Wednesday, October 08, 2014

And sometimes it's just bad writing

I enjoy diving in to the query pile. There are a lot of good writers out there, sadly many of them working in categories I don't take on, and it's a pleasure to read a finely honed sentence and see a skilled writer at work.

But sometimes, splat.

Sometimes, it's just plain bad writing.

How do you know if you're in that category?

Here are a couple recent examples:

"Terror overtook her body"
"A scream escaped her throat"
"The story is located in New York City"
"We have spoken once when you called"
Without reading further, can you see what's wrong in each of these sentences??

"Terror overtook her body" versus "she was terrified"
"A scream escaped her throat" versus "she screamed"
"The story is located in New York City" versus "the story is set in New York City
"We have spoken once when you telephoned" versus "we spoke once when you telephoned"

If you can see the difference, make sure you look for it in your writing and pluck it out.
If you CAN'T see the difference, you could be in that second group. You probably need more practice before querying or publishing.
It's true that bad writing sells. I've seen it, you've seen it. But do you want it to be your book that we see it in?  If so, have at it. Just don't query me!
And if you see it, here's how to fix it:
Look at each sentence individually and think "is there a better, tighter way to say this?"  Ask "does this make physical sense?" A scream doesn't escape. A scream is what someone does.  If you use "a scream escaped her throat" use it on purpose, not because you didn't consider and discard "she screamed." You can break every rule in the book, including "write well" but you really need to do it on purpose, not in error.

It's ok to write these crappy sentences, don't get me wrong. Bad first drafts are the part of the process. It's not revising, not fixing the bad stuff that leads to problems.

Any questions?


french sojourn said...

Its' so ecstatic reading you're posts.



MNye said...

..".pluck it out." ? But my word count? Jeeze...ok I guess so..

Anonymous said...

Nope, no questions.

In line with your post thought...I just made a very inexpensive purchase (all of 6.99) for an app called "Hemingway Editor." It was more out of kicks than to use as a real tool for editing the current WIP, however..., it does seem useful. it highlights difficult sentences, adverbs, passive sentences, etc. Actually, I LOVE it. It also indicates you should write sentences below 10th grade level and tells you what grade your passage ranks. Yesterday I popped in my first chapter = post college level - oops. Second chapter - fifth grade. Yeah baby!

Colin Smith said...

The pool of questions is but empty water at present... :)

But if I might offer a thought: the examples Janet cites sound like people trying too hard to be writers. It's as if they have an idea in their heads what "good literature" sounds like, and they are trying to imitate it. In the end, however, that imitation ends up more like a Monty Python parody. My advice (for what it's worth--see yesterday's comments): if your flowery prose makes it harder for your reader to understand you, then you are failing as a writer. Keep it direct and simple. Learn to say a lot with a few words by carefully selecting the words you use, and using them well. For the umpteenth time, this is why the flash fiction contests are soooo helpful.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Any questions?
Will Hillary run?

Ardenwolfe said...

Awesome advice as always.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

At times, attempts to raise the perception of our intellect or the sensitivity of our souls by verbositizing the output of our written product results in objuscation which only causes those perusing our text to tremble with the bewilderment that grips their thought processes.
In other words – Stop being smarty pants! It just confuses the reader.

Elissa M said...

I believe I used "scream escaped" at one point in my WiP (I'll have to double check) but it was deliberate. The scream escaped because the screamer can't. I wanted to emphasize the protagonist's helplessness. Still, I'm definitely going back to make sure that's really how I want to phrase it (if I didn't already change it--I've changed a lot in this round of edits).

NotaWarriorPrincess said...

In defense (a bit) of "have spoken" structures--SOMEtimes the past perfect IS what you want to say. It's when it isn't necessary and the past simple will do that job that it gets wordy. English only has two tenses (yes, only two: present and preterite); all the many constructions we use for creating temporal settings in verbs come from aspect, mood, and conditional auxiliaries, not tenses. Compare "Let there be light" with "Fiat lux." There is no tense there, because as an imperative, "be" is not time-marked at all. "Fiat" contains the timelessness, as well as the command form, in the form of the verb. English (present-day English, anyway) can't do that. Check out the verb-al verbiage of a clause like "he may have been being watched (for hours)." FIVE words in that verb construction--each doing a specific job, and all making the sentence into stylistic word salad!

This is why History of English Literary Language acronyms to HELL.

You're welcome.

Mark Songer said...

Cigarette smoke crept past his lips like a slow leak in twice retreaded whitewalls. His eyes clamped together tighter than his bookie's fist when he asked for a fourth advance on The Next Sure Thing, running in the 1:20 race with muddy conditions. Frustration chased exuberation from his body and settled in for the long haul, setting its 500 pound weight lifting set squarely between his shoulders.

"So, Shark," he bit, "what you're saying is that Spillane-esque style is even more out of style my suit? I can't tell ya how much that breaks my heart. Really, I can't."

Colin Smith said...

@Mark: QOTKU may feel differently, but there's a big difference between the Spillane-isms which actually evoke mood and character, and the examples Janet gave that are simply circumlocutions attempting to sound "writerly." But that's just my 2c.

Karen McCoy said...

There's bad writing, but there's also bad storytelling. I've ran into situations where the sentences were strung together okay, but the prose fell flat. Sometimes cliched sentences come from not knowing characters and plot well enough.

So finding a better story is also important--and lot of times, better sentences tend to follow when that happens.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

What was the rejection cartoon you put on Facebook the other day? "I like all the words in your story; could you please rearrange them to make a different/better story?"

Craig said...

I can see the difference but as in all things it depends on the context. A scream escaped can work just fine.

Daphne tried to quiet the girls but somewhere a scream escaped. Works for me.

I believe a query should be perfect but in such things as dialogue obtuse sentences sometimes turn the trick better than attempting to have all of your characters have a PhD in English. It can also break an overly tense paragraph.

Janet Reid said...

Mark, for a flippant comment that's pretty good writing. Are you working on a novel?

*sharks circling*

Mark Songer said...

Thank you, madam Shark and yes, I am in the editing mode of my first novel now as well as working on a query letter (with the help of the lessons taught others on the QS blog, of course).

Tamlyn said...

I think maybe the first might be because people get told off for saying 'I was terrified' due to the 'was' (which is apparently the most evil word ever) and telling-not-showing.

But then, I can't see anything wrong with screams occasionally escaping instead of the blunter 'She screamed', so I guess I fall into the bad writing category!

Anonymous said...

Yes! And I really can't stand it when I see bad writing from a well-known, bestselling author with a major publishing house. Or any author with a major publishing house, really. It's pretty annoying to know that someone was willing to publish that, but I can't get anyone to look at my book. Ugh.

quantumdynamo said...

Good writing is so subjective and dependent on context. What works for one writer and one reader may not for another. I've not only had a scream escape, but at one point a scream crawled out of a character's throat with its fingernails. Maybe it's only because I huff so much ether that this makes sense to me? Some readers love my descriptions, others say, "Screams don't have fingernails." *shrugs*

I think that bad writing is usually fairly recognizable, but GOOD writing is a matter of opinion.