November 11 post: the writing of old bestsellers vs. contemporary writers, a comparison.

If you have read some of my posts, it’s no secret that I can’t stand most contemporary fiction. The last few posts have been an attempt to explain, mostly to myself, why I rarely can’t get past the first paragraphs of most books I open. Some of those posts have been quite successful and a few people have told me they have had similar experiences, so I guess I’m not the only one.

One fellow blogger has told me the last posts made him understand why he has had difficulties writing stories following the style of one of his favorite writers, the prolific Louis L’Amour (1908-1988). I knew of L’Amour, but I had never read anything by him. Westerns are not my genre. I have watched a few movies, of course, but I have never read a Western book. And I’m not American so the genre doesn’t have that mythological ring to me.

But intrigued, I went to Amazon and clicked on his books using the Look Inside! function, which seems to be all the reading I’m doing lately. And unlike modern authors, I didn’t close it immediately afterward. The books were readable, nothing made me cringe, and they were straightforward. And most importantly, I noticed immediately that this could not have been written in the last 20 or so years.

Pick one of his books at random, like Ride the Dark Trail, book 15 of the Sacketts saga. It starts like this (after a generic introduction explaining what the saga is about and some nice maps.)

The old house stood on the crest of a knoll and it was three hundred yards to the main gate. No shrubbery or trees obscured the view, nor was there any cover for a half mile beyond.

The house was old, weather-beaten, wind-harried, and long unpainted. By night no light shone from any window, and by day no movement could be seen,  but the watchers from the hill a half mile away were not fooled

Then a dialogue by those watchers occurs. I’m sure I could nitpick, but this a good beginning. It explains where the action is happening, sets a bit of the mood, doesn’t dwell on unnecessary descriptions like how the sun shone or if the leaves around were rustled by the dusk wind, and most importantly, it elegantly introduces the shifty “watchers,” while pointing out two important things: they have been watching their target for a long time, and there’s no cover for half a mile between them and their goal. And this is a Western so you know guns are involved.

If you have read my November 9 post about Deep POV, you already know that if this were a recent book, it probably would have started straight with the dialogue or some other cumbersome description.

Another example,  Galloway, book 12 of the same saga:

“The old elk walked up the knoll where the long wind blew. The wolves followed.

The elk realized what was happening, but he didn’t know it was only a part of something that had been going on since life began.

He didn’t know that it was because of these wolves or their kindred that the had been strong, brave, and free-running all his past years. For it was the wolves who kept the elk herds in shape by weeding out the weak, the old, and the inept.”

That’s honestly a pretty awesome, even if simple, beginning. Of course, I could nitpick but who cares, it’s good. And by the way, that’s a first-person narration; that’s something someone is seeing (and philosophizing about.)

I was quite impressed at this point, when I picked a third book, Lonely on the Mountain, and I noticed that something was really off. Now, I have only known this l’Amour fellow for five minutes, but I noticed that the text didn’t feel like something he would have written. It felt… modern. This is what I read:

“As the man worked around the camp fire in preparation of his evening meal, a casual observer would see a big man, standing two inches over six feet, two hundred plus pounds and no fat. A trained observer would further notice the deep, broad chest and the rippling muscles of the forearms; the muscles that come from years of work with axe, post-hole digger and single jack. He narrowed at the waist as a man will who is born to the saddle, and he moved about the camp with the grace of a large cat. Because of the woodsman he was he unconsciously made no sound.”

