Less is Awesome

I’m abandoning the embarrassment of having a “…is awesome” set of posts. If I find awesome stuff, I want to share it.

Less is a novel by Andrew Sean Greer, and it won the Pulitzer Prize this year. I’ve been steering clear of prizewinners over the past few years, because the politics of who wins what prize is a bit nauseating.

Eventually, I saw enough good comments by enough people I trust to give it a try. Wow, I’m glad I did. It’s funny, has a unique and strong voice, clever and insightful descriptions, and somehow manages to be tragic and heartwarming at the same time.

It’s awesome!

I want to address the elephant in the room first. Most of the negative reviews (and they have a lot of upvotes) demonstrate a clear failing of the modern education system. Here are some actual verbatim quotes:

I also found Less such a privileged, oblivious character. He is tall, attractive, white, able-bodied, and can afford to travel. His privilege is not examined in any interesting or meaningful way.

It’s heavy and dull with this self absorbed white man mourning his youth…There’s nothing wrong with his life at all except for the fact that he’s way too self-absorbed and does next to nothing for anyone besides himself.

He is literally mid-life, 30 years down and roughly 30 to go. Somehow this is a burden to him, living his privileged, tall, handsome white guy life surrounded by men who really like kissing him. Oh, poor thing.

There seems to be a modern trend to think that one cannot have sympathy or empathy for a main character that is white, male, and “able-bodied.” I feel sorry for these readers, because this lack of empathy on their part shows way more about them than the novel itself.

The whole point of a novel is to learn to see through the main character’s eyes, and understand why they think their problems are real. Someone that has actually read the book should understand that Less has struggles and problems.

Why is Less so preoccupied with being fifty? This seems to be a mystery to a large number of reviewers. It seems trivial to them (I mean, he still has 30 great years left, don’t you know!). Let’s see if the text of the novel gives us a clue:

Arthur Less is the first homosexual ever to grow old…He has never seen another gay man age past fifty, none except Robert. He met them all at forty or so but never saw them make it much beyond; they died of AIDS, that generation. Less’ generation often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty.

So, dear reader of this blog: can you come up with any reason, any reason at all, why Less might see turning fifty as a monumental point of his life? Take some time. It’s hard to understand why any privileged white man would see any aspect of his life as difficult or challenging.

I think Millennials and iGen have no conception of history. They think that whatever is happening right now is exactly how it’s always been.

As a gay man, I’ll admit that right now is pretty great. But to think Less has had no struggle in his life is to forget a tragic part of history. Less spent most of his youth thinking he’d never grow old, losing all his friends to a horrific epidemic, and then feeling guilty for surviving it.

The novel opens with Less as a failed novelist, whose lover of nine years has just invited him to his wedding to a different man. The way Less tries to avoid the wedding is to accept invitations to speak around the world at events no prominent novelist would be caught dead at.

(Note how different this is than “can afford to travel.” He’s not taking a leisure trip. These are work trips paid for by the events, not the main character).

If you read this book and think: why’s he even upset? At least he’s not being shot by cops. At least his boss didn’t sexually harass him. He’s a white man with no problems. 

Well, then you’re pretty hopeless, and maybe reading books isn’t the best idea until you work some of that out with a therapist. No one is saying his problems are worse than someone else’s. Just because it’s not a talking point of the day, doesn’t mean it’s not important to the character.

The problems of Less have to do with heartbreak and aging and figuring out what makes a life worth living and being remembered and finding love. These are timeless issues found in great art throughout history. Hopefully we don’t lose these themes merely because a generation of critics view the only worthwhile topics to be what they saw on Vox that day.

Sorry to spend so long on this, but as someone who writes books, I find this growing movement very concerning.

So, what’s so awesome about Less?

A lot came up in that rant already, but one of the greatest parts is how brilliant the descriptions are.

His slim shadow is, in fact, still that of his younger self, but at nearly fifty he is like those bronze statues in public parks that, despite one lucky knee rubbed raw by schoolchildren, discolor beautifully until they match the trees.

If such a sentence occurred in a vacuum of otherwise banal prose, I’d say cut it; it would be too much.

But this voice and style abound throughout the novel and stays quite consistent. The result is a flurry of original images and similes and metaphors that always bring the right emotional resonance to the scene.

Greer has a talent for “breaking the rules” in impeccable ways for a powerful reading experience. I think all writers should read this for examples on how to do description and prose style well.


Why It Works: Primer

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

Time travel sucks as a genre. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Yes, the whole genre.

Everyone knows about the grandfather paradox: if you travel back in time and kill your grandfather before he conceives with your grandmother, there would be no you to go back in time and kill him.

