The Precise Moment I Stopping Reading City of Bones

by Wardog

Wardog is probably a bit patronising.
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Like all inflexible people, I like to think of myself as being relatively open-minded and, therefore, in the spirit of open-mindedness I recently got round to reading (or rather attempting to read) Cassandra Clare's City of Bones. I wanted to like it, no really, I genuinely did. Cassandra Clare, for all those who have been living under an internet stone, is a pseudonym of a pseudonym, but Cassandra Cla(i)re, back in the day, wrote fanfic, the very popular Very Secret Diaries and The Draco Trilogy, which seems to be no longer available on the internet at the request of its author (interesting that, hmm?). Well, when I say no longer available on the internet, what I mean is ... not available unless you spend about five minutes looking, which I might have just done. For the record, said trilogy is beautifully decorated with anime-style Draco Malfoys and black roses. Awww. She also has a hefty set of pages over at the Fandom Wank Wiki (trust me, if anything needs a wiki, it is fandom wank), which are suitably, painfully entertaining in a "for what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?" kind of way.

Anyway, background cheapshots and raised plagiarism eyebrows aside, I really have no strong opinions on either fandom or Cassandra Cla(i)re, but I quite liked the idea that a popular, moderately competent fanfic writer managed to break into the publishing world. Fanfic is a difficult beast to comprehend unless you're right there in its mouth but, as far as I see it (and, bear in mind, if you do write fanfic this is probably going to sound like the simplistic flailings of an outsider), there are three possible attitudes, or at the very least a spectrum with some definable stopping points on it:

1) Fanfic is art, man, art and there is ultimately no difference between If You Are Prepared and Bleak House. They're both pretty damn long for starters.
2) Fanfic is like original fiction but not as good, and is basically written by people who can't get their own stuff published
3) Fanfic is entirely different from original fiction

Since the first one is clearly non-viable, and the second is actively rude, I subscribe to the third. Writing for fans and writing for publication is vastly different, and to assume that the one aspires to the other is rather to miss the point (and, arguably, the pleasures) of fanfic. Even so, I would have thought the gulf between fanfic and original fiction to be eminently jumpable. I mean, the ability to string a decent sentence together is a transferable skill, right. Right? Well, evidently not. To be fair, my problems with City of Bonesa are not about the sentences (although they are of questionable quality), they goes rather deeper than that.

The truth is I actually couldn't read the damn book. I had to give up. It's not that it was, y'know, bad as such, although it occasionally was, it just didn't - to my mind at least - make the leap from fanfic to original fiction at all successfully. I know attempting to draw a distinction between fanfic and original writing is likely to get me shot at dawn but it's the only hope I have of articulating why City of Bones just doesn't work.

As far as I could tell from the sliver I read, City of Bones is young adult urban fantasy. The heroine, Clary Fray, (and let's not even ask why an author who calls herself Cassandra Clare decided to call her heroine Clary) is exactly the sort of spunky young thing you would expect of a modern heroine. She's out at a nightclub with her best friend Simon when she happens to witness a supernatural murder. Demons yadda yadda vampires yadda yadda Shadowhunters yadda yadda sardonic attractive blonde yadda yadda yadda wise old mentor with bird yadda yadda. Look, truthfully, I don't really have any idea what the plot is because I only made it to page 63.

And this is the exact moment when I snapped.
"In the distance she could hear a faint and delicate noise, like wind chimes shaken by a storm. She set off down the corridor slowly, trailing a hand along the wall. The Victorian-looking wallpaper was faded with age, burgundy and pale grey. Each side of the corridor was lined with closed doors.

The sound she was following grew louder. Now she could identify it as the sound of a piano being played with desultory but undeniable skill, though she couldn't identify the tune.

Turning the corner, she came to a doorway, the door propped fully open. Peering in she saw what was clearly a music room. A grand piano stood in one corner, and rows of chairs were arranged against the far wall. A covered harp occupied the centre of the room.

Jace was seated at the grand piano, his slender hands moving rapidly over the keys. He was barefoot, dressed in jeans and a gray T-shirt, his tawny hair ruffled up around his head as if he'd just woken up. Watching the quick, sure movements of his hands across the keys, Clary remembered how it had felt to be lifted up by those hands, his hands holding her up and the stars hurtling down around her head like a rain of silver tinsel."

