Why am I stuck reading this book from the eighties?
This past weekend I went to Boskone and came back with a bunch of used paperbacks and two new books. The book I went in looking for, Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn was not available anywhere, but luckily I’d already ordered it from interlibrary loan. My librarian actually told me not to buy it for $1 at the convention because it was costing her three bucks to send back, so she wanted me to get her money’s worth. I have sought out Melanie Rawn on and off for a few years, but particularly recently because I have had this urge to read “eighties fantasy” that doesn’t suck and I was having trouble. I don’t know why I didn’t learn my lesson: I’ve read plenty of stuff from the eighties and much of it has one or all of three problems:
- Dependence on Tolkien’s races (dwarves and elves)
- Renaissance Faire Syndrome
- It’s boring
Both problems 1 and 2 are problems with originality, i.e. the book doesn’t provide an original or even interesting experience because it’s just trying to get you that ol’ time feelin’ and story and characters are less important than talking about armor or already-established historical facts that anyone could learn while growing up in the eighties (in a renaissance-faire attending family). This is also a big thing that makes historical fiction kind of boring to me (although it can be artfully done). The last is a problem with any kind of writing, but a lot of eighties fantasy I found had this problem in strange amounts. I won’t name any names, but several books by Marion Zimmer Bradley were just dull as hell to me. I don’t know why I expected differently from Melanie Rawn, but somehow I got it in my head that Dragon Prince would be better.
Eighties fantasy does have its redeeming qualities
Despite all that, fantasy from the eighties has a certain quality that I really like: in the eighties wizards were fairly rare, and this is one of the reasons that so much bad stuff slipped through the cracks and onto the bookstore shelves. Dwarves were hard to come by, and so there’s a certain attitude toward magic in books from this era that maintains an air of mystery, which is a great part of the experience (and remember I don’t read for fun).
After finishing The Princess Diarist and reading another few pages of Miranda and Caliban, I decided to get started on The Dragon Prince right away. I couldn’t put it down. I’ve read to almost page 100 and I can report that strangely I’m losing track of time reading it. Since I read Tigana over Christmas, I noticed that I can read a fairly long book in chunks of ten pages. This way I read ten pages here and ten pages there and it’s easy to read fifty pages in a day. When I rode the bus in Boston and North Carolina, this is basically what I did, except it was twenty pages at a time, and I didn’t really notice what was happening. I might read eighty pages in a day and not notice that way. More recently it’s a lot easier to get distracted since I’m not on the bus, I’m in my house or my car, drinking tea after breakfast and so on. With The Dragon Prince, I’m getting through those ten page chunks not necessarily fast, but without losing focus or keeping track of time.
Despite breaking all the rules I hold dear about character, viewpoint, and irritating dialogue, I am stuck to this book
What’s especially surprising about this is the book’s style breaks all the rules that I’ve stuck by. These aren’t the Strunk and White rules, but mainly those of character and viewpoint: there are at least seven viewpoint characters by page fifty, although it’s easy to tell who the main characters are (Prince Rohan and Sioned) even when the other viewpoint characters get more pages. Also, some of the characters are just totally wretched immoral people. In one case the viewpoint shifts from a really horrible woman who has poisoned her lover’s other mistresses to the daughters of those other women, and then we get the man’s viewpoint and all of that is summed up in the first sentence within his viewpoint. So all of that could be skipped, as the new viewpoint character already knows all this stuff his daughters and mistress think they’re hiding.
Despite that, I’m not perturbed. I’m stuck to the page. It’s the content, the story, that matters. You’ve got a king dying, his son who he thinks is unfit for the crown, and all these women scheming around them, as well as supernatural powers and dragons coming into play. It’s great.
Style rules won’t write your story for you
So here’s my criticism of all the writing advice that aims strictly for style rather than content. You know what I mean: all the stuff that tells you to eliminate adverbs and “that” and passive voice. That won’t write you a story. In fact, eliminating those elements can really detract from a story. Overuse of them can slow down or get in the way of a story, but a really great story comes through just fine despite some adverbs. Professional quality writing is something that needs to be learned, and it has to be learned by balance, not by wholesale elminiation of parts of speech, or the mistaken idea that following rules will help you tell a story. Originality, scene construction, and plot structure are far more important than Strunk and White.