Good morning, class. It’s been awhile since our last lecture, but I trust you remember it and that you’ve altered your Regency romances accordingly. Exams are due next Tuesday. Study guides can be located here and here. And Miss Quinn? As always, you can suck it.
Now, for our last session of the semester, I thought we’d cover a very special topic: how to write a novel that completely and utterly sucks. I know, I know—most of you are probably thinking, “But Professor Mankiller, you’ve focused most of your energies this semester on non-fiction and memoir. Also, you’ve never written a novel, so how are you supposed to be an expert?” Au contraire, my tiny adorable students. Everyone who reads as much as I do has at least one terrible novel under her belt. Frankly, I can’t even remember how many I’ve written, because I did the right and godly thing and burned those abortions before any misguided publisher could have given them hideous birth.
In addition, although we’ve spent most of this year looking at memoir and other nonfiction (not to mention movies), we’ve also spent a good deal of time on some novels of…shall we say, dubious quality. Remember Beneath a Silent Moon? Or how about The Moonstone, Part II? Or its sequel, The Moonstone, Part Seriously Phillip Pullman, Get Your Own Damn Ideas? I think we’ve learned to know a bad book when we see one, but I don’t think I’ve ever clearly set out a definitive list of What Makes a Book Bad. I’m about to remedy that, and I’ll be aided by the “novel” City of Bones, the first book in The Mortal Instruments Trilogy by Cassandra Clare.
Be sure to take notes, kids. And as always, this lecture will contain spoilers.
Part I: How to Completely Destroy Perfectly Blameless Prose
There are many, many ways to make your writing awful, ladies and gentlemen, but my esteemed colleague Professor Erika and I both agree that the simplest ways are to A.) use too much description; and B.) use similes that are completely ridiculous. To demonstrate the dangers of both practices, here’s a passage from City of Bones :
‘Fine.’ He seemed awfully calm, she thought, not scary-calm as he had been before, but more contained than he ought to be. She wondered how often he let glimpses of his real self peek through the façade that was as hard and shiny as the coat of lacquer on one of her mother’s Japanese boxes (139).
When you want to describe someone who’s closed off, describing them as hard makes sense…but shiny? I get that she’s trying to say “glittering façade” without actually saying “glittering façade,” but really. Don’t be creative. Throwing more adjectives at the problem isn’t going to make you sound any less ridiculous.
And as for comparing anyone to a lacquered box…if I have to explain to you why that’s cheesy, then get out of my class.
Part II: How to Create a Character by Ripping off Your Own Shitty, Plagiarized Fanfic
So in City of Bones, Our Hero’s name is Jace, and this is how Our Heroine, Clary, sees him: “A ghoulish freckling of blood marked his face. He still reminded her of a lion, with his wide-spaced, light-colored eyes, and that tawny gold hair” (15).
Now, leaving aside what we already said about the overuse of description, and adding in that it’s usually a bad idea to start comparing people to animals, let’s get to the part where Jace is all tormented and an orphan and shit. One night, he decides to tell Clary a bedtime story about just how awful his childhood was. Because that’s totally what you do when you have a crush on a girl. Anyway, this is what he has to say:
‘Instead his father took the bird, now tame and trusting, in his hands and broke its neck. ‘I told you to make it obedient,’ his father said, and dropped the falcon’s lifeless body to the ground. ‘Instead, you taught it to love you. Falcons are not meant to be loving pets: They are fierce and wild, savage and cruel. This bird was not tamed; it was broken.” 206
Awww, that story’s so sad, Clary has to have sex with him now! Otherwise, how will he ever learn to love?
Anyway. I’m showing you this passage not only because it blows massive chunks, but also because if you’ve read enough shitty Harry Potter fic, it might seem familiar to you. And it would seem familiar to you for a reason. Cassandra Clare originally became a marketable professional writer through her work as Cassandra Claire, the author of an extremely popular Harry Potter fanfic usually referred to as the Draco Trilogy. Well, parts of the fic were plagiarized, which didn’t seem to bother her fans none, but kind of makes you wonder how she ever got a publishing contract under her internet handle (probably cause her fans didn’t mind none). In any case, when she finally finished the Draco Trilogy, she let people download it as a pdf file if they wanted to, and then had it pulled of the internet. I’m sure that if I dug long and hard enough, I could eventually find it somewhere, but it doesn’t turn up easily anymore. And as everyone knows, professors are incurably lazy.
