The original goal of this post was to write a mini-essay on something that annoys me about contemporary writing. As far as I know, it has no name, and I struggled to find one, so I had to settle for something as cumbersome as “mid-action or mid-description beginnings.” Essentially, the story starts in media res, but not in the middle of the plot, but in the middle of a scene, with people (sometimes a lot of people) doing, sometimes exciting or action-related, stuff… for no reason we can discern. No goals, context, purpose, or meaning are given. It’s just a picture, like a movie scene (and in many cases, it shows the writer imagined it as such.)
The protagonist can be fighting another person (and we know nothing about them so we have no reason to care,) sweating profusely from some equally strenuous activity, engaging in a heavy dialogue with a character we know nothing about, or sometimes it’s a cliché-ridden description as the character prepares to do one of those things (the standard in fantasy until a few years ago was to describe, for some unfathomable reason, the sky – usually a sunset or dawn- and how that light reflected on the local vegetation.)
The opposite, of course, is to start like all stories have always been written, with a small, perhaps only a single sentence, explanation about the why, where, and when so we can contextualize what is happening and will happen.
In any event, I was going to pick the beginnings of random books and use them as examples, and to do that I went to Amazon (which allows you to read the first pages of books,) and clicked on the Bestsellers of the last 90 days in the Action & Adventure genre. Buh… what I discovered was worse than what I had expected.
My pet peeve with those awkward beginnings is a minor issue compared to the things I read, which were wrong on so many levels, that just mentioning that detail would have been like pointing a minor shaving cut on a corpse run over by a tank — repeatedly. I can say that of the 20 or so first-paragraphs I read, only 3-4 were OKish. And I define OKish in a very scientific, psychophysiological way: my eyes don’t roll.
One was Ready Player One (no joking, it’s actually a decent first introductory paragraph) and the other a Warhammer 40K novel, Magos, about the inquisitor Eisenhower (yes, that’s how I first thought he is named and I’m not going to change my mind now.)
I’ll admit I’m a more exacting reader and critic than most, and that I see errors that others don’t (or, rather, I see as errors things others don’t,) but there is a certain minimum of competence I believe should be obligatory (and so you don’t think I’m being unfair, I’ll be rewriting a lot of the examples of bad writing I will show you and you can judge which one is better.) And keep in mind that these are four-five-stars international bestsellers, and some of them actually have publishers behind them, which means enough money to use an editor, proofreader or… anything. There are actually grammar mistakes in some of these first sentences.
As mentioned, the genre of these excerpts is the Adventure & Action genre, mostly thrillers with a few sci-fi and fantasy works thrown in there. I know folk who like to rally under the banner of various pulp identities, a misnaming I believe, but a noble goal especially if one looks back to some of its more obscure authors, but if one focuses on the business of collectives of writers churning out dozens of action thrillers based around established action heroes (and also heroines nowadays) and selling insane amounts of copies as if one were trying to deforest the whole Amazonas, that business is alive and kicking. It just happens these books are awful and being found possessing any of them should disqualify you for citizenship in any sound nation. But I digress. Here are the excerpts:
The Midnight Line, a Jack Reacher Thriller, by Lee Child, a Number One Bestseller, 3611 reviews, a 22-Book Series written in the span of 20 years, over 60 million copies sold!!!!!11
The Amazon blurb describes it as such:
Jack Reacher is having a bad day.
It would be a dumb idea to make it worse.
[…] Best advice: stay out of his way.
Whoah! Manly! Let’s see how this starts:
Jack Reacher and Michelle Chang spent three days in Milwaukee. On the fourth morning she was gone. Reacher came back to the room with coffee and found a note on his pillow. He had seen such notes before. They all said the same thing. Either directly or indirectly. Chang’s note was indirect. And more elegant than most. Not in terms of presentation. It was a ballpoint scrawl on motel notepaper gone wavy with damp.But elegant in terms of expression.
That looks like a list of keywords for a first draft or scene strung together. Does the author know what commas, conjunctions, and similar connecting words are? Here:
“He had seen many such notes before, and they all said the same thing, either directly or indirectly. Chang’s was indirect but more elegant than most, although clearly not in its presentation.”
