Help (and some concerns) on identifying Joe Abercrombie's writing style

arzier

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I read a blog this week (danged if I can find the link, though) from an agent, which argues that some of the editorial process has been shifted to agents because publishing is so competitive at the moment that anything less than polished has little chance of being taken by a publisher. That's certainly been my experience - editorially my agent has really pushed me to make sure it's polished and good and right.

On the subject of what standard/norms published writing should fall into. I adore Lois McMaster Bujold. But she leaves off question marks all the time, she uses dodgy speech allocations (he grimaced, he applauded and the like) her prose sometimes makes me wince. But her storytelling is phenomenal. As is Joe's (although I'm not the biggest fan. I'd like to be...) Mieville has beautiful prose, but I can't get into his stories at all.

What I'm trying to say - badly - is that dissecting individual passages to tell if the book works isn't helpful. It's the whole, it's the complete skills set- the characters, the story, the arcs, the language. And, of course we improve as we go, cos all of that is painfully hard to achieve.

I agree, if you can look past Abercrombie's writing style and immerse yourself within his world, you are bound to get a taste of originality as well as in-depth character developments.
 

Bick

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JonH said:
We don't read books for one reason only, or people who like reading beautiful prose would only read classic authors at their best.
We don't indeed, we read them for several reasons. Just as writing quality isn't everything, nor is story everything. We all have a minimum quality expectation for a published work. For me, if it drops below a certain level I can't be bothered with it. I don't know Abercrombie well enough to know if he's above or below that level but the excerpts and comments here do suggest that he's not exactly refined his craft yet.

springs said:
I adore Lois McMaster Bujold. But she leaves off question marks all the time, she uses dodgy speech allocations (he grimaced, he applauded and the like) her prose sometimes makes me wince. But her storytelling is phenomenal.
I wonder with authors like this, would it be so hard to learn to write properly? You're a professional writer for goodness sake; have some pride in the craft.
 

Jo Zebedee

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I wonder with authors like this, would it be so hard to learn to write properly? You're a professional writer for goodness sake; have some pride in the craft.

Ah, but all of them apart from the question marks (which I think is sometimes a style choice to give a flat, rhetoric delivery) work imho. They break lots of rules, they'd be demolished in crits, but without them the flow would be disturbed and we wouldn't have Miles' voice and, as a whole, the prose might be nicer but the story not improved.
 

alchemist

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It's nearly two years since I read my only Joe novel, The Heroes, and this thread has reminded me that it took a couple of chapters to get into it. After that, however, it was one of the best Fantasy novels I've read (although it only fits the Fantasy genre in a loose sense, there being nothing fantastical about it).

The quotes from earlier in the thread work fine for me. The sentences could have been cut up to fit with a more accepted style, but they gave the story a distinct voice which, once I'd accepted it, added to the excellent characterisation and story.
 

Hazen Sealock

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Reading The Blade Itself for the first time right now, I'm actually enjoying Abercrombie's style. It's not very polished, but it does seem to have a unique voice. There are a few ambiguities of phrasing and literary flourishes in the novel which I'd like to think are intentional. And it's weird, but I would've sworn he was a Southern writer before looking up his bio. Maybe it's just because the way he drops "-ly" off of every adverb reminds me of Huck Finn.
 

anno

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I was pointed in Abercrombies direction and picked up a couple of books but I found his books really poor and badly written,don't get the love for this guy at all...
 

Brian G Turner

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Abercrombie often writes in character voice, so the prose is inflected by vernacular of that particular character, rather than correct English.

That's why Shivers weren't always talking right. :)

I've had a friend tell me they found Best Served Cold difficult to get into - at first - especially because of this, not least when switching between Monza and Shiver's POV scenes.
 

MWagner

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I agree, if you can look past Abercrombie's writing style and immerse yourself within his world, you are bound to get a taste of originality as well as in-depth character developments.

Ah, but I'm afraid I can't. Look past the writing style, that is. Wish I could. But his prose strikes me as written by someone whose ratio of watching movies and TV to reading is very high.

We don't indeed, we read them for several reasons. Just as writing quality isn't everything, nor is story everything. We all have a minimum quality expectation for a published work. For me, if it drops below a certain level I can't be bothered with it.

