Door stoppers, or how you can probably cut off half of any sff novel.

Despite this blog’s interest in fantasy, there’s actually a lot of “beginners” books in this genre that I never read when I was a kid. The kind you either read young or you never will because as an adult they seem… kinda bad. I ignored almost all the D&D novels aside from a few Drizzt books, and I never touched a single Dragonlance book (more than a hundred already written as of today.) That changed yesterday when, in a whim, I began reading the first Dragonlance book. And, well… it was somewhat better than I had expected. Better than a lot of the stuff being written today, anyway.

Still, I stopped reading around the 25% or so mark (a bit too silly for me,) yet I can see why younger readers might like it. As usual with fantasy books, I also saw great potential there, unfortunately, swamped by puzzling and bizarre writing, elements borrowed straight from game sessions, strange literary fads, and awkward pace. Just in the first few pages, I saw all the issues of contemporary writing I have repeatedly complained about in this blog. It also brought home something quite important: half of almost any sff book could be removed and the story wouldn’t suffer. Half of it, if not more, is fodder that a more professional or confident writer would excise.

To prove the point, I’m going to paste here the introduction to the first Dragonlance book. It’s 1400+ words, so it’s a bit long (although it shouldn’t be,) but I’m sure you weren’t going to read the preview on Amazon just so you can see my editing below anyway (and since this is a critical analysis, I’m sure this is included in one of those copyright exceptions or whatever.) I will strike out the bits I deem unnecessary (YMMV):

Tika Waylan straightened her back with a sigh, flexing her shoulders to ease her cramped muscles. She tossed the soapy bar rag into the water pail and glanced around the empty room.

It was getting harder to keep up the old inn. There was a lot of love rubbed into the warm finish of the wood, but even love and tallow couldn’t hide the cracks and splits in the well-used tables or prevent a customer from sitting on an occasional splinter. The Inn of the Last Home [it] was not fancy, not like some she’d heard about in Haven. It was comfortable. The living tree in which it was built wrapped its ancient arms around it lovingly, while the walls and fixtures were crafted around the boughs of the tree with such care as to make it impossible to tell where nature’s work left off and man’s began. The bar seemed to ebb and flow like a polished wave around the living wood that supported it. The stained glass in the window panes cast welcoming flashes of vibrant color across the room.

Shadows were dwindling as noon approached. The Inn of the Last Home would soon be open for business. Tika looked around and smiled in satisfaction. The tables were clean and polished. All she had left to do was sweep the floor. She began to shove aside the heavy wooden benches as Otik emerged from the kitchen, enveloped in fragrant steam.

“Should be another brisk day—for both the weather and business,” he said, squeezing his stout body behind the bar. He began to set out mugs, whistling cheerfully.

“I’d like the business cooler and the weather warmer,” said Tika, tugging at a bench. “I walked my feet off yesterday and got little thanks and less [fewer] tips! Such a gloomy crowd! Everybody nervous, jumping at every sound. I dropped a mug last night and—I swear—Retark drew his sword!”

“Pah!” Otik snorted. “Retark’s a Solace Seeker Guard. They’re always nervous. You would be too if you had to work for Hederick, that faint—”

“Watch it,” Tika warned.

Otik shrugged. “Unless the High Theocrat can fly now, he won’t be listening to us. I’d hear his boots on the stairs before he could hear me.” But Tika noticed he lowered his voice as he continued. “The residents of Solace won’t put up with much more, mark my words. People disappearing, being dragged off to who knows where. It’s a sad time.” He shook his head. Then he brightened. “But it’s good for business.” [what?]

“Until he closes us down,” Tika said gloomily. She grabbed the broom and began sweeping briskly.

“Even theocrats need to fill their bellies and wash the fire and brimstone from their throats.” Otik chuckled. “It must be thirsty work, haranguing people about the New Gods day in and day out—he’s in here every night.”

Tika stopped her sweeping and leaned against the bar.

“Otik,” she said seriously, her voice subdued. “There’s other talk, too—talk of war. Armies massing in the north. And there are these strange, hooded men in town, hanging around with the High Theocrat, asking questions.”

Otik looked at the nineteen-year-old girl fondly, reached out, and patted her cheek. He’d been [a] father to her, ever since her own had vanished so mysteriously. He tweaked her red curls. [creepy!]
“War. Pooh.” He sniffed. “There’s been talk of war ever since the Cataclysm. It’s just talk, girl. Maybe the Theocrat makes it up just to keep people in line.”

“I don’t know,” Tika frowned. “I—”

The door opened.
Both Tika and Otik started in alarm and turned to the door. They had not heard footsteps on the stairs, and that was uncanny! The Inn of the Last Home was built high in the branches of a mighty vallenwood tree, as was every other building in Solace, with the exception of the blacksmith shop. The townspeople had decided to take to the trees during the terror and chaos following the Cataclysm. And thus Solace became a tree town, one of the few truly beautiful wonders left on Krynn. Sturdy wooden bridge-walks connected the houses and businesses perched high above the ground where five hundred people went about their daily lives. The Inn of the Last Home was the largest building in Solace and stood forty feet off the ground. Stairs ran around the ancient vallenwood’s gnarled trunk. As Otik had said, any visitor to the Inn would be heard approaching long before he was seen.
But neither Tika nor Otik had heard the old man.
He stood in the doorway, leaning on a worn oak staff, and peered around the Inn. The tattered hood of his plain, gray robe was drawn over his head, its shadow obscuring the features of his face except for his hawkish, shining eyes.

