Lessons From the Bad Writing of The Mortal Instruments

The cover of The City of Bones, featuring a bare-chested young man

Sitting before me is City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, the first book in the bestselling Mortal Instruments series. I don’t know anything about the story, but I can see on the cover there’s a guy thinking, Hello, my eyes are up here! Wait – my eyes aren’t up here. Dammit. There’s also a cityscape. I can only guess it’s a city full of objectified guys.

Now I’ll read through the first chapter and see what lessons I find.

Avoid Pretentiousness

After the acknowledgements, there’s a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, referring to “a dreadful thing,” “a hideous dream,” and of course “the mortal instruments in council.” The quote is nestled between two gothic doodles. Next there’s the title page for part one, Dark Descent. On that page there’s a quote from Paradise Lost, mentioning “chaos and eternal night.” And the first chapter is titled Pandemonium.

It may not be entirely Clare’s doing, but this feels pretentious. I won’t say quotes from famous works are bad, but if you want a dark atmosphere, it must be demonstrated to readers through your work. Shouting “hey, look at how gothic my story is!” won’t do it. Plus, that way when your first line is

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the bouncer said,

no one will notice how it clashes with the pretentious, gothic font it’s printed in, because you won’t print it in a pretentious font. Like Clare did.

Create a Meaningful Opening Hook


“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the bouncer said, folding his arms across his massive chest. He stared down at the boy in the red zip-up jacket and shook his shaved head. “You can’t bring that thing in here.”

The fifty or so teenagers in line outside the Pandemonium Club leaned forward to eavesdrop.

All fifty people leaned forward? Leaning forward is what we do when we’re trying to hear someone who’s a few feet away. Now I’m imagining all these people packed in a close circle around the bouncer, each with an ear aimed his way. What people actually do in a line is maneuver around each other to take several steps closer. Or they used to. Now they futz with their phones, regardless of the situation.

Clare establishes that this is an all ages club on a Sunday night, and then we meet our main character:

Fifteen-year-old Clary Fray, standing in line with her best friend, Simon, leaned forward along with everyone else, hoping for some excitement.

I’m getting some “just an ordinary girl who is also super special” vibes here, probably influence from Twilight. I have no problem with this trope, but I hope Simon isn’t around to be the jealous male friend.

So everybody wants to know what “that thing” is. Clare is hoping readers want to know too; it’s her opening hook. Small mysteries like this are great for supplementing an opening scene, but here it’s a little disingenuous. We know the bouncer is speaking to a boy in a red zip-up jacket, so how come we can’t see the item? Because Clare doesn’t want us to. It would feel more natural if Clary had to maneuver to see who the bouncer was talking to and if it was just her who was curious. A bouncer giving a kid a hard time can’t be that unusual.

“Aw, come on.” The kid hoisted the thing up over his head. It looked like a wooden beam, pointed at one end. “It’s part of my costume.”

The bouncer raised an eyebrow. “Which is what?”

The boy grinned. He was normal-enough-looking, Clary thought, for Pandemonium. He had electric blue dyed hair that stuck up around his head like the tendrils of a startled octopus, but no elaborate facial tattoos or big metal bars through his ears or lips. “I’m a vampire hunter.” He pushed down on the wooden thing. It bent as easily as a blade of grass bending sideways. “It’s fake. Foam rubber. See?”

The mystery that everyone’s been waiting for is a fake wooden stake. That’s a bit anti-climactic. Maybe it’s actually a magic wand or something. Strangely, the kid hoists it. “Hoisting” implies the thing being lifted is very heavy. It looks like a “wooden beam,” maybe it’s a really big stake. And why is he hoisting it over his head? The bouncer is looking down at him, but surely they aren’t several feet apart in height. Maybe the bouncer is standing on a chair?

I like the startled octopus simile though; that’s cute.

Describe What the Viewpoint Character Can Actually See

The boy’s wide eyes were way too bright a green, Clary noticed: the color of antifreeze, spring grass. Colored contact lenses, probably. The bouncer shrugged, abruptly bored. “Whatever. Go on in.”

Hot guy alert! He has to be hot, or Clare wouldn’t have mentioned his eye color. Somehow Clary sees his eye color from her place in the line. Maybe it’s just that bright, or she has a special hot guy detector.

Then we have our bouncer, who should start a new paragraph. In addition, “abruptly bored” is a travesty. We’re in Clary’s point of view; can she read his mind to directly sense his boredom? I doubt it. We need external signals of his boredom, and what do you know, we have them. His body language and dialogue already make his boredom clear. Narrating his feelings violates the viewpoint and adds redundancy.

The boy slid past him quick as an eel. Clary liked the lilt to his shoulders, the way he tossed his hair as he went. There was a word for him that her mother would have used—insouciant.

More pretentiousness. Words are for communicating the story to readers, not for showing off a large vocabulary. I’ll forgive it if Clary turns out to be a vocabulary geek.

“You thought he was cute,” said Simon, sounding resigned. “Didn’t you?”

Oh dear, it looks like this guy is indeed the jealous male friend. More on that later.

Cartoon Villains Aren’t Threatening

We have a break in the text and some nice description of the club’s smokey, multi-colored interior.

The boy in the red jacket stroked the long razor-sharp blade in his hands, an idle smile playing over his lips. It had been so easy—a little bit of glamour on the blade, to make it look harmless. … Of course, he could have probably gotten by without all that trouble, but it was part of the fun—fooling the mundies, doing it all out in the open right in front of them, getting off on the blank looks on their sheeplike faces.

Not that the humans didn’t have their uses. … Vitality just poured off them, waves of energy that filled him with a drunken dizziness. … They didn’t know what it was like to eke out life in a dead world, where the sun hung limp in the sky like a burned cinder. Their lives burned as brightly as candle flames—and were as easy to snuff out.

So hot guy is evil. And the fake stake is actually a knife; that’s even less interesting. Here we have a potentially compelling villain that is hobbled by cartoonish behavior. The smiling as he plays with a knife and thinks about how humans are sheep is silly and overdone. What if instead of fooling the bouncer for fun, he was doing exactly the right thing to attract a victim? Perhaps the scene with the bouncer was designed to get attention from people like Clary, so a victim would seek him out. He’d be more threatening without the theatrics. It would also make him a better Edward-style love interest, if that’s where Clare is going with this.

Then we get some nice hints about the world. We know he comes from a different planet or reality of some kind, one that’s the epitome of bleak.

Description Is More Than Pretty Sounding Words

Next, a beautiful girl emerges from the dance floor and approaches him. Perhaps it’s Clary? We don’t know anything about how Clary looks, but the main character is always beautiful,* and we know she likes evil hot guy.

She was beautiful, for a human—long hair nearly the precise color of black ink,

I’ve seen a lot of terrible description, but her hair color takes the cake. That’s strange, because Clare’s had some good description up until now. She knows how to bring scenes alive with specific details and interesting similes. But this is jibberish.

