Classic and Contemporary Novels: How Both Can Improve Your Writing

A while ago, I wrote what I now consider to be a very naive post about how I am at a disadvantage in the literary industry because I love to read classics, and my novels are consequently influenced by them. I couldn’t understand what the literary world had against archaic language, flowery descriptions, and novels that went on forever when I went wild over them. Why must I conform? I cried to the skies. Why must I cooperate with the rules The Man set down?!


Well, I was right about one thing: limiting myself to classics did put me at a disadvantage. But I acted like this was outside my control. I acted as if enjoying classics meant I couldn’t enjoy anything else.

Before I get to the point of this post, let me ask you something. Have you, as a writer (or as some other kind of artist, or even just as a human being going through the world), ever heard the same rule beaten into your head over and over, and you understood it was a rule, but you never really understood why? For instance, as a kid, you probably knew your parents wanted you to eat your vegetables and cut down on the candy. This was an accepted fact because your parents said it, yet some tiny voice in your head went, but, why? You couldn’t fathom why someone would make such a rule. Candy is awesome. Vegetables aren’t awesome (or maybe you were like me and you thought vegetables were awesome, but not quite as awesome as candy).


For me, there was a rule like that in the writing world: use simple language. I saw this and thought, but…I like my pretty, adjective-filled descriptions of bathroom tiles. I like sophisticated vocabulary you don’t often see in the twenty-first century. You…you want me to be a minimalist, like Hemingway? But I’m not him! You people are all against me! I literally scratched my head over this rule for six freaking years.


Then, while studying abroad in Ireland last semester, I had the wonderful opportunity to read contemporary and classic novels side by side. I took a class called Contemporary Irish Fiction as well as 19th Century Irish Writing. Now, keep in mind, I’d started picking up contemporary novels again recently, so I was already starting to learn my lesson. I read a slew of YA novels over the summer, The Hunger Games series the winter break before that, etc. But this gave me the opportunity to read them at the same time. To compare. To see that–


Oh.


Oh.


There are reasons many of the qualities often found in classics are now extinct in contemporary literature. Good reasons. Suddenly, I’d lost my patience with seven-page-long monologues about the same thing, because I’d re-entered the world of contemporary works, and those authors, uh, cut those parts out. Because they didn’t want their readers begging for mercy.


However. You may have noticed the title of this post. I am not here to bash classic novels. Now that I’ve been enlightened and have familiarized myself fairly well with both “genres,” I feel like I better understand what writing lessons can be gleaned from each. Let me tell you, my prose has improved immensely ever since this epiphany. I am simplifying the hell out of my latest draft, and I am reevaluating those anachronistic words, but I’m also remembering what classics taught me.


Here’s a list of why you, writer, should read a healthy balance of both classic and contemporary novels and, more importantly, why.


CONTEMPORARY NOVELS


1) Simplify your language. I’m starting with this one for obvious reasons. I was editing one night, reading over one of my overwrought sentences, and then I thought to myself, “Morgan–you’re trying to get a complicated concept across to your reader. So why the hell would you use complicated language to confuse them even further?” Even worse is when your characters are performing a simple task and you write it out in the most convoluted way possible. I’ll provide a sample of my own writing so you see what I mean. Here’s the sentence from the unedited first draft, about a teacher’s reaction to my main character asking to go to the bathroom because she’s upset: “At first, [the teacher’s] wrinkled lips thinned, accentuating the pinkness of her lipstick, but her features softened as she scrutinized Ama’s face, which Ama had been forced to scrunch in order to tether it to what was socially acceptable, and to prevent it from bursting like a pressured dam.” Whoa whoa whoa, hold the phone, what the hell? Slow down. That is way too many words for such a simple thing. Here it is after I simplified it: “At first, the teacher’s wrinkled lips thinned. But her features softened when she studied Ama’s face, which Ama forced herself to scrunch so it wouldn’t burst like a pressured dam.” There, that’s better. The action remains and we still understand Ama’s emotional struggle without getting beaten over the head by it. We lost the bit about the lipstick, but who cares? No one will miss a useless detail like that.


 2) Concision. Yeah, I’m still struggling with this one, but I’m getting better. Ever notice how contemporary novels tend to be slimmer, while older novels could be doorstops? There are exceptions, of course–1984 is tiny, while the Harry Potter books are famously huge. Contemporary novelists have realized that the more quickly you get your point across, the less likely you are to lose your reader’s attention. The Perks of Being a Wallflower wasn’t 500 pages long because it didn’t need to be. It said everything it needed to say in about 200 pages and said it beautifully. Conversely, I love Dracula, but it definitely didn’t need to be that long. In fact, I started to get really sick of how long it took to reach the climax. Older novels were sometimes longer because authors got paid by the word, or because the novel was serialized–the books would be released a few chapters at a time in magazines and readers would beg for more. Those days are behind us, so try not to write a doorstopper, unless it really works for your story (and, again, this is advice from someone who…writes doorstoppers).


3) Pacing. This kind of ties into concision, but it gets its own category because it’s the most stark difference I’ve noticed between classics and contemporary novels. The first contemporary novel I picked up in a long time since my classics phase was The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (I read The Golden Compass in ninth grade but didn’t finish the series until I was nineteen). For the first time in years, I found it extremely difficult to put the book down. I’m crazy about War and Peace and will recommend it to anyone who breathes, but it also drains your mental energy, so putting it away for a while takes less willpower. With Subtle Knife, I could keep turning pages and not even notice how quickly I was moving. The story drew me in, and I felt a desperate need to know what happened next. Sure, parts of classic novels can create this effect, but they’re more likely to drag. Contemporary novelists know to eliminate the parts that drag, or at least minimize them as much as possible. For a slow reader like me, this is helpful.


