Advice and Rules for Technical Prose Or: Writing Advice I Picked Up Reading a Bad Novel

A Demon in Silver by R.S. Ford is, in some grand scope of literature from on high, not the worst book ever written by any stretch; but I laughed my abs stiff reading it. And to the author’s credit (before I savagely bash his work) I am rarely compelled to finish a novel I didn’t like or thought was bad and, rarer still, write about the dreck as a mad composer. The last being the legacidal Less Than Zero so props to Ford there.

To put my cards on the table I have a soft spot in my heart for so-bad-it’s-good films and TV, yet this is my first front-to-back, page-to-page yakfest and I look forward to the sequel. Compounding contrivances, vaugeries, prose faux pas; a cluster-trove of terrible joy.

To break down the story into its most basic components: There are four main characters whose plot lines intersect and desynch periodically.

Josten Cade: Hard-boiled mercenary leader type. Can’t get his life in any order where he doesn’t ruin it for himself.

Silver: Reincarnated Goddess. Doesn’t want Gods to return to mortal realm after 100 years.

Livia: Caring farm girl inhabited by evil Goddess that wants to restore Gods to mortal world.

Kaleb: Slave child raised to be an elite cult warrior. Has doubts about the cult.

Plot: Cade ruins his cushy job as guard of a royal woman by having an affair with her. He escapes death with the help of his one loyal merc friend.

Silver falls from the sky on fire into a desert and crawls her way to a remote farmhouse. She recovers with the aid of the lone father of two boys. She has no memory of who or what she is.

Livia’s great uncle, and only family, sees her demonstrates magical powers not seen in 100 years. Word gets out she has the powers and royal police kill her great uncle and kidnap her for a duke.

Josten and his merc friend are at a low point in their careers when they spot the royal police and Livia. Josten kidnaps her from them and plans to sell her back. This plan fails and they escape.

Silver, now replacement wife and mother, finds her new family dead from a boarder raid and takes revenge awakening the Goddess within.

Josten and his merc friend Stockholm syndrome Livia and approach a mercenary captain, his old acquaintance, asking for work. The merc captain betrays them and Josten is captured by the royal police. Livia and Josten’s merc friend come back to rescue him but the merc friend is killed causing the evil Goddess in Livia to tickle out in the form of super human strength. Josten and her escape to a woods where she is kidnapped, again, by a cripple (Kaleb). And Josten is captured by the royal police again. He then joins the search for Livia.

Then we get Kaleb’s extensive backstory of being sold to a slave cult as a kid, growing up with a harsh physical regiment meant to make him an elite soldier. He becomes numb to his previous life through numerous battles. He’s captured in a nighttime assassination and tortured into his crippled state. For redemption, he’s commanded to kidnap Livia for her reported magical powers.

Kaleb saves Livia from some bandits. She unwittingly heals him from his crippledness. They make it to a port city where they meet with members of Kaleb’s cult. Josten arrives at the port city on their heels. Silver shows up out of nowhere and attempts to rescue/kidnap Livia. She fails, Josten fails, the cult get her on a ship headed for a castle with Josten and Silver on their heels.

Livia meets with the ruler of Kaleb’s cult who wants her to resurrect magic. Josten and Silver join a convenient siege outside the castle. The deaths of all the combatants and Kaleb bring out the evil Goddess in Livia. She kills Silver and takes over the cult and the besieging army ushering in a new era of Gods ruling the mortal world.

Okay, this is gooey cheeseball fiction where the will of every story element is made to advance the plot. I’ll stress this isn’t necessarily damaging to the audience’s enjoyment or the story. The Hobbit is a basic set-piece to set-piece adventure story but there’s weight given to the adventure feel outside what the plot demands of the characters.

This book however has Josten kidnap Livia on a hunch, has the cripple kidnap Livia before we know why he cares, has Silver pop up after two hundred pages to try and rescue Livia before we know why she cares.

In total the book moves at a break logic pace. When Livia’s great uncle tells her of her magic powers she rebuts the assertion because magic hadn’t existed in 100 years. But after two sentences of narration, not even dialog from a trusted family member, two sentences where she notes her great uncle as someone not known for lying, she accepts that magic now exists and she has that power.

The world is little fleshed out beyond non-plot related expository histories. R.A. Salvatore does this in Child of a Mad God and I can’t stand it there either. At least have a character I’ll see interact in the story tell me these things so their familiar personality can color the retelling of history. I can’t enjoy these cold, purposeless reiterations of facts outside the main story line and I’m a history fan.

