About robjtriggs

Currently based in Oxfordshire but with links to Belfast, Bradford and Norwich, I'm a writer of speculative fiction and a dreamer of dreams. Including that one which starts out nice and then turns on you like a twisty-turny thing

(Don’t go back to) Badsville

Priestess of the White

So: bad books. Welcome back to my occasional series on my amazement – nay, bewilderment – that so many trad-published books fail even the most cursory quality checks. Today we’re looking at Priestess of the White by Trudi Canavan.

First, let’s get this out of the way up front: a bad book is not the same as a bad author. A long time ago I read her ‘Black Magician’ trilogy and really enjoyed it. Granted, it was a decade or so past and maybe I’ve become more sophisticated since. Maybe. But I don’t think I’d have lodged her in my brain as an author I enjoy if it hadn’t been good.

I’ve said more about the difference between bad authors and bad writing in my post on Mike Shevdon’s The Road to Bedlam. Check it out if you’re so inclined.

So what’s wrong with PotW? Well, let’s start with…

• More exposition that you can shake a stick at
• Dialogue so stiff you could use it as a stick to shake
• Characters… well, I don’t want to criticise too much too soon; I’ve not got that far through it. But the characters haven’t set me alight to far. Similarly I’ve not got deep enough into the plot to comment on that
• A lack of tension
• A plot remarkably slow in its arrival

A note on exposition: if you ever start a line of dialogue with ‘As you know…’ you’re in trouble. If you’re interrupting action to give us information you’re in trouble – especially if the reader (me) can see that this information can be simply woven in to the story through dialogue and dramatisation.

Let’s follow that with a confession. I’ve used a variation of the ‘as you know’ in Night Shift. I think (hope) you can get away with it if you phrase it as a question: ‘you know that we’re powered by an oil lake..?’ I’ll let you decide if that works or if I’m just a massive hypocrite.

As for dialogue, PotW’s main sin is the ‘call and response’:
“Shall we do this?”
“I don’t like that.”
“What do you think we should do?”
“I think this is a good idea.”
“But that leads to this.”
“Yes. But that is preferable to the other.”
I hope I don’t need to say that this isn’t a quote. I’m listening to an audio version and extracting chapter and verse isn’t worth the effort. But this is how it feels. No subtext. No interest.

People don’t speak like this. People interrupt each other, they dissemble, they say one thing but mean another. I’ve tried to get away from this in my writing by having lots of sentence fragments; people tailing off (using ellipses) and cutting other others (using dashes).

The danger of this technique is that, by omitting sentence endings, the meaning is sometimes lost. I went too far when I first tried this – it was a conscious decision after being criticised for my own stilted dialogue – and now I’m trying to find a middle line.

Poor dialogue kills tension. It replaces drama with melodrama. We’ve just met the presumably major villain in PotW but it feels more like I’m in a pantomime than a serious, world-threatening conflict.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m quite enjoying Princess of the White. I can’t recommend it; there are a lot of great novels out there and this isn’t one of them. But, like watching a horror movie or a slow-motion car crash, finding all the errors is providing me with a certain amount of entertainment.

I don’t set out to hunt bad writing. I love stories. I want to be transported. I don’t want to carve them to pieces to make myself seem big and clever in comparison, but neither does that make me oblivious. Like The Road to Bedlam and – for different reasons – The ‘First Law’ series, Princess of the White is appearing here for all the wrong reasons.

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On theme

Theme vs main idea.JPG

I’ve been reading about writing. I don’t know why I do it. It only makes me think, and question – and no good can come that.

One thing I’ve never really got to grips with in the idea of a theme. What’s your writing really all about, when you get down to it? I’ve always constructed a story through character, setting and – perhaps especially – mood. I’ve never used an overall, over-arching ‘concept’ to keep my writing focussed.

But I’m always interested in learning and if there’s something I could use to make myself a better writer then it’s past time to bring it in.

A theme is the controlling idea of your story: a bold statement that sums up what the novel is truly about. It takes message of the final act and then qualifies it. Examples (stolen from Robert McKee’s Story):

  • ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more violent than the criminal’ – Dirty Harry
  • ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more clever than the criminal’ – the Columbo TV series
  • ‘Hatred destroys us when we fear the opposite sex’- Dangerous Liaisons

Seems simple, doesn’t it? Your big idea at the front (‘justice prevails…’) and then the qualifier that makes your work unique. Well. I don’t know about you but I’ve not found it so straightforward. I’ve got things like:

  • Chivalry: ‘States collapse when internet loyalties transcend national boundaries’
  • Night Shift: ‘Survival can only be achieved when inner unity is gained’
  • Oneiromancer: ‘Justice prevails when your heroes’ will is more than the enemy’s’

The idea is that you write the first draft, work out what the story is about, and then rewrite with this idea in the forefront of your mind: or come up with the idea first. Whichever you choose, this is supposed to help you keep your story focussed, to not get sidetracked.

But this whole thing is taken from advice to screenwriters, not novelists. Does it really help people like me? Does it not just reduce the whole thing beneath usefulness? A single sentence can’t convey the richness of a story. Maintenance of aim – yes, I can see how determining your theme would help focus the mind and stop too many side-tracks. But all my novels have multiple foci and are about more than a single sentence can carry.

