Current read: Sisterhood of Dune…and a bit on how *not* to write

Being one of the only people who liked all of Herbert’s Dune books, it was natural to try his kid’s prequel series with Kevin J. Anderson.

Of course, we didn’t expect it to be Frank Herbert. To his credit, the son did not try to pretend to be the father. There’s only one problem: the writing now is…very flawed. The story is okay, and I’ll read it to finish the story just because I’m nine books in, but seriously, these guys need help. A couple of examples, quoted for fair use review purposes:

—From p. 10, paperback version—

Looking down, breathing heavily, she said, “Back at the Swordmaster School of Ginaz, I slew hundreds of these things. The school still has a standing order for functional combat meks, so trainees can practice destroying them.”

The very thought soured Manford’s mood. “Ginaz has too many functional meks, in my opinion–it makes me uneasy. Thinking machines should not be kept as pets. There is no useful purpose for any sophisticated machine.”

Anari was hurt that he had criticized her fond recollection. Her voice was small. “It’s how we learned to fight them, sir.”

So what’s wrong with this picture? The red part (color added). Do not ever, please, tell me the feelings. Show them through action. This is lazy writing. It was too much work to make her sound wistful when she said the first part. It was too much work to put her second part in a hurt tone. Instead, we were simply told. This is what mediocre writing looks like. This should be shorter, more fluid and subtler. It should not insult the reader’s intelligence. It should let the reader infer and gather emotions through skillful word use in dialogue and narrative.

Here’s another ‘how to do it wrong’:

—From pp. 29-30, paperback version—

“You are going to tell me where those captives are being taken,” Vor said.

The man groaned again and gurgled something that sounded like a curse. Vor didn’t consider it an acceptable answer. He glanced up, saw the fire spreading along the roofs of the houses. “You don’t have much time to answer.”

Receiving no cooperation from the man, Vor knew what he would have to do next, and he wasn’t proud of it, but this slaver was far down on the last of people for whom he felt sympathy. He drew his long skinning knife. “You are going to tell me.”

Like it wasn’t already obvious that a gurgled curse wasn’t the answer Vor wanted. Why tell us that, as if we are stupid? And obviously, anything but an answer was continued non-cooperation. No one is so slow in the uptake that this needs to be spelled out so. Wasted words, the kind that push the covers of a book too far apart. I guess it’s easier than writing…

Okay, that was waspish, but I dislike this immensely. It is lazy, it radiates ‘phoning it in.’ If you are trying to improve your writing, this is one of the best and most important lessons you can absorb. Where humanly possible, show rather than tell. It will read smoother, cleaner and your reader will not be jarred, nor have her intelligence insulted. ‘Like your reader’ includes ‘respect your reader.’ This means that you write clean stuff that doesn’t waste her time or treat her like she isn’t smart enough to figure out a cue.

Anyone who considers him or herself in the intermediate phases of developing writing skill is welcome to rewrite either passage in comments, and I’ll be glad to make some observations. Show me how it should have been done.


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