Shooting Fish in a Barrel

I’ve been looking around for a writing buddy — someone who is on the same wavelength as me, preferably a novelist who has published at least one book. The idea being, we check in with one another a couple of times a week for mutual encouragement and support. In pursuit of this grand dream, I’ve joined a few online writing groups.

What I’m discovering, which I pretty much knew already, is that most of the aspiring writers out there are not operating at a professional level. Many of them couldn’t even swim up to a professional level if a shark bit them on the ass. There’s a lot of bad writing in the world.

I would not slag any of the people in any of the online groups I’ve joined. Politeness forbids it. But sometimes you have to have a little fun. While searching on Amazon to see if anyone had used the title I’m considering for my next book, I was intrigued enough to click on a book cover and open the Look Inside. I’m not going to mention this author’s name, nor the title of her novel. My purpose is not to shame her for her fulsome incompetence. I just thought maybe one of my five regular readers might enjoy seeing some of the mistakes they themselves know better than to make.

Or maybe a reminder might not be amiss.

This book is in the middle of a fantasy series. Evidently the previous volume ended with a cliffhanger. A battle (Medieval, a staple of classic fantasy) has not been going according to plan. So here’s the opening of the new book:

I do not like that woman!”

Rowan Orr spat. Turning to his left, he glared at Sur Percival. Both laid elbow- deep in the mud. Under burlap capes they shielded themselves from the relentless autumn sleet. Cursing his luck, they peered at the battle scene just feet below. Their strewn troops were divided and hacked like kindling. Ruthlessly the woman known only as the Daudur Hjarta plowed over their men. The frozen hairs of his wet mane stood on end. Within minutes his obliviated army laid in piles of mangled corpses high enough to reach the heavens, though today the Gods were not laughing. He glared at the raven of her black-on-black banner raised high against the otherwise pitch skies and spat for a second time.

Amazing, isn’t it? For starters, “laid” is used twice where “lay” would be correct. The space after the hyphen (elbow- ) is in the Kindle page, that’s not my typo. The understatement in the opening line is bad enough to be hilarious. Note the blithe skipping from “his” to “they.” Note the odd proximity of these two men lying in the mud to the gory battle “just feet below.” Something that is frozen is not wet, and apparently his hair has frozen standing upright, which suggests that perhaps someone has pinned his hair to a clothes-line. I can’t think of any other explanation.

Note the badly strained simile. Note the intrusion of the scholarly word “obliviated,” which undercuts the tone. And then we get to a black banner which is somehow visible against a black sky.

Breathtaking, isn’t it? Let’s go on just a little further.

“She has a death wish!” Rowan cursed to the damp air. He shifted his body in the muck to meet the sordid stare of Sur Percival.

Behind the woman, her minions set fire to anything in her path. He looked at the splattered faces of his startled men and then to the smoking canopy overhead. Just that morning he swore vengeance and vowed neither she nor he would leave the field alive. He cursed as they celebrated the success of a small victory earlier that day. They surrounded and pushed the Daudur and her army almost back to the river. He sneered now as he looked on in horror at the bloodbath. Wiping gore from his brow, he watched his men fall to their knees in scores for a war they had no pledge in. Anxiously he regarded the smoking pine from behind, to retreat was their only option or be caught between the bitch and the fires. Again, his strained red eyes peered down on the fierce maiden. He cracked his jaw with his palm and sneered. He would deal with her, but not this eve.

“Sound the horn,.” he regrettably said. “We retreat.”

“Lord?” He turned to his nephew.

“A wise man does not engage in a battle he cannot win,” he spat again.

Defeated, Sur Percival removed his helm and rubbed his sweaty, throbbing temples. He glared down at the bloody chaos with a frown….

Wowza! Where to start? How is it he thinks a woman who is winning a battle has a death wish? What would a sordid stare look like? Bad choice of adjective. Is the whole battle taking place under a smoking canopy? That’s a small battle, I’d guess. And where are the poles that must be holding up the canopy? Okay, I’m kidding. I know the author meant “canopy” to be a reference to the sky. But in that case, “smoking” is wrong. The sky is not smoking; it’s smoke-filled.

The Daudur’s minions are behind her, yet they seem to be setting fire to what’s in her path, which would of necessity be ahead of her. Yes, “her path” could be the path she has just traversed, but if that’s what the author meant, it should have been written differently. And since nothing has been mentioned other than the bodies of the hacked-apart defeated army, it’s hard to see what the minions were setting fire to. Recently dead bodies don’t burn well unless you splash gasoline on them, and we’re in a Medieval setting. No gasoline.

