Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Book of Names - Day 3

This is the final day of the blog tour highlighting The Book of Names, a young adult fantasy novel by D. Barkley Briggs, author of scientific thriller, The God Spot, and modern-day parable, The Most Important Little Boy in the World.

The previous two days have included my niece's praises; today's my turn, but the praise will be mixed with the observations of a critical eye.

I'm an editor--often a blessing, sometimes a curse--so the positives come first, followed by the persnickety editor stuff.

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Positives

Here are the reasons I think The Book of Names is a good read:

1) In the first chapter is a cool description of a mysterious sky, and the passage ends with this evocative sentence: "Like God had put Van Gogh in charge for the day." There are more excellent images like that throughout the story.

2) Great line (and solid theology) on page 90:
"Providence is never mistaken," said Eldoran. "Only misunderstood."
3) Humor, such as this line on page 88, when the Barlow brothers are trying to convince the monks the boys are not the Champions, and they just want to go home:
I'll take 'Sorry to Disappoint You' for $200, Alex, he thought.
4) Flogg the gnome's speech pattern resembles that of Gurgi, a humorous character in the late Lloyd Alexander's series of fantasy novels, The Chronicles of Prydain, which I read multiple times when I was a kid (and now own, in reprints of the original covers).

5) The relationship among the brothers is well done. Having a younger brother, my only sibling, I can identify with the two older boys--Hadyn and Ewan--since their age difference is close to that between my brother and me. We picked on each other, wounded each other, stuck up for each other, and once risked our lives (he was 8, I was 11), and we're best friends, despite times when we weren't sure we could stand being on the same planet, let alone in the same car.

6) Interesting characters and setting.

7) The interweaving of familiar mythology and tropes with good writing, making the old seem fresh and intriguing.

Also, the whole notion of The Book of Names is very cool, that the names and deeds of everyone in Karac Tor--past, present, future--is recorded in a vast collection of scrolls. Brings to mind Psalm 139:
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.
Awesome way to link fiction and scripture.

8) Lots of action; the story rarely stands still, and there's plenty of tension and conflict. But every good tale needs lulls in the activity--even in suspense novels or thrillers--to give the characters and the reader a chance to breathe, look around, prepare for what comes next, and The Book of Names has a good pace.

9) The unexpected: The scene beginning on page 113, when the Flight of Crows appears, and the Nameless beat on the Stone House and call the boys to come outside, reads like a scene from a horror film, but that's not a bad thing. Danger is imminent, tension is high, and the heroes are not unscathed. (And I'm surprised my niece didn't have nightmares about it. In our annual viewing of The Hobbit, at the part when the goblins arrived or the spiders appeared, she used to huddle up next to me, close her eyes, and ask me to tell her when it was safe to look again.)

10) The children / teenagers are truly the heroes of the tale, and not just bystanders while the adults do all the heavy lifting. Thus, when young people pick up this book, they can identify with the main characters and feel like participants in the story.

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Negatives

This is where the nitpicking begins. It's not my intention to tear down the work of a fellow writer, or to demean a good story well told. In editing, my job is to point out weaknesses and errors in unpublished work so the writer can correct it before publication. As evidenced by a sampling of items listed below, The Book of Names could have benefited from a fine-toothed comb approach in the editing process.

On page 14, the second sentence of the first full paragraph doesn't say what the author intended:
Yet standing alone in the field , bundled in flannel, something else prickled his skin--something hidden in the rhythm of the day, at its core--and it wasn't just the chill wind.
This may seem a small thing--why pick on a sentence that vividly evokes setting and atmosphere?--but it's the small stuff that matters, that keeps up the illusion of reality in a work of fiction. The problem with the sentence lies at the beginning: Yet standing alone in the field , bundled in flannel, something else prickled his skin. Was the "something else" standing alone in a field and bundled in flannel? Of course not, but that's what the sentence says.

On the same page (and in various other places in the book) are those vile ellipses--those dot-dot-dots--that are so commonly misused that most writers look at me in confusion when I point out the problem. (An ellipsis is supposed to indicate words that exist but that are missing from a quote, or spoken but unheard portions of written dialogue. It is not meant to indicate words that are never spoken, or thoughts that trail into nothingness, but that is the common misuse.)

