Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 1

I have a Kindle Unlimited subscription, so I start a lot of self-published books. Many of these are bad (don’t take this the wrong way: 90% of everything is bad). I don’t want to criticize specific people or their writing, but I really want to dig into some of the fundamental problems with some passages I’ve found out in the published world.

I’ve decided that I’m going to take real passages and change the verbs and nouns and names (but in a way to not create a new problem). This is so you can’t go find the passages easily. Most of the time proper grammar and so on is used. It’s even possible they hired an editor. The issue is that when certain fundamental problems exist, the work isn’t ready for an editor.

Here is the opening passage to a novel. Sorry for how long this excerpt is, but context is needed to understand the fundamental problem:

A 23 year old girl named Veronica who had just ended her relationship with her boyfriend found herself alone. After a few years of being with him, she decided to follow her instincts and have a relationship with an older man. Veronica had always been with people her own age but she secretly found them immature.

One day in the afternoon Veronica was bored at her house and decided to go out and visit some friends to chill and have some fun. When she got to their house, they were talking to a coworker named Sam …

We could take a few directions with this. First off, every single one of those sentences is telling the reader what happened instead of showing it. In addition, most of what we’re told is completely irrelevant. An agent or publisher wouldn’t have to read any further to know it was a hard reject.

It might be instructive to see how to change some of this to show more and tell less. Let’s do that for a moment, but there’s actually a more fundamental problem than that.

First, let’s think about what’s actually important in the first sentence. The age we can later infer. The relationship ending is inferred by the last part of the sentence. Already we could make a much stronger opening by changing that to:

Veronica found herself alone.

This conveys the same information in a much less clunky way. Strings of glue words like “who had just” should always throw up red flags. The rest of that opening paragraph is also unimportant. We can show all of it better through action or dialogue.

“One day in the afternoon” and “was bored at her house” can be converted to showing. Never say “one day.” However you proceed, it will be assumed that it is a day (unless it’s night, of course).

The heat of the afternoon sun beat on Veronica’s skin as she lazily flipped through the latest Cosmopolitan.

Now we’ve given the character some action that slips in the time of day and shows her being bored. With specific details like the magazine title, we’re developing characterization. Imagine how you’d feel if instead that had said Popular Mechanics or Harper’s. It’s already infinitely better, but if we try to convert the next part, we’re going to run up against the more fundamental problem I alluded to.

There’s no good way to transition to the upcoming house party scene. We have to spend a full scene with her being bored at her house, or we should probably skip it. Here’s the fundamental lesson: make sure the story starts in the right place.

The original first paragraph is backstory and told motivation. There’s no need for either. The “being bored” is irrelevant. This novel actually begins at this party scene where she’s going to try to start dating this older man.

I tend to think of novels having two good opening strategies. One is the poetic scene setting or character description. I know that’s gone quite a bit out of favor recently, but most of the masters did this. This sets a patient tone for the novel. Here’s the opening to Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon (Malazan, Book 1):

The stains of rust seemed to map blood seas on the black, pocked surface of Mock’s Vane. A century old, it squatted on the point of an old pike that had bolted to the outer top of the Hold’s wall. Monstrous and misshapen, it had been cold-hammered into the form of a winged demon, teeth bared in a leering grin, and was tugged and buffeted in squealing protest with every gust of wind.

The inventive description draws you right in. There’s no need for action because so much of the descriptors paint in an active way: stains, blood, squat, bolt, monstrous, demon, teeth bared, leering, and more. This is all just a description of the setting!

We could easily do this with the example we’re trying to fix. We could dwell on the house for a while before getting to this other idea:

Fragments of sunlight cut through the clouded sky to illuminate a small bungalow on a hill. Veronica glanced out the window at her garden—at how the raindrops refracted the light on the silvery wormwood leaves. The storm had broken. Three days of being cooped up was about all she could take.

This is getting more advanced than I want this “fundamentals” series to be. Here’s the idea.

If Veronica is sad about the breakup, we can symbolically illustrate this with the storm. Now that she’s about to go to this party, the sun coming out foreshadows things getting better. She’s coming out of the post-breakup depression (and we even worked in why she was bored since this was so important to merit mention to the original author!).

So if we absolutely must start the novel bored at the house, we should use inventive description to paint vivid pictures and draw the reader in like this. But honestly I feel quite strongly that this “bored at the house” idea was merely lazy writing and not the true beginning.

The more common advice these days is to start in media res, meaning in the middle of some action. But in the case of the example we’re trying to fix, there’s no need for actual “action.” All this means for us is to start where the actual story starts. All the stuff that came before it was unnecessary. It will be inferred later or was too unimportant to care about.

Veronica circled the party in a slow and deliberate prowl. She watched Sam as he talked to people she didn’t know. He had a streak of silver in his brown hair, a hefty square jaw covered in stubble, and those piercing green eyes. She thought to herself: age is just a number.

Oh. What in the world is going on here? We know the man is older by the physical description, but leaving what exactly their age difference is creates mystery. We don’t know whether to be intrigued or disturbed yet. She’s on the prowl but why? It’s the action of the scene right up front.

And don’t think that a good editor will tell you any of this (they’ll be thinking it, though!). Editors can only fix so much. If there’s a true fundamental problem like this one, it requires a rewrite. Editors edit. A rewrite is part of “writing” and beyond the scope of their job. They might be generous and write things like “telly,” but you’ll have to understand that what they mean is what’s in this post.

Talamir, Chapter 1

My next book, Talamir, is up for pre-order today. Here’s the first chapter in full. It’s available for Kindle through Amazon and will only be $0.99 during pre-order this next week. More details: here.

Enjoy!

A shard pressed into Drystn’s back as he struggled through the cramped tunnel. The cavern at the other end taunted him, and he squirmed to get through to it. If only it wasn’t digging so deeply, he could make one last hard push. The blood rushed to his head from the semi-vertical positioning of his body, and Drystn chastised himself for not turning back at the first sign of trouble.

Now he had no choice. He braced his feet against the side of the tunnel and thrust his body forward, somersaulting into the large, cavernous opening. A sharp pain arced across his back from the scratch, but it didn’t feel serious.

The cavern was full of the shimmering crystal deposits: mianl. These caves were where all of them formed, but he had never thought about what caused them to grow from the rock. Grow? Was that even the right word?

He heard the faint sound of running water in the distance. The enclave should have been dark, but the mianl gave off a delicate glow. Spior. He wouldn’t need to waste his torch yet. Drystn worried that he should have encountered the herb before now; the rare specimen had all but vanished from its cliffside existence. He’d need to find the water outlet for a better chance. He walked to the jagged wall and ran his hand along the mianl deposits. Not having trained as a mianlist, he could only guess at all their uses.

Drystn sensed the change before the attack came. The subtle tremor under his feet warned him of the inevitable. Like all Talamirians, his life of quakes attuned him to the signs. His legs discerned the pre-quake as naturally as his lungs breathed air. He glanced up to check how safe he would be: not very. Large stalactites hung like a torture device from the ceiling. They receded into the darkness, obscuring their true size. If the quake was large, he would die.

