I’m reading the first book – an Advance Reader Copy, no less! – of Helen Lowe‘s keenly anticipated Wall of Night series, The Heir of Night. Enjoying it enormously so far. It’s classic fantasy, complete with a more-than-usually-interesting proto-heroine in Malian. But there are twists that I recognise as uniquely Helen – the semi martial-arts combat training early on (which sounds like a ghastly genre mashup, but actually works very well), the down-to-earth-ness of the heroine. And the language too, which acknowledges the history of English-language fantasy, but doesn’t feel like it’s been patched together from old Tolkein.
But what caught my attention just now, and what prompted this post, was catching sight of one of those bits of quiet skill that marks her as a genuinely good writer. It seems absurdly simple, but thinking about it, it’s something that I’ve noticed in other really good writers. It’s the knack (or skill, or art) of writing beyond – not just ending a chapter, or a sentence. But keeping things flowing a few phrases longer, so that the book feels like something growing into existence around you. An example, from the end of chapter 12. Our two young protagonists have been (temporarily) saved from danger by a long gone hero, and sent back to the fray. The hero and one of the other powerful entities have done the heroic equivalent of housekeeping, and depart too. (Sorry – conveying context without revealing the story is hard to manage.) From a technical point of view, the ‘housekeeping’ serves as a nifty piece of exposition, so lots of authors would end the chapter there and get back to the drama and the action as soon as possible. But not Helen. I’ll give you the last paragraph, from the departures (names omitted so I don’t spoil anything for future readers) to the end of the chapter:
“And you,” _____ replied. She let the handful of flame slip back onto the fire in a shower of sparks that flared briefly, then extinguished. Slowly, the moon disappeared from view—and the fire went out altogether as the hero vanished. The golden cloud began to contract, dwindling again into a ball of light before it, too, disappeared. Only the trees, and the distant stars, and a circle of charred earth remained, in a while the white mist came flowing in over everything, damp and cold, as though the glade and the fire had never been.
It would have been so easy – and so safe – to simply leap from the goodbyes to the beginning of the next chapter. Does the story require any of those extra details? I have no idea. Don’t care. It’s just a lovely example of pacing and mood and control. It would get irksome if every chapter ended that way, and most don’t. But there are passages like that all the way through, where a less confident writer would rush to bring on the next set of fireworks.
It’s something I have noticed-without-noticing before. Poets do it too – WS Merwin and Louise Glück come to mind. Early Seamus Heaney. It’s so easy to amputate the end of a poem, or story. “Cut to the chase”, and all that. Much harder to know – and to manage – to let the story, the poem, the song, flow along in its own time, and end where it wants to end. I’m hopeless at it – I give up too soon, stop writing too soon. Sharpen my knife and my bone saw. I’m always worried about poems trailing off into a damp puddle, or acquiring a daggy bottom and rattling when they run. Plus I like fireworks. And I’m much better at short intense bursts than I am at long, sustained effort. Haiku, rather than sagas. Sprints, rather than marathons. (Chocolate, not potatoes?) (Give up now.)
I’m biased of course – Helen is a close friend (hence my ARC!) But this is good writing. Really good writing. Not that I’m surprised. But I think I may have to take over her social calendar and make sure she has no life for the next year or two, until the rest of the series is finished and safe on my bookshelf.
All those in favour?