Monday, June 28, 2010

Time shifts, Genre Transcension and Author Betrayals

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne



So I just finished my first e-book - The Passage by Justin Cronin - and what an experience it was. God only knows how many pages (Amazon's kindle app fails to tell me) but I must have wracked up 780+pages in 48 hours. I literally couldn't put the book down - but now, a mere 5 hours or so after finishing it, I started reading some of the reviews and a couple of the more unfavorable ones started to tweak a nerve and that's when it hit me - this author did stuff that is usually totally taboo, stuff that usually sends a book down the big toilet - and yet it worked. The book still had me up all night turning the pages...This author broke the rules and managed to transcend the 'genre' by writing a literary thriller/horror/post-apocalyptic novel that did many of the things we tell young writers not to do - and he pulled it off! That alone (in my humble opinion) is worth blogging about. So what did he do?...Let's take a look at the short list...(NOTE: SEMI SPOILER ALERT - NO REAL PLOT DETAILS ARE DISCLOSED BUT STILL, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!)



  • He did an introduction that contained so much backstory that most of as TKZ would have nixed those first few pages. He then continued to meander and tell the tale with very little in the way of relevant action that even had me wondering - where the hell are we headed with this?

  • Then- after nearly 100 pages he promptly kills off almost all the characters and makes the reader time shift 100 years or so into the future. All the characters I felt really invested in promptly disappeared in an instant, only to be replaced by new characters whose backstory had yet to be explained.

  • He continued to 'tell' whole chunks of backstory for each of his characters - No doubt he has literary chops but still, there was a lot of the old 'telling' and not a lot of the old 'showing'.

  • He told much of the critical 'action' scenes as email/diary entries which diluted their immediacy. Hell, he even ended the story on one...speaking of which...

  • He ended the book on such an ambiguous note that even I was asking myself why I had just spent 48 hours reading the book -until I realized it was book 1 in a proposed trilogy and then it all (kinda) made sense. (But boy, what I rule breaker to leave a gripped reader confused like that!)

  • He had a critical character who pretty much did nothing proactive in the entire book except via telepathy and dream sequences.

  • Almost all the plot (and many specific scenes) were derivative of stories that had come before (The Stand, The Road, 28 Days)

Yet, despite all these 'broken rules' I was still totally gripped - for two days the book lingered in my mind and wouldn't let go. It had that undefinable something - an epic quality - that transcended all its faults.


So have you ever read a book that has done the same thing - which flies in the face of convention (and falls into many of its cliches) and yet still flares with its own ineffable brilliance? A book that transcends both genre and all the (so called) 'writing' rules?



For me, it may not be The Passage - there were many things about that frustrated the Hell out of me (including many of the 'broken rules' listed above) but I have to say, it's been a long time since I was so engrossed in a book that its 'inner world' seemed like a constant presence - one that I was both dying to get back to and yet whose story I was desperate to end. What book can you say last did that to you?

21 comments:

  1. Clare, thanks for sharing your experience with THE PASSAGE (#16 on Amazon right now). This just goes to prove what we’ve all said so many times at TKZ: it’s the story, stupid. The story always comes first. And a great storyteller will find a great way to tell the tale. It’s also confirmation that the only rule in writing fiction is that there are no rules. BUT, I would caution all new writers that THE PASSAGE sounds like the exception to the “rules”. The majority of new writers should not consider writing against the grain. That doesn’t mean you can’t take chances, be innovative, be original, be different. But make it easy on yourself. Remember that the final goal is to get published.

    Probably the one recent book that comes to mind falling into this break-the-rules category would be THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy. I quickly found that I could open the book to any page, read it, and close the book. Whenever I felt the urge, I could repeat this process with the same results.

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  2. Breaking the rules out of ignorance or laziness rarely works. If you know the rules, breaking them for a specific reason may indeed work to better tell a story or convey information. Telling and not showing is one that's tricky and best suited to literary fiction and non-fiction than thrillers. Just my opinion.

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  3. I do understand about knowing the rules, etc. But for my own survival I've had to back off and take all the heavy-handed "rule" gloom and doom pronouncements in the industry with a grain of salt. Writing is hard work, yes, but there's a line between listening to wisdom and being made to feel that writing is equivalent to scrubbing toilets 24 hours a day. 8-)

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  4. Writers, be especially wary of the ambiguous-ending-because-it's-a-trilogy move. Most readers absolutely hate that.

    It is true that sheer writing talent and passion for a story can sometimes overcome "the rules." Think about two 1957 novels that still sell multiple thousands of copies per year: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Both commit "sins" (in Rand's case, massively) that we would rail against today. So what gives? I think passion for their material bleeds through in the prose.

    Now, if you can do that and pour it through great craft, you're really cooking.

    Note to Ballantine's publicity department: This blog post makes me want to read the book. Thanks, Clare.

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  5. Your description makes me want to read the book, Clare! And I agree with Joe. As writers, we sometimes get caught up in the whole writing thing and forget the first rule: it's all about the story.

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  6. Sometimes I feel so fortunate that when I started writing, I was not aware of the "rules" for writing. I read voraciously, and I studied what worked and didn't work for me in books I loved and in books I didn't love so much. In fact, I think that some writing courses concentrate so hard on the rules that they stymie creativity.

    JSB brings up a good point about ATLAS SHRUGGED and ON THE ROAD, but as one who is not particularly fond of either book, I wonder how they would continue to perform if literature classes around the world stopped assigning them as required reading.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  7. John G. asks a valid question. I just checked amazon, and see that Atlas Shrugged is at #34, and On the Road at #2393.

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  8. BK
    If writing is like scrubbing toilets because you feel you have to write within proven bounds, then scrub toilets. The money is mostly better and there's more security in it.