If his men have already been hacked to kindling, “startled faces” is kind of an ironic understatement, suitable for comedy, not for this scene. He has sworn to die by attacking the woman (an odd oath), but evidently he is in the process of forswearing his oath, as he’s not rushing to take her on in single combat, he’s just lying there in the mud.

Note the double punctuation after “horn.” I copied that directly from the Kindle file.

Then we get to the verb tense problem. When did he curse? At the earlier celebration, or now, in recalling the earlier celebration? And now he’s sneering at a bloodbath, which is surely the wrong reaction. A sneer indicates contempt. How did he get gore on his brow? Is it his own gore, or has he been splattered? And now those men who were hacked into kindling in a previous paragraph are falling to their knees.

Next, a run-on sentence — a comma-splice. Is a single pine tree smoking? If he’s behind the smoking pine, how is he able to see the battle? The word “behind” is very confusing. Describing his eyes from the outside is a viewpoint shift, and another one is coming up at the end of this passage, as suddenly we’re in Sur Percival’s point of view. “Regrettably” is either wrong, or an authorial intrusion (meaning, he shouldn’t have done it); “regretfully” would have been stiff, but correct. “He turned to his nephew” is in the wrong paragraph; evidently someone else is saying, “Lord?”, so that sentence, which is in his point of view, should start the following paragraph. And then “he spat again” is used as a dialog tag, which is just plain bad writing. You can’t spit an entire sentence.

We’re left wondering: Did this author hire a line editor? It seems not very likely. If she did, either she hired an incompetent (because she didn’t know how to identify a good one) or she chose to ignore what the editor told her. All of her clumsy mistakes are readily avoidable. The scene would still have been a dreadful cliché, but it could have been made to read smoothly.

On the other hand, she wouldn’t have needed a line editor if she knew how to write. The lesson is clear: When the other hopeless amateurs in your writing group tell you you’re doing great, you must not trust their judgment. You must learn to write!

Again, my purpose is not to attack this particular author, who I’m sure is a very nice person and sincerely committed to the furtherance of her literary endeavors. This passage is meant to serve only as a reminder to other aspiring authors: Learn about dialog tags and comma-spliced run-on sentences. Learn about verb tenses. If you aren’t certain of the meaning of a word like “sordid” or “regrettably,” look it up. The same goes for “maiden”: It seems not very likely that this evil commander has never in her life had sexual intercourse, and if that’s the implication the author intends, it should have been made explicit somehow.

If you can learn to picture the scene clearly in your own mind, you’ll avoid mistakes like having dead men fall to their knees after they’ve been set on fire. This author seems to feel it’s sufficient simply to sling onto the page whatever impassioned sentences burble up into her consciousness. To write well demands of the author a great deal more than that.

Whew! That’s quite a laundry list of problems. Surely we’ve said everything that needs to be said. Well, no. Those are the little problems. There are also some big problems.

It is a general rule of genre fiction that when writing an action scene — and a Medieval battle is certainly an action scene — you must describe the events in strict chronological sequence. It’s poor technique to jump backward and forward in your authorial time machine in order to mention something you couldn’t fit in earlier or to hint about something that’s about to happen. When you do that, it jerks the reader out of the scene for a moment, because you’re forcing the reader to assemble the sliced-up segments of the movie. In an action scene one wants the reader to be fully immersed in what’s happening. If the reader has to stop and think, you’ve made a mistake. In more relaxed scenes, this rule can be relaxed somewhat, but only if you have a solid reason for putting the events out of sequence.

In the passage I’ve quoted, there is no action sequence at all. The author has laid down a bunch of disconnected sentences. Essentially, she is giving us a motionless snapshot of a complex scene. She is telling us about the scene rather than showing us the action. Show, don’t tell. She may have thought she was showing when she added all those highly colorful words, but in the most important sense she was telling, not showing.

Last but certainly not least, her viewpoint character, who is clearly the commanding officer of this unfortunate army, is not doing anything! He has sworn to kill the Daudur, and there she is, clearly visible, slaughtering his men, but how does he respond? He lies in the mud and watches passively. This is poor characterization — a valiant commander would not have failed to act. It’s also a failure of narrative. In plotted genre fiction, the protagonist must actively attempt to overcome his or her difficulties. A passive protagonist can work very well in literature, but in plotted genre fiction the reader expects the protagonist to confront the plot difficulties by taking action.

Once upon a time, there were gatekeepers. But then the digital revolution opened the floodgates. Nowadays, anybody can publish a novel, and a lot of anybodies do. As Samuel Morse once remarked, “What hath God wrought?”

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1 Response to Shooting Fish in a Barrel

  1. mfidelman says:

    It was a dark and stormy night,
    and the droogies were at play…

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