John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (2005) came to me as part of a Humble Bundle that included eight books. Some were novels, others were story collections, one was a graphic novel. You can pick it up on Amazon.com for ten-ish dollars. And in place of my usual warning, this may be the first spoiler-free report I’ve written.
The Breakdown: On his seventy-fifth Birthday, John Perry, like many, many others, enlists to join the Colonial Defense Forces and leave Earth behind forever. He’s quickly thrown into a universe more wondrous and more harsh than anything he could have ever imagined. Old Man’s War, as much as anything, is a book about what it means to be human.
I’m always surprised how quickly really good – professional – writing shines through when you come across it. It’s pretty interesting because while reading The Lodestone Trilogy, or even Alice in Deadland (which really could have used an editor), I never thought the writing, as in sentence structure and wordcraft, was bad per se — it was fine — but the quality difference was obvious within just a few pages of Old Man’s War. I’m a fan of the whole DIY road that the Internet opened up, but for those who have questioned, this is the value of a good publisher and professional editors. Irreplaceable. (Old Man’s War was published by Tor Books.) I’m not saying self-published books are automatically going to be bad (I did like the Lodestone Trilogy), or that big publishers always hit (look at Wicked), but as a matter of odds and pure quality of writing, the couple dollar, self-published E-book, probably just won’t compare.
I look back at the books I’ve read over the last six months and the only ones I’d call page turners – that have actually had me adjusting my schedule to read more – were The Hunger Games (yes, we all know I had problems with it, but it was a well-written piece of fiction) and Old Man’s War. Old Man’s War may, in fact, be the best novel I’ve read in ages. I devoured all 325 pages in under three days. Of course, it helps that reading on the Kindle is a dream.
So the question becomes, can you learn as much from a great book? Well here’s a couple of things that came to mind.
In copywriting, the rule is 20% of people will read the article, but 80% of people will read your headline. The headline’s only job is to get people to read the first sentence of the article. Subsequently, the first sentence of your article’s only job is to get people to read the next one. Novels have a similar principle – the first line of a book is what will hook people, or not. People will read your title. They’ll likely read your synopses, and if they’re at all interested, they’ll turn to the first page. Hook them with the first sentence and they’re yours — until you do something to lose them.
Old Man’s War opens with:
“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”
Instantly you have a lot of questions. Joined the army? At seventy-five? In the world of this book, is seventy-five a young, peak-age? Soldiers need to be fit and strong and at their prime, don’t they? What’s this guy’s deal anyway? Is he a late bloomer? Why join the army at seventy-five?
That simple three-sentence opening gets the reader asking a lot of questions they’re going to want the answers to. To get the answers, they’ll keep reading.
Incidentally, I think the same rule applies to most writerly things. Even with a captive audience already stuck with you, the first moments of a play should set up an expectation or questions with those watching. The opening image of a movie should do the same thing. Engagement. It’s a thing.
Keep Asking Questions
While I was writing that last section, I remembered something else I’d come across in a book I’d read about writing once upon a time. That is, as you answer those initial questions for the reader, make sure you’re creating new ones. By the time you answer that, yes, John Perry is exactly like any elderly man on the final days of his life, you should have opened up dozens of extra questions – how can a geriatric serve in the army? – that the reader will want to know the answers to.
That’s how you get them to keep turning the page.
Of course, make sure you do eventually answer them, ya?
The Dark Side of the World
I’m usually a rose-coloured glasses type of guy. I’m not saying I never get down on things (it’s been a hell of a three months, to be honest) but my baseline leans towards the manic in manic-depressive and I generally always believe the best of people. My general outlook is that the universe, and the people in it, lean towards a state of “goodness.”
That’s shown through in my writing – in that it often leans towards a lot of heroic journeys with protagonists fighting for something just and good with clearish lines of what’s good and what’s evil. Heroes may doubt or falter. There’s always more to villains than meets the eye. The world may suck. But the universe generally wants to move closer to a state of “goodness.”
What parts of Old Man’s War taught me (or reminded me) is to be open to the opposite as well. Sometimes things are just shit. Sometimes there is no win and everything just sucks no matter which side you’re on. Sometimes the universe tends towards a state of evil and destruction. In Old Man’s War, when things are upside down and John Perry is questioning the very meaning of humanity, so was I.
I’ve been re-learning to think from other entirely unique perspectives a lot lately, but Old Man’s War reminded me that the same principle holds on a much larger scale.
In The End
Among my thoughts on the Lodestone Trilogy I brought up endings. I said: Endings are tough. Coming up with good, satisfying, earned endings, is one of the hardest things about writing.
I’ve read a lot of books that I’ve positively loved but where the ending just felt short for me. Old Man’s War was not one of them. First, it didn’t leave any of those little questions unanswered. Everything you cared about was covered. Second, Old Man’s War had a running theme about humanity and connection and friendship and love — it’s actually what I found out to be the core strength of the book. It’s summed up by this quote:
Part of what makes us human is what we mean to other people and what people mean to us.
It was tied up beautifully by the last page. On the last page, in fact. This was a book that didn’t go on longer than it needed to. It was the perfect example of a satisfying, earned ending. I won’t lie. There may have been some involuntary action from my tear ducts.
(This is part of a series of “book reports” I’m doing – recording my thoughts on the books I’m reading as part of a general desire to read more. This will typically be talking about what I like
and what felt false, filtered through the lens of what I, and perhaps other writers, can learn from it. It won’t be a discussion of deeper themes and meanings. Comments are always open to tell me your take. Click here to see all the books I’ve talked about.)