(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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‘Quit yo’ jibber-jabber, fool.’

When I began to write – many, many moons ago – I was uncomfortable about conversations. Not dialogue per se (although I should have been) but how to move the plot on when people are just talking about the metaphorical weather. It’s a tricky balance. Every single word matters in a novel, but characters need space to be real people with real motivations.

I think there was a sense of fear in me. I didn’t want to put in my stories the type of inconsequential nonsense that most of us wile away our lives with. I wanted people to get on with the action and all conversations, therefore, had to be tension-filled, dynamic and relevant to the plot.

Now I’m on my eighth complete rewrite of Night Shift and I find that the key change I’m making is to slow things down. I’m trying to add depth and so I’m teasing out the chatter, trying to build subtleties into people and to make them more rounded. It’s difficult. There needs to be tension and subtext in every scene: how can idle talk carry any real information?

Everything matters. The clothes a person wears, their mannerisms, their choice of words – all are to some extent political decisions. When two people meet the first thing they do is try to establish their relative statuses. This is natural. Add in secrets and fears and the uncertainty that the other person might be lying to them – well, that’s almost a plot already.

Of course it helps that I already have a plot. All I have to do now is remember that key mantra: what does this person want to get out of this conversation? Even if it’s only to make a new friend, or to get through without embarrassing him/herself, that’s an aim.

It also gets a lot easier when you really know who your characters are. The realisation has been forced upon me that I didn’t know my cast as well as I should: by focusing on motivation I find my fear of idle chatter has been somewhat diminished. Now my protagonist has to face people who are afraid of him because of his (incorrectly) perceived status, and each of them will portray that fear in a different way. One particular character will respond by aggressively reinforcing his superiority. Others will be circumspect, standoffish. The trick is to establish this through words and body language – subtly, so that the motives are never said but make sense when more of the plot is revealed.

It’s difficult. It’s even more difficult to try and do this in a scene I’ve already rewritten seven times and is so fixed in my mind that any alteration is an effort – but that’s my own fault and there’s no use bitching about it now. But finally I feel I’ve overcome my fear of chit-chat. Every word in your novel has to have meaning, yes – but sometimes this meaning is better hidden than overt.

Truth and beauty

Life in novels isn’t like it is in the real world. No matter how closely you follow a character – even if you occupy her head – she’ll not tell you everything. You don’t hear when she’s hungry or if she needs the toilet – not unless it’s important to the plot or the character. You’re not aware of every emotion, every thought. Similarly, writers don’t tell you of every movement a character makes, even if you’re watching them closely. You assume their chest is rising and falling as they breathe. You don’t need to be told unless there’s something significant therein.

Readers know this. It’s an unwritten, undiscussed contract. Writers don’t give you a full story, only the edited highlights. We – writers and readers both – choose beauty over truth.

A few years ago I heard tell of a writer of graphic novels. Highly thought of at the time (I forget his name and what he was working on, but it’s not important), it was the way he handled dialogue that caught the attention. He’d get a cast, sit them round and made them read their lines. Sometimes they’d improvise them. The point is that the writer replicated these lines as they were delivered. Every hesitation, cough, stumble, was recreated on the page.

Dialogue is the most obvious area where we look for beauty over truth. Think about it. When we’re talking we omit words all the time, or repeat pointless information adding nothing. We don’t punctuate, just ramble on with infinite sub-clauses. To follow something like that on the page would be almost impossible. We’d lose interest, become frustrated – reading should be a pleasure not a chore. So writers edit it down for us. Leave us with just a little taste so we can add the detail, subconsciously, in our minds.

People in books also use real names more than they do down the pub. When writing it’s really handy to let the audience know who’s being talked to/is talking without labouring the point. Hence… “What do you think, Jessica? Will it work?” That immediately tells is a) someone is talking to Jessica, and b) it’s not Jessica talking. Do we do this in real life? Nah. Not often. In large groups, maybe, but most of the time it’s obvious who we’re talking to from the way we’re facing or the tone of voice and volume we’re using.

Names are another area of lieage. We all know more than one person with the same name, right? I know several Sally’s and a few Dave’s. Not allowed in fiction, not unless that’s the point of the novel. Everyone must have their own unique moniker. More than that, we can’t have even similar names: Jessica and Jennifer, for example, would be right out. We’ve also got to be careful of names that suggest ethnicity or class. In the real world we might actually know an heiress called Tracy or a Turk called Terry but it strikes the reader as so strange that they expect it to be explained. You don’t want to read (or write) an irrelevant back-story.

