Monday, April 12, 2010

Notes towards a definition of bad writing

Opening paragraphs, as any Creative Writing teacher will tell you in Week 1, are crucial to any writing venture but most particularly short stories or novels. Here's how not to do it (NB this is a real book):

Rose Season stood at the threshold of her sister's bedroom and silently watched the shadows of an oncoming storm stretch like plum-coloured talons across the empty bed. A great gust of icy wind from Lake Michigan howled at the windows.

Now then:

1) Calling your introductory and therefore likely-to-be-major character Rose Season ensures that the reader will not be able to take her seriously. You might as well have called her Cherry Season, or Rose Blight.

2) By 'at the threshold' do you mean 'in the doorway', which is more concrete (whereas 'at the threshold' is often used figuratively) and therefore easier for the reader to visualise the scene? [Reader thinks: 'Ooh look, a door', but probably not 'Ooh look, a threshold.']

3) 'Silently' is redundant. Presumably if Rose were not silent then she would be talking, and there would be dialogue.

4) Shadows are not plum-coloured, indeed they are not any colour, just a blockage of light. If you mean that the clouds are plum-coloured, say that.

[Here an internal warning is sounded to the reader: this writer apparently cannot think her way out of a paper bag and presumably neither can her editor -- either that, or her editor couldn't persuade her to change it. Either way, the horrible prospect of 445 pages of woolly thinking stands before one.]

5) Talons are not plum-coloured, either. Mixed metaphor.

6) Where there is a talon-shaped shadow, it is almost always the shadow of a talon, or, more usually, several talons, since talons tend to occur in groups. It's very rarely the shadow of a cloud. You are thinking of horror movies, or Foghorn Leghorn cartoons with chicken hawks in them.

7) You need to get rid of at least one of 'great', 'icy' or 'howled'. Three exclamatory adjectives in one short sentence is at least one too many, and in any case all three are clichés.

8) Do gusts howl? Are gusts not, rather, more inclined to bang?

9) And in any case, wind is by definition a thing in motion, but in order to howl at a window, don't you need to stand still at it?

First paragraph FAIL.


Anonymous said...

Nicely parsed!
I just found the book by a simple google and see that the cover already sounds a warning note: the author's name bears a distinct resemblance to that of an excellent writer, which gives one the uneasy feeling that the publisher may be hoping the punters will buy the book by mistake.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

And there I was going to such pains not to identify the perpetrator! Yes, I noticed that about her name too. A touch of the utterly disgraceful SA Labor Party How-to-Vote card scam. Thank God I voted Green.

Mindy said...

I look forward to reading about this one next week or the week after. Your reviews are always a pleasure to read, but when you ever so subtly put the boot in they are divine.

Mindy said...

Ahh the power of google. Your post comes first PC. Six reviews on B&N and it has 4.5 stars. Hmmmm, maybe it gets better. B&N site also reveals she has written at least four other books so maybe the name thing isn't as bad as it looks?

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Mindy, it's standard populist stuff that gets churned out by the bucketload and read and enjoyed by squillions -- usually family based and strongly character-driven. Sometimes the actual stories are quite good, and I'm sure the B&N reviewers are self-selecting readers of this kind of stuff and were glad to have more of the same. But the writing is usually pretty pedestrian, and often worse than that. I think of it as Women's Weekly fiction, except that the stuff in the WW is usually better written.

I probably won't review it, mainly because there are so very many books around in this mould. I get sent more books than there is time or space for, so I do get some choice about it, and I think the precious books-pages space should be used for books that at least some books-pages readers will be likely to find interesting or unusual or newsworthy in some way. I've written about this one here mainly to talk about bad writing as such, rather than for the sake of talking about the book itself.

Tatyana Larina said...

A great dissection!

I’m guessing that an editor would actually feel the shrinking of a few brain cells after working on this.

Peter said...

Not being able to access a real live SMH, is there any way one can read your reviews? My attempts at Googling were unproductive, I'm afraid. (After 50 years of computing experience, I still can't always make the damn things do what I want!)

Legal Eagle said...

Eeeek, doesn't sound like my kind of book, and that's just from one paragraph.

(incidentally, the Word Verification for this comment is "aputher" - what a great neologism - I'm sure I could work it into that opening paragraph - "A great gust of icy wind from Lake Michigan howled at the windows, tearing the clouds aputher."

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Tatyana, yes, I think the novelty would wear off fairly quickly.

Peter, the short reviews don't get put online. Lots of the long reviews don't either. Sad.

LE, I just came very close to spraying a mouthful of coffee on my new keyboard when I read that. An Alternative possibility: 'Mr Darcy could be seen approaching across the lawn, and Mrs Bennet was all aputher.'

Or even just -- much closer to your definition -- 'Aputhering Heights'.

Bernice said...

Pity the editor.

Hopefully the opening para reads as a pomo version of "it was a dark and stormy night" as an act of sweet revenge.

Peter said...

"the short reviews don't get put online"
Well, I hope that you are keeping copies for posterity.
I love to read stuff wot is writ proper, and wish I could do the same.
Your dissection of the paragraph is devastating. Thanks!

Peter said...

ps - I would have been more impressed (slightly) if the wind had howled in through the window - if it stays outside, who cares?

Deborah said...

I had little thrills of pleasure as I read this post, like a faint echo of the pleasure I had in reading your post about the first line of a short story by Annie Proulx, over at your old place. Something to do with the sheer joy of watching an adept do her work, mixed with my own untutored delight in reading and understanding how good writing works.

[contented sigh]

Feral Sparrowhawk said...

When this stuff sells so well it rather takes away my motivation to painstakingly improve my own writing. Maybe I need to just slap on the purple.

Mindy said...

"But the writing is usually pretty pedestrian, and often worse than that."

Just this morning I was thinking something along these lines as I started reading a book by a well known author who has carved a significant niche for themselves in a particular type of fiction. The writing was awful, but it must sell.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Hmm. Would this particular type of fiction involve young moping white-faced undead type creatures, perchance? Or perhaps documents containing prophecies written in unknown languages and symbols and hidden in secret crypts under famous buildings?

lucy tartan said...

Among all that verbal clutter it's very hard to get a sense of what is actually happening here. I suspect the emptiness of Rose's sisters' bed is supposed to register...but it doesn't.

I bet her sister's name is Daffodil.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Yes indeed: the empty bed, and perhaps even more so the talon-shaped, fruit-coloured shadow across it, is Significant.

I think we've got just a bit of the Pathetic Fallacy going on here.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

And possibly an Objective Correlative as well.

THirdCat said...

could of been worse...those plum-coloured talons could of reminded her of the plum-coloured bruises she had seen just the night before

Mindy said...

No actually PC, although afterwards I thought it could apply equally. It's actually a "medical" niche. Probably just needs tighter editing I think.

Legal Eagle said...

Heh, sorry I risked your keyboard, PC. I really like the image of Mrs Bennett being "aputher", it suits her so well.