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Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Mailvox: bad science fiction

In which examples are requested:
Normally I try to improve my writing by reading lots of good quality writing, hoping that will come out in my own. But I'm wondering if any sort of list of bad, "don't do this" examples (I mean in terms of writing quality, not ideological leanings) would come easily to mind for you that would be instructive for those of us who want to improve our own writing.

It would be very helpful, for me at least, to then see if any of those bad writing habits or tendencies reveal themselves in my own work, and train myself out of them.
I go back to the four elements of a book: CSSC. Characters, Story, Style, and Concepts. In decreasing order of importance, those are the most important elements.

Characters come first. The huge success of Rowling, Tolkien, Lewis, and Cooper stem from their heightened ability to create characters about whom we care. Therefore, the first example of what not to do should be those that suffer from poor characterization.

Go ahead, name three.

Story is the second most important element. You can have a pretty good book where the story makes no sense, so long as the characters are of sufficient interest. An even worse book would have poor characters and a generic or nonexistent story.

Name three more.

Style comes third. This is where we tend to most notably part company with the Pink SF crowd. They put style first, except when they put message above that. (Note: I did not say concept, but message. The latter is a subset of the former.)
But if you've got poor characters, a generic or nonexistent story, and bad style, now it's getting pretty grim.

And three more.

Concept includes everything from Very Important Message to worldbuilding. And if you've got poor characters, a generic or nonexistent story, bad style, and a Very Important Message in a generic world, you're approaching the nadir, which in my opinion is best represented by Mercedes Lackey.

Read Arrows of the Queen if you want to know how best not to do it.

Talia, a young runaway, is made a herald at the royal court after she rescues one of the legendary Companions. When she uncovers a plot to seize the throne, Talia must use her empathic powers to save the queen.

Labels: ,

106 Comments:

Blogger JAU June 02, 2015 2:40 PM  

Ha! Shortly after I met my Ex wife she gave me Arrows of the Queen as it was one of her favorite books. I did not draw the correct conclusions at the time.

Blogger Super Snake (VFM #239) June 02, 2015 2:44 PM  

And if you have "poor characters, a generic or nonexistent story, bad style, and a Very Important Message in a generic world", then it might as well be an opinionated newspaper editorial, written by Ms. Sarah J. White (Ph.D. of Women's Studies).

Anonymous patrick kelly June 02, 2015 2:46 PM  

re: Talia...

Sounds like lame video game fan fiction.....popular with 14 year old girls.......

Blogger Cogitans Iuvenis June 02, 2015 2:52 PM  

Don't you get it? It isn't that she just has really good empathetic powers, she has emphatic powers which are on a whole other order of feelsies.

Blogger Feather Blade June 02, 2015 3:01 PM  

Go to a fan fiction website, click on any story whose description says "i am not good at summeries, plez R&R".

You will have more examples of what not to do than you could ever stomach.

Anonymous Aviendha June 02, 2015 3:03 PM  

Talia...
and then Ms. Winters empathic powers attracted the interest of the corp from whom she narrowly escaped to a station at the fifth Lagrangian point...

Blogger Dexter June 02, 2015 3:07 PM  

Go read any of those Star Trek books by Glenn Hauman.

So painfully bad in every category - Characters, Story, Style, and Concepts.

And that's just the writing quality.

As for the ideological leanings... "Klingon-Jewish Wedding" says it all.

Blogger t.c. June 02, 2015 3:17 PM  

For me, Goodkind is a good representation of what not to do. I loved them when first read them, at a younger age, but they did not age well with me. In addition, by the sixth book on, his "Concept" overtook characters, story, and style. He's pretty much the most SJWish of people who would disagree with a lot of SJW politics, but guilty of the same writing sins. Hell, I think "Naked Empire" had a 15-20 page speech straight out of Richard's mouth about the virtues of the death penalty. Which is fine if that's your politics, but when it becomes the plot of the book...

Anonymous BGS June 02, 2015 3:22 PM  

Talia must use her empathic powers to save the queen.

The hero is literally a psycho b1tch, I never really understood the need to write women that are mental in a way that doesn't reflect reality

Blogger Rantor June 02, 2015 3:26 PM  

Oh wow, the power of empathy, which is what exactly? I mean, I have seen Taliban blown away by a gunship, and there is this slight bad feeling, cause you know they didn't have a chance and they had no clue that death was raining from above, before it was too late, and then one or two try to run away, and the gunners take them too. They had no chance, it wasn't fair. That sudden moment of empathy had the power to do what?

So work was over we'd go to the Brit bar and complain about the chow hall or how the bar only served Bushmills, and our day was done.

Anonymous NorthernHamlet June 02, 2015 3:27 PM  

These are worked backward.

1. Create extended justification for the elements in your narrative.

2. Have your characters have opinions on other characters which differ and even contradict as they unfold during the plot.

3. Use metaphoric wayward points throughout your narrative to bring the reader back and guide them. There are many tricks that can be developed here.

Blogger VD June 02, 2015 3:29 PM  

These are worked backward.

It's not a how-to, it's simply a list of most important to least important. I'm not saying to start with the characters.

Anonymous Tom June 02, 2015 3:30 PM  

Vox,

How much should a first time author get his book read before submitting it to a publisher?

I used to submit stuff to the Friday Challenge and absolutely loved that forum and way that people would give feedback. I wish I could find someway to get that kind of feedback on the fantasy novel I'm finishing up.

Blogger Cataline Sergius June 02, 2015 3:33 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Anonymous Huckleberry (#87) -- est. 1977 June 02, 2015 3:34 PM  

If you come across "what are your names, Wayfarers" you're on the right path to wrong prose.

Anonymous NorthernHamlet June 02, 2015 3:38 PM  

VD,

I misspoke. My 3 were building there, but worked backward from poor writing, ie they're tips for quality writing, but not in the "don't do" format requested. But so their converse would be the ones to avoid.

Blogger S1AL June 02, 2015 3:45 PM  

Hm. I put concept above style for SF specifically. If I'm reading idea fiction, I don't care if the style is mediocre.

