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Monday, January 25, 2010

That was then, this is now...

A couple weeks ago, my husband and I took a much-needed break from our newborn and went to see Sherlock Holmes at the movie theater. We both loved the movie and can't wait to see it again! As a result of loving the movie, we decided that perhaps we would enjoy reading Sherlock Holmes and therefore placed our order for Volume 1 of the complete collection on Amazon.

As soon as it arrived, we cracked it open and Eric began reading aloud from the beginning of the first book. Wow! How very interesting to read what is considered a masterpiece, a piece of important literature, with the eyes of a modern-day author. I can pretty much guarantee that if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were trying to get published today, it would be an uphill battle. And I'm pretty sure that if he joined a critique group, he'd be ripped to shreds. Why?

Well, the first several pages of the book are entirely backstory. Just a long, drawn out, droning detail of Watson's background: his years in the military, how he became a doctor, etc... I could just hear comments from the critique group, myself included, saying, "Great start, however, you might want to consider revising. This is all backstory, and I fear you're going to lose your audience and probably have trouble getting it past the slush pile with an agent/editor. Maybe you could open with an action scene - perhaps show us, rather than tell us, the scene where the orderly rescues him after he's been hit by the Jezail bullet. You might really benefit from xyz class about Show vs Tell." Sound familiar???

However, here's the thing . . . I actually liked the opening of Sherlock Holmes. Despite the fact that we were aware of all his "mistakes" (Hah!), we didn't stop reading. We got quite a bit further into the book before our daughter woke us for her next meal time.

So what's my point, you may ask? I'm not sure that I have one, actually. I just find it fascinating that what was once considered a masterpiece (and still is, actually) would most certainly be rejected by a modern-day publisher. It also makes me wonder what people a hundred+ years ago would have thought of what we write today. If Doyle had opened with an action scene, would a Victorian reader have asked, "But who is this man? What are his credentials? Why would I want to read about someone whose background is but a mystery to me?" Hmmm . . .

Now it's your turn. Are there books/authors you love that you know for sure would never be published today? And would the absence of said books be a tragedy? I certainly think it would have been a tragedy if Sherlock Holmes had never been published . . . how could Hollywood have made such a great film without it?? (Just kidding about that last part, of course ;))


  1. Well...a few weeks ago I started reading a romance. The author was new to me. I had bought two of her books because I was told they were very good. Opened the first book...and OMG! She was telling instead of showing - there was tons of backstory - the writing was awful... but more than that, the book was BORING!!!!!!!!! I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry because the author was published with my target publisher who had rejected a story I had sent them which was in the same era. It took a week, but I decided to try her next book. There was a little backstory in this one, but at least it was more interesting. Interesting enough for me to keep reading. That's good.

    But yeah, my question is this -- who came up with the rules authors are being taught, and whoever came up with these rules for sure haven't told the bigger authors! lol


  2. I've totally been there, Phyllis! With everyone spouting rules at me left and right, I'm baffled when I open the book of a debut author only to find she's followed NONE of the rules.

    But I think we often forget that so much more goes into being published than simply good writing: timing, a little bit of luck, connections, nepotism, etc...

    I've stopped trying to figure it out! LOL! But clearly, I do like to muse on the topic :) Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I've recently started reading Mrs. Anne Radcliffe. She wrote those "horrid" novels in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The books my characters would be reading. It is the same as with Sherlock Holmes and it was really hard to stay with the first book I picked up. I keep thinking, come on, let's get going with the story. Is all this background even necessary? And, I did tell the lady I work with, who gave me the books, that I can't imagine this author would ever be published today. Oh, and don't forget the opening to Gone with the Wind. Isn't it all description? I can't remember.

  4. Although GWTW is one of my all-time favorite films, I have never read the book! I know, shame on me! So, I can't answer that question. LOL! However, I would love to read some Radcliffe. I know I won't get through it, but just for a taste to see what my heroines would have been reading - other than Jane Austen and Shakespeare...I really should let them branch out. LOL!

    Thanks for your comment, Amy!