The whole book seems to be like that by the way. It seems that someone took the usual writing advice of “Write short sentences” too seriously.
End Game (Will Robie Series Book 5), #1 New York Times bestselling author David Baldacci returns with his most breathtaking thriller yet!
“Will Robie and Jessica Reel are two of the most lethal people alive. They’re the ones the government calls in when the utmost secrecy is required to take out those who plot violence and mass destruction against the United States.”
Exciting! I can wait to see them take on those damn Washington lobbies. It starts like this:
“As Will Robie stared out the plane window, he knew the next twenty-four hours could possibly be his last ones on earth.
Yet that was simply another day on the job for him.”
Ok, I guess there are worse ways to show your guy is tough, but still… It goes on like this:
“The undercarriage of multiple reinforced wheels touched down and grabbed the tarmac, and the thrust reverses engaged. The world’s largest commercial airliner taxied to a stop at the gate. The doors, both forward and aft, on the upper and lower cabins opened. The passengers trooped down the Jetways and into Terminal Five at Heathrow Airport.”
What the fuck did I just read and, more importantly, why? Let me rewrite you that thing:
“The world’s largest commercial airliner landed on Heathrow.”
I’m already aware that the wheels need to touch down on the ground (and the trust reverses to engage, apparently) and the doors to open for the passengers to leave, thank you very much.
You can also add it’s at terminal five if you feel loquacious.
Head On, by John Scalzi.
Not a super bestseller like the others, but it was on the top of the list and I guess it’s selling relatively fast. I have only read one Scalzi book, my first introduction in this blog into the dark side of modern fiction (and one of my first reviews! yay! … It shows,) and I didn’t like it that much. Coincidentally, I also mentioned a puzzling first paragraph as an example of bad writing.
In any event, the premise of the book seems interesting enough: a futuristic bloody sport with robots ripping off their heads to carry them into the opposing enemy line. The robots are actually controlled by people with some sort of paralysis, but then one of them actually dies.
This book has a dedication to the Tor editorial staff, and I should mention that Tor has been awarded many times for its editorial job, something I noticed when I criticized Redshirts, and something that is still relevant now as you will see :
“By the time Duane Chapman died on the Hilketa field, his head had already been torn off twice.
Having it torn off for the third time was unusual, even for Hilketa, in which the point of the game is to rip the head off a selected opponent and then toss or carry it through a goal at the end of the field. The computer operated by the officials in the game operations room – improvised for this exhibition game between the Boston bays and the Toronto Snowbirds in an appropriated stadium luxury skybox- was supposed to select randomly from the defending players on the field who would be the “goat” for the current play: the player whose head the offense would try to remove while the remaining defense players fought them off, with their bodies and with game-approved weapons. With eleven players on each side, it was unusual for any one player to get goat duty more than once or twice a game.”
This is close to unreadable. You could cut out or move half of it (at least the underlined bits) and nothing of value would be lost. But look at the bolded part.
“Having it torn off for the third time was unusual, even for Hilketa, a game whose point is to rip the head off your opponent,”
Shoot First (A Stone Barrington Novel) by Stuart Woods
In the latest nonstop adventure from #1 New York Times bestselling author Stuard Woods, Stone Barrington must defend a woman whose business – and life – are under threat!¡!¡!
“Stone Barrington and his friend Dino and Vivian Bacchetti had just finished a dinner of Caesar salad and Dover sole at Patroon, a favorite restaurant of theirs in the East Forties of New York,”
When I first saw this, my thought was This is like reading American Psycho, but the unironical version.
Who are these people, and why should I care about any of them? And no, there’s no more explanation, it goes directly into a long, awkward dialogue whose only point is to namedrop a shitton of (I presume, high-class) references and names to places and people which I’m sure will have little relevance to the story, just so they can say they will go to some board meeting to play golf. Let me shorten it a bit:
“Stone Barrington and his friends Dino and Vivian Bacchetti traveled to the Steele Group board meeting in Key West, although their goal was mostly to play golf the whole weekend.”
Entire Chapter 1 written. You are welcome.
The Last Jedi: Expanded Edition by Jason Fry, another of those New York Times bestsellers, and the official adaptation of the movie.
Luke Skywalker stood in the cooling sands of Tatooine, his wife by his side.