“Can I help you, Old One?” Tika asked the stranger, exchanging worried glances with Otik. Was this old man a Seeker spy?

“Eh?” The old man blinked. “You open?”

“Well …” Tika hesitated.

“Certainly,” Otik said, smiling broadly. “Come in, Gray-beard. Tika, find our guest a chair. He must be tired after that long climb.”

“Climb?” Scratching his head, the old man glanced around the porch, then looked down to the ground below. “Oh, yes. Climb. A great many stairs …” He hobbled inside, then made a playful swipe at Tika with his staff. “Get along with your work, girl. I’m capable of finding my own chair.”

Tika shrugged, reached for her broom, and began sweeping, keeping her eyes on the old man.

He stood in the center of the Inn, peering around as though confirming the location and position of each table and chair in the room. The common room was large and bean-shaped, wrapping around the trunk of the vallenwood. The tree’s smaller limbs supported the floor and ceiling. He looked with particular interest at the fireplace, which stood about three-quarters of the way back into the room. The only stonework in the Inn, it was obviously crafted by dwarven hands to appear to be part of the tree, winding naturally through the branches above. A bin next to the side of the firepit was stacked high with cordwood and pine logs brought down from the high mountains. No resident of Solace would consider burning the wood of their own great trees. There was a back route out the kitchen; it was a forty-foot drop, but a few of Otik’s customers found this setup very convenient. So did the old man.

He muttered satisfied comments to himself as his eyes went from one area to another. Then, to Tika’s astonishment, he suddenly dropped his staff, hitched up the sleeves of his robes, and began rearranging the furniture!

Tika stopped sweeping and leaned on her broom. “What are you doing? That table’s always been there!”

A long, narrow table stood in the center of the common room. The old man dragged it across the floor and shoved it up against the trunk of the huge vallenwood, right across from the firepit, then stepped back to admire his work.

“There,” he grunted. “S’posed to be closer to the firepit. Now bring over two more chairs. Need six around here.”

Tika turned to Otik. He seemed about to protest, but, at that moment, there was a flaring light from the kitchen. A scream from the cook indicated that the grease had caught fire again. Otik hurried toward the swinging kitchen doors.

“He’s harmless,” he puffed as he passed Tika. “Let him do what he wants—within reason. Maybe he’s throwing a party.”

Tika sighed and took two chairs over to the old man as requested. She set them where he indicated.

“Now,” the old man said, glancing around sharply. “Bring two more chairs—comfortable ones, mind you—over here. Put them next to the firepit, in this shadowy corner.”

“ ’Tisn’t shadowy,” Tika protested. “It’s sitting in full sunlight!”

“Ah”—the old man’s eyes narrowed—“but it will be shadowy tonight, won’t it? When the fire’s lit …”

“I—I suppose so …” Tika faltered.

“Bring the chairs. That’s a good girl. And I want one, right here.” The old man gestured at a spot in front of the firepit. “For me.”

“Are you giving a party, Old One?” Tika asked as she carried over the most comfortable, well-worn chair in the Inn.

“A party?” The thought seemed to strike the old man as funny. He chuckled. “Yes, girl. It will be a party such as the world of Krynn has not seen since before the Cataclysm! Be ready, Tika Waylan. Be ready!”

He patted her shoulder, tousled her hair, [another creepy Joe Biden!] then turned and lowered himself, bones creaking, into the chair.

“A mug of ale,” he ordered.

Tika went to pour the ale. It wasn’t until she had brought the old man his drink and gone back to her sweeping that she stopped, wondering how he knew her name.

That’s a 1470 or so words text slimmed down to 1040. And that’s the conservative editing, by the way, which leads me to one of my favorite topics: the death of the narrator in contemporary genre fiction.

To me, a lot of this redundancy in words is a consequence of having killed the narrator as an independent observer, who is now forced to follow one or more characters’ POV like a camera. That’s why most books start now with someone doing irrelevant actions without context instead of the narrator doing the logical thing: explaining to the reader where you are and giving some basic context. If the narrator is not someone explaining a story to the reader anymore, then it can only be a translator of images, so you end up with texts where every single action is compulsively described: she leaned on the broom, he went to do this and that, he said this or that in that way, and so on, and where dialogue never seems to end although the narrator could sum up the entire conversation in a single sentence.