Particularly, the port city Livia is kidnapped to has thin, contradictory world-building. We’re told slavers might pick people off the street and sell them, but this never happens; we’re told that the four bodies hanging over the entrance gate are symbols of how this city is meant to be a no fighting zone between the different cults and tribes, but it’s still a dangerous place, and the fighting between the cripple’s cult and Silver and Josten goes unpunished even when Josten steals a sword from a sleeping city guardsman. They don’t even have to beat feet out the city; they stay for an indeterminate amount of time and scrape up an indeterminate amount of money through indeterminable means to rent a boat to follow after Livia and her captors.

There’s no real point to my croaking on this is there? Banging on about what I didn’t like as if I’d change what I’ve read. And in the end I would recommend this book for its faults as a good laugh and a learning experience for writers. So, here’s the best of what advice I could give from reading this book and the last three or four books I’ve read/am reading.

When Livia’s great uncle tries to convince her of her magical powers, why not have the great uncle explain what he saw and give circumstantial evidence for his belief? It could take a page or two and be well spent drawing out Livia’s logical thought process and her great uncle’s concern for her well-being.

There are continuous references to Josten’s time as a mercenary scrapping for any work he could get. He recollects on his immoral acts as a measuring stick for what he won’t do presently because it’d be too immoral. At least give an example if you’re going to mention this point multiple times. Josten could say to himself, “I may have stolen three pigs from a dirt poor farmer just before winter set in, but I’d never beat a girl senseless for information.”

I take harsh issues with Ford’s prose and I see these in many people’s writings. If you read a sentence and you feel it just sounds off, ask any of these questions:

Ask “why?”

Why is this important? Does this information add to the plot, characterization, tone? Basically, just don’t waste my time reading your stuff if it doesn’t have a purpose in the story or contribute to my enjoyment of it.

This can also be a great tool for world building and characterization, striking at the heart of these story elements.

“Why are these mountain people so weird compared to everyone else in this world? Well, their geography would lead to isolation and a vastly different culture amongst their neighbors (See Korea, Switzerland, Tibet) especially if there’s any active volcanoes around. Many peoples living around volcanoes will attach a religious significance to the landmark, usually a temperamental, vengeful, judgement deity or spirit with variations to this mold based on the specific phenomena of the area (Pele). The hash landscape could spawn rugged peoples with massive lung capacity for the thin air and great cardio and leg strength from constantly walking uphill. That Ninja Warrioresk obstacle course from early in the story reflects these traits and a muscular endurance competition based on gripping to a narrow ledge for as long as possible makes complete sense.”

Ask “As opposed to what?”

There’s a great Rich Vos joke about a plane landing and the flight attendant saying, “If you’re waiting for a wheelchair, please stay in your seat and await for assistance.” To which Vos comments, “Opposed to what? Falling in the aisle, and laying there like a human speedbump?”

I apply this thinking to prose to spot unneeded words. For instance, “She spoke three different languages.” As opposed to what? Three of the same language? “She spoke English, English, and English.” Remove it. “She spoke three languages.” Trust the audience’s intelligence to know the implication.

Another instance, “He nodded his head in agreement.” First, try the opposite of the suspect word; “He nodded his head in disagreement.” Makes no sense, which tells that the word should be changed or removed. “He nodded his head.” Better. But, as opposed to what? His thumb? “He nodded.” That’s all you need. 66% of the sentence removed. If the sentence is now too plain, add a specific action of greater importance. “He nodded, rolling his eyes in open mockery.” Or, “He nodded once, curtly.” Or, “After picking up on her widened eyes, he nodded.” Foreboding.

Ask, bluntly, “Really?”

“The civil war raged a hundred years ever since magic vanished from the world.” Really? How long can a civil war rage before the country tires itself out from the capacity for war, comes to some sort of peace, or is conquered by a neighboring state not burdened with the costs and manpower shortages of sustaining a civil war without the aid of magic.