Let's skim all over the things that are awkward about this passage ... wind chimes only make sounds when they're stirred and piano music doesn't sound like that anyway ... how can wallpaper be faded with burgundy ... can a skill be desultory but undeniable ... why does it have to "clearly" be a music room, surely it is just is one ... how many times can you say "hands" in one sentence ... how does she know he's barefoot, he's playing the bloody piano ... and what the fuck is with the rain of silver tinsel...

But, yes, skim all that and riddle me this:

Wouldn't that whole scene be so much better if it turned out be Draco Malfoy sitting at the grand piano?

There's a technical name for what's wrong with this passage. In the industry we call it "blowing your load prematurely" (question is, what industry). Seriously, though, we're on page 63, we've spent all of 20 of them in the company of this character (and, let's face it, he's a pretty, sardonic, wise-cracking faintly angsty type very reminiscent of Cla(i)re's take on a certain slytherin): why the fuck should we be even remotely interested in the sight of him at a grand piano? It's a very senses-heavy scene: we have the sound distant music, the wallpaper beneath Clary's fingertips, and the lovingly detailed description of the ruffle-haired eyecandy sitting at the piano, so there's this self-conscious build up, deliberately (albeit not entirely eptly) evoking something of the fairytale, and what's the pay off? Up until this point the tawny-haired Jace has been a rude and snippy, so it's clear that this little scene is meant to show us a different side of him but character revelation scenes only function when you know the character well enough to experience it as a revelation. This is just ... information, excessively presented. It's like being hit over the head with a neon sign saying: "you should fancy this character now." And for the record, he's a demon hunter, not a concert pianist so there really is no reason to have that scene there except as drool-footage.

Possibly I'd feel differently if I was a teenage girl but I hope I'd have more taste.

What the scene did for me, aside from inducing me to throw the book across the room in disgust, was exemplify the subtle sense of wrongness I'd been getting throughout the previous 62 pages. Essentially City of Bones reads like fanfic - and I don't mean that as kneejerk indicator of poor quality, I mean that it reads like something constructed for a different purpose, functioning on a different ruleset. Leaving aside any criticisms of the actual style, this scene would probably work - for me - if I read it as fanfic. It's visually and linguistically striking - the juxtaposition of scruffy boy and fine old instrument (sorry), the hint at aspects of a character hitherto unknown, the touch of submerged melancholia (playing the grand piano to an empty room is a lonely hobby), all this would be fine if the mysterious pianist turned out to Draco. I mean, playing the grand piano is one of the things that one could potentially imagine Draco being able to do. Well, if you stopped and thought about it for a moment, probably not, because surely wizards have ... like ... magical pianos, or house elves to produce their music for them. But given that Draco is a repressively raised posh kid, it seems to me at least credible his parents made him have piano lessons, even if he hated it. And Draco, being the wizarding equivalent of genetically modified, would probably be reasonably good at it regardless.

I truthfully have no idea what it is that makes fanfic work but it seems to me to have something to do with potential plausibility. Scenes of certain characters doing things they never explicitly did in the books (even if this is fucking each other) resonate with you because it feels both novel and familiar - to continue the musical theme, if I presented you with Remus Lupin playing the electric guitar you might raise an eyebrow because he's far too bookish and quiet, but it would totally suit Sirius Black for example. Or even James Sodding Potter. And such scenes require no build-up because the reader already knows the characters being written about. Equally, dwelling on the details, and presenting very visual, senusous scenes, seems less purple than it does when you do it in original fiction because it helps to establish a familiar character in what may be an unfamiliar setting: for what's it worth, I can picture Draco Malfoy playing the grand piano very vividly. Pale hair, slender fingers, whatever. Fan fiction, even if you're looking at a 100,000 word AU fic, seems to be all about the establishment of moments, which need not necessarily (and probably don't) exist as part of a continuum of moments.

This is absolutely the opposite to a book.

The scene of Jace/grand piano has utterly no resonance for the reader because, well, partly because it's rubbish and partly because no time has been given to properly establishing the character so it's essentially meaningless, but mainly because it has no real sense of its place in a connected, developing narrative. Although the 63 pages I read did occasionally have moments of genuine mediocrity that made me suspect I should try to be more generous with the text, the whole reading experience felt so ultimately hollow I couldn't bring put myself through it. There's nothing inherently wrong with something reading like fanfic - fanfic reads like fanfic and I quite enjoy the stuff - but City of Bones is a work of original fiction, it's a book that I paid real money for (more fool me) In essence, then, it's original fiction without the necessary underpinnings, and fanfic without any of the characters you like. Worst of all possible worlds.
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Comments (go to latest)
Dan H at 12:57 on 2008-09-25
So I've started reading it now, to pick up where Kyra left off (nearly at good old Page 63).

