Friday, August 3, 2007

Dissecting You-Know-Who

If you cruise any of the Internet message boards where amateur writers post their work for critique, you'll come across passages like this:

The Wilsons arrived the following morning at eleven o'clock. Dylan, Paul, Emma,
and Beth were feeling quite resentful toward the Wilsons by this time, and it
was with ill grace that Paul stumped back upstairs to put on matching socks, and
Dylan attempted to flatten his hair. Once they had all been deemed smart enough,
they trooped out into the sunny backyard to await the visitors.

If I saw this on a please-critique-me message board, my first note would be: Look at the sequence of events. The passage starts with "The Wilsons arrived," then you jump to a time fifteen minutes earlier when others are preparing for their arrival, then you end the paragraph with Dylan and co. still waiting for the Wilsons to arrive. Worse, the way it's written, it takes the reader several full sentences to realize they've jumped back in time.

A major problem? Hardly. But when a work is riddled with stuff like this, it demonstrates lack of skill on the writer's part. Especially when a simple fix, "The Wilsons were to arrive," could help the reader tremendously.

Another questionable choice: "Once they had been deemed smart enough." Deemed by whom? Aren't actions usually more interesting when a character you know is doing them?

You see this lack of skill all the time in amateur writing. But when one of the most successful writers of all time consistently writes this way, well, that's when you know you've got some blog fodder on your hands. You see, I changed the names. The Wilsons are really the Delacours. Paul, Emma, and Beth are really Ron, Hermione, and Ginny. And Dylan, if you haven't guessed it, is Harry. Harry Potter.

Yes, I'm splitting hairs. But the real problem with J.K. Rowling's writing is that there are so many hairs to split. Here's another passage from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows":

Harry looked around at the stacked shoes and umbrellas, remembering how he used
to wake every morning looking up at the underside of the staircase, which was
more often than not adorned with a spider or two. Those had been the days before
he had known anything about his true identity; before he had found out how his
parents had died or why such strange things often happened around him. But Harry
could still remember the dreams that had dogged him, even in those days:
confused dreams involving flashes of green light and once -- Uncle Vernon had
nearly crashed the car when Harry recounted it -- a flying motorbike.

It's that last sentence that interests me. It starts with a "but," suggesting that what follows will be logically contradictory to something before. But that's not the case. The bigger problem occurs when Uncle Vernon pops into the story. Harry is in a house, looking at shoes and reminiscing. Then we're hearing about his dreams. Then suddenly we're forced to piece together something that happened long ago.

Apparently, sometime before, Uncle Vernon was driving Harry in the car and Harry shared with him (which seems implausible to anyone who knows their relationship) a dream about a flying motorcycle. This was so shocking to Uncle Vernon that it nearly caused him to crash.

But, in expecting us to piece together a past event, Rowling doesn't even give us the clues in chronological order. They're all in reverse, forcing us to work backwards.

"Uncle Vernon had nearly crashed the car when Harry recounted it -- a flying motorbike."

First comes Uncle Vernon, then comes the near crash, then comes Harry recounting something, then comes the something: the big reveal -- the shocker -- a flying motorbike. The sentence has a lot more impact if you nix the reference to Uncle Vernon altogether.

Again, not an unforgivable literary crime, unless you're a habitual offender:

The first sound of their approach was an unusually high-pitched laugh, which
turned out to be coming from Mr. Weasley, who appeared at the gate moments
later, laden with luggage and leading a beautiful blonde woman in long,
leaf-green robes, who could only be Fleur's mother.

Now that's a bad sentence. The subordinate clauses stacked one on top of the other. The choice of lame verbs over action verbs -- "was," "turned out to be," "appeared," "be." The fact that Rowling does not actually set a scene here. She could have said, "Harry and Ron were standing in the yard when they heard an unusually high-pitched laugh." In other words, she could have told of the sound from the perspective of the character hearing it. She could have told us where that person was and what he saw and heard. But she didn't.

Rowling is not a terrible writer, but she's not a good one, either. Still, despite her shortcomings, she created a world so many of us want to visit for so very long. The lesson here? I don't offer one. I don't want to make overly broad, embittered statements about how bad writing pays, nor do I want to slam the tastes of the masses.

I just want to say that, by taking a moment to look at another's writing weaknesses, we can understand how to be better writers ourselves.

And with that, I return to my reading.


R.S. said...

I just want to say that, by taking a moment to look at another's writing weaknesses, we can understand how to be better writers ourselves.

What a wonderfully positive way to look at this! (I'm constantly surprised how often I miss the positive viewpoint.)

June Casagrande said...

I don't know why it seems so easy, so natural, leap to one of those negative conclusions I mentioned.

It's almost knee-jerk to go there, even if you don't mean it. I had to stop myself and say, "What do I really think here?" instead falling into that cliche.

Thanks for noticing!


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