City of Bones - Cassandra Clare YA Fiction Writing 101: 6 Lessons Every Mundane Should Know about Writing

Clarissa “Clary” Fray has a fateful meeting with a strange blonde haired boy, Jace, at the club Pandemonium when Jace and two companions (Isabelle and Alec) kill a demon boy. Suddenly, her mother disappears, and Clary is being chased by demons. What is the history of her past and where is her mother?

Before this was chosen for my book club, I had heard of Cassandra Clare (Claire) from Harry Potter fandom as the author of some Draco fanfiction and the “inventor” of the Draco in Leather Pants trope (see TVTropes . Org). There was also a kerfuffle about plagiarism and then I saw the endorsement from Stephenie Meyer on the cover of the book, but I tried not to let these ruin my impression of the book. I walked in with an open mind.

The very first thing I noticed when reading was how overwritten the book is. Clare spends far too much time detailing every aspect of the surroundings of her story, only to forget the story itself. Don't get me wrong: I hate it when authors skimp on description and you go an entire book without knowing if the protagonist has brown hair or lime green or if the car the hero sees is the same one from earlier or just another background detail. Description is very good and very necessary, but it should never impede the flow of the story. But throughout the entire story, Clare inserts overlong passages on clothing, description, smarmy dialogue, and, worst of all, clumsily revealed background story.
Want a taste?
“dark red pendant the size of a baby's fist” → What teenager describes accessories in terms of baby's anatomy, particularly teenagers that don't have baby siblings?
“the taste was sharp and coppery on her tongue like old pennies” → I think someone has been taking the old adage “Put your money where your mouth is” a wee bit too seriously.
“said Jace, eating fries with his fingers” → Are there that many other ways to eat fries that we needed to specify how Jace eats his fries? Does he sometimes snort fries up his nose? Slurp up fries off his plate like a dog?
“Beside him stood a girl...under the skirt of her short green dress, her feet were webbed like a frog's” → Huh? Usually you describe feet being under a skirt if the skirt is nearly floor length. But if the skirt is short...does that mean the girl is two feet tall?? If so, how does she stand beside a guy that was described as being rather humanlike?
“her arms [were] aching and stinging, like raw meat” → How did the author know that raw meat ached and stung? Or does she mean the ARMS were like raw meat? Dangling adjectives...
“He laughed soundlessly” → As this wasn't described by the point of view character, this is another impossibility. “Laugh” and “soundlessly” are polar opposites.
“She felt a bright surge of shame that burst behind her eyelids like a small sun” → Suns don't burst. Novas burst. Water balloons that hit people burst. Cysts burst. But suns don't burst. Plus...when did shame start bursting behind eyelids? I've always felt that shame burns in your stomach or your heart...but then, I'm just a human, what do I know?

Lesson 1: Good, clear descriptions, even if they are boring, are much better than the discombobulating, loquacious meanderings of lavender narrative.

Most of the dialogue didn't feel natural given the characters and the situations. The two basic forms of the bad dialogue were: dialogue set up to make a joke and dialogue for the sole purpose of exposition.
I like humor. I like to be able to read a book that doesn't take itself too seriously (even if it is serious) and to be light-hearted and fun. But, again, humor needs to be used appropriately. You don't throw humor around everyone and hope it sticks. That is what I felt Clare did (heck, even her own characters call each other out on it, saying “This is hardly the time for idle banter” page 260). She put in a lot of so-called “humor” and hoped that everyone would find it funny. Most of the time, I didn't. Most of the time, I would stare at the “humorous” passage and go, “Okay, so what was funny about that?” I particularly didn't like it when the characters started insinuating that they were witty and funny (I am looking at you, Jace) when most of their dialogue was callous and unnecessary. As if that weren't bad enough, it was also frustrating how all the characters were the same type of funny (most often, the sarcastic funny). How did five different teenagers end up with the same style of humor when all of them were raised slightly differently?

Lesson 2: Forced humor will make your readers send your book across the room and into your audience's collective fish tank.

The other trouble spot was the revelation of important plot points. Often times, this was handled rather awkwardly in a long passage where one character talks to another character. I understand that the audience has to understand what is going on and so does the uninitiated Clary. However, it seemed some of the things Clary learned went beyond what was needed at that moment, that characters who should know some of this information did too much name dropping/convenient info dumping, or that the character looked exceptionally obtuse and unable to put two and two together
A few examples:
In the beginning of the book, Jace launches into a demonology lecture as he, Isabelle, and Alec face off with a demon (which is observed by Clary). Why does he do this? Everyone that he thinks is in the room knows this? Oh, yeah, it's for Clary (and the audience's) benefit.
Clary must be told that Simon is crushing on her (okay, sorta believable), that Luke is hitting on her mom (OMG, really?! She couldn't tell Luke was crushing on her mom? I could believe her being ignorant of someone crushing on her, but she should be able to see this!!), that key players aren't what they think they are (no specifics as it might be a spoiler) get my drift.

Lesson 3: Reveal plot points in a logical fashion. Don't treat your audience as if they are idiots and won't recognize that X is telling Y what Y already knows.

