Distracted by the Mechanics

In last week’s post about what I’m reading lately I mentioned that I’m enjoying, The Affinity Bridge by George Mann.  It’s a fun read with some unexpected twists, plenty of action and a well drawn setting. It’s a steampunk detective story, kind of like an X-Files episode with a Victorian voice,  and if you follow this blog you know that I’m on a bit of a steampunk kick lately.

I saw a blog post somewhere (can’t remember where) that talked about how the larger steampunk movement, the costumes and props part of it, is defined by revealing the inner workings of things–the mechanics underlying a gadget, or even an article of clothing. Gears and straps and buckles are often visible through the outer layers. Whoever it was that made this observation went on to ponder when and how steampunk books would work this in. Would there be a trend toward stories that self-consciously reveal the inner workings of the writing process? What would that look like?

I don’t know, but I like the idea, and I’ll probably experiment with it at some point.  I can dig meta-fiction, if it’s not too heavy handed (King’s Dark Tower series pulls it off with unusual grace).  Unfortunately, while reading The Affinity Bridge, I’ve been distracted by the mechanics of the prose in a way that’s not so good.

I do like the book, and in many ways Mann is a skilled writer, but he has a deep and abiding love for a kind of sentence that has become a pet peeve for me: the ing construction.

In Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, in the chapter titled, “Sophistication,” the authors take on the problem with sentences like this one from The Affinity Bridge, in which our hero is engaged in a fist fight on top of a moving train:

“Gasping, Newbury hoisted himself higher, wedging his foot on the buffer and pulling himself into a standing position, balancing tentatively on the railing.”

The problem with this kind of construction is that it forces simultaneity on actions that are meant to occur in series. Look at all of the ing words in that sentence: gasping, hoisting, wedging, pulling, balancing. They are red flags for this kind of problem which is also sometimes created by overuse of sentences that start with as.

Watching the character Newbury in my mind’s eye, I know that he isn’t really gasping and hoisting and wedging and pulling and balancing all at the same time. Maybe he’s gasping while hoisting himself up onto the train roof, but he can’t be balancing on the railing atop the train while simultaneously pulling himself up.  If I were editing this sentence, I would fix it like this:

Gasping, Newbury hoisted himself higher, wedged his foot on the buffer and pulled himself into a standing position, balanced tentatively on the railing.

I might also cut “tentatively” while I’m at it because Browne and King (as well as Stephen King, no relation) have taught me to be ruthless about adverbs. But I think this one probably works and can stay.

The Affinity Bridge is chock full of ing sentences, especially when Mann turns up the action. So that was a big distraction for me in a book that otherwise has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, after weeding this stuff out of my own manuscript, I can’t not see it when I read for pleasure. Which brings me to the realization that the more I write and the more I study the craft of writing, the less I will be able to read just for pleasure. Reading is also a time for working the editorial part of my brain now.

I always envied people who could experience music as just a holistic emotional substance, without analyzing how the guitar part is interacting with the bass line, or how there’s too much reverb on the snare drum. Oh well, I guess to love any art form is to kill it and autopsy it.


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