I actually don't think it reads that much like fanfic (at least not like *good* fanfic). There's way too much exposition (fanfic tends to assume that everybody knows what's going on) including some truly wonderful scenes with people actually saying things like "surely you recognise a girl, your sister, Isabelle, is one" (Isabelle, it should be pointed out, is *right fucking there*).

Favourite line so far: "Her hair was almost precisely the colour of black ink".

What colour would that be, exactly? Black, perhaps?
Arthur B at 15:32 on 2008-09-25
It strikes me, actually, that while most of us have a good idea of what "bad" fanfic is like, good fanfic must by its nature vary widely in style, because at least part of the point of fanfic is to produce something that is reminiscent of the source material, so good Lovecraft fanfic will read different from good Firefly fanfic, or good Pratchett fanfic.

(Which would mean that, say, "good" Cecilia Dart-Thornton fanfic is a contradiction in terms: if it's good, it's no longer reminiscent of the source material.)
Dan H at 18:38 on 2008-09-25
I think Lovecraft fanfic is a special case actually, because it borrows Lovecraft's ideas rather than his characters. Lovecraft fanfic (and, to borrow Arthur's term, peerfic) is all about eldrich horrors from beyond the void, it's not like anybody writes Herbert West/Charles Dexter Ward slash.

Actually they probably do.

By contrast, I actually think with most fanfic the style is fairly consistent between fandoms (although I admit to limited experience here). Part of Cassandra Cla(i)re's big plagarism debacle, indeed, was the fact that she regularly borrowed lines from Buffy for her Draco fics.

In further updates on City of Bones I've now got past the point reached by our intrepid editor and have the following to add:

Holy Crap the wise old mentor dude is a lot like Dumbledore. There's a bit where he asks the heroine if she wants anything and I *totally* expected him to offer her a sherbet lemon. And if you don't read "Muggle" for "Mundie" every time you're a better man than I am.

Also, some exposition from earlier in the book which I found particularly awful:

"Demons," drawled the blond boy, tracing the word on the air with his finger, Religiously defined as hell's denizens, the servants of Satan, but understood here, for the purposes of the Clave, as any malevolent spirit whose origin is outside our own home dimension."
"That's enough, Jace" said the girl.
"Isabelle's right," agreed the taller boy, "nobody here needs a lesson in semantics - or demonology."

As you know, I *almost* applaud the bare faced cheek of it.
Arthur B at 00:38 on 2008-09-26
I think Lovecraft fanfic is a special case actually, because it borrows Lovecraft's ideas rather than his characters. Lovecraft fanfic (and, to borrow Arthur's term, peerfic) is all about eldrich horrors from beyond the void, it's not like anybody writes Herbert West/Charles Dexter Ward slash.

To be fair, there aren't that many recurring characters in Lovecraftian fiction except for the Old Ones themselves, who get reused all the time. And I've lost count of the number of times I've read stories about long-lost offshoots of the Whateley clan or where yet another dozy protagonist realises they come from Innsmouth stock.

I agree, though, that the Lovecraft-tribute scene is pretty unique; I expect this is partly because Lovecraft was one of the first authors who genuinely encouraged people to write stories set in his mythology, to the point of sending them detailed letters showing them how to boost their fanfic to peerfic. Having essentially established the core of his own fandom before he died, that core went on to set the norms for Lovecraft tribute works forevermore.

By contrast, I actually think with most fanfic the style is fairly consistent between fandoms (although I admit to limited experience here). Part of Cassandra Cla(i)re's big plagarism debacle, indeed, was the fact that she regularly borrowed lines from Buffy for her Draco fics.

I would suggest that this may be the result of people writing to indulge the sort of mores that have grown up around fandom-in-general, as opposed to writing to emulate the original work.