First, we have “color of black ink.” When both a color is named and compared to something of a similar color, it should be to refine the color further. For instance, “brown like dead leaves” communicates that it’s a light, perhaps gold-red brown. But just like “the color of a red sweater” only conveys “red,” saying the “color of black ink” isn’t any better using “black.” Clare also adds that her hair is the precise color of black ink. So it’s not just black, but black black? Okay, black hair is common, so that isn’t exceptional. Except her hair isn’t the precise color of black ink after all; it’s nearly the precise color of black ink. Saying “nearly” only undoes the effect of saying it’s “precise” – that is, if saying “precise” actually did anything.

I can’t help but conclude that Clare is trying to sound poetic here, without the substance to back it up. Substance over style, everyone. Substance over style.

She was beautiful, for a human—long hair nearly the precise color of black ink, charcoaled eyes. Floor-length white gown, the kind women used to wear when this world was younger.

What? It’s unclear what time frame evil hot guy is thinking of for all the women in white gowns, but well… the world is 4.6 billion years old. I’m trying to imagine that history with lots of women in long white gowns, and it’s not going so well. White gowns stain easily; most civilizations probably wouldn’t have them in abundance. Maybe Clare means the girl’s wearing a toga?

… Around her neck was a thick silver chain, on which hung a dark red pendant the size of a baby’s fist.

When you conjure a metaphor, even if it’s just to compare size, color, etc, you invoke an image. Ask yourself if the image of what you are describing and the image you are invoking with your metaphor jive. In this case, I can’t help imagining a baby’s fist dangling from a chain around the girl’s neck. Is that what Clare wanted? You never know, but I doubt it. The “size of an unfolding rose” might be a better comparison, or for a creepier edge, she could compare it to a third eye or a second heart.

She smiled, passing him, beckoning with her eyes. He turned to follow her, tasting the phantom sizzle of her death on his lips.

I dig the phantom sizzle. Kudos.

Think Through Your Setting

… She reached the wall and turned, bunching her skirt up in her hands, lifting it as she grinned at him. Under the skirt, she was wearing thigh-high boots. He sauntered up to her … Up close she wasn’t so perfect: He could see the mascara smudged under her eyes, the sweat sticking her hair to her neck.

Nevermind, she wants sex and she’s not perfect looking. So unfortunately, she can’t possibly be Clary. The ordinary girl type always thinks she’s not good-looking because her “eyes are too big” or she’s “too shapely” or in Bella’s case, “too pale” – but she’s always gorgeous to others. If Clary sweated or wore smudged mascara, real girls might think they could become heroes without cosmetic surgery. Wouldn’t that be awful?

A cool smile curved her lips. She moved to the side, and he could see that she was leaning against a closed door. NO ADMITTANCE—STORAGE was scrawled across it in red paint. She reached behind her for the knob, turned it, slid inside. …

He slipped into the room after her, unaware that he was being followed.

If you were running a club with underage raves, and you had a storage room just off the dance floor, wouldn’t you lock it? You wouldn’t want underage kids going in there to have sex, would you? Maybe it’s not right next to the dance floor, but she didn’t turn and go down a hall or anything.

Then there’s the narration about her entering. First she reaches for the knob, then she turns the knob, then finally enters. Evil hot guy probably follows by first putting his left foot forward, then shifting his weight to his left foot, then moving his right foot forward…

Clare sticks another mystery hook in just before the next break in the text, that’s always a good idea. Who is following evil hot guy? Readers have to continue to find out.

Create a Good First Impression For Your Hero

We jump back to Clary and jealous friend Simon as they are dancing.

Clary wasn’t paying much attention to their immediate surroundings—her eyes were on the blue-haired boy who’d talked his way into the club. …

“I, for one,” Simon went on, “am enjoying myself immensely.”

This seemed unlikely. Simon, as always, stuck out at the club like a sore thumb, … He looked less as if he were contemplating the powers of darkness and more as if he were on his way to chess club.

“Mmm-hmm.” Clary knew perfectly well that he came to Pandemonium with her only because she liked it, that he thought it was boring.

Here’s one of the problems with this jealous male friend business. From what we’ve seen so far, this is not a friendship with an even balance of power:

  • Simon is a nerd; Clary is probably really hot.
  • Simon likes Clary as more than a friend; she doesn’t feel the same.
  • Simon doesn’t like this dance club. He came only to please Clary, probably because he likes her as more than a friend.
  • Once at the club, Simon tries to make conversation, while Clary ignores him.

This is believable, but it doesn’t reflect well on either Clary or Simon. Simon comes off as pathetic and Clary comes off as self-centered.

For comparison, in Twilight, our opening shot of Bella shows she is sacrificing her happiness to go live in Forks, WA. The scene hints it’s for her mother’s sake, though that’s not entirely clear. She doesn’t have any friends in Forks. Once Bella is established as a character, a bunch of new friends that Bella doesn’t care about fawn all over her. She’s established as an underdog before wish-fulfillment is served.

The scene continues with Simon trying to make conversation and Clary ignoring him in favor of watching evil hot guy meet up with gorgeous girl and go into the suspiciously unlocked storage closet. Then Clary sees two guys follow them, one with a knife. She tells Simon.

Suddenly all business, Simon squared his shoulders. “I’ll get one of the security guards. You stay here.” He strode away, pushing through the crowd.

Clary turned just in time to see the blond boy slip through the NO ADMITTANCE door, his friend right on his heels. She looked around; Simon was still trying to shove his way across the dance floor, but he wasn’t making much progress. Even if she yelled now, no one would hear her, and by the time Simon got back, something might already have happened. Biting hard on her lower lip, Clary started to wiggle through the crowd.

Luckily, Clary had trained all her life as a ninja. Taking out those knife-wielding guys bare-handed would be a cinch.

Just kidding, that last paragraph was me.

Simon gets his patriarchy on at the first sign of danger, commanding Clary to stay behind while he does important man things. Then Clary heads into danger without any plan for facing two guys with a knife. It’s typical for heroes to do reckless things, but this is a bit much, particularly since she doesn’t know the people she’s throwing her life away for.

This excerpt also shows where Clare’s wordcraft falls short:

  • She uses “suddenly” and “abruptly” where they aren’t needed.
  • She inserts repetitive telling. The phrase “all business” is summarizing body language she shows, then she spells out that Simon isn’t “making much progress” after saying he was still trying to cross the dance floor.
  • She’s not fully in viewpoint. She narrates how Clary “looked around” as though we’re watching Clary from the outside. A better choice for a transition would be “behind her.” And as I showed you earlier, she occasionally narrates how other people are feeling.
  • She uses a vague and cluttery “something might already have happened” instead of a compelling phase like “the blue-haired boy might be dead.”
  • She says “Clary started to wiggle” instead of just “Clary wiggled.”

