I've been thinking about style a lot lately. Those who like my writing generally praise my plots and my characters, but nobody (including me) thinks I'm a great stylist. My style tends to be plain narrative embellished with, at best, an expansive vocabulary, and while now and then I have attempted a few stylistic flourishes, I rarely think much about prose stylings either in my first draft or in subsequent editing.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing; a lot of good (and successful) writers don't emphasize style. From Nancy Kress's Write Great Fiction: Characters, Emotion, & Viewpoint:
That this particular passage could be transformed so easily only points up that Follett writes in what is called “transparent prose style.” This means that he writes plain, straightforward prose more interested in advancing the plot than creating an individual style.
Now I am contemplating whether I should experiment a little more with style, trying to develop a more distinct voice. I don't think I'm going to do that with my Alexandra Quick books, but I am pondering what to write next in the way of original fiction.
I have several ideas (including one that would be basically fan fiction with the serial numbers filed off — no, not AQ or even anything Potter-related), but nothing that has quite gelled into The Next Novel I Want to Write. So I am considering trying my hand at short stories, something I have not done in a long time outside of fan fiction.
At one time, aspiring SF&F writers always began by breaking into the short story market before they were likely to get novels published. Nowadays, most industry professionals will tell you that short stories and novels are largely independent of one another in terms of success; some authors do both, and quite well, but there's a lot less pressure on debut authors to establish a publishing history in magazines first. Also, the short story market for SF&F is kind of pathetic compared to what it once was.
(And for those wondering about my SF novel — so far I have a single nibble from a possibly interested agent who requested sample chapters, and other than that it's been nothing but form rejections.)
So, let's get to Chapter 10, and the reason I went off on this tangent.
Chapter 10 — Dark Arts
Students were spilling into the hallways in a sleepy daze. The chaos helped the returning Mors Mortis Society members. Alexandra mingled with the other girls pouring down the stairs from Delta Delta Kappa Tau hall, and hardly anyone seemed to notice that she was fully dressed.
Anna did, however. Wearing a robe tightly wrapped around herself, and fuzzy red slippers, she shuffled towards Alexandra with an odd expression. “Where have you been?” she asked.
“Just out, with some other kids,” Alexandra muttered.
Anna looked confused and a little hurt, but there was no opportunity for her to question Alexandra further. Janet Jackson was loudly demanding to know what was going on, almost in a panic. Sonja Rackham rubbed her eyes sleepily and told Janet to quit shouting. Constance and Forbearance, wearing heavy robes over their long sleeping gowns, walked barefoot down the hall, hastily pushing loose strands of hair back up beneath their nightcaps. They looked worried as they caught up to Alexandra and Anna.
There are all kinds of reasons why the above paragraphs are poorly written. Not terribly written, just completely lacking in style, or control of verb tenses. The descriptions are all right, as I think I adequately conveyed the panic and chaos, and the interpersonal dynamics going on between Alexandra and Anna, but those are some weak sentences burdened with unnecessary adverbs and my habitual overuse of "looked."
I do still like the scene with Alexandra waking up Angelique — as apparently do many other readers, since Honey seems to be a bit of a fan favorite.
(A few people have asked me about Angelique since she got written out of book four. You will be happy to know she'll be back — kind of — in book five. :))
In this chapter, in the wake of Alexandra's outing with the Mors Mortis Society, Dean Grimm gives everyone a lecture about pureblood supremacy. This chapter is one of the few places in the entire series where I mention Voldemort by name.
After the speech, Darla Dearborn is expelled from Charmbridge, and Alexandra's friends finally confront her directly about her involvement in the MMS. When she refuses to disavow her association with them, she finds herself shunned by everyone.
I think I could have made Alexandra's moral wrangling much more compelling if I hadn't weakened it by having Anna promptly forgive her and accept her half-assed "Just trust me" speech. Okay, on rereading this chapter, I'll admit that in this case, at least, Anna really was a doormat.
Alexandra confronts Max over his bullying, and gets more mixed signals from him.
No sooner is Darla expelled than she's back.
“You don't look happy, Miss Quick,” Grimm said, in a pleasant tone. “Are you not satisfied with the sincerity of your friend's apology?”
Alexandra frowned. Right now, she was not at all sure that 'friend' was even remotely accurate in describing her relationship with Darla.
“I'm just wondering,” she responded, trying to match Grimm's light, conversational tone, “if you'd let me back into Charmbridge after I tried to cast a Killing Curse at someone.”
Grimm stared at her without blinking, then replied, in a much flatter tone, “If you cast a Killing Curse at someone, Alexandra, I think it's much more likely that someone would be dead.”
Alexandra frowned. She wasn't sure how to take that.
Alexandra has never been very good at reading subtext, but she did pick up on the fact that Darla's sudden return was not the Dean's choice, and that Darla's family has a lot of pull.
This chapter is also the first time that Charlie speaks:
“Alexandra,” said Charlie.
Both girls jumped, stared at each other, and then at the raven. Even Jingwei blinked her large golden eyes at the smaller bird in surprise.
Alexandra grinned. She reached for a handful of Jingwei's owl treats, withdrawing her hand quickly to avoid the owl's snapping beak, and held them out to Charlie. “How about, 'Alexandra is brilliant, awesome, and wonderful...'”
“... stubborn, troublesome, full of herself...” Anna commented.
Following this, Alexandra goes to the next MMS meeting, finds Darla there, and they get their next lesson in Dark Arts. And here, Alexandra has one of her defining moments.
“Are you serious? You're teaching a spell to torture animals?” Alexandra was still staring at the snake. Its tongue flickered in and out, feebly, as if hoping to find a way to escape whatever had just hurt it so badly.
“We have to practice on animals,” John replied slowly, as if explaining something to a small child. “It's just a damned snake, Quick. What is it with you and snakes?”
Several kids snickered. Alexandra lifted her gaze to stare directly at him.
“Practice for what?” she asked.
John blinked. “What?”
“If snakes are just for practice, what would you use that spell on normally?”
The snickering stopped. A few kids shifted restlessly.
As many readers pointed out, had Alexandra stayed in the MMS after this, she would have crossed a point of no return. In a sense, it revealed that she really doesn't have what it takes to be truly Dark, and that might somewhat weaken the hints I've laid that she could go that way if pushed hard enough. But certainly she would have lost her ability to be anything but an anti-hero if she'd gone along with torturing animals with the Cruciatus Curse.
So, this chapter tests Alexandra's friendships, pushes Darla further along the path taking her to the events of the next book, hints at the growing tension between Darla and Angelique (I have commented before that Darla was a dark reflection of Alexandra, and in her own way, Angelique was as dominated by Darla as Anna is by Alex), ties Alexandra's world (loosely) to the canon one, turns Charlie loquacious, introduces Nigel, and establishes a line Alexandra will not cross.
An eventful chapter. I still gotta work on style, though.