As promised, I’m embarking on a project. I am demonstrating to anybody mad enough to read this blog that it is possible to learn valuable things about writing from some very popular works… just not the ones you might expect. No: I’m not waxing lyrical about Joyce or Dostoyevsky, or even Cordwainer Smith (whose books I love) or Ursula LeGuin (ditto.) Instead, I’m taking a careful look at the works of… other writers. Bear with me. It hurts, but it’s a good hurt.
The excerpt that follows is from L Ron Hubbard’s massive, brick-like tome Battlefield Earth, which came out either in the very late seventies or the early eighties. I really can’t remember which, and I don’t even care enough to look it up. My mother bought this book for me. At the time, she was of the opinion that I would read anything from SF or Fantasy. It took a brutally firm rejection of my 1984 Christmas present (a bunch of goddam ‘Dragonlance‘ books) to convince her that I needed something more than a book with either a dragon or a space-ship on the cover.
The excerpt is brief — just a page. I lifted it from Amazon, as I don’t have a copy of this book any more, and if I did I would only use it to discipline the cat when his house-training fails. Or possibly to threaten my children with reading it aloud. (At one time, discipline in my house was administered by sitting the offending child down and playing anywhere up to three songs from Mister Spock’s Outer Space Music at them. Thank you, Cat Sparks for the album!) It is reproduced here for purposes of study, learning, teaching, and review. Nobody’s making a profit on this blog, either, so you can forget the lawsuit, Mister Cruise.
(Page 16 Battlefield Earth – sample taken from Amazon.com.)
Chrissie felt her heart contract. She looked up at his determined profile. It was as if she was sinking down, down into the earth, as though she lay in today’s grave.
“No, I’m going.”
“Jonnie, I’ll go with you.”
“No, you stay here.” He thought fast, something to deter her. “I may be gone for a whole year.”
Water got into her sight. “What will I do if you don’t come back?”
“I’ll come back.”
“Jonnie, if you don’t come back in a year, I’ll come looking for you.” Jonnie frowned. He scented blackmail.
“Jonnie, if you’re leaving, you see those stars up there? When they come back to the same place next year, and you haven’t returned, I will come looking.”
“You’d be killed out on the plains. The pigs, the wild cattle…”
“Jonnie, that’s what I will do. I swear it, Jonnie.”
— 5 —
The first dawn light was painting Highpeak rose. It was going to be a beautiful day.
Jonnie Goodboy was completing the packing of a lead horse. Windsplitter was sidling about, biting at the grass but not really eating. He had his eye on Jonnie. They were obviously going somewhere, and Windsplitter was not going to be left out.
Some wisps of smoke were coming from the breakfast fire of the Jimson family nearby. They were roasting a dog. Yesterday at the funeral feast nearly a score of dogs had gotten into an idiot fight. There had been plenty of bones and meat as well. But the pack had gotten into a fight and a big brindle had been killed. Looked like the Jimson family would have meat all day.
There you have it.
Now, there’s a lot to consider in this chunk of text, but I have two major issues with it: sentence length, and piss-weak verbs. First, however, a smallish apologia. Hubbard’s book (if you aren’t aware… and believe me, you’re better off if that’s the case) is set in a time after the conquest of Earth by brutal, Capitalist aliens. Humanity has reverted to a tribal state all over the world, living in fear of the invaders.
This, I expect, is the reason for constructions like “Water got into her sight”. I think we’re supposed to take that for the primitive language of a tribal person, where a more sophisticated, civilised sort would say “Her vision blurred with tears” or something similar. Never mind that the POV is third-person omniscient, and Hubbard could use any damned descriptive language he likes as he shifts the narrative to follow the action. (Hell, at one point there he even gives us the thoughts of a horse. And the horse-POV seems slightly more naturalistic and articulate than that of the people, which is a bit on the worrying side.)
Anyway: about sentence length. Try reading that excerpt aloud. (Don’t do it where people can hear you. They’ll think you’re weird, and I don’t want you blaming me for people thinking you’re a closet L Ron Hubbard fan.) Do you notice the rhythm? Or rather, do you notice the lack.
