Reviewing Some Award Winners

Since there’s been grumbling in the comments about quality of writing of certain award winners, I figured I’d do some line-level investigation of one of the recent efforts. Nothing personal against the person whose work I’m shredding, and I’m going to try to be nice here and not let frustration lead me into rants.

It won’t be easy – I can’t copy/paste from the format the blasted sample came in, which means I have to transcribe the work first, then review it. On the flip side, by the time I’m done, you’ll get an idea why I don’t do this lightly. Or often.

And remember, I’m trying to avoid gratuitous snarkage and nastiness. The original is in italics, with bold for emphasis. My comments are in regular font face with italics where I want emphasis.

Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.

The author did not get off to a good start with me. The kindest thing I can say here is that the tone works for conversational style, and that the opening paragraph is possibly one of the biggest messages from Bob I’ve ever seen in a published work. If I’d been handed this for editing it would go. When you start a book saying “let’s get the boring bits over with first” this says that at a subconscious level the author is worried about whether the book is interesting enough to keep a reader.

First, a personal ending. There is a thing she will think over and over in the days to come, as she imagines how her son died and tries to make sense of something so innately senseless. She will cover Uche’s broken little body with a blanket – except his face, because he is afraid of the dark – and she will sit beside it numb, and she will pay not attention to the world that is ending outside. The world has already ended within her, and neither ending is for the first time. She’s old hat at this by now.

To start with, present tense can be immensely distancing when not done exquisitely well. This isn’t: the prose meanders, and something that should be wrenching just doesn’t catch my interest. Here we have a mother shocked senseless by the death of her small child, and there’s nothing. No feeling. The one part in this entire paragraph that rings true is the touch of not covering the boy’s face because he’s scared of the dark.

The run-on sentences don’t help. They can be effective when used well, but the impression here is that they’re being used because the author doesn’t really understand how this is supposed to work. It looks like an attempt to convey a sense of shock and disjointed grief, but instead all it does is distance me from the situation even further.

What she thinks then, and thereafter, is: But he was free.

Um. Okay. This isn’t even present tense. It’s a kind of mangled future tense, the kind of thing I’d expect to see as an experiment not intended for publication.

And it is her bitter, weary self that answers this almost-question every time her bewildered, shocked self manages to produce it:

This sentence begs for snarkage: how many selves does she have? I get that the author is trying to convey that the character has some emotional conflicts, but there are better ways to do it. And “almost-question”? It sounds more like it’s a plea to some kind of deity – please tell me my son died free.

He wasn’t. Not really. But now he will be.

In context this almost works, so I’ll leave it go.

* * *

But you need context. Let’s try the ending again, writ continentally.

Speaking of context, at this point, if I were slushing, I’d reject. I still haven’t got so much as a hint of what kind of story I’m dealing with, much less what kind of character, and after over a page in which there’s only a tiny hint of humanity, the author switches gears to discuss the continent?

Here is a land.

It is ordinary, as lands go. Mountains and plateaus and canyons and river deltas, the usual. Ordinary, except for its size and its dynamism. It moves a lot, this land. Like an old man lying restlessly abed it heaves and sighs, puckers and farts, yawns and swallows. Naturally this land’s people have named it the Stillness. It is a land of quiet and bitter irony.

And here is where I stopped. Between the bathos of the metaphor and the complete tone-deafness the author achieved in I presume attempting to sound literary, not to mention the warning signs of major infodump ahead, I have no desire to continue. For all I know this could be a quiet, desperate romance about some woman living in Iceland (apart from the reason I’m reviewing it in the first place).

Now, I could say a lot more. I could get nasty. I’ve held back. A lot. The point is, there is not one thing in this opening page and a bit that appeals to me in any way – and at this point I have no idea what the character looks like, how old she is beyond old enough to have had a child, or even if she’s going to show up later.

More importantly, I don’t care. I can’t be bothered to waste my time on something that spends the first few hundred words attempting to create a lyrical word picture (at least, I presume that’s the intention), and failing. If the author and editor couldn’t manage to make the opening interesting enough for me, chances are pretty good that the rest won’t be either.

All else being equal, I’ll take a look at the opening of one of the winning novels from that other award for next week, and give it the same treatment.

(Yes, the detailed numbers analysis will happen. Life needs to stop harassing me first).

184 Comments

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184 responses to “Reviewing Some Award Winners

  1. TRX

    Hot damn! That’s LITERATURE!

    At least, it’s indistinguishable from the texts represented as such that they tortured us with in high school.

    • I’d rather find a fork and start stabbing myself in the eye with it. That would hurt less than reading more of… whatever that was.

      • It gets worse. After the prologue, the author uses the second person perspective for the rest of the book. It’s like playing an old style text adventure where you have no control over anything that happens.

        • You are likely to be eaten by a grue.
          😛

        • Thomas Wicklund

          Actually the rest of the book isn’t second person. The book is told from three points of view. One of the three is second person (and I don’t think it reads well). The other two points of view are third person.

          I still wasn’t impressed by the book (I prefer an earlier book by the same author which was nominated but didn’t win an award).

    • Yep – this is the kind of thing inflicted on middle-schoolers to put them off ever picking up a book again …

      • Too true. I remember picking up copies of TREASURE ISLAND and THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER one summer just to read on a trip, and feeling shocked to realize that you could actually /enjoy/ reading these books when they weren’t dumbed down for the class.

      • What, middle school level writing attempts? Actually, no I have read fanfiction from clumsy thirteen year olds that read better than this.

        Even the stuff I was made to read in school was more readable.

        • [starts looking in first aid kit for burn ointment.] That left a mark. 😉

          • I wasn’t being insulting; I was accurately describing. I once read through my high school English textbook; there were some clunky-writ stories, but you could still start reading them and follow along; the rest were either short stories or excerpts of longer works, which were perfectly readable.

            One particular story I remember focused on a journalist visiting one of the squatter colonies next to Smokey Mountain (a massive garbage dump near Manila) to investigate a supposed miracle: a young girl’s drawings of heaven / angels would be glimmering with gold the next day.

            The journalist later finds out that the parents, who used to be teachers but had fallen on very hard times, had found a bottle of golden glitter and were using it to have their daughter believe in hope – that there is a world, and wonder outside of the dingy, filthy trash heap; to try give her something to hold as precious in her heart and perhaps inspire her to move beyond the grimy, ugly mundane. Looking back, it was a very superversive piece of fiction, as the journalist reflects that the teachers were trying to give their daughter something good, versus their neighbors’ cynical worldview.

  2. That almost sounds like me trying to get through the current novel. The jacket bubbles with praise about how fast it is, how accurate the characters are – meanwhile, I am looking at trite phrasing, a meandering plot and two dimensional characters. Halfway through the basted thing and I still am not sure what the author is trying to say (besides “authority figures are vile). I had to read two chapters of Son of the Black Sword to cleans my mind.

  3. ravenshrike

    Boring enough that when I got to the word land my mind immediately went to Serenity and Wash playing with his dinosaurs. It then stayed there as I read the rest of the passage. Not good when an author should be drawing the reader in.

  4. Martin L. Shoemaker

    Wait, wait, wait… That opening line was THIRD person?

    I would’ve bought it as first person. But as third person, it’s too clever by half.

    That’s what this sounds like to me: the author trying to prove how clever they are.