Subversions Are a Plus

Next there’s another break, and we transition back to the viewpoint of evil hot guy, who is in the storage closet with gorgeous girl. Gorgeous girl’s name is Isabelle, it turns out.

He walked toward her, stepping carefully among the wires in case any of them were live. In the faint light she looked half-transparent, bleached of color, wrapped in white like an angel. It would be a pleasure to make her fall. …

… There was some sort of bracelet around her wrist, just under the cuff of her dress—then, as he neared her, he saw that it wasn’t a bracelet at all but a pattern inked into her skin, a matrix of swirling lines.

He froze. “You—”

He didn’t finish. She moved with lightning swiftness, striking out at him with her open hand, a blow to his chest that would have sent him down gasping if he’d been a human being. …

Isabelle yanked hard on the whip, securing it. Her smile glittered like poisonous water. “He’s all yours, boys.”

Very nice. Clare set ups a common fictional scenario – an evil monster is targeting a “promiscuous” girl. These scenarios typically end with the girl’s death – or at least her shrieking and running to a hero for help. Instead, Clare defies those expectations by having the girl kick the monster’s ass. This is called a subversion, and it’s a great way to add novelty to conventions that are old and worn out.

“As You and I Both Know” Should Never Appear in Dialogue

Next, the guys who had the knife tie up hot evil guy with a wire.

“Come on now.” The tawny-eyed boy held up his hands, and his dark sleeves slipped down, showing the runes inked all over his wrists, the back of his hands, his palms. “You know what I am.”

Far back inside his skull, the shackled boy’s second set of teeth began to grind.

Shadowhunter,” he hissed.

You probably know what I think of this. I’ll give you a hint, it starts with “p” and ends with “retenious.” If you want your hunters to be cool, show how they do cool things, don’t make your characters talk about how cool they are. Especially when they have no reason to say the hunters’ cool-sounding name out loud, like here.

Then there’s a transition back to Clary. She’s entered the storage closet. At first she doesn’t see anyone inside, and then they all appear. Apparently this unlocked storage closet is actually a large storage room, because they don’t notice she’s entered, and she manages to hide behind a concrete pillar.

The fair-haired boy paced back and forth, his arms now crossed over his chest. “So,” he said. “You still haven’t told me if there are any other of your kind with you.”

Your kind? Clary wondered what he was talking about. Maybe she’d stumbled into some kind of gang war.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The blue-haired boy’s tone was pained but surly.

“He means other demons,” said the dark-haired boy, speaking for the first time. “You do know what a demon is, don’t you?”

“Demons,” drawling 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, to be any malevolent spirit whose origin is outside our own home dimension—“

Ahhh! Make it stop! This is notoriously called “as you and I both know” dialogue. It isn’t natural for people to repeat, emphasize, or recite things that everyone in the conversation knows; those things go without saying. But often, writers will stuff it in to inform the reader. Or in this case, the reader and Clary. The shadowhunters don’t know Clary’s listening, but they begin speaking for her benefit as soon as she enters the storage room.

The conservation should actually go something like this:

Blond boy, holding up knife: Are there more demons here?

Blue-haired boy: Yes, demons! I know lots of demons. I’ll tell you everything; don’t hurt me.

Because that’s how torture actually works. The biggest challenge of interrogation isn’t resistance; it’s false information. As for exposition in dialogue, it’s permissible when at least one person doesn’t know the information. Then it’s pretty straightforward. A future scene in this story might have a conversation like this:

Clary: A demon? You mean like from hell?

Blond boy: Not always. It’s what we call any evil spirit from another dimension.

Notice that the blond boy no longer sounds like a textbook, and he isn’t stuffing in details about the Clave, etc, because she didn’t ask for them. If you need to explain your world before your hero has a mentor, use a method other than dialogue. In this story, an explanation of demons could have been worked into evil hot guy’s viewpoint.

“That’s enough, Jace,” said the girl.

“Isabelle’s right,” agreed the taller boy. “Nobody here needs a lesson in semantics—or demonology.”

Now Clare’s apologizing for her traumatizing dialogue by lampshading – pointing out that its bad. That’s better than nothing, but not enough, especially since just as she’s apologizing, she stuffs in Isabelle’s name. People rarely use each other’s names when talking.

Without Context, Readers Won’t Care

… The bound boy gasped. “Valentine is back!” he protested, dragging at the bonds that held his hands behind his back. “All the Infernal Worlds know it—I know it—I can tell you where he is–”

Rage flared suddenly in Jace’s icy eyes. “By the Angel every time we capture one of you bastards, you claim you know where Valentine is. Well, we know where he is too. He’s in hell. And you—” Jace turned the knife in his grasp, the edge sparking like a line of fire. “You can join him there.”

Valentine must be the big bad. He’s been defeated before, but now he’s back. And Jace – the blond boy – won’t acknowledge it despite everyone telling him. Right now, it looks like a case of plot-convenient idiocy syndrome, a disease that ravages characters across many franchises.

This is foreshadowing that’s designed to establish a threat, raising tension and making the story more gripping. While the dialogue is finally somewhat realistic, it doesn’t succeed in establishing the big bad as a compelling threat. That’s because Clare provides no information that demonstrates why Valentine is so threatening.

Let’s compare this to Harry Potter, which also has a big villain that rises from defeat. At the beginning, Voldemort’s purpose is just to establish Harry’s intriguing history. Even so, we learn that Voldemort has been terrorizing the magical world for eleven years, that he killed Harry’s parents, and that only Dumbledore can face him. We don’t hear about Voldemort again until after the owls and letters business, when Hagrid explains his existence to Harry. Then Harry learns more at Hogwarts, where everyone refuses to say the name. When we finally find out Voldemort isn’t completely gone, readers know enough about Voldemort to care.

A lot is happening in the opening chapter of City of Bones. Just getting Clary acquainted with the magical realm takes time, and with the right narration, garden-variety demons would provide enough threat for early chapters. Clare should have waited to mention Valentine until she had time for enough context to make it meaningful.

Again, Dialogue Must Sound Natural

Once Jace makes his melodramatic statement about sending evil hot guy to hell, Clary finally uses her spunk to stop the proceedings.

Clary could take no more. She stepped out from behind the pillar.”Stop!” she cried. “You can’t do this!”

Jace whirled, so startled that the knife flew from his hand and clattered against the concrete floor. Isabelle and Alec turned along with him, wearing identical expressions of astonishment. The blue-haired boy hung in his bonds, stunned and gaping.

It was Alec who spoke first. “What’s this?” he demanded, looking from Clary to his companions, as if they might know what she was doing there.

“It’s a girl,” Jace said, recovering his composure. “Surely you’ve seen girls before, Alec. Your sister Isabelle is one.” He took a step closer to Clary, squinting as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. “A mundie girl,” he said, half to himself. “And she can see us.”

