BOOK CRITICAL: Academy Gothic by James Tate Hill (Part 3)
Updated: Dec 14, 2019
This final part will be all about lazy writing and plot holes because there were a lot of issues with the story’s structure overall… And my favorite is the “LOL, TWIST ENDING, YOU DIDN’T SEE THAT ONE COMING BECAUSE I DIDN’T EVEN HINT AT THIS THROUGHOUT, DID I?” That is… in fact the best…
Summary Rather Than Interaction
I don’t know why Hill did this, but in a good couple of sections, he’d interrupt the dialogue or interaction with stuff like this:
I asked Galen if he recalled any faculty having taught at Coastal State. (pp. 201)
Rather than having Tate ask the guy the question, he’d pull out to narrate himself asking the guy the question. This happened in quite a few places throughout the novel and it really breaks the rhythm of the story. It also pulls the reader out of the story. I can get it in some of the places where he had Tate fill someone in on a whole situation. Like when he went to Thayer and told him everything that happened at the Sara Freyman’s house rather than having the reader sit through a retelling of events we just witnessed, but to break out of a conversation to ask a question then to continue with dialogue like normal? It’s really weird and I don’t know what it’s supposed to help with.
Passive Verb Usage
Across the hall, Margaret was helping Parshall back into his bed. Carly was explaining who the man was who had tried to kill him. (pp. 228)
I don’t know why people do this, but so many tend to use passive verbs for some reason… when they could be using active verbs. There’s no reason why this couldn’t be “Margaret helped Parshall back into his bed. Carly explained who the man was who tried to kill him.” This isn’t the only example of passive verbs in this novel, but it’s the only one necessary to discuss this.
Passive verbs keep coming up in my critique group too. I think it’s something new writers do in early drafts without thinking and generally, it weakens the narrative writing. Sometimes passive verbs work and strengthen the narrative and it’s good to use them then, but if they don’t strengthen the narrative, don’t use them. Most of the time, the usage and over usage of passive verbs breaks scene momentum and reads poorly.
“Don’t be such a pessimist.” She leaned over the emergency break, smiling before she kissed me. “All’s well that ends well, Tate Cowlishaw.” (pp. 211-212)
If… If this story had used Shakespeare corniness throughout it or famous play quotes or something niche like that, then this would have been fine, it would have fit in with the world that was set up, but instead, this came off as reading cliche, unoriginal, and not even funny (if it was supposed to be?)
The conversation of writing cliched phrases comes up a lot because a lot of us writers do it and we do it without thinking. I remember in one of my early drafts of my first manuscript I used “deer in the headlights.” My mentor at the time highlighted it and gave me the cliche talk.
“Cliches are a string of words another author has put together already,” he said.
At the editing seminar I was at the other week, the teacher Kristen Steiffen said, “We’re writers. We should be able to do better than use words another author has already used.” That’s what cliches are. They’re lazy writing, phrases, and words other authors have already created to express a situation. We should be confident enough in our own writing to come up with new ways of saying things rather than inserting someone else’s words into our own stories.
Characters can surely talk in cliches, but up to that point, Carly had never used one in her dialogue as far as I can recall. It was inserted in that moment to specifically be cliche and it didn’t work. There was no setup for a joke either. So.
Delilah’s gasp froze me in my tracks. (pp. 216)
That’s another cliche. Find another way to say it. Using cliches drains the voice out of a narrative. It takes away from your story, your voice, and makes it bland.
This one is mildly different, but I think can fall under cliches, as in cliched conversation:
“You don’t like to talk about it, do you?” She ran a finger down the bridge of my nose. “Maybe that’s why we’re drawn to each other. You’d rather conceal that part of yourself every hour of every day than let people see who you really are.” (pp. 213)
Here, Carly is giving Tate a hard time about not talking about how he’s blind all the time. Generally, people with disabilities don’t spend their days talking about their disabilities or bringing attention to themselves because of their disabilities. Not wanting to spend your time talking about being blind doesn’t mean you’re trying to hide yourself.
This whole conversation of someone trying to make someone else talk about what makes them different or they’re ‘scared’ and ‘hiding’ is not only tone-deaf from the person pushing the conversation, but it’s cliche. You see this same kind of conversation happen in the XMEN universe (or any universe with someone with powers. “You’re hiding yourself?! BB. Please don’t. You don’t have to hide yourself from me. ;)”)
There’s also the added bonus in this passage of, “I’m drawn to you because you’re mysterious.” Carly believes Tate is hiding himself, after all, and she wants to be the one to change that. She never follows up and says what it is that’s drawing Tate to her though. Are we supposed to assume she also means she’s concealing a part of who she is? We find out that she is later on, but that’s never brought into this conversation, and that stops her from ever becoming vulnerable or convincing Tate to open up to her.
But what can you expect with no-development characters?