    • Second person, actually. Quite possibly in response to the challenge that “you can’t write a whole novel in 2nd person”. (I have no idea if the whole is in same.) Which is functionally the same as first person but winds up phrased like third, which is probably why it hit your ear that way.

      So you picked up this new novel everyone’s raving about, and the durn thing is written in second person. How can you read that? No one could. You plop down at your keyboard intent on writing a diatribe but the words just won’t flow. Eventually you kick over your computer and go for a walk, muttering at random strangers about how there’s so little difference that you can barely tell second person from first.

      [Also, today WordPress has lost its mind, or at least its stylesheet.]

      • Martin L. Shoemaker

        If it’s second, there’s no sign of it in these excerpts. It’s all about what SHE does, not what YOU do. There is the “You need context” line, but that (like many of the rest of the excerpts, really) reads like a third person narrator breaking the fourth wall to address the reader. I’m not opposed to that in moderation, but it’s rather archaic. Common in old children’s tales.

        And the continent bit reads like third — on the omniscient side, but it might zoom in closer after these lines.

        It may be second person beyond these excerpts, but there’s no second visible here.

      • The only time I have seen second person (you) work is in Choose Your Own Adventure books; or in RPGs/visual novels.

        • Iain Banks did it once or twice. But he was Iain Banks, and he had the talent to make things work in a way lesser authors can’t.

          • I am unsure if I could read something like that for long but that’s just me. With the adventure book or rpg there is something that breaks it up (turn to page 75 if you choose to go into the cave) or a player has to narrate his choice of action next, that breaks the text into readability.

            • I saw it used successfully in a short story from the POV of a cat. “The Color of Grass; the Color of Blood.” The only reason it worked is that it depended on the reader having more context than the cat, and even then, it was a little distracting.

            • I’ve heard second person used well a few times, but that was heard on radio shows. The intro to Dragnet, “You’re a homicide detective…” which then drops it when the story truly starts. It also shows up in Broadway Is My beat where it’s a You-Are-There thing to bring you into that world – and often to give a sense of urgency or immediacy. But again, while it might show up in each episode, it’s a potent medicine administered with a low dose. The whole program is not like that, nor could it be.

        • Luke

          Wasn’t “Bonfire of the Vanities” second person?
          (Granted, Tom Wolfe.)

      • Second person present tense should be banned by the Geneva Conventions.

        Clearly this story has an audience and was well-recieved by them, but most certainly not my cup of tea. I don’t criticize other peoples’ taste in books (or music, movies, etc) but this sort of thing is the reason I’ve read less and less traditionally published spec fic in the past decade.

        • Because they’re speculating with the rules of the English language, versus actually writing speculative fiction?

          • Or they’re so busy writing about big important things like global warming, racial stigmas, body dysmorphia, and post-humanity that they forgot to put in a story.

            • Suffered through 2313 have you? I tried. I really did. Halfway through the book I was still searching for the glimmer of a plot as the prose plodded along like a skeletal, tick infested nag.

              Twilight is more readable.

              • Arwen

                “Twilight is more readable.”
                Savage. 😀

                • But true. The writing is straightforward enough that readers are able to access the characters and setting. After all the basic criticism here is the readability of award winning writers; and I think I know which recent comments prompted this. No matter how much we deride Twilight for its story and characters, that it was very readable and successful in reaching a vast audience cannot be denied. Ok granted – the folks who had me try reading it wanted me to do so because *they* were having hysterics of laughter that they deeply felt I would share on reading. Still, it got them to buy the books, read it and get friends to do so.

              • You’re being grossly unfair to Twilight. It’s an excellent book. Enjoyable by adults, perfect for 14-year-old girls (and okay boys who want to understand why said girls are suddenly being so “weird”. There’s some decent fight scenes.)

                The subsequent novels were second rate, but the first was brilliant.

                It passes me the @£(#!!4! off how many of adults felt compelled to shame teenage girls for Having Fun Wrong.

                I dislike vampire novels, romance, and I thought Mrs Hoyt’s recent Darkship novel had waaaaaay to much emo. So the book is by the numbers not my cuppa.

                But it was – is – a good story, well told for them what likes that kind of thing.

                • I agree! Its not my cup of tea but clearly the story appealed, and the prose did not get in the way of the story.

                  I too was pissed off by the adults growling at girls for enjoying it; don’t drive them off reading it!

                  I found admittedly disturbing the story girls and women who wanted a boyfriend like Edward. I get the thrill of being the woman two men fight over but in a lot of ways Edward was rather controlling.

                  • Nah. What the girls liked was that Edward was madly, passionately, wildly in love with Bella because she was “just that special” to him. Except, of course, that Bella isn’t particuarly special in any way, as the author makes clear. She’s a pretty ordinary teenage girl.

                    The biggest complaint I heard from girls about the movie was that the actress playing Bella was “way too pretty.”

                    I thought the story had a nice message about seeing someone through the eyes of love.

                    But yeah, the whole “bad boy” fantasy (especially the civilizationally accurate but personally problematic one of a rough man redeemed by the love of a good woman 🙂 I prefer the “Jeremy”s (Phineas & Ferb) of this world

                    • Rosalind James, who’s a really good romance author, noted that the surge in alpha/billionaire romances hits at two major emotional cravings. The first, like twilight, is that the hero is deeply, madly, and passionately attracted to the heroine. The second is the promise that all her financial worries (which is, indeed, a pretty common stressor for most women) will be taken care of.

                      Twilight hits the first very hard. The second, not so much – but the major demographic of teen girls haven’t had to deal with ten years of paying the rent either. For that crowd, it’s not the common emotional touchstone, unlike being the odd one out at high school.

                    • Okay, the romance-as-meal-ticket, while historically accurate, is just plain UN-American. Ick.

                      The New Feminist Narrative won’t let you do a story, romance or otherwise, unless your heroine is Super-Special: kick-ass, super-intelligent, super-coordinated, and gorgeous.

                      Unless you’re all those things, you don’t Get The Guy.

                      Twilight said, “No. When a guy falls in love with you, you become That Special to him. Even ordinary girls get True Love.”

                      And this is true, because, unless the world beats it out of them with a club, teenage boys are incredibly romantic (And also horny. Which is not a bad thing, as every happily married woman will tell you.)

                    • I wish they had a DVD box set of the TV series, instead of just a few of the movies. Phineas & Ferb is a good cartoon series.

            • TRX

              I’ve ground away at *way* too many of those.

              And just think, that’s *after* going through at least one professional editor… who apparently didn’t see anything wrong.

    • Draven

      its litewracher, donchu know.

  5. This . . . won an award? Okay, when I was reading slush, an opening like this would have me jumping to the third or forth chapter to see if the writer got over him or her self, and if that didn’t grab me immediately, sending the standard form rejection.

    • This . . . won an award?

      Ayup.

      Of course there are a huge number of awards, and I am not going to spoil the fun by telling you which award or for what. It did, however, at full length, win an award.

  6. I’m going to differ with you a bit. Far as I read (the Amazon sample) I found the prose liquid and lyrical, a competent handling of a difficult style. It’s very much the blind seer declaiming from the wilderness; I ‘heard’ it in my head in the author’s own voice. If you put LeGuin, Delany, and a pinch of Daniel Abraham (his first quartet’s ending, which I find weak and flat compared to the body) in a blender, this might be what comes out.