Agreed. And I genuinely wish I could just let prose slide and engage only with story. But I can't. The words clang in my ears and I cannot drift into that trusting state where I let the writer take me to another world.

I wonder with authors like this, would it be so hard to learn to write properly? You're a professional writer for goodness sake; have some pride in the craft.

The quality of prose simply isn't a very important feature in commercial fiction, especially genre fiction. Storytelling and engaging characters are much more important to most readers. I find it frustrating as a reader, but I understand it. Abercrombie is clearly very good at the things most of his readers want.
 

Clockworkbot

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I think it's true that it's a writing style that derives a lot from film. I listened to an interview with him recently where he was talking about the post-First Law books (none of which i have read) coming from an idea of adapting the themes and style of three of his favourite films (A Bridge Too Far, Unforgiven and Point Blank IIRC).

For what it's worth, I really enjoyed the way in which the First Law trilogy was written. I think it's meant to feel a bit rough around the edges, so breaking a few rules, but I never found it clunky. If I didn't like anything it was that the world itself felt a little uninspired.
 

Merlinme

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I recently read the First Law trilogy, having been avoiding Abercrombie to some extent for years. I'm not sure if "enjoy" is quite the right word, but I found the novels fairly gripping and absorbing. Large parts of the plot are not very original, and a lot of the characters are close to stereotypes, but there's sufficient originality in some of the characters and their relationships and some of the plot that I got through it quite rapidly.

I got to the end feeling rather sickened though. One of the most sympathetic characters is the amoral Sand Dan Glokta, who has been badly tortured and uses horrific torture himself, all described in fairly stomach churning detail. The rest of the characters are variously idiots, cold-blooded murderers, drunks, and power-mad treacherous liars. Almost no good deed goes unpunished. It makes a change from acts of great heroism and good saving the day etc., which I guess is why Abercrombie is popular, and he writes a rollicking good read, but I did get to the end thinking "what a horrible view of humanity". As a student of history, I certainly know that there have been plenty of people have done very bad things to other people, especially at time of war and conflict. To say that all people are bad all the time is no more true than to say "good" always triumphs, though.

Leaving aside the (im)moral aspects of Abercrombie's writing, I think the film and tv comparison is about right. I think of him as fantasy for the Tarantino generation. I like Tarantino (more than I like Abercrombie, in fact), but there is a certain emphasis of style over substance, of visceral acts to get an emotional reaction from the audience. Abercrombie's worldview is even more bleak than Tarantino, perhaps reflecting that you can get away with downbeat endings in books that you can't get away with in films.
 

Toby Frost

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no good deed goes unpunished

I think that is the essence of grimdark: not so much a realistic or even bleak view of the world, but the artificial rigging of the world to give the most miserable result possible. I think there is a further similarity with Tarantino, in that it's hard to take the stories totally seriously, or to completely lose the feeling that the writer is very slightly tongue in cheek or at least aware that what he's doing is cool or, er, "ironic".

In fairness, I think the reason that a lot of the characters in The First Law feel quite familiar is because it is to a certain extent a parody (or at least a response) to older fantasy: the quest for a magic item, the wizardly benefactor, the noble barbarian, the young naïve hero and the cross-class romance (usually the other way around, with poor boy winning rich girl) are close to stock characters. One of the problems with The First Law, which I liked overall, was that once you’d figured out that it was an inversion of an old-fashioned fantasy story, you could predict chunks of it: where David Eddings would turn right and nobody would get hurt, The First Law would turn left and gore would shower the ceiling.

If I had to describe Abercrombie’s writing style, I’d say that it was an extremely close 3rd person which uses changes in writing style to reflect the inner voice of the characters. Certain phrases, such as Logan’s, “Say one thing about X, say it’s…” and Glokta’s “Floating at the docks” are repeated so often that they become catchphrases. This can be very effective. One of Logan’s last uses of the “Say one” phrase is to accurately describe what a bad man he really is, which I think works very well as a punchline.
 

The Big Peat

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I seem to be in the minority, but I wish more authors would use such conversational styles as Abercrombie's, it gives a character and a flow that I just don't find in a lot of books. I'd far rather deal with run-on sentences and endless commas then constant chop. chop. chop.
 