Guilty People Spurge Into Confession Mode Without Prompt
Oh. Boy. I don’t know if this was supposed to be part of the “hardboiled noir satire” or what… I always hate to think bad writing is using “comedy” as some kind of cover or excuse for why certain choices were made… but… The tail end of this novel was filled with… most, if not all of the female characters going into monologues about why they did what they did — without ever being prompted. Like, there was no one asking them, “But Mrs. Robinson, why did you do it?!” They would just… decide… to go into it without… anyone asking:
I asked her who my father was. All she ever told me before was that he was a cold man. I was made from her love and no one else’s, she used to say, but I always thought it was weird she wanted to move back to Grayford. She hated coming back to visit my grandparents, and Parshall, you know, is such a shitty school. I asked her if that dean was my dad. She just looked at me. Her face got dark pink. I asked her again. She tried to slap me again, but I grabbed her by the wrist. I looked her in the eyes and confessed that I had been faking my illness so I wouldn’t have to go to college anymore. She tried to slap me with her other hand, but I moved out of the way and told her I wished she were dead.” (pp. 215)
This was from Juliet, the daughter of one of the central “antagonists.” She didn’t have a major role in this book. She threw a potted plant, screamed some profanities, that’s pretty much it. I don’t think there was even a reason for this character to exist, to be honest. She gave her mom an excuse to buy a car, but… she didn’t do anything. She didn’t build character, bring anyone together or apart, and she was artificial from the beginning:
“I followed him from conference to conference. He always welcomed me into his room with a stupid grin and an open zipper. It became clear I wasn’t going to get pregnant doing what we were doing. Juliet’s father was a cold man Frozen, in fact. I selected him from a three-ring binder. Years later, in town to attend my mother’s funeral, I bumped into Scoot at a restaurant, and he offered me a job. I should have guessed what he was and was not offering, but love makes idiots of us all, doesn’t it?“We’ll leave you to your meeting,” I said, standing up.“Sit down. I’m not done with my story.”“We ge t the gist,” Carly said. (pp. 219)
Oh, yeah, you can bet that enter exchange came without prompt. That monologue at the top was from Delilah, one of the central antagonists who wanted to fire everyone once she took over the school. I think Delilah’s main position was to be a red herring, but I know I was never even mildly convinced she was the one behind the murder. It was always the cop at the start who ruled it suicide when it was an obvious murder and he was working with someone in the school who wasn’t the new dean. She was way too stressed out about following the rules and keeping the school afloat. Whoever killed the old dean didn’t care about the health of the school.
What I’m looking at above is the author thinking, “Shoot! I have to answer the motive behind these people, but I have no way of doing that, so I’ll just have them talk.” Normally, when authors want to do an info dump in dialogue, they have someone ask questions, but… no one in this scene cares enough to ask so he has to make Delilah just mentally lose it and get this bug that makes her suddenly spill all her secrets.
Some people can be overly stressed and finally break down, but Hill never built up a pressure that would have made Delilah obviously burst at that point. This is the thing that actually started her confession (and the actions between the dialogue were cut to make this a little more straightforward):
“Your daughter’s worried you’re going to do something with that gun.”“Don’t shoot!” Carly said.“Young love, how sweet. Perhaps I should have taken a bullet for Scoot. Perhaps then he would have made love to me instead of unzipping his trousers to let me suck his penis for the last two decades. But that’s me: selfless to a fault.” (pp. 216-217)
Delilah pulled a gun on Tate, Carly jumped in the way screaming, “Don’t shoot!” and it was enough to make Delilah get jealous that the old man she’d been blowing for 20 years never returned her affection. She might have been happy to know Tate didn’t care about Carly–but then that might have made her more eager to shoot Tate… knowing he was leading Carly on too…
It’s not bad writing without a little bit of inconsistency…
At one of the climactic moment’s in the novel, Tate and his companions are told someone who looks like Delilah keeps frequenting the hospital Dr. Parshall is at. They rush there then ask where the woman is at and the following is said:
The receptionist put her hand on the shoulder of the security guard. “Clayton chased her into the parking lot.” (pp. 222)
Then, as Tate tries to run past so he can talk to Dr. Parshall, he’s told visit hours are not open for another two hours. He continues through anyway and the following happens:
The security guard gave chase. He didn’t have much of it to give. (pp. 222)
The security guard who chased the woman out has no actual chase in him. How did the woman not make it through??
He was turning the events into a screenplay.“Was that the ending you had hoped for?” I asked.“More or less,” Thayer said. “In my version, Bibb kills herself onstage.” (pp. 247)
This is a minor inconsistency, but is he writing a stageplay or a screenplay? Throughout the novel, Thayer said he was writing a stageplay, but here at the end, he calls it a screenplay and says he found an agent in Los Angeles… but you don’t refer to a murder as “on stage” for a screenplay. That would be “on screen.”