But many people misinterpret the paradox as being about specific inconsistencies you can trace, when in fact it’s more of a chaos theory issue: the tiniest change of the past could radically change the “present” in unforeseeable ways.

This could happen if the person goes to the past and doesn’t even physically interact with anyone. Merely being seen by a person could alter their day, which leads to change after change after change…

Pretty much every book or movie I’ve seen with time travel has been terrible. It either ignores this problem, has the problem but tries to explain it in an unsatisfactory way, or it succeeds in explaining it but destroys the story in the process.

I honestly believe no one should ever write a time travel story, because it’s going to be a disaster no matter how hard you try. It’s not worth the effort. If I ran an SF magazine, my first rule of submissions would be: no time travel stories (rule 2 would be: no first-contact stories).

But then we wouldn’t have Primer, which actually kind of works. Let’s look at why.

The first thing is that when the main characters go back in time, it’s accidental. This is very important in not creating a causal loop. If your character has to go back in time to change something to save the world, then when they succeed, there will be no reason for them to go back. Hence, the paradoxical loop. Making the initial travel accidental is an interesting way to solve that problem.

The second thing is the physicality. There’s something strange about old-school time travel (think The Time Machine), where a person and/or machine materializes out of nowhere in the past. This doesn’t seem like a problem until you think about it a lot. If the machine wasn’t there in the past, what does it mean that it suddenly is? This is a much deeper philosophical issue than people give it credit for.

Primer brilliantly fixes this problem by making the machine a box that you have to turn on at the time you want to travel back to. So if you turn on the box right now, you can’t use it to travel back before that time. You get in the box at the future time and travel back without running into the physicality problem. You are physically in the box the whole time you’re traveling back.

Primer also solves the problem of interacting with the world by isolating themselves so that they only interact with the world once. This means they aren’t changing the past. They’re living it out for the first time the time they travel back.

But here’s the most important reason Primer succeeds. It is way too confusing to ever know if they’ve run into a paradox. It succeeds because there’s always more to figure out on subsequent viewings.

This sounds like cheating: make your story so confusing that no one knows if there’s a problem. It sounds like bad writing.

But let’s put it in comparison to every other time travel story where it’s immediately obvious that it all falls apart for philosophical and paradoxical reasons. I’d rather be left with the fun journey of trying to piece it together than a pile of unsatisfying nonsense.

If you’ve read a book that handles time travel well, I’d like to hear about it. Despite being a pet peeve of mine, I still masochistically seek them out in hopes of being proved wrong someday.

On Doubts and Taste in Books

Doubt is a good thing when you’re a writer. It’s an important part of everyone’s journey. I don’t want to speak in absolutes, but if you’ve never doubted the greatness of your work, then it’s probably not very good. You probably haven’t grown much as a writer.

Doubt comes in waves. It happens a lot early on, but as you write and publish more and more, you come to have a bit more confidence in your own style and taste. You begin to see the common pitfalls in other new writers without even trying. This internalization means you mostly aren’t making those mistakes anymore.

Doubt starts to come from other places. Maybe you aren’t getting the sales you would like. Maybe a negative review resonates with you. Maybe you read a book on writing, and you realize there’s a big mistake you’re making that you never noticed before. You start to wonder what other mistakes you’re making.

I have a new source of doubt, and it is coming from the strangest place: reading. I used to love reading. I would devour books. I’d be completely transported to another place, no matter the book or genre. I couldn’t get enough.

It makes sense that as my understanding of story grew, I’d start to not like some poorly constructed novels. It makes sense that novels with sloppy prose would fall away. It makes sense that I’d get more discerning in my taste along several dimensions.

What worries me is that I basically don’t like anything I read anymore. I just can’t get into any book. I currently read 60-80 books a year (it sounds like a lot, but that’s one book a week plus some audiobooks while running or traveling).

The scary part is that it’s not like I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel. I’ve chosen all 23 books I’ve read this year from “best of” lists or from direct recommendations.

I got into Mystic River in late January, but since then, I haven’t really gotten into any book I’ve read. Oathbringer has a 4.65/5 rating on Goodreads after 42,500 reviews. The book is basically unreadable to me. It’s too slow. It has too many unnecessary details. It’s the type of self-indulgent thing popular writers can only get away with after they hit a certain level of fame (think Stephen King). It only got published in that form because people are afraid to tell Sanderson to cut it down.

I won’t call out every problem with every book I’ve read this year. The point is that I’m really worried that I’ve developed my taste and style in a way that doesn’t match the vast majority of people. These are my doubts. Maybe it’s not that all these popular people are writing bad books; maybe it’s my own writing that’s bad.

