Had. Or, why do we accept sub-standard prose?

So. For a series of odd reasons now forgotten I was reading the opening passage of Leviathan Wakes by James S A Corey on Amazon, which lead me to comment on the annoying use of the word ‘had’ and various contractions based upon it (she’d, who’d etc) that the author employs. I don’t often dissect published texts because I imagine it’s upsetting for authors, but as I was asked to explain my hatred of the word ‘had’, and as James S A Corey has had a big hit with Leviathan Wakes – even split between the two halves of this Frankenstein’s author – I thought I would make an exception. So, if these words have offended, think but of your bank balance and all is mended.

Firstly, my hatred of ‘had’ is on nowhere near the scale of my hatred of ‘suddenly’, which I dislike so much that I will stop reading a book instantly if it is used. In the case of ‘had’ it’s not the word itself, which unlike ‘suddenly’ has many fine uses, but a particular usage of the word that almost always creates horrible prose.

Here is the opening passage of Leviathan Wakes:

The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot.

It had taken all eight days trapped in a storage locker for her to get to that point. For the first two she’d remained motionless, sure that the armoured men who’d put her there had been serious. For the first hours, the ship she’d been taken aboard wasn’t under thrust, so she floated in the locker, using gentle touches to keep herself from bumping into the walls or the atmosphere suit she shared the space with. When the ship began to move, thrust giving her weight, she’d stood silently until her legs cramped, then sat down slowly in to a fetal position. She’d peed in her jumpsuit, not caring about the warm itchy wetness, or the smell, worrying only that she might slip and fall in the wet spot it left on the floor. She couldn’t make noise. They’d shoot her.

There is a lot that can be said about this passage, and about Leviathan Wakes, but I don’t want to get distracted by a general critique of the book. I do want to make it clear though that the “it’s about the story” defence does not cut it in relation to what I am going to say here. The problems with this opening passage are so basic that no professionally published book should enter a bookshop with them, any more than a film or television show should reach the screen with substandard camera work or scene editing. If Leviathan Wakes is, as IO9 describes it “a Hollywood blockbuster in book form” then it’s a blockbuster shot by nervous film school dropouts on outdated camcorders and edited between two old VHS machines, to judge by this opening.

But. This is between me and the had. A word which, directly or as the basis of a contraction (she’d, who’d) appears in the region of eight times in this short passage, with an additional grievous deployment of ‘would’ that arises for the same reasons. The contractions are especially clumsy. There are few circumstances when who’d reads well on a page, especially when BOTH the who and the had are redundant.

Why is ‘had’ used so often? The answer is worth considering, not least because it’s an issue that arises often for developing writers. Here Corey blunders in to it for slightly different reasons. Intent on setting up a Dramatic Question, a standard ploy of pulp storytelling, Corey opens with the humdinger of a sentence, “The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot.” Why is Julie Mau ready to be shot? Why did it take eight days? We the reader are lead to ask, and are thereby tempted to carry on reading. The problem however is that this opening has thrown Corey straight in to a timeline that precedes the main action of the chapter. Because the prose is written in past tense anyway, to indicate that this is even more in the past, Corey feels the need to add ‘had’ to almost every sentence. And this in turn leads to the ugly contractions.

Developing authors often make this mistake when they are too timid to just tell the story, and instead keep retreating to earlier events to give the story some usually irrelevant context. So instead of just telling the reader “George got on his magnificent steed and galloped out of the gate to face the dragon” they follow it up with “Earlier he had been talking with the old king who had lots to say about dragons.” The ‘hads’ proliferate quickly in this scenario. This relates to the larger issue of managing the information flow of a narrative, and making sure that, unless you have good cause, each sentence keeps the action moving forward not backward. This is why ‘had’ is so often a bad sign in prose, because it indicates the writer hasn’t got the basic narrative under control, which will quickly kill the story for most readers.

The real annoyance in Leviathan Wakes is that the use of ‘had’ here is entirely avoidable. The entire passage can easily be rewritten to eliminate the word all together, or to use it just once to establish the diverging narrative timeline. Once that has been established, even a relatively weak reader can follow the flow of events without using ‘had’ as a reminder in almost every sentence. It’s worth noting that for the middle section of the passage Corey does stop inserting ‘had’, avoiding a few contractions along the way. Lo and behold, the words flow much better. Which is the basic point. Why is the prose in this opening passage so mangled when it could so easily be edited to flow much more smoothly? Judged in its own terms, not as high flown literary writing, but as basic storytelling, the prose has failed. Why do we accept that as readers, when we never would as cinema goers or television watchers?