When Overwriting Was King

In my debut novel, The Scare, I’ve been accused by Kirkus Review of overwriting: “…a tedious torrent of overwriting…” is how they put it to be precise. I agree with them and am darned proud of their review! The Scare is overwritten for sure. But what overwriting! It’s a jolly good yarn with great characters readers love and a story that draws you in. And that’s all that matters. My goal as a writer is to entertain my readers and if I succeed it doesn’t matter how many words I used to do it. When I’m absorbed in a book I can’t put down I ain’t counting words or thinking about whether it’s overwritten! But okay, since I’m talking about overwriting let’s talk about it. I overwrite. I admit it and I admit that I love it. Come to think of it Stephen King overwrites and he’s doing just fine. So I’m in great company. Another guy who was big on overwriting–and who was around decades before King–is Robert Ervin Howard, aka Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. That’s right, Conan the Barbarian wasn’t created by some facile, overpaid Hollywood screenwriter fresh out of an Ivy League school, he was created in 1932 by a full grown Texan. In Howard’s day, not only was overwriting not frowned upon, it was King, just like Conan became! The 30s was the age of pulp fiction, no, not that movie by that director, but wonderful stories that could be found in the inexpensive fiction magazines that flourished from 1896 through the 1950s. The term pulp derived from the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed. Pulps were most often priced at ten cents per magazine and were the successor to the penny dreadfuls, dime novels and short fiction magazines of the 19th century. Many respected writers wrote for the pulps before they became respected, some of them, like Howard, became respected pulp writers. And yet Howard overwrote. In fact, he beautifully overwrote. And you know what? It’s great stuff. There’s not a thing wrong with it. Not back when it was written and not now. Howard’s stuff was so great it’s never been out of print. It’s been adapted into comic books, made into movies, copied endlessly. Some of today’s best writers have even written their own original Conan novels: Robert Jordan, Steve Perry, and L. Sprague de Camp to name a few. Conan the Barbarian is his own industry today. Not a bad achievement for a character created by a man in 1932 who was an inveterate overwriter. In “Queen of the Black Coast” one of Howard’s greatest stories, his overwriting shone brightly:

 

As they moved out over the glassy blue deep, Belit came to the poop.

Her eyes were burning like those of a she-panther in the dark as she

tore off her ornaments, her sandals and her silken girdle and cast

them at his feet. Rising on tiptoe, arms stretched upward, a quivering

line of naked

 white, she cried to the desperate horde: “Wolves of the

blue sea, behold ye now the dance–the mating-dance of Belit, whose

fathers were kings of Askalon!”

 

And she danced, like the spin of a desert whirlwind, like the leaping

of a quenchless flame, like the urge of

 creation and the urge of

death. Her white feet spurned the bloodstained deck and dying men

forgot death as they gazed frozen at her. Then, as the white stars

glimmered through the blue velvet dusk, making her whirling body a

blur of ivory fire, with a wild cry she threw herself at Conan’s feet,

and the blind flood of the Cimmerian’s desire swept all else away as

he crushed her panting form against the black plates of his corseleted

breast.

 

There is no denying that Howard’s overwriting was a pure art form, and although my own overwriting may be nowhere near as good, to be accused of it is a thing to be proud of and shouted from the highest rooftops. Or from the humble keys of my laptop. And so I proudly shout it.

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What Makes Me Write?

I’ve been wondering lately what makes me believe I can write something that other people will bother to spend money on and then spend their time reading. I mean, time is a precious thing; we all have only a limited amount of it to spend here on earth. So what makes me think folks out there will buy and read a 300 plus page book I’ve written? Is it audacity? Arrogance? Or is it just plain optimism? I like to think it’s optimism and not audacity or arrogance, that’s much more positive and sounds a lot nicer. There’s a lot to be said for optimism. Take Star Wars for instance. At one point while George Lucas was in the middle of filming, Fox execs got word (which trickled up from various crew members) that Lucas didn’t know what he was doing and his film was going to be terrible. Some of this stemmed from Lucas filming his actors on a sound stage fighting with sticks with nothing around them except green curtains. Of course Lucas knew what the finished product would look like (which the world now knows was the spectacular light sabre battle between Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader). But this was the 70s and at that time none of those crew members had any frame of reference by which to guess what Lucas was doing, and they certainly weren’t visionaries with imagination like Lucas so they had no faculty to foresee how it would eventually look on screen. So the production was shut down and a photo was taken of Lucas sitting in a gutter with his head in his hands. Imagine if the production had stayed shut down. We wouldn’t have Star Wars! (Yes, I can’t contemplate that either). But Lucas and his optimism managed to convince execs to let him continue and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. So when I see how many books are already out there in the world, and I start to doubt my writing talent and think I’ve got no chance and no hope and ought to just sit in the gutter with my head in my hands for the rest of my life, I tap into my bottomless well of optimism and remind myself that even if no one ever reads my books or thinks they’re any good (or maybe even great), I should at least still allow them to be the judge of whether I have any talent or not. And the only way to do that is write the darned books and actually finish them and then boldly sling them out into the world. They may not become Star Wars but why let self-doubt and fear deprive me of the possibility? And at the very least, I enjoy writing them. I get to hang out with great characters and go on cool adventures. And that beats sitting in any old gutter!

 

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