Which might explain why City of Bones exists. Once you don't care what the background to what you're reading is, so long as it has shipping and mary sues and whatnot, it becomes easier to accept the idea of fanfic-like work which is fanfic of nothing in particular - nothing, that is, except fanfic itself.
Montavilla at 01:55 on 2008-09-28
I truthfully have no idea what it is that makes fanfic work but it seems to me to have something to do with potential plausibility. Scenes of certain characters doing things they never explicitly did in the books (even if this is fucking each other) resonate with you because it feels both novel and familiar - to continue the musical theme, if I presented you with Remus Lupin playing the electric guitar you might raise an eyebrow because he's far too bookish and quiet, but it would totally suit Sirius Black for example. Or even James Sodding Potter.

Sadly, you made me immediately start wondering what Remus would play in James Potter and the Silver Marauders band. He might, ala George Harrison, play lead guitar. (Sirius would be play rhythm guitar and James would play the bass). Peter, of course, would be on drums. Which might explain why they put up with him all that time. It's hard to find someone who's got their own drum set.

Favourite line so far: "Her hair was almost precisely the colour of black ink".
What colour would that be, exactly? Black, perhaps?


To be fair, comparing hair to ink is a difficult image these days because we only really see ink in the stems of our ballpoint pens. Perhaps it might have been better to say, "Her hair was almost precisely the color of laser toner. In a really old printer. You know. The black-and-white kind."
Dan H at 12:18 on 2008-09-28
To be fair, comparing hair to ink is a difficult image these days because we only really see ink in the stems of our ballpoint pens. Perhaps it might have been better to say, "Her hair was almost precisely the color of laser toner. In a really old printer. You know. The black-and-white kind."

Hee hee.

In all seriousness, though, it's not the comparison to ink that bugged me, it just strikes me as elementary that if you're saying "X was the colour of Y" then unless you're doing a Blackadder style joke "Y" should not include reference to a specific colour. "Her hair was black as ink" "her hair was black, like ink" "her hair was ink-black" would all have been fine. So for that matter would be "her hair was like black ink". "Hair the colour of black ink" is like something out of the Bulwer-Lytton contest: "Her hair was the colour of black ink, her eyes the colour of a blue crayon, and her dress the colour of a dress made out of red silk."
Wardog at 14:16 on 2008-09-29
Since we're playing Favourite Lines, my personal shoutout goes to: "He had electric blue dyed hair that stuck up around his head like the tendrils of a startled octopus..." I guess it's just the awkwardness of the construction coupled with that startled octopus...

Arthur: I would suggest that this may be the result of people writing to indulge the sort of mores that have grown up around fandom-in-general, as opposed to writing to emulate the original work.

I'm not sure emulating the original work has ever real been the goal, well, not unless there's specific stylistic feature *to* emulate if that makes sense - like Lovecraft. I mean, you want to make your characters sound like the characters they are but ... well ... to indulge a bit of JKR bashing just because that's what we do here, most of the Harry Potter stuff I've read has been stylistically objectively better than the author.

"Her hair was almost precisely the color of laser toner. In a really old printer. You know. The black-and-white kind."

Hehe!!!
Arthur B at 15:47 on 2008-09-29
I think direct stylistic mimicing is, as you point out, actually rare, especially since a lot of fanfic is written about TV series, so you're translating a visual format into a literary one. But at the same time I think that the aim of a lot of fanfic is to emulate the source work in the sense that the writer's trying to tell a story that is a) reminiscent of the source material, in that it establishes a mood and tells a story which could recognisably fit within the source, and b) features the characters behaving in a manner recognisable from the source (unless the explicit point of the fic is something like "What if Captain Lolcats got possessed by a brain worm?"). At the very least, a lot of fanfic authors seem to want to produce something where the reader would look at it and say "Yes, that's very much how it would have happened on my favourite show if the screenwriters had only had the courage to write an episode where the ship's doctor and the robot owl consummate their love".

I say "a lot of fanfic" because I've seen the occasional piece (generally AU fics) where the premise is so utterly far removed from the source material that I start scratching my head and wondering why the author bothered retaining the link to the source material in the first place. Sure, perhaps the characters retain scraps of their personality, but they're in such an utterly different scenario it becomes a stretch to call them the same characters; to my mind, at least, characters are at least partially defined by context. Being a cheeky black marketeer on Deep Space 9 is a very different proposition from being a cheeky black marketeer in Blitz-era London.
Wardog at 16:01 on 2008-09-29
We are now mainly haggling over semantics, dear boy.