That felt off. I’m not saying it’s abysmal, although it looks like a description of Conan the Woodsman, but it felt weird. Then I noticed that Amazon had mixed it up. There are two books with the same title, and for some reason, the preview opens the other book, Lonely on the Mountain, by Barry Ray, not Lonely on the Mountain, by Louis L’Amour. Ray’s book is from 2016. Apparently, other people were confused too because they are reviewing it as a Louis L’Amour and many are saying “WTF is this? This is the worst of the Sacketts!!!111”

Can you notice what is off about that paragraph? Look at the initial, kilometer-long adverbial phrase “As the man worked around the camp in preparation of his evening meal….” that pretty much marks you off as a contemporary writer, like the abuse of participial phrases (the -ing verbs, something that deserves its own post.) Then the need to reference an observer “a casual observer would see” instead of just state that the guy is big. Then there’s the very detailed descriptions and how hard it is to flat out state things, but there’s a more telling trait, because the writer has to start the plot, and since modern books are terrified of using a narrator to explain things, it’s the woodsman who explains it through dialogue, but he is alone… so he talks to his dog.

“Damn, Dog!” He said to his companion, which was not a dog at all, but a one hundred twenty pound timber wolf he’d rescue from a trap when just a pup. [and then he tells him what he is seeing]

Do you remember how I said the habits of contemporary Deep POV writing force writers to use outrageously long dialogue tags? Well, there you have one of those.

Let’s look at another old-timer, Jack Vance. He wrote mostly “genre literature,” fantasy and science fiction, in a popular but very idiosyncratic style. This is how his novella The Dragon Masters begins:

“The apartments of Joaz Banbeck, carved deep from the heart of a limestone crag, consisted of five principal chambers, on five different levels. [another paragraph and a half explaining where we are, then…]

In the middle of the study stood a naked man, his only covering the long fine brown hair which flowed down his back […]”

Again, the author establishes the location, then starts with characters. Not Joaz Banbeck, by the way, but some naked dude who shouldn’t be there. Here’s another Vance, Suldrun’s Garden:

“On a dreary winter’s day, with rain sweeping across Lyonesse Town, Queen Sollace went into labour. She was taken to the lying-in room and attended by two midwives, four maids, Balhamel the physician and the crone named Dyldra, who was profound in the lore of herbs, and by some considered a witch. Dyldra was present by the wish of Queen Sollace, who found more comfort in faith than logic.”

That’s dense writing. The setting is established, the mood hinted, the plot starts, even some characters are developed a bit. People only start talking a paragraph later, and not before they have been presented, and the narrator is not afraid of not following a single, present-bound POV.

And now I will post some examples of writing by contemporary authors so you can feel the difference.

The Kindle bestseller list for fantasy looks pretty bad, half of it seems to be erotic novels, so I picked one that was not very famous (e.g. Harry Potter) but the cover looked OKish enough: Super Sales on Super Heroes: book 3

Felix smiled and leaned to one side in his chair. He looked from the microphone, which hung between himself and the rabbit-eared Beastkin, to the camera behind her.

He waited for the next question. This in-between time from question to question often got cut.

Now, I’m not saying this will make me throw out the book, but you notice the difference, right? All the older books start by setting the scene, the setting, even the plot… contemporary fiction starts by telling you someone you know nothing about leans to one side of his chair. And that there’s a thing called “Beastkin” but it’s told in such a passing, matter-of-fact way that is a bit underwhelming (that’s an issue for another post, how monsters and fantastic creatures in modern fiction are… boring.)

Notice also the fixation with following the characters’ most minute behaviors, to overexplain everything, something I have mentioned in other posts. An old-timer simply would have written: “The interview was not live, so Felix relaxed on his chair and waited for the Beastkin to ask him the next question.”

Although modern fiction tries to imitate movies, if this were a movie, this is not how the movie would start. A movie doesn’t start with a close, very close shot of someone smiling and leaning on his/her chair. It starts with a wider shot of the television set, establishing the scene, telling you it’s not a live interview, THEN you focus on the characters.

This is from the prelude/prologue of The Way of Kings, the fantasy bestseller by Brandon Sanderson:

Kalak rounded a rocky stone ridge and stumbled to a stop before the body of a dying thunderclast. The enormous stone beast lay on its side, riblike protusions from its chest broken and cracked. The monstrosity was vaguely skeletal in shape, with unnaturally long limbs that sprouted from granite shoulders. The eyes were deep red spots on the arrowhead hace as if created by a fire burning deep with the stone. They faded.”

