The Pyramid of Glasses

I just finished The Hunger Games trilogy and loved it. Even the things that the critics have used to skewer pieces of it didn’t bother me. I thought that it wrapped things up in a way that, while perhaps not 100% thorough, were believable in the context of the story. And now I’m back to a book the Science Fiction Book Club sent me a while back, Robopacalypse.

I like the book a lot so far. It’s a classic sort of diorama for a story — humanity versus machine, and it’s told in a similar style to World War Z, as an oral history of sorts. I was reading along today, completely engrossed, when this blog post sneaked up behind me and goosed me.

Actually, it was more like it burst the bubble of story that had walled me off into that world. And it wasn’t so much the blog post as the reason I’m writing it. Some people call it suspension of disbelief, others building a world or staying in character.

I call it the Pyramid of Glasses.

When you write fiction, each sentence you write needs to reside, breathing and beating within the world of your story. Each word, each phrase, each sentence adds a glass, painstakingly constructing this shining pyramid.

Photo by javno192

With every word we write, we build. We lay the foundation, then add on the layers, the multi-faceted texturing and dimensionality of our stories. Today I was reading a vignette in Robopocalypse where a teenager in London was outsmarted by his own cleverness and discovered that his elaborate pranks had inadvertently led him into quicksand — quicksand inhabited by an entity of malicious artificial intelligence. His dialogue is convincing — I actually took note of how the nuances of speech reminded me so much of my time in London.

And then I saw the unstable glass that brought the entire pyramid crashing down a split second later into splinters of glittering jagged edges.

Not champagne glasses, but you get the point. Photo by Ken Tuvman

What was it, you ask? What burst the bubble and knocked the teetering glass over to start the avalanche and buried my suspension of disbelief? It went like this:

“I was f—g brilliant, Lurker. I called the headquarters of the Associated Press and spoofed my phone as the Bombay consulate. I posed as a bloody Indian reporter calling from –”

“That’s great, mate. Fantastic. You want a f—-g cookie?”

Record scratch.

Pyramid gone. Pile of broken glass. Did you catch it? If you’re familiar with English speech patterns at all, you probably did.

British people don’t have cookies. They have biscuits. That one little word ruined my moment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite fond of cookies — but in all the time I’ve spent in Scotland and London, I’ve never heard one of the natives use the word in normal speech.

You see, some people might gloss over that sort of thing. The editor didn’t catch it. The author didn’t catch it. But it’s the author’s job to catch it. It’s the author’s job — that’s you — to make your Pyramid of Glasses shining, stunning, and flawless. No teetery bits that can send the lot of it crashing to the ground.

I can accept that perhaps the word is becoming more common, as language tends to fluctuate and transmogrify itself into a new beast when it comes in contact with media and outside influences, but it still strikes me as a very out of place word. And as a reader, you can’t really control when the world of the story you’re reading comes crashing down. Plot holes do it too — like if a character’s car is totaled and she has no time to get a rental, but somehow drives to a meeting the next day. It is a record scratch. It stops forward momentum, and while you can get it back, it’s far better to just weed that stuff out from the start of it.

The average little plot hole is just a bump in the road, but it can grow if you don’t pay attention to it. Writers have to be even more cognizant of subjects they are less than familiar with, and dialects of characters are a huge part of that. My stories have a few Scots in them. Before I ever let my book go to press, I am going to make it my mission to have a few Scots read it, just to make sure that the language is correct. The same goes for the Polish bits (except for the part about having Scots read over those bits). As we write, it’s our job to be as meticulous and painstaking as possible as we pile those glasses on top of one another. If we’re lazy, it will all come crashing down around our readers’ ankles. It’s a fickle thing, but carelessness with our pyramids can turn a potential bestseller into a C-list out of print mass market paperback.

It’s far from impossible to build a Pyramid of Glasses — you know your world the best, and you have the means to explore the glasses that have uneven stems or cracked bases. Repair them or replace them.


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on November 29, 2011, in book reviews, writing process and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. It’s a dark day when cookies are used for evil. Or rather, when they are the cause of a disconnect—tragic, that, but I understand exactly what you mean, Emmie. Sometimes it’s the little things, sometimes it’s the big, but details…details are key. A careless pen can snap a reader out of a book faster than just about anything, be it the purest of nonfiction, or the most mythic of fantasies. Know your world (whether it’s this world, or your own), and use it right.

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