Writing

Lessons From the Bad Writing of Battlefield Earth

I’m about to open Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000, published in 1982. It’s by Ron L Hubbard, the guy who founded Scientology. On the cover, a muscled barbarian dude simultaneously fires two laser guns to either side, while he willfully looks at the camera instead of his targets. I imagine there’s a lot of friendly fire in this book.

Make Your Opening Clear

Here we go, Part 1, Chapter 1:

“Man,” said Terl, “is an endangered species.”

That’s not a bad opening line; certainly it’s the best of the critiques I’ve done. Sure, it might be a little overdone now, but this was written over 30 years ago, so I’ll ignore that. Saying humans are endangered both establishes conflict and arouses curiosity, which is what you want in your opening line.

But unfortunately, it’s a line of dialogue. That throws this provocative idea into question. We don’t know whether humans are really endangered or if some guy’s just talking out of his ass. That’s one reason why opening with dialogue is tricky. In addition, it’s disorienting for the reader to enter a story in the middle of a conversation between previously unknown characters, and it’s hard for the storyteller to set the scene while maintaining the dialogue.

The hairy paws of the Chamco brothers hung suspended above the broad keys of the laser-bash game. The cliffs of Char’s eyebrows drew down over his yellow orbs as he looked up in mystery. Even the steward, who had been padding quietly about picking up her saucepans, lumbered to a halt and stared.

Here Hubbard flaunts his ability to make “everyone in the room stopped and stared” as confusing as possible. First, who are the Chamco brothers? Are they Terl and Char? We don’t know, because the label isn’t mutually exclusive with first names. Second, there’s a bunch of overdone language. The room is filled with paws that hang suspended, cliffs of eyebrows, and orbs for eyes. Writers want to make a strong first impression, so they’re often tempted to put language like this in their opening. Unfortunately, it’s self-defeating. The opening is the worst time to include fancy metaphors, because the reader has no idea what’s going on. I have visions of people being suspended, cliffsides, and bright orbs instead of… wherever this is supposed to be. A casino? An arcade?

And how does someone look up in mystery? People can look up in confusion or wonder, but “mystery” isn’t an emotion someone experiences.

Don’t Include Novelty for Novelty’s Sake

Terl could not have produced a more profound effect had he thrown a meat girl naked into the middle of a room.

That’s… interesting. Unfortunately it doesn’t tell us much about the world. While it suggests he could throw a meat girl into the middle of a room, it also suggests doing so would be shocking. So we can’t conclude anything. However, it does add flavor to the narration: a silly and rapey flavor, neither of which is constructive. While you’re writing, keep in mind that many of your readers will be survivors of assault and abuse. Don’t risk reminding them of the worst moments of their life unless it’s important to your story.

Use Wording That Makes Sense

The clear dome of the Intergalactic Mining Company employee recreation hall shone black around and above them, silvered at its crossbars by the pale glow of Earth’s single moon, half full on this late summer night.

We’ve had a few hints regarding rooms and saucepans and games, but now Hubbard has abandoned contextual hints in favor of a description paragraph. Hints are generally better in an opening because they keep the action going; however, this isn’t long, and it provides important context.

But how does a clear dome shine black? We’ll also have to guess what the crossbars of the dome are, as those aren’t standard dome accessories. I’ll say they are support beams that go through the dome, since otherwise the reflection of the moonlight wouldn’t be visible from the interior.

Hubbard does succeed in framing Earth as an unusual location. Simply by using “Earth’s single moon” instead of “the moon,” we know that we’re on Earth, and that Earth is not the center of Terl’s existence. Kudos.

Terl lifted his large amber eyes from the tome that rested minutely in his massive claws and looked around the room. He was suddenly aware of the effect that he had produced, and it amused him. Anything to relieve the humdrum monotony of a ten-year* duty tour in this gods-abandoned mining camp, way out here on the edge of a minor galaxy.

How does a book rest minutely? Is it different from resting massively? You can’t just convert adjectives into adverbs; if it has “ly” then it needs to change the action somehow. In most cases, you should avoid “ly” adverbs altogether. A better solution: “Terl lifted his amber eyes from the tome hidden within his massive claws.”

Unfortunately, this is another humdrum day at the mining camp. Goodbye conflict and tension. The whole “men are endangered” line now looks like a trick to make a strong opening line. If everyone in the room is surprised by the statement, the situation can’t be urgent.