    HOWEVER… it wasn’t *interesting*. Far as I read (perhaps half the Amazon preview) I still didn’t find anything I wanted to learn more about, which is the soul of “interesting”. I didn’t *care*. The character’s grief was too clinical, uninvolving, self-contained; she needed a good smacking more than my sympathy. Skipped ahead, found a different character’s POV; this one actually does something beyond mourn, but generated instant dislike. It was effective if that’s what the author wished to project; not so effective at turning me into a fan.

    Were I fairly green as a SF/F reader, I’d probably have liked it better. And at some point I’ll probably read the whole thing, just because. It was better written than the other contenders that I managed to get a look at, and did less offending of my editor’s ear.

    But I think it won on the strength of being ‘different’ rather than being ‘great’.

    This is a general problem with judging a large class that are, on the whole, of a basically consistent type. We see this at dog shows — the typical, quality specimen of its breed does not stand out from the pack — because it is, well, typical. But the slightly atypical, faulty-in-a-new-and-different-way specimen *does* stand out, and will commonly be judged to a win as the “outstanding” one of the group. (Remember that “outstanding” connotes “different” and “not typical”; it doesn’t necessarily connote “best”.) And eventually, breed type shifts to accommodate judging — and among the winning specimens, breed type may be entirely lost.

    • “We see this at dog shows — the typical, quality specimen of its breed does not stand out from the pack — because it is, well, typical. But the slightly atypical, faulty-in-a-new-and-different-way specimen *does* stand out, and will commonly be judged to a win as the “outstanding” one of the group. (Remember that “outstanding” connotes “different” and “not typical”; it doesn’t necessarily connote “best”.) And eventually, breed type shifts to accommodate judging — and among the winning specimens, breed type may be entirely lost.”

      Alas, it happens in the show cat world too. And that is why Persians now have flat faces, and tend towards respiratory issues, and the once proud and strong Siamese now has a wedge head and rail thin body.

      The judges, who don’t have time or interest in learning the fine points of the standards of the various breeds, pick the most extreme cat in the class. The breeder who is interested in awards and acclaim, goes for the extreme, not the betterment of the breed. Meanwhile, those who are interested in preserving and promoting the breed, fight a never ending battle. Some give up after seeing a once proud, strong, breed, that should be considered one of the best hunters, reduced to a shadow of it’s ancestors.

      **cough** sorry, not sure where that soapbox came from, or how I got on it. [nudges box aside] I’ll, ah, go back to my corner now.

      • I was reading about draft horses lately; it made me sad.

        • [carefully nudges soapbox away] I was not aware that it was happening in the horse world too. Somehow it does not surprise me.

          • That and the breeds are just not as frequent.

          • 15 years ago they were bemoaning how the Thoroughbred standards in the US had led to horses that broke their legs just running on packed dirt because the bones are so long and thin (plus racing young instead of waiting for 4 years or more). It was enough of a problem that some people were seriously talking about a temporary change in pedigree limits to allow the addition of Quarterhorses into the mix for a limited time, just to get new genetic material. No idea if anything came of the proposal.

          • Go look at the show Arabians. They’re caricatures of a working horse. I wonder how long before the overly-dished head leads to difficulties chewing due to mis-worn teeth. Not to mention the too-flat croups that prevent the hind legs from working _under_ the horse.

            • I take it that you’re saying the “modern” Arab bears only a surface resemblance to the magnificent creature described by Walter Farley.

              😦

            • I rode Paso Finos, and one of the stable-renters had a “Polish Arab.” Dang, but that was a big, beautiful horse. Dished head but not overly so, great conformation, but jumpy, even for a hot blood. The owner said his (horse’s) full brother was the mellowest Arab on the planet, and thought at they averaged to normal. 🙂

              • I’ve long since concluded that the Polish pedigrees are bogus, and that they were probably trash Thoroughbreds. Wouldn’t be the first bogus pedigree coming out of wartime Europe; I could point to a number of examples in dogs, one of which was later attested by a witness.

      • I’ve been heard to rant from the same soapbox. It’s a lost cause. I breed working Labradors that look (and act) like they fell out of 1930. Nothing like the squatty overdone self-absorbed piggies now dominating the show ring. And we won’t even discuss the dwarfy Goldens coming from Europe, which is leagues ahead of America in the quest to turn every breed into a caricature of its historical self. Strangely, the lapdogs and other purely-pets have changed far less than the working breeds.

        The problem isn’t really ignorant judges — the breeder-judges who supposedly should really know the breed they’re judging are the absolute worst for this. (The all-rounders tend to have a more balanced eye.) Rather, it’s that “if some is good, more must be better!” is an unfortunate but all too human impulse when it comes to “picking the best”, especially if it’s within your own specialty.

        A lot of the problem is really the same as in SFF: the old guard with far more and broader experience have mostly aged out, and the field has been overtaken by young’uns and dilettantes who have _heard_ of history but believe that we’ve progressed beyond such antiquated concepts. Meanwhile, the surviving old hands are frantically imitating the latest and greatest, lest they be left behind by the march of progress.

        Bah. I gave up dog shows rather than ruin my bloodline (which incidentally is now the 4th oldest contiguous line in the world). I’ve also largely stopped reading newer authors.

        I’ll go back to my cave now… 😉

        • I was very unhappy when I heard that AKC had “accepted” the Blue Tic and Red Boned into the Hound Class. I knew as soon as I heard that some day the dogs I see at the UT games will be Blue Tic in name only. Unless someone decides to split off a “working” line.

          Need some wood for yer fire? 😉

          • They’ll probably stay a trivial minority, as has been the case with the other old-breed hounds more commonly registered with UKC. A few dogs get double-registered, and those few get shown extensively — because in a “rare” breed (in terms of numbers being shown) it’s pretty easy to collect Bests of Breed and even Group placements. The handful of show dogs becomes a closed group that doesn’t impact the main gene pool of the breed, like with show greyhounds (very rare) vs running greyhounds (numerous).

            AKC (or other registries) really has nothing to do with it. They don’t set breed standards; the individual clubs do that. Breed clubs tend to be run by and for top-winning breeders, and that’s true whether it’s AKC, UKC, FDSB, or whatever registry worldwide.

      • Our small cat is a regressive breed of Siamese called an Applehead (because their face is round, not long), and might just be the handsomest cat I’ve ever seen. Apparently a few years back some breeders looked at old pictures of the first Siamese and realized how breeding for shows had warped them into the long muzzled, giant eared, kind of odd looking cats that they’d become and decided to breed to revert them back closer to type.
        I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t love and admire Spock (the puppy kitty, friendly like a puppy, will play fetch with crumpled up paper and ‘barks’ at me when I come home), and who doesn’t think he’s much nicer looking than the deliberately elongated breed.

        • Kate Paulk

          Our Siamese is much more applehead than modern, too – although she’s also one of the modern mixers, being a combo of seal point and tortie. (And dear lord she has the meezer personality. In spades)

        • _chuckle_ I am painfully familiar with the “modern” Siamese. I much prefer the old appleheaded version – the one that looks like it could very well be the temple guard cat.

          My personal experience is with Manx. Traditionally a medium size cat with a roundish, cobby body, round head and eyes with a distinctive ear set. (and of course no tail) They averaged 8 to 15 lbs, with males being on the heavier end.

