Why learning to write is only the beginning

Trader's HonourI’m going to do something REALLY embarrassing. I’ll be posting, below, a small snippet of the very first novel I completed. By the time I penned this, I had already spent some time in various workshops and I’d taken my dutiful dose of No adverbs, no forbidden words, no weasel words and no repetition, and there are indeed very few of those crimes in the manuscript. In fact, I admit that I now use more adverbs than I did back then. I use more passive constructions, and I use more “forbidden” words. Because these words or constructions evolved in the language for a reason, and sometimes a sentence is genuinely clearer when you add the word “that”. Trust me.

So, without further ado, here is the snippet from Trader’s Honour as I wrote it in 2005, with excuses for the absolutely TERRIBLE writing. I’ll elaborate on that after the piece.

* * *

Two days. That was all that stood between happiness and despair.
Two days ago, the morning of the election had dawned without a cloud in the sky and the city of Miran was covered in a sparkling blanket of snow. The beauty of the morning was lost on Rehan. He was tired; it had been very late when he had returned home the previous night. He was sitting at breakfast in the dining room, leafing aimlessly through a bundle of election brochures, wondering who he was going to vote for. The successful candidate would take up the post of commander of the Mirani armed forces and one of the four High-councillors of Miran. It was an important election, but Rehan felt too tired to care.
‘I don’t like the sound of what Nemedor Satarin is proposing,’ Braedon said, gesturing to the election brochures Rehan was holding.
Rehan leafed through the papers until he came to the relevant brochure. It was printed on orange paper and bore just a few slogans “Free Miran of foreign influences,” “Restore our nation to its former glory,” and “Bring back order to our streets.”
‘It doesn’t say much, doesn’t it?’ he said, breaking his fish bread in pieces and dropping them in his soup.
‘No,’ Braedon said, ‘but he has strong opinions that many of the upper classes find appealing.’
Rehan looked up with a frown.
‘What is appealing about freeing Miran of foreign influences? How can we or the merchants function without foreigners?’
‘People haven’t forgotten the war, Rehan,’ came Isandra Andrahar’s sharp voice from the other end of the table.
Rehan looked at his mother, her back bathed in sunlight, which made her hair glow like silver.
‘What does the war have to do with this?’ he asked.
‘You were too young,’ the way she said this made it sound like an accusation. ‘The Asto fighters raided the warehouses in our agricultural district, and what could the Mirani army do? Nothing! The Asto army could easily have pushed their way to our capital!’
‘But they didn’t,’ Rehan said; he looked down at his plate to fish a piece of bread out of his soup. ‘They only wanted to free up their food supplies, which were rightfully theirs anyway. They are not interested in conquering other colonies.’
He still couldn’t see how this had anything to do with the local election.
His mother drew herself up and waved a bony finger at him.
‘When I was a girl, and that dreadful Palayi man – whatever his first name was – was Chief coordinator of Asto, there was a constant threat of war,’ she continued. ‘We should never trust those Coldi people. They are barbarians – incapable of tolerating any opposition. Thania Lingui may seem a lot more peaceful, but what happens when he retires? Will the next Chief coordinator want to have absolute control over Asto’s food supply? We are close, we have much fertile land, we already produce a lot of their food. We need strong defenses to stop them invading!’ and as Rehan was about to put the bread in his mouth, she snapped. ‘And don’t do that! You’re eating like a commoner!’
Rehan sighed, put the bread down and picked up his spoon. Table manners, table manners! Was that all she ever cared about? He was at home, for goodness sake!

* * *

OMG, this is truly embarrassingly bad. It does not violate many Creative Writing 101 Rules, but it’s bad, bad, bad. I’ll explain why.

I used this novel as learning-to-write exercise. I was probably halfway through when it occurred to me that it had to have a plot. I was so wrapped up in my characters that I merely enjoyed seeing what they did. And they did a lot of things. Plenty happens in this novel. In fact, all these happenings are what made me decide to salvage the story, because GOOD stuff happens, but it wasn’t connected, was connected in the wrong way with way too much bullshit that went off at right angles. In other words: I hadn’t learned to write a solid plot and keep that plot on the rails while I was writing.

The POV is weak. I bet that in this piece you can’t even tell who the POV character is (hint: it’s Rehan). There is very little direct internal thought. It just hadn’t occurred to me yet that I could write in that way.

All the characters act like arseholes. They’re also far too forthcoming with information. This is classic immaturity in character development. One of the most important things a writer needs to learn is that what a character says is that character’s perception of the truth, unless the character is lying, but the character doesn’t even need to lie outright for their replies to be coloured. Also, what is not being said is often more powerful than what is being said. Over-the-top-ness of character reactions, as in this snippet, is also classic beginner prose.

Worst of all, I’m using the wrong main character. There is a reason why all the characters are arseholes, that is because they ARE arseholes of some kind, at least in this point in the story. It only occurred to me much later that I was trying to write The Devil Wears Prada from Anna Wintour’s POV. Doesn’t work. You need another character.

