… a brief monologue on the ways that can backfire on you
Besides being a means of offering my excuses for missing deadline once again, this short list enumerates various ways promising something can get you into trouble.
- Most obvious and pertinent: Never put in writing the date your book will be available unless it is on its way to the printer. And not even then. Those of you who are alert will note the ‘update’ of launch info for FLYING PURPLE PEOPLE SEATER. I won’t bother you with excuses; there are some. It will be out soon.
- Never promise you will never do something. A certain editor I know vowed she would never go so far as to cross borders to see a performance she admired; guess where she will be next month? (correct if you said not in her home country)
- Never promise to house-sit or pet-sit when you don’t really know your own plans. (Was that the weekend you scheduled for minor surgery on Friday and were told you’ll be out of it from the pain meds for three days?)
- Never promise you will be there for the birth of a child (except your own, and then not if it is your spouse who is delivering). Do I really need to mention that babies are unpredictable?
- Never promise payback – whether it’s a favor, a visit, a loan, or revenge. Life is also unpredictable.
- Never promise to write an article from a certain slant. You never know when you will discover information – even during an interview with the subject – that will change everything you’re going to write.
- Never promise a friend or a family member that you will name a character after them or, worse, ‘put them in your book’.
- Following from #7 is, never promise (or brag) that you’re going to kill off your mother-in-law (or anyone real in your life) in your book. — We all do it; just don’t say so.
- Never put so many people or things in the plot of your novel that you can’t keep track of them. You’ll have things like boats with gunmen on them vanishing into thin air when they would have been in a position to turn the tide of battle, but you can’t have them there because that’s not how the fight turns out. (yes, that was a thing)
- And never, never, as the saying goes, put a gun on a mantelpiece in a scene unless someone is going to get shot.
That’s a saying that was taught to me by my screenwriting son. It refers to economy and purpose in writing. When you put an object or person into a scene, there’s a reason they are there. There has to be, particularly in any short writing, but even in novels.
Mysteries may be notorious for red herrings and misdirection, but that’s not what you’re doing if you are introducing stuff into scenes and not doing something with them. Ie, there is no reason for a gun on the mantelpiece in a young woman’s apartment, unless there it is going to be used. Maybe it’s self-defense, because she feels stalked. Maybe it’s self-defense, because she feels under siege by law enforcement. Maybe it’s self-defense, because she feels stalked and under siege by an ex-boyfriend. Maybe it just goes off and the bullet strikes her baby. Maybe she’s going to sell it, turn it in, clean it, or use it on the damn cat, but that gun needs to be used somehow. Or it needs to not be there.
Even 600-page novels have a finite number of ideas to convey, in a finite number of words. If you can’t deliver follow-up why something is on the page, if its being there doesn’t serve a purpose later on, don’t promise the reader that it does. Take it out.
Now I’ll go finish my book. No, that was not a promise, but I will.