          What I see in the show hall today bears a passing resemblance to the cat that roams the Isle of Mann. They have gotten smaller, to emphasize the “round” body and lighter. We had a male that “in show weight” was 13.5 lbs. I know of one that was around 17 lbs. One of the males I saw a few years ago was just over 10 lbs and they were saying that he was “good size”. The muzzles are shorter, to highlight “round” to the point they were starting to develop respiratory issues similar to the Persians. -sigh- Stopping the rant, honest. I love my Manx (would not trade the one I have for love nor money) but I do miss the stout cats we had in the 70’s & 80’s.

        • My mother has – and still has – an enduring fondness and preference for apple-head Siamese. (She had one as a child/teenager in the 1930s/40s. Don’t ask me how this came about – her family also had a peacock roosting in the tree in the front yard.) But Scrappy was huge, intelligent, doglike and bold. So were the apple-head Siamesers that we had later on – like Clancy, who ate cheerfully whatever he saw us eat; cornflakes, cookie dough, canned peaches.
          The establishment professional breeding clubs have done horrible things to cats and dogs. Thank god for mutts.

          • But you can mostly only find mutts at the pound, and so they come with the requirement to spay or neuter. No matter how outstanding they are as either working animals or valued members of the family, they are removed from the canine gene pool.

      • Preach it sister. I wish we could convince the AKC to go immaterial themselves and stop torturing innocent beasties.

    • – Sorrow numbing her being; she pulls the sheet over the too-still form of her dead son, as if to tuck him in one last time for the long sleep of death. Grief has stolen all sense from her; she keeps his pallid face uncovered as she recalls her boy’s fear of the dark. Fingers fall limply from the cloth as eyes rake the barren landscape around them; as if surrenderring this last futile gesture of maternal love, as despair sinks icy claws into her being: he cannot feel comforted by my touch anymore and I remain here without him in this cruel, pointless life.

      Bitter thoughts slice where tears have run dry. At least he is free; free from feeling; free from pain.

      —-
      My sleep deprived attempt to write a similar scene. It’s hard because it is unnatural and clunky in tone to write in something like present tense as opposed to first person narration. (Help; my brain asks : what tense is first person narration in again? I want to say perfect but am sleepdepping. Yay insomnia!)

      • Lay off the chocolate. 🙂

        • Yeah, except that I figured that the bereaved mother would probably attempt to kill herself in the next paragraph. She has nothing left to live for, no scraps of hope left to sustain her for another hour, let alone another day. She might even try to take herself out because that way, at least it was something she had control over versus being mere victim to.

          I’ve felt the wistful …urge is too strong a word, whisper? … for that reason (to at least be in control of something that’s hurting me, instead of being victim to hurt) but I don’t feel it strongly enough to actually hurt myself. Different too, is the wish to simply never wake up so one can stop feeling the grief and never-ending loss. Except, I do have lots of reasons to keep living, and more, to claw out of the despair that one falls into, losing a child. And sometimes, even though one goes through the motions of living, the loss ‘has you exist in that moment of losing’ – a lot.

          From the description of the original character in Kate’s critique, there really IS NOTHING for that woman to cling to. Hell, even my rewrite was difficult to do, because how I’d write the loss would differ depending on how her child died. If it was a long, long illness, there would be some painful relief that her child no longer suffered, while the rest of her simply howled out of loss. It seems like she’d lost other family though, which compounds the whole ‘why is she not falling on something sharp or jumping off a cliff with the corpse of her child in her arms?’ given the bleak description of her view/surroundings/perhaps colored by loss?

          What it reveals, rather starkly, is that the writer has never experienced any significant pain, nor witnessed it; that at best they are only able to clumsily imagine such, and is unable to describe a person suffering in such a way that the reader can imagine it. At best, it’s a vague sort of regret, a pantomime of crude puppetry of stubbed toe owies we’re supposed to read as ‘soul destroying loss.’

          • Paradoxically, with depression you can be so deep into that pit that you have to get better to contemplate suicide. So yes, a character can be so numb that they act mechanically, going through the motions of life and never considering ending it all. The tears come after they get better. But they do come – along with the danger.

            • I am familiar with that as well. When I hit that stage the safest place for me to be is playing a video game, which I cling to with bleak desperation, until the children are home.

              • TRX

                If either of you take antihistamines, they can cause depression. I lost half of my life to that.

                • Depression can be a natural reaction to events. In some circumstances, not being depressed can signal issues. Such as someone who was bubbly at a funeral despite having lost a loved one. It was enough that the preacher spoke to them before they left the cemetery. As far as I know, the grief hit later. Or maybe they were holding it a bay – not a psychologist; don’t know.

                  I have seem the numbness evaporate twice at funerals. One, a mourner who was calm,. started screaming at the graveside. Another broke down and didn’t want to leave their loved one there. And sometimes you shove it aside because you have to keep your head about you to deal with a situation, resolving to shed your tears later. And you do; it seems more protracted that way. People deal with grief all sorts of ways, and the same person can deal with it differently in different circumstances. You can even experience grief and shed your tears in advance of the inevitable.

                  I know of one instance so similar to the sample that it’s unsettling. A woman lost her infant and was too ill to attend the funeral. They were calm – but it was a numb calm, and there was something similar to the character above leaving their child’s face uncovered.

                  Something else: I have never seen anyone act completely rational in grief. Ever. I’ve seen some make significant mistakes while mourning, mistakes they wouldn’t normally make.

                  • Used “they” instead of “she.”

                    Sigh.

                  • <— lost two children; baby boys, in succession, one only last year.

                    I am familiar with modes of grief; the numbness and the screaming kind and the weeping and depression. Put me in front of a visitor though and I will chat as if nothing is wrong – because putting on a mask and smiling is what I was taught. I've noticed it disturbs people, if they're not busy running away from the person who has lost so much as if she were cursed.

                    My criticism was not of the emotion of the character, but the clumsy writing that attempts to convey it. I got that the woman in the description is supposed to be traumatized and grieving, but instead of empathizing with her the reader is unable to sink into the story because of the tell, not show method employed.

                  • Actually, a good example of holding it at bay is my husband, Rhys. He has to, because if he drops his bundle, as he puts it, he can’t do his job. We reserved our grieving for when we were home, or the funerals. Our housemate, David, who is pretty much family, says he doesn’t know how Rhys was able to make himself take apart the baby cot twice.

                    https://www.affsdiary.com/inmemory.shtml

                    • I’m sorry. The closest we’ve ever come to that was one headed for a hospital hundreds of miles away, and my wife in poor shape in another. It didn’t look good – and I didn’t want her to know.

                    • I did something similar when my father died. SOMEONE had to take charge of the daily household stuff, and I’d just given birth to my second kid. My mom had fallen apart; middle brother was nearly as bad; youngest brother threw himself into his studies so he could continue going to the school by earning scholarships; Rhys had to go back to Australia and enlist. In fact the day immediately after Rhys, Vincent and I got home from the hospital, the first thing we did was buy groceries, and cook meals for the household, and do laundry for everyone else – to support the folks who were with Dad in the hospital. It set the routine for the next four months or so. I collapsed from the stress and overwork, and when I recovered, went to work – my friends had asked me ‘what can we do to help’ and I said ‘find me a job opening.’ I don’t remember much of our oldest boy’s early months because of it.

                      But the main thought I had was “Dad is depending on me to look after the family now.” I never properly grieved, I think.