Or maybe it's more accurate to say that I don't care about style being anything more than mediocre. Bad form can be a major drag.

Blogger Cail Corishev June 02, 2015 3:48 PM  

The problem with using really bad books as examples is that they're so unpleasant to read, and if they're bad in every way, it might be hard to spot specific faults. Maybe it would be more useful (though more challenging) to pick books that are generally good enough to enjoy reading, but weak in one of these areas.

For instance, the characters in the early Foundation stories are pretty cookie-cutter and forgettable, but the story and concepts are so good they make up for it, while the style may not be fancy but is plenty readable.

Anonymous KC9ZNR June 02, 2015 3:48 PM  

Especially if WorldCon goes badly against us.

I am curious what you would define as "badly against"

Blogger Corvinus June 02, 2015 3:52 PM  

With believable, sympathetic characters being the most important part, it's quite obvious that SF/F written by Gammas, Omegas, and women will automatically be of poorer quality, or at least have an extra hurdle. The ability and talent to write a good story doesn't seem to vary much by sociosexual rank or sex, but the other three elements are tougher for them.

Omegas may do fine with concepts and style, but are likely to be weak at writing believable characters. Women may do well enough with characters (especially women and children, which they are instinctively more understanding of), but would struggle vs. men with style and concepts. Gammas are probably somewhere in between Omegas and women with their handicaps, due to their mix of female and low-value male traits, but their tendency to write in a way that appeals to other Gammas will by itself be an extra handicap.

Anonymous KC9ZNR June 02, 2015 3:53 PM  

By what I mean what result. My fingers skip words sometimes

Blogger VD June 02, 2015 4:09 PM  

How much should a first time author get his book read before submitting it to a publisher?

A lot. Most first books aren't very good.

Anonymous Jill June 02, 2015 4:15 PM  

Ideas are #1 for me. That's what I look for in books. Not important crusades, but interesting concepts that make me think. For example, I just read PKD's Counter-Clock World. The book revolves around time moving in retrograde; however, that isn't the crux, but rather a prop for the main idea of being born again and becoming like children. Since he was a great writer, he could develop the characters and stories around his ideas and create a kind of integrative flow between the elements. Another writer that begins with concept and has integrative flow with exceptional characters, etc. is Lois Lowry. She is one of still-living great storytellers, IMO. The integrative flow is crucial. Most writers are only great w/ one aspect of story (characters, plots, style, or concept), and they will only become truly great if they can develop the integrative flow.

Blogger BigFire June 02, 2015 4:18 PM  

re: t.c.

You got further than I did. Never got pass 100 pages for Goodkin's first book. Never looked back.

Blogger jay c June 02, 2015 4:50 PM  

Kevin J. Anderson's The Dark Between the Stars

Characters: 1/4. He's got characters. Lots of 'em. And all with almost the exact same non-existent personality.
Story: 2/4. I'm sure there's a story in there, but I was still having trouble finding it after 60+ pages.
Style: 3/4. He has too many POV characters, but his writing is technically competent. Probably a lot better than anything I could write.
Concept: 3/4. An interestingly complex universe. I don't understand why there would be mining operations in the very distant future, though. Why are there no replicators? Why human miners? Unfortunately, this is a critical plot point. Maybe I just didn't read far enough.

Overall, 2.25 / 4. Do not emulate.

Blogger jay c June 02, 2015 4:54 PM  

I wrote a couple of stories last year. They might not have been very good stories, but, as a recovering gamma, I take some pride in the fact that my gamma alpha-readers couldn't relate to my protagonists.

Anonymous Gx1080 June 02, 2015 5:06 PM  

I find hilarious when people write characters that are "poor victims of circumstance and bullying".....and make them, you guessed it, unlikeable bullies.

Blogger Sean June 02, 2015 5:07 PM  

I just finished a book so bad I almost couldn't believe I was reading it. I finished it because my friend who I share much of the same interests said it was so good that he didn't want to finish it because he didn't want to leave the world. It never got better, in fact somehow it got dumber the longer it went.

It has 4500 5 star reviews on Amazon which makes me think that we may have no hope for saving SciFi, but if you want to read a book that completely misses on all 4 points that Vox lists, check out Ready Player One.

Blogger Sean June 02, 2015 5:18 PM  

In regards to Character, how important is the villain of the story?

Blogger AmyJ June 02, 2015 5:34 PM  

@Sean

You did better than I did, I couldn't even finish that one it was so painful to read

Blogger Sean June 02, 2015 5:43 PM  

@AmyJ How did over 4500 people read that piece of crap and think it 5 star worthy?

Blogger Sean June 02, 2015 5:47 PM  

What I mean about the villain, is a strong antagonist more or less important than a strong protagonist? I can't think of an instance where I deeply cared about the main characters without having a strong antagonist. It might be the antagonist that makes a story something special above just good.

Blogger automatthew June 02, 2015 5:53 PM  

Sean, you have to believe the villain could actually exist.

I bail out of bad fiction early, so I can't rate any of those. But there are good novels with serious flaws, according to this scheme. Let's try one I've re-read recently.

Protector, by Larry Niven

This may be my favorite of Niven's solo novels. The concepts and story do more for me than those in Ringworld, which to be frank, is a book that just bothers me. The non-human characters in Ringworld are far superior. Nessus and Speaker-to-Animals: who could ask for more?

Characters: better than usual for Niven, which isn't saying much.

The girl is cardboard, with her only memorable characteristic being the quintessential Belter's abhorrence of relying on anyone else. The Brennan-monster is well conceived and depicted. Truesdale strikes me as one of Niven's more believable humans. Excellent depiction of Pak superintelligence, as viewed from the outside.

Everyone else is there because plot.

2/5

Story: Plot is excellent, execution mildly troubled. Very rushed.

I don't know how one could do much better, given Niven's constraints (one of which was doubtless length). The novel faces the same basic challenge as John Wright's ESCHATON sequence, or Steinbeck's East of Eden: a story requiring the passage of long amounts of time, with different leading characters.

