One of my jobs is freelance critiquing through the Odyssey workshop.* I enjoy it. There’s something very satisfying about helping writers find a better way to express themselves. But it does mean that I tend to view all writing–mine, the mss I deal with, and even the books I read for pure pleasure–with an analytical eye. There are a lot of writing “problems” people struggle with, but I think one of the worst is miscuing the reader.
I was thinking about this at breakfast this morning as I was reading book samples. I download book samples throughout the week as the fancy takes me, then, on leisurely Sundays, when I’ve forgotten what the books are about, read through them. Today, one of the books I sampled (not going to name it) began with a simple scene with the protagonist standing on a porch, feeling anxiety. We’re given the emotional simile, “Character stood on the porch, with as much fear as looking over the edge of a five-hundred-foot drop.” A little clunky, but harmless, you’d think.
Except. It’s backward. Standing on the porch evokes looking over the edge–and I’m primed that this character is afraid to leave the porch, afraid to make that leap into the world. So at the end of the page, when it turns out he’s afraid to knock on the door… I have this weird rotation of my mental image happen. Like the entire stage shifts. The boy is not looking outward; he’s spun about and looking at the door. He’s coming, not going. It’s a miscued simile. Because porches are raised, even if by an inch or so, and because he’s thinking about a drop, we’re cued that the character is going to take that step down. So obviously, he’s leaving the house. Not arriving.
Tiny, tiny thing, but jarring. And in my case, enough for me to delete the sample.
Watch your similes, people. Watch them. Make sure they’re not suggesting something else.
It’s not like I’m perfect, either, god no. I am currently embarked on a drastic revision of the fantasy novel I wrote, because I miscued the reader terribly.
Not even a tiny simile error for me, either. No, I miscued the entire damn tone of the book.
The first segment is all about my characters trying to escape their home environments–which just happen to be courtly and political. So I’m cuing the reader to expect a political fantasy, with lots of back-stabbing and infighting and striving for status. And that’s not what this book is about at all. No! It’s an adventure novel! But because I spent too much detail on their homes and took too long to get them on the road, whoops! Now it says: expect politics! Expect courtly intrigues! Expect battles won by manners and maneuvers. Not monster fighting. Not road hardships. Not wild pursuits.
Yet, each scene stands on its own. There’s conflict. There’s character. There’s event. It’s just cuing the reader to expect the wrong story.
So yeah, that’s my Sunday thinking: Avoid miscues in your writing. Look at what you’re saying on the page and what you’re implying, from the micro (on the porch looking out/in) to the macro (ffs, look at the tone of your chapters and see what they’re suggesting your book is about, Robins.).
There are twists you want the reader to experience, but miscues are a totally other beast, and they’re not welcome.
*I swear I am a much better critiquer than I am a blogger. I have decided to fight my perfectionist tendencies by allowing myself to blither on the blog without obsessing over every word and piece of punctuation.