The beginning tremors shifted to a heavy shake. Drystn rolled to the ground out of habit; it would be safer than falling. One stalactite broke loose, but he had kept his eye on them in case this happened. The spike plummeted at his face with alarming speed, too fast to get out of the way.

Drystn willed his body sideways and rolled hard. It shattered upon hitting the ground, and a fragment shot into his arm. He howled into the emptiness. The sharp sting pulsed on his shoulder, and a trickle of blood ran along his arm. The quake ended as fast as it began. They were all like this now: short but intense.

Drystn stood, and brushed the debris off his skin. The puncture in his arm felt worse than it looked, and he decided it could wait until he returned to the school. He looked back to make sure the quake hadn’t knocked anything into the tunnel—his only means of return. He didn’t think the damage would add difficulty at other, clearer parts of the cave, so he turned toward the sound of the water. It had to be nearby, which meant the herb couldn’t be far either.

He wandered forward and took care with the fallen rock to not twist an ankle. Within a hundred steps, it came into view. A small waterfall emptied into a pool. Drystn glanced up to see where the water came from but could only see more darkness. The mianl shards weren’t growing this close to the water, so everything had a dark veil pulled over it. At the pool’s edge he bent down to examine the ground. He slid along the edge of the water, hunting. The crouched walk hurt his legs. It had to be here. If it wasn’t here, it no longer existed.

Drystn dragged his hand along the dirt, feeling where he couldn’t see. He scraped up against something fuzzy. Relief flowed through him. It had to be slaitn, the herb for which he looked. He plucked it and pulled it to his face for closer examination.

Drystn had trained as an herbalist for years. His experienced eyes scanned for the identifying patterns: five petals, hairy underside, ribbed stem; check, check, check. He carefully went through all the secondary defining features. The trip had taken too long and was too dangerous for him to make a mistake in identifying the herb. There would only be one final exam, and he wanted to do his best. If he didn’t pass this year, he would have to go through a whole extra year of training.

He placed the herb into the small pouch sewn into his gray herbalist trainee robe. He only needed one more herb to make the tea. It grew in abundance near the school, so all he had to do was survive the journey back.

The return went smoother. It was easier to traverse the tunnel now that he had been through it once. The quake must have knocked rocks loose, widening the diameter. He also didn’t have to keep his eye out for the herb. The other one would be easy to find along the Ahm River at the school. A light appeared at the end of the tunnel, and Drystn was glad to know he hadn’t wasted all his daylight.

The journey down the cliffs still left some danger. Mianlists made the trip all the time to gather their materials from the caves. He had only made this trip a few times in his entire life. The herbs that grew in the caves were few. Before beginning the descent, he looked out at Talamir.

From this height he could make out the entire world. Cliffs and mountains formed a large circle around everything. Three rivers flowed from the mountains to the center of the circle and emptied into Lake Uisc. This partitioned Talamir into three, equally sized regions.

Around and above the lake lay Talamir Center, a large circular building used for government matters. The lake was about two-day’s walk. Drystn had never visited it, because he left his village at ten to go to school at the end of the Ahm River. Children with the Talent had no choice in the matter.

Two-hundred years ago, the founders built the school on the outer edge of Talamir because of its proximity to the resources needed to learn the three pillars of spior: herbalism, mianlism, and soilism. There were a few cavern systems in the cliffs at other locations, but these were the easiest to get to by far.

Drystn longed to live in the heart of Talamir City, but he knew he would most likely return to the village of his parents and become the resident herbalist. It was tradition. Outside the dense city center were rings of scattered settlements. Drystn could make out a clear First Ring, Second Ring, and Third Ring, but the rings became sparser the farther out they went. The outer Ninth Ring contained the school as well as some less savory villages closer to the other two rivers.

He turned back toward the caves, squatted, and reached his foot over the ledge. The first drop wasn’t far, but he had to be careful to stay close to the red rocks. Each narrow ledge posed a chance for disaster. Once he got into a pattern, the activity had a calming effect. Squat, drop, squat, drop. Part of his training involved learning this skill, since the occasional journey to a system of caves would be a necessary part of any herbalist’s job.

At last, Drystn breathed a sigh of relief as his boots touched the solid ground of Talamir. Only then did he think about how terrible it would have been for the quake to have happened on his ascent or descent of the cliffs to the caves.

No one at the school would have paid the quake any attention. The banality of yet another quake had become a standard part of life. Drystn only noticed because of his precarious location. Dusk settled, and he hurried to make it back to school before true darkness arrived.

As he walked, he glimpsed something move out of the corner of his eye. He snapped his head over to get a better look, but it vanished—as if looking caused it to disappear. Phantom spior. Once one developed the ability to see spior, these phantom images were a common occurrence. Drystn shuddered. He hated being watched only to have the watcher disappear when looked at.

He tried to console himself with the fact that these phantom images appeared to everyone, but this somehow only made it creepier. Something didn’t sit right about the stock explanation that tufts of spior collected together for a second before dispersing to a more normal distribution.

The familiar stone castle grew in size as he got closer. The stone was typical Second Age construction. From a distance, it had a majestic look to it. Four pillars rose out of the four corners of the building. These were used for residences. Three for the three schools of students and one for the professors. Classrooms lined the boxy exterior, and a large room in the middle served as the great hall.

Halfway back, Drystn stopped to light the torch he brought. He picked up the pace, and returned to the castle well before dinner. There would be time to finish the exam tonight. Up close, the building lost its grandeur. The weather had worn the stone, and many parts looked as if they were ready to collapse. This was in stark contrast to the mianl buildings of the First Age, which showed no wear.

Drystn walked to the river bank and located the second herb he needed. He placed this in his pouch and began the trek to his teacher’s office. He was so close to graduating and now shuttered at the thought of the unnecessary risk he had taken for the exam. The spell would be very hard and delicate. The other students in his class had chosen the easier method.

Drystn’s legs felt weak as he made his way to his room to gather the necessary supplies. He already had the herbs and the flint for fire. He picked up his personal brewer. The contraption looked like two stone cups stacked on top of each other, separated by a small space. The bottom had a candle with a special wick that burned with strong consistency. The top could then be used to brew a single cup of tea. He had also prepared the distilled water he needed the day before.

Drystn went back into the hall toward the offices. Each final exam would comprise a single brew and a long oral exam to accompany it. When he had left to go to the cavern, three people stood outside Professor Cynwr’s office. Only five people were up for graduating as herbalists this year, so he knew everyone had taken the easy method of using local herbs.

He approached the large door and couldn’t bring himself to knock. He brought his hand up, and it stalled. Drystn watched it shake in disbelief. Eight years of his life had been spent here. Now it was about to come to a close. He didn’t want that just yet. This was his home. All of his friends were here.

A gentle female voice called out, muffled by the door.

“Drystn, you may enter. I haven’t got all night.”

Drystn opened the door, and a pungent odor filled his nostrils. Of course, his fellow students would have needed to brew boldh root. He felt bad for Cynwr sitting in this smell all day.

She often wore her hair up in a tight bun, and it looked strange and sad as it hung loose around her shoulders, like the mist coming off the Ahn waterfall. It must have been years since she had it cut, for it almost touched the ground while she sat. Cynwr usually had a wild and disorganized office that gave Drystn an unsettled feeling. He liked neatness. He half-expected to knock over a stack of papers or books any time he opened her door.