I can think of a few other explanations.

First, maybe it’s burnout. There’s not much more to this theory. Maybe 80 books a year is too much. If I just take a break and reset, I’ll find myself getting lost in some good books again.

Second, maybe writing changes the way you read. I still love writing. I really get into my own books as I’m writing them. There might just be something about the active nature of producing a story that makes passively consuming one inherently less interesting.

Third, maybe I actually am on a bad streak. As they say, 90% of everything is crap. If we take that to be a fact, then there’s a high probability of long streaks of crap. Of course, what does this even mean? There are “objectively good” books that people hate and “objectively bad” books that people love.

Fourth, my taste is not marketable, which makes it hard to naturally run across the types of books that will truly engage me. I don’t have the patience for the experimental literary stuff that I did in my youth. So the literary scene tends to disappoint me. But the commercial fiction scene tends to be too sloppy for my taste.

My latest book, Specter of the Spheres, tries to straddle this line. It’s high-concept, metaphorical, and has a complicated construction like a literary novel. But it’s wrapped in a fantasy quest and even some sci-fi elements. I’ve learned that this is usually called “slipstream,” and I haven’t read anything in that genre for a long time.

But maybe my doubts have some truth to them. Maybe I need to spend some time re-calibrating what I think is good. I don’t even know where to start with this, though, because I can’t find books out there that I like to read anymore.

Free Book on Style

If you’ve been coming here awhile, then you’re probably somewhat interested in prose style. I’ve turned some of my blog posts and personal notes from the past ten years of doing this into a short (Kindle) e-book. They’ve been edited and expanded with examples, so nothing should be an exact replica of what you’ve read here.

It’s not meant to be anything grand. The final result came out to be twenty-one rules. The unique twist from some of the other books that do this is that I’ve focused on what I see to be the most common self-publishing mistakes.

I’m giving it away for free for five days. It will only be $0.99 after that. The goal is to help people!

Sound Like - High Resolution

Do you write self-published novels?

Can you hear the difference between a self-published novel and a traditional bestseller?

No? Then this book is for you, because your readers will feel the difference.

This short book will give you a set of easy to apply rules to improve the sound of your writing.

Get it here.

The Prose of J.K. Rowling

I hate to be one of those people. But I can’t help it. From as far back as I can remember, I’ve always said that J.K. Rowling isn’t that great of a writer. I hope she’s humble enough to admit that her fame is mostly luck.

She wrote a story that resonated with the zeitgeist at exactly the right time, and that has very little to do with writing quality or marketing skills or anything under one’s control (if you disagree, consider Fifty Shades of Gray, then ask yourself how much your disagreement stems from me saying this about a beloved story from your childhood).

I’ve often pointed to the first Harry Potter book as an example of her low-quality writing. It reads like an early career first novel. And that’s fine, because it is.

People reply, “It’s YA! She’s a genius that gradually made her writing more sophisticated as the books went on, so that as readers aged, the reading level and maturity of the books grew with the audience.”

Okay. But let’s be honest. It’s much more likely that she just got better as a writer as she wrote more. I never read the final Harry Potter book to know if the prose style grew into something reasonable. In any case, it doesn’t matter. We have lots of books, published after that series, aimed at adults to examine.

I’m not a big mystery reader, and so I was considering doing a “Year of Mysteries” next year for the blog. I picked up The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) to read as the first book.

It’s kind of shocking to me that a major publisher would let this get through without serious edits. I was so distracted by the prose errors I couldn’t even focus on the content. I know this isn’t something most people notice, but it serves as a good reminder that J.K. Rowling is not a good writer. She’s famous. Those are different.

I was going to break down some of the prologue, but I thought people might consider that unfair. Prologues are often bad, even when handled by the greatest writers. So let’s start with the beginning of Chapter 1.

Though Robin Ellacott’s twenty-five years of life had seen their moments of drama and incident, she had never before woken up in the certain knowledge that she would remember the coming day for as long as she lived.

This is the opening sentence, and opening sentences tend to be more polished than the paragraphs that follow. This sentence reads like a first-year creative writing student attempting to impress a teacher by making things needlessly complicated. It reads like a student who hasn’t learned this is exactly how agents and publishers can tell you’re still an amateur. The real way to show maturity as a writer is to be precise and concise and readable and still get all the same information across.

Let’s break this down.

The first thing is the lack of precision in language.

She words it so the “years” are the one “seeing.” This is nitpicky but also confusing and imprecise (if you don’t understand why, it’s because only a conscious thing can “see” something).

Also, we begin with a subordinate clause. This is, by definition, beginning with inessential and/or unimportant information. The clause tries to cram in way too much information. There’s no need to force in her age to this mess of a sentence, because this will naturally become clear later.

