A Writing Style Comparison: Tobias Wolff and Dean Koontz

After reading Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, I wanted my next read to be lighthearted and plot based. So, I picked up an old Dean Koontz novel, By the Light of the Moon. The two books could not be more different. Of course genre plays a big part, but the difference in writing styles is striking.

Koontz’s writing style is heavy in description and his plot moves forward minute by minute. Wolff puts the bare bones on paper, jumping right to the action and cutting all unnecessary description, plot, characterization, ect. I don’t think This Boy’s Life contains a single wordy sentence. Koontz, on the other hand, loves lengthy metaphors and diving deep into characters’ thoughts, even during heated action scenes.

Koontz and Wolff are two of my favorite writers but their styles could not be more different. Reading their books back-to-back really opened my eyes to those differences. Let me show you some specific examples.

Opening Lines

Here are a few sentences that begin chapters in Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Koontz’s By the Light of the Moon.

Wolff

  • The sheriff came to the house one night and told the Bolgers that Chuck was about to be charged with statutory rape.
  • My father took off for Las Vegas with his girlfriend the day after I arrived in California.
  • When I was alone in the house I went through everyone’s private things.

Koontz

  • Shortly before being knocked unconscious and bound to a chair, before being injected with an unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he’d never before imagined, Dylan O’Conner left his motel room and walked across the highway to a brightly lighted fast-food franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling, and a vanilla milkshake.
  • These were extraordinary times, peopled by ranting maniacs in love with violence and with a violent god, infested with apologists for wickedness, who blamed victims for their suffering and excused murderers in the name of justice.

What difference do you notice? Length? Who is more action-oriented? Who is more introspective?

 time-pass-by

Time

By the Light of the Moon: 140 pages into the novel less than three hours have passed in the plot with very little background/flashbacks. A high-speed car chase (not really a chase but a mission) that lasts approximately 10 minutes in real time, stretches 15 pages in the book. At times, I forget the chase was even happening because the side tangents and in-depth character thoughts were so dense.

This Boy’s Life: the plot skips large chunks of time, covering approximately eight years in total. In the following sentence Wolff captures the entire time frame of 7th grade (aka puberty): “I kept outgrowing my shoes, two pairs in the seventh grade alone.” Of course Wolff does go into normal-speed scenes in his memoir, but they are strongly action-based with little filler.

Which writing style do you enjoy more?

Does one style draw you in more than the other? Why do you think that is? I personally enjoy both. Certain months I relish the bare bones of Wolff, Carver, and the like. Other months I crave the second-by-second, in-the-mind-of-the-character stories of Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and others.

Comment with two writers who are very different, yet you love them both. 

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

TheMagiciansHarry Potter sets exceptionally high standards for all magician stories from here on out. It’s unfair to compare anything to Harry Potter but along with that, all the hype I’d been hearing about this novel set high expectations, and the novel sourly let me down.

The Magicians is about an 18-year-old boy from Brooklyn, Quentin Coldwater, who gets accepted into a secret, elite magic school called Brakebills. Quentin learns magic is very difficult and tedious. The learning process is intense and demanding.

Timeline

**Slight Spoilers ahead**  The novel spans Quentin’s entire 4 years at Brakebills as well as the year after. Large periods of time are summarized or skipped over.

Very little happened while Quentin was at school. He made friends, he learned magic (which was shockingly boring to hear about), and he lacked a plan for after graduation.

It wasn’t until Quentin and his friends graduated (3/4 of the way into the novel) that the plot takes an interesting twist. But by that time it was too late. I was already bored.

I certainly don’t need loads of action to enjoy a story but the main characters in The Magicians had no long-term goals or ambitions to keep me interested.

As a reader, this timeline made me feel very out of touch with the characters.

2 Stars

I didn’t connect with the characters. The plot was uneventful and I had no idea where the characters were headed or what they wanted.

My Favorite Books of 2015

Here is my favorite blog post of the year, a list of my favorite books read in 2015. Although the publishing dates range from 2001 to 2014, they all found their way to the top of my reading list last year and I’m very glad they did! 

2002 Yann Martel Life of Pi

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

This novel is inspiring, imaginative, unique, and fulfilling. It’s a story I want so badly to be true that sometimes I ignore the label of fiction it possesses.

Journey. Expedition. Adventure. None of these words quite capture the magic felt while cruising the Pacific’s current with Pi Patel, a zoo-keeper’s son who finds himself stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean with a murderous bengal tiger.