For the exam, the office had been thoroughly cleaned. She left nothing extraneous on the ground or the desk. The cleanliness startled Drystn. There was nothing quite like being surprised to start an exam.

She said, “I see you finally decided to show up.”

Drystn relaxed as Cynwr gave him a kind smile. She had taught him for eight years. She was on his side. He realized he had nothing to worry about.

“Um. Sorry. I journeyed to the caverns to get slaitn for the tea.”

Cynwr’s expression changed to one of being impressed.

“Let’s begin then. First, start by telling me the tea you are to make and why you think it would cure brotl.”

A chair rested in front of the desk for the examinees to use, but Drystn remained at his feet and paced. Pictures formed in his mind of the herbs as he said them, and he became so lost in his thoughts that he temporarily forgot it was an exam. The scenario shifted to any of the hundred times he had come to office hours and talked through his various ideas with her.

Drystn said, “At first, I thought this was easy. I could use four herbs to cure each of the four aspects of brotl. But then I realized that slaitn takes care of two and graecl takes care of the other two. I chose these ingredients, even though it would be more work to obtain and will be more difficult to brew properly.

“This is because of the simple rule of herbology that the more ingredients you use, the less potent each will be. Brotl is a serious illness, so I wanted the tea to be as potent as possible. Using four herbs could compromise the health of the patient.”

Cynwr said, “Very good. You seem to be the only one to have chosen this path. It is certainly the most correct one, and the one I would have done if faced with a real patient with the illness. Of course, I would have sent someone else to get the slaitn, but you don’t have that luxury. Let’s see if you can actually brew it properly.”

Cynwr leaned back in her chair as if settling in for a long process. Drystn lit his brewer and poured the distilled water into the top cup until it reached the first lip. If he filled it too much, it would overflow when he placed the herbs in. He wasn’t sure how much to explain, so he said, “This is distilled water, because the more pure the water the more—”

“—Okay. That is Year One stuff. I know you understand that. You can move on to the specifics of this particular tea.”

He continued to work. He set the two herbs on the empty desk next to the pot of grass. Cynwr had informed the class that this would be provided. Since grass was so abundant, there would be no need to test if students could find and identify it.

Drystn cleared his mind and reached for the spior within the grass. Once he sensed it, he latched on and pulled. Over the years, this had become second-nature, but it had taken him nearly a year to get his first pull to work. He recalled how scared he had been that maybe he didn’t have the Talent. Maybe they had misidentified him. The spior came free and hovered in a ball in front of him.

Spior could not be seen, but he used this visualization to help keep hold of it. Even holding on tightly, small amounts would escape the ball and return to nature. If he let go, it would all dissipate within seconds. He sensed how much he had, and calculated how much each herb needed.

This delicate calculation was the first dangerous part. If he gave the herb too much spior, it would become dangerously potent: too high a dose. The patient could overdose and die. If he didn’t give it enough, the effect wouldn’t come through. He pushed the appropriate amount of spior into each herb, and then let the rest release.

By the end of the brew, the grass would be dead unless enough had escaped his ball and returned to it. No one understood how spior dissipated back to nature. It just did. That was the way things had always been.

Drystn opened his eyes and looked at the two herbs on the table. They gave off a faint glow, so he knew it had worked. Next, he turned his attention to the water in the brewer. It would be getting close at this point. He placed his head over the cup and watched for the first small bubbles to appear on the bottom.

Cynwr asked, “Can you explain what you’re looking for?”

“Well, unlike the boldh root I smell from the previous exam, slaitn is very delicate. It cannot be directly boiled or it will scald and lose its potency. The healing property must be extracted gently. I’m watching for the first sign of bubbles, at which point I’ll blow out the flame and start the immersion.”

“Very good.”

A bubble appeared, and Drystn blew out the flame. He paused a beat to let the temperature drop for extra caution then put the two herbs in the water. Six minutes later, he served the tea to Cynwr.

Drystn confidently exclaimed, “This should cure brotl.”

She nodded with a smile.

“I agree. Let us proceed with the exam. I know this question is a mere formality, but the final is supposed to be comprehensive. Please recite the laws of spior for me.”

“First: Spior can never be created nor destroyed; it can only be moved from place to place, like with like. Second—”

“—Wait. Like with like. Can you explain that a bit more for me?”

“Yes. It means from herb to herb or from mianl to mianl or from soil to soil. Spior pulled from grass can never be moved to mianl for instance.”

“What about to a person?”

Drystn laughed. Cynwr didn’t look amused.

He put on a serious face and continued, “Sorry. That’s of course what people tried to do a long time ago. If a person with the Talent could pull spior from nature and give it to themselves, they would be able to live forever. Like with like and only between the three focal points. Never person to person.”

“Very good. Continue, please.”

“Second: Spior can only be moved by those trained to do so and born with the Talent. Third: The three focal points of spior are herbs, mianl, and soil. Fourth: Spior is in all things, living and non-living. Fifth: A living body’s spior is released upon death and is spread out in equal parts to all living things. Sixth: The natural life span of a living body is proportional to the amount of spior it contains.”

Cynwr’s expression dropped as Drystn recited the laws. She now had an intense sadness about her. Drystn quickly went over what he had said, nervous that he had made a mistake in the most fundamental of questions. He couldn’t fathom where the mistake had been, because he had been able to recite these laws for years.

She said, “You have made no mistake, but I feel I must tell you something. It only seems right. I have no doubt you will graduate top of your class. But this may not be as good as you think. Every three years, the top three students, one from each discipline, are sent to Talamir Center to work on a major project—”

“—What? I’ve never heard of this.”

Drystn’s heart raced. Talamir Center? A major project? This sounded like a great opportunity and way more exciting than becoming a village herbalist.

Cynwr said, “Shh. Let me finish.” She stood up and walked to the window. Her eyes had glazed over, but she stared out into the darkness anyway. “They don’t want anyone to know about it for some reason. It’s been going on for as long as I’ve been here, and I still have no idea what it is. It’s very secret but presumably very important. It also might be dangerous. I’ve never heard from any of these students again. They basically disappear when they leave.”

The course of the conversation dawned on Drystn.

“Are you saying this is the year? It’s been three years since the last one?”

“Yes. I fear it is.” She turned back from the window and leaned in to Drystn. Her hair flowed onto the desk, and she lowered her voice. “I want to give you the choice, since it seems unfair to force this on someone. If you would like to go live with your family, you can intentionally give some wrong answers. You won’t graduate top of the class, and they’ll take someone else.”

“Isn’t that just as bad though? Then the second person won’t have a choice.”

Cynwr contemplated this before answering.

“That is true.”

She gave no indication that she would say more on the topic. Drystn didn’t know what to do. He had longed to live in the city center all his life. He thought this wasn’t possible, but now the opportunity lay out before him. Still, it came at a cost, and he didn’t know what this cost would be without more details.

Drystn asked, “Do you think the people doing this research are okay? Why did you lose contact?”