3/5

Style: Adequate, or a little better. The prose disappears in reading, which is a good thing. Almost nothing in the prose either threw me out of the story or merited re-reading for its beauty.

3/5

Concepts: Killer. Amazing ideas at every level.

5/5

Blogger Jack Ward June 02, 2015 5:56 PM  

@jay c June 02, 2015 4:50 PM

I'm deeply into Hugo reading. Dark is due sometime soon. I doubt your analysis has or will warp my opinion. I've already decided Three Body Problem will get my vote. For something to kick it loose would have to be Eco or Heinlein like.

The first sequel to Three Body is due out sometime later this summer according to Amazon. I suspect I will be reading a fair amount of that author.

I will have to say that a few of the shorts in Andromeda Spaceways mag are interesting. Fixing Falls had a nice plot twist though I think the concept may have been used somewhere else. First Strike had a terrific concept that was sort of ruined [for me at least] when the precious snowflake decided to do something that might mean the end of Man. No body, exception SJW progressive, would have had the main character be that flaky.
Separating the chaff. Separating the chaff.

Blogger Floyd Looney June 02, 2015 6:00 PM  

I don't think my ebook is bad. It might be a bit rough and need polishing I suppose.

Blogger Hammerli280 June 02, 2015 6:01 PM  

I think a good deal will also depend on length of story. The longer the story, the tighter the world creation has to be.

Anonymous A Paradigm Is More Than Twenty Cents June 02, 2015 6:07 PM  

Read the excerpt out loud to a young high school lass. Average of three eyerolls per sentence, with a loud "Ohhh, empathic powers…" dwindling to a tired sigh at the end. Didn't believe it was Science Fiction, but rather insisted it must be either Young Adult new fiction, or someone's fanfic.

Yes. A teenaged high school girl deemed that excerpt "fanfic". And not good fanfic, either.

Anonymous A Paradigm Is More Than Twenty Cents June 02, 2015 6:14 PM  

Somewhere there is a box of books containing at least two examples of the fiction of Robert Tralins; The Cosmozoids is one of them. I'm tempted to take some of that drek, dress it up in SJW froo-froo and see if it could be peddled.

Because Robert "Flaming Helium" Tralins was one of the worst SF writers of the 50's and 60's, which is saying rather a lot.

Blogger buwaya June 02, 2015 6:18 PM  

Empathy is an interesting quality.
Its more useful than many give it credit for, mainly because they misunderstand it.
Some of the more empathetic people ever - Cortez, Napoleon, Bismarck, T.E.Lawrence.
All were able to understand their enemies and allies to an extraordinary degree, predict their behavior, and find ways to persuade. Empathy, understood correctly, hasn't much to do with ones own feelings, nor has it got anything to do with compassion, or any moral value.
The Japanese in WWII were seriously deficient in empathy, to their cost.

Blogger buwaya June 02, 2015 6:19 PM  

A good book about empathic powers - Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Blogger YIH June 02, 2015 6:21 PM  

Thought I'd pass along some good news:
The Vikes gave All Day a killer contract.
Hopefully they'll let him try to live up to such a deal.
Too bad they didn't let him try to beat Dickerson.

Blogger AmyJ June 02, 2015 6:23 PM  

It boggles the mind

Anonymous Mike M. (#315) June 02, 2015 6:35 PM  

I'll toss in a few other ideas.

1. Avoid the Mary Sue. Are you REALLY that interesting a character? And one who fits into the needs of the plot? A cameo appearance might be OK.

2. Avoid the fads. I once read a SF book by a writer I won't shame by naming who had his characters using feng shui. Big fad...PRECISELY when the book was written.

3. Avoid the hackneyed tropes. My personal bete noir at this moment is the self-aware computer. Unless you've got a radically new take on it, aviod the trend.

4. Mine good writers. Not copy, mine. Good authors will take an idea someone else came up with, ask, "What if THIS happened?", and take it in a different direction. And sometimes it's the little things - what happens to Star Trek if you take the transporter and subspace radio away?

Blogger buwaya June 02, 2015 6:47 PM  

How does one write a realistic, testosterone laden, properly masculine SF novel on a theme of empathy ?
Some of the best material isn't in literature but in history.
I highly recommend the works of real American guerrillas, who all pretty much discovered the same lessons - they wouldn't have survived otherwise -
Fertig (Keats), Volckmann, Lapham, Ramsey, Hunt, (many others, its quite a literature) and their chronicler, Norling.
This stuff is just chock full of material for a novelist.

Blogger Blume June 02, 2015 7:05 PM  

The right to arm bears short stories by Gordon r Dickinson use that concept of empathy.

Blogger Achillea June 02, 2015 7:10 PM  

Talia...
and then Ms. Winters empathic powers attracted the interest of the corp from whom she narrowly escaped to a station at the fifth Lagrangian point...


ISWYDT

Anonymous NorthernHamlet June 02, 2015 7:10 PM  

Mike M

"What if THIS happened?"

This is good advice. I'd also extend it to apply to character creation... What if whomever wasn't exactly like this, but instead like this.

Anonymous A Paradigm Is More Than Twenty Cents June 02, 2015 7:13 PM  

I have a question. Suppose at the very beginning of a tale, it really was night, and thus it was dark, and in addition a storm was raging.

What to do?

Blogger Dexter June 02, 2015 7:17 PM  

I just finished a book so bad I almost couldn't believe I was reading it... It never got better, in fact somehow it got dumber the longer it went.

It has 4500 5 star reviews on Amazon which makes me think that we may have no hope for saving SciFi, but if you want to read a book that completely misses on all 4 points that Vox lists, check out Ready Player One.


This was exactly how I felt about Wool.

Why do so many people like this boring POS?

Anonymous Mike M. (#315) June 02, 2015 7:24 PM  

Another tip I'd use would be to give your major characters faults and quirks. Not to the point where they are implausible for the part, just for depth...and maybe it comes in handy at some point.