Look Clare, here’s my wallet, and my car keys, and my cell phone, take everything! Anything you want. Just stop stuffing your dialogue with unnatural explanations. I can’t take it anymore.

It’s a pity too, because Clare has some clever dialogue, like this quip about Clary being a girl. But she’s making some common mistakes:

  • She’s uses flavored tags such as “he demanded.” It’s just another way of repetitive telling. The wording of the dialogue and body language should convey he’s demanding.
  • Characters are speaking each other’s names too frequently. This is partly because Clare is trying to convey information. Jace might say “your sister is one” or “Isabelle is one” but it’s unlikely he’d say “your sister Isabelle is one.” Clare wants readers to know Alec and Isabelle are siblings, but they don’t need this information.
  • Jace is talking to himself. People don’t usually do that unless they’re alone, if at all. Again, it’s an excuse to make Jace spell out things that he has no reason to talk to the others about.
  • Altogether, the dialogue in this chapter is coming off as too canned. Phrases like “you’ve got to be kidding me” and “he’s all yours” are bordering on cliche. People do speak with canned and cliche phrasing, so it’s okay to use them occasionally. But if you do it too much, it won’t feel natural anymore. In this chapter, the unique voices of Clare’s characters are buried under catch phrases.

Don’t Bog Down the Action With Clutter

Clary tells the shadowhunters they “can’t just go around killing people” and Jace tells her evil hot guy isn’t a person.

“You’re crazy,” Clary said, backing away from him. “I’ve called the police, you know. They’ll be here any second.”

“She’s lying,” said Alec, but there was doubt on his face. “Jace, do you–”

He never got to finish his sentence. At that moment the blue-haired boy, with a high, yowling cry, tore free of the restraints binding him to the pillar, and flung himself on Jace.

They fell to the ground and rolled together, the blue-haired boy tearing at Jace with hands that glittered as if tipped with metal. Clary backed up, wanting to run, but her feet caught on a loop of wiring and she went down, knocking the breath out of her chest. She could hear Isabelle shrieking. Rolling over, Clary saw the blue-haired boy sitting on Jace’s chest. Blood gleamed at the tips of his razorlike claws.

Isabelle and Alec were running toward them, Isabelle brandishing a whip in her hand. The blue-haired boy slashed at Jace with claws extended. Jace threw an arm up to protect himself, and the claws raked it, splattering blood.

First, let’s look at the interruption in the dialogue. Clare doesn’t need to say that Alec couldn’t finish his sentence; we can see it isn’t finished. All she’s doing is slowing down an otherwise tense moment. A correction might look like:

“Jace, do you–”

The blue-haired boy yowled and tore free of his restraints. He flung himself on Jace.

Here I’ve both tightened the language and made it more active. The result feels faster and tenser. That’s what you want when the bad guy makes a surprise attack.

There’s also some odd time dilation happening in this excerpt. When evil hot guy attacks, Clary:

  1. Backs up
  2. Trips and falls backward
  3. Recovers from losing her wind
  4. Rolls over so she can see

During that time, Isabelle are Alec are either:

  1. Standing around shrieking. Isabelle is a girl, so apparently she has to shriek, even though she’s a bad-ass who captures demons.
  2. Running, because this storage room is actually a warehouse, and it takes them the entire time Clary is falling and recovering to get to Jace.

Time doesn’t pause when the point of view character looks away.

Black Is Just Black, Okay?

… Jace rolled over. There was a blade gleaming in his hand. He sank the knife into the blue-haired boy’s chest. Blackish liquid exploded around the hilt. The boy arched off the floor, gurgling and twisting. With a grimace Jace stood up. His black shirt was blacker now in some places, wet with blood. He looked down at the twitching form at his feet, reached down, and yanked out the knife. The hilt was slick with black fluid.

The blue-haired boy’s eyes flickered open. His eyes, fixed on Jace, seemed to burn. Between his teeth, he hissed, “So be it. The Forsaken will take you all.

So Jace seems fine, even though evil hot guy tore his arm to shreds. He’s now covered in evil guy’s blood, which is “blackish.” If it’s not quite black, then what is it? Deep gray? Red so dark it’s almost black? But then, even though it’s not quite black, it makes Jace’s black shirt blacker. Of all the colors, black is the narrowest in definition. Yet under the faint light in this storage closet warehouse, Clary can see subtle distinctions between black and black.

Then we have the last words of evil hot guy. He was speaking in casual language before. Now that he’s on the edge of death, he uses careful, formal phrasing. Maybe the boss demon briefly possesses lower demons when they die? And what are the italics for? Clare seems to use italics whenever she thinks her dialogue needs melodrama. But italics or no, his dying threat is laughable, because Clare hasn’t made him or any other demon scary enough.

Farewell evil hot guy, you were the most interesting character in this chapter.

Make Your Story Creepy in the Good Way

Once evil hot guy is dead, his body disappears, including the blood on the floor but not the blood on the shadowhunters for some reason. This thwarts Clary’s plans to involve the police and leaves the shadowhunters to argue over what they should do with Clary.

… “She’s a mundie.” [Isabelle]

“Or is she?” said Jace softly. His quiet tone was worse than Isabelle’s snapping or Alec’s anger. “Have you had dealings with demons, little girl? Walked with warlocks, talked with the Night Children? Have you–”

“My name is not ‘little girl,'” Clary interrupted. “And I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Don’t you? said a voice in the back of her head. You saw that boy vanish into thin air. Jace isn’t crazy—you just wish he was. “I don’t believe in—in demons, or whatever you—”

“Clary?” It was Simon’s voice. She whirled around. He was standing by the storage room door. One of the burly bouncers who’d been stamping hands at the front door was next to him. “Are you okay?” He peered at her through the gloom. “Why are you in here by yourself? What happened to the guys—you know, the ones with the knives?”

This is the most eerie spot in the chapter, but not in a good way. First we have Jace, who is calling Clary “little girl” in a quiet, intense voice. It’s nice that Clary corrects him, but that doesn’t make him any less of a condescending creepster. That’s a big problem, because right now he appears to be the love interest. He’s getting more candy than Isabelle or Alec, and the cover of the book is a decent match for his description. Making the love interest dismiss the hero at first will help build a romance, but be careful, readers should still like them.

Next there’s the voice in the back of Clary’s mind. This voice isn’t necessary to demonstrate that Clary feels conflicted. Behold:

“My name is not ‘little girl,'” Clary interrupted. “And I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Or did she? A boy just vanished into thin air. But there was a rational explanation for that, there had to be. She just didn’t know it yet. “I don’t believe in—in demons, or whatever you—“

Italicized thoughts are only needed in more distant viewpoints. In close viewpoints, thoughts should blend in with the narrative, like above. However, the subconscious voice might have worked if it was cut down to just Don’t you? It’s the part of Clary’s mind that she’s ignoring, so it shouldn’t have the presence to go on for several sentences. As is, it feels alien.