Without cramming Life of Pi‘s theme into a single word or phrase, it is about… Humanity. Peace. Storytelling. Faith. And how we interprets these things. What we choose to believe and how we push away the improbable as impossible.

I recommend it to anyone who wants to be inspired by imagination. 

dry coverDry by Augusten Burroughs

One of the best pieces of creative nonfiction I have ever read. Burroughs’ brilliant storytelling mixes pure truth with dirty humor in this memoir about his struggle with alcoholism.

I recommend it to lovers of creative nonfiction, people who want to understand what creative nonfiction is all about; and anyone interested in getting a first-person perspective of an alcoholic. 

goon imageA Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan

There is an argument surrounding A Visit From the Goon Squad whether it is a novel or a collection of linked short stories. That gray area is a main reason I loved this story. It jumps in time, switches character perspective, and leaves you slightly dazed and confused.

I recommend it to readers and writers who want to think about time and those who enjoy blurred boundaries. 

 

RedeploymentRedeployment by Phil Klay

This collection of short stories surrounding political, emotional, and humanity issues of the Iraq War is must-read! Klay’s writing is concise, dense, and relevant to our time. While some stories may draw you to tears, others may outrage you into action.

I recommend it to every American

Kite_runnerThe Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner is one of the most powerful stories I have ever read. Like Redeployment it is a story of our times, portraying an insiders view of Iraq in the years before America declared war. But don’t mistake this novel for a war story, it is a story of human nature through and through. The story is one I will not easily forget.

I recommend it to thoughtful readers who are curious about human nature and why we do the things we do. 

ordinary-graceOrdinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Set in the Minnesota summer of 1961, Ordinary Grace is an enriching story about real life and untimely death. It is filled with memorable, flawed characters; written in a clear, comforting voice; and set in a world that feels far away yet so close to the heart.

I recommend it to readers looking for an honest, realistic, heart-felt story. Also to anyone looking for an exceptional audio book!

DWCityThe Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City is a story about the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and the notorious mass murderer, Dr. H. H. Holmes. While so many historical nonfiction authors are not, Erik Larson is a story teller, making the story very entertaining. The story drops teasers like a suspense novel, builds character like literary fiction, and weaves multiple story lines better than most novels in any genre.

I recommend it to fiction lovers who crave a little history.

elegies of the brokenheartedElegies of the Brokenhearted by Christie Hodgen

Through detailed looks at side characters, we get a gradual picture of the main character’s life. Elegies is a story of unique structure that will make you take a close look at the people in your life and the impact left lingering long after they disappear.

I recommend it to readers and writers who crave something other than the lovable main character in the typical obstacle-based plot. 

Book to Movie Adaptations

Below are a few book-to-movie adaptations I’ve recently read and/or watched.

into the wildInto The Wild – I have not read the book but the movie blew me away. The main character chose a way of life that many of us only dream about.

2002 Yann Martel Life of PiLife of Pi LOVED the book! Disappointed by the movie.

imagesHunger Games Trilogy I love both the books and the movies. I think the film adaptions have done a great job at capturing the world of Panem and the cast is exceptional! I recently reread the Hunger Games series in preparation for the release of the final movie adaptation. **SPOILER**  The only part I didn’t like about the movie adaptation was the prologue at the very end. The characters seemed much too happy. The ending of the book holds much more wonder and darkness.

Kite_runnerThe Kite Runner I fell in love with The Kite Runner novel this year. The characters spoke to me; their actions infuriated and inspired me. Its a novel that will stay with me for a long time. I have been avoiding the movie adaptation because I hold the novel so high, there is no way the movie will meet my expectations. (Or am I being too pessimistic?) If you’ve seen the movie and read the book, please comment with what you thought.

great gatsbyThe Great Gatsby – As one of My Favorite Books of All Time I made sure to see the 2013 movie adaptation in theaters. I thought it was a great adaptation with an excellent cast and superb staging/scenery.

Wayward-PinesPines I watched the ABC TV series, Wayward Pines, this summer and LOVED it! It was one of my favorite TV shows of the year and I’m glad to hear they are coming out with a second season, even though they created the first assuming it would be the one and only.  After watching the show, I read the Blake Crouch novel it was based on and was sourly disappointed. The novel was poorly written and contained large sections that I found irrelevant to the story. See my full review here.

Minimalist Writing Prompt

Writing Prompt based on The Bath, a short story by Raymond Carver

Write a short story about a very emotional scene without describing the emotions or thoughts of the characters.

