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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Valyserian Festival

Writing a good novel doesn't require genius. You don't even have to be all that smart. But you do have to work hard, and to care. If you don't care, readers won't, which may translate into them tossing your book into the fire grate.

If great care goes into writing a novel generally, greater care should go into its opening. Within the first few paragraphs or pages you'll either gain the reader's confidence or lose it. Gain it, and you can get away with a lot. Lose it, and you won't get away with anything.

With this opening I lost confidence after the first paragraph.

The prologue sets us in a kingdom on another planet on the festival day of the Valyseriat—a species about which we learn little beyond that they're not human (one thinks immediately of Vulcans and Spock). We are firmly in the world of fantasy and science fiction.

Some writers suffer from the mistaken notion that—because they're writing fantasy or science fiction—they don't have to sweat the details. The opposite is closer to the truth. It's easy enough for me to believe in the world I walk and breathe in daily; to believe in another world I need to be convinced. And the way to convince me is through precise, telling details.

In the first paragraph we get no such authenticating details: just a man named Alec sitting by "a large window" concealed by "scarlet curtains" as he watches the festival unfold. All of the sights, sounds, and other sensuous details of the festival are left off the page. We don't know who Alec is hiding from, or why. Though the first line suggests a plurality of festivals, later there seems to be only one. We are told that—while so concealed—Alec thinks, "The Valyseriat"—and that he does so "curiously," meaning either he's curious about the festival, or that the thought in itself is odd. But then we learn that Alec isn't curious at all; in fact he finds the whole spectacle ludicrous. As for the thought being curious, it's not; it's lame, like a man staring at a hamburger thinking, "A hamburger."

A sentence later we're told that Alex studied "about [the Valyserians] alongside Aaron." We aren't told who Aaron is, only that he is "in Earth" (on the Earth? Buried on Earth? Digging a tunnel into the Earth?). Though he studied these beings, they "left no . . . history," however it is known that "they were the leaders of the Valyses" (whoever they were, their history being no less obscure). I wonder what Alec took away from his studies, since he knows nothing.

There are other problems with this opening. Since the scene that follows (in which Prince Alec is summoned by the king to discuss his coronation) has little bearing on the Valyseriat or their festival, why choose this crucial moment to dip us into their nebulous history? Might there not be a better time to fill us in on that background? Alec himself can't "care less" about them; why should we? Furthermore, these are supposedly Alec's thoughts as he peers out from behind the scarlet curtain: but why would he be thinking of things that don't matter to him? Why should he be watching the festival at all, or even present, if not out of diplomatic responsibility in his capacity as Prince, in which case his purpose is defeated by hiding behind that curtain?

Added to these larger questions and concerns are small errors like tense shifts ("now that it has resurfaced Alec was worried") and inconsistent handling of viewpoint (is it "[his] father" or "the King"? From Alec's point of view it should be one or the other). Taken all together, the problems have me wondering two things: 1) how familiar is the author with her own material, and 2) how much does she care? Throughout this opening, I'm dogged by the suspicion that the author is either inexperienced in the art of writing fiction, or winging it, or both. I don't sense that great effort went into these paragraphs.

In any case, more effort needs to go into them, since as they stand the author's imagination and ambitions aren't matched by her skills. More care must be taken to satisfy a close, careful reader, the sort of reader who demands integrity and precision—a category into which most agents and editors fall.

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