“He missed,” I said.“He was about to shoot you,” said Deliah from a different window. “So I shot first. Plus, he was trying to take my job. Plus he and Mollie killed Scoot.” (pp. 227)
Mollie didn’t just kill Tweel in that sentence. She killed me too. This is bad dialogue and it’s not characteristic. I think Hill had a difficult time with character voices because literally none of them have reliable, consistent voices. They’re either talking in cliches, generic, or it’s all snark and joke. I know I got that note early on in my first manuscript. I was so focused on dropping jokes that my characters didn’t have as distinct voices? You can still make jokes and be funny without everyone sounding the same so you can ‘hit your punchline.’ The Plus Plus doesn’t sound like the voice of a dignified, country club woman like Delilah.
A Dissatisfying Ending
The characters didn’t grow, there was no real good guy, there was no real bad guy, there was no good outcome for anyone. Even it being a satire, it ended on a poor note of, “all the students get screwed over with useless degrees, but at least some of them got some money.” There was this conversation at the end of the novel that stood out to me. It was between Dr. Parshall, Carly, Delilah, and Tate about futures at the university:
“I would like to think all promotions and hires will be merit-based,” she said without looking in our direction.
“Exactly. Mr. Cowlishaw is a preeminent scholar of the occult. Miss Worth is about to publish her first novel.”
“About my novel,” Carly said.
“They’ve pushed back the publication date a little bit,” I said.
Dr. Parshall expressed his disgust with the state of publishing. Delilah made her own sound of disapproval, unrelated to publishing. (pp. 229)
Going back to the 5 things that make a protagonist likeable, this is more proof Tate has no moral code and it makes me unhappy that the immoral, lying cheats ‘win’ in the end. I hated all the characters in this book and the end was no exception. It made me think of this Chappaquiddick video I watched yesterday wherein he says, “if you have no God, you have no good. If you don’t believe in anything past the now, then there is no reason to not take what you can for you and your family now. There’s no reason to not lie and cheat and protect yourself now.” Screw everyone, even murder people, for your own benefit because you have no reason not to.
And that is sick. And it’s what everyone in this book did.
Pot Twists Without Clues
I lifted the lid of Simkin’s candy dish. I took two of his circus peanuts and replaced the lid. (pp. 240)So there it was, the answer to the one unanswered question: how Scoot Simkins, who so impressively stayed awake through most of his own meetings, managed to sleep through all those bullets hitting his file cabinet. He was already dead. (pp. 241)
In the last ten pages, we’re given this. It had to be given to us because all questions must be answered by the end of the book, though I didn’t have the unanswered question Tate is referring to. I figured Scoot was shot and his cabinet was collateral afterward.
One of the important things we talked about at the editing seminar the other week was how you need to drop clues to your twist ending in order to make it satisfying. You can’t just spring it on someone and then go SURPRISE or else it will feel unsatisfying. In mysteries, it’s especially important. The reader needs to be given the opportunity to discover the ending with or before the detective. There was mention of a smell in Carly’s medicine cabinet, but nothing enough to suggest drugging Scoot, nothing to suggest she had anything to do with Scoot. When I read this part, it felt like it was thrown in just to go, AHAHA, TWIST!
One of the examples Kristen gave at the seminar was the Six Sense was set up so the viewer could always guess the guy was dead. Everyone ignores him throughout the film, so when you see it in the end, you can go back and go, “No way! All the clues were always there!” and then you feel satisfied because it’s not sprung on you out of nowhere, but the clues were subtle enough they didn’t click until the finale was in place. Here, I don’t think Hill did that and he did this at least twice. First with Carly being the real killer and then he also sprung some pedophile accusation on the accreditation head on page 220.
The guy stayed in the same shady hotel as our main character, but he paid for the company of a transvestite prostitute. Then, for no reason, on page 220, the transvestite shows up to tell us that the accreditation guy asked him for super young prostitutes, showed pictures on his phone, and said, “Who was I to judge since I taught college for 7 years?” There was literally no reason to make this guy a pedo other than to make the joke about dirty work and the university. There were no clues anywhere that the accreditation officer was a pedophile and this leaves the reader unsatisfied and angry.
Casual Info Dump
The last thing I’ll mention is this:
I’m more excited to put a bullet in his head than I was Simkin’s,” whispered Tweel. Whether it was loud enough for his wife to hear I wasn’t sure. (pp. 206)
Apparently, our main perp was okay with dropping information at a table at an open mic. He was okay with whispering his murder plans in a place with cameras and that’s how Tate discovered his plans–through a recorded video of a comedian put up on Youtube.
This is unbelievable to the max. Find another way to spoil your bad guy’s plans that’s not complete retardation. This wasn’t believable and assist in the destruction of the last third of this novel. Then again, this novel didn’t need much more help destroying itself… It was… it was pretty bad…