I’ll concede there is wiggle room for personal style, but in this case, there’s too many “glue” words doing no work. For one, “that” can be eliminated without loss of information.

Then there’s the tense: “had seen,” “had never before,” “would remember the coming day.” Are we in past tense? Is the narrator omniscient or close third? I’ve read this sentence a dozen times, and I’m still not sure how she is certain about remembering something that hasn’t happened. Though the gist is obvious, it’s extraordinarily confusing if you take it as it is written. The sentence lacks clarity, precision, and readability.

Here’s my edited version:

Robin Ellacott woke with the certain knowledge that she would remember the coming day for as long as she lived.

Justification: One should draw the reader in as fast as possible. This straightforward edit does this by directly raising the question in the reader’s mind: why? Rowling’s version obscures this question by confusing the reader with tense switching, needless information, and excessive words. (I kept the awkward past/future thing, because I wanted the edit to be an actual edit and not a rewrite).

She has the whole rest of the book to let her prose get fancy (and confusing).

Moving on:

Shortly after midnight, her long-term boyfriend, Matthew, had proposed to her under the statue of Eros in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. In the giddy relief following her acceptance, he confessed that he had been planning to pop the question in the Thai restaurant where they just had eaten dinner, but that he had reckoned without the silent couple beside them, who had eavesdropped on their entire conversation.

At this point, I was a little concerned the entire book would be in past perfect (sometimes continuous) tense. She wrote the prologue this way and then several pages of the first chapter in this tense. She needs to switch to simple past already. It’s beyond tiring.

Because of the confusing nature of the first sentence and now awkward tense usage, it’s unclear to me if this proposal is the day she’ll remember forever or if it referred to the next day.

Everything is so wordy and passive: “that he had been,” “just had eaten dinner,” etc. For example, remove “just had eaten dinner” completely. This is doubled information. They were at a Thai restaurant shortly before midnight. It’s obvious they went there for dinner.

This might be a British idiom, but there seems to be a clause missing in the second sentence (despite it being more than double the length it should be). Again, the gist is there. He would have proposed if it weren’t for the silent couple eavesdropping on them. Honestly, the words, as written, don’t say that. Read the sentence carefully several times. I can’t make sense of it. I think it’s actually a sentence fragment.

Here’s my rewrite:

Shortly after midnight, her long-term boyfriend, Matthew, proposed to her under the statue of Eros in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. He confessed he would have popped the question in the Thai restaurant—if only the silent couple beside them weren’t eavesdropping on their entire conversation.

Obviously this new version isn’t perfect, but these simple readability changes show how far Rowling has to go to get from her “final draft” to solid prose style. Later, the narrator calls the proposal “the most perfect.” What does that mean? There aren’t levels of perfection. I think it’s supposed to be in Robin’s voice, but then the early narrative omniscience makes no sense.

If this is how Rowling writes for adults, no one can say she is a good writer. These first two chapters are confusing on a sentence-by-sentence level, all over the place in terms of tense and viewpoint, and messy in terms of prose style. She lacks the precision, clarity, and readability of any reasonably mature writer. Unless chapter two is vastly better, I don’t think I can read this book.

Examining Pro’s Prose, Part 14

Today we’ll look at some prose from Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon. It is both some of the best fantasy prose writing I’ve seen, and one of the most original and captivating fantasy novels I’ve read. I’m kind of in awe of it still. I’ve come across so many passages I wanted to use for this series, but I didn’t mark them. So here’s one I found at random.

It is the start of a scene, so I don’t have much setting up to do.

In a secluded glade in the forest, Quick Ben poured white sand in a circle and sat down in its center. He took five sharpened sticks and set them in a row before him, pushing them to various depths in the loam. The center stick, the highest, rose about three feet; the ones on either side stood at two feet and the outer ones at a foot.

The wizard uncoiled a yard’s length of thin gut string. He took one end and fashioned a scaled-down noose, which he tightened over the center stick near the top. He ran the line to the left, looping it once over the next shaft, then crossed over to the right side and looped it again.

The scene continues like this for quite some time. The number one takeaway from this is very easy to state. The whole scene is one person sitting alone. Yet all of the prose is active. For pages, I can’t find a single “was.” This is hard enough to do in a natural way when people are fighting or some other high action moment.

Let’s do a reverse analysis on this. Let’s guess how some earlier draft version might have gone to see why this final version is better. It’s somewhat telling that this is a hard task on this passage.

First, it begins with the clause “in a secluded glade in the forest.” I could imagine myself trying to be as descriptive as possible and waxing poetic with this. “Dark green leaves draped over Quick Ben. He had made his way deep into the forest, where no one could find him…” Even that would probably get fleshed out with more sensory detail in revisions.

