Sunday, December 28, 2008

Alas, If Only I'd Known Then How Dreadful Things Would Become!

Thank you to everyone who voted in our poll and commented on my question about whether to send out rejections right before Christmas or wait until January. I took your advice, and we sent out a very large number of rejection letters on Monday. Yes, I cringed at the timing, and I suspect some of the recipients did, too. But at least we can all move on now. (In case you're wondering, that leaves a bit more than 50 manuscripts on my desk, a much more manageable number.)

I had nine holiday parties in six days, three of which were at my home -- an open house for 60, a buffet supper for 45, and a formal dinner for 13. With the schedule like that, I knew I would have very little time for work this week, and that even when I would have the time, I would not have the energy. At a blistering migraine into the mix, and you'll see why after Monday's blitz of rejection letters, I accomplished almost nothing for the rest of the week.

I did, however, do a little reading.

"Yet as vast as my dreams might be, I'd no notion then of how far and fast we'd rise, John Churchill and I -- nor how far we'd tumble, too, like angels cast down from heaven itself."
-- Duchess, a Novel of Sarah Churchill, by Susan Holloway Scott, Page 122

I started this novel with high hopes, and at first, it was every bit as good as I wanted it to be. Restoration England was a fascinating place, and I was already somewhat familiar with what the story of how John and Sarah Churchill rose to prominence and eventually became the first Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. But after the premise of the book was established -- the arrival of 13-year-old Sarah Jennings to the court of Charles II, her connection to the household of the Duchess of York, her budding friendship with the young Anne, who would eventually become the last Stuart monarch -- I began to notice a little tic in the prose.

"By the time John returned home in October of 1678 and fetched me back to London, a new madness had seized the country, and our lives together would begin a course from which there'd be no return."
-- page 124

It's a well written book, really. And perhaps we must make some allowances for the fact that I read too damned much. I'm jaded. More than that, I'm perhaps too sensitive to little flourishes like this.

"My role was both to oblige the Princess in every way, and to keep my silence for my own politics and personal opinions were concerned. Alas, as my life would show, I was by nature far better suited to the one than the other."
-- page 158

I can't read one of these without hearing a musical crescendo. You remember those old TV shows, usually soap operas and other melodramas, that used this device? A character would make some terrible pronouncement, and then the orchestra would blare: Duhn-da-DUH! It was meant to heighten suspense, but it was heavy-handed enough that it quickly became material for comics.

"James was crowned the new King, free at last to rule as he pleased, and life for all of us would never again be the same."
-- page 176

It's perhaps unfair of me to draw a comparison between this book and TV shtick. Really, it's a well-written book. But I can't help noticing the number of chapters that end with this little rhetorical flourish. I didn't even have to look very hard to find all the examples I'm using in this post. They're not at the end of every chapter or scene. In fact, they're not even in the majority, and most of the scenes have well-crafted endings. That makes it a bigger shame, really. A beautiful book has been marred by a few lesser sentences, and it would've been so easy to edit these out.

"We had gambled, yes, but we had won. Surely luck -- grand, glorious, wicked luck -- was now tucked deep in my pocket, and I meant to do everything in my power to keep it there. But luck, I learned, had notions of its own."
-- page 227

You hear the crescendo? The writer is building us up for some great fall. By the time I had gotten halfway into the book, I was beginning to wonder if the book would rewrite history and have the Duke of Marlborough executed for high treason. But I know something of this man's story. I knew before I bought this book that he died of old age and was mourned as a great hero.

"It seemed to me my sister's life had become no more than a sorry testament to the unfortunate choices she’d made; I’d no notion then that our fates would cross one last time."
-- page 253

Of course, the author is not rewriting history, but trying to layer some additional tension into the story. I think it was unnecessary. This is a story built on political scandal, revolution, war, and the kind of intrigue and jockeying for position that could only happen in the court of a monarch. People plot. People take great risks. People escape from captivity in the dead of night one step ahead of the executioner's blade. There is so much drama inherent in the story that these little predictions of doom are a bit of overkill. Much better to let the plot and conflict carry the weight of the drama.

Perhaps this would bother me less if she had used this technique less frequently. Or perhaps I'm too picky. In any case, when you're trying to find an emotional note to close a chapter or scene, let me suggest that you stick to something established by the scene itself. Think of it this way: Emotion borrowed from the future will have to be paid back with interest. Are you willing to pay that price?



Susan Helene Gottfried said...

There's a best-selling author (and book club darling) who ends almost every single section and chapter with this sort of melodrama.

I've quit reading her. It's just too manipulative of me, and I don't appreciate that.

green_knight said...

This is a pet peeve of mine. Knowing what happens later invalidates the events of the here and now; I want to be surprised by events.

Anonymous said...

"Emotion borrowed from the future will have to be paid back with interest. Are you willing to pay that price?"

That's a great way to put it -- and a good reminder.

I'm with you and the others. You can use that technique exactly once in a novel. And things better get worse -- a lot worse.