An American Editor

August 8, 2016

Thinking Fiction: Fighting in Fiction

by Carolyn Haley

I edit a lot of genre novels, and many of them include funny fighting. Not the ha-ha kind of funny, but the eye-rolling, groaning kind of funny caused by absurd or impossible situations. I believe some authors create such scenes because they have lived secure, nonviolent lives, and gained their impressions of battle from media. Young writers, in particular, are prone to composing fight and chase scenes that come across like video games. But young or old, many authors’ combat scenes show either a lack of direct experience or a failure to do research. As a result, the ordinary heroes they strive so hard to make human and believable suddenly become idiots or superheroes when faced with violence.

Editors sometimes allow fighting bloopers to pass unchallenged because they, too, have led secure, nonviolent lives. Editing is a desk job, and the types of people drawn to it generally are neither fighters nor athletes, nor come from mean streets. An inaccurate fight scene may make just as much sense to the editor as the novelist. Which is fine in one context but a problem in another, because savvy readers will spot the bloopers and lose faith in the author.

The difference between a context that works and one that doesn’t is nicely defined in a reference book I recently discovered, Writing Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall, a volume in this author’s Writer’s Craft technique series. She calls one context the “gritty fight scene” (realism and brevity required) and the other context the “entertaining fight scene” (realism and brevity optional). Understanding the difference is key to determining whether a scene involving violent action is plausible.

Writing Fight Scenes is the most helpful resource I’ve found for both writing and editing fight scenes. It covers not only the gritty-vs.-entertaining distinction, but also ancient and contemporary weapons (including magical ones); unarmed combat and self-defense; how to use settings in fights; individual and group combat; nautical and land battles; differences in technique and advantages between men and women; fighting with and like animals (including fantasy beasts); and psychological barriers to successful fighting. For each topic the author includes “Blunders to Avoid” and provides video and website links for more information and illustration.

The book also includes tips on story and fight pacing, and vocabulary to use for best effect in different scenarios. It comes in both ebook and paperback format. I recommend it to all authors and editors working in adventure fiction.

In the absence of such a handy reference work, and any personal experience in combat, editors can still spot implausibilities in client manuscripts. They just have to know the basics.

The Big Three

The problem areas I see most often in fight scenes pertain to weapons in general and firearms in particular; the next most often seen problem areas are implausible character actions and reactions.

Firearms

The basics of gunfighting involve weapon and ammo types, handling characteristics, and sounds. Authors who have experience with firearms usually get their facts right, and editors just have to spot-check a few to confirm, then verify exact spellings of makes and models throughout the manuscript. Authors with no firearms experience, however, tend to just say “a gun,” sometimes specifying handgun, rifle, shotgun, or machine gun, but often not knowing, say, that revolver and pistol aren’t synonyms. (A revolver is a type of pistol, but not all pistols are revolvers.)

The type of gun and its ammunition can profoundly affect the veracity of a story. A popular fight outcome is the shoulder wound, where a bullet passes cleanly through the narrow bit of flesh in that joint and the hero keeps on swinging. While this is possible, it’s extremely unlikely for anyone to be that lucky. Most bullets would damage or destroy the joint and drop the hero like a stone, or at least put him out of action. Any gunshot wound is likely to cause shock. More often than not, a gunshot wound means an ambulance ride.

Then again, adrenaline — the amazing chemical that allows humans to perform extreme physical feats — lets people live through their injuries to win the day, then collapse later. The same is true for certain drugs. So fictional fight scenes can get dramatic and remain within the realm of believability. But to get there, the author must lay the foundation prior to the fight scene and be accurate with the details of weapons and human physiology.

An often overlooked detail is the noise guns produce when fired. In general, small-caliber weapons make cracking or popping sounds, and large-caliber weapons make bangs and booms. All firearms are LOUD. People who practice at shooting ranges wear ear protection for good reason; and people within blocks or miles will likely hear the firing. Shootouts can’t occur without drawing attention unless the shooters are way out in the boondocks or employing silencers, so editors must watch for gun battles that occur in a vacuum. They must also be aware that certain powers of ammunition will cut through barriers of different material, and others will ricochet around in a closed environment, creating new dangers. Unimpeded bullets can travel long distances and hit unintended targets.