“I have no idea. I know that once you find out what they are working on, you will never be allowed to tell anyone about it. They also only want the best and don’t give anyone involved a choice.”

A deep curiosity formed in the pit of Drystn’s stomach. The more he thought about it, the more it grew until his whole body tingled with excitement. He had to know what it was. He wanted to be more objective in this important decision, but he couldn’t overcome the sense that this had to do with the First Age.

He would probably find out what had caused the disappearance of the people from the First Age or at least work on finding out what happened to them. Plus, the city had so much in it compared to the outskirts where his parents lived.

He tried to hide the excitement in his voice, but he knew Cynwr would pick up on it.

He said, “I understand the implications of what I’m about to do.”

The exam proceeded, and Drystn continued to answer each question correctly. He couldn’t tell, but he suspected she had tried to come up with some very difficult and obscure questions to trick him into a wrong answer. Did she know something and not want him to go? Or was it to give him a plausible chance at giving a wrong answer? Each question he answered brought a little more sadness to her eyes.

She finished by saying, “Well, as you know, you’ve not only passed, but you are also the top herbalist this year. You’ve made your own fate. I hope you don’t regret it.”

Drystn had never seen her like this. He turned and left the room in silence. His only thought echoed through his head: What have I done?

talamirfinalcover

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 13

Graham Greene is one of my favorite “classical” English language writers (I guess I mean he’s taught in some schools). I first read The Power and the Glory eleven years ago, and I was blown away by it. I haven’t returned to the novel since then, but I wanted to use it to dig into Greene’s prose a bit.

I’m not religious, and I wasn’t back when I read it either. One of the things that struck me most about the novel is its ambiguous stance toward religion. The book takes place in a (future?) time where religion is banned. Literally every single reference to any religion is destroyed by the government.

The main character is a Catholic priest secretly keeping religion alive and standing up to the evil government. It sounds like the setup to a cheesy, made-for-tv, inspirational religious movie. But the priest is a drunkard (known as the “whisky priest”). He’s gluttonous and immoral. Now it sounds like anti-religious fiction about hypocrisy in the Catholic church.

Eventually I realized that thinking in terms of these competing narratives was a mistake. This setup was merely a powerful tool to examine the human condition. Each of us has virtues and vices. Each of us has a moral compass we try to live by, and part of the novel is to show how even the strongest of us can throw these ideals away when put in dire situations.

Greene writes with a simplicity and clarity necessary to drive these points home. The book could have easily slid into excess drama and cliche and angst if done by a less-skilled writer. Instead, we get a beautiful story of human frailty.

Anyway, I thought that preface was necessary to understand an analysis of the prose style. Here’s a segment from the second chapter:

The lieutenant walked home through the shuttered town. All his life had lain here: the Syndicate of Workers and Peasants had once been a school. He had helped to wipe out that unhappy memory. The whole town was changed: the cement playground up the hill near the cemetery where iron swings stood like gallows in the moony darkness was the site of the cathedral. The new children would have new memories: nothing would ever be as it was. There was something of a priest in his intent observant walk- a theologian going back over the errors of the past to destroy them again.

One of the hallmarks of non-professional writing is the misapplication of “show, don’t tell.” Something that is supposed to be a small detail blows up into paragraphs of showing for no reason. The brilliance of Greene here is how he uses single, carefully chosen descriptive words to evoke feelings, mood, scenery, backstory, and more. Lesson: one can show more with less words if those words do work.

One could imagine an exuberant young writer letting that first sentence get out of hand with descriptions of the shutters and houses and the general mood and atmosphere of the town. Instead, Greene’s use of the phrase “shuttered town” does all this work for us. We understand the people are terrified. They’ve shut themselves in. No one is out and about. It’s desolate and bleak.

All of this “showing” happens in our head, because Greene struck upon a great word. If the word “shuttered” were something like “terrified,” we’d only get the mood. If it were something like “locked up,” we’d get a visual, but not the mood.

Next, Greene does multiple things at once. He describes select places in the town in order to get backstory on the lieutenant and paint a picture and explain the current political climate.

When the lieutenant was a child, there was a school. He was part of wiping it out and replacing it with the “Syndicate of Workers and Peasants.” Greene doesn’t take the time to explain what this is, but it’s clear. This is some bureaucratic government thing. The name evokes this without further need to explain.

A cathedral was destroyed, and a playground put in. But if Greene had said it this way, we might think this is a happy place. Instead, he gives us the simile “iron swings stood like gallows.” It evokes the disturbing thought of children having to do with chopping people’s heads off. Careful juxtaposition like this can paint vivid imagery in people’s minds. Greene continues this theme. The playground is “cement.” It’s near the cemetery.

Everything about the description of this place is disturbing, and what’s brilliant is that he reveals so much about the character and the town while doing this. This is a man remembering his own history with these places: how he helped wreck the town.

Then he uses a parallel concept. The new children will have new memories. Greene shifts from the character’s childhood to new children and what they’ll think.

The paragraph closes by drawing a parallel to the priest. He connects two of the characters in the novel and draws out a theme. All people want redemption from their past mistakes. But sometimes things we do to absolve a “mistake” only makes things worse. Those “mistakes” might not even have been mistakes at all, but we only see this in hindsight.

The takeaway from Greene’s prose is that one can show more with a few carefully chosen details than if one were to spend paragraphs describing it all. This stripped back style strikes emotional resonance in the novel (especially the haunting last chapter).

Of course, style must be chosen to suit the needs of the work, so this might not be the best choice for everything. But it’s hard to think of a modern novel that wouldn’t be made better by moving in this direction a little.

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I’ve come to a crossroads recently.

I write a blog post every week. It takes time. The last one was close to 2,000 words and required reading a book. For the past three years I’ve been writing full time, and so blogging can be a burden that cuts into this with no monetary rewards.

This blog is now over nine years old, and I’ve done nothing to monetize it. I think this is mostly a good thing. I do not and will not run any sort of advertisements. Even upon the release of my first book, I only did a brief mention and then no promotion afterward (and as far as I can tell, this converted to literally 0 sales).

I want this to be about the blog content. I do not want it to turn into some secret ad campaign to sell my work. I can think of many authors who have done this, and I ended up unsubscribing from them.

This brings me to the point. Putting this much work into something is not really sustainable anymore without some sort of support, so I’ve started a Patreon page. As you’ll see, my initial goal is quite modest and will barely cover the expenses to run my blog and website. But without anything, I will slowly phase out writing here regularly.

If this concept is new to you, Patreon is a site dedicated to supporting creative work. Patrons can pledge money to support people creating content they like. It can be as little as $1 a month (or as many podcasters say: “less than a coffee a month”), and in return, you not only help the site to keep running, you’ll receive bonus content as well.

Because of the scattered nature of my posts, I know a lot of you are probably scared to support, because you might not get content of interest for the month. Some of you like the math and tune out for the writing advice. Some of you like the critical analysis of philosophy and wish the articles on game mechanics didn’t exist.

For consistency, I’ll only put out something that would be tagged “literature” for the vast majority of posts from now on. This means once a month or less and probably never two months in a row (i.e. six per year spread out equally). This “literature” tag includes, but is not limited to, most posts on philosophy that touch on narrative or language somehow, editing rules, writing advice, book reviews, story structure analysis, examining pro’s prose, movie reviews, and so on.

