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The Classics be Damned : Conversation question • Writing Forum | WritersDigest.com

The Classics be Damned

Every month in Writer's Digest's InkWell section, we pose a question related to the writing life. Tell us your thoughts.
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Brien Sz
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The Classics be Damned

Postby Brien Sz » Wed Dec 11, 2013 1:09 pm

Many wannabe writers that I read on various sites where you can share and critique work often uses too much description. Of course, all these writer’s defend their style as needed to set up the story. However, from every lecture, podcast, or workshop I've ever attended, the exact opposite approach is the given advice. I have zero issue starting a story with action or a dilemma of some kind.

I wonder though - how would the classics fare in today's publishing environment? For example, let’s say an agent read a query for The Hobbit. The agent thinks, Ok, this sounds interesting, and then read the first five pages of the submission – would it go any farther than that? After all, it simply describes a home that is a hole in the ground and all the pantry's and closets and hooks needed for company and food. The story really goes nowhere in that time. Many classics start with today's no-no's of describing weather and landscape. For instance, Sense and Sensibility describes the landscape of the homes where the story is going to take place. Moby Dick describes the characters walk around and what he sees. Black Beauty opens describing the landscape. Red Badge of Courage, landscape and weather. To Kill a Mockingbird, a flashback and lots of description. Would these survive today's first five pages that agents say is so vitally important?

In addition, I wonder if many of today's wannabe writers have fallen victim to the classics they had to read growing up. I mean the mind stores that entire introduction to literature and then it’s reflected back subconsciously when someone writes. After all, years of having to read stories that open with descriptions of landscape, buildings, weather or written in flashback form and rarely in the middle of any kind of action, has to have an effect. Curious....

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mammamaia
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Re: The Classics be Damned

Postby mammamaia » Wed Dec 11, 2013 3:05 pm

that can certainly be a factor... i see it in some of my mentees and clients, whose reading habits need upgrading and updating, before they'll be ready to start writing for today's readers...
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James A. Ritchie
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Re: The Classics be Damned

Postby James A. Ritchie » Wed Dec 11, 2013 3:49 pm

I read a many novels that start the same way the classics started. And Moby Dick has the best first page ever written, then or now.

A writer who does not read a great many of the classics is working under a severe handicap.

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Re: The Classics be Damned

Postby TerryRodgers » Wed Dec 11, 2013 5:00 pm


AlishaH
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Re: The Classics be Damned

Postby AlishaH » Wed Dec 11, 2013 5:39 pm

I hate to say it but I might be that wanna be writer you talk about. I am really horrible about at writing, but I am not giving up. I have to get this story that's taken over my mind, and bring it to life. Actually when I first started writing my story, I tried to describe everything hoping that people would see what my minds see. I spend so much time on describing everything that my character is just plain, just words. As a reader I don't want to read 3 pages of non stop landscaping. I want to read what is happening/see what is happening. So I do believe that a book can easily be looked over because the publisher get bored with it, before really giving it a chance.

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Re: The Classics be Damned

Postby James A. Ritchie » Wed Dec 11, 2013 6:08 pm


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Brien Sz
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Re: The Classics be Damned

Postby Brien Sz » Thu Dec 12, 2013 9:14 am

Something in my DNA must be off... I have always had a hard time embracing the "Classics." Maybe it was my negative attitude or reticence to read them in school. I couldn't stand Catcher in the Rye, Sidhartha, The Great Gatsby, The Iliad. Authors like James Joyce and others from the 19th and early 20th century... their work just gagged me, ponderous and flat out dull (for me). But in late grammar school, high school and college, I was too busy either hanging out with friends, playing sports, trying to get girls, etc.., or in college, trying to get girls, and being the best damned TV writer/producer/Supervisor, than getting involved with the 'Classics.' This didn't mean I didn't read. In High School I fell in love with Tolkein's world of Middle Earth and certain works by Asimov and various other Fantasy/SciFi material. Loved that stuff.

The only school readings I remember enjoying and having any impact on me was in 8th grade - I enjoyed S.E. Hinton's The Outsides and That was Then, This is Now and the one that blew me away because I don't think any book ever made me cry so outwardly, Where the Red Fern Grows.

After college I revisited the classics and have attempted a few times over the years. Only two I have really liked that I didn't when I was younger - Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird. Aside from those two, many of the classics simply bore me. I don't know why but I have simply not been able to get into them. I tried Moby Dick and maybe because I couldn't get past the first 100 pages, that I tired of carrying around a giant paperweight that acted as nothing more than an antidote for insomnia. I've even tried reading Atlas Shrugged a couple times... it just feels like you're stuck in a mud pit and you can't get going.

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Re: The Classics be Damned

Postby James A. Ritchie » Thu Dec 12, 2013 11:14 am

Sounds like you're just reading the wrong classics. Read the ones I listed.

I read all the classic fairy tales before I even started school, and loved them, but it was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that made me realize how powerful novels can be. And it dared sure is a classic. I read it in, grade school, and I still remember a scene that had blood in it, and I smelled the blood. I actually raised my head and looked around the classroom to see if real blood had somehow been spilled.

There's no reason that you have to like any given classis, be in Moby Dick, Atlas Shrugged, or . I loved Catcher in the Rye, but I find James Joyce unreadable. I tend to gravitate to classic that would be published as genre novels today. I love James Fennimore Cooper, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Jack London, Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, the Bronte sisters (I've read Wuthering Heights at least five times), Nathanial Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and I could list Edgar Allan Poe about nine times. On and on. See the pattern? I do love several more contemporary classic writers such as Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, but by and large, the majority of classics I love most would be published as genre fiction today.

I've also come across a fair number of classic that bored me, or that I just didn't like. Have you ever read Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray? I can think of a dozen classics that I couldn't get through with a chainsaw, and at least a dozen others that I read only because I was forced to in college. Hated them all.

Can't claw your way through Atlas Shrugged? Try something by Jules Verne instead. Hate Moby Dick? Try Robert Louis Stevenson or Edgar Allan Poe. There's no more reason to love every classic than there is to love every bestseller today, but there should be some that you find to your taste.

Speaking of Moby Dick, those who have trouble getting through it might want to look at the Phoenix compact editions, are called Moby Dick in Half the Time, or Anna Karenina in Half the Time, etc. It's probably heresy, but whatever works. The Moby Dick edition is on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Moby-Dick-Half-Co ... B002U3CBF2

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Brien Sz
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Re: The Classics be Damned

Postby Brien Sz » Thu Dec 12, 2013 12:26 pm

I enjoy Hemingway and Edgar Allen Poe. I will have to seek out some of the others you've mentioned though Jane Austen is like needles in my eyes.

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Re: The Classics be Damned

Postby James A. Ritchie » Thu Dec 12, 2013 1:01 pm


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