Sunday, May 15, 2011
Break Book: Good Omens
Good Omens: What I learned
On the wise advice of my good friend Kathleen, I took a break from Threadcaster to listen to someone else's author voice. In this case I chose two authors: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, both of whom I respect greatly, although only one of whom I have read previously.
First it needs to be stated up front that this cult classic has been lauded by many as their favorite book ever. It is, indeed, a fun book. I wouldn't call it my favorite though for the reasons I state below. I spent the entire novel comparing and contrasting to my own novel and trying to learn from it.
The first thing I learned was the pacing. I don't know about Neil, but Terry has a way with long rambly worldbuilding, and the book tends to stop dead in places in order to explore some strange corner of it that has little or nothing to do with the plot. This can be a footnote on the history of something stupid or a side-character story that provides no content. I found this distracting while I read, because I thought about all the little plot culdesacs and dead ends i've deleted out of Threadcaster because it didn't move the story forward. I wonder if those things were better left in for the sake of color... these are best selling authors after all... or if they are better out so that the clock that is my manuscript ticks at the proper times. Good Omens as a whole is 400 pages long, but I'll bet fifty of those could be eliminated by removing details about telephones and strange nunneries.
Second I learned about character; The main characters are the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, two unfortunate immortals sent to keep tabs on the world by their respective generals. I call them the main characters but we probably only spend 50% of the book with them, the rest is spent with a great cascade of side characters that may or may have much use really at all. There were a couple that were employed cleverly, a couple that were annoying and useless, and a couple that had nothing at all to do with the overarching plot in the slightest. A great example is a demon named Hastur, one of two demon lackeys that meet with Crowley. Hastur was successfully dispatched during a cleverly resolved scene (I suspect one of Neil's) then left by the side. That would have been fine, but then we spend three pages later in the book bringing him back as a player in the already congested narrative only to ignore him completely for the conclusion. It felt sloppy is all... just another excuse for Neil to write about maggots. It's taught me to keep track of my named characters, their motivations and what they're doing. Hastur and a miriad of other bozos all have a lot of pages devoted to them, then no real role to play. Many aren't even a mistake to be included... they're just included past their point of usefulness. Shoulda left Hastur dispatched, it was better that way. Should have left Mr. S back at home, he was pretty useless. I could go on.. but I wont.
Third I learned about doing things for a reason. I understand that Adam was manipulating the world on accident when he raised atlantis and made aliens and tibetans, but they didn't end up having a thing to do with anything. Why were they there? Oh as jokes I guess. That's a lot of really epic stuff happening for the sake of jokes. Maybe it's a play on the British; that truly amazing things happen and they remark on the weather instead. I don't know. I just wanted the aliens or the atlanteans to come into play somewhere in the broad scheme of things... to be used, because they were really great tools! The same goes for stuff like the kraken, or Bealzebub and Metatron... stuff included that could have been used really well but instead were treated as one-offs and dismissed. What I learned is that people can see squandered potential... or at least I can. I'll try to make the things I include significant later on - at least if they are hefty things like gods of the underworld.
Fourth I learned about passive voice and the difference between acceptable passive sentences and unacceptable passive sentences; the latter being the type that is hard to read. Its 'All the days they'd been having were good days' vs 'They'd been having a lot of good days'. Both are passive sentences but the second sounds more natural and pastoral, conjuring atmosphere. The first screams "IMPROVE ME" at me as loud as it can. The lesson here is not to worry about making sure all the sentences I write are active, just the ones that need to be. Plus variety is a big part of a successful narrative, whose to say a little passive voice is a bad thing? I also learned that rambling is annoying no matter how well it's written.
Finally, I learned the importance of resolution. It comes in line with the statement about characters above; there were a lot of tiny stories and threads weaving around... so many so that the conclusion seemed almost unfit for the novel. I was expecting something big where all the major players came in for their parts; making the celestial chess game complete. Instead (spoiler alert btw) it kinda ends with a certain 'mneh'. They just stand and talk about it, and the power of talking solves all the worlds problems. I realize this is kind of a joke because it's what every leader WANTS to have happen when entering conflict - speak about it rationally and arrive at a conclusion, but for the ending of a book it's kind of mundane. I'm with War when she said "I expected it to be grander", I wanted a real satisfying payoff for all the little trials and tribulations we've faced. It didn't have to be celestial war. It didn't have to be a balls-to-the-walls wings-out flaming-sword fight with the devil (Although I gotta admit I was real excited by the possibility only to be summarily dropped in cold water just when my hopes were up), but something more than just rubbing a couple computer screens, poking some people and shrugging and saying "oh well". Then after everything is concluded they tease me with 20 extra pages of what I assumed was going to be an awesome twist but ended up as rambling epilogues (I am guessing I can thank Terry for). So this great story kinda peters out to nothing. After that long list of nitpicks, the real lesson I drew from it is make an exciting ending, but don't be afraid of writing the aftermath too. I kept reading didn't I? And ending sweetly or happily doesn't make your book any less of a cult classic.
What I really took away from the book as it applies to how I'll edit Threadcaster is to not be afraid of fun colorful stuff if it helps your characters or your setting. I've generally avoided bamboo-trap scenes (sit and talk scenes, see previous entries) like the plague, but the audience can stand one every once in a while as long as it is entertaining. I've also learned that small named character parts are totally forgivable as long as you let them vanish when it's appropriate. I learned anyone labeled as significant by tone or circumstance should do something to earn their keep, even if it's something like dying. Finally I learned that the grand conclusion should be grand and the followup should followup nicely. I shouldn't punish myself for indulging a little of myself in the ending... the audience might be as in love with all these people as I am.
I also learned to read more Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, although Terry... Terry... you ramble my friend.