Again, the core original vision for the blog included game and music and math posts, but these will be intentionally fewer now. If you check the past few years, I basically already did this anyway, but this way you know what you’re signing up for.

I think people are drawn to my literature analysis because I’m in a unique position. This month I’m about to submit my fifth romance novel under a pseudonym. This is the “commercial” work I do for money, and it’s going reasonably well. I’ve come to understand the ins and outs of genre fiction through this experience, and it has been a valuable part of learning the craft of writing for me.

My main work under my real name is much more literary. I’ve put out one novel of literary fiction. Next month I’ll put out my second “real” novel, which is firmly in the fantasy genre but hopefully doesn’t give up high-quality prose.

These two opposite experiences have given me an eye for what makes story work and what makes prose work. All over this blog I’ve shown that I love experimental writing, but I’ve also been one of the few people to unapologetically call out BS where I see it.

As you can imagine, writing several genre novels and a “real” novel every year makes it tough to justify this weekly blog for the fun of it.

If I haven’t convinced you that the quality here is worth supporting, I’ll give you one last tidbit. I get to see incoming links thanks to WordPress, so I know that more than one graduate seminar and MFA program has linked to various posts I’ve made on critical theory and difficult literature. Since I’m not in those classes, I can’t be sure of the purpose, but graduate programs tend to only suggest reading things that are worth reading. There just isn’t enough time for anything else.

I know, I know. Print is dead. You’d rather support people making podcasts or videos, but writing is the easiest way to get my ideas across. I listen to plenty of podcasts on writing, but none of them get to dig into things like prose style. The format isn’t conducive to it. One needs to see the text under analysis to really get the commentary on it.

Don’t panic. I won’t decrease blog production through the end of 2017, but I’m setting an initial goal of $100 per month. We’ll go from there, because even that might not be a sustainable level long-term. If it isn’t met, I’ll have to adjust accordingly. It’s just one of those unfortunate business decisions. Sometimes firing someone is the right move, even if they’re your friend.

I’ve set up a bunch supporter rewards, and I think anyone interested in the blog will find them well worth it. I’m being far more generous than most Patreon pages making similar content. Check out the page for details. The rewards involve seeing me put into practice what I talk about with video of me editing a current project with live commentary; extra fiction I write for free; free copies of my novels; extra “Examining Pro’s Prose” articles; and more!

I hope you find the content here worth supporting (I’m bracing myself for the humiliation of getting $2 a month and knowing it’s from my parents). If you don’t feel you can support the blog, feel free to continue reading and commenting for free. The community here has always been excellent.

Elements of Writing that Annoy Me Part 2

I wrote the first of these something like three years ago. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood or the writing I read really is getting worse, but certain things have been getting on my nerves a lot. It’s time to pick this up again!

  1. Not trusting your reader. This is a typical flaw of first-time novelists. They have a beautiful idea and execute it in a clever, original way, but they are so fearful the reader will miss what they’ve put all this work into that they overdo it.

It’s like if someone were to tell you a joke, you laugh, and then they say, “Did you get it? Here, let me tell you why it was funny.” There’s never a reason to do this. If someone didn’t get your art without you telling them, then it failed. Telling them what it’s about doesn’t fix that. For everyone else, they already got it, so there is no need to re-explain it.

The example that jumps out to me the most is the movie A Single Man. I thought this movie was brilliant when it came out, but the ending made me cringe a little. A new character comes in right at the end and explains it all to you. I haven’t seen it since it was in theaters, so maybe I’d feel differently now.

The other way this manifests is in thoughts and exposition. I hate when a book explains how a character feels right after it was demonstrated.

Sally yelled, “I hate you!” Fred annoyed her so much, and she was beginning to hate him.

That’s obviously not a real example, and I exaggerated it to illustrate the point. But I’ve seen things almost this bad.

2. Alliteration. I have a theory about alliteration. When you’re in a flow state of writing, the brain makes a lot of weird connections. So when you get to a noun like “book” and you want more description, the brain naturally jumps to something like “boring” or “bothersome” or “bad.”

I have no evidence to support this theory. I’ve noticed in my own writing that this is when it tends to creep in. Don’t get me wrong. Alliteration is a literary device that can be used to great effect when done right. But if you find it in a first draft, it should pretty much never make it to the final draft. It was probably an accident.

I view the misuse of alliteration to be a mistake on par with a grammar mistake. I know this sounds unfair, since it’s only a prose style error. It falls under the category known as “diction.” I’m not sure why standards have gotten so lax in this category. You will never find this error in great writers of the past, but it’s everywhere now.

It’s hard to say what annoys me so much about it. I think it’s some combination of thinking about why it happens. It’s either laziness on the writer’s part or lack of knowledge on the writer’s part or laziness/lack of knowledge on the editor’s part or the writer ignoring the editor’s advice. All of these are pretty annoying reasons.

3. Semi-dangling modifiers. Okay. I made this up. It’s not a real thing. If a book is traditionally published, it should go through an editor good enough to not allow any actual dangling modifiers. A dangling modifier is when you start a sentence with a clause that modifies a subject not actually present in the sentence.

An example: Having eaten a large breakfast, lunch was unappetizing. The first clause has an implied person as its subject. The second clause has “lunch” as its subject. This is an easy fix: Having eaten a large breakfast, I found lunch unappetizing. Now the implied subject of the modifying clause matches the subject of the sentence.

Beginning with modifying clauses in general can be grating. If this were in something I was editing, I would strongly suggest the change: I found lunch unappetizing, because I ate a large breakfast. It converts the sentence from passive to active voice, and it clarifies the logic.

Now I’m going to pick on a real book to illustrate what I mean by “semi-dangling modifiers.” I’ve been reading The Bees by Laline Paull, and she does this all the time. I don’t want to pick on her too much, because I actually see this in a lot of what I read. I just happen to have that book on my desk right now. Chapter 21 begins with this sentence:

Shocked at her own act, Flora was among the first out.

When I read this, I had no idea what act it referred to, because I had put the book down at the chapter break. But let’s not dwell on that (this might be against 1 in trusting your reader too much by starting a chapter with a reference to the last event of the last chapter).

The modifier is not dangling, because Flora is the subject of the sentence. I call this “semi-dangling,” because the clause has no logical connection to the main sentence. When a sentence begins with any clause, it is implied that the sentence could be rearranged in a way to make it clear how the clause contains relevant information to the rest of the sentence. In the example I gave above, we learned why the I found lunch unappetizing.

In this example, the clause could be deleted without losing anything, and so it should be deleted! It’s semi-dangling in the sense that the clause itself never refers to something relevant to the rest of the sentence.

People, stop semi-dangling your modifiers. If the clause is irrelevant, delete it. If it is important information but has no logical connection to the res of the sentence, make it a whole new sentence.

The Book of the New Sun

It took me three months, but I finally finished The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. It was published as four novels, but it is clearly one giant novel. Each one practically ends in the middle of a sentence, and none are standalone. There’s so much to say about this, and yet it basically defies talking about.