The strip of sky at the horizon was still painted with the last orange of sunset, but the first stars had emerged. Luke peered at them, searching for something he knew was already gone.
That part in bold… you mean “dusk.” That’s what dusk means, no need for “the strip of sky at the horizon [lul]” Also, who peers at stars? And one, like the proverbial house, usually stands on sand, not in. It continues:
“What did you think you saw?” Camie asked.
He could hear the affection in her voice – but if he listened harder, he could hear the weariness as well.
Who asks “What do you think you saw”? Clearly, a writer who has forgotten these are two separate characters. Normal humans say “What did you see?” or “Something there?” And what’s this nonsense about listening harder as a conditional?
On the cooling sands of Tatooine, with his wife watching him at his side, Luke Skywalker was looking for something among the first stars of the dusk sky, something he knew was already gone.
“Did you see something?” Camie asked. Although her voice was affectionate, he also felt her weariness.
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest. I was sitting in my hideout watching cartoon when the news bulletin broken in on my video feed, announcing that James Halliday had died during the night.
That’s OKish. It does the job.
The Rising Sea: NUMA Files #15 (!!!) by Clive Cussler and (in a much smaller font) Graham Brown. The blistering Kurt Austin adventure in the NUMA files series from UK No.1 bestseller Clive Cussler! A global threat, a desperate mission, a devastating endgame!
The thunder of charging horses gave way to the clang of swords as two armies met on a field in the highlands of Japan.
Could be better, but ok…
From the saddle of his horse, Yoshiro Shimezu fought with a combination of power and grace. He whirled and slashed, maneuvering his steed with precision, all without hakusha, or spurs. The samurai did not use them.
He is… whirling… on the saddle of a horse… while he fights with a sword… So, he just suicidally charged against (as the next description shows) infantry, with a sword (!!) and now he is whirling on the horse. Of course, the author(s) believe this is the best time to introduce the mandatory clothing description (not as bad as most fantasy writers, though.)
Clad in brightly painted armor, Yoshiro sported wide shoulder boards, heavy gauntlets and a helmet adorned with stag horns. He wielded a gleaming katana that caught every bit of the light as it cut throught the air.
With a flick of the wrist, he disarmed his nearest adversary.
No, that’s not how it works.
A backhanded cut followed, snapping another opponent’s sword in two.
Superior katana, folded a thousand times, cutting through inferior steel!
There’s more, but I don’t care. Shamefur dispray! Next!
A Conjuring of Light (A Darker Shade of Magic) by V. E. Schwab, 290 reviews. It seems to be a popular fantasy saga.
Delilah Bard -always a thief, recently a magician, and one day, hopefully, a pirate- was running as fast as she could.
Hold on, Keel, she thought as she sprinted through the streets of Red London, still clutching the shard of stone that had once been part of Astrid Dane’s mouth. A token stolen in another life, when magic and the idea of multiple words were new to her. When she had only just discovered that people can be possessed, or bound like rope, or turned to stones.
It’s an example of the sort of beginning I dislike, but it’s fine I guess. The addition of that tacked-on expository explanation about magic and whatever is pretty bad, though. The curse of the fantasy writer, I guess; they have to cram explanations for their BS somewhere.
The Savior’s Champion (The Savior’s Series Book 1) by Jenna Moreci a, according to her biography, a Silicon Valley native and a Youtube sensation.
She hurried her pace, but only slightly. Running would be foolish; it would attract too much attention, would create a stir. She held her breath, trying to pacify her surging lungs, and focused on the stone path ahead.
It’s no coincidence that these two stories start the same, with either someone running or being told to run, and -now probably coincidentally- with the implication that there are two people here, the first one in a shard, the second in… her mind (I haven’t read more so I don’t know)? The rule of having to start with frenetic action means that every story has to start with someone running, swimming, falling, exploding, or emptying his bowels after ten days of constipation. Of course, then (usually in the middle of the same scene) the explanation of what is going on, where, when, how the magic system works, and why anything is happening at all has to appear nonetheless, but at that point, the reader has already been “grabbed” (or so the experts claim, I usually stop reading by then but I’m a weirdo.)
It’s not bad, though, aside from that.