Every action involving a firearm has consequences on several levels. Characters can’t just whip out a weapon and fire it without the author accounting for where it came from. Save for very compact personal-protection weapons designed for concealed carry, or very high-tech weapons made of ultralightweight materials, firearms are bulky and heavy. Handguns without proper holsters make clothing bulge or sag, and can turn purses into shoulder-straining totes. Among inexperienced shooters, firing handguns can fatigue or strain wrists and bruise palms with recoil. Rifles and shotguns are renowned for their kick, and can’t be concealed without special clothing or carriers. Any weapon needs to be reloaded if the gunfight goes on for a while, so authors must remember to provide their characters with ammunition.

Authors also need to account for weapons during and after a fight scene. For instance, hot barrels on handguns that are slipped back inside clothing can cause new problems. Dropped long guns can change a fight outcome by getting tripped on underfoot. One thing a weapon cannot do is disappear from the scene, unless magic is involved. Too often I see weapons arrive and depart at author convenience to enhance drama. Equally often I see amateur shooters hit moving targets. This is acceptable if there’s any backstory that explains where the character got training and practice. Without that background, however, there’s almost no chance it would happen in real life.

Character actions

It’s common in manuscripts containing inaccurate fighting details to also have the hero and villain chatter during their battle(s). I call this “honor fighting” because it’s more about the characters’ psychological battle than actually taking the other guy out. When in reality combatants would have no breath for conversation, in honor fighting they bait and insult each other, explain their motives, reveal their secrets…meanwhile giving so much time for henchmen to ambush the other party while distracted, and so much opportunity for any form of power reversal, that the encounter becomes silly. This is where Hall’s “gritty” versus “entertaining” distinction especially pertains. Honor fighting has no place in a gritty story, which is why otherwise compelling tales may move readers to groans or laughter during climax battles.

A story centered on a character desperately trying to stop someone from wrecking their life turns unbelievable when they ignore a golden chance to stop them; worse when they ignore multiple chances. Logic says that if you fear someone and they’re trying to kill you, you do everything you can to stop them before they can get you. When characters fail to do this, they need darn good reasons. Editors need to ensure the author has supported such action or inaction in the story leading up to it.

A subset of honor fighting is incomplete disabling of henchmen. In so many stories that it’s become cliché, heroes fight their way through a screen of hardened bad guys on their way to the target villain, knocking them down and moving on. Then they are surprised when some or all of the bad guys bounce back to menace them again. I suppose the author is trying to demonstrate the hero’s humaneness by having him not kill people unnecessarily. And when urgency counts, there’s no time to truss everyone up, and usually no materials. So why doesn’t the hero at least give a second blow to ensure prolonged unconsciousness, or kick out a knee, or something to guarantee he won’t suffer a rear attack? In a story attempting to be realistic, this warrants a query.

Character reactions

Who among us has not sliced their finger with a kitchen knife or bonked their head against a door, or barked their shin on a coffee table, or slipped on the stairs? Each of those impacts gives hard pain at the time and lingering pain afterward, and generates bruises or blood. Sometimes simple domestic accidents cause injuries that require a trip to the emergency room.

From that knowledge, an editor can extrapolate the effects of getting slammed in the face with a two-by-four piece of lumber swung by a 250-pound man, or even a 99-pound weakling in a berserker rage. How credible is it that an ordinary person would rebound and chase the villain after that kind of hit? More likely, one would be spitting out teeth if one managed to stand up at all. A fictional character who doesn’t get similarly affected must have backstory provided to account for his ability to stay in action after a mighty blow. This pertains equally to being punched, kicked, stabbed, shot, thrown, and falling from a height.

Framing Fights Credibly

Violence is ugly and painful. If it’s part of a gritty story, it has to reflect reality. If it’s part of an entertaining story, realism can be bent or ignored. Authors unwilling to do their homework might be able to fool equally uneducated editors and readers, but the world is a harsh enough place that a substantial audience knows how violence works and can see through author fudging. Readers’ possible rejection of the story, and maybe even public panning of it, counterserves the purpose of having a book edited and published. Editors can do their part in preventing negative reaction to a novel by informing themselves of the basics and paying special attention to the technicalities and choreography of fight scenes.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

January 20, 2014

The Business of Editing: Credibility

Filed under: Business of Editing,Professional Editors — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
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For businesses, whether large or small, solopreneur or with employees, a key to success is credibility, and a cause of failure is a lack of credibility.

In the olden days of editing, credibility meant proven knowledge of subject matter and proven grasp of the fundamentals of language and language usage. I recall being both interviewed and tested before being hired as a freelance editor for a publisher. I also recall how difficult it was to get added to a publisher’s list of approved freelancers.