The initial critical reception was quite good. It was published throughout 1980-1983. So it fits into a transition time for SF/F. The pulps had died off by this point and a lot experimentation happened in the 60’s and 70’s, but the genre hadn’t fully evolved into the literary phenomenon that it would become by the end of the 90’s.

This book is very much ahead of its time in this sense. The Washington Post said Gene Wolfe is “the finest writer the science fiction world has yet produced.” Maybe. But the genre has taken the best of both worlds: fast-paced genre action/adventure/fun and quality literary writing that imparts deeper meaning on subsequent readings.

Anyone who has been reading this blog for any sufficient amount of time will know my views on abstract, difficult, or avant-garde art, especially writing and music. I love it. I love having to dig in and listen to a piece of music 10+ times to start to understand what’s going on.

These types of pieces often give the listener the most rewarding artistic experiences. As DFW once said (I paraphrase), art is a relationship between artist and viewer. Relationships can’t be meaningful if all the work is done by one side. The more you put into experiencing a work of art, the more you get out of it.

Anyway, I won’t rehash that argument any further. My views when it comes to long novels have evolved a bit. There’s something of a difference between getting more on repeated readings and requiring multiple readings. It’s a respect thing. I respect an artist who promises more depth on another visit. An artist is disrespecting my time if I spend three months experiencing their art only to be told at the end that I can’t have understood it on the first time and I absolutely must spend another three months rereading it to make that first time around meaningful.

So that’s where The Book of the New Sun ends. The novel intentionally draws the reader out of the story many times. Two of the most difficult points for me were the long play within the novel in Book 2 and the sequence of short stories told by various characters in Book 4. Yes, I get that they are vital pieces to that underlying secret story that couldn’t be understood the first time. But they’re pretty obnoxious if you aren’t on that second read.

Overall, don’t let this dissuade you from reading these. The first read is pretty good outside of those complaints and a few meandering bits. The futuristic society Wolfe creates is shockingly deep and remains fresh and original today despite the number of dystopian/dying earth novels that have come out since then.

The writing is incredible. Wolfe is often too good I’d say. First off, he has created an SF/F series with a bunch of weird terms that sound oddly fitting. It turns out that every strange word in the book is actually a legitimate English word that has fallen to the wayside of history. This is an incredible idea to create both an ancient, strange sound that also feels very familiar. Same thing with the names of characters. They look all fantasy-like, but they are all names that were common at one point in history but have fallen out of fashion.

The dense, precise writing often challenges the reader to stay in the story rather than contemplate what it says:

War is not a new experience; it is a new world. Its inhabitants are more different from human beings than Famulimus and her friends. Its laws are new, and even its geography is new, because it is a geography in which insignificant hills and hollows are lifted to the importance of cities.

Many genre writers, to the extent that they think about prose, might want to show the horror of war by having the description be short, choppy, and crude like the thing it is describing. How many times have you read something like: “War is hell—horror everywhere. It changes your world.” This is lazy and cliched writing.

Wolfe’s elegant imagery does so much to bring the terror to the readers mind. War is a new world. This hinges on the cliche, but the followup prose doubles down on the imagery by precisely describing the geography of this new world: insignificant hills are lifted to the importance of cities. I get chills when I’m transported to such a devastating world. And then I’m off thinking about this and pulled out of the story. It’s almost a catch-22: write too well and it might be a distraction to the reader. I’m only half joking about this.

The astute reader is presented with some difficulties early on. The narrator claims to have a perfect memory. Later on, we start to get contradictory information about what happened. So either he lied about his memory or he’s lying to us about parts. This isn’t a logic puzzle. We have 100% confidence that the narrator is unreliable at that point, which puts the reader in an awkward position.

Since I recently read Imajica, I was struck by the similarities. I’m pretty sure Barker was not inspired by New Sun, but the archetypes and structure are the same. Barker has the Reconciliation and Wolfe has the Conciliator. I guess these, or similar terms, are bound to come up in any grand savior plot.

Will I reread this? I’m not sure. It won’t be anytime soon for sure. Do I recommend it? I’ll cautiously say yes. It’s very, very good. As Neil Gaiman said, “The best SF novel of the last century.” I’m not willing to go that far.

My main reservation is that you’ll certainly struggle at points, and you might be disappointed that everything changes at the end, requiring another reading. On the other hand, if you want to sink a few years of your life into discovering the hidden depths of an excellently written book, this is probably your best bet (seriously, peruse urth.net for a half hour to see the truth of this).

 

Thoughts on Barker’s Imajica

I believe I read a Clive Barker novel about fifteen years ago, but I have no idea what it was. A few years ago, I read some of his short stories, and this reinforced the conception I had of Barker as a horror writer, which isn’t really my thing. Still, Imajica came up on my radar for some reason, and I decided to give it a go.

Wow. I’m so glad I did. It’s going to be fairly difficult to describe anything about this book. It’s very weird, but in a wildly inventive and wonderful way. There are some gory images here and there, but I’d most certainly not classify it as horror. It’s more of a surrealist examination of spirituality? So kind of like The Holy Mountain.

I’ll try to set up the premise to give you an idea of the bizarre-ness, though, the whole point of the novel shifts by about 1/10 of the way through it. There’s Five Dominions. Earth, as we humans know it, is the Fifth Dominion. We’ve never seen these other magical places.

There’s a longtime conspiracy of people (I use this term lightly) making up a secret society to keep the Fifth Dominion separate from the other four. There is a way in though.

The novel begins with a man who is so in love with a woman, Judith, that he hires an assassin to kill her after she breaks up with him (obviously so she can’t be with anyone else). He has second thoughts and contacts Judith’s ex, Gentle, to stop the assassin. He succeeds. The assassin, Pie, is a being from one of these other dominions that doesn’t really have a gender. It becomes basically whatever it’s lover wants to see in it.

Pie seduces Gentle by appearing to be Judith. Gentle learns of what it did, and Pie takes Gentle into the other dominions. They gradually fall in love. Also, a billion other things are going on by this point, so don’t think that’s “really” the story. It’s about revelation, separation, unity, isolation, love, sex, power, God, redemption, finding meaning, culture, and on and on.

Don’t panic. It’s not done in a way that tries to be about everything and ends up being about nothing. This novel really tackles the big questions in a focused and metaphorical way. It just so happens that these big questions encompass all those other things.

Here’s some things I think the book does really well. There is a gigantic amount of information hidden to the reader: the conspiracy, how these other dominions run, the cultures there, the background on the conflicts, why the Fifth is separated, and so on.

Barker manages to slip this information to the reader in gradual and subtle doses over 600 pages or more. This means the novel stays story centric and engaging with almost no information dumps. It’s actually kind of brilliant how he does this. Often, you will hear things that make no sense. This causes you to reconcile your view of what’s going on with your existing theory. It’s only after you’ve done this many times that the full picture comes into focus.

Another thing I didn’t expect was how good the prose was. I expected genre horror writing full of stock prose: nothing bad but nothing great either. Instead, I found excellent execution of register shifting (often thought to be the most advanced and subtle techniques of prose style).

