(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 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?

 

Cutting the great scene of doom

film-photo-eisenstein-editing.jpg

Sergei Eisenstein in a photograph appropriate to a post on editing

This is a little story about problems, about editing, and about idée fixe. There may be a moral. I make no promises.

I had been planning Oneiromancer for years before I set metaphorical pen to paper. When I did actually start to write it was because I had an idea: a vision, almost, which involved two entirely new, off-the-cuff characters watching one of my old heroes – term loosely used – fighting a monster. This became the novel’s first scene: it seems I always begin at the beginning, when a scene is so strong in my mind that it burns onto the page.

In this case it’s proved to be a problem. Through four drafts I’ve laboured (and you can an early effort here and a rewrite here) and tinkered and hammered it around the steel anvil of dogged determination. But I’ve never been quite satisfied. So after a first-ten-pages feedback, which suggested the novel started in the wrong place, I decided to cut the damn thing altogether.

Except I didn’t. What I decided to do was to move it. Because it wasn’t at all bad, and also contained useful information. It served to

  • Give character, both in background and in personality
  • Set out some info about the world and the rules thereof, and thus…
  • …helped tell the reader what sort of book they were reading
  • Set up some causality: two characters now knew of a third

All valuable stuff. So I lifted it wholesale, did some rather painful abbreviation and set it down later on.

Except that didn’t work either. The only place I could find to place it – to maintain cause-and-effect and internal logic – was as a memory within a dream. This isn’t as odd as it perhaps sounds, because dreams are central to the story (you know what the title means, right?). But placing it here was much difficulter. I now had problems with tense (one past within another past – I’m sure there are proper terms for these, but I don’t know them) and with the same character watching ‘herself’. It also slowed down the story.

But the scene had to stay, right? It contained important information. It added depth. It set up future events. And it had to be in that place…

Wait.

Hang on a second.

Let’s just think. What’s actually important? The only things that matter are character and that thread of consequence. So the question should not be ‘how can I crowbar this scene into my novel?’ but ‘what’s the best way to give the reader this information?’

Cut the scene. Cut the whole damn thing. It’s not working. Rewrite around the problem, and suddenly everything flows again.

Sometimes working on words helps: you can always make something read better, always polish, hone and sharpen. But sometimes you’re just scratching at the margins. The whole situation needs to change. Step back. Think. Everything you want to achieve can be achieved in a variety of ways. If what you’re doing isn’t working, maybe you’re not trying the right approach.

Here endeth the lesson.

Reading for pleasure and profit

book art 3

I’ve read a fair few manuscripts in my time. Not books; they’re two-a-penny. But manuscripts: works-in-progress; proofs. And I’m coming to the conclusion that the mind works differently when faced with a sheet of paper – even on one of those new-fangled e-reader-y type things – rather than a packaged work.

As you struggle as a writer you’re going to come across much advice and instruction, and one of the oft-repeated suggestions is that you read your favourite novels critically. You try to dissect your friends, in essence, to see what makes them tick. I’ve never, ever, managed to follow this advice. When I read a book I want to be absorbed. I want the flow of words to wash me away.

It’s true that sometimes I see things that the author wouldn’t want me to. Especially in the first few chapters – before I’m totally immersed – I can see dialogue I think of as hammy, and there’s nothing worse then that ‘why don’t they just talk’ moment of stupidity for breaking me from the flow. But mostly a published book just transports me. And I want it to. If it doesn’t then it’s not worked.

That’s not to say that I don’t learn from books. I most certainly do. But the learning is mostly subconscious; absorbing lessons deep within the skin, many-time repeated patterns of plot (and grammar, and punctuation, and form) that slowly soak into me.

But manuscripts work differently. If someone hands you a manuscript it’s either because they want validation – nothing more to say about that – or because they want to get better. So you read more critically. You’re looking for errors. You’re looking for ways their work can be improved. You’re seeing roads the author themselves never saw. You’re asking questions in a way you simply don’t when reading a published work.

Maybe it’s the sense of completion you have when you take up a novel: this is what the author and publisher wanted. Of course this isn’t necessarily true, but that’s the illusion. With a manuscript you’re looking at a stage in development. This, I think, makes you read in a different way. It’s easier to spot errors – not just typos and grammar-sins, but plot-holes and mis-characterisations.

I guess it’s similar to the role of the professional critic, or maybe even the book-club reader. You forego the experience in order to have something (vaguely) intelligent to say.

Which is why I advise all writers to engage in manuscript exchanges with others. You don’t have to sacrifice the joy of reading to improve as an author. I’ve learnt how others see plot, and dialogue, and setting – all the individual components of a written work. Even comparing feedback helps: it’s remarkable how one reader will notice poor grammar or dialogue, for example, whilst you’ve been looking at motivation and character. You’re also likely to encounter other genres and to grow both as a reader and a writer.

So don’t lead your favourite friend to the abattoir. Instead seek out opportunities to help other writers with their work. Don’t see it as a waste of valuable writing time because you’ll be helping yourself as well as them.

Editing comes in waves

Wave3

Editing comes in waves. There is the initial draft, which has errors large and small; typos aplenty mixed in with trailing plot-vines, character instability and shoddy dialogue. So the primary edit is, for me at least, a case of pruning out the missteps and giving the sickly plants a little more manure.

Then you enter your prize cactus into a competition and all its many flaws are coldly, cruelly exposed. You feel like an amateur; what you thought was a beautiful bloom is merely a canker. So it’s back to the hothouse for another round of editing.