So there you go. Writers lie. They lie to us all the time. Because beauty, in this context, is a hell of a lot more important than truth. We don’t care how many times our protagonist goes to the toilet. Our antagonist is rarely bothered by the financial consequences of buying a deserted volcano and housing his support staff. Books lie. And they’re all the better for it.

The second rule

The second rule’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? If you want to be a writer you’ve got to read.

You can study reading. You can read books on how to read books, and (I guess) many writing courses will give you lists of things to watch out for: characterisation, plot, dialogue… all the elements that, when blended together, make Literature. But I’m not too sure about this. More than anything else, reading should be a pleasure. And I think it’s just as useful to absorb these messages subconsciously as it is to learn by dissecting the text. I guess I think there’s room for both. It’s almost certainly been good for my writing to read books on pacing and character. They might not have told me anything I didn’t instinctively know, but it’s a benefit to have knowledge moved from the subconscious to the conscious.

But reading is, and should always remain, a delight. The wonderful thing is that every time to pick up a book you’re going to learn something new, whether you want to or not. Maybe it’s only ‘how not to do it’, but even in books you hate you’re going to learn a little more about the world – or at least one select part of it.

Most instruction courses on writing and literature will point you towards the classics. Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, Dickens, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky – the heavy hitters. I can see why they do it (they’re widely available and aren’t too esoteric for the masses – and, of course, they’re good) but this always puts me off. I know, I know, it’s my loss, but – whisper it quietly – I don’t want to read these. I know I should. And one day I will, I promise. But my point to you is that’s not only the greats that can help you. You can learn about writing from a Mills & Boon; after all, they rely on proven plots and have an established structure. And they’re short, so you can read a few quickly, then move on to something else.

Of course you should read the classics. But you should also read – well, everything else. If you’re a genre writer you need to read within your genre, that’s a given. It’s always helpful to know conventions, ‘the rules’, if only so you can play with them, break them good and hard if your story calls for it. It’s also massively helpful to read beyond your bounds. I mean, everybody should read as much as possible anyway because reading makes you a more rounded human being, more open and receptive. And there’s little better than sitting holding your partner whilst you both read. True fact.

So range wildly with your selections. Make your library your first stop every time you leave the house. Surround yourself with words and slowly they’ll fill you up, become part of your glorious shining soul. The presence of books in your life is the greatest gift you can give yourself, your children – even your friends and enemies.

And do your best to include non-fiction in your diet. You can do your readers no bigger favour than to know a lot about the world. This is obviously true for historical fiction, where the slightest anachronism can ruin the flow. It’s equally true for fantasy and science-fiction. Terry Pratchett once said that when you construct a city you need to start by knowing where the water goes in and how the waste goes out. You can’t invent a tribe without some understanding of power-structures at whatever level of development they’ve reached.

And none of this should feel like work. What greater pleasure can there be but to understand the world a little better? And always, always, you’ll be encountering new ways of thinking that might inspire your writing. I’ve talked before about how I’ve been influenced by real-world history. An awareness of popular science – and of possible trends – is also hugely helpful. Even if you dismiss what you’ve read – even if you disagree vehemently and want to give the author a good slap – it can drive you to write a sharp riposte, a counterblast.

It almost goes without saying that memoirs, biographies and travelogues – any narrative non-fiction, really – can also be incredibly useful. These (should) provide real-life examples of notable characters, places and times – or, if nothing else, ways of thinking.

The thing is that once you start writing – or at least after you’ve been doing it for a while – you’ll start to notice more in the books you read. Maybe it’s a case of becoming a little more discerning. You’ll get more out of the shape of the dialogue, the rhythms, the pace. Sentence length, that’s something to watch out for, especially as it influences that nebulous, barely definable thing they call ‘style’. These things will seep into your skin and slowly transform the way you produce your material. And it takes no effort. The wonderful thing – almost miraculous – is that all the things you’ve learnt will come out in your own voice, not as the people you’ve been reading. The brain is a very clever thing – far smarter than I am, at least.

So go! Journey into strange lands and travel through time. Stride across galaxies or into the hearts of lovers. Live vicariously, feel pain and joy and anger and deep, deep passion. Push yourself always onwards, and remember – you’re not wasting time. Never that. You’re merely rehearsing your craft.

The second rule lets you soar.