Over the ensuing years, I have noted a change. The staffs at publishers have diminished in numbers yet workload has increased. An early casualty of this numbers change was the interview. Increasingly, publishers relied on the resume and the test. With the rise of the Internet, some publishers added to the mix a quick look at the freelancer’s website. (Of course, it didn’t help that the people responsible for hiring freelancers had tenuous editing and interviewing skills themselves.)

Today, credibility seems to mean something different than what it meant in my early freelancing days. Today, credibility’s meaning seems to change like a chameleon. Credibility appears to mean different things at different times and for different reasons. I find that some clients are only interested in what books I have edited; others have scrutinized my website or read my LinkedIn profile or even the An American Editor blog; others want a test completed. These people, if they have not worked with me before, are contacting me based on my reputation, not on my credibility.

Credibility and reputation, although similar, differ in their audience. Reputation is addressed to the broader audience, which can include clients and prospective clients; credibility is what is built up with individual clients. Each includes the other, but which is in the dominant position depends on the audience. Prospective clients who are searching for editors search based on reputation; they lack the direct experience with an editor to test the editor’s credibility. Clients who have worked with particular editors before offer work to an editor among that group based on the editor’s credibility.

I have been contacted about editing because clients have looked at my website, especially the list of past projects, or read my LinkedIn profile, or this blog, which are advertisements for me, and decided that I would be a good fit for their needs. But what they do not do is interview me, and often do not test me. They are relying on my reputation without any sense of my credibility, except for that sense that can be garnered by looking at my past projects and equating the past projects with the notion that I must be credible.

With the rise of the Internet, substitutes for traditional methods of hiring have also risen. How well these substitutes work remains unresolved.

Years ago I hired freelancers based on their resumes and an interview. I rapidly discovered that not requiring a test, too, was a mistake. Today, whether I require a test depends on how well I know the freelancer and the freelancer’s work, which brings me back to the matters of reputation and credibility.

There are many types of freelance editors, but in broad terms, editors fall into two basic types: those who do everything that comes across the transom and those who “specialize,” focusing on narrower areas. Similarly, reputation and credibility come in multiple flavors, but in the broadest senses there are reputation as an editor and credibility in editing and credibility in subject-matter editing. My observation is that the greater opportunity to build credibility lies with the specialists who can build credibility in both editing in general and in subject-matter editing, but within a tighter knit community of clients and potential clients.

Credibility and reputation are important because of the strength they give me when I negotiate terms for a project. The stronger my credibility and reputation are in relation to the project under discussion and the client with whom I am negotiating, the greater the likelihood that my complaints, concerns, and objections will be considered seriously and dealt with in a manner satisfactory to me.

We all recognize the importance of reputation, but not necessarily the importance of credibility. How important is credibility? Credibility is the handmaiden of opportunity and reputation’s sidekick. As credibility increases, so does positive reputation. The greater one’s credibility and reputation as an editor, the more opportunities that will present to the editor, which means the greater the likelihood of meeting or exceeding one’s goals.

In addition, the greater one’s credibility, the less argument one gets about editing decisions. When I first started as a freelance editor, I had little credibility. As a result, many of my editorial decisions were questioned; I was asked to justify them, and my client would then decide whether my decision was “correct or incorrect.” As my credibility and reputation grew, such questioning decreased. Now I am rarely asked to justify a decision and am usually given broad instructions, with the application of those instructions left to my discretion.

In other words, I went from an editor whose work was to be watched and carefully reviewed to an editor who could be relied on to deliver high-quality work.

When I am asked if I am interested in undertaking a project, the client tells me what they are hoping for. When I review the project and say that, for example, the desired schedule cannot be met unless certain adjustments are made, my clients generally try to work with me rather than tell me that there is no latitude or that they will find someone else. This cooperation, which is good for both the client and me, is a direct result of my credibility with the client.

Reputation and credibility also serve as magnets to draw new business. As word spreads, the greater the likelihood that I will be on someone’s radar.

With every project that I undertake, my goal is twofold: to further reinforce my reputation as an outstanding editor and to build credibility with the particular client so that the client will turn to me first for all of its editorial needs. I know whether I have succeeded in attaining these goals by the quantity and quality of the requests I receive for my editing services and by how negotiations on new projects go.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 15, 2010

Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall

There have been lots of articles and comments regarding Rupert Murdoch’s views on making online news pay. Many commentators have suggested that putting the news behind a pay wall is bound to fail. I’m not so sure that Rupert is wrong. If we want original news reporting (i.e., news origination) and in-depth reporting rather than just the 10-second blurb TV gives us, we need to pay for it. Newsgathering is not free and costs need to be covered.