Then Simon shows up, and he can’t see any of the shadowhunters. This is another effective way to keep Clary from going to the police and convince her that the supernatural is real. Kudos.

Just Say “No” to Awkward Symbolism

Clary tells Simon and the bouncer she made a mistake. Then there’s another text break, and we see Simon and Clary outside hailing a cab.

Street cleaners had come down Orchard while they were inside the club, and the street was glossed black with oily water.

More black; this cannot be on accident. At least I hope not. Does Clare do this through the entire novel? Maybe each chapter has its own color? She could have at least used some fancy synonyms like onyx and ebony. Charcoal is all we get, and just once.

If you are embedding symbolic imagery in your work, this is what you have to look out for. If it’s not done expertly, it will become a distraction. It’s easier to let your symbolism emerge naturally from your writing and then enhance it a bit, than it is to just choose a symbol and insert it everywhere.

Again, Your Hero Needs a Good First Impression

“I don’t believe those guys with the knives just disappeared.” [Simon]

Clary sighed. “Maybe there weren’t any guys with knives, Simon. Maybe I just imagined the whole thing.”

“No way.” Simon raised his hand over his head, but the oncoming taxis whizzed by him, spraying dirty water. “I saw your face when I came into that storage room. You looked seriously freaked out, like you’d seen a ghost. ”

“It was just a mistake,” she said wearily. She wondered why she wasn’t telling him the truth. Except of course, that he’d think she was crazy. And there was something about what had happened … that she wanted to keep to herself.

“Well, it was a hell of an embarrassing mistake,” Simon said. …. “I doubt they’ll ever let us back into Pandemonium.”

“What do you care? You hate Pandemonium.”

Other than his random command to Clary mid-chapter, Simon has been a great friend. He accompanied her to a club he didn’t like to keep her company, supported her when she told him she saw guys with knives in the club, and now he can tell something’s wrong.

But Clary won’t give him any explanation after the bother she put him through, even an edited one. Worse, she’s been punishing him for disliking the club he kindly obliged to attend with her. She is not a good friend, and that doesn’t make her a likable character.

As an aside, I worked security for several years, and I cannot imagine any establishment banning customers for giving security an honest but false alarm. They might ban Clary for going into the storage warehouse, except the narration suggests this is a normal occurrence.

Overall Lessons

Unlike my critiques of Brooks and Paolini, I can’t say Clare’s work is terrible, just bad. Brooks and Paolini should have completely rewritten their first chapter/prologue, whereas Clare’s first chapter has accomplished some important things. Here a list of what I think she set out to do, and how well she did it:

  • Create an opening hook. Her little mystery with the strange stake/knife would have been better if the item was more interesting and meaningful to the plot. But it was better than nothing. As a whole, the chapter was probably an effective hook for readers that liked Clary.
  • Introduce her main character. Clary comes off as more flawed than intended, and that probably alienated some readers. However, She does have the ordinary + special power combo that worked so well for Twilight and many others. Plus, she’s blank enough for readers to identify with her.
  • Introduce her main character to the supernatural. While the dialogue was incredibly awkward, the plot structure was well done. I think this was the most successful aspect of the first chapter.
  • Establish the threat. This was the weakest aspect. Clare had a great opportunity to make the demon feel threatening. Instead he was first comical, and then he got his ass beat. The Valentine foreshadowing was even less effective.

It’s interesting that Clare chose to make the demon, and not one of the shadowhunters, a viewpoint character. Showing a character’s viewpoint makes them better understood. This in turn makes them less mysterious, less threatening, and allows the audience to become more attached to them. With her viewpoint choices, Clare made the demon understood and the shadowhunters mysterious. As a result, not only did the chapter suffer from a deficit of threat, but she inserted silly-sounding explanations about the shadowhunters into her dialogue.

While Clare’s writing was clumsy, she still showed potential. Many writers improve as their careers progress. With luck, she’ll be one of those.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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  1. Giana

    Thank you for this, I’ve realized some mistakes I make in my own writing :}

    • Chris Winkle

      You’re welcome!

      • Rand al'Thor

        I realized a lot of these mistakes as I read this article! I thought these books were supposed to be good.

      • Chris Winkle

        I’m sure some people love them and recommend them, but they do have a reputation in some circles for being bad. That’s how I found them.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Likely the books bring something to the table that people like enough for them to overlook the writing mistakes. For most of us, though, our chances of writing success will be a lot better if we avoid those mistakes in the first place.

  2. JW

    Great post! I love these “lessons from the…” articles. They really make me look at my own writing and find mistakes I would have otherwise missed.

    On another note, have you considered analyzing “I am number four”? The series is fairly popular, yet I felt there was much that could have been improved. Thanks again for a helpful post!

    • Chris Winkle

      I’m glad they’re helpful! Thanks for the book suggestion, I’m always looking for more. I’ll check it out.

      • Rand al'Thor

        Remember Sword of Truth is bad too!

      • Chris Winkle

        Is it? I’ll put it on my list to look at. What I really need is more terrible but popular scifi books though. For some reason they’re harder to find.

        • Mr.Pointy

          Do Divergent and The Maze Runner count as scifi? If memory serves, they’re not so well written and popular.
          In any case I hope you will continue this series, it’s brilliant.

  3. Liz

    I love reading these analysis posts. I very rarely dissect the sentence structures of books, and mostly just skim each sentence to gather the big picture. I appreciate your analysis though, and it helped me to key in on some bad writing habits that I tend to have. I do understand what you’re saying about cliches and poorly done symbolism and stereotypes in fantasy/sci-fi. I absolutely hate those things! I can’t even read YA fiction anymore because of them. Lol.

    • Chris Winkle

      I’m glad you like them! They are time consuming, but worth it.

      I’m sorry to hear you’ve given up on YA, but I certainly know how that goes. I think sometimes subgenres suffer from their own popularity, and that’s probably happening a little with YA right now.

  4. J.K. Bennett

    Well that was awesome and somewhat entertaining. I’m really glad I stumbled onto this blog. I am very new to writing and found this extremely helpful. I can’t wait to read all your other articles. Thanks. Stay awesome.

  5. Renee Doty

    I will admit that the first book in the series was not very good. BUT the thing I love about Cassie Clare is that her writing got better with each book she wrote. My favorite part of her work is actually The Infernal Devices (a prequel trilogy to TMI). Unless you HATE it I would say read City of Ashes before you make a call on the series

    • Chris Winkle

      Admittedly the post is titled the way it is because adding “Chapter 1” is a little long, and “The Mortal Instruments” is a more recognizable name than City of Bones. My conclusions about bad writing only apply to the one chapter in the first book. I actually thought Clare showed some promise in a couple areas, I can believe the later books are better.