Register shifts refer to changing the type of language used to adapt to a situation. For example, if you’re hanging out with some friends, you might say, “‘Sup?” This is an informal register. If you’re at a job interview, you might say, “Hello. How are you doing? It is very good to meet you.” This is a formal register.

The thing that makes this so difficult in prose writing is that the context of scene must determine the proper register. When you first try to do this, it will probably be overdone, and this will change the voice. It must be done with enough subtlety so the voice remains consistent and only the register of the voice changes.

Most people will never notice if a writer has done this well. It is usually obvious when a writer doesn’t do it or overdoes it. We tend to say the writing fell “flat” in an absence of register shifts (a great term because there weren’t any up or down shifts in register).

The register tends to reflect the dominion we’re in. This is because as the dominions get closer to the First, the people get closer to God. The register shifts up to indicate the formality and ritualistic nature of religion. Take an early scene.

Gentle took off his heavy coat and laid it on the chair by the door, knowing when he returned it would be warm and covered with cat hairs. Klein was already in the living room, pouring wine. Always red.

This is quite low. There’s even a sentence fragment. The sentences are simple and to the point. The descriptors are common.

Now take a midway scene in a different dominion.

Like the theater districts of so many great cities across the Imajica, whether in Reconciled Dominions or in the Fifth, the neighborhood in which the Ipse stood had been a place of some notoriety in earlier times, when actors of both sexes had supplemented their wages with the old five-acter—hiring, retiring, seduction, conjunction, and remittance—all played hourly, night and day.

This single sentence is almost double the length of the entire three sentences above. The structure is quite complicated: subordinate clause, appositive, etc. This is an elevated register. The same sentence in a lower register would be “Whores could be found on the streets of the city in which the Ipse stood.” We could lower it even more or raise it to more formal levels than what was written. But it strikes a delicate balance of beautiful description in elevated voice.

I know it’s kind of mind-boggling to think that Barker did all this, but I noticed it early and then paid close attention. It is consistent throughout, which makes me think it is not some accident or coincidence.

Lastly, the symbolism is amazing. It draws on and reinterprets many famous Biblical stories. I can’t get into it, because I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t read the book. It is some of the best of this type of writing I’ve seen. It isn’t so direct as to be cringe-worthy, and it is all done in an inventive re-imagining.

It’s kind of sad I didn’t read this during my Year of Giant Novels. It possibly would have been the Number 1 book of the year.

Year of Short Fiction Part 3: The Red Pony

The Red Pony is in one sense a novella published by John Steinbeck, but in another sense it is a collection of four short stories, originally published episodically in magazines. This makes it slightly difficult to pin down exactly what date to slap on this. The first story was published in 1933, so it came out before all his most famous works.

I was pretty excited to read this, because Steinbeck is one of the best long-form “family epic” writers. His masterpiece, in my eyes, is East of Eden, which chronicles several generations in great detail. It is true that The Pearl and Of Mice and Men and other of his short works pack a punch, but nothing compares to the deep characterization he pulls of in his longer works.

I’m torn on this one. It’s certainly my least favorite of the short fiction series so far. I can intellectualize it’s strong points, but I didn’t connect with any part of it. And the end is super weird, but we’ll get to that. Obviously there will be “spoilers,” but I haven’t really been saying that considering these stories are a hundred years old and only take an hour or so to read.

All four stories form key moments in Jody’s maturation from childhood to adulthood. Steinbeck does a great job of establishing his innocence in a small amount of space by dropping small details throughout the beginning. One of the most interesting was that Jody had a rifle, but he wasn’t allowed bullets until he demonstrated maturity with it for a full year.

This is Steinbeck establishing family dynamics and rituals. It shows that Jody hasn’t undergone one of the key rituals on the path to adulthood. The first story is about how Jody trusts Billy to take care of a horse that eventually dies. Steinbeck cleverly foreshadows this by mentioning the buzzards at the start that eventually deal the horse’s final blow.

I see the novella as a sequence of four deaths and how Jody matures in reaction to each as he ages. In reaction to the death in the first story, Jody lashes out in anger and can’t understand how the adults in his life didn’t protect him from it.

The second death is stranger. A man comes to the family’s house and wants to live out his last days there because it is where he was born. This brings another perspective to Jody. The man rides off to the mountains with an old, dying horse. Again, the horse and human presumably die, but Jody learns of a more mature way to accept the inevitability of death through this stranger.

The third death is of a pregnant horse. This horse must die to save the pony inside of it. This teaches Jody of the circle of life. Death can bring about new life, which itself will eventually die.

Though Jody doesn’t realize it, this is a redemption story for Billy. Billy had promised not to let the horse die in the first story, and he feels guilt for letting it happen. Here, he promises Jody the colt inside the horse, and he has to kill the horse to deliver it. He succeeds in his promise this time. He gives Jody a horse to make up for the one that died and can let go of his guilt.

The final story doesn’t actually have a death in it, but Jody’s grandfather comes to live with the family. The grandfather participated in traveling west across the country. It was a grand adventure, but the grandfather makes it very clear such adventure is over. This kills Jody’s dreams of doing the same.

This is the final straw in Jody’s maturation. He learned of death, life, violence, the fallibility of adults, and now his boyhood dreams are gone. He must learn to live pragmatically in the real world.

The ending was extremely strange at first.

Jody ran into the kitchen where his mother was wiping the last of the breakfast dishes. “Can I have a lemon to make a lemonade for Grandfather?”

His mother mimicked—“And another lemon to make a lemonade for you.”

“No, ma’am. I don’t want one.”

“Jody! You’re sick!” Then she stopped suddenly. “Take a lemon out of the cooler,” she said softly. “Here, I’ll reach the squeezer down to you.”

Lemonade hadn’t made an appearance for the whole novella. What on Earth could this ending be?

It solidifies the idea that Jody has fully matured. His youthful self merely would have feigned interest in helping his grandfather to get himself a lemonade. The only reason the mother can think of that he wouldn’t want one is that he’s sick. But then she realizes he has matured. He’s acting selflessly, and so she encourages it.

I get what Steinbeck was doing. I just didn’t find it very compelling. I dreaded picking it up when I stopped between stories. There is pretty much no narrative momentum. Part of this comes from the stories being early in Steinbeck’s career, but I think when you look at it broken down in the way I did, it becomes clear that this is first and foremost a carefully constructed exercise. It’s obviously well done. I just didn’t like it much.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 12

It’s been about five months since I’ve done one of these. My how time flies. I’ve almost exclusively used “literary” writers for this series. Today I want to examine the prose of John Irving. He’s had a lot of commercial success, but he straddles the literary/commercial divide more than many give him credit for. This is the opening line from A Prayer for Owen Meany.

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

I don’t remember how I picked this book up, but I distinctly remember reading this opening line and being hooked. We’ll look at its structure and how it establishes so much in so little space.

We’ll start with the obvious. The sentence starts with “I,” so we are getting the voice of the narrator. But immediately, the whole sentence is about someone else. We can be pretty sure (especially with knowledge of the title) that the main character of the novel will be this other person. It’s like The Great Gatsby; the narrator will tell of his past with the main character.