 4) Understanding the market. This is more for writers who are looking to get published than anyone else, and part of what made me complain about my “disadvantages” in that post from 2012, because I was a snot-nosed brat. If you read nothing but classics all the time, how the hell do you expect to get published? You’re not competing with Austen and Dostoevsky and Joyce. I mean, you are to some degree, since your books would hopefully be sold in the same stores as theirs are (eep!). But it’s not the same. What if your idea has been done before, and you don’t know it because you haven’t read much past 1960? What if you thought your protagonist named Katniss had the most unique name ever, and you’re not Suzanne Collins? What if you make the amateur mistake of comparing your novel to Great Expectations in a query letter? (Don’t do it. Please don’t.) If you know what people are reading right now, you have a better chance at making a difference. You can spot the stories that aren’t being told. You’re more likely to sound original because you’ve done your research.


CLASSIC NOVELS


1) Learning new vocabulary. “Morgan, what the hell?” you must be thinking. “Didn’t you just say to simplify your language? In bold, multiple times?” Yeah, but sometimes, a situation calls for a sophisticated word. If you’ve never paid much attention to a classic novel or English class, your vocabulary will be limited. And, as a writer who will be tempted to repeat the same words no matter how expansive your vocabulary is, that isn’t good. When you’re stuck, say, describing how someone is feeling, and “sad” just isn’t cutting it, what do you do if your arsenal lacks words? Maybe your character’s sadness is really deep, quiet, and thoughtful, so “melancholy” would fit better. There is no other single word to describe that feeling, so use it. You need it. Classic novels are obsessed with the word melancholy. I can’t remember any contemporary novels I’ve seen it in, except Because of Winn Dixie, though I’m sure there are someIf it fits, then please pull a word like this from a classic. Just don’t overuse it.


 2) Creating unforgettable characters. This is not to say that all characters in contemporary novels suck, or aren’t memorable. Far from it. My ears will probably perk when they hear a Harry Potter character’s name until I die. But dude, think about Peter Pan. Alice in Wonderland. The Greek/Roman gods. Society has held onto these characters for decades, centuries, millennia, and still hasn’t let go. Who doesn’t want to create a character who millions of people take into their hearts as if that character is a living, breathing person? Readers have met characters who touched them in some personal way, inspired them to do something with their lives, even saved them. I will encourage all my children to read Jane Eyre at some point not just to see how a woman can behave against a society that dislikes her, but how admirable and courageous a person, male or female or somewhere in between, can be. I want everyone to read to the end of The Brothers Karamzov so they can sniffle at the last five pages and want to hug the hell out of Alyosha Karamazov. Like I said, this can happen in contemporary novels, but such novels can sometimes be harder to find. This is partly because there’s an emphasis on plots and ideas in the literary world today–which is necessary, since a cool concept is often what will get someone to read a book in the first place. Good contemporary novelists, like Emma Donoghue and Rachel Hartman to name two very different ones, will balance well-written characters with interesting plots. But many spend more time on plot than character, and finding the gems can become a challenge.


3) Complexity. When I read the introduction to War and Peace, the translators claimed that Leo Tolstoy had taken life and put it on paper. Sensory observations, understanding of humanity, realism in general–all spot on. I thought, pfft, yeah right. Then I read it, and oh my god, were they right. It’s one of the reasons Tolstoy has gone down in history. He gave us three dimensional people and a world that breathed, and breathed so truly that we could recognize that world as our own, despite the fact that we don’t live in 19th-century Russia. He also layered the book with ideas, meaning, philosophies, and questions regarding life that we might never have thought about. I’m not talking about complex vocabulary here. I’m talking about complex characters, complex worlds, complex ideas, complex morality. This is, once again, something more easily found in classics, because it’s usually why they’re classics. To Kill a Mockingbird pointed a finger at racism, but through the eyes of a young girl named Scout, so Harper Lee couldn’t quite point at it directly. The social commentary becomes clear without any character having to explicitly say, “This is wrong” or “This is racist.” In the same novel, a character previously thought to be evil, Boo Radley, turns out to be sweet and sensitive, which surprises Scout. There is still clearly something wrong with him, but not in the way Scout thought–it’s more complex than that. Yes, this is present in plenty of contemporary novels, and boy do I love those novels. Yet so many of them employ cookie-cutter characters, stereotypes, and black-and-white morality, so you’ve got to work harder to find the good stuff.


4)  Understanding what has stopped working. A big mistake I made during my classics phase was thinking that if a book won the honor of becoming “classic,” that meant everything about it worked. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t write endless sentences when James Joyce could (other than the fact that he was actually good at writing them). Why was Melmoth the Wanderer allowed to be 600 pages long when mine wasn’t? Why did F. Scott Fitzgerald get to use all those adverbs in The Great Gatsby? The answer is this: no book is perfect. No, fifteen-year-old Morgan, not even a classic. A really good book is a book with so many strong points that the weaknesses fade into the background, or at least seem to matter less. Melmoth the Wanderer’s length was mostly excused because Melmoth was a fascinating character with an intriguing perspective on humanity. James Joyce was long-winded, sure, but look how unique, and often beautiful, his language is. The Great Gatsby took a jab at the corruption of luxury, and did it eloquently enough that people tolerate the excessive adverbs. By reading classics, you can isolate what made it so memorable (not necessarily to the world, but to you) as well as what made it a struggle to read. Eliminate the bad, but keep the good in your brain. Then you can strive to improve your own writing without outright imitating everything about the classics, either.


Hope this helped someone. It sure helped me.


-Morgan 

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