I can easily identify two reasons why Erikson’s version is better. First, it’s just not that important. The actual content of the scene is what Quick Ben does. By spending so many words on it, it draws unnecessary attention to irrelevant information.

Second, it’s important to think if a “more detailed” version actually contains more detail. Erikson uses highly evocative and succinct words in that clause. The term “secluded glade” already encompasses the entire phrase “deep into the forest, where no one could find him.”  So my version is the same, but more clunky and difficult to read.

The next sentence I had an easier time thinking how a first draft might read. “Five sticks were in front of him, and they were in arranged with the middle the highest and outer the lowest.” This is a train wreck of a sentence, but very common in early drafts.

First, it passively sets the scene, so Erikson wants Quick Ben to do the acting. It gets better immediately: “He set five sticks in front of him and arranged them with the middle the highest and outer the lowest.” But here we have the opposite problem from the first clause. Our version is attempting to do too much in a single sentence. It’s hard to understand what is going on.

The way to fix this is to describe the action, and then prepare the mental image of the description of the end result. This gets us to Erikson’s version:

He took five sharpened sticks and set them in a row before him, pushing them to various depths in the loam.

“Sharpened” is a descriptor that prepares us to see them pushed into the ground. We’re then told that they are pushed in at “various depths,” this also prepares us to visualize the different depths in the next sentence. So we don’t merely use two sentences to break apart the sentence that had too much in it, but we do it in a way that keeps priming the reader for proper understanding.

We could keep doing this and find similar things. It would be so easy to write the whole thing passively. “The wizard had string and it was put on a stick…” Erikson manages to take a person sitting by himself and get all these interesting active verbs into the paragraph: uncoiled, fashioned, tightened, ran, looped, crossed over.

This is one of the hallmarks of great prose. Passages like this push the reader along. We get highly detailed descriptions in our head, and we see them unfolding because of the active verbs.

I don’t want to spend time bashing another writer, but take someone like Terry Brooks, who I’ve also been reading recently. His prose does almost the exact opposite. Here’s a passage from The Elves of Cintra:

He had met Erisha and old Culph as planned at the entrance to the Ashenell burial grounds at just past midday, excited and anxious to begin their search. But Ashenell was vast and sprawling, a forest of headstones and monuments, mausoleums and simple markers that defied any easy method of sorting out. The terrain itself was daunting, hilly and wooded, the burial sections chopped apart by deep ravines and rocky precipices that made it difficult to determine where anything was.

In light of our discussion, everything is passive. Most sentences try to have too much, which in turn makes it hard for the reader to visualize any of it. It’s also not necessary to get this information up front. Why not take the search (an active thing) and let the descriptions flow from that as they appear?


Midweek Patreon Update

I’m doing a midweek update to inform you I’ve changed my Patreon goals. I originally said that I wanted to be at $100 per month by the end of the year in order to keep the blog “alive.” But now I’m changing that to $50 per month by the end of September (with the old goal still applying). If we don’t make that goal, I’ll shut the Patreon down and no longer post every week.

If you haven’t read it, here’s the original announcement about starting a Patreon page.

I’ll remind you that my rewards are actually very, very good compared to a majority of people making similar content. The most typical reward is to give an ad-free version (I don’t run ads) or to give people the content a day early. One prominent person gives supporters the information of an upcoming speaking engagement early (yes, your “reward” is to be told how you can give them more money before other people find out).

These are all trivial rewards.

My rewards are part of the reason I can’t sustain the Patreon model anymore. I give a whole video and an extra “Examining Pro’s Prose” blog post each month. I give out free books. These are actual rewards. Of course, supporters shouldn’t be supporting to get the rewards. They should support because they like the content. The rewards are just a side benefit.

Anyway, I’m not actually complaining. I’ll be happy if people make it worth my time, and I’ll be happy if I no longer have to stress about getting quality content out on a deadline. So whichever way it goes, I’ll be happy. It’s this middle ground I don’t like.

I’ve been blogging for about ten years now, and since the majority of my day is reading/writing/editing, it’s not feasible to keep doing a weekly blog for (essentially) free. Patreon was meant to get a modest (barely breaking even) amount for that effort. All it has done is create more work, so it’s a sanity thing to end it early unless some more people show interest.

Again, thousands of you come here every week. If a mere 40 of you find the content valuable enough to give even a dollar a month, we would hit that $50 per month number (and you’d get a bonus post each month). If this doesn’t happen, then I can say it’s been a good run. Most blogs probably go defunct in less than six months.