So instead I would like to play the "Her hair was" game.

I submit: Her hair was almost precisely the colour of one of those motorola telephones, the ones with that come with a gloss finish not matte."
Claire E Fitzgerald at 16:32 on 2008-09-29
Her hair was almost precisely the colour of a grey cat in a room that was totally dark, such that the colour of the cat was indistinguishable from black.
Arthur B at 16:59 on 2008-09-29
Her hair was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.
Wardog at 21:20 on 2008-09-29
Oi! Minus three points from Slytherin for being meta.
Arthur B at 00:26 on 2008-09-30
"Minus three hundred points for turning the comments section into Harry Potter fanfiction," muttered Harry, glowering at his Nintendo DS. He was pretty sure he was on the right track in this Phoenix Wright episode, but the game was being evasive about precisely which investigative avenue he should pursue. Harry was not looking forward to the half hour he'd have to spend looking for the plot, but he supposed he couldn't complain: he normally had to doss about for half a year before getting anything done in real life.

"How's my hair looking?" asked Ron, anxious about his big date with Hermione. He had spent the last six hours smearing his skin with Hackiburr's Very Useful Ointment in order to conceal the telltale marks of gingerness, and was now in the process of rubbing the stuff into his scalp. Harry glanced at his bare-torsoed chum and then returned his attention to his game.

"Your hair is all carroty," quipped Harry, "like someone was just sick in it."

Draco giggled and ran his hands through his hair, which was bright yellow like artificial egg yolk.
Rami at 12:17 on 2008-09-30
I think these are still worse, but you're getting there ;-)
Guy at 04:26 on 2009-07-24
Her hair was almost precisely the colour of light with a frequency of 590 nm and a wavelength of 526 THz, and as she moved the angle of its inclination to her scalp seemed to undulate with a regularity that spoke softly to his soul.
Rami at 04:41 on 2009-07-24
a frequency of 590 nm and a wavelength of 526 THz
I think you got the wavelength and frequency swapped around ;-)

A redhead, eh? Why is it that female protagonists never seem to have violently ginger hair?
Guy at 08:34 on 2009-07-24
Oops, so I did. I could pretend that it was a deliberate attempt to further enhance the awfulness of the sentence, but no, I just muddled it up. :)

It would be kind of interesting to see some kind of frequency histogram of female (and male) protagonists and the wavelengths of their hair colours... but I suspect nobody would be mad enough to actually do the work to make such a thing.
Michal at 05:29 on 2011-09-29
And I only stumbled on this when I found out Cassandra Clare will be one of the instructors at the 2012 Clarion Writer's Workshop.

Suffice to say, I won't be applying. (Jesus Christ guys, you had Neil Gaiman and Ellen Kushner and Particia C. Wrede and Gene fucking Wolfe as instructors and now you've had budget cuts or what?)
Arthur B at 11:25 on 2011-09-29
Well they also had Orson Scott Card.

I guess it's like Hogwarts. Not everyone can be a Griffindor or a Ravenclaw. They also have to recruit Slytherins (Card) and Hufflepuffs (Clare).
Michal at 13:30 on 2012-11-18
There's a movie now. I think I caught a half-second glimpse of Henry VIII at one point.
Arthur B at 14:05 on 2012-11-18
Urgh, they actually say "mundanes".
Ibmiller at 15:05 on 2012-11-19
It's like they learned nothing from Golden Compass...

Also, are they deliberately trying to recreate the "awkward teen significantly older British actor" Twilight vibe?
Wardog at 15:36 on 2012-11-19
Oh no, that's Jamie Campbell-Bower. Officially the drippiest boy in Hollywood.
Arthur B at 15:44 on 2012-11-19
Also, are they deliberately trying to recreate the "awkward teen significantly older British actor" Twilight vibe?

I suspect they are going to mimic Twilight/Potter as closely as copyright will allow. It's got that "clinging to the underbelly of the bandwagon and trying to scrape as much gold as you can out of it" look. (Of course, this is likely to lead to jibbering incoherence due to Potter and Twilight being two different bandwagons...)

The extent to which Blonde Love Interest looks like a reject from the Draco Malfoy auditions is hilarious.
Fishing in the Mud at 16:51 on 2012-11-19
The extent to which Blonde Love Interest looks like a reject from the Draco Malfoy auditions is hilarious.
Hey, at least they got that right.
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