One thing, though...a biography is NOT a personality. I saw this a lot beck when I played RPGs. Players with dull-as-dishwater characters who thought a biography was character development. Take a hint from the original Star Trek series, which created very memorable characters with a few bold brush strokes.

Blogger Danby June 02, 2015 7:44 PM  

uppose at the very beginning of a tale, it really was night, and thus it was dark, and in addition a storm was raging.

As it happens, I'm working on a project that opens on a very stormy, although not actually dark afternoon. Like this;
Sterkfotur levered himself up another foot in the rigging. "Gutless men" he thought "Afraid to go up top just because of a little blow."
He braced himself and clung tightly to the hempen ropes as a towering wave, sixty feet high at least, slammed into the small ship, reaching him even here so far above the deck. The ship heeled over wildly, the end of the yard dipping into the water on the lea side. It seemed to Sterk that the mast before him was horizontal. The ship righted itself almost as abruptly, and Sterk clawed his way up another foot.

BTW, nobody steal that. It's a work in progress.

Blogger automatthew June 02, 2015 7:49 PM  

I propose a fifth criterion: Dialogue.

Possibly it's a subset of Character, but I can think of counter-examples. Edgar Rice Burroughs did Character well, but his Dialogue makes me cringe.

In defense of ERB's characterizations: La of Opar is memorably different from the princess of Mars. The men are also distinguishable; here's a brief list of those I feel like I know from the Tarzan novels, even if I can't remember their names:

* his rival, Clayton
* the chief Russian bad guy
* Russian sidekick Paulvitch
* Tarzan's French friend. D'Arnot?
* Jane's father
* Jane's father's friend and caretaker
* the Swedish ship's cook who helps Jane

The words which escape the barriers of their teeth are distressingly embarrassing. But I know who these folk are anyway.

Blogger automatthew June 02, 2015 7:59 PM  

Danby, if you can find a willing audience, read your work aloud. In reading to my children and wife, I have found that many authors require on-the-fly revision to make their prose speakable. If it's hard to say aloud, it's likely to cause hiccups even in silent reading.

Rhythm matters, too. Sometimes I alter phrasings just to make them sound better when spoken.

Anonymous A Paradigm Is More Than Twenty Cents June 02, 2015 8:44 PM  

Oh, Danby, too many words.

"It was a dark and stormy afternoon. Sterkfotur climbed into the rigging. It was wet". See? So easy a beagle on top of a doghouse could to it.

Happy to help!

Blogger Danby June 02, 2015 8:45 PM  

@Paradigm

Thanks for the help! That must be what my Jr High English teacher was talking about when she said my prose was "too descriptive".

Blogger Longstreet June 02, 2015 8:55 PM  

Lee side Danby. 2 e's, no a.

Blogger Technomad June 02, 2015 10:15 PM  

I have commented that Mercedes Lackey writes for adolescent females of both sexes and all ages.

Blogger beerme #0183 June 02, 2015 10:26 PM  

I just finished an author's first novel that seemingly followed your rankings. His characters were good enough to overcome any issues in the other areas and it reminded me of early Larry Correia books. I highly recommend Still Falling by Martin Wilsey.

Blogger maniacprovost June 02, 2015 10:43 PM  

I'm reading the Bless Your Mechanical Heart anthology that came with the Hugo packet, and I just finished a decent story that was ruined at the end. The monk, who was constantly breaking his vows, made a completely unmonklike decision at the end, seemingly in service of the author's nihilism or an uninspired attempt to have an impactful ending.

Blogger Danby June 02, 2015 10:45 PM  

@Longstreet,
Sorry to take you out of the story

Blogger Eric June 02, 2015 10:59 PM  

I know it makes me look like a suck-up, but let me just say I stopped reading Old Man's War about 1/4 way through because the characters weren't developed at all. They were placeholders to drive Scalzi's concept of a war fought by old people in young bodies. Really, if you write characters well you don't even need a story, but no amount of story or concepts is going to get your book above mediocre without character development.

I recall Pournelle commenting on his blog he didn't write short stories because the character development required in a short story was just as much work as that of a full-length novel and short stories don't pay well. That's sort of the impression I got over years of reading Isaac Azimov's (back when it was good) - a lot of good short stories are just character sketches.

Blogger maniacprovost June 02, 2015 11:08 PM  

As the fragile blue jewel of a planet spun, like a pendant upon the favorite, if not the costliest, necklace of a fair woman-child in the first and sweetest dawn of love, it turned one facet always into the warm, radiant, shining sun, but another into the pitch black void in which it hung; and although the stars graced the darkness like diamond dust upon satin, they were invisible from the night lands, for the rotation of the Earth, its frequency a sweet note in the symphony of the spheres, yet brought unceasing, violent thermodynamic processes to life, to fight bitter wars with floods and lightning, sound and fury oft signifying nothing, but only drowning out the divine music that accompanies the serene dance of the heavens.

Blogger Anthony June 02, 2015 11:09 PM  

Mike M. - " give your major characters faults and quirks.".

Failure to do this makes Ayn Rand's protagonists flat. Her secondary characters and villains are great, though.

Blogger maniacprovost June 02, 2015 11:12 PM  

That's from my unwritten children's book, Nestor the Unicorn Boy: A Primer for Little Gentlemen

Anonymous Swoggler June 02, 2015 11:26 PM  

I love that t.c. led with Goodkind. The man is probably a political fellow traveler but that doesn't change the fact that his messaging became way too heavy handed in the Sword of Truth series. Which book was it that had the massacre of the SJWs? The ones that lived in the hidden valley? That should have been a fun read right? I just felt manipulated. So that should go in the "bad style" three.

And the Sword of Truth qualifies for bad characters too. After a while, I realized Richard and Kahlan were operating under soap opera rules. To wit, "never let your main characters be happy for more than a few hours. Keep them separated. Have them keep secrets from each other. And above all keep the catastrophes coming!"

