I’d like to preface this by stating that Flesh and Fire, by Laura Anne Gilman, did nothing to deserve the dissection that is about to follow. It’s not bad. Plot and characterization are more than passable. It wasn’t a chore to read to the end. Truly, it is an overwhelmingly adequate novel. (Though it did take 265 pages for a character with a sense of humor to show up…) That said, the book’s flaws are far more instructive than its virtues, so let the nitpicking begin.
Fact of the matter is, lady has a tin ear for word choice. =/
It’s not immediately noticeable, because she doesn’t make outright mistakes per se; there are none of the cringe-worthy turns of phrase that you come across in amateurish writing (be it fanfic or published; being in print is no guarantee of quality); she knows how to balance long sentences with short ones to keep the prose varied and flowing smoothly. It’s not bad — it’s just not good either.
Instead what would happen is that I’d be reading a descriptive paragraph and find myself tuning out in the middle, then tuning back in to realize that I had no idea of where they were or what the place looked like. So I’d reread it, this time taking care to concentrate and deliberately build a mental picture from the words, and then it was all clear enough, but the fact remains that on the first pass it did not stick. I lay 65% of the blame on word choice and 35% on her propensity for unnecessary prepositions.
See, as a writer you can’t exhaustively describe every detail of every scene. Well, you could, but then you’d be like Ivanhoe and kids would resent being made to read you and skip straight to the SparkNotes. Some degree of description is vital, otherwise your characters are heads talking on a greenscreen; too much though, and readers will either start skimming or give up on it entirely. So the key is not only having the right amount of description (which F&F does), but also the right kind (which it does not).
Certain words just pack more of a punch than others — they have more nuance, more emotional resonance, they describe the sentiment you’re trying to convey with laser precision. A clever book I read referred to this as schema — the constellation of ideas and associations connected in our minds to any given word. Some authors are really good at recognizing and using the words that have the richest schemas; they’ll write prose that reads like poetry, language you can lose yourself in, and they are justly famous for it. (When I was younger I used to read Anne Rice out loud, just for the aesthetic pleasure of her prose, independent of content. That was before she went off the deep end, mind you, but even then it was substance that suffered before the writing itself did.)
I feel like I should provide an example, should quote one of her sentences that just falls flat and then suggest what words she should have used instead, but I already gave the book back to the library and I’m not sure if that exercise would work anyway. There is a great deal of subjectivity in word choice; your schema of, say, Jesus is probably very different from mine. Moreover, taking sentences out of context is a great way to make anything sound bad. S’like club dancing — you look fine when it’s dark and there’s a strobe light and you’re surrounded by other people also grinding to Lady Gaga, but if you try to bust those moves in a grocery store they’ll ask if you’re having a seizure. Context is key.
My recommendation is that next time you’re in a bookstore, pick up One Hundred Years of Solitude, flip to the middle, and just start reading (you won’t have missed anything, I promise). You don’t even have to like what’s being described (I, for one, am squicked right the hell out by rural poverty, idek), but it’s undeniably vivid — the imagery washes over you and you can see it in your mind’s eye without having to try, without having to focus on building up a mental image. That is how description is supposed to work.
So that was word choice — how ’bout those prepositions? For this one I will fabricate an example, because I don’t have the book with me and frankly I couldn’t be arsed to comb through it for a suitable quote even if I did. You’ll just have to take my word for it when I say I’m sticking to the feel of the book.
Let’s say the main character, an apprentice mage, is having dinner with his master one day:
“Why do mages avoid contact with each other?” the boy asked.
The master set his fork down on the table next to his plate.
Yes, there is some subjectivity when it comes to description, but I defy anyone to tell me that sentence isn’t clumsy as hell. And yet thirteen words is not an excessive amount of time to spend on describing the characters’ actions — what went wrong?
1) …set his fork down on the table next to his plate. Do we really need to specify that it was “next to his plate”? We’ve already got “on the table” — does it make any qualitative difference to know whether it was next to the plate or on it?
2) …set his fork down on the table. Do we even need to say “on the table”? I mean seriously, where the fuck else is he going to put it? On the floor?
3) …set his fork down. Pushing the envelope as far as it will go — is there a reason why we’re being treated to a description of this action at all?
Number 3 probably makes me sound dogmatically anti-description, but hear me out: since authors can’t possibly describe every move their characters make, by necessity the actions that do get mentioned are imbued with a greater significance. So the question becomes, Is that action significant?
There are a number of reasons why it could be — perhaps the apprentice has blithely stumbled onto topic that never fails to get the master irrationally worked up (“So grandpa, why do you hate the Irish so much?”) and is about to get treated to an impassioned, partisan diatribe that will make him wish he’d never asked; or he could be in for a raised eyebrow and a pointed rebuke, because if he’d done his assigned reading he would know this shit already; or it could be an unexpectedly perceptive question coming from someone his age, and the master is willing to put his dinner on hold to give it the lengthy, thoughtful answer it deserves. Any of those would work, because the gesture of putting the fork down underlines the emotional content of what follows — punctuating anger, theatrically drawing out punishment, or lending gravity to his answer.
But more often than not in F&F, those throwaway little lines of descriptive action are unrelated to the emotional content of the scene. (“I dunno. S’just the way we’ve always done it,” the master replied, taking up his fork again.) It was like the author had been taught that you MUST INCLUDE those details, and then followed that directive to the letter, methodically and without regard for whether they were necessary or just distracting.
Anyway, as I said, this wasn’t a bad book. And that’s usually the way it works — the books I spend the most time criticizing are not the worst of the lot, because the worst ones aren’t even worth talking about. The books that catch my attention are the ones that come close to hitting the mark but fall short, because being otherwise-decent throws their flaws into sharp relief.
Counter-rec: Song for Arbonne, by Guy Gavriel Kay
I love Kay to pieces and though Tigana is my favorite of his books, I think this one better matches the atmosphere that F&F was striving for. So how to evoke your beautiful fantasy landscape? Read Kay and learn from the best.
Counter-counter-rec: Melusine & sequels, by Sarah Monette
OH MAN, this is my archetypal example of books that are so-close-and-yet-so-far, so-good-and-yet-so-flawed, omg-why-am-I-forced-to-rec-this-conditionally. I RECOMMEND IT TO YOU WITH PASSION AND SO MANY PRECONDITIONS! Everyone go read it so we can discuss spoilers next time — there is an 80% chance you will not regret it!