03 March 2007

The Primary Objective in Monster Blood Tattoo

At Inside a Dog, the current writer in residence is D. M. Cornish, author of the nascent Monster Blood Tattoo series. (He also maintains this blog.) Cornish writes of the value of good editing:

I have to say that editors are a boon, no matter how hard their input can be to hear at first. Of course, I knew this already. The process of Book 1 was well worth the reworking and the bruised ego; and though there is a whole lot to be done on Book 2 this too will be worth it... though ask me again how I’m feeling in a couple of weeks.
At the small risk of disrupting that important work with antipodean commentary, I found the first book in the series, Foundling, to be well written on the level of sentences, dialogue, and paragraphs. Even more impressive is how Cornish has imagined his “Half-Continent” world of monsters and monster-slayers from top to bottom. Indeed, as he’s described in interviews, “My primary objective has been to create place as thoroughly as possible and know it well before venturing out into stories.” Only after an editor saw his voluminous notebooks and insisted he write a book did Cornish apparently focus on creating a narrative to take place on that landscape.

Alas, I think Foundling’s storytelling is still full of bumps and jars, of the sort that good editing (external and internal) could smooth down. The prose is fine, the world lively--but the story structure often ungainly. It’s largely a matter of what to emphasize when, what to leave out till later, how to make everything tie together. When an author’s “primary objective” is creating a place, that naturally makes him reluctant to subordinate setting details to story--but that’s what a novel needs.

As I noted back in January, Foundling has more maps and appendices than most historians writing about real countries can hope for: over 120 pages, over a quarter of the book. That volume of information helps create verisimilitude, and would certainly have appealed to the fanboy I was in my early teens. But some of those back pages state information not relevant to this story or repeat facts from the story itself (occasionally giving away plot points). In the end it’s more data than is good for the narrative.

And those appendices may not be necessary. The book’s young hero, Rossamünd, has a sort of World Almanac that he consults during his adventures. So we could see many of the crucial maps, pictures, definitions, etc. at the same time Rossamünd reviews them. Or short extracts from the reference book could appear between chapters. Connecting the background information directly to the story would have forced Cornish to focus on what readers really need.

When such background info does appear in the text, it sometimes comes with the unwelcome urgency of a voice in your ear while you're trying to watch a movie. To take one small example from Foundling, chapter 10 brings on a healer this way:
Closely behind her shuffled a stranger: a short, meek-looking young woman--a girl really, younger than Verline--wearing a variation of clothing Rossamünd had seen many times before. A skold!
Then come two long, detailed paragraphs about the healer, filling more than a page and a half. That description interrupts a dramatic confrontation and shoves two domineering characters into the background. A silent, “meek-looking,” and “very nervous” newcomer shouldn’t dominate the scene like that.

I think the long passage about the skold would have worked better three pages later, after the start of the next chapter. At that point the loud characters have played out their conflict and separated. Rossamünd gives his eager attention to the healer. That would be the best time for Cornish to draw our attention to her as well--for the sake of the story.

TOMORROW: The same pattern writ large.

Disclosure: I read Monster Blood Tattoo: Foundling after receiving a free review copy from its US editor.

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