Thog's Masterclass

Thog in PCW Plus

Thog even managed to sneak into a computer magazine column -- my last for PCW Plus. The complete run of Langford columns for this and associated Amstrad PCW mags can be found here.

An early and much-appreciated 1996 Christmas present was my copy of Sarah LeFanu's Writing Fantasy Fiction (A&C Black, £8.99). Besides containing much good advice, this quotes me, and instructs aspiring writers to read my SF newsletter, and -- best of all -- recommends study of the awful warnings in the newsletter's 'Thog's Masterclass' department.

What is Thog's Masterclass? Good question. This is named for Thog the Mighty, a dimwitted barbarian hero invented by fantasy novelist John Grant ... who like me does much reviewing and copyediting, and likes to collect specimens of barbarous prose which somehow get into print. This isn't just nitpicking. Thog's focus on how things can go wrong invites a closer look at one's own sentences. It's also encouraging to see that published -- even best-selling -- authors commit such bloopers.

One problem is failing to visualize what's being described. 'He lifted her tee-shirt over her head. Her silk panties followed.' (Peter F. Hamilton, Mindstar Rising.) Or: 'The green fur made it look like a Terran gorilla more than anything.' (Michael Kring, The Space Mavericks.) Or: 'Sweat broke out on his brow as he wrestled with his brain....' (Julian Flood, 'Control'.)

It's also unwise to forget what you wrote in the previous sentence. 'Susan awoke to an absolute silence: the traffic outside the hotel had been utterly stilled. John was in the bathroom -- she could hear the shower running.' (Robert Charles Wilson, The Divide.) Or, indeed, in the same sentence: 'So instantaneous and final were these lethal rays that the destructive act was over in but a few minutes.' (Nal Rafcam, The Troglodytes.) 'The brassy September blue overhead had been obscured by invisible storm clouds.' (Emil Petaja, The Nets of Space.)

The ambiguities of English make it all too easy to write sentences that can be read in a way you didn't intend -- like the famous newspaper headline POLICE FOUND SAFE UNDER BED. 'She knew how to embroider and milk a cow.' (Connie Willis, Doomsday Book.) 'He swept the antechamber with the eyes of a trapped animal.' (Poul Anderson, 'Among Thieves') 'Something jumped in the back of Morgon's throat. It was huge, broad as a farmhorse, with a deer's delicate, triangular face.' (Patricia McKillip, The Riddle-Master of Hed.)

Even famous authors do it! Unlikely Geography Dept: 'She wore large bronze earrings made in an obscure country which rattled when she laughed.' (Brian Aldiss, Remembrance Day.) Implausible Physiological Tricks: 'His mouth, for a moment, ran liquid and then it slid, almost of its own accord, down his throat.' (Isaac Asimov, Prelude to Foundation.)

Want to write evocatively, poetically? Beware of excess: 'When they finished eating, they would lie silently under the blankets until sleep shuffled over the roofs to the leaded skylight and threw itself down on them, sprawling like a wanton over their faces.' (Felicity Savage, Humility Garden.) 'Arias plunged his blue-grey regard into hers.' (Anne Gay, To Bathe in Lightning.) --- that is, he stared into her eyes. 'Her very existence made his forebrain swell until it threatened to leak out his sinuses.' (Nancy A. Collins, Sunglasses After Dark.)

Similes are fraught with pitfalls. This SF description of a space elevator seems, er, understated: 'Just to the south of them, the new Socket was like a titanic concrete bunker, the new elevator cable rising out of it like an elevator cable ...' (Kim Stanley Robinson, Green Mars.) Next, horror combines with fruit salad: 'His head suddenly began to peel, the flesh tearing away from the bone in ragged strips, like a pink banana.' (Robert Holdstock, The Stalking) And this one makes you wonder about the author's kids: 'They were featureless and telic, like lambent gangrene. They looked horribly like children.' (Stephen R.Donaldson, White Gold Wielder.)

Occasionally, the problem is just thickwittedness: 'He absorbed Latin in two hours yesterday! It took me a whole year just to learn the Latin alphabet.' (Screenplay, The Lawnmower Man.)

In fact, authors are human and make mistakes. But Thog's bloopers are multiple mistakes, since in an ideal world the editor, copyeditor or proofreader should catch these things. Sometimes they do, only to be overruled. Consider this sentence from the proofs of Robert Jordan's doorstop fantasy blockbuster The Fires of Heaven: 'Elayne wished the woman would just revert to herself instead of bludgeoning her with a lady's maid from the Pit of Doom.' Alerted by the daft image of bludgeoning someone with a maid, one reader issued a warning query. And lo! the author realized that the sentence could indeed be improved, and he carefully altered 'the Pit of Doom' to 'the Blight'. Oh dear....