Harrison is an EXCELLENT editor. I have recommended him in a variety of posts here at Book Dreaming, and I continue to consider him one of the best and worth EVERY penny. In addition to working as an editor at Bancroft Press Publishing, he is currently doubling as a developmental editor with Ambitious Enterprises. His post provides us with useful manuscript advice and reminds us to always think logically inside our stories.
The Bird and the Biscuit: Playing by the Rules
Not long ago, I was editing a children’s book about a boy who travels back in time to the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812 with a magical talking raven. It’s a fun little story, and through most of it, the main character, Daniel, is not only in an era very much not his own, but also tiny enough to fit on the back of the raven, Calvert.
As the book’s editor, I saw no issues with any of this.
In one scene, though, Calvert the Raven swoops down, grabs a biscuit off an American soldier’s plate, and, midflight, passes half of it back to Daniel.
Here I had problems.
Think about it. Logistically, how does this work? Calvert is a bird. He has no hands. He can use his beak, but how is he going to pass half a biscuit back to Daniel—while flying? If he bites the biscuit in half, most of it will fall. Maybe he could grab the biscuit with his feet, but how is he going to get a foot, attached to his tiny legs, across his back so Daniel can have his share? Any way you think about it, it isn’t going to happen. Something had to change.
Well, sure, you may say. That’s all nice and logical. But—didn’t this raven just shrink Daniel and fly back through time? Is the biscuit really that big a deal?
Actually—yes. It really is.
Every book has a basic premise you need to accept. Maybe it’s that your main character and his brother have been at odds for the last twelve years. Maybe it’s that your main character and his brother are on opposing sides of an intergalactic space war. Who knows? But this is your premise, and there’s nothing wrong with a premise introducing a reality and rules that may not exist in the real world. In this particular story, the premise is that Calvert is a talking raven with the magical ability to shrink Daniel and fly him back through history. This is established early, and within the world of the book, it makes sense. Readers understand that things happen in fiction that couldn’t happen in reality.
But other than that, this world is the real world. The Battle of Baltimore Calvert and Daniel experience is the same one fought between American and British forces in 1814. In fact, that’s rather the point. If Baltimore was saved suddenly on the last page by Godzilla, we’d have problems.
And Calvert, for all his magic, is a raven. We understand a raven to have a certain anatomy and properties. We know birds have wings instead of arms. We can imagine a bird with a biscuit, and a bird with a biscuit flying, but we know that he’s not going to be able to pass half a biscuit to the tiny boy on his back.
If he does, readers—the very same readers who have readily accepted a time-traveling raven with a tiny boy on his back—will know something is wrong. They will reject the plot point. They will no longer be invested entirely in the story, and the author will lose his authority.
When readers are distracted by illogic, they’re not invested in your narrative, and no matter how good the rest of your story may be, it’s simply not going to hit readers the same way. Run a switchblade through a small part of the Mona Lisa and no one notices the masterpiece. All they see is the scratch.
So how did we solve this one? Simple. Calvert passes the whole biscuit back to Daniel. Daniel, who does have hands, splits the biscuit in half and hands one half back to Calvert. It solves the logistical problem and tells us something about Daniel, all while maintaining the credibility both of the author and the book. (The book, Calvert the Raven in the Battle of Baltimore, the first of J. Scott Fuqua’s Flying Through History series, comes out later this year from Bancroft Press.)
This is what you need to remember: You’re not going to lose readers with a wildly inventive premise, or even an outright ridiculous one. But if you contradict the reality and rules you’ve established, you’re going to run into problems. If you think logically, no matter how wild your story, you can ensure it’s the story itself, and not the holes, your readers care about.
(Of course, sometimes a change in the rules is part of the story, but that’s another discussion for another time.)
Harrison Demchick is an editor with seven years of experience in the publishing industry. Specializing in memoir and fiction, he’s worked with children’s books, young adult books, and adult novels of all sorts, from mysteries to thrillers to chick lit to literary fiction and everything in-between. He’s currently taking clients as a developmental editor with Ambitious Enterprises (www.ambitiousenterprises.com), a creative services boutique.