  6. Julie

    Part of the problem is that The Mortal Instruments started life as a Harry Potter fanfiction (I feel her kissing scenes have an especially fanfiction-y feel to them). After a while she realized that she had branched so far off of its inspiration that she could barely call it a fanfiction, it had become its own world. That isn’t to say that fanfictions can’t be well-written, and many are, but they are almost exclusively written by amateurs.
    I agree with Renee Doty, the later books are much better. There were quite a few places where Cassandra Claire backed the readers (and her characters) into a corner where the problem was unsolvable and then solved it. ***SPOILER ALERT*** In particular, Clary and Jace are brother and sister. They are. It’s gross, and we hate ourselves for shipping it, but that’s how it is. We can’t get around it. Then, in barely more than a paragraph she explains how they actually aren’t related. Maybe I just didn’t see the obvious signs, but I was blindsided by Sebastian.

    • Alex

      Interesting that the books present Jace and Clary as actual siblings. I’ve seen the film (which is not particularly good, but not as awful as I was expecting), and in that it’s completely clear that the idea of Clary and Jace being siblings is a lie Valentine told Jace to mess with his head and drive a wedge between him and Clary. The implication I got was that becoming lovers will make Clary and Jace a stronger team and a greater threat to Valentine — they don’t know that, but Valentine does, so he deceives them to stop it from happening.

      Not only did Cassandra Clare write Harry Potter fanfiction, she’s the one writer most responsible for creating and popularizing the infamous “Draco in Leather Pants” trope. Jace is the ultimate evolution of that execrable example of villain decay.

  7. Sarah

    I am far too excited about this blog post. As a B&N bookseller, I’ve been around these books for years, and their popularity means we [unfortunately] have tons of them in stock. I tried reading City of Bones because my friends raved about it, but I couldn’t even make it to page 50. I guess I subconsciously was able to pick up all the “pretentious” and cliche writing.

    To be fair, a lot of this kind of writing can easily make it into the first draft of a novel, where the goal is to just get the story and descriptions on paper. But once the revision phase begins, it should be cleaned up.

    Thank you for taking the time to write this out.

    • Chris Winkle

      Too excited about one of my posts? Impossible!

      The goal of a first draft can be completely different from one writer to another. I don’t like to worry about wordcraft on first novel draft, but I know another writer that won’t move on until it’s perfect. But regardless of how the process goes, I agree with you that it’s the end product that matters. We all have bad habits we have to seek and destroy in our writing. If it takes a writer 20 revisions and 3 editors to get there, they’ve still created great work.

      In any case, I’m glad I could offer your some catharsis!

  8. Suzzy

    I have been a huge fan of The Mortal Instruments for years. Well your points in your article have some truth, they seemed to be a bit mocking and has the mood of jealousy. I am unsure if that is what your intention was. If your are going to critique someone’s book I would recommend to have an even amount of positive and negative. Also reading in your comments you were in search of more “bad” writing. Cassandra Clare’s writing is not bad. Her world building and characterization is very well. Sometimes the cliche writing can be fun to read. Also I don’t think “bad” writing, will be read by several people, has a movie published, and is inspiring a television series Shadowhunters. Your blog post has good personality. I enjoyed reading it. Please though, don’t be a hater. That is the vibe I got from this article and reading through the comments.

    • SamBeringer

      Did we read the same review? Because the author of this review did include positive input on the writing, such as pointing out that Clare had a decent hook and that they liked some of the similes. It doesn`t have to be completely even.

      Popularity also doesn`t mean something is good. Keep in mind that 50 Shades of Grey is one of the biggest best-sellers with a three movie deal and even fans say that the writing is awful. Then there`s the House of Night series, which keeps making the bestseller list and is the residue leftover after the bottom of the barrel has been scrapped when it comes to literature. So saying that something is a bestseller and has gotten movie and TV deals doesn`t make it automatically good.

      And to add on to that, it`s possible to like something despite it being bad or disliking something despite it being good. I enjoy the Van Helsing movie despite the story full of more holes than swiss cheese, characters flatter than cardboard, and the hokey acting. In contrast, Tim Burton`s Sweeney Todd is beautifully shot and acted, the songs are wonderfully done, and is just a beautiful film overall, but I didn`t enjoy it.

      Finally, calling someone a “hater” just because they don`t like the same thing as you is pretty immature. You`re demeaning them for daring to say that something you like has problems or that they didn`t feel the same way. Please keep in mind that your tastes are not superior nor inferior to others; they`re just different. The world would be a boring place if everyone liked the same thing.

      • Michaela

        He didn’t really say that she had a good hook, he said that she used a hook in the first chapter, which was a good thing. This article does come off as harsh, and others may, and will, see it in any way that they please.

    • Amaterasu

      I agree with SamBeringer. Though I didn’t agree with everything in this review, and am a big Mortal Instruments fan (despite it’s many flaws) I do agree that Clare’s writing here was pretty bad. I think as the series went on, it became a little more manageable, but I would in no way consider it high quality writing. Her simile’s are often odd, she does use the word “black ” a lot and the dialogue is forced a lot. Which isn’t to say the dialogue is horrible; some of my favorite quotes from her writing are dialogue, such as: basically anything said by Magnus, Alec’s Becoming Badass quote (“I’m not your B_tch,”) and Will’s quote about his reputation and the brothel in the Infernal Devices. Also, as SamBeringer said, it often happens that books that are not in any way perfect end up as best sellers (Cough cough, Twighlight, The last Two books of the Hunger games Series, 50 Shades of Grey Trilogy, cough cough) as opposed to amazing books that really would deserve it. Everyone has different opinions, but just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have an open mind. Especially they explain their ideas reasonably, arguing with facts instead of feelings.

  9. Anonymous

    I would like to point out that if you read further into City of Bones, you will learn that Jace is just a pretentious character in general, so while you are correct that most people wouldn’t recite information known to everyone present, Jace would and frequently does. In my opinion, it adds to his characterization, and makes him more likable.

  10. RachaelB

    Have you ever thought about picking a chapter you loved and showing the better examples of writing? I think it’d be beneficial to also see a good example of an opening chapter.

    • Chris Winkle

      I’ve considered it, I’m just not sure it would be read by many people. But I’ll keep it in mind.

      • Mark B

        I would read it. I know it might lack shock value but I’m not after that. In fact, I almost didn’t read this post because that was its hook. I am interested in the craft of writing, on which you seem insightful. Nice post with good call-outs.

  11. Storm Suitter

    Well thanks a heap. I just spent a good junk of my morning reading, laughing, and screenshotting sections to send to my sister. I’m so impressed by your eye for all of the crap! I never noticed most of this. And I love all of this dry humor! Keep it up, this was so hilarious!

