Chapter Twenty - Attention To Detail24 August 2010
This third section of my guide will focus on various practical features of writing. The chapters deal with more specific issues than those in the other sections of the site.
Writers should always be looking to produce the very best work that they can. Perfection should be your goal. Your aim should be to write the very best stories that you can. If you compromise and write something that doesn’t live up to the standards you expect of yourself, you will know. Even if other people don’t see the slackness, YOU will. So you should always be your strictest judge and critic, picking up on minor blemishes which might pass unnoticed by even your keened of fans, To give you a better idea of what I’m talking about, here are some practical examples from when I’ve been working on my own novels…
I’ve been editing the third Mr Crepsley book, Palace of the Damned over the last couple of days. This one deals with the period of his life when he went by the name of Vur Horston, something which was referred to way back in the first Cirque Du Freak book when Steve recognised him from a painting in a very old book — in fact, Steve thought that Vur Horston was his real name, something that quite a lot of fans thought too. This one explains why he used that name (it was for a very real, tragic reason) and how he got through one of the very darkest periods of his life.
But the book also needs to touch on two things which were mentioned over the course of The Saga of Darren Shan. In one book, Mr Crepsley said that he had flown in an early plane and had never both-ered since — that was a scene I was keen to include, it wasn’t essential but I thought it would be nice to put it in. The difficulty was, the only place where I could put it was in the scene when Mr Crepsley is in Paris in 1903 — but that was 3 years before the first manned flights took to the air!!!!
I usually try to keep my details vague in my books — I try not to mention actual dates, or places, or fashionable trends. It’s something I’ve picked up in the course of my writing — I like my books to occupy a dreamy neverworld sort of place, stories that could be taking place at just about any time and in any country. Occasionally I do get into specifics (as I did in Bec) but usually not. But in the early days of The Saga I hadn’t yet refined that technique and threw in a few references such as Dar-rem watching an episode of The Simpsons and Mr Crepsley being in Paris in 1903. Paris wasn’t a problem when I came to write this book — in fact it fit in quite neatly with my story, which included some scenes set during World War I. But that aeroplane conundrum REALLY annoyed me!!!! In early drafts, I just wrote it in and put in a foreword saying that I had tinkered with historical fact, acknowledging that the first planes hadn’t flown until 1906, and begging my readers’ indulgence.
But that always niggled at me. I kept thinking it wasn’t right. It wasn’t a major issue, but it bugged me and I couldn’t let it lie. So this time, having thought about it a lot over the last 3 years, I attacked the problem and figured out a way to reconcile the irregularities, by having the scene happen in 1906 but finding a way to explain why it said 1903 in the book that Steve read. It’s a very small plot detail in the grand scheme of things, and I suspect 95% or more of my readers would never have picked up on it. But I think it’s good for a writer to be a perfectionist. It’s not that important whether other people spot a flaw in your work — if YOU know it’s there, it’ll bug you till the day you die!!!!! Sometimes you have to go to great (some would say silly) lengths just to scratch an itch which perhaps only you, the writer, will ever feel.
There was a post on my message board a few days ago about the character of Mrs Egin, who appears in Demon Thief, the second of The Demonata books. In Dark Calling, I stress again that Kernel Fleck is the only person who can see the mysterious lights which bind the universe in place. But in Demon Thief, Mrs Egin was able to see the lights too. The person posting the message wanted to know how this could be so—and they weren’t the first to ask, as some other eagle-eyed readers have queried that seeming error before. Did I have something cunning up my sleeve, they wondered, or was it a huge mistake on my part?!?
The answer, in fact, is neither of the above. Mrs Egin was actually telepathic and was able to tap into Kernel’s thoughts, which is how she was able to see the lights. I never explained this in the books because it was unnecessary information—i.e. there was no natural reason for this to be explained in the course of the narrative of the series, so I would have had to insert it unnaturally. e.g. I could have had Kernel and Beranabus sitting around a fire during a lull in the action, and have Kernel say something like, “Hey, I was just thinking about that crazy old Mrs Egin. How on earth did she see the lights too?” At which point Beranabus would have nodded sagely and said, “Ah, yes, I have thought about that too. She must have been telepathic.” To which Kernel would have nodded also and said, “Yes, that makes sense.” Which, let’s face it, would have been crap!!!
One of the key rules of writing is that you don’t have to tell your readers EVERYTHING. You don’t want to leave too many blank holes in the narrative, of course, but you don’t have to cover every last tiny crack either. The flow of the story should always be your utmost concern. If you can fit all the “facts” in around that—fine. If you can’t, don’t worry too much about it. Pick the most pertinent details and explain them comprehensively—leave the more minor inessentials to the eagle-eyed fans to pick over and ask questions about. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of mystery!!! The original draft of Dark Calling was about a third longer than the finished book—I went to great lengths to explain everything that required an explanation. But that would have been a boring read for fans, so I then went through that several times, trimming down and fine-tuning, cutting out pieces which weren’t absolutely essential, focusing instead on those elements which absolutely needed to be explained. It’s sometimes important to get down more than you need when writing a book, as I did in this instance, so don’t ever worry about putting too much info into a first draft. But what YOU the writer needs isn’t always the same as what your audience needs—so don’t be afraid to leave a few loose ends or mysteries or apparent mistakes. The omissions shouldn’t be too obvious or jarring, but you’d be surprised how much you can get away with—readers want to be entertained more than anything else, and as long as you can do that, they’ll grant you a fair bit of leeway!! As long as YOU know the answers to all the questions raised by your work, that’s the main thing. If you don’t know, then maybe you need to have another think about what you’re doing—a writer should be able to answer any question put to them about their work, even if they choose not to include all of those answers in the published book.