I'm reading The Secret Speech, sequel to Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith. What I have to say applies to both books.
These are great stories. Interesting characters in gripping dilemmas, pacing that keeps things exciting, just all around good stories.
However, the writing is sub-par, in my opinion. On a linguistic level, the writing is dull, flat, uninteresting. There are mistakes that it seems to me some editor somewhere along the line should have called him out on: dangling modifiers all over the place, "-ing" sentences that make actions simultaneous when they're clearly meant to be serial, and other faults that I think of as rookie mistakes. Descriptions are either lackluster, cliche, or straining so hard to be cool, novel descriptions that they become silly. Just all around mediocre writing, maybe even less than mediocre.
The lesson for me as a writer is, I really don't give a damn about the crappy writing, because the concept is so cool and the story is so good. Maybe I should shift my efforts in my own writer's education away from "writing well" and more toward "telling better stories."
I just wish there were some way to identify my own weaknesses as a story teller. I've got a pile of stories that I think are great stories, but I can't get a soul to touch a single one of them. The problem is, I really love these stories, and don't know what is lacking in them.
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No story is perfect, and you've reached the point where the fact that a story is good doesn't blind you to its faults. On the other hand, you aren't blind to the fact the story *is* good *despite* its faults.
I'm not saying bad writing is just as good as good writing; I'm just saying perfectionism only gets you so far.
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Conversely, I believe in perfectionism. Every story we write should the best we can make it.
Of course, what we think is "great", another may think is drek. A reader's story enjoyment is often a matter of taste.
As is the perception of "perfection".
If you like, you may email me what you think is your absolute best short story, and I'll give you an honest opinion of anything "lacking" I find--with the understanding this is just from my own solitary opinion.
Oh, I believe in perfection, too. At least as a goal. If this book had the linguistic part locked down, it would be a lot better than it is. It would probably be brilliant instead of good. But I've learned that the great story can overcome the bad writing.
I think (I may be wrong) I'm stronger in the writing than the storytelling, so maybe I'm the opposite of him.
I would be insane to pass up that offer, Dr. Bob. Will think on it and send one over tonight. Thanks!
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Everyday conversation language aside, The Secret Speech is a roadmap for successful commercial fiction structure--an event driven novel: its strongest appeal. Orson Scott Card's M.I.C.E. quotient is also pertinent: event emphasis, nextmost milieu--Soviet socialism--idea as well, character least emphasis for the novel and commercial fiction generally.
MICE doesn't include setting per se, nor plot apart from event, nor discourse: Setting, Plot, Idea, Character, Event, Discourse: SPICED, milieu as an attribute of setting. I believe those features should be of proportioned emphasis. Card states the same about MICE, not per se event at the expense of milieu, idea, or character development: proportioned.
The events of the novel flow linearly, somewhat causal-logically, chronologically, though are calculated to maintain event impact, and are somewhat fallacy--cum hoc; ergo, propter hoc: with this; therefore, because of this.
Discourse, for example, everyday speech for prose overlooks appeals of poetry and rhetoric. Smith does use repetition to some effect, notably for present and past participle and past perfect verbs used in serial sequences. None of the tense shifts are necessary, nor per se grammatical faults. They are, however, less definite than might be ideal for strongest appeal.
On the other hand, verb shift common usage appeals to readers who only have the one universal talk dialect for a grammar model. A million copies sold per novel is a noteworthy accomplishment. The language, though, grows stale quickly. For future and continuing appeals, the language ought best improve. Stronger language skills also enhance and signal stronger writing craft.
Otherwise, Smith's use of poetry and rhetoric is absent. Symbolism, imagery, otherwise everyday rhetorical schemes and tropes, nonexistent. Prose has poetic grammars Smith doesn't use generally as might be ideal for commercial fiction.
Of more import for Smith's novels is a limited quality of unity. Events happen, wants and problems arise, satisfactions ensue to a degree. However, character development is lacking in that protagonist Leo Demidov's transformation is left unsatisfied.
The outcome leaves Demidov more or less in the same state of being as the start of the action. Events happen to him; he satisfies their wants and problems mostly externally. They are other people's problems. He's involved though not as personally as is needed for unity's sake.
A completed action starts with a personal dramatic complication wanting satisfaction and ends with a personal transformation at great personal cost. Demidov pays the cost, though is unchanged by his struggles on behalf of others. Perhaps Demidov's noble self-sacrfice ironically suits the Soviet socialist cooperative ideology, though if intended is inaccessible.
Multiple viepoint narratives that argue broad scope topics, like Soviet socialism, must transform each viewpoint agonist's basic nature and behavior, a protagonist most of all. Narratives that accomplish transformative outcomes are most persuasive. Demidov changes outcomes for others, not for himself, nor does he change the milieu, the socialist ideology, nor per se the event of note implied by the novel's title: Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 address On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences--the secret speech.
The speech is pivotal as a start of the events that unfold; transformation otherwise is uncompleted.
Commercial fiction generally poses protagonists as heros and heroines who have a touch heavy writer surrogacy: self-idealization and self-efficacy, can do no wrong and always succeed after some effort, and are already "good" and noble persons. Not much room left for transformation, except moral decline. Likewise, writer surrogates become spectator surrogates, reader or viewer as transported into a narrative's focal viewpoint agonist, and appeal for that feature. However, protagonists that struggle with little or no moral dilemmas are one- or at best two-dimensional. Three-dimensional agonists struggle internally with moral crises.
Prose at root is about moral human condition struggles. The Secret Speech struggles with external moral human conditions caused by Soviet socialism, short-shrifts internal moral crises.
The language of the novel doesn't work for me, besides the weak grammar and style. The novel's milieu is late 1950s Soviet Russia and client states. The novel's language is post-millenial 2000. Language suited to the novel's milieu would best be leavened with speech, thought, and narrative patterns and diction of the era depicted. George Orwell's 1950s era narratives as an example.