Sunday, June 17, 2012

Beware Blurbs Bearing Gifts

As anyone who follows my blog knows, I’m constantly on the lookout for good fantasy fiction. Unfortunately, the pickings are slim. I can count the good ones on my hands and my painted toenails. Wait. That was meant to be a secret. How do I delete? Never mind. Anyway, I’ll grant you that I’m hard to please, but when I fall in love, I fall hard. So it balances out.

Imagine my joy when, after sifting through the fantasy fiction aisles and reading a few pages from a couple dozen novels, I stumbled on one endorsed by Stephen R. Donaldson. Did you just gasp? I sure did. Donaldson is one of my favorite living authors. I’ve read over a dozen of his books, some of them more than once. Reading Donaldson made me want to be a writer over twenty years ago. So I really thought I’d stumbled on a rare find when I saw Donaldson’s blurb on the cover of Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson:  

“My advice to anyone who might listen to me: Treat yourself to Gardens of the Moon.”

Needless to say, I rushed home to begin what I expected would be an engrossing excursion into literary brilliance, or at least a good read. What a disappointment! This book is so awful that after only a hundred of the more than 650 pages, I vaguely remember closing the book, growling like a pit bull, my head mimicking a paint shaker, cussing, and crying a little. I shoved the book in my outgoing bag to be returned to the local used bookstore for credit on other, more worthy reads. Then I ate a half-gallon of vanilla bean ice cream with a ladle while watching clips from the game show Wipeout on Youtube.com.

Life is short, and while I do occasionally read a bad book if only to remind myself what not to do, this book taught me valuable lessons within the first 50 pages.

One habit of the amateur is to accredit the speaker with any verb other than ‘said.’ This is fine on occasion, but when done repeatedly, the experienced reader is likely to email threats to the publisher. Or is that just me?  

“Bugger off!” Sam shouted.
“Dear me!” Ingrid intoned.
“I say,” Greg growled.
“Not on your life!” Matthew mumbled.

The reader shouldn’t have to wait on the verb at the end of each sentence to learn the mood of the speaker. Instead, the dialogue itself should convey the speaker’s tone or attitude. If it doesn’t, rewrite it. Also avoid writing dialogue that does nothing for the story.

“How’ve you been, Pauline?”
“Great, Betty. Thanks for asking.”
“Sure thing.”
“How about you?”
“Me?”
“Yes, you, you old goose.”
“Splendid, thanks.”

I’m exaggerating, of course. But you get the idea. If you’re not conveying information, character, or tension (ideally all three at the same time) then it’s excess. Get rid of it. Otherwise, you’re just inducing your reader to yawn and inviting him to skip.

Another annoying vice the newbie employs is to pretend the speaker doesn’t even realize he’s speaking.

          “The Coin,” she heard herself say, “spins on.”

If she wasn’t in a trance or suffering from Tourette’s syndrome, abstain.

Here’s an especially poor snippet:

The rider arrived. Seeing him up close, Paran took an involuntary step back. Half the man’s face had been burned away. A patch covered the right eye and the man held his head at an odd angle. The man flashed a ghastly grin, then dismounted.

What a mess. A good writer knows better than to reveal a character’s reaction to what the reader has yet to see or experience. At the start of the paragraph, we’re already being told that Paran is seeing the rider ‘up close’ and is creeped out long before the rider even dismounts. Also notice ‘the man’ is mentioned three times within the space of just 30 words. I revised it.

The rider approached and tugged on the reins. The right side of his face had been burned away. An eye patch covered the ruined socket. He hung his head, as if his disfigurement had robbed him of his spirit. When he dismounted and grinned, Paran involuntarily took a step back.

As far as Donaldson’s endorsement goes, my only conclusion is that Erikson has blackmailed Donaldson, or perhaps has kidnapped one of Donaldson’s relatives. This is a sad day for discriminating fantasy fiction fans.

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