  5. I say this as a huge fan of JRR Tolkien. I don't think the Lord of the Rings would make it out of the slushpile nowadays. It takes too long for the action to start, the second chapter is almost entirely backstory. He gets really long-winded on descriptions. His word count is enormous. I can see a critique group telling him he'd have to cut down on some of the characters, such as Tom Bombadil.

    And yet, he built this amazing in-depth world for all of that.

    I think some of what is at issue here are trends in writing. If you look back at the old school romances, you see them break all sorts of rules that we hold ourselves too today. Purple prose, head hopping, overly long description, you name it.

    I also think some of the differences with modern fiction vs. fiction that was written a century and more ago is societal changes. We have so many options for entertainment these days, and IMO our attention spans are shorter than our forebears'. People were used to general, everyday things taking a longer time -- the time it took to travel from point A to point B, for example. I think people back in the day were more tolerant of the story being plodding or meandering, because they just didn't have the entertainment options that we do these days. And they were more patient.

  6. Fantastic points, Aislinn! I know my attention span is pretty short. A book has to be really engaging for me to tear myself away from the TBS line up of sitcoms I've seen a hundred times. LOL! (I know, it's a terrible thing for an author to say!)

    And great point about Tolkien...another one whose work I've not been able to read past the first few pages. Love the movies, though :)

    Thanks for stopping by!

  7. I thought of another point just now. While researching my story, I downloaded a collection of period letters from Project Guttenburg. They were purportedly written by Thomas Anbury (I say purportedly, because there's a question of whether he's the actual author or if he plagiaraized them), who was an officer with Burgoyne's invading force in 1777. One thing I noticed in reading these letters was that he stopped and described everything he saw in minute detail.

    I recalled these letters in conjunction with this post and something struck me. They were written in a time where his audience would probably not have the chance to see any of these things for themselves. They couldn't hop in a plane and travel to North America. They couldn't even use Google and look up images of North America. They were completely reliant on their corrspondent to use words to paint mental pictures for them.

    Today we've all seen pictures of a great many places in the world. Back when photography was still in its infancy, such things were a rarety. So I think the overabundance of description in older books stems from this time period.

  8. Another great point, Aislinn! Thanks for coming back and sharing that!

  9. I have to agree about Aislinn making great points, wouldn't have thought of it from that perspective. As far as GWTW goes, I'd have to say that while Margaret Mitchell broke alot of the rules, she was very much ahead of her time. The story starts off exactly the same as the movie does, with Scarlette discussing war events with the two twin boys. She does dribble quite a bit of back story into the chapters but she did at least drop us right into some action. And I think that's what sold GWTW so well. She was fresh and new. Great blog post and alot to think about.

  10. Great post. I have often wondered if some of the great writer would make it in todays market. I love In the Name of the Rose, but I just don't think any agent would accept it today. I actually read a book by several famous editors who tore apart some masterpiece books and showed how they could be re-written today to really engage the reader. I've never forgotten that book or what they said.

  11. Great post, Jerrica! I have to agree on GWTW. I tried to read it recently and couldn't get past all the pages of dialect, written exactly as spoken . Nowadays, I think we're more likely to sprinkle in just a few words for effect.

  12. My son is reading "Where the Red Fern Grows" and he loves it. It is also one of my favorite books. It starts with the protagonist as a grown man and the whole story is a flashback. I happen to love flashback stories, but seems like a no-no these days. What I like about a flashback story is you know nothing about the protagonist when you first meet him. I'd say most of the time I feel neutral towards him. Yet, after going through the backstory, I develop this new way of looking at that protagonist and often care deeply about him. I don't know what it is. I guess I just like those aha moments where things come together and you gain a deeper understanding of another person. I think I'm rambling. Sorry. It was a long work day. :)

  13. Thanks, everybody, for your great comments! I'm thinking I should at least *start* GWTW at some point. And Michelle, I loved Where the Red Fern Grows, the movie, when I was a kid. I wonder if I would enjoy the book. Yet another one to add to the TBR :)