Anonymous Jack Amok June 02, 2015 11:28 PM  

What I mean about the villain, is a strong antagonist more or less important than a strong protagonist?

Think of the story this way:

1 - Villain faces a problem
2 - Villain comes up with a plan to solve his problem
3 - Villain starts implementing his plan
4 - Villain's plan creates a problem for the Hero
5 - Hero comes up with a plan to stop villain's plan
6 - One or the other wins.

Steps 1 through 3 happen before Chapter 1 starts.

So, the villain has to be a credible character with realistic behaviors or else the hero's problems seem fake.

Blogger luagha June 03, 2015 12:01 AM  

What is the purpose of the first sentence?

To get the readers to read the second sentence.

What is the purpose of the second sentence?

To get the readers to read the rest of the paragraph.

What is the purpose of the first paragraph? Etc, etc.

Anonymous Swoggler June 03, 2015 12:07 AM  

For consideration in the "Bad Characters" trio: King of Foxes by Raymond Feist

I tried really hard to like the Conclave of Shadows series even though the King's Buccaneer wasn't great and Krondor: The Betrayal was appallingly bad (yes, I know it was a video game adaptation). I thought the Magician trilogy hit a home run and the Daughter of the Empire series (with Janny Wurts) was even better. (Take note SJW lurkers! We manly-men can enjoy books about strong women too...if said women are believable well-conceived characters. Mara doesn't have to go toe to toe with warriors to kick more ass more effectively than many men in fantasy fiction.)

So with "King of Foxes" I wanted desperately to recapture some of that Feist lightning in a bottle. The world was well built. The story was fine. But the characters had motivations that were stupid and poorly developed and the characters' "voices" seemed to change from chapter to chapter making me wonder if there was more than one ghost writer working on this. The political machinations that helped set the frame were hackneyed and one-dimensional. Where are the wheels within wheels that make for more complex character development?

This book drove me away from Midkemia for good.

Blogger Cee June 03, 2015 12:13 AM  

That's from my unwritten children's book, Nestor the Unicorn Boy: A Primer for Little Gentlemen
Please stop torturing that Markov chain generator. It never did anyone any harm.

Blogger maniacprovost June 03, 2015 12:16 AM  

Feist's "Darkness at Sethanon" was so bad it made me hate epic fantasy. True story.

Blogger maniacprovost June 03, 2015 12:26 AM  

Cee, there will also be large text with a tl;dr translation. "It was a dark and stormy night." Unfortunately the comment system won't let me post the verbose version of "See Spot Run. Out, Damn Spot!" I think the footnotes put it over the character limit.

Blogger Cee June 03, 2015 12:28 AM  

I think the footnotes put it over the character limit.
Now you're teasing me. That's just cruel. (Break it into two comments. Do it.)

Blogger Cee June 03, 2015 12:31 AM  

But also, I'd illustrate that book. Or do illuminated capitals on the absurd prolix text which will surely take the place of illustrations.

OpenID docrampage June 03, 2015 12:41 AM  

One of the best science fiction books ever written is all about the hero defeating his enemies in large part through his extraordinary power of empathy: Ender's Game.

Anonymous A Paradigm Is More Than Twenty Cents June 03, 2015 12:53 AM  

I prefer Prince of Foxes circa 1947. Not the movie, mind you.

Blogger maniacprovost June 03, 2015 12:56 AM  

I have to get up in 5 hours to pander to one of our most annoying midwit customers who shall not be named, and I'm on a Nokia right now. Perhaps I can make it up off the top of my- I mean, get the excerpt from the manuscript tomorrow.

I do need an illustrator. My wife does digital art but I have doubts about her ability to render my ideas to the canvas. I told her, "just draw anything and I'll string it together into a story," but she ignored me as if it were said in jest.

Blogger John Wright June 03, 2015 2:29 AM  

Myself, I would subdivide the elements of story telling slightly differently: characters, plot, theme, style, setting, or, to put it in a more easily memorable list, who is doing what and why, described in what words, and where.

Science fiction must satisfy all the elements of muggle fiction but also one more: the setting in science fiction is a character. You world must differ from the real world in one element. If you draw out the poetical and magical mood of that element, you are writing fantasy; if you draw out the logical and speculative ramifications of that element, you are writing science fiction.

(As a good rule of thumb, remember that Dr Griffin, the Invisible Man from HG Wells must doff his clothing to turn invisible, because he is in a science fiction story, whereas Frodo the Invisible Hobbit must don a magic ring to turn invisible, because he is in a fantasy. As a logical but unexpected side effect, Dr Griffin leaves footprints in the snow and can be tracked by dogs; whereas in a mythical but unexpected side effect, Frodo can see the pale and haggard faces of the long dead sorcerer kings who are the ringwraiths surrounding him.)

The poet is a stage magician, attempting to invite or ensnare or seduce the reader into an act more like autohypnosis than anything else I can name, where the reader substitutes your make believe world for an afternoon for the real world.

This does not mean the make believe needs to be better than the real world, but it does mean it must be more dramatic.

Drama comes from someone (who) that wants something very badly indeed (what) for reasons that the reader understands (why) meeting opposition; and the someone either destroys himself trying (as in a tragedy) or overcomes the opposition in a way that is both logical and unforeseen, marrying the girl at the end of it (as in a comedy), or solving the case, surviving the disaster, gaining the goal, getting the egg of the roc, finding the holy grail, discovering Atlantis, avenging his father, growing into a man, and learning his lesson (as in a melodrama), or, in the most famous and best loved tales, saving his soul (as in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, or any other book so famous that exactly one zillion versions have been made of it, including one starring Daffy Duck.)

A likeable main character, one who provokes our pity or admiration, helps the process of reader autohypnosis more than any other element (which is why Harry Potter is an orphan, why Frodo Baggins wants to see dragons, or Taran Wanderer to forge swords, why Sparrowhawk of Gont is mocked the first time he attempts to summon fog) but even this is not absolutely necessary. But he must want his goal very much indeed (Gully Foyle is an unpleasant character, but when he says, 'I kill you filthy, Vorga!' we all know what he wants.) The opposition, whether it is nature, an antagonist natural or supernatural, a rival in love or battle, or whether the opposition is his own soul, must be a serious threat. Heroes face giants large as a tower, and space heroes face armored battlestations large as a moon. Something must be at stake, something the protagonist hence the reader cares about.