Be a minimalist writer. What does that mean?

  • Keep descriptions to a bare minimum.
  • Think action over description.
  • Keep time moving.
  • Short, to-the-point dialogue.
  • Use generic terms like “mom”, “dad”, “birthday boy”, and “baker”.
  • Only include names if necessary.
  • Cut all unnecessary characters, setting details, background info.

The most insight we get into the character in The Bath is this: “She saw a car stop and a woman in a long coat get into it. She made believe she was that woman. She made believe she was driving away from here to someplace else.”   Even though this communicates her thoughts, it still is describing an action–make believing–not a thought.

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff captures his childhood in a pool of childhood adventures written in quick, smooth prose. 

TobiasWolff_ThisBoysLifeBold Writing

Wolff wastes no time with his writing. He knows exactly where he’s going and jumps directly into the scene. Wolff’s opening sentences widen your eyes and narrow your vision. He jumps time swiftly, skipping weeks, months, even years in single sentences without jarring the reader.

First sentences of chapters: 

  • The sheriff came to the house one night and told the Bolgers that Chuck was about to be charged with statutory rape.
  • Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.
  • My father took off for Las Vegas with his girlfriend the day after I arrived in California.
  • When I was alone in the house I went through everyone’s private things.
  • I kept outgrowing my shoes, two pairs in the seventh grade alone.

A Memoir Point of View

The distant, introspective nature of memoirs always strikes me as curious. Wolff writes in the first person, but I felt disconnected to the story, as if Wolff is writing the memoir in order to discard the old memories instead of capture their timelessness. His rebellious youth, disjointed family life, and lack of respect seem like a distant life, even for the reader.

Fear

This Boy’s Life leaves a trail of breadcrumbs that seems certain to lead to destruction. If I didn’t know the main character went on to live a long life filled with writing, I would have guessed the book to end with his death or imprisonment. He was surrounded by dangerous people and cared very little for his well being. At times, I felt shivers go up my spine.

A Memorable Quote

“Like anyone else, she must have wanted different things at the same time. The human heart is a dark forest.” 

3.5 Stars

Although Tobias Wolff is one of my favorite short story authors, I didn’t enjoy his memoir as much. He’s certainly a fantastic writer and his childhood was filled with smirking adventures, but the story did not capture me.

6 Authors That Keep Calling Me Back

Sometimes when I read a great book, it feels like the end. I’m thankful for the story, I enjoyed the story, but the experience feels complete and doesn’t keep calling me back. Other times, when I finish a story, I only want more, more, more! When this happens, I pick up another book by the same author and hope they can feed my longing.

Here are 6 authors that are currently calling me back to read more of their work: dry cover1) Augusten Burroughs – After a coworker recommended Burroughs, I asked, “Which of his books do you recommend?” She replied, “All of them.” Thats when I knew it was a recommendation I should listen to. So I purchased Dry at my next visit to the bookstore. It was exceptional.

Photo taken from BarnesandNobles.com2) Neil GaimanThe Graveyard Book was exceptional! One of my favorite books of 2014! I didn’t enjoy American Gods as much but still looking to spend more time in Gaiman’s imagination. devil in the white city3) Erik Larson – I read The Devil in the White City this summer and loved the fictional feel of his nonfiction writing. I love learning new things while I read and Larson certainly educates his reader!

tobias wolff4) Tobias Wolff – I’ve enjoyed every short story I’ve read of Wolff’s and have had his memoir, This Boy’s Life, waiting on my bookshelf for too long.

where-im-calling-from

5) Raymond Carver – Another of my favorite short story authors. I’ll never get enough of his minimalist writing style and I know I can learn so much from his stories.

Photo taken from DeanKoontz.com

6) Dean Koontz – I’ve heard some hype about his new book, Ashley Bell, coming out in December and am excited to pick it up! After reading Koontz’s The City, I believe he will continue pushing himself out of the comfort zone, creating new and exciting works instead of punching out generic, familiar novels like so many best-selling genre writers do.

The Girl on the Train Book Review

trainThe girl on the train is Rachel, an unemployed alcoholic who rides the train into London every morning. Rachel peers out the train window at a particular house where a young couple live. She images the perfect life this young couple must live. Until one day, when the woman that lived at the house disappears and Rachel may have saw something that could help the police find her.