I subscribe to the New York Times. Daily delivery runs me about $50 per month. I am willing to pay for the subscription because I want to first know what is actually happening in my world before I start listening to the pundits tell me what those facts mean. I can’t imagine relying on Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Stephen Colbert, Ariana Huffington, or Al Franken for the facts of what is happening in my world.

I rely on the New York Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and similar papers because of the reputation for original reporting that they have built over the decades. Because I cannot do the original investigation myself, I do not know with absolute certainty that what they report as fact is truly fact — no more so than I can know any fact that I have learned from any source outside my own original investigation; instead, I rely on the reputations they have built as fact-gatherers. Similarly, I rely on the opinion shapers — the Becks, Limbaughs, Wills, Pitts’, Harrops, and other op-ed folk — to add interpretation from a philosophical or biased perspective to those facts the NYT, WSJ, and The Economist and the like have reported.

Sources like the Drudge Report are aggregators not originators; that is, they take from already published sources their “news.” Consequently, relying on an aggregator for one’s news does not address the problem of paying the originator of the news. News aggregators don’t have paid investigative, professional reporters in Des Moines, Iowa, let alone in Tajikistan — they are not news originators.

How can we rely on the veracity of the reported “facts” if the news originators are forced to give their content away free online? Ultimately, something has to give in a free economy; in the case of news, it is credibility and accuracy that ultimately gives. We are beginning to see the effect that free has on veracity and accuracy of reported “facts” online if a recent study of online magazines is to be believed.

The Columbia Journalism Review, as reported by the New York Times, recently surveyed the editing and fact-checking practices of magazine websites. Of the 665 magazines surveyed, 59% copyedit less rigorously or not at all the online content and 43% do less rigorous to no fact checking of the online content. The likelihood of these numbers decreasing with free content probably is nil; it is more likely that the numbers will increase.

Yet our discussions about our surrounding world have to start from some base. Granted they can start from one’s imagination in which we simply declare certain things as truth, but that seems to me to be a poor base from which to decide anything. News aggregators won’t have anything to aggregate and political and social commentators anything to comment on in the absence of news originators.

Not all newspapers either can be or should be behind paywalls. For example, my hometown newspaper is generally bereft of any real news origination and at best is worth $10 a year (although it costs closer to $200 a year by subscription), but that is because it lacks any real credibility and because most of its efforts are as a news aggregator, not originator. But there are certain newspapers, those that are true news originators, whose efforts should be behind a paywall. Their credibility, earned over decades of origination efforts, not only deserves financial support but warrants such financial support.

It has been reported that Internet and TV news (local and national/cable) are the leading sources for news today. Newspapers run distantly behind. On the surface, this indicates that paywall support is undeserved by newspapers. But the reality is different. TV news operations are scaling back on reporting; ABC News, for example, recently announced it was cutting its news gathering staff by one-third. Many of the covered stories originate in newspaper exposés, not in original TV reporting, and there is a significant difference in the depth of analysis provided in a 10-second TV blurb compared with a multipage newspaper article. Besides, TV news is behind a paywall; just an indirect one. Most of us get our TV via cable/satellite for which we pay a monthly fee. The cable/satellite operators pay the TV channels a per subscriber fee. And we also pay those same cable/satellite providers for Internet access. So why not also pay news originators for their work? Why should it be free just because it is on the Internet?

Many Internet news sites are nothing more than aggregators, not original news reporters. Without the originators, there would be no aggregation possible. More important, perhaps, are the findings of the Columbia Journalism Review. Its survey (see the New York Times article linked earlier) found that 16% of the respondents didn’t fact check online-only content at all and that of those that did fact check online content, 27% used a less-stringent process than they used for their print offering. How reliable can those sources be? Would you want your lawmakers or your doctors to make decisions based on unverified information?

Consequently, I’m inclined to think that Rupert is right. I’m not sure that the New York Post is worthy of being behind a paywall, but I have no doubt about the worthiness of, for example, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Economist, and the New York Times — that is newspapers with high credibility and well-deserved reputations as news originators. Keeping news originators alive and healthy is important to keeping alive and healthy democratic institutions.

Perhaps Rupert is right this time.

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