Other quibbles: the "rolling the eyes" thing gets on my nerves; the up-crop of cliches i.e. "as different as night and day" or "make no guarantees" or "mad as a hornet"; the use of second-person "you" on the first page of the story (and later throughout); and dead spots in the otherwise excellent writing, which is why I didn't get into the story until late in the first chapter, and why I disliked the first page. Yet there's a good mix of mystery, characterization, and back story in the first chapter.

Chapter 5, "Dreamsong", is good, and I was totally into the story, but then a sentence near the middle of page 58 jerked me up short:
He glided along, ambivalent to the snapping of twigs underfoot.
Perhaps Briggs meant "oblivious," which would make sense with the action, but ambivalent? Did the character feel uncertain about the sound of snapping twigs? Did he have differing opinions?

Again, same chapter, good storytelling and a funny scene is interrupted by a poor word choice:
The moment the thing slipped down his shirt, whatever it was, bug or mouse, Ewan became Elasto-Boy, contorting, shrieking, flailing his arms, whipping and cavorting about.
"Cavorting about" invokes tumbling or gymnastics, some sort of playing, not the crazy dance many of us do when we're trying to dislodge a critter or an ice cube from our clothing.

I'm all for using sentence fragments and breaking other writing rules if they are done well or make a point. However, there's an incompleteness to the following use of a sentence fragment on page 73--and, like the above discussion of misused ellipses, it highlights another common grammatical misuse, that of the word "so":
Ewan exhaled, nearly collapsing. He had been tensing every muscle for so long.
So long that what? So long that they felt like Jell-O? So long that they felt like knotted rope? A lot could have been done with that sentence to further the action, the characterization, the reader's involvement in the story.

Or, a simple fix: Ewan exhaled, nearly collapsing, he had been tensing every muscle for so long. Change the punctuation, and the thought is complete, the sentence structure becomes elegant.

I could point put more stuff, but the nitpicking ends here. (What a relief, eh?)

As much of an annoying perfectionist as I am, I often find it difficult to turn off the editor and let myself just settle into a story, let it carry me along. Briggs probably has a number of people reading his work before it ever hits the press, but I wish someone had caught some of those small details so that the story would have flowed, unhindered by these little twigs sticking up out of the water, signals to a river captain there's a much larger obstacle concealed beneath.

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The Book of Names is published by NavPress, and their story and purpose can be read here. An American Chronicle interview with author D. Barkley Briggs is available here.

Check out other opinions of The Book of Name by visiting the list of CSFF Blog Tour participants in the left-hand sidebar of this blog.

3 comments:

Eaglewing said...

I enjoyed this 3 part "book report", especially the kid's point of view from your niece. Always interesting what captures a younger person's attention. This post was enlightening too, with things pointed out from an editors eye that I would never have thought about in writing.

As a side note though, there are many times I just can't make up my mind on how I really feel about snapping twigs. It's a conundrum I'm ambivalent about :)

Valerie Comer said...

My understanding on the ellipses is that in fiction, correct usage is different than non-fiction, and that Mr. Briggs' use of them is correct. But I'm not a copyeditor, and have often been proven wrong.

I also felt that use of another fine-tooth comb (to use a cliche!) would have served well.

KEANAN BRAND said...

Eagle - I know what you mean. I just can't seem to make up my mind.

Valerie - "Rules is rules!" (laugh)

Fiction or nonfiction, the whole reason ellipses exist is to indicate the omission of existing words, either written or spoken. Even the name--"ellipsis"--lets us know we are coming back around to the point.

Therefore, a voice fading away just needs to be called a voice fading away, or the writer needs to employ some other creative way of telling the reader what's happening. However, if a writer wants a shortcut for interrupted or fading speech, I find an em dash works very well, looks strong on the page, and is more appropriate punctuation than dot-dot-dot.

Enough! I can stand on a soap box all day about this. Sorry!