  12. Michaela

    Some of this information has helped me, but I wouldn’t take half of it with a grain of salt. I truly enjoyed the first book, and even think it might be my favorite of the series. It opens up a whole new world to look at, despite the minor flaws. Articles like these remind me of that quote from 27 Dresses: “I feel like I just found out that my favorite love song was written about a sandwich.” Cassandra Clare has done a wonderful job in my eyes.

    • Krssven

      He wasn’t saying you couldn’t or didn’t enjoy it, just that it’s bad as this type of story goes. It doesn’t mean she’s a bad writer, either – but I’d seriously question whether she a) reads the feedback on her drafts or b) the publishers did more than scan-read it.

  13. Krssven

    I’d love to know how stuff like this gets published as-is, while wonderful writers like Richelle Mead rarely get the kind of ‘mainstream’ attention they deserve.

    Part of me wonders whether there is a particular kind of ‘YA style’ of writing that lends itself to this kind of pretentiousness. How is it Paolini and Clare got published in the first place? This reads like a step up from a first draft fanfic and could’ve been improved by just handing it to someone with a little more expertise with the English language than ‘I read Twilight several times’ and getting them to make annotations.

  14. Lemurkat

    Whilst I enjoyed the first three books in this series, I did feel the opening act of “City of Bones” was rather poorly done. At the time, I didn’t understand what precisely about it bugged me and now, thanks to you, I do!

    Not only that, but you have helped me analyse my own writing. So, kudos to you


  15. Chris

    Thank you, this was very helpful. I can’t wait to read more on some of your Do’s and Do Not’s.

  16. Brittany

    I absolutely loved everything about this article. I actually took screen shots of this City of Bones while reading it to remind myself how NOT to write. I’m so glad that someone else out there noticed the particularly bad writing in this series. I did end up reading the entire series, gritting my teeth from time to time when the writing got bad. The overall story was good – but I wonder how much better it could have been had an excellent editor helped her out before publishing.

    Which leads me to my question – do you offer editing services? I learned a lot from your article and love your way of explaining the dos and don’ts.

    • Chris Winkle

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’m not available to do editing right now, though I hope it’s something we’ll be able to provide in the future.

  17. Cassie

    I would just like to say this article peaked my interest because In fact I am a huge fan of Cassandra Clare’s books. They in someway changed my life. I’ve read many books through out my short life time and I’ve learned that the great classics that don’t get much attention, as a teen I didn’t quite understand or love till I was much older. Clare’s audience isnt usually read by people over 27. Her books speak to teens that can relate to it or understand them, I know I did as a teen. Most YA books are written like this to get a younger audience attention. I bet half of you would laugh at the books you read in your younger years or childhood because they where so poorly atablished but that never stopped you from loving it at that moment. Each writer also has there own unique style, maybe YA books style just simple isnt for everyone. Everyone has there own opinon. I would also like to state that this was Clare’s first ever book. Most writers first books aren’t great but that’s how you learn. I’m not against this article because I agree this wasn’t Clare’s best work but I don’t believe you should bash someone’s whole series and world just off a couple chapters of a persons first book. I would also like to point out that I’m 22 and maybe years from now I won’t like Clare’s books because they won’t obtain to me anymore. A books audience is based off maturity, age and genre it applys to the most.

    • Sam Beringer

      First of all, the author didn’t bash the series. They said that Clare’s writing was clumsy but had potential and they expressed hope that she improved as she continued. That is the opposite of bashing.

      Secondly, you saying that the style may not be seen as good because the critics are older comes off a lot like saying “it’s for kids, so why are you expecting quality?” Which is, frankly, insulting to the book’s intended audience. I’ve read YA and children’s books that, while not perfect (I don’t think there is such a thing), still put in effort to treat their audience with the respect they deserved. To say that quality shouldn’t be expected is a slap in the face to both YA readers and authors who put time and effort into making their work good.

    • Ellie

      It might be Cassie Clare’s first book, but it certainly isn’t her first foray into writing. She was a journalist before she got into fiction.

  18. Rebekah Spark

    I have to admit that I read this series a few years back as a reader rather than a writer and I didn’t pick out any of these now oblivious faults. It does show that an interesting plot can at times overcome bad writing. I remember thinking it was a shame that this became a series, as the plot got worse as it went on, to the point that I stopped reading halfway into the last book (some thing that I almost never do.) It makes me wonder why these flaws where not fixed during editing. Amazing to think that this series was so successful and has been made into a TV series and a movie.

  19. Tori

    First off I would like to say that I do agree with most of your thoughts on these points and I believe they will help me to impove my own writing. But I do love The Mortal Instruments series. While these mistakes could have been fixed they didn’t ruin the story for me at all.
    I, however, would like to challenge a few points.
    1. As someone who’s favorite color is black I can tell you from experience that if you spill liquid on black material it does in fact get “blacker”.
    2. Again from experience, many poeple do actually talk to themselves; in front of other people.
    3. When I read it (both times) I thought that while clary was tripping and falling, Issibella’s shrieks were obviously from her being attacked and/or thrown back by Demond-boy.
    4. The way Clare shows through the demonds mind did throw me and I did not think blond-boy was even really human much less the love interest.
    5. Jace is supposed to be mysterious. I think that’s kind of the pont of not writing in his prospective this early on. He’s also supposed to come across as a jerk; that’s the lable he’s going for, “jerky-emotionless-badass”. Then you get to know him and he’s a good person. Many people in real life are like this.

    • Sophie the Jedi Knight

      Good point with Isabelle screaming – I didn’t think she was being attacked; it came off as “Aah he’s loose help.” But if you know that the blue-haired boy attacked Jace, then who’s attacking Isabelle? And if she’s being attacked, Clare shouldn’t have used “shrieking” to describe Isabelle’s yelling if she is being attacked. Shrieking gives the idea of “AGH MOUSE KILL IT” and not the right vibe for attacked.

  20. Alex

    Nice sporking! All good points except for one; there was a point where I think that a more charitable reading would also be more plausible:

    … The bound boy gasped. “Valentine is back!” he protested, dragging at the bonds that held his hands behind his back. “All the Infernal Worlds know it—I know it—I can tell you where he is–”

    Rage flared suddenly in Jace’s icy eyes. “By the Angel every time we capture one of you bastards, you claim you know where Valentine is. Well, we know where he is too. He’s in hell. And you—” Jace turned the knife in his grasp, the edge sparking like a line of fire. “You can join him there.”

    Valentine must be the big bad. He’s been defeated before, but now he’s back. And Jace – the blond boy – won’t acknowledge it despite everyone telling him. Right now, it looks like a case of plot-convenient idiocy syndrome, a disease that ravages characters across many franchises.

    To me, it sounded like Jace was saying that captured Demons have been spinning stories about Valentine being back for however many years Valentine has been gone, and those stories have always been lies. Thus, it’s not a matter of Jace refusing to acknowledge the truth “despite everyone telling him,” but rather of Jace refusing to believe the hundredth little demon to cry wolf because the other ninety-nine were all lying, and he has no reason to think this time is different.

