend: I sketch location layouts at least once for every story I write that contains any amount of action or travel. When Michael Reaves and I wrote MR. TWILIGHT, I realized I didn’t have a clear picture in my head of Collin “Twilight’s” workshop when I realized the orrery I had thought was in one corner of the room turned up in a different place. I did a layout in Photoshop and sent it to Michael and said: “Is this where everything goes?” Once we’d agreed where things were, we used the layout as a go-by.
This is also beneficial at the macro level. When I wrote my first novel, THE MERI, I made a map of Caraid-land (my fictitious country) so that I knew where my characters were traveling to and from and how long it might taken them to get there.
On the “post-fix” end—that is, when you edit—visualize each scene as you read it, rather than allowing the image in your head to set the scene. Remember, your reader can’t read your mind—only the words you put on the page.
Exercise: Choose an action scene or dialogue from your own prose and read it carefully. Visualize what the characters are doing as if you were watching them on a movie screen. Be honest—is everyone where you expected them to be? Are their actions and locations clear?
Too close to the action yourself? For a reality check, have someone else read the scene, then have them describe what they envision the characters doing.