On the tools of a writer…

I recently finished reading an anthology that one of my stories appears in. Now, I’m not going to name it here, nor am I going to review it, because (a) I don’t want to embarrass anyone involved in it, and (b) I still think it’s good enough for people to buy, but maybe at a discounted price. But after reading the fantastic Lucha Gore, this next one really stood out for all the wrong reasons…

Okay, reading that, there’s a lot I’ve left to innuendo. So let me spell it out. This book was once of the worst edited books I’ve seen. There are two reasons for this: first, the editor wanted us to self-edit, so the authors edited; second, the editor then didn’t go through and, you know, edit.

Or if he did, he needs to try again, a little harder next time.

In my review of Lucha Gore, I mentioned there were a few errors that crept in. Well, in this book, there were more errors in the first story than the entire Lucha Gore anthology. I said Lucha Gore was one of the best anthologies I’ve appeared in; this one was one of the worst. My story, for a change, was definitely one of the best in the book, and one of only 3 where I didn’t find any mistakes.

The story selection was off, to say the least. I don’t mean for thematic reasons (though at least one I had no idea why it was there), but because of the clichés and some obviously bad tropes that were used. Again, I’m a little all over the place here, so I’ll start with some of the mistakes.

First, grammar and punctuation. Switching from present to past tense mid-paragraph. Missing commas. Sentences put in quotation marks that weren’t direct speech. Run-on sentences. We had them all here. And a few examples of poor homophone choice, some of which completely changed the meaning of the passage.

Second, poor tropes. We had monsters that were really just people with different coloured skin. We had “all just a dream” scenarios. We had heroes with handicaps that actually didn’t make that much difference to anything. Things like this that just made the story selection seem odd.

Third, anachronisms. I know that in speculative fiction, things don’t have to always make sense. And I know that we don’t have to give everything an exotic name when we have perfectly good names for them here and now. But when words and phrases that are really particular to a very specific time period (especially late twentieth century, early twenty-first century Western culture) come out of the mouths of beings that have no concept of anything that would have led to those words even being constructed… well, something’s not right.

So, who to blame? Well, the editor, of course. He should have picked a lot of this up on the first read through and even rejected some of the stories. But let’s just say he couldn’t reject them because he had so few of any decent quality that he just had to load up the anthology with whatever he had that was readable. Then he should have edited more heavily. But, having recently seen this first hand, I have a feeling that even if he did do this, some of the authors may have resisted being edited like he would have required.

So the biggest blame has to lie with the writers of the stories themselves. Now, I’m not perfect. My wife reads through a lot of my stuff with a pencil in her hand and just corrects. Fortunately, most of the time she has question marks where she asks what something means, and so, as the writer who knows the story, I can look at it and go, “Hey! That would be confusing for someone not in my head!” That’s fair enough. But I do make errors. That’s part of being human. However, I endeavour to have them corrected before submitting them.

A writer has four basic tools at his disposal, and it is up to him (or her, but you may have noticed I am writing this from an androcentric viewpoint) to make sure he has the best tools and uses them well. These tools are: Story; Character; Language; Rules of Punctuation.

Story… well, nearly anything can be a story. And, fortunately, the writers here all had stories. Something happened to someone that they had to overcome. We had no examples of character studies or passive characters where things just happened to them. So at least  that tool is one that the writers had a handle on (and in at least one anthology I’m in from 2010 a few of the tales were just character studies, vignettes or moments in time.)

Characters are next, because the things have to happen to someone/thing. The reader needs to go along with the writer and in doing so the characters are there to guide him along. And, again, in this anthology we had characters. All were human, some in a different guise (no matter what they were called), and they were characters.

The next two are the things that a lot of modern writers seem to ignore: Language and Punctuation. Language involves choosing the right words. Homophones are the most obvious things writers get confused (for example, the wrong there/their/they’re). Then there is using the same words over and over and over again. Some of this may be stylistic, and sometimes the author doesn’t realise it. But in a short story, a good read through should tell a writer that everything is described as ‘awesome’, or the characters always ‘mumble’ when they talk, or they ‘stated’ most of their dialogue. Some words are accepted when repeated – ‘said’ being the most obvious – but others do tend to stand out. Spelling is a no-brainer here. Use ‘spell-check’! And then there’s using a confused verb-subject partnering. They was, for example. That is basic word choice.

This leads on to punctuation. Commas missing, apostrophes misused, direct speech and indirect speech muddled, poor paragraph separation. These things are becoming more and more common. Maybe it’s the prevalence of ‘text-speak’ in society. Maybe it’s the fact that academics (particularly in social sciences) don’t think it matters because ‘language is mutable’. Maybe it’s the fact that there are some high school teachers who do not know nor care. (This comes from personal experience, and not from when I was a student.) Or maybe, just maybe, the fact that some of the better selling books of our time appear to have been written by someone for whom English was their third language. But whatever it is, the thing to remember is these people want to be writers. Learning how to use basic punctuation should be one of the first things they make sure they have right. It’s not that hard to learn grammar and punctuation. Even a Google search will bring up a few million pages.

Sorry to be harping on about this. I should go have a cuppa tea and a good lie down or something. Or maybe I should stop wanting the books my stories appear in to be actually readable and the sort of thing I’d be proud to spruik.

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