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Bob Nailor

A Penny - Tripping Your World

You’re the writer, the creator of all the reader consumes: trees of deep red bark and iridescent pink leaves, clouds of billowing butter-cream yellow against a sky of mint-green. As a reader, we accept it. Some may question how it is scientifically possible if the genre is science fiction, but if you’re creating a world of fantasy, we, the reader, will accept it on faith and continue.

The reader accepts almost everything the writer puts to pen but there are those moments when we trip up and rip the reader out of the page, out of the world we’ve created. Sometimes the reader is a forgiving person, sometimes not. It all depends on how rudely they were awakened from the dream world we engaged them with.

Was it a simple niggling of the mind with a conflicting description?

Was it a major flaw that suddenly crept to reality?

Could it be a clash in the rules?

Or could it have been a misused word?

Niggling is an intriguing word. It is when a certain aspect is in direct conflict with the current reality. How is this possible? Jan’s eyes were light-blue like the sky above, her face was framed by curling locks of golden-wheat hair. A few lines, paragraphs or pages later… Jan’s straight hair and piercingly dark eyes punctuated the anger she felt. Huh? Unless she went to the beauty shop — and you didn’t mention that – or she straightened those curls — again, no mention – exactly what happened? Okay, just how piercingly dark can “light-blue eyes to match the sky” become when angry? Another instance would be a character named John who happens to be a very good, but diminutive detective who stands a boastful five foot, six inches tall. Even if he is as remarkable as you say, I truly doubt he will glance down and notice the missing glove atop the almost six foot tall refrigerator. Remember, he glanced DOWN and I don’t think he has wings. Your reader is frowning, wondering how this is possible.

Flaws are the fun one. You don’t see it coming and can miss it even when editing. Yes, flaws can be very subtle. Mark glanced over to see his mother scrubbing fresh potatoes and his sister peeling carrots for the evening meal. He could smell the meatloaf in the oven. A rather descriptive couple of sentences depicting home life and it works well except, when a few paragraphs later, you read… Daniel ate his last piece of ham. “That was a good supper, Mama. I loved the green beans.” Wait a minute! Who is Daniel? Or rather, who is/was Mark? Daniel is the lead character. His name was originally Mark but was changed during first edits. This Mark was a missed edit. Did anyone else notice the menu change? Unless Mama is running a restaurant for her family, they either had meatloaf, potatoes and carrots or they had ham and green beans. I don’t see Mama making all of that for one meal.

Facts. Remember that pink tree and green sky? In science fiction, you really need to be able to explain the “how” and the “why” of such a world. Back in 1950, the reader accepted such descriptions of wonder, but today’s reader is definitely very savvy. There has to be a scientific reason for the aberration. The same holds true for certain realities. The days of riding a horse at full gallop, crossing the countryside or continent is impossible. The Pony Express rode a horse at full throttle for only about ten miles before changing them out. Facts are facts, just as truth is truth, and unless you can define your modification to reality, they can’t be played with too much.

Word choice. This is where an author can really snafu the constructed bridgework of a sentence. Didn’t that sound impressive? I once read a personnel review with “…he speaks with intelligencia and auspice.” I questioned if the manager truly wanted to say that. He did. I recently read a poem with a line reading “He will come a rim.” which to this day still has me wondering what that means. The sentence rhymed but I have no idea what it means. A story I read this morning had two phrases in it which left me scratching my head. “They attracted shivers of sharks” and “The shoal of mermaids begged me to stay.” I basically enjoyed the story but was torn from the dream world the author had created when I attempted to register in my mind what “shivers of sharks” and “shoal of mermaids” could be. It ruined the story for me, taking my mind from the tale’s flow to word analyzing.

It is very simple. I can sum this topic visually with a simple movie scene. If you’ve seen “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, I’m sure you remember the penny. If you haven't seen the movie, rent it — a great flick. Also… you don’t want a penny in your story.

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Elyse Salpeter
Really great writing tip today and something I grapple with. I once wrote a story which extended over a week. For some reason I decided to do a calendar of events - what happened when, and realized I had the kids calling a school on a Sunday. Uh oh - major flaw. Also love when I mix up a character name - thankfully one of my editors caught that once. Great writing tips!
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