When Closer Is Farther

Maybe I should have titled this post, “Through the looking glass.” Because I sort of feel about the book I just tried to read like I imagine Alice did when she stepped through the looking glass and into Wonderland as place of opposite dimensions and misaligned corners so that something’s very familiarity enhanced its Otherness by virtue of being almost-but-not-quite right.

What happened was that I tried to read The Barrow by Mark Smythie. It came recommended for various reasons, mostly that one of my favorite fantasy subgenres is grimdark adventuretime shit. I will give the sample another shot, when I am less sleep-deprived, and see if it was just a trick of my exhaustion, but last night when I tried to read it…I couldn’t, because his writing was too close to my own. It was like trying to read something I wrote 10 years ago, where the cycle and flow of words would shift within the same paragraph from being exactly how I would say it to…not, but not in a way that felt clumsy and juvenile and would make me cringe to read back now, with my old and jaundiced editorial eye, if it were my own. It was bizarre to find myself going in an out of sync with the guy’s words, and every time we fell out it was jarring and uncomfortable. Like deal-breakingly jarring.

I am not sure I have ever experienced this before. I have authors whose words hypnotize me because they say things in ways I never would but find mesmerizing to hear. I have authors who write things pretty much the way I would, if I were writing that story. I have authors whose books I cannot read because of the very Otherness of their thought patterns displaying in their writing. But I have never had someone who writes two sentences like I would and fumbles the third, over and over again. Just enough to get me into a rhythm and then bounce me back out – and not in a good way, because it’s clearly not an intentional way. It simply is. What is this guy, an ENTJ or something?

Anyone else ever experienced this with someone’s writing?

**Edited to add: I want to make it absolutely clear that I don’t mean to say I felt like the writing was actually clumsy or juvenile. I honestly cannot evaluate the sentences that threw me for a loop objectively, because my issue was more that’s not how I would say that than it was “that was a tragic sentence.” I think. Maybe someone can read the sample for me and confirm it’s either spotty or that this is purely and strictly a Lily issue, because he was writing a funhouse mirror version of my writing.

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6 Comments

Filed under Ramblings, Writing

6 responses to “When Closer Is Farther

  1. Huh. I never stop to analyze why I don’t like something, though I give in fairly easy to some writers, and not at all to others.

    It is almost as if I give the book a certain number of misses in certain areas – and if it accumulates more than that, it is too much work. I can’t turn off the nitpicky editor in my head enough to just go with the story.

    I wasn’t difficult – read everything – when I was a lot younger. But now that reading time 1) requires me to put my hated glasses on, and 2) comes from time I can’t really afford to spend, I am a lot less likely to stay with something that doesn’t compel my attention and keep it compelled.

    I have no trouble picking up an old favorite – say, Dune, or Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon – and reading far too long for the time of day and amount of energy left, but a new author needs to be in control of his writing or her plot if I am to continue.

    I should start making an effort – there is probably a lot to be learned by analyzing what I don’t like. I got spoiled by books from the olden golden days which tended not to have typos and such – or possibly a younger brain and younger eyes were less discriminating.

    Thanks for a good idea – I will keep the results to myself, as I can be quite caustic. Not a good attitude for a potential book reviewer, so I won’t review.

    My Dad’s worst expletive most of his life was ‘For crying out loud!’ – a lot of what I read now gets that.

    • I don’t always analyze why something does or doesn’t work for me, at least not consciously. I know that I read with my internal critic on at all times, because what I notice is when I *don’t* find myself rewriting things in my head, so much as noticing the constant stream of “i would say it THIS WAY” that my IC does. (btw – you I don’t rewrite. you’re in the i wouldn’t say it that way but it hypnotizes me camp. fyi.) I really think with this one what made it obvious was that so much of his writing WAS how I would say it, and then the parts that weren’t at all stood out.

      i feel like i should also clarify that i don’t know whether the sentences i had issue with were actually issue sentences, or merely annoying to me because I’d have done it differently. big difference between actual problem for everyone and problem for lily bc he was in her head. 🙂

      as to whether typo’s et al are more frequent…yes, but. yes they are, i think, even in trad pub work (at least in certain presses), and have been since about the turn of the millenium, but i also think i notice them more now that i am a writer myself and one who has studied the ins and outs of usage than i did when i was younger. a profusion of mistakes becomes more problematic than it was when i was young. that said, i tend to assume the authors who do not have many typos are the ones who turn in clean manuscripts, vs the authors who are all ‘that’s what they pay the editor for!’ I believe it is possible to create writing free of objective errors without an editor, and my cynicism toward publishing houses (both as a reader who sees too many mistakes too often, and as a writer hearing anecdotal accounts from published writers) is such that i believe the authors who have books without typos turn in books without typos, and i respect them all the more for their grasp of the rules and conscientious application of them. i think the difference between your youth and now is, when all presses were small houses, care *was* taken, on every book, because every book mattered. when they consolidated into big houses with many departments, care was only taken for the books expected to perform well or be held to higher standars by content. Romance, for example, is almost exclusively MMPB original (not hardcover), AND it’s “just romance” “housewife porn” “trashy books” “escapism” etc., so there was no pride to be taken in producing utterly clean books (if the writer didn’t take that upon herself).

