The Road to Bedlam

the-village-of-bedlam

I’m currently enjoying a bad book. Needless words, repetition, lack of subtext: the writing is sometimes amateurish to the point of parody.

My sympathies go out to the author as I don’t feel it’s really his fault. But, as a writer, I can’t but laugh (or wince, or simply gape) when I come across professionally-produced writing that’s – well, that’s just bad.

A few examples:

“He offered his hand, and I shook it.”

Error one: it’s pointless. It adds nothing to the story. Error two: come on, now, we can all do better than this. “We shook hands” is better. “He offered his hand and, reluctantly, I shook” would give it context. But only if it mattered to the story – which, in this case, it doesn’t.

“No sinks on the walls, just pipes and screw-holes in the walls where mirrors had been mounted above them. There was a blank screen wall…”

I mean come on. We all know not to repeat word like this (and I could have expanded the section to find a lot more walls). This is so incredibly basic – and so terribly poor.

“…and then had to apologise to the young man who served me coffee while I paid for the drink and for a sandwich I’d picked up.”

Pointlessness again. We don’t need this detail. It’s also convoluted; at the very least the last three words can be cut without any loss of understanding.

“A breeze gusted.”

Breezes don’t gust. Breezes are breezes and gusts are gusts and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Such errors are scattered through the novel. But, as I said, I don’t blame the author. These are the mistakes that we all make as we do our thinking on the page. We experiment, we try out formations, and metaphors, and various shades of purple prose, whilst we hammer out the plot. But they should never reach print. No-one needs to see the author’s brain. And the author wants nobody to see it.

The work in question is The Road to Bedlam by Mike Shevdon. It’s the sequel to Sixty-One Nails and here, I think, we get to the root of the problem: it’s not his first work. The pressure to get a book to the publishers to schedule – with another on the horizon after that and a whole future to follow (the series stands at four) – means that pressures mount. Deadlines arrive.

Bedlam feels like a second draft. All the work has been put into plot and story. The actual words have been left for later.

So whose fault is it? Do we blame the publisher (the usually excellent Angry Robot)? Or the individual editor? Or the demands of an industry that requires work be squeezed out to schedule regardless of its quality? If anyone has an idea please do let me know.

The thing is: I opened this post by saying I was enjoying this book, and I am. There’s so much to recommend about it. The characters are good, the plotting promises a great final act and – poor writing notwithstanding – it’s carrying me with it. I will see this to the end. And if anything it’s all the goodness that shoves the poor writing into sharp relief. This isn’t some hack churning out amateurish self-pub level material*.

So how can a major publisher get away with releasing something that, in many ways, is so bad? And what can be done about it?

 


All quotes are from The Road to Bedlam, pub. Angry Robot 2012. I’ve been listening to the audio version, pub. 2014: as it’s audio I can’t give a page number, I’m afraid

*Not to imply that self-published works are inherently worse than trad-pubbed material. There’s a difference between ‘self-publishing’ and ‘amateurish self-publishing’

Advertisements

Deadlines and errors

The deadlines are upon me…

Good news! A publisher has asked to see the full manuscript of Night Shift – I won’t name them for fear of embarrassment at being linked with this blog – and that’s caused a kerfuffle here at Writerly Towers. Actually, it caused more of a kerfuffle in my partner’s car – my sudden shout of ‘shit!’ as she was driving causing some degree of consternation.

Anyhoo, this is brilliant and wonderful. I am excited. I am tempering my excitement, however, with the knowledge that this is only the first step. My novel still has to pass muster not only with the editor who requested the manuscript but the entire staff – notable the sales/financial folks who must determine its economic viability. I think this is something that authors forget – publishing is a business. If they ain’t gonna make money they ain’t gonna take an interest. It’s not fair to say that publishers don’t care about quality; most of them got into the business because they love books. But the bottom line is the bottom line. Which explains Katie Price’s literary career.

So what does this all mean? First of all it means that I’m dashing through Night Shift one (not) final time for an emergency polish. In consequence, I have to put New Gods to one side – so nearly finished that it hurts – and also scramble to get this blog done. I’ve already taken a day out to visit Norwich (A Fine City) for my birthday treat – seeing Duckworth Lewis Method live – and so I can feel the walls a closin’ in…

Deadlines. Sometimes the very best things in life can cause everything to suddenly seem terribly close. Been desperately wishing for this for the past six years. Now I’ve got to make sure that, if it still all comes to naught, that it’s not down to the quality of my writing.

*          *          *

I’ve been reading the latest Donna Leon (The Golden Egg) over the last few days. I’m a fairly big fan of hers; I’m not always 100% convinced by the plots (and especially the endings, although I admire her ability to place realism over literary ‘neatness’), but I adore the way she’s grown Commissario Brunetti’s family into integral players. Indeed, her books are terribly comforting – like going for a weekend in the country with old friends, good wine and a log fire.

But in this latest book there is a quite remarkable error; one that strikes me as particularly illustrative of the writing process. There is a scene where Brunetti, chasing information as policemen do, phones down to the guard room. He speaks to someone, asks for someone else, and then speaks to them in turn.

This second person is then said to ‘glance at’ Brunetti. This stopped me. I’d thought they were communicating on the phone. Well, fair enough, I thought: I must have missed something. But then, at the end of the section, Brunetti is said to hang up. So he was on the phone after all.

I have sympathy with the author in cases like this, because I know it’s very very easy to make this sort of error. The most likely explanation is a change between drafts: initially the conversation took place face-to-face and was later modified, probably to cut unnecessary wordage.  When you make this sort of alteration it’s remarkably easy to miss odd sentences, even just little words like ‘the’ or ‘with’, that can completely disrupt a reader’s flow.

I also think this example demonstrates some of the problems with success. The more established you are as an author, the less oversight there is on your work. Your editor is more likely to skim rather than scrutinise like they do for debut novelists. This, I think, is the cause of ‘third album syndrome’ in musicians: they’ve made their name, they deserve more responsibility – but there’s less constructive advice coming their way.

Still, this is a remarkable and egregious error for such a high-profile author. It should have been picked up (and will probably disappear in the paperback, when that’s released). Just goes to illustrate a point made in a previous blog: standards are very different for debut/self-published works, where every little mistake or typo is held up as proof of incompetence.

*          *          *

A few webby notices to finish:

If you like intentionally bad writing, give this a pop: http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/33-hilariously-terrible-novel-sentences-you-need-to-read/#KujBrXMc5kzrDBo2.01

And if, like myself and Malorie Blackman, you believe that well-funded and fully equipped libraries are a sign of civilisation, have a look at this if you missed it earlier:

http://gu.com/p/3jx63

And, far more important than any of this, I’m turning my blog over to an interview with my colleague Marissa de Luna at the end of October. She’s just published her second novel ‘The Bittersweet Vine’ and is going on a blog tour – hijacking sites around the web – next month. Please look out for her on your internetty travels and be sure to check back then for the interview. Of course, I know you’ll be here every week anyway…

Ciao for now, amigos.