But we have really, really good memories.
Yes, class: to my everlasting shame, I used to read the Draco Trilogy. I was a teenager, and I didn’t know it was plagiarized. But having read it, what’s so striking about the falcon passage in City of Bones is that it, or a passage extremely like it, first appeared in one of the Draco stories. Also, Claire’s Draco was a gorgeous, graceful boy given to witty one-liners and Hiding His Inner Pain. And he was, per Rowling’s description, a blond.
Compare that to Jace, another blond with the Saddest Backstory Ever, who often says things like, “‘The meek may inherit the earth, but at the moment it belongs to the conceited. Like me’” (Clare 86).
Cassandra Clare didn’t have the Draco Trilogy removed because she wanted to distance herself from accusations of plagiarism; that was old news, and obviously hadn’t prevented her from signing a book contract. She had it removed because she didn’t want anyone to notice that she hadn’t bothered to come up with a new backstory for one of her main characters. So nice, she used it twice!
But here’s the problem, kids: leaving aside the moral or ethical problems with this approach, there’s also the fact that it’s creatively…well, it’s not creative at all. If you are so in love with one of your creations that you can’t bear to part with him, but instead slap a new name on him and put him into new circumstances, then you haven’t created a character: you’re in love with a stereotype. You’re enthralled by some idealized, nonexistent type of personality, and that is interesting to no one but you and your therapist. So if you find yourself grasping at straws, saying things like, “But they’re completely different! One has white-blond hair, and the other is a golden blond,” then…stop. Just…just, stop.
In conclusion, let fanfic stay fanfic. And yes, that goes for original fanfic characters, too.
Part III: How to Make Everything More Ridiculously Dramatic than It Needs to Be
‘I may not believe in sin,’ he said, ‘but I do feel guilt. We Shadowhunters live by a code, and that code isn’t flexible. Honor, fault, penance, those are real to us, and they have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with who we are. This is who I am Clary,’ he said desperately. ‘I am one of the Clave. It’s in my blood and bones. So tell me, if you’re so sure this wasn’t my fault, why it is that the first thought in my mind when I saw Abbadon wasn’t for my fellow warriors but for you?’ His other hand came up; he was holding her face, prisoned between his palms. ‘I know—I knew—Alec wasn’t acting like himself. I knew something was wrong. But all I could think about was you…’
Okay, two things:
2. “Prisoned”? Is that even a word?
In conclusion, over-the-top much?
Part IV: Incest, Incest Is the Best
Spoiler! In a Darth Vader moment that everyone saw coming from like, the second we all found out Clary’s mom had been married to the Big Bad, it turns out that the Big Bad is Clary’s father. Shocker! But in an actual plot twist, it turns out that Jace’s father didn’t die: he’s the Big Bad! Making him and Clary siblings! Who totally made out not fifty pages before!
Students, you know how I feel about incest: it’s a lazy, cheap thrill for the author and a major annoyance to the audience. Just Say No.
Part V: Mary Sue, How Are You?
Professor Erika recently reminded me of the Mary Sue Litmus Test. Run Jace through it, and he’ll bomb it like a freshman in a senior seminar. Or, I guess, pass it like an honors student in a remedial class. I don’t know, he’s a goddamn Mary Sue: perfect and wounded and beautiful, and he gave himself his own nickname to boot. Clary doesn’t fare much better, since she clearly has a name based on the author’s handle and–like her creator–she’s a redhead.
Kids, I know we’re all prone to writing wish-fulfillment: we all want to be better, smarter, more beautiful, and live more interesting lives. That’s fine. There’s also nothing wrong with writing all that down. But getting it published? Guys, that’s just sad. Way to shout to the world, “I think I am lame and boring and I wish everything about me were different!” You don’t need to tell the whole world that. Again, just keep it between you and your therapist.
Part VI: In Conclusion
In conclusion: don’t use too much description, don’t use crappy similes, don’t rip yourself off, don’t make everything more dramatic than it really needs to be, don’t have two siblings make out, and don’t create a bunch of Mary Sues. All right, kids. Study hard, and make sure to get drunk after my exam. Good luck!
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