      anyway, i think you should try and break down why things don’t work for you in other people’s writing. (i actually find that easier than analyzing what DOES work…weird.) And if you find something you feel the need to talk about, it’s relatively easy to extrapolate lessons wihtout naming works or authors. i don’t review much here, but it is a piece of self-censorship that i don’t. it’s just…not important enough to me to risk being viewed as either unprofessional, catty, bitter, or like i’m shilling for someone. but sometimes it’s worth mentioning specific works.

      • “Hypnotizes me camp.” Wow. Just wow. May I quote you?

        I set up the scaffolding, and then I have no idea why my brain chooses the way it does to fill in the bricks, mortar, and ceiling tiles. Punishment/reward for more than a half-century of reading, I guess.

        I found The Barrow by Mark Smylie on Amazon, and proceeded to read a bit of the Prologue.

        I ran into:

        “That summit bore a crown of upright stones, ancient menhirs marking a place of far power, and a pathway of more menhirs, some of them fallen over or reduced to piles of rock, was visible up ahead of them.”

        in the first paragraph of so.

        It doesn’t scan. Try diagramming it. It doesn’t work. It is not a sentence, though it starts with a capital letter, has a bunch of clauses separated by commas, and ends with a period.

        For me, that’s a deal breaker: the section up for a sample should be perfect – authors know people are going to read it, and then decide. Either this got changed again after an editor wrestled his prose into submission, or it wasn’t edited very well in the first place. Odd.

        Maybe it reminds you of old work before you edited it into submission?

        Do you want me to go further?

        I don’t think it’s you.

        Oh, dear; I went back to read the sentence I criticized. I think it may need a semicolon. I tried – and failed – to make sense of it as a single sentence; it’s a compound one.

        Oh, well. Still too convoluted reading for me.

        So this is why I don’t break down other writer’s work – I’m super critical once I do. And it isn’t that easy to do something wrong on purpose so as to be able to talk about it on a blog post – it’s a lot of work to compose challenges to “It was a dark and stormy night…,” or they wouldn’t give out awards for it that are, actually, highly coveted (because the writers want to show they can do that on purpose). The original was not composed by Bulwer-Lytton on purpose – it was the way he wrote normally. But to parody/imitate/mimic it, you have to work at it. I don’t know it they have entries people submit from the work of writers other than themselves – the whole issue of making fun of other people comes up then.

        When you say someone’s cover or novel is horrible, IF they worked hard on it, they are going to have their feelings hurt. There’s enough pain in the world, and some of that comes from not being able to sell your work. I often see people who complain on TPV or such about not selling, even though they have many books published. The ones I’ve tracked down were, in my estimation, horrible writers (YMMV): one guy had published 18 thrillers in Courier font, and several have dumped so many chapters of backstory into the beginning of their books that you can’t find the story. Another woman had chosen a niche so tiny that even with the internet it was practically unoccupied.

        I have such limited energy that my engagement with those books stops as soon as I figure out what their main problems are – I have not the ability to go further and be charitable. But it’s too bad – they mastered the path all the way to being available for sale.

        I agree with you that the risk of appearing unprofessional, etc., it a large one – and an unnecessary one: readers who don’t like things are not kind, and some of them are good writers (at least of reviews), especially when they point out what they don’t like. They are welcome to the job.

        I live in fear of exciting, say, some of the unkinder souls on Goodreads; after you do that, the original work gets buried in snark.

      • Quote away, my dear! 🙂

        And i can’t say i know why my brain chooses its wordings either…as you say, the result of a lifetime of reading.

        As to the specific sentence you pulled: it is a compound complex sentence, and each part has a dependent clause set off with commas. That makes the whole hard to split properly while reading. My style professor recommended using a semi-colon before the conjunction to make the split clearer, but I have had a reviewer criticize that technique when ai employed it, and the other way isn’t technically wrong…just awkward. I tend now to just split that kind of construction into two sentences.

        So, yea, it felt like what I would have written before I learned how to edit.

        I simply do not understand writers who can’t take an honest criticism. I always want to improve; I find the harsh reviews more useful than the nice ones, because the criticisms point to things that need help, whereas few positive ones articulate specifics of what worked. On whatever aspect ofthe package – cover, description, presentation, or story.

        And yes – the attack swarm is a reason par excellence to keep your mouth shut. I hate that it is, but I have been internet stalked once, and once was more than enough or a lifetime. I will never knowingly give them a reason to cone after me, either. And it is profoundly sad that I feel constrained by the heckler’s veto, so I am glad actual professional reasons exist, too 🙂

  2. Oh, and you can’t grunt, “Black-Heart.” Try it.

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