Book vs Book: Ready Player One and A Hundred Thousand Worlds

In 2012 I wrote what would become my most popular book review on Goodreads: a skewering of Ernest Cline’s (somehow) beloved heap of geek porn, Ready Player One. Despite a six-year cool down period, it remains the most disappointing reading experience of my life. I still hate it with every fiber of my being, and I’ve yet to understand how someone can pay for this book, read all 370+ pages, and then feel anything but embarrassed and sad.

If the point is to re-enact sections of D&D modules and 80s cult classics, then your readers are just getting third-hand retreads of things that aren’t even important to begin with. It’s sort of like when your socially-awkward friend resolutely recounts a super-sweet TV show for you, word for word, and all you can do is just sit there and wait until he’s finished. Pay $20 for that experience and you get Ready Player One.

And what’s worst—no, I haven’t even gotten to the worst part yet—is how the entire thing reeks of elitism. Yes, you read that correctly. This is a book about an overweight, unattractive, lazy, delusional, uber-geek elitist, who believes—truly believes—that his knowledge of 80s trivia makes him superior. And Cline basically affirms this! Some guys buy cars, others put socks down their pants, Cline writes 80s trivia novels.

– from my Goodreads review of Ready Player One

That review is probably the most tactless piece of writing I’ve ever produced. It was pure, unadulterated venom. It felt like Cline had injected me with a poison, and the only way to save myself was to regurgitate it back onto the page. It became something of a passion project for me, saving others from similar afflictions.

But at the same time I was conflicted: was there any virtue in a purely negative review?

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Every Blade of Grass by Thomas Wharton

everybladeA couple of years ago I took Aaron Sorkin’s online masterclass on screenwriting. I’m not a screenwriter, I’m just a huge fan of his and a firm believer that, by and large, writing is writing, regardless of the medium. The course mostly focused on things like storytelling, dialogue, and character development, but the most impactful lesson, for me, was about how to approach story structure.

Sorkin asks his students to visualize their story as a clothesline. At either end of that clothesline is an intention and an obstacle.

For any story to work, there needs to be a character that wants something (the intention) and there has to be something that gets in the way (the obstacle). If both of these are interesting enough, then the clothesline is pulled taut. At this point, the writer can hang as many things from it as they want: conversations, side stories, plot twists, intellectual tangents, you name it. But if the intention and the obstacle aren’t interesting enough, if they don’t keep the viewer  wanting more, then the clothesline has too much slack, and those aforementioned things–conversations, side stories, what have you–start to weigh the clothesline (i.e. the story) down.

In other words, if the driving action of a story is compelling, the writer is freed up to add in as many colorful touches as he or she wants without losing the viewer’s interest. That’s when you have them.

“I worship at the altar of intention and obstacle,” Sorkin says.

If Every Blade of Grass is any indication, so does Thomas Wharton.

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