Yesterday I picked up Naomi Novik’s first novel, HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON, and was immediately derailed by the first paragraph. I thought it would be interesting to anatomize the problems I had — not because they’re crippling or unique indictments of Novik’s work, but because they’re examples of the kind of thinking that I find myself doing a lot, but rarely explicitly, during revision of my own work. Here’s the passage in full:
The deck of the French ship was slippery with blood, heaving in the choppy sea; a stroke might easily bring down the man making it as the intended target. Laurence did not have time in the heat of the battle to be surprised at the degree of resistance, but even through the numbing haze of battle-fever and the confusion of swords and pistol-smoke, he marked the extreme look of anguish on the French captain’s face as the man shouted encouragement to his men.
And here are my line-by-line comments.
The deck of the French ship was slippery with blood, heaving in the choppy sea
Is the ship heaving or the blood? Obviously it’s the ship, but the modifier isn’t crystal-clear; the ambiguity nudges us out of the story even as we’re trying to ease in.
a stroke might easily bring down the man making it as the intended target.
In the slim context we’ve got, it’s not clear that “make a stroke” means “attack with a sword.” This actually wouldn’t be clear in almost any context — “make” and “stroke” are both very abstract, polysemous terms — but surely “a cut,” “a thrust,” or “a sword-stroke” would improve the clarity. “sword-stroke” isn’t exactly euphonious, of course.
Laurence did not have time in the heat of the battle
Cliché, I think not unavoidable.
to be surprised at the degree of resistance
“Degree” and “resistance” are, again, highly abstract, polysemous terms, and as in “make a stroke” the ambiguity of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Just off the top of my head, “fervor” and “ferocity” both dominate “degree”; with “ferocity” the meaning of “resistance” becomes unmistakable. (Of course it’s clear what “resistance” means in battle, but remember, despite the verbiage I’ve expended thus far, we’re only a sentence and a half into the novel; the context of battle is only firmly set on rereading.)
but even through the numbing haze of battle-fever and the confusion of swords and pistol-smoke
“The numbing haze of battle-fever” is more evocative than the abstract phrases I’ve been complaining about, but it’s still confusing. A haze is a visual effect, often produced by (e.g.) smog or heat, so the idea that it would be “numbing” is a little bit odd — wouldn’t the numbing thing be whatever’s throwing off the haze? Which would appear, I suppose, to be the battle-fever (but remember, we’re talking here of “the numbing haze of battle-fever,” not “the numbness and haze of battle-fever,” which is straightforward if noneuphonious, or even “the numb haze…”). Finally, “battle-fever” isn’t something most readers have experienced. Fantasy readers may think they know what it means, but thankfully it only has sensory correlates for a fairly small group of people. So it’s not a very good image in the end.
Now that I look at it, the hyphen-juxtaposition of “battle-fever” and “pistol-smoke” is also maybe not so great, but it didn’t nag the first time around, so I’m not too fussed.
he marked the extreme look of anguish on the French captain’s face
As opposed to the diffident look of anguish? Anguish is definitionally extreme. For that matter, as opposed to the extreme smell of anguish? When you perceive an emotion on a face, you do it visually, unless you’re Daredevil. “The anguish on the French captain’s face” does all the work of the longer phrase.
as the man shouted encouragement to his men.
The problem here is left as an exercise to the reader. (Also, it’s a slightly funny thing for the French captain to do, since he surrenders his sword like a cheese-eating monkey in literally the next sentence. But, you know, these French are notoriously inconstant.)
Just to repeat myself: I don’t bear any animus against Novik, and I don’t mean to suggest that the problems in her first paragraph irretrievably taint the rest of the book, much less the other books. (As of this writing I’ve only read through the first chapter of HMD, which has waaaay too many semicolons but is otherwise just fine.) I also don’t mean to imply that I don’t live in a glass house in this respect. If this is anything, it’s a useful bit of didactics, a worked example of the kind of thinking that needs to underlie revision.