Take Chivalry as an example. The theme could easily be any of the following:

  • Tragedy unfolds as a father realises just how dangerous his daughter is
  • Madness will destroy if it can’t be channelled
  • Honour can only be achieved when maturity is gained

Which is right? Could these threads be tied into a single sentence – and is it worth even trying? Do we worry about subplots?

Theme. Complex, contradictory, contrary. I’d welcome your opinions as I’m yet to be convinced that it’s worth the mental effort.

And also, just to prove that nothing is simple, I took the image above from a blog on teaching that explains that main idea and theme are, in fact two wholly different things. The theme, then, of this post? Clearly it’s one of ignorance and stupidity.

Rob out.

The problematical son returns

C and H bad writing

@Bill Watterson

It’s an interesting, uncomfortable experience, editing old work. For reasons of new possibilities I have taken up Australis again (a novel which may well be retitled) and am starting to inflict the Red Pen of Destiny upon its sickly frame.

Australis is the sequel to Night Shift and has long been my problem child. There is a good story in there somewhere, but it’s drowning in words and I’m struggling to set it free. There’s a strong theme – a point – to the story, an expansion of the mythos, and characters I’ve enjoyed developing.  But something is getting in the way and I can’t see how to release it from its shackles.

Perhaps more interesting is to re-evaluate my writing after a gap of three years. And… well, for the most part the writing itself is actually okay. Or, to put it another way, I’ve not improved as much as I should have.

The two major problems I’ve found so far:

  • A pesky overuse of dashes. This is quite embarrassing, but a relatively easy fix
  • Too many words. This isn’t so much a case of over-writing – though there are some deletions that can be made – but just the look of the script on the page. My writing feels dense, unappealing. This is much harder to deal with as to unpick and unpack would also be to lose coherence.

In other words, my problem child is still a problem. She doesn’t just need a new suit and a bit of a haircut but a thorough delousing and training in the basic routines of civilised hygiene. I can’t yet see a way to provide her with that: I’m no paragon myself.

Everyone says that reading old works can be painful. You can see every single mistake you made, every cliché left in, every stereotype, every innocent adjective sadly abused. But the writing industry is all about editing. You have no choice but to look backwards. You have to get to grips with your own flaws because it’s your job.

Sometimes the best option is to abandon a work and move on to the next one. But if you can’t do that? You just have to suck it up. Get that red pen out and, if necessary, rewrite the whole damn thing.

Hey, you wanted to be a writer, didn’t you? Best get the whole time-travel thing sorted, then. You’re lucky. You’ve got the chance to kill your sins before they’re inexorably committed to the public record. Not everybody has this opportunity.

The doldrums

thomas-jacques-somerscales-becalmed

Becalmed, by Thomas Jacques Somerscales

And into the maelstrom comes… silence.

There are only two states of being: having too much to do and having not enough. I have firmly landed in the second camp: after three weeks’ intense proofreading, form-filling and question-answering I now find myself with nothing to do.

This is, of course, a lie. I have plenty on my plate. I have two novels to edit. I have a new one to write (and I remember those days, I really do). I have a couple of short-stories that I’d like to tinker with. I have business to attend to and then there’s the unremitting grim fastness of Christmas to engage with.

But none of these things have deadlines. None brings the immediate prospect of prosperity. There is no urgent sense of peril or panic. Without them I am adrift. I am unfocussed, drifting in the doldrums without even the wispiest whisper of wind.

It’s in times like this that you should really start something new. Make your own momentum, hoist the sails yourself and set to the tiller. But I’m not ready. All ideas are too unfocussed; I lack a starting-point and a compass-bearing. To set off from harbour without even a rough destination is madness.

So I pull out my old novels and pick at them. This is worth doing, but also somehow wrong. I have been subverted, inverted, by a sudden rush of excitement, a great swell of activity that was at once overwhelming and thrilling, like being caught on a tidal wave that you must ride or drown.

I rode it. Now it’s petered out, and I am becalmed.

Someone give me a push?

The wild rumba of revenge

self_confidence_by_netwars4-d36loaw.png

Someone must own the copyright to this but I can’t track the artist down. If it’s you, please get in touch so I can credit you

So I’m due to have a book published late 2018. I’ve been working for this for over a decade: I got my first full-book request from a publisher back in 2007, I think it was. I’ve sent out well over 100 queries – maybe it’s more like 250, I’ve not kept count. A lot, though. And now finally I have the solid prospect of publication.

So why do I feel so numb? Why am I not screaming for joy, quaffing the champagne of victory and dancing the wild rumba of revenge for past rejections?

Everyone is delighted on my behalf. People keep congratulating me and it’s hard to know how to respond. Of course, good old-fashioned modesty and reserve is part of it, but it’s more than that.

Part of it is distance. Publication is a year away and I haven’t yet got to grips with the schedule; I’m sure things will get exciting as promotions happen; as events are inked in and momentum builds. At the moment all I have is the (not entirely unpleasurable) puzzle of filling in questionnaires and trying to remember what the damn book’s about.