Beware of Footnotes

Hubbard has placed an asterisk after “ten-year.” Let’s read the footnote for it:

* Time, distance, and weight have been translated in all cases throughout this book to old Earth time, distance, and weight systems for the sake of uniformity and to prevent confusion in the various systems employed by the Psychlos. –Translator

Some writers like Terry Pratchett have used footnotes to great effect. They can be a good place for entertaining but tangential information. We even use asterisks here at Mythcreants, so I can tell you from experience how quickly they become a crutch. Instead of putting their thoughts in order, writers will put out-of-place tidbits in an asterisk. Instead of making tough decisions about what must go, writers will put subpar content in the asterisk.

In this case, Hubbard is trying to sidestep thinking through his units of measurement by putting a caveat in a footnote. It’s both lazy and unnecessary. Years are a unit determined by the natural world; they don’t need explanation beyond specifying “Earth years.” No one likes to read caveats or disclaimers. Reconsider before putting them in your writing.

Bizarrely, here Hubbard also introduces the idea that his book is actually some in-world historical document being translated. That’s not something you just throw in a footnote, because it requires a change in how you frame your work. In addition, why oh why would a translator decide to use ancient Earth metrics for the translation?

Don’t Try to Retcon a Reader’s Experience

In an even more professional voice, already deep and roaring enough, Terl repeated his thought. “Man is an endangered species.”

Now we see the consequences of opening with a line of dialogue. In order to get the scene moving, Hubbard didn’t give the line any context or flavor. Instead, he abandoned the conversation to set the scene. After a couple paragraphs, readers will have trouble remembering that spoken line, so Terl repeats it. The character has no reason for doing this; it’s obvious everyone heard him the first time.

Hubbard also tries to retcon the flavor he wanted that first line to have. He left Terl’s declaration without commentary, and now, paragraphs later, he’s trying to tell his readers that it sounded roaring yet somehow professional. Too late! The line has already been spoken. His attempt is just jarring.

Keep Your Details Consistent

Char glowered at him. “What in the name of diseased crap are you reading?”

Terl did not care much for his tone. After all, Char was simply one of several mine managers, but Terl was chief of minesite security. “I didn’t read it. I thought it.”

“You must have got it from somewhere,” growled Char. “What is that book?”

Terl held it up so Char could see its back. It said, “General Report of Geological Minesites, Volume 250.369.” Like all such books it was huge but printed on material that made it almost weightless, particularly on a low-gravity planet such as Earth, a triumph of design and manufacture that did not cut heavily into the payloads of freighters.

The details of this argument are so trivial, it’s like a pair of young children are quarreling:

“I thought of it, all by myself!”

“No, you didn’t! Gimme your book, you dweeb!”

Then we have a strange lecture on books. A couple paragraphs ago this book was declared minute compared to Terl’s claws; now it’s huge. This could be some backward way of establishing that Terl is a giant, except huge is a relative term, and we’re in Terl’s viewpoint. Plus, why is Terl thinking about the production of books at all? Since this is “like all such books,” he has no reason to contemplate it. Perhaps this is some awkward foreshadowing; I can’t think of another reason Hubbard would insert this.

Choose the Right Viewpoint Character

“Rughr,” growled Char in disgust. “That must be two, three hundred years old. If you want to prowl around in books, I got an up-to-date general board of directors’ report that says we’re thirty-five freighters behind in bauxite deliveries.”

The Chamco brothers looked at each other and then at their game to see where they had gotten to in shooting down the live mayflies in the air box. But Terl’s next words distracted them again.

“Today,” said Terl, brushing Char’s push for work aside, “I got a sighting report from a recon drone that recorded only thirty-five men in that valley near that peak.” Terl waved his paw westward toward the towering mountain range silhouetted by the moon.

“So?” said Char.

“So I dug up the books out of curiosity. There used to be hundreds in that valley. And furthermore,” continued Terl with his professional ways coming back, “there used to be thousands and thousands of them on this planet.”

The endangered status of humanity is validated. But why are we learning it from a bunch of characters who don’t care?

“Good day sir. By the way, did you know the human race is dying?”

“I did not know that. How intellectually stimulating!”

This revelation could be powerful if we were following a human character or anyone else who is emotionally invested in humans. Instead we have… I’m honestly not sure what this is.

Whatever Hubbard was going for, I’m guessing these characters are too comical to accomplish it. Hubbard keeps saying Terl is professional, but it’s hard to read professionalism from a bunch of pawed, yellow-orbed, growly creatures. He needed to show Terl’s professionalism. Does Terl have perfect posture? Is he wearing formal clothes? Does he speak in a dignified manner? To make it even weirder, Terl’s a security professional. I’ll let you guess how professionalism in security translates to this conversation. Aside from Terl, Char keeps growling his dialogue; the growl here is even spelled out. All Hubbard needed for that was “Char growled in disgust.”

At least we know the Chamco brothers are separate characters and not Char or Terl.

