May 9, 2011

How to Survive the Zombie Menace and Common Writing Pitfalls

FEED by Mira Grant has a fantastic premise, an exciting plot, and characters I enjoyed spending time with. My recommendation of this book is tempered with the caveat that I wish it had been better written (or failing that, better edited). Still, I'm enthusiastic enough about the other elements to overlook the writing flaws, and it must be emphasized that I'm rarely so forgiving.

The story takes place twenty-six years after a viral outbreak caused a zombie epidemic that took out a third of the world's population in a few months. At the time of the book, zombies continue to pose a serious threat, but the healthy population has secured enough safe zones to carry on a heavily restricted version of pre-outbreak life.

The book's narrator is Georgia Mason, a journalist in her early twenties. Along with her daredevil brother Shaun and their colleague Buffy, she runs a fairly successful blog collective. In the post-outbreak world, blogs have become the main source of news and information, and bloggers who leave safe zones in search of stories are subject to stringent goverment safety regulations. Near the beginning of the novel, Georgia and her team get the opportunity to go on the road and follow a major story that will help them score big ratings.

I'm a fan of stories about siblings, and the portrayal of Georgia and Shaun's relationship in this book is great. They've grown up in a world in which people tend to stay isolated and avoid trusting others, and they've come to depend only and completely on each other, though the two of them are different in many ways. Their closeness is further cemented by the recognizable phenomenon of "you're the only person who understands what it's like to have my parents." Georgia and Shaun are unrealistically adept at trading clever quips at life-threatening moments, but that fits with the tone of the book, and otherwise their actions are believable and consistent.

The world-building in FEED is fascinating and comprehensive. I like to read about epidemics, but fiction involving plagues often glosses over the details of how the disease spreads. This book, even though it's set long after the initial outbreak, doles out sufficient plausible backstory. There are realistic details, such as that the virus spread especially quickly in schools. And there are clever insights, such as Georgia's hometown of Berkeley faring better than other college towns because it was pre-populated with the kind of people likely to believe and act on crazy internet rumors about reanimation of the dead before other cities understood what was going on. The novel also does a good job at imagining the kinds of social changes and government policies that would emerge in the aftermath of a zombie uprising.

What disappointed me about this book is that it continually exhibited the easily avoidable problems of narrating too much detail and not trusting the reader to be paying attention. Over-narrating is related to the over-description I discussed in my post on describing settings: both stem from how perfectly a scene appears in a writer's head. If the writer can visualize exactly what's happening, it's natural to want to record every movement that every character is taking, but it's unnecessary and eventually annoying. FEED contains inconsequential sentences like "The [guard] on the left leaned over and took the tray from the one on the right, who opened the door." These may have left me screaming at the book, but they also serve as a good reminder that during my own revision, I should think about what actions really matter to a scene.

Another problem to watch for during revision is repetition, specifically explaining the same piece of information too many times. Since this book is set in a world different from our own, many aspects of the characters' everyday lives require explanation. For a crucial plot element, it may be reasonable to mention the same information a couple of times to get the point across. And if the point is that this element is a ubiquitous irritation in the world of the book, it could make sense to refer to it over and over. But there are only so many times it's worth saying the same thing, and readers are good at filling in the blanks. By halfway through FEED, I was really wishing Grant had the confidence in her readers to trust that we assumed Georgia had put on her sunglasses to protect her sensitive eyes, and that we understood the ever-present blood tests involved needles every time.

So those are my complaints about the writing, which I'm airing because they provide such a good lesson for writers in what not to do. I still found FEED to be a highly enjoyable read, and I'm looking forward to the second book in the trilogy, DEADLINE, which will be released on May 31.

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