In science fiction, which tends to follow the model of detective stories which tends to use curt and journalistic prose, the wordsmithing, the actual poetry of the words used to capture the uncapturable, is often disregarded as secondary (there are exceptions, as Cordwainer Smith); in high fantasy the opposite is true, the language should be elevated, in sword and sorcery the prose should be purple, and, again there are exceptions (a sad amount of modern fantasy follows the model of curt modern journalistic prose).

And there are nine and ninety ways of constructing tribal lays. The selfsame element which pulls a reader into the elfish dream of the story in one type of story will push him out of it in another. But that is a matter of technique, which is a different topic.

Blogger The Overgrown Hobbit June 03, 2015 3:04 AM  

I go back to the four elements of a book: CSSC. Characters, Story, Style, and Concepts. In decreasing order of importance, those are the most important elements.

Nope. I know you're a first-rate editor Mr. Beale, but I do this for a living. (When was the last time a 14 year old boys stood up in room full of 50 or so of his peers and shouted out "I HAVE to have that book!" to you? This is what I do.) The order is:

Plot/story, character, setting, voice/style/concept/all that other stuff. And "voice/style/concept/all that other stuff" is small beer, relatively speaking.

That said: You'll never go broke underestimating the Power of Stupid, particularly as it flows from Big Academy. I just finished Ancillary Sword

Story is first rate. The big idea (Uber-Feminism = hijious oppression) is (possibly by accident, possibly Leckie is playing them) awesome. Everything else sucks hard vacuum.

Read a paragraph from Ancillary Sword at random. Then read any random paragraph from Merchanteers Luck or Cetaganda or The Disappeared (All women writing Space Opera, BTW). Go ahead. We live in the golden age of information and Google.Books is your friend.

Apparently: plot, sentence structure, narrative structure and proper punctuation are tools of the patriarchy. Go figure.

Blogger bruce June 03, 2015 3:16 AM  

@Buwaya- 'how does one write a properly masculine, testosterone-driven, SF novel on the theme of empathy?'

Flashman in Space. First, have George MacDonald Fraser's talent- . Thanks for the guerilla recommendations- Mosby's Memoirs are amazing. No wonder Edmund Wilson thought he was making up half the books he'd read. Mosby's 1872 hoax about 'how Robert E Lee really hated slavery' may have prevented a second Civil War, broke Reconstruction, and got Mosby a job for forty years- all while being obvious hooey to anyone who'd read Lee's Memoirs or met Lee.

@automatthew- Not every single spear-carrier in a story should do more than tote that spear. Protector is about Niven throwing ideas at you in double handfuls so fast all you can do is gape and grin. Characters exist to throw more ideas at you.

@Cail Corishev- on Good Bad Books- the Doc Savage books are as bad as possible while hacking to the letter of Lester Dent's Master Pulp Plot. All the characters and gadgets and plot twists are clever and charming and fun to read, but none are quite good enough to use by Lester Dent in stuff under his own name.

Blogger bruce June 03, 2015 3:16 AM  

@Buwaya- 'how does one write a properly masculine, testosterone-driven, SF novel on the theme of empathy?'

Flashman in Space. First, have George MacDonald Fraser's talent- . Thanks for the guerilla recommendations- Mosby's Memoirs are amazing. No wonder Edmund Wilson thought he was making up half the books he'd read. Mosby's 1872 hoax about 'how Robert E Lee really hated slavery' may have prevented a second Civil War, broke Reconstruction, and got Mosby a job for forty years- all while being obvious hooey to anyone who'd read Lee's Memoirs or met Lee.

@automatthew- Not every single spear-carrier in a story should do more than tote that spear. Protector is about Niven throwing ideas at you in double handfuls so fast all you can do is gape and grin. Characters exist to throw more ideas at you.

@Cail Corishev- on Good Bad Books- the Doc Savage books are as bad as possible while hacking to the letter of Lester Dent's Master Pulp Plot. All the characters and gadgets and plot twists are clever and charming and fun to read, but none are quite good enough to use by Lester Dent in stuff under his own name.

Blogger The Overgrown Hobbit June 03, 2015 3:16 AM  

Science fiction must satisfy all the elements of muggle fiction but also one more: the setting in science fiction is a character. You world must differ from the real world in one element. If you draw out the poetical and magical mood of that element, you are writing fantasy; if you draw out the logical and speculative ramifications of that element, you are writing science fiction.

I commented before having read what Mr. Wright's wrote. In SF the world/setting is the character, and SF readers will read "for character" first when that character is the world. So in that sense, Vox Day is right and I am wrong. Mea culpa!

I will add, however (and if I were a betting woman, Mr. Wright would agree) that aside from that (unique, btw to SFF) caveat, character is secondary to story. The proof is in the eternal popularity of stories wherein the main character (Beowulf, Cinderella, Heracles) is a cipher. Or more accurately, an archetype.

Story first. Get that right and your tale might well be immortal. No one reads Dante because they identify with the main character or because they're passionate supporters of Otto of Brunswick.

Blogger The Overgrown Hobbit June 03, 2015 3:34 AM  

N.B. An excellent essay about Style and Science Fiction may be found here: Style Is the Rocket

And if you're any kind of Randian libertoid (as am I) you'll go throw money at the author here

With apologies to Mr. Wright, who is my favorite living SF author, this is the chap who ought to be winning the Hugo: Related Works category for Death Carries a Camcorder

Blogger JP June 03, 2015 6:10 AM  

I don't have a specific example, but I absolutely hate it when an author obviously has no clue what he is talking about. For example when assault rifles are referred to as machine guns by a supposedly grizzled old army colonel. This also goes for other elements in the story like epic battles, political decisions or even just that your character is able to be fleet-footed while dressed out in chain mail and wielding a broad axe. If you don't believe it, the reader won't either.