They debate a little more about the credibility of Terl’s sources. Then we have:

(Char) “I can see right through an excuse to go on a hunting expedition. What Psychlo in his right skull would bother with the things?”

The smaller Chamco brother grinned, “I get tired of just dig-dig-dig, ship-ship-ship. Hunting might be fun. I didn’t think anybody did it for–”

Char turned on him like a tank zeroing in on its prey. “Fun hunting those things! You ever see one?” He lurched to his feet and the floor creaked. He put his paw just above his belt. “They only come up to here! They got hardly any hair on them except their heads. They’re a dirty white color like a slug. They’re so brittle they break up when you try to put them in a pouch.” He snarled in disgust and picked up a saucepan of kerbango. “They’re so weak they couldn’t pick this up without straining their guts. And they’re not good eating.” He tossed off the kerbango and made an earthquake shudder.

“You ever see one?” said the bigger Chamco brother.

Char sat down, the dome rumbled, and he handed the empty saucepan to the steward. “No,” he said. “Not alive. I seen some bones in the shafts and I heard.”

Apparently humans being endangered is a reason to kill more of them. I suppose that’s about as logical as throwing naked meat girls around or arguing if an idea came from a book. Hubbard could have made the reveal less strange by establishing that Psychlos like to hunt rare things for trophies, etc.

Since they’ll be hunting humans, and humans are described as small and weak, I can only guess Hubbard wanted these characters to be threatening antagonists. But if so, once again this would work better from a human’s perspective. Their petty arguments make these creatures feel like the Trolls in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I’m talking about the ones who argue all night about how to cook the dwarves, until the sun rises and turns them into stone. It works for the Hobbit because Tolkien wrote it for children.

Then there’s the dirty white color. I’ll say Char thinks that because he is so dumb he can’t distinguish humans from their bones. This is also why he thinks humans are brittle, can’t pick up things, and aren’t good eating. Because otherwise, Hubbard would be implying that only white people have survived to the year 3000 and that aliens would use an exaggerated term for skin color created by human cultural notions of race.

On the bright side, tanks in this world capture and eat prey instead of running on electricity or fuel. What? The phrase “like a tank zeroing in on its prey” is a mixed metaphor, you say? Nonsense, I’m sure it was completely intentional worldbuilding.

Don’t Open With an Explanation Scene

Terl and Char continue to argue about the value of humans.

(Terl) “There was something to these creatures. Before we came along, it says here, they had towns on every continent. They had flying machines and boats. They even appear to have fired off stuff into space.”

“How do you know that wasn’t some other race?” said Char. “How do you know it wasn’t some lost colony of Psychlos?”

“No, it wasn’t that,” said Terl. “Psychlos can’t breathe this air. It was man all right, just like the cultural guys researched. And right in our own histories, you know how it says we got here?”

“Ump,” said Char.

“Man apparently sent out some kind of probe that gave full directions to the place, had picture of man on it and everything. It got picked up by a Psychlo recon. And you know what?”

“Ump,” said Char.

“The probe and the pictures were on a metal that was rare everywhere and worth a clanking fortune. And Intergalactic paid the Psychlo governors sixty trillion Galactic credits for the directions and the concession. One gas barrage and we were in business.”

Now it’s clear why Hubbard opened with these silly monsters. It’s so he can insert a whole bunch of explanation about the state of the Earth and humanity. While it can be tricky to create an opening that puts the reader right into the action without confusing them, that should always be your aim. Exposition-filled openings like these bank on being so interesting that it doesn’t matter that nothing is happening. Does it succeed? Mostly, but it sacrifices a lot more.

If you feel your opening needs exposition to get your readers up to speed, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does the reader really need to know all that to enjoy your story? For instance, this story deals with a powerful alien species that has taken over Earth, resulting in the slow death of humanity. The details of how the aliens found Earth and took over are irrelevant to the conflict at hand. If they’re important to the solution, we can learn them later. To start, readers don’t even need to know about the aliens; discovering them during the course of the story could be an enjoyable experience.
  2. If the reader does need an explanation, how can it be shown rather than told, and quickly? A scene showing the destruction of human civilization by these alien miners would effectively establish the threat and get readers right in the action. It would be worth jumping another thousand years in the future afterward to avoid explaining it.

By opening with an informative conversation between antagonists, Hubbard trades riveting conflict for a humdrum day, and emotional power for intellectual curiosity. It’s not a good trade.

Make Your Tense Ending Tense

They argue a little more about history, and Terl says he’s going to go up into the mountains to catch a human.

Char looked at the empty door. The security chief knew no Psychlo could go up into those mountains. Terl really was crazy. There was deadly uranium up there.