Flawed Characters

You could argue that every major character in this novel is majorly flawed. The main character is an unemployed, alcoholic stalker. And she is just the tip of the iceberg. The cast is polluted with angry, obsessive, violent, lying, cheating characters. Not to mention there is a murderer in the mix.

**SLIGHT SPOILERS** My favorite part of this book was how much of a stalker the main character/narrator was without realizing it. She was oblivious to the strangeness of her obsession with this couple she watched on her daily train ride. Then we learn about her interaction with her ex-husband, then she reaches out to the husband of the missing lady, and to push it really over the top *SPOILER* she goes to the therapist who is also a suspect in the police investigation.

Multiple 1st person POVs

The point of view is always 1st person but different chapters jump into different characters’ heads. I enjoy this style of writing and thought Hawkins distinguished the characters’ voices well. I do wish she would have introduced all the characters’ POV closer to the beginning. I was jarred out of the story when Anna became a third 1st-person POV so late in the novel.

Writing Tip

177232851_8421f4f078“Scott opened the door almost before I finished knocking.”

Its nothing fancy but, as a writer, I saw this quote is a great example of how to add flair to a boring action. There are so many times when our characters have to knock on doors, walk across the street, cook dinner, and endless other actions that are needed to move the plot forward but are thoroughly boring.

Hawkins could have written this like “I knocked and Scott opened the door” or “Scott let me in after I knocked” or she could have skipped the action all together but instead she adds mood to the sentence.

From this sentence, we can deter that Scott was waiting for Rachel to arrive, that he was anxious for her to get there. Hawkins successfully sets the mood of the scene before our narrator even walks in the door.

3.5 Stars

This was a solid story, solid writing, good suspense but it didn’t capture my attention like I thought it should have/could have. The book has received a lot of hype in the media lately so my expectations for the book were very high.

Write a Story in Twitter-segments

Writing Prompt based on Black Box by Jennifer Egan:

Write a story in Tweets.

Write a story in 140-character-or-less segments.

It will be jerky.

It will be minimalist.

It will challenge your way with words.

And, hopefully, it will be fun!

Jennifer Egan’s short story, Black Box, was originally published on the New Yorker’s Twitter account. Therefore, each segment was required to be 140 characters or less. It is best understood, and appreciated, by reading the story itself, so please do so.

Thanks for sharing, Augusten Burroughs — Dry Book Review

Truthdry cover

Creative nonfiction, even more than fiction, is forced to speak the truth about human nature. There are no futuristic apocalypses, zombie attacks, superpowers, or otherworldly beings to distract us. Rarely is there constant-page-turning suspense or a mansion with secret rooms behind the bookshelf.

This is why I admire authors of nonfiction that capture my complete interest with their unnatural insight of the real world and twist it into beautiful prose.

This is why I admire Augusten Burroughs.

“I have four hours to kill before dinner. In the past, this would have been just barely enough time to obtain a comfortable buzz and establish my relationship with the bartender. Now it seems like more than enough time to perhaps write a screenplay. Alcohol time is very different from sober time. Alcohol time is slippery whereas sober time is like cat hair. You just can’t get rid of it.”

Laughter

Dry is a memoir of Augusten Burroughs’ struggle with alcoholism. It follows Burroughs though his early 20’s when he works in advertising during the day and drinks all night, every night. When his coworkers pressure him into rehab, he begins to see what he has been blind to for years.

Its a beautiful, heart-felt struggle filled with lots of laughs! Burroughs has the uncanny knack to make the reader laugh out loud even when the material is dark and heartbreaking. His over-the-top dramatic comparisons and downright hilarious.

“The problem is, I’m a slob to begin with. So when you combine alcohol with a slob, you just end up with something that would appall any self-respecting heroin-addicted vagrant.”

augusten-burroughs

Beauty

“Augustin Burroughs is a wickedly good writer…” -Chicago Sun-Times

His balance of description, action, insight, and humor kept me interested until the very end.

My test for a great writer? They leave me wanting more. The following quote ends a chapter, and left me wanting to go on and on and on.

“Tonight the speaker is talking about how people in recovery are always looking for these big, dramatic miracles. How we want the glass of water to magically rise up off the table. How we overlook the miracle that there is a glass at all in the first place. And given the universe, isn’t the real miracle that the glass doesn’t just float up and away?”

5 Stars

After reading Dry, every existing Burroughs book has been added to my reading list. There are endless lessons I could learn from his writing and it doesn’t hurt to be entertained along the way!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 408 other followers

%d bloggers like this: