Good writers explain. Great writers tell stories.

Posted on | April 21, 2017

This weekend, I attended Norwescon, an SF convention held every year in the Seattle area, and in the dealer’s room, there were both general booksellers and individual tables for small presses. At random, I picked up Mira Grant’s Rise.

For some teachers, putting on the Kevlar gloves and strapping their service pistol to their waist would have brought a feeling of security, like they had finally put the world back in order. For Elaine, it felt like a declaration of failure.

This isn’t an opening paragraph. It’s not even a chapter header. This is some random paragraph deep inside a book that I picked up at random, understanding only that it was yet another zombie novel.

There is not a word in that extract that isn’t doing an incredible amount of work. With the transition from “teachers” to the incongruent “Kevlar guns and service pistol,” the mention that other teachers would enjoy the process but our heroine would not, every word in those two sentences is either telling you something, or is glue necessary to make the grammar work.

Contrast this with the opening paragraphs of Toy Wars, a middle-press book by Tom Gondolfi that has been sitting in my “to read” pile ever since I picked up it at last year’s Norwescon:

After my uneventful manufacturing process, I woke up. Where was I before that sleep? I didn’t remember deactivating my cognitive process. My memory sump revealed no memories that predated that moment. Life must begin and end somewhere, just as a line must have two points that define its position in the universe. My line started when I awoke.

My memories show only a notation of my origin. “Activation occurs, L+13y224d1h0s. Internal clock set to M+0. Awaiting command from Factory 55466″

“Stand by for shape and color recognition patterns,” came the intense voice of the Factory itself, both auditory and over the net. The voice vibrated deeply from the very walls of the 3-meter-high chamber as the voice over the electronic network mimicked it in tone and timbre. A large video display in front of me carried the image of my body being laser-scanned from the top of my big saucer-shaped ears down to the bottom of my broad, flat feet.

There’s a lot of extraneous noise in these paragraphs. They’re written by someone who understands that he needs a hook, and has a good idea for a hook, but the execution is weak.

The sad thing is that, with no memorable exceptions, every book on the small press / self-published tables was more like Gondolfi than Grant. Wordy, weak, and often grossly conversational. Gondolfi’s story has an interest conceit, which puts his heads above many of the books I contemplated. As a writer, I’ve been tempted to open paragraphs with words like “actually” and “indeed.” Every word must convey information. Those words don’t, yet beginning writers seem to love them. Grant doesn’t, and in those two sentences she somehow tells an entire story about Elaine.

The demise of traditional publishing companies will have some real benefits. There were gatekeepers who kept out women and minorities, privileging the white men who they resembled. There were capricious editors who preyed on their writers in all manner of unscrupulous ways.

The loss of editors will have a real impact on the quality of writing that gets put out there. Critics can plug some of the gap but not all of it. Someone needs to get paid to have good taste. Someone needs to be able to say, “With this writer, you’ll be in good hands.”

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