This time you have to make wholesale changes. You have to uproot whole stems, repot, replant, replace. Isolate whole lines: trim and deadhead and mature before they can be reintegrated into the Shubbery of Gloriousness. Only then can you get to grips with the little things: the leaves must be buffed to a shine and here, perhaps, the metaphor collapses under the weight of its own preposterousness.

I’ve taken Oneiromancer for public scrutiny. To say it failed would be overstatement; I got respect for what I was trying to achieve. But it wasn’t where I want it to be. I want it to be perfect and it’s not. That’s fine. That’s why I got feedback.

Now I’m nearing the end of my (first) Big Edit. It’s been a nightmare of copy-and-pasting: whole sections ripped up, rewritten and reinserted elsewhere. Every such change has involved the surrounding scenes being altered to accommodate as previously dead characters come back to life, or need excising, or have new information. To my annoyance I’ve seen the word-count swell back towards the 140k mark; I’d been hoping to write a 110k novel. I can only hope the extra 30k ‘adds value,’ as they say. As someone says, at least.

So when this draft is finished I’m done, right? Oh, but that were the case. As soon as this is done – after a large drink or two – it’ll be time for another read-through. A copy-edit always needs to be followed by a line-edit. This is not only for the myriad fresh typos that I’ve doubtless introduced but to examine the aspects I’ve not been looking at here. Little things like voice, character and the actual words.

Wave

And then it’ll be back out into the wider world for more feedback. Hopefully I can still dredge up another beta-reader or two to plunge me back into the deep, shark-infested pool of editation. But after that comes the sell: to agents, to publishers, to hope and despair.

Editing comes in waves, as I said at the beginning. My experience with agents means that, even if I get to a place where I’m confident enough to approach them, I know that I’ll have at least one more tsunami of a rewrite. For now, though, it’s just a case of keeping my head above water. For the first time in eighteen months at sea I can see the shore.

Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming until you feel the glorious, sun-baked sand beneath your feet.

A question of style

I do not write here as I do in my novels. Here I indulge my taste for neologisms, for bad puns, for annoying alliteration and all those other little stylistic tics that would drive you crazy if they were to appear in a novel. I have a different voice here from the one I use to construct my stories.

Style is possibly the most difficult thing to define in writing. It’s not the words you put on the page but the way you get them down. Except… it is the words too. If you’ve ever got anything down on the page then you’ve got a style. Just not necessarily a good one.

Confused?

Well, cheer up. It’s impossible not to develop a style. Style is just a combination of several different factors and the way they interact:

• Word choice

Simple or complex? Blunt or flowery? It’s really as simple (or complex) as that.

• Word order

‘They’re not the same thing’ vs ‘The same thing they are not’. Same words, same meaning – but a different effect. One is flat and straightforward and draws no attention to itself. The other can be – depending on context – playful, arch, or just bloody annoying.

• Sentence/paragraph length

Obviously this should vary, partly to avoid monotony and also to create different effects, but you’ll find that each author has a tendency for short or long sentences. Which leads us on to…

• Punctuation

I’ve a weakness for semi-colons. Love the buggers, I do. Most of my sentences are short, but I spice things up with rambling, poetic(er) sections with clauses and sub-clauses and even brackets. Punctuation is, perhaps, the greatest definer of style, which is why I’m totally nonplussed when I meet authors who say that they’re really bad at it and don’t seem to care. To me, that’s like saying ‘I’m a bit crap but that’s no big deal’.

Style varies according to what effect you’re trying to get across. My voice in this blog is more like my natural conversational voice. This blog is, after all, meant to be fun; often, when I write this, I’m playing. I’m writing with a smile, trying to satisfy myself as much as I’m trying to enlighten or entertain you, the reader. It’s possible that this just makes me an arse, in which case congratulations! You’re saved the bother of actually meeting me.

Style is also about omission as much as it is about what you put in. Missed words, unusual syntax – they shape the feel of the read. Take that ‘Just not necessarily a good one’ from the second paragraph: you all know that was ungrammatical, a sentence fragment. But I chose (without any real thought) to omit the object. This is part of my style. I also have the habit of starting sentences with conjunctions: ‘or,’ ‘but,’ or most especially ‘and’. I’ve got the idea that this creates a sense of immediacy and urgency, and I think by and large it works. But this is something that I used to do a lot more, and still end up cutting a lot of these through successive drafts. I once defended this technique with the cry of ‘Style!’ – and I was right. But stylistic tics like this are best used sparingly. Otherwise they scream out to the reader. They scream ‘amateur.’

The good news is that you don’t have to do anything special to develop a style of your own. You’ve already been fully inculcated by the books you’ve read and are reading. You’re critique group (you have one of those, right?) will tell you without prompting where you’ve crossed the line into arseishness. Style simply comes from writing: from getting the words down on page, regularly and in abundance. You need to make mistakes.

I’m desperately trying to avoid the old saw ‘you need to know the rules in order to break them’. It’s not quite true; you can sidestep the process and trust to instinct, although that’s a high-risk strategy – you may be called out at any moment. You certainly don’t need to read grammar-primers – I’ve read them for you, and I couldn’t make much of them. But it helps. The better you understand convention the easier it is to manipulate.

Certainly don’t fall into the trap of taking only one source for your inspiration. A mentor is a great thing. We all have our literary idols. But – and I can say this on any subject – the only way to round your style is to read as widely as possible and get as many different feedback-sources as you can.

And never trust a man who writes one-sentence paragraphs.