OpenID eidolon1109 June 03, 2015 6:13 AM  

I found World War Z to be an interesting example of style getting in the way. The story is unique and interesting, and the characters are all well fleshed-out and different. Their situations make sense and they have interesting things to say. It seems like each vignette should be really great.

The problem is that every character has the same voice. The gruff ex-military guy and the scared girl dragged north by her parents and the crazy pilot who hears voices all sound like the same person speaking. I'd never noticed that problem in a book before. I wonder if that's a common problem for inexperienced writers.

I listened to an audiobook version and the problem was the same; even with different people reading the lines, it still felt like one voice. When you can't even create a memorable character when given Mark Hamill to voice it you've got a problem.

Anonymous Bz June 03, 2015 7:02 AM  

Characters, an interesting ensemble, is key for the practical writer. Consider Bujold, who one suspects stumbled onto Miles after writing a couple of Cordelia books. She suddenly was riding the tiger even though it seems fairly clear she's only marginally into MilSF herself.

Or the many series where you are basically catching up with the guys. Perhaps more common in the crime genre but hardly unknown in our own. Glen Cook is good at this. Elizabeth Moon has managed to spin a fine world from her Paksennarion books. The Honor Harrington series has to be one of those too. I'm sure there are more, but other duties call me away.

OpenID genericviews June 03, 2015 9:26 AM  

.Characters come first. The huge success of Rowling, Tolkien, Lewis, and Cooper stem from their heightened ability to create characters about whom we care--VD

Or like GRRM, get you to care about the characters and then kill them until the only characters left are the ones you want to see die.

Anonymous Ain June 03, 2015 3:06 PM  

What comes to mind is TV writing projects that Kurt Sutter's involved with, the primary one being Sons of Anarchy. I find the stories to usually be enticing, but the characters totally unsympathetic to the point that I couldn't care less what happens to them. It's not that they're shallow, in fact sometimes they're very deep. But they're not heroes - they're anything but. The characters aren't badly written, they're flawed to such an extent to make them unlikable people.

Blogger SirHamster (#201) June 03, 2015 3:10 PM  

The problem is that every character has the same voice. The gruff ex-military guy and the scared girl dragged north by her parents and the crazy pilot who hears voices all sound like the same person speaking. I'd never noticed that problem in a book before. I wonder if that's a common problem for inexperienced writers.

I skimmed a few of the WWZ vignettes when I chanced upon a physical copy, and inauthentic character voices is what stood out to me. The most memorable example was the Chinese Communist veteran - he sounded too modern and Western to me in speech and thinking.

I don't know why I have any idea what a Chinese Communist should sound like, but I know that the book's portrayal was not it.

Anonymous Ain June 03, 2015 4:01 PM  

1. Avoid the Mary Sue. Are you REALLY that interesting a character? And one who fits into the needs of the plot? A cameo appearance might be OK.

Not all Mary Sues are created equal. Harry Dresden and Owen Zastava Pitt both have Mary Sue elements, but neither ruin their stories. Even Boreas reminds me of John C. Wright, though I'm not as sure about the later example as the others.

Blogger maniacprovost June 03, 2015 9:31 PM  

Even Boreas reminds me of John C. Wright

The spanking was a dead giveaway.

Blogger owlish June 03, 2015 10:09 PM  

Reading through the comments, I have a few thoughts:
1) Talia is a psychic empath, not someone good at human empathy. I like Mercedes Lackey's style of writing, I just can't take every single book she writes having a Very Special Message about sexual abuse of one form or another.
2) I started reading Ready Player One, stopped about a third of the way through because I was so annoyed at the world building. Middle class [or at least working poor] people live in trailers, 2-3 families per trailer, stacked 20 high? And the cause of this is global warming? For Japan, maybe, but this was the US.
3) I'm not sure how Harry Dresden is a Mary Sue- he fails at various things, and there are several people/beings who are more powerful than he is.

Blogger Cail Corishev June 03, 2015 10:59 PM  

I'm not sure how Harry Dresden is a Mary Sue

He's not. A Mary Sue is both A) a stand-in for the author, and B) far too good to be true. The concept originally came from female Trekkie fanfic authors who would insert themselves into the story as a crew-member who was gorgeous, brilliant, loved by everyone, fought over by Kirk and Spock, and who ends up saving the universe. At least.

Harry may or may not be an author avatar, but he's not too good to be true. Murphy is too good to be true at times, but she's not an author avatar, so there's no Mary Sue.

Blogger automatthew June 03, 2015 11:51 PM  

Troll Hunter challenge:

Scoobius posted on this thread. What name is he using now?

Blogger automatthew June 04, 2015 12:05 AM  

Butcher intentionally torments Dresden. If I were writing a Mary Sue, that's how I'd do it.

Blogger Cail Corishev June 04, 2015 12:19 AM  

What name is he using now?

Surprisingly, I'm not sure. Did he post three times?

Blogger Cee June 04, 2015 12:49 AM  

I do need an illustrator. My wife does digital art but I have doubts about her ability to render my ideas to the canvas. I told her, "just draw anything and I'll string it together into a story," but she ignored me as if it were said in jest.
Ha!

Sadly, despite my brash offer, I'm not good at much more than stupid doodles. Although there is surely a time and place for those.