    • Ellie

      Yeah but as a reader we know what this set-up is. She could have inverted it and had Valentine not come back. Or had the Shadowhunters investigate the claims (because Valentine is really that big a deal) but she doesn’t. So obviously, Valentine must be back for reals.

    • Sophie the Jedi Knight

      We don’t know this yet, but maybe Jace did investigate the Valentine claims beforehand when the first demon claims he was back. Then he would have reason to doubt blue hair’s claims. It almost sounds like Jace is confirming this with “We know he’s in hell,” but it sounds less like “We checked, you’re wrong” and more like “Don’t be silly of course he’s still in hell our security is flawless.”

  21. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    You should try out Tiger’s Curse for one of these critiques. The prologue and first chapter aren’t terrible, but their writing could use some work and it seems off at points.

  22. Yvette

    These books deserve every word of this critique.

  23. Anon

    I agree with all of this article- except for the section where you said she should’ve taken out “He never got to finish his sentence”. While it would make more sense to leave that out, your rewritten version sounds awkward in context. In my opinion, it adds to the “thrill factor” of the fight about to happen.
    I do like the series, but, as you pointed out, it’s not always the best (“the apple tasted green and cool”). I enjoyed this article- keep up the great work!

  24. Isabelle Evendale

    Well, I might sounded like a 15 year old, but I guess I have right to, as I small one. I love mortal instrumwntsand will continue to love them, but your article has opened my eyes to things I didn’t even bat a eyelashesfor before.thanks.I really appreciate the whole thing, except for that gothic background setting. I love it and use it sometime in my wattpad books.I never thought it sounds fake or that otheRs find it pretentious . I wrote them because they mean something to me. Can you give me any idea to not sound pretentious or something.

    PL.S as Sandra clair is my all time favouriteauthor. Pleaseven don’t be so rude!


    • Chris Winkle

      Okay, I’ll clarify what makes this comes of as pretentious. The things is, at least for this chapter, this story is not particularly dark. Not in the style, not in the content. She’s not making it feel threatening or creepy, not successfully. The imagery isn’t particularly eerie, and so far bad things aren’t happening to the characters.

      But Clare is advertising it as super dark with those chapter titles, etc. Since her story can’t back up her advertising, it comes off as pretentious.

  25. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    I haven’t read this series yet (though I want to soon), but I do think Clary and Jace are together at some point. However, I cannot see where from this chapter you came to that conclusion. Jace isn’t even expressly defined as attractive (which, in YA, is usually a pretty obvious sign of future boyfriend). To me, your conclusion seems to be founded on the fact that you’ve read the rest of the book.
    You probably didn’t read the rest of the book, but I just personally didn’t see Clary and Jace as being love interests from this chapter.

    • Chris Winkle

      Nope, I have not read the rest of the book. I could tell he was the love interest because he was the most glorified member of a glorified group of supernatural teenagers. This is similar to how many love interests are introduced. I guess you could say that instead of having knowledge of the rest of the book, I have knowledge of how typical storylines go.

  26. Michelle Zed

    Interesting. I agree that the writing in City of Bones can be clumsy at times. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Cassandra Clare, but I have to say I came off with a positive view of the opening chapter. It does several things quite well:

    –It starts in the thick of action. We don’t spend a chapter at home with our heroine, worrying about her hair and her homework and if her friends at school like her, etc. We go to a club; people get into a fight; knives are pulled.

    –She introduces our two teams: Team Evil (they have demons? their eyes sometimes are as green as antifreeze? Valentine might be a thing?) and Team Good (gothy quippy teenagers, fight demons, can be invisible or something, call themselves Shadow Hunters). We know already that Bad and Good are going to have bust ups and we want to get in on Team Good.

    –Like it or not, best guy friend with a unrequited crush is a trope that works, and has been introduced here well. Unlike what you’ve said, I do not think not returning your guy friend’s affections is a trait that makes a teenage girl character unlikeable to other teenage girls. Unwanted male attention will be something they will all be able to relate to and understand. But hey, what do I know, I’m just a lady who does not love everyone who has deigned to love me. Does that make me self-centred? And does loving someone who doesn’t love you back–also a pretty relatable experience to teenagers–make you pathetic? You decide, Chris.

    –I don’t agree that dropping vague references to a large threat (Valentine) makes it harder to care about it. I think it creates build-up, or interest, in a looming big bad. Clare builds a bit of a mystery that I want to know more about. You’ve compared it to Harry Potter, but HP does pretty much *exactly* this in its first chapter… detailed, context-free references to the main conflict in the series. We’re meant to wonder in both stories exactly what the characters are talking about. And then read on to find out.

    –Our heroine takes action. She sees trouble and actively goes to find out what’s happening. She feels compelled to intervene because what she’s seeing isn’t right. That urge to make other people’s problems her problem is telling me that Clary has hero potential.

    All in all, I was pleasantly surprised with the first chapter and thought it had been pulled off pretty creditably. I wasn’t a fan of Clare or her fanfiction, and am not a teenage girl, so I don’t have a reason to like City of Bones. I just read it and thought, hey, there’s drama, there’s action, there’s romance. I’d read more–so I did.

  27. Mona Kulp

    Have you considered doing the Pegasus and The Flame series?
    The analysis was great!

  28. Dave L

    Wait a minute! Cassandra CLARE has a main character named CLARY?

    That doesn’t mean the book is bad, but it’s a major red flag

  29. Lisa

    Some of this review did come off as harsh (maybe dry humor?) but there were some informational parts. I don’t agree with everything because many of the negative comments are based off things cleared up/make sense later in the book, but there were quite a few key points that need to be remembered.

    And I know maybe you won’t respond but Chris (or anyone) what do you think about up there—you made a comment how in the opening scene the demon was understood and the Shadowhunters made mysterious. Wouldn’t that be the right move? Since the Shadowhunters are supposed to be mysterious? If not, why? I’m honestly curious.

    • Cay Reet

      It’s actually not a review, it’s a writing lesson.

      Chris does that with different books (mostly well-known ones, since that means more people have read them) to show what works and what doesn’t. It’s meant to help writers get better at writing, it’s not meant to be a review about how much or how little Chris liked the story. That’s also why it’s just about the first chapter – starting chapters are important, because a lot of people look into the first chapter of a book to decide whether or not they’re going to buy/read it.

  30. Circe

    I think the “baby’s fist” simile works—it makes you imagine a bloody, disembodied fist.

  31. anonomous

    I thought this was informative and interesting to read. Clary’s total lack of realistic self-preservation was one of my pet peeves, as was Simon’s (seeming) deliberately weak characterisation and unreal-sounding dialogue for teenagers (I always feel like Clare was writing them like miniature adults). Especially since Isabelle’s only, what, 16?

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