“There’s no time to explain!” Really? The characters have enough time to argue over the lack of time and then explain the situation about the people coming to kill them. Argument + Explanation > Explanation. It’s an old trope and my brief dismissal of it is the tropey response. What I really don’t like about it is how it reflects on the characters. The expert undercover state agent argues with a farmboy about how she doesn’t have time to explain why they must flee. But she’s proven wrong. She did have time to explain. It’d of probably been smarter to have just done that in the first place. Is she really an expert agent if she can’t accurately estimate the amount of time she has to escape her pursuers? The know nothing farmboy is more capable in this facet than her without any information on the situation. If the story made a point reinforcing these aspects of their characters then it’d be helpful to give the farmboy a sense of the imposing danger and an accurate estimation about how long he’d have to escape affording him his props when asking for the explanation.

“That’s convenient.”

This is an oldie and self-explanatory.

Whatever twists and turns the story takes to progress its plot are fine by me. No story has ever impressed me doing exactly what I expected it to do. But I find myself scoffing “Well that’s convenient” when the contrivances break my suspension of disbelief.

If the impact of the convenience feels like the author only now realizing they’ve forgotten to establish facts or justify a character’s motivations or otherwise get out of explaining why the plot has taken the turns it has, then I cease to accept that the forthcoming events are based on the outcomes of the previous events. Cause and effect are lost.

What works, on me, to center my expectations as a spectator is a fair balance of mild conveniences and inconveniences. For instance:

After a clandestine data swap gone wrong, our protagonist is being chased through an abandoned warehouse and climbs up a rusty ladder that can’t support his weight. He falls to the bare cement, breaking his leg. In a mad flurry he throws himself out a shattered window onto the roof of his getaway car. Battered and bruised, he flees the scene for a safehouse.

The rusty ladder is an inconvenience true, yet it’s not out of place in a neglected industrial building. Its purpose fulfilled, the ladder is discarded and we’re left as ramification: the added tension of the protagonist’s injury during the chase, his guts at flinging himself out the window, questions over the progression of plot events with the protagonist temporarily taken out of the picture due to his injuries.

A small inconvenience that pushes the story forward dramatically. The reason the data swap went wrong can be given its just reasoning and laid out step by step as it should for such a large twist. But the rusty ladder only needs a couple descriptive sentences about the dilapidated warehouse that can also be used to establish the environment and add a sense of dread about the deal soon to go awry.

It’s best not to treat the entirety of the story with this scrutiny. The prose suits these criticisms well enough but I take dialog and select narrators with a difference in kind. It’d be unrealistic for any relatable, realistic character to have the same succinctness, rhythm, and overall thought usually reserved for a third person narrator in off-the-cuff, everyday speech. Now formal speeches or marriage vows or any dialog with forethought put in by the characters can bridge the gap between the well-rehearsed prose and the common dialog and they can exude the personal traits and mindset of the character speaking them. When the narrator’s personality is established, the story can be told through that lens. A child will miss mature innuendos, an irreligious person may dismiss the advice of a Christian on its face, a sheltered youth won’t comprehend the evils people can deliver onto others in a tough urban center.

Additionally, I despise a third person narrator (essentially the author) that holds back or is unsure of information.

If the narrator knows that the fate of the bound, trunk stuffed protagonist isn’t good, then there shouldn’t be a line such as, “He’d been trapped in total darkness for four or five hours.”

To this I ask, “Are you not sure narrator? How long has the protagonist been in the trunk for? Was it four hours or five? You seem to know so much about these characters and their surroundings that the characters don’t know but when it specifically comes to how long they’ve been in the trunk you can only estimate. I don’t believe you (author/narrator who’s now taken me out of the story to parcel over your own limitations and what I should believe from you. Thanks.)”

Now if you’re trying to put me in the place of the protagonist with their lack of knowledge and the fear that comes with it, you could write the sentence as, “He’d been trapped in total darkness estimating four or five hours without much surety.” And then continue with this rational, “His distance from home, the direction he was headed, the oxygen level in the confined space; all deathly questions shrieking in his frenzied mind.”

Of course, it’d take an unrealistic amount of time to actually ask these questions for every sentence in a story. The goal is more to internalize the feeling of something wrong as you read. Get the Spidey sense tingling and go over a select sentence or two in a page a second time to see why they stick out as cringy or unnatural or why they take you out of the story. As you go over your own work in draft after draft, the amount of misstructured sentences should diminish to non-problematic levels.

Next on the block is having the sentences form cohesive paragraphs and the paragraphs into engaging chapters within a story. But that’s beyond the purview of this lesson. Maybe some other time.

This is just a small building block of what it takes to make an actual story. What actually makes these pieces of information interesting is on you, the writer. Arranger? Composer? Whatever truly fits the heart.

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