It takes Sanderson a bit to tell the reader that this Kalak is “picking his way […] carefully across the battlefield,” and an entire page to say that he is there to meet someone (that initial description of the “thunderclast” apparently serves no purpose.) Now that would have been a good thing to say from the start, where this Kalak is, and what he is doing there. And, again, a movie wouldn’t start with Kalak “rounding a rocky stone ridge” but by showing the battlefield first.

A random Forgotten Realms novel, Neverfalls (2012)

“They approach, sir,” the dwarf said, handing the spyglass to Adeenya,

She took no notice of Marlke’s calloused hands as they brushed against hers, her own skin toughened from years of swordplay and training. She brought the glass to her eye to see the bright colors of the Maquar silks waving in the wind as the troops approached.

The rest of the novel may be great, but this is a standard beginning for a contemporary fantasy novel: contorted phrasing (“she brought the glass to her eye to see….”) stretched out sentences where the writer tries to cram as much information as possible, and an out-of-the-blue action or dialogue scene followed by an awkward explanation, in this case, that she is a warrior so that’s why she doesn’t feel the hands of the dwarf. It takes quite a while for the text to start explaining where and why they are there. Again, no movie would start with “They approach, sir,” anyway.

Another Forgotten Reams novel, Blackstaff (2012)

“Get back here, you malevolent windbag!”

The wizard was dark in demeanor, garb, and action. He snarled out an incantation, and his arms erupted with orange energy.

His colossal spell-arms seized the creature by its tail and yanked it hard away from its prey—a wide-eyed elf child.”

Same here. Someone says something, followed by an out-of-place description of the one who speaks, then an action scene that is underwhelming despite involving mighty magic Nothing is explained, or it’s explained after the fact. I don’t really blame the authors though, I’m sure they write these beginnings because they feel they have to. They are all so alike that this is something that must be taught somewhere.

I was curious and googled up “start a story with…” and the autocomplete threw up “with dialogue”. Freelancewriting.com says “The first function of opening a story is to excite interest, so that you can intrigue the reader into reading your entire story. Immediately following the opening, you should introduce the characters, reveal tone, setting, and the plot.” It recommends starting with dialogue.

There are also many websites recommending starting a story with a “hook” or with “action.” That is how pretty much all fantastic contemporary fiction is written, so I guess these sites, or perhaps one of those creative writing classes I would never attend, must be teaching it to everybody: bait & switch beginnings (i.e. “hooks”) and “deep” POV. Both are, at best, tolerable and can be ignored, at worst, bad. And there are usually better alternatives.

Anyway, notice that introducing the characters, the setting, and the plot is supposed to go after this alleged piece of dialogue that will intrigue readers into reading your book. But the first function of opening a story is rarely to excite interest, it’s (usually) to introduce the story, which, if it’s interesting enough, will already intrigue the reader. How does the Iliad begin? Not by Aquiles doing push-ups, waking up, leaning against an amphora, or fighting anybody, but by stating that this is going to be a story about the “wrath of Aquiles” (which sounds quite awesome and intriguing):

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs.

There are many other websites that peddle “writing advice” dishing out equally awful recommendations. Ignore them and copy the old masters.

Note: In case you are wondering, in all these posts I have not been ranting against starting “in the middle of things” (in media res) but against a very specific type of writing that has become mainstream during the last 30 or so years. And the blame cannot be placed on a single thing, it’s a myriad of them: weird syntax, contorted language, too-deep POV, death of the narrator, “cinematic” obsession, etc.

3 thoughts on “November 11 post: the writing of old bestsellers vs. contemporary writers, a comparison.

  1. Pingback: On classic vs modern writing. – BARBARIAN BOOK CLUB

  2. Pingback: November 12 post: the participial phrase (-ing verbs) pandemic. – Emperor's Notepad

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