MWagner

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Abercrombie often writes in character voice, so the prose is inflected by vernacular of that particular character, rather than correct English.

But it's written in modern vernacular, not the vernacular of a character from another culture and world. I get why he does it - he wants to make character more familiar and accessible to modern readers. Personally, that's not what I want in fantasy or historical fiction. I don't want tough soldiers in a medieval world to talk like WW2 GIs, or street urchins to talk like modern cockneys. However, I'm clearly in the minority.
 

AnyaKimlin

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Ah, but all of them apart from the question marks (which I think is sometimes a style choice to give a flat, rhetoric delivery) work imho. They break lots of rules, they'd be demolished in crits, but without them the flow would be disturbed and we wouldn't have Miles' voice and, as a whole, the prose might be nicer but the story not improved.

I agree. Looking at the original example it was one of the better ways to get across that information. Too many shes etc can make it difficult or irritating to read.
 

Ursa major

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I don't want tough soldiers in a medieval world to talk like WW2 GIs, or street urchins to talk like modern cockneys.
So what would you be happy with?

If we all knew the origins of all the English words we read, we'd probably be no more happy with words that at first glance might chime with the era and culture of the imagined world than you are with apparently modern words**. We'd be saying things like, "But they shouldn't use that word, as English borrowed it from a language and culture not present on the author's invented world."

I suppose the best we can do, given the time available to us, is to remove the worst examples of era/culture*** inappropriate words and usages from our manuscripts. We are never going to please everyone... if only because with fewer and fewer familiar words on the page, many readers will find following the story increasingly difficult, which is the last thing most of us want.


Note: I am not talking about modern sensibilities. That is an entirely different issue, although I do understand that language can often (inadvertently) put a certain spin on events that jars with the culture being depicted. (Of course, there's nothing to say that, say, a fantasy mediaeval world would necessarily embody the same sensibilities as of one of our many mediaeval societies.)


** - Some of which might have been around for a while, just not as visible as they are now. (For instance, I was horrified to hear reporters talking about athletes medalling (winning medals) at sporting events, yet the origins of the word (with its modern meaning) lie, I believe, in Victorian times.)

*** - A few centuries ago, many books were claimed (at least within their pages) to be translations of foreign languages into the English (other languages are available) of the day. We may read them know and think how quaint and antiquated the language in such a book is, but it's likely that it wouldn't match the tale being told, but would match the "modern" English of the time in which it was written.
 

Toby Frost

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I can understand why readers wouldn’t want fantasy characters to talk like them: in particular, not to have the post-war Anglo-American vernacular. Fantasy novels tend to have at least a feeling of being in a more primitive, past time, even ones like Dragonlance where magic replaces machinery and a high-level cleric can do the work of a brain surgeon. Also, they need to feel distant as well as old.

The trouble is that writing like a real medieval person would be very hard to do, and very hard to understand (not that it's seriously suggested). Many fantasy authors tend to settle for a rather stilted English, like that from a Victorian novel, without “thee” and “thou” but the odd “yonder” thrown in. That’s fine: I could understand a writer from Jane Austen’s time and probably Cromwell’s too. For me, the problem comes with nuance. I find it hard to believe that people in “the olde days” didn’t do sarcasm or word-play outside the theatre. If I want that subtlety of language in dialogue – and the immediacy of cursing and speaking in a direct modern manner – I need modern English. Otherwise, I’d have to say “he joked” or explain every pun that a character made.

I think it’s possible to write a sort of (fairly) modern dialogue without obvious new words and Americanisms (or words like veranda, which entered English too late and from too far away to make a lot of sense in a mock-medieval setting). Where you draw the line, though, is a matter of taste. I wouldn’t use “nice” to mean “good”, for instance, because of its older meaning of “precise”. Someone else might. I felt that the speech in A Game of Thrones was a bit too antiquated, and that the dialogue in The Lies of Locke Lamora was much too modern. But I also felt that it was "inaccurate" how the heroes of Locke Lamora kept saying how much they cared about each other. My sense of them over-emoting (and sounding like modern Americans rather than Renaissance thieves as a result) probably comes from Victorian standards, not medieval/Renaissance ones. So, in as much as it matters, I may be the inaccurate one here.

