Writing fiction is a lonely business. With the rare exception of collaborations, most of us write alone. There’s a lot to keep track of when one is writing a novel, and each of us has to take responsibility for every bit of it.
If you’re lucky enough to land a deal with a major publisher, you might expect that somebody in that big building in New York would be assigned to help you get all of the details lined up.
Today’s lesson is, don’t count on it.
I’ve been reading Michelle West’s House Wars series. It’s a set of eight novels, published by DAW. The story is good enough that I’ve been sticking with it. I toss a lot of novels aside after 50 or 100 pages, but I’m now approaching the dramatic climax of Book 3. Mainly, I like the story. West’s characters are sympathetic, and the story has depth.
Unfortunately, West (real name Michelle Sagara) is a sloppy writer — and nobody at DAW seems to have noticed. Up to now I’ve been patient with her lapses, but I’m starting to get a bit annoyed. The word usage errors I’m willing to overlook. She used “adverse” when the right word was “averse,” but that’s just one word, and one word in three novels wouldn’t disturb me. The third time she used “lay” when the correct word was “lie,” I started to fidget. But again, this is small stuff, and you don’t sweat the small stuff.
In order to explain the big screw-up in the book, I have to provide a quick sketch of what’s going on.
Jewel Markess is the main character. She’s about 16 years old. Jewel starts out (at the age of perhaps 12) as a homeless orphan in a huge city. She gathers around her a group of seven or eight other street kids. She’s the leader, and they’re her “den.” They scrounge for food, wear cast-offs, and all of them sleep in two rooms in a shabby apartment with no running water. The big feature of the den is loyalty. To one another, they’re family, and they’re the only family any of them has.
Following a bunch of dramatic action, in Book 3 Jewel and her den have been invited to live in the incredibly large and well appointed palace of House Terafin, one of the ten Houses whose power largely dominates the Empire. But the den are still street urchins at heart, ill-mannered and impetuous. Also, they’re still intensely loyal to Jewel, and she to them.
Those who belong to House Terafin take the name ATerafin (and yes, there are two capital letters there). This is a big honor, and the street urchins of Jewel’s den are definitely not ATerafin. Following some dramatic events, the head of the House rather unexpectedly declares (to the king and the high priests) that Jewel is ATerafin. Well, we all knew she was going to end up as ATerafin. This is epic fantasy, no problem.
But West’s forte is the emotional labyrinths her characters put themselves through. Jewel is now ATerafin, yet she won’t tell her den, because she’s afraid it will change their loyalty to her, or her loyalty to them. She’s keeping it a secret.
Okay, this is sensible enough. Ah, but then, in one of the many dramatic scenes in the story, the high priest of the warrior god follows Jewel into the West Wing (I’m not kidding — the den is living in the West Wing of the gigantic House) and has a conversation with Jewel and one of the boys in the den. In the presence of the entire den, he refers to Jewel as ATerafin.
And there’s no follow-up. That’s the giant screw-up that any decent editor would have flagged, and that an attentive writer would, we hope, never have made in the first place. Following this scene, there is no scene in which the den asks Jewel about her new status, no scene in which she explains it to them — nothing.
This is not just a failure of continuity, though that would be bad enough. It’s a failure of the core of West’s strength as a writer. Her writing is packed with multi-paragraph digressions in which she dissects the characters’ emotions for our benefit. And yet when this crucial bit of information hits the den — nothing. Not a word of follow-up.
This is not the first screw-up, either. Earlier in the book, one of the special servants assigned to the den mentions to Jewel, quite calmly, that someday she will be not just ATerafin but the head of the House. The servant, who is not a seer, has no conceivable reason to think that. And Jewel fails to react to what should have sounded absurd to her. At the very least it ought to have sent her into a couple of pages of painful soul-searching. Here again, West seems to have just been jamming and scissoring her way through multiple drafts (or maybe there was only one draft — that’s possible too) and didn’t notice what she had done.
And there was no editor at DAW to raise a red flag and ask her to fix it.
You’re on your own, folks. No editor, no agent, no critique group can be relied on to catch your screw-ups. It’s all on you.