Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Nov 17, 2005

The Hack

I was recently involved in a discussion on where I claimed an author (David Eddings, to be precise) was a hack. Thinking back I realized that I never did define the term, making it rather difficult for anyone to decide whether they agreed with me or not.

Hack is a shortened version of the word hackneyed, meaning “lacking originality or freshness”. With such a broad definition some concrete examples can come in handy to help narrow the field.

You are a hack if you . . .

. . . find it necessary to re-tell the same story from the perspective of a different character, regardless of whether or not you have included “new” flourishes. Guilty parties: David Eddings, Piers Anthony

. . . start writing a series without knowing how many books it will eventually contain when you are finished, or change the number several times. Guilty parties: Robert Jordan, Anne McCaffery

. . . write books in cooperation with other authors. Guilty Parties: Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, David Drake, David Weber, John Ringo . . . actually a LOT of authors do this. If you’re to busy to finish the book yourself it’s a sign that you probably need to reevaluate your career. Worse are those famous authors who lend their “name” to a relative newcomer so that person can get published, and the newbies that accept this kind of “help”.

. . . write books that use a setting, plot, or characters created by another person. Guilty Parties: R.A. Salvatore and many others. While it might help you get a book in print, it also means that no one will ever mistake you for a serious writer afterwards. In fact, this is a great way to get yourself pigeonholed into a genre.

. . . re-use the same plot. Guilty parties: David Eddings, Robin McKinley

. . . have four (or fewer) character archetypes: “good” male, “good” female, “bad” male, “bad” female. Guilty parties: Mercedes Lackey, Robert Jordan

. . . re-use the same “cast” of characters. (I.e. The Male Hero, The Female Hero, The Antagonist, The Disabled Person Who Has Useful Traits, The Young Thief With the Heart of Gold, etc.) Guilty parties: Dean Koontz, Stephen King, David Eddings

. . . write “spin-off” stories that are not a part of a series but occur in the same popular “universe” as your series, especially if the main characters in these spin-offs are secondary or minor characters in the series. Or, you allow other people to write said spin-offs. Guilty parties: Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, Anne McCaffery, Keith Laumer

. . . have had at least one book published every year since you became popular. Guilty parties: Terry Pratchett, Mercedes Lackey, Piers Anthony

. . . write parodies. Guilty parties: Terry Pratchett, Robert Asprin, Eric Flint

. . . write anything that is considered archetypical of a genre. You’re excused if you start a new popular genre, but only if you write something outside said genre. Guilty parties: Danielle Steele, Louis L’Amour, John Grisham, Ian Fleming

The list is by no means exhaustive, but I think I’ve covered the basics. It’s not an indictment of these authors. I read novels by hacks all the time, just like I go see silly movies. Why? Because I get the enjoyment of reading without the taxing mental effort of working my way through a really heavy novel. It’s what I read when I’m ill or mentally exhausted, instead of watching television.

Really, I think even a truly awful formulaic book is better than television.


David Amulet said...

I agree with you on two points, with a caveat on the second.

First, Eddings IS a hack--yet hacks indeed can be worth reading. I recently re-read the "Belgariad" series and am now reading for the first time his "Mallorean" series--they are almost straight-up hack material, but still quite enjoyable as a guilty pleasure.

Second, I favor books over television, too. But I also recognize that there are times (rare though they may be) when the latter medium delivers something compelling ... for exmaple, now I am finding "Lost" to be worth watching.

-- david

Jennifer Snow said...

I don't think its the medium of television per se that's to blame for this problem, it's that the people who couldn't make it as hacks writing books write for television instead.

The main problem is that although I might enjoy watching a show, I usually wind up sitting through the 3 or 4 other shows that I don't like afterwards from sheer inertia. But when I finish a book I usually don't go and read 3 lousy books because I don't want to get up.