But Terl, rumbling along a hallway to his room, did not consider himself crazy. He was being very clever as always. He had started the rumors so no questions would get out of hand when he began to put into motion the personal plans that would make him wealthy and powerful and, almost as important, dig him out of this accursed planet.

The man things were the perfect answer. All he needed was just one and then he could get the others. His campaign had begun very well, he thought.

He went to sleep gloating over how clever he was.

There ends the first chapter. I’ll scratch my head over why it ended this way shortly, but first I must applaud the unusually successful head hopping here. Earlier in the chapter we were in Terl’s head. This passage starts with a paragraph in Char’s head, and then flips back to Terl’s head. And it didn’t feel jarring.

That’s because Hubbard took the time to clearly mark each perspective, rather than rushing into their heads. These first two paragraphs start with the name of the character, then state an external action, then narrate a thought as though from an omniscient perspective, then finally have narration from the character’s viewpoint. This eases the reader in slowly, setting correct expectations. Kudos.

Seriously though, what’s up with this ending? It’s like Hubbard was trying to establish a threat to humans but couldn’t help mocking his antagonist. This is not the first time Hubbard has applied the label of “clever” to Terl, but his gloating makes him seem silly and over-confident. It’s hard to believe Terl is actually smart, so it’s also hard to believe he can capture a bunch of humans just by capturing one or that he’ll end up wealthy or powerful. And since we don’t know any human characters, it’s hard to be concerned for them anyway.

Ideas Are Cheap

I usually end these critiques with some hopeful statement about the author or book getting better, but Ron L Hubbard died four years after this book was published, and regrettably, I read the next two chapters.

If you’re curious, in chapter two we meet our hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, and follow him as he goes around bullying everyone into holding a funeral for his dead father. Why doesn’t anyone want to hold a funeral? We have no idea. If we knew, then Jonnie might not be absolutely right. First, Jonnie intimidates his aunt into preparing meat for the funeral; then he goes to cajole the officiator. A couple women, one of whom is attractive and wears revealing clothing, actually sympathize with his effort, but they’re just silly women so he ignores them. That is, until it’s time to give them orders.

We do learn that there are better places for humans to live below the mountains, but they won’t go down there because of the “monsters.” That’s what’s tragic about this book – it’s a waste of a great concept. The idea of an alien occupation, humans that are struggling to survive in the mountains out of the aliens’ reach, and a hero that is informed by nothing but superstition, is a great idea. No doubt that’s why this book was as popular as it was. But as we can see here, great ideas don’t make great books – skilled implementation does. Build the storytelling skills you need, and you can make any idea work.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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Comments

  1. Chris Winkle

    I’ve got Sword of Truth and I Am Number Four on my list to look at next. If they are sufficiently bad, I will cover them.

  2. Liz

    I just love these posts. I almost want to read this book now so I can experience the writing first hand. Have you ever considered writing a post about exceptionally good books or passages and explain why/how they work? Or even compare and contrast a good and bad book?

    • Chris Winkle

      The sad truth is that articles that are negative or critical attract more readers than articles that are positive. I’m not sure a critique post breaking down brilliant writing would be very popular. However, comparing a brilliant work to a similar one that was bad (perhaps an imitation) would be a great project. I already briefly mention better works in critique posts like these, because contrasting with a positive example is helpful. I’ll keep my eyes open for a pair of works that I can break down side by side.

  3. Fish

    I’d like to see you do one of these for a Fred Saberhagen Berserker novel, which are … -reflects- yeah, they’re pretty bad, but the concept is neat so I keep subjecting myself to them. Obviously this is a sign I need to write some Berserker stories.

    • Chris Winkle

      Thanks for the suggestion. Do you know if any of those are big sellers? I would feel bad about mocking the work of a writer who isn’t super successful.

  4. Fish

    I think they were moderately successful in their day (late 60’s-70’s) but certainly not on the scale of the era’s big boys (Niven, Bova, Anderson, etc). There are several so I guess he did -OK- with them.

  5. S.D. Miller

    Ideas are worth a penny apiece, or a dime a dozen on sale. It’s the successful execution of an idea that gives it value.

    Normally at our writers’ meetings we have some lesson on craft and do a bit of critique. But last Friday we socialized and watched the movie “Authors Anonymous”. It was a parody on beginning writers and the writing process. The guy who ran the group (in the movie) carried around this little recorder and was always making notes: “Idea for a novel…” He never actually wrote anything, or even started anything, but he had hundreds of ideas.

    The movie received 4.3/10 on IMDB, 7% on Rotten Tomatoes, and 1/4 on RogerEbert.com. I think some reviewers missed the point that stereotypes were the point.

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