All these things above are not really teachable. They are not what most critique groups deal with. They are skills you have to develop through practice, and through reading awesome fiction and listening to experienced writers. Still, if you happen to get commentary of this nature when you begin, you will most likely not understand it at the level that it needs to be understood. The above things are largely intuitive and are why it is so hard to quantify “good writing”. The writing “rules” are really only the beginning.

So, I decided to salvage, gut and re-write the story. I added a completely new character who is not related to this highly dysfunctional family but comes into it as newcomer. To be sure, she has her own stakes, as you have seen in the snippet I posted a few days ago. Because we now see the story through the eyes of someone who is more sympathetic at the start of the story, it doesn’t matter that the three brothers and their mother behave like boors right now. Yes, some of it is only an act, and as my character’s stakes and that of the family intertwine, the abrasiveness will vanish.

Like so (and three cheers to the reader of this blog who can spot the future love affair):

Mikandra stomped the snow off her boots on the mat, slipped them off and put them next to the men’s boots lined up next to the door. She selected the smallest pair of slippers she could find on the rack under the cloak stand. They enfolded her feet with luxurious warmth, and the fur that lined the inside had not yet flattened with use.
She followed Taerzo–wearing similar footwear–across the hall into the living room, where traditional oil lamps burned on the walls and their flapping flames made grotesque shadows on the walls. With its marble flooring, antique hearth and hand-crafted furniture, the house was the epitome of old-fashioned noble households. Well, except for the hub with its blinking lights in the corner of the hall.
In the living room, Braedon sat at the table behind a huge pile of books. He glanced up when Taerzo came in, looked back at his books and then up again at Mikandra. He raised his eyebrows and raked his hair behind his ear. Apart from Taerzo, who was not that much older than her and was considered to be the joker of the family, she found Braedon least intimidating. He was rather plain, straightforward and quiet. He did not wear lots of jewellery or other display of status like his two older brothers. He came into the hospital quite a bit, and was always courteous and kind to the nurses or surgeons.
Braedon gestured to the seat next to him.
Mikandra sat, still clutching the letter. On the page in the book facing him were long columns of financial data. He had a reader on his other side, which was, apart from the hub in the hall, the only concession to technology in this very traditional house. The screen glared more columns of figures.
She was going to show them the letter, but Braedon brought his fingers to his lips.
There were voices at the back of the room, in a section partitioned off from the dining area by a sliding door.
Through the glass in the door, she could see second-oldest brother Rehan in front of the hearth, facing a man who sat on the couch.
“Anyway,” Rehan was saying, the words only slightly muffled by the door. “Whatever has caused it and why ever you did this, your behaviour has been nothing short of grossly inadequate. You’re going to have a lot of explaining to do, and unless I’m satisfied, I will call in the Guild Lawkeepers, and they will get to the bottom of this.”
“You’re not going to sack me?” The man sounded incredulous.
“You’ve worked with us for long enough to know that is not our style. I would very much like to sack you, but it does not solve anything. Sacking you does not put our accounts in order.”
“Uhm . . . I guess.”
Mikandra realised the man on the couch was the Andrahar account keeper, Trimor Estredin, the husband of one of her mother’s theatre friends.
“You guess?” Rehan continued. “What will go a long way towards putting our accounts in order is your story about what happened. Why did you approve these books? Why did you sign all these pages that clearly have mistakes on them? Where is the missing money?”
“I honestly don’t remember doing all that.”
There was a heavy thud of some object hitting wood. “Bullshit! That’s fucking bullshit and you know it. You know what happened. You were there. This is your work! Get the fuck out of here. Go to the office. Come back when you have something to say. Don’t dare run away. Don’t think we won’t find you.”
The man rose and left the room at a run. A moment later, the door shut.
Heaving a big sign, Rehan opened the partition doors. “Fucking numbskull. Blubbering nitwit.” He stopped a few paces into the room, and frowned at Mikandra. Met her eyes. His hair, normally a silk-like curtain over his back, had become entangled in the clasp of his cloak. His cheeks were red. “What’s this about? Any more problems?”
Mikandra lifted the letter.
“I got my letter of acceptance,” she said, but she no longer felt exuberant. Something was very wrong.
“The fuck you did?” He still sounded angry.
Braedon said, “Rehan, please mind your–”
“Don’t tell me what I can or can’t say in my own house. We don’t have the time to deal with fucking pambies.”
He looked at Mikandra. His expression was so penetrating that she felt like fleeing. He was very tall, his appearance immaculate. At least he wore his Trading uniform, the khaki shirt and trousers with the ornate belt and his high boots. But no medallion.
“All right, you win. No more fucking swearing in the presence of women, eh?” He blew out a breath and turned to the window.
Mikandra looked back at Braedon who at least didn’t terrify her as much. “What’s wrong?”
“We’ve had our licence suspended by court order.”
What? A big black hole opened in Mikandra’s mind. A suspended licence meant no sponsorship. It meant no work, no place for her to go to. It meant–how was that even possible? These were the Andrahar Traders, the most influential in all of Miran. “What happened?” Black spots crept into her vision.