    Every craft has formulas and traditions come from trying things that are proven to work time after time. If you want to be successful commercially, you should probably keep to the tried and true. If you have a massive reputation, you can probably interest a publisher in your work no matter what it is. This is about commercial fiction. If McDonalds decides one day, "To hell with burgers" let's sell yarn today...

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  9. Despite all the 'rule breaking' this story really did grip me in a way that I hadn't expected a 'vampire' book would. I have to say I loved The Road too - so perhaps my tastes veer to the slow moving, so called literary stuff:) The ending wasn't my favorite bit I have to confess but I'm willing to be suspended in mid air until the next installment. BTW Ballantine paid over 3 million for the trilogy so they must be hoping it does well!

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  10. James has mentioned two of my favorite novels (Atlas Shrugged and On the Road)in the same sentence before, and I have thanked him for it. I will so again. As far as Atlas Shrugged being assigned in literature classes, that may be the case now but it certainly wasn't when I was an English major in the 1970s, when Rand was selling by the millions (as she is today). Ayn Rand's popularity has never been due to support from academia. I did read Kerouac on assignment in those days, though I remember that it was The Dharma Bums. Thanks again, James.

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  11. I’ve often wondered: If Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings in our modern era would it be published in its current form? The story is very long, intentionally chopped by the original publisher into three modest length books that leave the reader hanging, and written in the drawn-out telling style so common in literary fiction. The book also has one of the most boring prefaces imaginable, but that doesn’t prevent me from immersing myself the rich back-story.

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  12. Richard- Mind you, LOTR is my all time favorite series. But the first book in particular probably wouldn't be published in anywhere near the same format. Remember the songs? I can't see a modern editor keeping those in, at least not as part of the main text.
    Clare, I'm curious- what prompted you to buy The Passage? I'm always curious to hear how people stumbled across ebooks by new authors...

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  13. So I wonder, if this book had NOT broken those conventions, but still kept to the story and the writing, would it have been EVEN BETTER? Or could it only work as is? Did those broken convention kick you out of the story as you read, but you didn't care cause it was so good? If it hadn't done that, would it have changed the book? Just curious for the sake of discussion. I haven't read this book.

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  14. Sierra, I honestly don't know if it would have been better.I do think it is a dense book that is heavy going at times so it will be interesting to see if it becomes a huge bestseller or not. In some ways following the rules may have made it an easier read but may have sucked the soul from it (pardon the pun). Michelle, I had read a lot of the hype and was intrigued by the literary /apocalyptic/ vampire crossover so I searched on kindle and thought for ten bucks why not take a look!

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  15. THE PASSAGE is #4 on the NY Times hardcover fiction bestseller list.

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  16. Clare, this book is bugging the hell out of me....to the point that even before reading your blog I had decided to buy it tomorrow. And here's why....

    On Sunday I took my youngest (6ft and 17, so I can't say littlest anymore)to buy shoes. The store wasn't open so we went to our local Borders, the home store here in Ann Arbor, to get coffee and browse. I had read an interview with the author on Saturday and seen a YouTube video interview of him on Good Morning America where Stephen King called in to surprise him, so I sought out a copy. I read the intro and about 20 pages after that there in the store, and since then I have not been able to get this story out of my mind.

    Yes he breaks a lot of rules. The biggest one being "telling" the story rather then showing. But I found that while reading, I felt the same feeling I had felt while reading The Historian, The Wind and The Shadow and The Angel's Game....all stories that were "told". They all left me with that feeling of having been told a story by "someone"....
    trancending the reading experience....the same feeling I'd had as a child being read to by my grandmother. What more can any reader or author ask for.

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  17. Doug - you just named some of my all time favorite books! Shadow o the Wind is top of my list and yes, I guess the 'telling' bit is true too. If the voice is good enough I think an author can carry it off - which is why The passage works so well in my opinion.

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  18. Clare, your experience with THE PASSAGE reminds me of Somerset Maugham's quote: There are only three rules of writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

    To which I would add, and "no one" includes all the people who say "Never do this" and "Always do that".

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  19. This type of post always raises certain questions for me. Are the rules there for those of us who haven't published yet? Do you need to be established before you can start playing with them? And do the rules cut us all down until we're writing in a homogenous style?

    This came up recently on another blog I follow closely, the Literary Lab:

    http://literarylab.blogspot.com/2010/05/things-i-no-longer-believe.html

    I can let the idea of how it would influence LOTR go because modern publishing is a completely different beast, especially in the fantasy genre, but I keep returning to the idea that maybe the rules are a gate-keeping device. Perhaps the rules came about because novice writers were droning on without tension in their scenes and inserting prologues that introduced and possibly killed off characters who aren't seen again. George R.R. Martin's wildly successful Game of Thrones series starts this way. Maybe agents and publishing were reading drab slush with the same slow start that a blanket condition of in media res came about. I'm not advocating that the rules be thrown out or broken. I tend to find that my work improves massively by following them (thank you James, for your proofreading and editing book); but I do think we might need to consider how strictly the rules apply, book by book. There are cases when a good prologue just might set up a mystery intriguing enough to keep us reading, and in some cases, backstory serves an important function. As an unpublished author trying to break in, I’m going to stick to the rules, but I can see a day, especially in my current WIP when I might need to bend one or two to get the plot moving in the right direction.

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  20. What book did that to me? Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, that's what book. (Short answer, strong recommendation.)

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  21. I have The Passage on my TBR pile, but a book I did read recently that gripped me until I finished it was EVERY LOST COUNTRY by Steven Heighton. Mr. Heighton didn't break any writing rules that I saw. The book was basically perfect.

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