The Road to 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’

Out loud


Another draft completed. Straight into the next one. But this time we’ll be doing things a little differently.

As I’m sure you know, my last run-through of Oneiromancer was my major copy-edit. Post-reader-feedback, it was all about the plot and the story; I was copy-and-pasting, doing major rewrites and stitching together a tale that made sense, had depth and resonance.

But every change creates the potential for errors. Every draft introduces new text and every new word carries a chance of a mistake. Now I’m trying and find and fix those errors.

But this is about more than just typos. It’s also about the perfectly serviceable words that do their jobs but add nothing to the overall experience. It’s about poor rhythm, weak dialogue, unnecessary emphasis. It’s using three words where one – better chosen – will do. The acceptable is not good enough.

It’s amazing how difficult this can be. The mind is lazy. The eye is an unreliable tool and has a tendency to skip, to not see.

So I am reading my story out loud.

This has a number of benefits. Turning words on a page into sound forces you, the author, to read more closely. There’s no skipping sections, no chance of the eye sliding unseeing across the page. It makes you slow down, to see what’s really there and not what should be there.

You’re also confronted by the rhythms of your prose in a way the conscious mind has never experienced. Anything unclear, unfocussed, is brought into sharp relief. I’ve so far covered around seventy pages in this way: I thought my strength as a writer was my grasp of rhythm and an instinctive understanding of sentence length and effect. Turns out I was talking out of my arse.

I’m finding so many redundancies. I’ve been forced to rewrite more paragraphs to give clarity – almost as if I was writing from scratch. I’ve found so much to cut. On almost every page I’ve been forced to ask ‘what am I actually trying to say here?’ and then finding the simplest, clearest way to say it.

Simplicity is almost always good. Circumlocution should only come in dialogue, and then only if the character is especially circumlocutious.

So today’s advice is to read your manuscript out loud. It’s a slow process but one I’m sure will make my prose tighter, sharper and error-freeier.

And, let’s be honest, anything that cuts the word-count is a good thing. My MS is currently 137,000 words or thereabouts; if I can find 5,000 words of ramble to cut then I can allow myself an extra 2,500 of character and story.

Which then will have to be read (out loud) again and again to kill the inevitable errors I’ll have introduced.