Blogger maniacprovost June 04, 2015 1:07 AM  

OK, I feel bad for hijacking the thread, since what follows has nothing to do with the topic at hand, which is examples of bad writing:

Here we are- declaims the narrative spirit which drives man’s rationalizing faculty to make pithy aphorisms of inscrutable truths and simple tales of universal epics- Here we are at last, to gaze upon the tragicomic morality play which presents itself to us as a tableau of simultaneous events, like an ironic tapestry woven by the youngest Fate whilst her elder sisters spread it across Einstein’s grave and cut his string, and lo, before us the twin objects of our fascination meet and entangle at a distance as one races desperately against those twin gods or devils, Time and Mortality, through a thicket toward light, air and space, and the other stands amongst these triumvirate spirits of physical freedom, but wishes nothing more than to go to the succor of the first[1].
Burst forth! oh fleetest of foot, noblest of athletes, noble and beloved prince of the underbrush in whom the many lesser inhabitants of the hidden world amongst the leaves emplace their admiration and their trust; Burst forth, first, in a second or a third, if you can, or split time by the efforts of your divine quickness into enough tiny moments that you can escape the wall of thorns, of brambles, the dam of vegetation that holds back a flood of emotions that we dare not unleash prematurely and doom us[2].
Let each of us now, separated by time, by circumstance, by the thin veil of reality which makes us fiction to your eyes and you figments of our minds’ wandering, join our voices, either inner or external, loud or still and small, pure and trusting or jaded but hopeful. to aid Nestor in his his timeless[3] quest - Burst forth!

Blogger maniacprovost June 04, 2015 1:08 AM  

[1] The way in which the circumstance presented itself was providential, as the next section’s prayers for intercession in the flow of causality were foreshadowed at the moment they were made.

[2] These words were uttered, in a sense, by Nestor himself, if one were to plumb and catalogue the entirety of the thoughts that whirled through his mind like an ill wind, to take them and sort them out like papers recovered from an unlucky gust and placed back into their rightful ordering, following from the sense of the words themselves and not from the nonexistent numbering, to then translate that collection of perceptions, intuitions, and sense-impressions into its closest analogue in the imperfect common tongue which is, nonetheless, our only means of doing so; in that sense, he himself cried for Spot to burst forth! with every fiber of his being straining to aid the creature by force or moral support, though his tongue was tied and his pleas for intervention by the divine hidden nature of the rabbit were strangled. This interpretation is as good as any other which could be devised, for the simple reason that Spot himself could not hear the heartfelt words which were spoken to him, but felt them in his own, sympathetic muscle.

[3] The pantheistic nature of the multiverse is masked by our solipsism as idle fancy, but unmasked thusly: that Nestor’s adventures as child and man are forever frozen in the literary present, but equally so is yours to him; symmetry demands conservation, thus proving that time itself is an illusion.


tl;dr translation:
See Spot Run! Out, dammed Spot! Out, I say!

Blogger maniacprovost June 04, 2015 1:12 AM  

Left page: fox chasing a bunny twith a spot on his eye.
Center, a babbling stream.
Right page: Nestor is in a glade, and sees the bunny running.

Anonymous Jack Amok June 04, 2015 1:41 AM  

Scoobius posted on this thread. What name is he using now?

Did he claim to be female?

Blogger automatthew June 04, 2015 10:03 AM  

Jack Amok got it.

Blogger automatthew June 04, 2015 11:52 AM  

Jack Amok: I'm going to retract the claim that the commenter in question is scoobius. She's legit, so far as I can tell, with years of history on the web.

The style and tone really do resemble scoobs, though.

Blogger Cail Corishev June 04, 2015 12:04 PM  

Sheesh, I thought you meant you had identified him definitively by IP or something. You made me doubt the accuracy of my Troll Detector!

Blogger automatthew June 05, 2015 12:24 AM  

Cail, do not be afraid. There's a chance that we're right. And if we are, scoobs is weirder than we ever thought.

Blogger Joe Katzman June 07, 2015 2:40 PM  

This was a very popular series, but the Thomas Covenant books fell really flat with me. The main character was utterly unlikeable, and the story is initially as confused as the character, so that was no help. The style was good, and there were occasional interesting bits. On the other hand, the overall Concept struck me as kind of weak and never got better.

I never quite got what people saw in it. If the book has defenders here, I'd be happy to hear what I missed in it.

Blogger Cail Corishev June 07, 2015 6:06 PM  

Joe, I'll use Vox's categories, and I'm only talking about the first two trilogies.

Characters: They are some of the most intensely vivid characters I've read. They feel like full individuals, even the fairly minor ones like Atiaran. Mhoram has to be in my top 5 characters ever, maybe a tie for #1. Foamfollower seems like a major character, despite being missing for about half of the first trilogy. The whole point of the Haruchai is that they don't show any emotions, yet some of the most emotional scenes and deepest themes involve them. And while Covenant isn't particularly likable, he's not gratuitously unlikable. I empathize with him far more than with many GRRM characters. (Heck, I empathize with Foul more than with some GRRM characters.) Great character writing.

Story: The story is straightforward; I had no trouble understanding it when I was 15. I suppose there's room for a lot of difference in personal taste here, but it works for me. It hangs together, with Covenant's situation as an outcast leper making sense, as do the events in the Land and the way he gets dragged into them. In the second series, the Sunbane and Foul's new strategy follow logically from what we know of Foul from the first series, and Linden's enlistment by the Creator fits into that. The story pulled me in completely and always made sense to me.

Style: This is probably where it loses a lot of people. The number of vocabulary words is kind of a running joke among fans. Donaldson is able to write with simpler language (see his The Man Who books), but here, with a protagonist who's a writer and who thinks in grandiose, apocalyptic terms, set in an archaic sort of land, it works. The "foreign" words like aliantha, clingor, and orcrest add to the flavor without overdoing it. The style works great for me, but I can see how it would turn some people off.

Concepts: A leper tempted by the deadly fantasy of becoming a hero. The question of whether it matters how you behave in your dreams. The helplessness of innocence and the power of guilt. The hubris of claiming perfect service to an ideal, and the completeness of its downfall. To name a few. The concepts are big, deep, and developed; but I guess after that it depends on whether they appeal to you. On world-building, the Land seems like a real place, and in the second series, most of the places they visit do too, yet it feels like there's a real world beyond the specifics we see.

There's my defense of it, if you want to call it that. I don't think in terms of trying to convince someone to start liking a book he already read and didn't like; it seems to me you either like it or you don't, and the reasons are often hard to pin down. But since you asked, that's my very short version.

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