Scourged: The Iron Druid Chronicles, by Kevin Hearne. Over a million copies of the Iron Druid Books Sold! The Grand Finale of the bestselling (New York Times, of course) Iron Druid Chronicles*!!!!!1
I had a cup of wine with Galileo once. He remains one of the greatest examples of human genius I’ve ever seen over my twenty-one centuries of life, and one of the bravest. Think of the giant, hairy stones he must have had to stand up to the Catholic Church back when they routinely toppled monarchs and killed people for the glory of their god (who let me buy him a shot of whiskey in Arizona once, by the way, and who did not feel particularly glorified by any murders, let alone the ones committed in his name). To look at the whole of Christendom and call bullshit on their geocentrism despite their threats took some iron guts. And he didn’t give a damn that nobody wanted to believe him at first. “I have math,” he told me over the rim of his cup. He gestured to it as he spoke. “And the numbers are like this fine vintage we are enjoying. Verifiable, observable, existing independent of us, and caring not one whit about human faith.”
This is wrong on almost all levels but it’s too long to explain why and there are still a few books more. Next!
*As a general rule, don’t trust anything with the word “Chronicles” in the title. Or Rising, Dark, or Fallen.
Silence Fallen: Mercy Thompson Book 10, by Patricia Briggs, author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Mercy Thompson fantasy series. 4,5 stars, 1475 reviews!!!
Coyote shapeshifter Mercy Thompson is attacked and abducted in her home territory! Fighting off a crazed werewolf, she manages to escape, only to find herself alone in the heart of Europe!
Well, if they sell so much, why do all their covers suck so much? Is crappy art a requisite for success? Is the average reader repulsed by anything that isn’t a model posing and either looking to one side or over the shoulder? This looks like a parody cover, to be honest:
“I love these books,” that’s an awesome and informative recommendation Charlaine Harris. Anyway, to the text!
This wasn’t the fist time chocolate got me in trouble
I died first, so I made cookies.
Agh, screw this.
True Fiction (Ian Ludlow Thrillers Book 1) by Lee Goldberg, #1 Amazon Best Seller in Women’s Adventure Fiction! 1638 reviews, more stars that you can count, and it has a guy running on the cover! It’s called True Fiction! He’s running! It’s action!!!
No, seriously, is this a parody*? It looks like one of those books designed by an algorithm.
Honolulu, July 17. Noon. Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time
The assassin wore only a Speedo and his lean body was slathered with sunscreen that made him smell like a baked coconut.
I have already used the Putin gif, so that should suffice.
Eh, the rest isn’t that bad, but come on… the assassin wore only a speedo and smelled like baked coconut…??
Oh, yeah, I forgot, this is a Women’s Adventure Fiction Bestseller. I’m sure there will a lot more speedo-wearing hunks in there.
*Actually, according to one of the reviewers, it may indeed be a parody or a joke.
Agent in Place (Gray Man Book 7) by Mark Greaney, #1 New York Times bestselling co-author of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels.
Court Gentry is back in action. This time he’s working on behalf of a well-connected group of Syrian expats to secure the Syrian president’s mistress so they can use her to bring down the president’s regime. But the expat’s plan goes awry when it’s discovered the mistress has a baby – the president’s only male heir- hidden away in a Damascus safe house.
The prisoners were slaughtered one by one, with efficiency as true as a ticking clock. Two dozen dead now, and the executioner was just hitting his stride.
The scene of the massacre was one of abject horror: the stench of fresh blood, the cloying smell of bodies floating in the brown lake, the viscous brain matter splattered and thickening on the sun-blanched pier.
That’s an Isis execution (with guns, not knives.) And I kinda yawned a bit.
This is actually one of those placed when I’d say Don’t tell me it’s an abject horror, but don’t show it either. And not because I’m squeamish but because blood and gore sometimes undermine the psychological effects these descriptions are trying to convey. It becomes a visual, not visceral and psychological, experience.
Still… the “stench of fresh blood”? I don’t think fresh blood “stenches.” Also, cloying means disgusting due to excess, usually excessive sweetness, like a perfume, so I’m not sure you’d describe bodies floating as cloying. Then again, I usually don’t go around smelling floating corpses so I really don’t know.
THE END, for now