And so on. Much of what we want to believe about history is a caricature, and fantasy often has to build on caricature instead of accuracy. But I'm going way off topic here, so I'm going to stop.
 

Ursa major

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We'd be saying things like, "But they shouldn't use that word, as English borrowed it from a language and culture not present on the author's invented world."
Thinking more about this, writing in English provides a particularly difficult challenge: we regularly use words that we have borrowed/stolen from numerous other languages, and we have done this right from the beginning (so it isn't just a case of importing words from the wider British Empire and, via the Roman Empire, Greece). Worse, the main sources of early English come from two different language subfamilies, Germanic and Italic. For this reason alone, we have available to us a much wider range of words for even the simplest things.

I suppose if our story was set in an empire (a long standing one), we could accept that the language used might be richer because of the incorporation of what were once foreign words (words that perhaps do not stray readily from the larger imperial cities), but wouldn't the words of, say, the stereotypical farm boy (on his way to becoming the great saviour) be much more restricted to those of his forebears and so relatively poor in the use of words derived from other languages and language groups?
 

Toby Frost

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Well, yes, and said farmboy (or noble, or questing knight or whatever) would probably have a very strange and to our eyes immoral outlook on life if his mindset was anything much more than pre-1850 or so (or maybe even 1950, depending on the circumstances). A medieval peasant had a totally different way of looking at the world to us, dominated by an angry and vengeful god. Even enlightened people and quasi-scientists like John Dee and Isaac Newton believed in all sorts of stuff that we would now call nonsense and occult.

I think the fantasy writer has to deal with this by meeting the problem halfway: the people can't be Guardian-reading intellectuals who happen to wear armour, but nor can they be benighted, fanatical weirdos who are almost impossible to like. As with language, though, the problem is where you consider "halfway" to be.
 

MWagner

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So what would you be happy with?

Language that is at least neutral. I think the historical fiction of the mid-20th century did a pretty good job with this. The characters don't sound like characters out of movies from that era*.

And speech can capture tone without using colloquialisms. I laughed out loud at some of the dialogue spoken by characters in Frans Bengtsson's the Long Ships, a novel written in 1941 and set in the 10th century (and translated from Swedish). The speech is not that of the mid 20th century, or of today, but it's accessible (to me anyway) and has character, humour, and energy.

* Abercrombie deliberately makes his characters sound like characters from a Tarantino movie, and it just doesn't work for me.

Note: I am not talking about modern sensibilities. That is an entirely different issue, although I do understand that language can often (inadvertently) put a certain spin on events that jars with the culture being depicted. (Of course, there's nothing to say that, say, a fantasy mediaeval world would necessarily embody the same sensibilities as of one of our many mediaeval societies.)

I have a tough time separating them. Dialog is one of the main ways we give insight into a character's sensibilities.

I read more history and historical fiction than fantasy. A lot more. It's very important to me that the characters' behaviour reflects their world and its values, not ours. Without that authenticity, I don't believe the fiction. I can't get past the knowledge that the story was written in the here and now by someone banging away on a keyboard in Wisconsin. It's the main reason I set aside two-thirds of fantasy novels unfinished.

Where you draw the line, though, is a matter of taste... I felt that the speech in A Game of Thrones was a bit too antiquated, and that the dialogue in The Lies of Locke Lamora was much too modern. But I also felt that it was "inaccurate" how the heroes of Locke Lamora kept saying how much they cared about each other. My sense of them over-emoting (and sounding like modern Americans rather than Renaissance thieves as a result) probably comes from Victorian standards, not medieval/Renaissance ones. So, in as much as it matters, I may be the inaccurate one here.

That's a good point. It has been remarked about I, Claudius that it's the Roman world through the eyes (and words) of upper-middle-class Edwardian England.

However, while I agree that characters in a world modelled after our Renaissance would likely be more overtly emotional than Victorians, I don't think they would express emotion in the same way modern Americans do. My sense is they would be much more volatile - in anger, humour, grief, etc. We have accounts of figures of that era having public tantrums and expressing grief in ways that would be shocking today. It's those kind of differences I find engaging in characters in worlds different from our own. I recognise most readers find them off-putting, though Martin seems to have found an audience for books where the characters do not speak and behave much like modern people.
 

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