“I am doomed to remember…” This opening phrase establishes that the story is going to be tragic in some way. The word “doomed” is no accident. If we look to the end of the sentence, we see “God” and “Christian.” There were a lot of words Irving could have chosen here, but “doomed” is consistent in tone and given a lot more power when reaching the end of the sentence. This isn’t a mere haunting memory. In the context of God, the word “doomed” tends to have one meaning: doomed to hell during the Final Judgement. The opening clause says: pay attention, this is serious.

The follow-up is “a boy with a wrecked voice.” It immediately forces a lot of questions into the reader’s mind. Wait. He’s only a boy? What could have been that bad? Why is his voice wrecked? This sounds even less threatening.

Irving em dashes into a sequence of clarifications. The clarifications serve the dual purpose of fleshing out the main character and raising the stakes of the forthcoming novel. Each detail gets a little more confusing and intense.

The boy is the smallest person he ever knew. Even more so than the voice, how could this boy be threatening at all? Then the kicker comes. The boy was the instrument of the narrator’s mother’s death. Now we really wonder: who could this boy be to have caused such a thing? And even then, we’re told there’s something more. The mother’s death isn’t even the reason the narrator is doomed to remember. This sequence ramps up the tension more and more until we get our relief at the true reason.

The boy is the reason he believes in God. Semicolon. We then get further clarification. He’s Christian because of this boy. It’s almost a let down when the reason turns out to be so anticlimactic. But, in a sense, this makes it better. What traumatic event happened that it surpassed his mother’s death by this boy?

And we’re hooked. By the end of the first sentence we have so many unanswered questions. Moreover, the sequencing of the questions makes them feel unanswerable.

When examining why prose works, it’s often useful to think why similar attempts don’t work. Think how boring this opening would have been if Irving merely wanted to establish the narrator’s voice and tell a few facts about Owen Meany.

I recall a boy with a wrecked voice. He was the smallest person I ever knew, and yet he was also the instrument of my mother’s death. I believe in God because of Owen Meany.

I could see many people starting their novels this way. Without comparison, it might seem fine. It still establishes point of view. It still lists some traits of Owen Meany. It still raises many of the same questions. But it lacks some extremely important points. There’s no dramatic tension. The questions feel easily answerable in this form.

I could see myself saying, “Eh. Some boy killed this guy’s mother. He now believes in God. I guess I’ll find out what happened soon enough.” These are serious matters, but the prose doesn’t feel serious. It almost has a comical tone in this form because, one, it lacks the word “doomed,” but two, because the juxtaposition of these sentiments is such a sudden and stark contrast with no build up.

Seeing these fake several sentences also brings up another point. It isn’t the right voice for the narrator. The narrator of this novel used an extremely complicated sentence structure: full clause, em dash, three negative clauses separated by commas building to a positive clause, semicolon, full clause clarification.

We’ll later find out that the narrator is an English teacher (and maybe writer? It’s been 15 years since I read this), but the astute reader will already have ascertained a linguistic sophistication and high education level for the narrator. The clunky sentences I wrote give none of this voice or information.

Who knew one sentence could contain so much?

Year of Giant Novels Part 9: What I’ve Learned

I’m technically done reading giant novels for the year. I’m currently reading The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe, and if taken as a single novel, it qualifies, but the version I’m reading is two separate novels. It would probably make an interesting final analysis, because I’ve basically read two types of giant novels: literary and epic fantasy. The Wolfe straddles this line in some truly bizarre ways.

Here is the final list. It’s hard to believe I actually read all these.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

Moby-Dick –  Herman Melville

The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

Ulysses – James Joyce

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

The Eye of the World – Robert Jordan

Back in college, when I first became interested in giant novels, I used to believe they were like normal novels—only better. I know that sounds weird, but the rough idea in my head was that novels were like relationships; the more you put in, the more connection you make and the stronger the emotional bond will be.

If you live with someone for ten years, you’ll have more of a relationship than with someone you only live with for a few months. Oh, my naive youthful ideas. This isn’t even true of relationships, so the conclusions can’t transfer because of some weak analogy.

You could live with someone ten years and basically know nothing of them. It’s about the quality of that time together that matters. The same is true of books.

Wow. This is quite the long-winded way of saying it’s the quality of the reading experience not the quantity. At this point, I know what you’re thinking: you spent a year reading giant novels and all you figured out was the most obvious thing everyone already knew? Sort of. But I also think I’ve clarified what makes quality in a giant novel to me.

I’ll use Moby-Dick and 2666  as my examples, because I think these both exemplify what I’ve learned. These were also the two most rewarding novels for me on the list.

Giant novels tend to be normal length novels plus some extra stuff. If this base novel is bad, I think the whole thing will be bad no matter what the extra stuff is. In the case that the base novel is good, the extra stuff is what makes the whole thing work or not.

This extra stuff must reinforce the overall novel. It has to serve a real purpose in the context of the novel. Take the Spouter-Inn chapter in Moby-Dick. There is an extended description of an oil painting. This isn’t mere “worldbuilding.” The painting serves many purposes: foreshadowing, establishing the tone of dread and awe, setting the scene of the inn, etc.

Take the story of beating up the taxi driver in Part 1 of 2666. This establishes a context of otherwise good people turning to random acts of violence. I spent a whole blog post talking about the importance of this context for Part 4 of the novel.

To reiterate, in both the examples I’ve given, these details could easily be removed and nothing would be lost from the plot of the novel. These examples are part of the extra stuff. But the examples reinforce tone, theme, symbols, and so on of the whole novel, so removing these details would make the novels of lower quality.

This is how I think about quality of giant novels now. If the extra stuff keeps reinforcing the whole like this, by the end, your psyche will have picked it up, and it will culminate in a more powerful reading experience. The extra stuff makes this possible. These giant novels would be much worse if these parts were cut. It wouldn’t even be the same book. The giant-ness is necessary.

If you take Seveneves, The Way of Kings, or The Eye of the World, there are many, many parts that are pure padding. The extra stuff serves only one purpose: description of the world. Obviously there is a balance. You can’t cut all of it, because then it wouldn’t be a novel. But I dare say, so much could be cut that all three of these could be normal-length novels, and they would be much higher quality for it.

Before fans of these novels jump all over me, I’m talking only about quality in the sense I described above. Plenty of people enjoy digging in to all the minutia of a constructed world and culture. I include myself in this up to a point. These novels would be less enjoyable to those people if too much of the padding is cut.

But even the most ardent fans must admit there’s quantity in these that don’t add quality. If these parts were cut, no one would notice, and the effect of the book would remain unchanged. This is pretty much the definition of a good edit, and all three of these novels could have been at least 10% shorter without losing anything of importance.

I’ve watched Brandon Sanderson lecture on this topic, and he even criticized a student’s writing for this very mistake. He pointed out that one tiny and important detail can paint a better picture in the reader’s mind than a huge, list of common details. We tend to be blind to our own mistakes, especially when praised with the amount of success he’s had.

Overall, I think I’m just not that in to giant novels anymore. I tend to find normal-length novels too excessive these days. I really love the tightness and care that goes into short fiction. Well written novellas are vastly underappreciated.

That’s why I’ve officially decided to make next year the Year of Short Fiction. I’ll do collections of short stories and novellas and blog about it for your enjoyment.