There are a lot of short, declarative sentences in that page. Reading it through I get a feeling — a sort of psychic sensation of being gently bludgeoned with a velvet sock full of sand. Over and over and over.
This is just one page. Imagine many pages. Every page has many sentences. Many of the sentences are short. They just keep coming. First the sentences come. Then the pages follow. Then the chapters arrive. Then the headache comes.
I cannot recall exactly how long Battlefield Earth is, but I do remember dropping it on my foot once, and swearing quite a lot at the pain. The paperback edition my mother’s kind-hearted lunacy delivered unto me must have been nigh a thousand pages long. And every damned page was full of those short, thumpy, declarative sentences.
Short sentences are great. But if you insist on sticking to short, declarative sentences, please — for the love of Cthulhu, restrict yourself to writing books for very small children. There’s a real market for books in which each sentence contains only one verb and only one idea, but it’s not a particularly adult demographic. (And Dr Seuss had the sense to provide nifty illustrations. Also, his sentences rhyme.)
So, there’s your very first lesson courtesy of a best-selling novel: vary your sentence length. Short, punchy sentences are great for underscoring ideas, or for keeping the action crisp and quick and clear in a fight sequence, but if you try to construct an entire novel in that manner, someone will die. (Most likely your career.)
Moving right along: you’ll notice that as we enter Chapter Five, Hubbard waxes lyrical, bringing us a description of the setting. How nice! And yet… how very unsatisfying.
Look, this is basic writers-group-101 stuff, but it’s worth mentioning because here it is so very obvious, and so very painful. Look at the verbs Hubbard uses: was painting, was going to be, was completing, was sidling, were…going, was not going to be, were coming. Yeah, there are a few others in there, but in the space of a bit less than three short paragraphs, that’s an awful lot of piss-weak, passive crap.
Hey. If you’re going to offer descriptive prose, make it vivid. Give it some life. Weak, passive verbs make for shitty imagery. What pictures does ‘was completing’ create in your mind? How exciting is it to discover that ‘Some wisps of smoke were coming…‘?
Here’s one of the simplest and most effective tricks in the writer’s repertoire: strong, vivid verbs. Let’s re-imagine a few of Hubbard’s sentences. As far as possible, I’m going to avoid adding new adjectives or other colour. I’m just going to try to use tasty verbs to strengthen what’s already there .
Dawn’s first light painted Highpeak with rose, promising a beautiful day.
Jonnie Goodboy struggled with the pack on his lead horse, while Windsplitter sidled about, cropping fitfully at the grass and keeping a watchful eye on his master. Sensing a journey, the horse yearned to be away.
Wisps of smoke curled from the Jimson’s breakfast fire nearby, carrying the rich scent of roasting dog…
Okay, it’s still not a work of heartbreaking genius. But there’s some life to it now. That smoke has a visual quality, curling about the place instead of just ‘coming’ from the Jimson’s fire. Dawn is in there, happily splashing paint about, making promises to all and sundry. Jonnie isn’t just blandly ‘completing’ his packing any more, and Windsplitter the Wonder Horse now has a sensitive side. (Notice he’s now ‘cropping’, not ‘biting’ at the grass. This isn’t the place to talk about appropriate versus inappropriate verbs. I’m sure there’s another writer I can use for that. But still: horses bite when they’re cranky, not when they’re just nibbling away at the local herbage.)
Lesson Two: look for the crappy passive verbs in your work, and stomp the bastards out. Okay, yes, there are times when a passive verb is necessary. No question about it. But when you find words like “was” and “were” hunting in a pack like this, generally there’s trouble afoot. And if you catch a glimpse of ‘was going to’ and ‘had gotten’ in close proximity, particularly if ‘had gotten’ appears to be reproducing, it’s time to throw the book at the cat.
Here endeth the… hey, what’s the opposite of a masterclass? I’m no master, that’s a certainty, but the works I’m citing are so clunky that it doesn’t take any kind of a master to learn from them.
Never mind. You just learned to avoid two awful habits, Now, go and write something!