                • I don’t do so regularly. I am fairly good at avoiding my allergens so I rarely need to take antihistamines.

              • tolonaro

                Nacin is known to combat depression.

                  • TRX

                    Might be niacin. At least, 1500mg of unbuffered niacin, and you’ll have something to think about besides depression…

                    It’s sometimes prescribed for cardiac patients. It causes a “flush” by dilating arteries, and it’s a *most* peculiar sensation.

                    • I tried medicating. I was more suicidal and more likely to do something about it on the meds than without – as in, refused to go into the kitchen because knives bad. I deeply regret it and am hating what it did to my internal biochemistry.

                      But that’s me. If it works on other folks I have nothing against that.

                  • Laurie

                    I think this is niacin? Which seems to be good at dealing with a number of psychological issues, from depression, ptsd, to schizophrenia, from what I’ve read. It was being used to treat WWII POWs returning to the US, successfully, but then the psychotropic drugs came out and niacin research got pushed aside.

          • We can also tell that this is probably a fairly modern culture,in some sense, in some sense, where child death is rare, or this is her only child, given the depth of grief. Contrast may be made with the 18th century nobleman who is enjoying a vista that prompts him to remember the names of his children who have died before growing up, the last recently, well, except for the two of the twelve whose names he can no longer remember.

            • SlitherKitten

              In some cultures they didn’t even bother naming children until they were a couple of years old. Why bother naming something that’ll likely die? It was also not uncommon to kill your own children: if you only have enough food to feed some of your children and not others, you get rid of the ones that are least likely to survive.

          • snowcrash

            From the description of the original character in Kate’s critique, there really IS NOTHING for that woman to cling to.

            Mild spoiler: The character has another child, whose circumstances require… action.

            • So why was this not mentioned? No other child, clinging to mother, crying because sibling is gone. Clinging and crying, because that child is afraid.

              So yeah, failure in trying to get us to invest in story. Nice try, but no. At this point, if I had been looking at the book in the shop I’d be putting it back.

              The hook has no bait.

              • snowcrash

                So why was this not mentioned?

                She, and her current circumstance, are actually mentioned in the 1st page of the Chapter 1.

                • Except I would have already put the book back on the shelf by the time I reached the ‘self arguing with other self.’ Even before the ‘panning back to get the end of the world on a continental scale out of the way’.

                  Actually, ‘getting the boring bits’ out of the way would have had me put the book back on the shelf. Any book that thinks the end of the world is a boring thing ensures to be a very tedious read – not my taste.

                  But hey, you seem to like it and love it so go enjoy! But you’re not getting me to buy the book. No matter how many spoilers you drop.

                  • snowcrash

                    Any book that thinks the end of the world is a boring thing…

                    That’s not actually what the opening says, or even implies.

                    But you’re not getting me to buy the book

                    That was never my intention. Apologies if it seemed that way.

      • Present tense has its uses, but for more than brief patches, it makes my eyes bleed.

        You’re confustulating tense and point-of-view.

        First person present: I do whatever.
        Third person present: He does whatever.
        First person past: I did whatever.
        Third person past: He did whatever.

        And then there’s second person modal:
        “It is very dark. You may be eaten by a grue.”

        • Second person present: You do whatever.
          Second person past: You did whatever.

          First person future: I will do whatever
          Second person future: You will do whatever
          Third person future: He will do whatever.

          So, she will think over and over, and I will slowly saunter away, lest my eyes start bleeding also.

        • Thomas Wicklund

          Charles Stross uses first person present tense in his Laundry Files books. It was after four books and several short stores that I finally noticed he was using present tense, so in my opinion it can be done well. I’m sure it can also be done very poorly.

        • Yeah; brief patches like dream sequences.

      • …that one gave me a brief pang.

        Yep. The sample was inept.

    • Erm… could you give me a written example (or reference to same) for “..It’s very much the blind seer declaiming from the wilderness;.”

      I haven’t run across that before and am curious as to what it reads like.

      • Confutus

        An allusion to Tireseas, I think. Although that wasn’t who I first thought of.

        • I thought of Homer, but he doesn’t wander in the desert, and the style is the antithesis of his.

          I hadn’t considered that the poster just meant “this writer sounds like she’s trying for some kind of gnomic quality to her story” Epic fail IMHO. You need to control your “voice” and that means careful selection of words and imagery to pull it off.

  7. Every time I have tried to read a story written in the present tense, I have bounced off it. I don’t recommend it for story telling. Second, I expect “The End” to come at the end of a story, not the beginning. Third, the opening paragraph promises a bleak and depressing tale. If I wanted bleak and depressing, I’d go read help-wanted ads or follow the US Presidential campaign. Fourth, as far as the continent goes, only authors who are trying to commit literature would be likely to call a heaving and galloping landscape “The stillness” in tones of quiet and bitter irony. So far, this story is about as entertaining, amusing and enlightening as a runny nose and a fever.

    • L. E. Modesitt did a novel in which, iirc, the heroine and her surroundings were in past tense, while her opponents’ chapters were in present tense. He gave talks at SF convention noting that modern literature tends to use first person present tense while romantic literature (e.g. detective novels, SF) tend to use third person past tense, enough that readers of one find the other jarring. In some circles, present tense is supported and past tense is denigrated.

    • fynbospress

      Naming it “the stillness” threw me hard, too. Quiet and bitter irony it might be, but people don’t name things for quiet and bitter irony. They name them in optimism “Greenland” to rally others to their settlement “Liberia” or after a patron who finances the move, “Virginia”, the guy who found it “America”, or in plain description “Asia” (depending on your interpretation of etymology, it’s either “muddy” for the shore to the east, or “the sun rises thataway.”) Or after one of the Gods “Europa”. But usually, it’s after the people who live there “Jutland, Angle-land, Rus-sia, land of the Afri (Africa)”

      Colonizers tend to pick up the above in the original inhabitant’s language (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona…) Otherwise, they tend to do a lot of descriptive names “Rushing Ford. Ports Mouth, Sweet Water (Agua Dulce), Red River, The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Martins Ferry, Blue Ridge Mountains, The Rockies.” or they import familiar names (New York) or put their stamp on it (Carrolton).

      To name a land something it is fundamentally not (even Greenland was greener and warmer when originally settled, as we keep finding stuff where the glaciers retreated), and for it to keep that name, either requires conquering & near-extinction (“American Indians”), or… do we have any other examples?

      And even if this naming happened, few names (especially beginning with “the”) stick without some form of shortening. “What? El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles? Right, Los Angeles. Got it, that’s L.A.”

      More history and etymology before the worldbuilding, please!

      • Once in Missouri, I heard a native refer to it as the State of Misery.

        Be that as it may, I once got frustrated trying to come up with place names. Then it hit me that places only sound exotic in another language. Baton Rouge = Red Stick; Rio Grande = Big River. So I went with plain names when it was in the predominate language of the kingdom. But there were vestiges of a Viking presence, and those were reflected in a few names where they dominated, and the Romans once had outposts and mines in the kingdom, so there just a few Latin names. That seemed to work.

      • the guy who found it “America”

        America, technically, was not named after the guy who found it, but the guy who discovered it wasn’t actually Asia but a previously unknown continent and wrote a book about it. Early mapmakers then named the new continent after him Amerigo Vespucci

        I always thought it was funny that the guys that make the map get the finally say on the name.

        • TRX

          Jack Vance’s “The Demon Kings” series spends a lot of its time in the Rigel Concourse, of twenty-six habitable planets and hundreds of moons and smaller bodies. The discoverer named all the planets after various explorers, politicians, and the works of Bulwer-Lytton.

          A communications clerk, disgusted with the pomposity of the names, made up his own and inserted them in the report before sending it back to HQ. And the names were firmly stuck in common use by the time the explorer got back, to his fulminating rage…

    • TRX

      Walter Jon Williams used present tense in “Hardwired.” It was supposed to be an edgy cyberpunk dystopia, and it worked there… but I still think it would have worked better without it.

  8. Robin Munn

    What bothered me the most about that story was actually the phrase “She’s old hat at this by now.” In a story that is deliberately trying to use a literary style, it’s vital to get the wording right. I could have possibly enjoyed the writing style, but blatant word errors like this ruin it. And since there’s nothing else here but the writing style, at least so far, that’s fatal.

    “This is old hat for her by now” would be correct. “She’s an old hand at this by now” would be correct. But “She’s old hat at this by now” — bzzzt. Wrong, and that was the point when a switch flipped in my head, from “well, this could be okay” to “oh dear, this is going to be bad, isn’t it?”

    • From your mouth to the writer’s ears. So few writers seem to appreciate the music of the language and the way the choice of vocabulary shapes the sub-created literary world.

      Have you read Suzette Hadin Elgin? She’s particularly good at that (Also Jack Vance, Gene Wolf, JCW, but you know of them)

      • Robin Munn

        I know of Vance, Wolfe, and Wright, but living halfway around the world from America has made it … difficult … to find Vance and Wolfe’s works in affordable form. (I admit I haven’t yet checked to see if ebooks of their works are available at a reasonable price, but I assume they will be priced similarly to other tradpub ebooks, i.e. ridiculously overpriced). Wright is an exception, as (again, I assume) the ebooks for his works are probably going to be more reasonably priced. His stuff is on my “buy sometime when my book budget can afford it” list, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

        But I didn’t know about Elgin, so thank you for the recommendation. I’ll check her out. Any books of hers that are a good “If you’ve never read her stuff, read this one first” recommendation? (Obviously if she writes books in series, then the first book in each series is the one to read first — but if she writes multiple series, which series is a good one to start with?)

        • Twelve Fair Kingdoms (book 1 of the Ozark trilogy) is a great place to start for her fiction.

          You might also enjoy “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense”(nonfiction)

          Two other decent starting places are:
          The Communipaths
          Native Tongue

          Are all good starts. Though the 2nd two require a tolerance for some standard feminist tropes used scientificitionally.

          Does your local library do inter-library loans either as a limited service w/your library card or with a small fee to cover postage costs? I’ve gotten books from New Zealand public libraries via ILL, so it seems possible that folks out at the antipodes can get our stuff. That’s how ILL works for the most part.

          • Robin Munn

            My local library only has English books in its “Foreign-Language books” section, so ILL won’t work too well for me. 🙂 But I’ll put her on my list of authors to look for when I’m in America for a business trip and can check things out from local libraries (I’m usually staying in one city for a month at a time, and can usually ask a friend to let me use their library card for the month I’m there).

            • Well, if you ever want a book I reccy, and the Usual Library Suspects fail you, drop me a line and I’ll mail you my copy.

              You’re on the hook for getting it back to me at some point, but if you’re up for that, let me know.

          • Robin Munn

            Actually, funny story: I just looked up Native Tongue on Amazon, and I recognized the cover art. That’s the one that, not too long ago when I was in the U.S. for a short time, I found in a thrift store for 25 cents. Looked at the cover art and said, “Ooh, science fiction about linguistics! Interested!” Looked at the blurb on the back and said, “HahahaNO,” and put it right back on the shelf.

            So I guess I don’t have a tolerance for standard feminist tropes, whether used in science fiction or regular fiction*. And that’s also making me hesitate before trying her Ozark trilogy. Is the unthinking “women good, men bad” thing going to show up in that one, too? Since you’ve read it, you might be able to reassure me. Or not, as the case may be.

            * Which is a category that includes the New York Times, these days…

            • It doesn’t even show up in Native Tongue.

              It’s the idea that men and women are alien species to each other.

              12 Fair Kingdoms is very Ozark. There’s no notion that women are all good, and men are all bad: many of the women are positively awful. But you do get the feeling that men are more decorative, so if you need some grubby unglorious bit of ductwork done you get a woman. It’s a cultural thing more than a feminist one.

              They both work in their respective SFnal settings.

  9. I recognize the opening, but shall not identify the work it is from. After a certain amount of the items you discuss, the style advances to authorial omniscient of a particularly affected sort, the sort I associate with bad D&D novels and back covers which attempt failingly to be grandiloquently portentious.

    I have been attempting to persuade myself to read the entire novel, to see if the rest of it is that bad. Now, I have steeled myself for quaint writing. I have read Pel Torro’s Galaxy 666. I have read Twiford’s Sown in the Darkness AD 2000, whose author at least did know English grammar, even if he was a Grand Dragon of the KKK (or so the review I once read claimed). I suppose I can survive reading the rest of it.

    There can be reasons for writing in first person, notably to be very far inside the head of one character. Consider the opening for my current novel, on which I am very slowly working

    The Girl Who Saved the World.  
    Text copyright © 2016 George Phillies

    Back cover: 
    Meet Eclipse.
    She’s hardworking, bright, self-reliant, good with tools, vigorously physically fit. She also flies, reads minds, and is not afraid of necessary violence.
    She’s twelve years old. Now she’s procured the Key to Paradise. And everyone in her world will be happy to kill her to get their hands on it.

    Flashforward
    The Invisible Fortress
    Evening
    January 11, 2018

    I awoke at half past dark. To put it mildly, I hurt. Some places hurt even more than others. Yes, I was doing mind control on myself. The pain nerves might scream in agony. Thanks to mind control I heard the screams as distant murmurs. That meant I could sleep. I still knew I hurt. A lot. “Hurt” was better than the alternative, which involved me being dead.

    For a few moments, all I could do was look over the foot of my bed, through the triple-pane glass wall to the starry sky beyond. If I kept a diary, I might have written “Scattered above my balcony, swarming clouds of stars spangled the firmament as they sank ever so slowly into the pitch-black daggers of the Coastal Range.” Sounds overwrought? Mum made sure I speak flawless Ancient English, a language whose whose splendiferous ornamentation, no, splendiferous ornamenticity, creeps into my writing. I don’t dare keep a diary. The only voice I hear is myown mind talking to itself.

    Sometime earlier, I had come almost awake.. The healing matrix prompted me to ramp down my mind control, so the matrix could tell exactly where I hurt. I overdid it. I cut mind control off. Incredible pain swallowed me. I burst into sobs and uncontrollable tears. Fortunately the healing matrix kept me from going into shock. After a few minutes I remembered I could ramp control back up. By then I was soaked in sweat.

    Suddenly I knew where I was. Not safe at home, the home where I grew up. I was in my own house, the one I bought with my own money.
    I’d been in a major knock-down, drag-out fight? Where? Why? Then I remembered. Atlanticea. It was the most wonderful memory in the world. Or would have been, if I didn’t hurt so much. Not to mention I was totally exhausted. I’d solved the Maze, the Maze that defeated Julius Caesar and Cortez and Jackie Fisher and the French Imperial Guard. I’d reached the Tomb and matched wits with the Martyr himself. I’d recovered that palm-size sphere of crystalline sky, the Namestone, the Key To The Earthly Paradise. No one else in the history of the world had ever come close to capturing it. Yesterday I’d done it. The Namestone was the wonderful birthday present I gave myself, if a couple months late for my twelfth birthday. It was almost as good a twelfth birthday present as my ponies. Ponies are better, and I gave them to me, too.

    The healing matrix was fixing me, but…oh right, healing matrix. I summoned the glyph for Medico, its associated rules engine. A rules engine, I reminded myself, is not an artificial intelligence. It’s a distillation of expert experience to help me make better decisions. They are still my decisions. Medico reported on healing: Nothing in violet, nothing that was killing me despite the matrix. Of course, the matrix should have dragged me conscious if I were dying, and it hadn’t. Nothing blue, long-term near-death threat. Red warnings? Let’s see. Three broken ribs, stitched by telekinesis. My right shoulder? Nothing had broken, but bits of force field were holding things where they belonged while the matrix forced repairs. I’d landed the wrong way when I was thrown into the wall, at least missed getting a concussion, but gonged my shoulder. I’d also dodged getting gutted by the fellow with the knife.

  10. Apparently, I’m now a literary writer (only Amazon genre which even remotely fits), but you START with STORY. And then, if necessary, and in oh-so-small bites, you tuck in the pretty stuff – which is never allowed to JUST be pretty. It must have many functions in the story – setting, character, plot, theme… – but you’re allowed to use words above 4th grade level as long as you don’t use too many of them and it doesn’t get in the way of STORY. Story first, last, and in between. Most of us don’t read for pretty words (though the ugly ones do get in the way of pleasurable reading unless they’re there for their ugly effect).

    • aacid14

      A proper craftsman uses his tools to achieve his ends. This form of “literary”, the kind you say looking down your nose just puts his plane and awl on display, trying to say how pretty they are.

      • Yep. Toolmarks should not show in the finished product.

        And even that is limited somewhat to the right audience for the piece.

        Good craftspeople don’t need to display their tools. They are somehow just ‘better’ in an indefinable way.

        Like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee stories. Or Raymond Chandler. Or Heinlein or Herbert.

        • aacid14

          Yep. The tool marks showing need to have reason to show for the piece. The best craftsmen can use odd tools (chainsaw or third person in a mystery) and still provide the desired product ( intricate sculpture or Harry Dresden). Today it seems culture focuses more on the gimmicky tricks (flip genders, colors, insult the right people) to gain notoriety vs good work.

        • I hold up Travis McGee as the standard to which all who write in first person should aspire. Some of the most invisible craftsmanship ever.

          • I’ve reread some of the stories 20 times – and I still get pulled in, and the analysis of technique I was going to do never happens.

            He’s a wee bit dated, but one of the best characters out there – as is Meyer.

  11. Having said that I shall offer a plot for a short story, or a skeleton of one.

    You are an occult investigator in our world, a secret occupation. You are investigating a series of mysterious deaths among Hugo fans. The deaths are ghastly and correspond to the victims’ moral failings. You eventually deduce that those notorious wooden asterisks are in facts Lovecraftian Starstones — not by the intent of the maker — and acoustic shielding around a certain room at the last worldcon converted the cheers at No Award into — as heard outside the — room paeans to our great lord the Eternal Hastur, who has heard his worshippers and is now gathering them up.

    • You immediately visit the nearest gun shop and load up, only to find out at the cash register that NICS is down and the FBI has no estimated repair time listed on their web site.

      How convenient.

      You head downtown to visit Jack the Lad, who always knows a guy who knows a guy…

  12. I must say that anything which -starts- with a dead child doesn’t have much farther downhill to go. That’s in a wagon rut already, and I’m heaving it at the wall.

    What the hell are people thinking these days?

    • These are the folks who cheer at the thought of wrongthinkers children dying or being assaulted. They recognize vaguely that this is supposed to be a bad thing and try to imitate the human reaction. But since they don’t really value it…humanity that is… Well.

    • aacid14

      Admittedly I’m not a parent, but if treated as a tragic event that drives improvement I think it could evolve to a rather uplifting story. In reality lots of advancement in medicine come from curing children’s diseases for example.

    • Julaire

      I could see a few story cases that could start with the death of a child that could prove interesting (perhaps even uplifting) reads by the end of the book.

      Just off the top of my head.

      1) A story about the life of a parent whose child is slain by Herod’s decree living a bitter life by finding peace when she crosses path with Jesus in later years (sort of a Ben-Hur- or The Robe-esque tale of all-consuming despair or vengeance giving way to the peace of Christ).

      2) A story where the death of a child at the hands of the Evil One leads the parent (or perhaps a sibling) on an epic quest to defeat the Evil One (much akin to how a lot of epic fantasy has a young hero set on their quest by the death of their parents or mentors).

      3) If you wanted to go ‘literary’ with it, a story where the death of a child leads a parent to obsession– perhaps seeking the cure of the disease that killed the child, or to get revenge on the murderer of the child– and the pitfalls and dangers that a life of obsession brings. The cautionary tale, as it were.

      I’m sure I could come up with others.

      That mess above doesn’t strike me as anything but a mess, and certainly not something I’d ever want to read. I much prefer Shadowdancer’s brief sleep-deprvied paragraph rewrite as it at least evokes an emotion out of me. The mess doesn’t have me feeling anything at the death of a child– it’s like it’s being told by a sociopath who doesn’t have any feeling for humanity.

      • “I could see a few story cases that could start with the death of a child that could prove interesting (perhaps even uplifting) reads by the end of the book.”

        You’d have to be a -genius- to pull that off. The writer under discussion, though I know not who it is, is no genius.

      • The mess doesn’t have me feeling anything at the death of a child– it’s like it’s being told by a sociopath who doesn’t have any feeling for humanity.

        Yeah, well… I was trying to be nice – I know, I know, it’s a lapse, brought about by the sleep-dep and headaches.

        Glad you liked it. It was actually rather hard to write that way. If I were writing it as normal, it would’ve been smoother and easier for me to write out.

    • As Jane would say, “where does that get fun?”

      But I’ll give you a short story because the demands of the form are different.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      I’ve read a lot of stories lately that start with the death of a child, and work fairly well, even when executed by a writer who isn’t the best. The dead child either reincarnates into another world, or someone from another world reincarnates into the body of the child. You probably didn’t mean cases where the protagonist’s death starts the story, but still.

  13. freddiemac

    This opening page wouldn’t have sent me running for the exit, but I would be skimming over the next 2-3 pages looking for a bit more depth (context, even!) to give me a sense of where the story was going.

    The scene with the child is disjointed, but conveys a sense of shock and numbness that can come from profound grief. So, that give me a sense that this character (I was going to say woman, but that’s too limiting) is numbed/burdened by grief right at the start. However, what else?

    This does read like an experimental style, but whether it would be suitable for a novel is another point entirely. I expect that I’d spend more time looking at the prose than enjoying the story that’s unfolding, which is a problem: the prose shouldn’t get in the way of the story.

    I agree that this probably won because it sounds literary and different.

  14. Uh, guys? Why are we not naming the novel? Did I just miss something in the rules?

    • Martin L. Shoemaker

      My assumption is it’s because Kate wants to demonstrate how tastes can differ, without making it about the award-worthiness of a particular book.

    • Maybe it is a dual test of Google-fu skills, and harder, of restraint. After all, simply searching on a sentence will bring you the book and author with little effort, if you know to enclose the sentence in double quotes. Not naming the booking and author afterwards is much harder. But I shall try to pass this clever test that Kate has set.

    • Kate Paulk

      There are two reasons I didn’t name the novel or the author: the biggest one being that I wanted to focus on the *work*, not the reputation of the author. The other reason is that I have nothing against the author and didn’t particularly wish to be gratuitously nasty.

  15. “A land of quiet and bitter irony…” See, this is what happens when you develop your worldview and write your novel in coffee shops. You write what you know.

    Kate’s points are well-taken. I might have pressed on farther with the novel myself, but then I also eat more fatty foods than are good for me.

  16. When I worked for Dangerous Visions back in the day we had a regular customer who had a rule forvfinding good books. He would pick up anew arrival, open it to a random page and read it. if there was a single insalubrious sentence on the page, he would put it back.

    He was Never. Wrong.

  17. I am not going to tell anyone what the book is, though there is a clue someplace in the above, However, the range of opinions on the book, all places considered is vast. And, Cedar, please do not take a fork to your eyes.

  18. And, no, I did not use google to find out what it is; I had independently decided a review might be a good idea, even before I discovered the unmitigated dreadfulness of the opening pages.

  19. If I had to guess, I’d say that was written by NK Jemsin. If I’m wrong, then she’s got new competition for SF’s pseudo-literary crappy-writing pet.

  20. SlitherKitten

    This post reminded me of the following review of Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code”:
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000844.html

    Except Kate is nicer. And Dan Brown at least starts with an action sequence.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      Count me as somebody else who has never read “Da Vinci Code”. 😉

      Of course, I heard enough about its plot that I didn’t want to read it.

      • His prose is right down there with Clive Cussler’s.

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          Well, I’ve read Clive Cussler and I’d say that his stories can be interesting enough for some to ignore bad prose.

          What I heard about the story Dan Brown was telling made me decide to not read it.

          While not Catholic, stories that involve the evil Roman Catholic Church actively hiding a centuries old secret turn me off.

      • Imagine, if you will, Leonardo da Vinci talking to a friend:

        “No, no, no! I don’t have a code! I have a code! A code In my nose!”

      • TRX

        See character run.
        Run, character, run.
        Run, run, run!

      • Another non-reader of that particular work. The summaries I heard sounded as if the plot as dire as this reviewer thinks the prose style is.

      • I read the first couple of chapters — and kept tripping over and falling flat over sentences which reminded me of entries in the Bulwer-Lytton Bad Writing contest, Couldn’t get past the first couple of chapters.

        The whole thing was ripped off from some other speculative work regarding Jesus and Mary Magdalen, anyway. For my sins, I once contracted to edit a local … fantasist who scribbled something along the same lines, We speculate … well, never mind. The fantasy was epic. And badly written, And in a lot of fonts, In a lot of colors. With interpolations of art, to which this person had no rights,.

  21. Voice and tense, from my test Designing Wargames:

    Voice
    By voice I mean voice in the sense that the word is used in literary theory. Voice describes the Point of View for the reader. The game style “First-Person Shooter” is half-defined by its voice, namely the player sees the world through the eyes of a single character. An author writing in first person talks about what is happening by saying “I saw approaching me that most dangerous of all foes, a small party of men.” Alternatively, the author writes in third person: “She comes to a fork in the road and, seeing no preference as to choice of direction, flips a coin and then advances in the direction the coin does not indicate.” We can actually be systematic in discussing voice. One has first-person, second person, and third person. Each person has a singular and a plural. Thus, we have I and we, you, and he, she, or it, and they. Readers familiar with some foreign languages will recognize that the words for you in the singular and plural need not be the same. In some languages, there will also be more or less formal words for referring to a person. The English you and thee capture this distinction, though the usage of thee has in many places been inverted between Shakespeare’s time and our own.

    In addition to these choices of voice, there are several alternatives. In authorial omniscient, the reader may be told that which the author knows, allowing the author to make parenthetic asides to the reader. In graphic novels, the effect is termed ‘breaking the fourth wall’. A familiar example of this style comes from the greatest of Victorian authors, E.G.E. Bulwer-Lytton, “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” Here the parenthetic phrase (for it is in London that our scene lies) exemplifies the authorial omniscient style. The author is telling the reader something that cannot be inferred from the description of the scene. An alternative to authorial omniscient is the provision of contextual clues. A culturally literate reader told that the skyline includes the Washington monument or Westminster Abbey knows that she is in the vicinity of the District of Columbia or London. In multiple points of view, the reader sees the same events, sometimes even the same scene, from the perspectives of several or many characters, the author providing cues for the reader to recognize which point of view is momentarily in use. In literary usage, the multiple point of view style places a significant demand on the reader’s alertness and concentration, making it less welcome for casual readers. Very different uses of multiple points of view may be seen in the film Rashomon and in the novels of David Weber and L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

    I inserted the other aspect of voice into the first two quotations. If you look carefully you notice that the first author used the past tense, while the second author used present tense. Many readers of this book spend their spare time reading science fiction, detective stories, westerns, or that most ubiquitous of all literary forms, the romance novel, as invented and first mass-produced by the ancient Romans. If you are one of the people with a reading habit, you are probably accustomed to reading your fiction written almost exclusively in past tense. Indeed, you may not recognize that there is an alternative. Much modern literary fiction is instead composed in present tense. The science fiction author L. E. Modesitt occasionally appears at science fiction conventions and gives a lecture on these literary forms, noting the almost complete lack of communication between modern literary fiction and modern – the correct term is romantic fiction, not to be confused with romance novels – romantic fiction, between which stylistic conventions have over the past century radically diverged. Science fiction, detective stories, and western tales are all examples of romantic fiction, written in past tense. Modesitt’s Spellsinger series is noteworthy for using both past and present tenses in the same work, with the heroine and company appearing in past tense and the transitions to the opponents being emphasized by the author’s having written their remarks and thoughts and events in present tense. Modesitt (private communication) notes that many readers did not like the transition between tenses. He further observes that “The use of the present tense tends to hold the writer very close to what is occurring at the moment and to the main character, as well as make it more difficult to include expository lumps.”

    Attempts to apply the literary notion of voice to game design sometimes leads to clarity (‘first-person shooter’) but sometimes leads to erroneous conclusions. One occasionally encounters game reviewers and analysts claiming that a game design is invalid because a single officer (and, presumably, his staff) did not issue such fine-grained orders. For example, pointing at Drang nach Osten (a regiment/division level game covering the first year of the entire German invasion of Russia), the reviewer would observe that the German and Russian supreme headquarters in general did not order individual battalions to move to particular locations, and therefore the game was wrong. Such reviewers are making a gross error in interpreting the game’s voice, namely they are assuming that a board wargame must be written in first person singular, so that the player must correspond to a nameable human being someplace on the map. No such assumption is justified. Instead, one says that the game is written in first person plural, with the player taking the roles of all of the Front, Army Group, army, and corps commanders. First person plural should be familiar to rolegamers, since it corresponds exactly to a campaign in which each player simultaneously controls several characters.