None of the teenagers acted their age. If Clary didn't constantly say she was almost 16, I wouldn't have believed she was a teenager at all. She took things far too much in stride, was far too easy come, easy go, and far more emotionally together than you would expect for a teenager that has never encountered Shadow Hunters before. About the only time she acted like a teenager was when she got into a hissy fit about leaving for the country on vacation (wow, original!). In fact, all of the characters acted way older than teenaged. The way Jace acts is more like a man in his early twenties, not a teenager himself. Even his comment, “I've been killing demons a third of my life” (page 256) comes off as something a twenty or thirty or forty something would say, not a teenager. Plus, if he is 15, that means he's spent a whopping 5 years fighting demons. Wow, I am so impressed...not.
All of the teenagers used strong language, much stronger than I've seen in other books (in addition to milder he** & da**, we have plenty of b*tch, b*****d, p*ss, and God's name). Okay, yeah, so teens swear just like adults do and yada, yada. However, even if you take into account that teens swear, the swearing just doesn't feel like how a teenager would swear. I've read other young adult urban fantasy and some (Vampire Academy, Wicked Lovely) had some strong language, but I never once had trouble believing their age. Not so here.

Lesson 4: Teenagers need to act like teenagers. If you are writing your characters as 20 year olds, don't try to dress them up in teen clothes and have them say every other sentence how they are a teenager. Your audience won't be fooled.

None of the characters were memorable, and none of the characters made me want to root for them and hope that they get out of the crazy circumstances they go through alive. Clary felt fairly generic, borderline Mary Sue—typical “ordinary” girl who finds out A) her guy friend is crushing on her, B) she has superpowers that she can learn in 8.2 seconds, C) she is “beautiful all along”, and D) she ends up being forgiven and right all the time! Yawn. Jace was aggravating as a smart mouth womanizer, who actually is just beat up inside from the past (BORING!). I can't tell you how many times I wanted to smack him until he was unable to string two words together. Also, really hard to like a guy that goes around sabotaging other people's property (the motorcycles) just because the other people are “vampires”. Am I really supposed to be rooting FOR this guy or what? As for Isabelle: what is it with these novels setting up this “other girl” for the sole reason to hate our protagonist? Isabelle could have and should have been an interesting character, but instead, she is merely the antagonist to Clary, for the sole reason that every story has to have a “bad girl” for our female protagonist. Simon felt like your stereotypical gawky best friend “unrequited love” guy. Alec could have been interesting, but instead his story was clumsily told. About the only characters I liked were Luke, Jocelyn and Magnus Bane (who was exhibiting really creepy behavior to Alec), and all of them are adults and absent throughout much of the book. Pretty sad.

Lesson 5: Make your characters unique, so that someone is interested in their fate instead of going, “Where have I see this character before?” or “Does someone have any arsenic I can borrow?”

While there were some aspects of the story I liked, I couldn't rid myself of the de ja vu feeling as I was reading this book. It's probably because the story and world feel so much like the love child of Harry Potter and Star Wars. Clary “being normal” then learning she was “hidden away” because of her talents feels like Harry Potter/Luke Skywalker. Jace is Draco from fanon and a smarmy Han Solo. Valentine is a dead ringer for Voldemort. Hodge felt too much like Albus Dumbledore. When Clary was studying the picture of her mother, I couldn't help but be reminded of the scene in the movie where Harry Potter saw his parents in the original Order of the Phoenix (I am basing this knowledge on the movies, as I haven't finished the Harry Potter series yet). And could we PLEASE STOP USING the Romantic Triangle plot line?!?! PLEASE???

Lesson 6: Be creative. This is your story you are telling, not a paperdoll version of your favorite story(ies).

Now I know I've beat on this book pretty hard, but there were *GASP* aspects I liked. I liked the grandness of the scope. It seems that Clare is really trying to make her novel more than just a simple Good vs Bad guy. She is trying to make a message about racism (Demons vs. Downworlders vs Shadow Hunters vs. Mundanes, even if this message gets twisted in ways that aren't exactly flattering to any of our protagonists and reeks of Harry Potter). Clare's story took place in an interesting world of runes (I thought this was particularly cool), demon hunters, and myths coming alive. I liked how she avoided over-relying on vampires or the chic Urban Fantasy Motif of the Moment.
And, just to give Clare another bone, there are exactly two scenes in this book that made me laugh. The first is when Simon stumbles upon Jace and Clary kissing:
“You invited him into bed?” Simon demanded, looking shaken.
“Ridiculous, isn't it?” said Jace. “We would never have all fit.”
The second is when talking about the Mortal Cup:
“Oh, it's big enough,” [Jace] said patronizingly, “but somehow I was expecting know.”
“It's the Mortal Cup, Jace, not the Mortal Toilet Bowl,” said Isabelle.
But two funny lines and some creativity do not make a glowing overall opinion. I still can't get over the slow, sloppy writing, the excessive humor, the boring characters, and the stolen plots. Not to mention, this is the only book I've ever read that has almost put me to sleep—in the middle of the day during my lunch hour!! I think the book is too old for younger teens, too much like Harry Potter for older teens, and too juvenile for adults. I don't recommend and if I am curious about how this series turns out, I'll hunt down forums or Wikipedia.