But is all of that text really necessary, especially for an introduction? What is the point of that text anyway? (1) To introduce the peculiar town of Solace and its Inn and (2) the old man and hint at its eery powers/qualities, (3) mention the rumors of war and religious persecution, (4) introduce the character of Tika (apparently she appears later too so we have to keep her.) That shouldn’t take 1400 words! So here’s my more strict, yet still meaningful, editing, cobbled together from the original text:

Built, like all the buildings of Solace, at the top of a massive tree, the Inn of the Last Home was not fancy like some in Haven, but it was comfortable, a warm shelter seemingly a world away from all the rumors of war coming from the north or the abuses of the theocrat’s men and his spies, the arrests and disappearances happening even here in Solace.

But Tika, the nineteen-year-old barmaid, wasn’t as flippant of these dark events as Otik, the owner of the place and also his foster father, and they were arguing about them, as they usually did, when the door to the inn opened, although at noon they weren’t open for business yet.

Startled, they turned around, for located forty feet off the ground and with only a wooden staircase around the trunk to get to the inn, they should have heard anyone approach. But they had not heard the old man nor his cane.

He stood in the doorway, leaning on a worn oak staff and appraising the main room. The tattered hood of his plain, gray robe obscured his face except for his hawkish, shining eyes.

“Come in, Gray-beard,” Otis said. “Tika, find our guest a chair. He must be tired after that long climb.”

“Climb?” The old man scratched his head and glanced down to the ground below. “Oh, yes. Climb. A great many stairs …” He hobbled inside, then made a playful swipe at Tika with his staff. “Get along with your work, girl. I can find my own chair.”

Tika shrugged and got back to work but kept an eye on the old man.

The old man didn’t sit down but looked at the fireplace with particular interest. The only stonework in the Inn, it had been crafted by dwarven hands to appear to be part of the tree. He muttered satisfied comments to himself as his eyes went from one place to another, and then, to their astonishment, he dropped his staff, hitched up the sleeves of his robes, and began to drag the main table!

“What are you doing? That table’s always been there!” Tika said.

The old man ignored her and shoved the table up against the huge central trunk right across the firepit, then stepped back to admire his work.

“There,” he grunted. “S’posed to be closer to the firepit. Now bring over two chairs. Need six around here.”

Tika turned to Otik.

“He’s harmless,” he puffed as he passed Tika. “Let him do what he wants—within reason. Maybe he’s throwing a party.”

Tika sighed and helped the old man move the chairs.

“Now,” the old man said. “Bring two more—comfortable ones, mind you—over here. Put them next to the firepit, in this shadowy corner.”

“ ’Tisn’t shadowy,” Tika protested. “It’s in full sunlight!”

“Ah, but it will be shadowy tonight, won’t it? When the fire’s lit …”

“I—I suppose so …”

“Bring the chairs. That’s a good girl. And I want one, right here.” The old man gestured at a spot in front of the firepit. “For me.”

“Are you giving a party, Old One?” Tika asked as she carried over the chair.

“A party?” The thought seemed to strike the old man as funny. He chuckled. “Yes, girl. It will be a party such as the world of Krynn has not seen since before the Cataclysm! Be ready, Tika Waylan. Be ready!”

He patted her shoulder, then turned and lowered himself, bones creaking, into the chair.

“A mug of ale,” he ordered.

It wasn’t until she had brought the old man the drink that she stopped to wonder how he knew her name.

607 words and all the basics have been established. Everything else, assuming it’s even important or necessary, can be introduced later.

6 thoughts on “Door stoppers, or how you can probably cut off half of any sff novel.

  1. Although your abridgement is far superior to the original, it still loses me in the first paragraph. The problem is the author of the original piece didn’t show me what was interesting about the town and the inn to the people who lived there.

    So the town is built in a tree–they grew up there, that’s not remarkable to them. From there we get to hear about events that we are told that the people of the town don’t care much about.

    There’s nothing to hold on to, nothing to make me care.

    I’d open it with what is important to Tika. Who disappeared? Why does her foster father think that’s no big deal? Was it a friend of Tika’s that her foster father thinks ran off to get married? Give me some specifics.

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    1. Yeah, but had to stick with the tree because Tika seems to disappear until many, many pages later (and I’m not even sure if she is an important character, probably not; haven’t read that far,) so nothing about her would be a good starting point I believe, except the disappearing people, perhaps.

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  2. Henry Gasko

    You are right to say a lot of those words are not necessary from a literary point of view. But if you edited the whole thing in a similar fashion, you would end up with a novella or maybe even a novellete which could not be sold at the price of a novel. And to make it up to the requisite word count for a full novel (even a YA) would require a lot more work on the part of the writer to come up with sufficient plot rather than padding. So from the author’s point of view (and the publisher’s) the extra words are very necessary. Wouldn’t happen if you were Raymond Carver or Hemingway, or even Ray Bradbury, but in this market it is simply a fact of the economics. Sad but true.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Probably, although I assume the process is more instinctual than driven (at least from the writer’s POV) by economics although the reason such books have become more common is probably economical—It’s just easier writing like this, I guess.

      There’s also something about how contemporary writers think that leads to such bloated texts, but I have not managed to give a coherent explanation. Probably the way we think about stories now (like translated movies?)

      Like

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