There’s also a degree of scepticism. I have faith in this publisher (in case you’re wondering, I’m holding off from naming them at the moment because I know they’re still working on a dedicated imprint-website and they have their own schedules that I don’t want to hijack) but I know that things go wrong.

A colleague of mine signed with a small publisher in Texas only to find that it was basically a single person who promptly ran into difficulties and the whole enterprise fell into a morass of rights-issues and recriminations. Now I don’t think that’ll happen with me – I was confident enough to sign a contract, after all – but things do go wrong. Money dries up. Backers withdraw. Shit, as they say, happens.

But my reactions are more down to the fact that this one act of good fortune hasn’t made me a different person. I have a promise. I have some degree of status – eligibility to join the Society of Authors, for example – but I’ve not changed. I’m still exactly the same person that I was yesterday; still a jobbing writer who’s struggling to create and to make a career in the field I love. If anything I feel less human as a result of signing a contract, not more complete.

It just doesn’t feel real.

And I’m pretty certain I’m not alone in this. It’s not quite impostor syndrome as I’ve not yet infiltrated the circles in which I might be disguising myself. It’s the emptiness of success. The realisation that dreams are only a start, and achieving them is less than you could ever imagine.

Shepherd

Beware (again) that this business is not all it’s cracked up to be. ‘Success’ is not something you can step into, not something that can be put on like a coat. I suspect that I’ll never be successful because that pose comes from within.

Work hard. Work for your ambitions. Take your luck when it comes and keep, keep, keep on trying.

But remember that success won’t change your world. It won’t complete you. Make sure you have family and friends around you because they’re a much truer gauge of what you are than a name on the shelves. Don’t forget why you wanted to ‘succeed’ in the first place.

 

The kindness of strangers

Hug

Whether you’re looking to publish traditionally or do-it-yourself, you’re going to have to do-it-yourself.

Unless you have the massive good fortune to land a top agent or publishing house who have ‘people’ to do these things for you – and I suspect that streamlining (another horrible phrase, like downsizing, which means ‘we’re no longer going to pay people to do important jobs’) means that there are fewer and fewer bodies that so do – you’re going to have to write your own publicity and provide your own copy.

A few weeks ago I wrote about having to give journalists your own Q&As, but it’s more than that. You also have to write your own book description: not merely the blurb but the longer document which is used to sell the book to wholesalers. You have to write your own biography. You have to provide your own author photograph.

This maybe isn’t such a surprise. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing. At least you keep control – perhaps it’s best to do these things oneself rather than let somehow who knows neither you nor the deep themes and undercurrents of your work.

But there you are, having only just mastered synopses, cover letters and a new year of neologisms, and here’s something new to learn. Can’t they see that all you want to do is write?

Well suck it up, laughing boy. You’re an author now. Ain’t no-one to blame but yourself, and no-one else will do it if you don’t.

A long, long time ago I wrote a piece about the way we’re no longer simple creators but fully-fledged business-twonks. It’s still true. But don’t get too discouraged because there is help out there. You have to do the work, it’s true, but you’re not alone.

First and foremost, you have friends. If you’re reading this then you’ve already stretched out a little and have a greater awareness than just that of your own four walls. You’ll have connected with authors and editors and – whilst they may be strangers to you – most people are willing to give advice, even if it’s only  280 characters long. People like to help. They’re nice like that.

Secondly, other people want you to do well. If you’re working with a publisher or agent they have a vested interest in your success. Got a problem? Ask them. They may not have all the answers but they’ll point you in the right direction. And any self-publishers who’ve used any outside services – editorial, cover design and so on – have people to ask too.

Then there’s the internet. This – as you know – can be a double-edged sword: not only may you be receiving bad advice but you can spend as long hunting down information as the original task should take. And – to my surprise – the internet doesn’t have all the answers. I haven’t been able to track down any information on what’s wanted in a long-form book description. But the internet is a resource. It’s there for you to use.

For my money the best option has always been to rely on the kindness of strangers. There’s always someone willing to help. Just remember, when your turn comes, to pay your debts.

Helping others isn’t such a hard thing, is it?

 

Good news, everyone

Bad news! I’m going to have to change my byline. ‘The unfocussed abstractions of an unpublished author’ has served me well for four and a half years. It’s going to be hard to say goodbye.

But this is because of Good News. I’ve signed a publishing contract, and Night Shift is scheduled to be released late 2018. Hooray and huzzah! And extra special congratulations to anyone who guessed this had happened from my last few blog posts. Aren’t you just the cutest little smartypants?

I signed the deal a few weeks ago but was holding back from telling you because I wasn’t sure the publishers would like it if I went shooting my mouth off. Indeed, that’s why this blog is late today: I wanted to be sure that I could say anything, and if there was anything the publisher wanted me to keep shtum about. Professionalism, see? I’m not entirely sure what it is, but I can still do a respectable impersonation of it.

Anyway, there are myriad slips ‘tween cup and lip and I’m not sure I’ll believe this myself until I’ve got my grubby little mitts on a copy of the book. I’ll tell you more about the project – and my heavily-edited experiences in Publishland – over the coming months.

Good news