by Larry Kahaner
All writers get the same advice. Read the great writers; study the great works. Learn how seasoned, professional, and successful authors get the job done. All true, but I maintain that it’s also crucial for writers to read crap to learn what not to do.
How do you know what’s crap? It’s not a book that didn’t sell well, although that sometimes may be a clue. It’s not one that received bad reviews either. Some of the world’s greatest books have garnered negative comments from critics. Crappy writing is like the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on what constitutes pornography. You know it when you see it. And you know it because you’ve mainly been reading good writing.
More concrete indications of bad prose are sections that make you go “Huh?” or that make you laugh because they’re so ridiculous even though the author meant it to be serious. It’s prose that’s boring, even if you can’t articulate why your mind is wandering. Crappy writing just doesn’t sound right to your ear.
Other bad writing signs include no variation in sentence length, too much telling instead of showing, overshowing, no drama, no emotion, backstories that are too long, unnecessary detail, and on and on. I’m not talking about mechanical problems with grammar or lapses in POV or tense but simple, bad freakin’ writing.
Here are some examples from real self-published books. I have changed the wording slightly so as not to embarrass the author.
Sample: “We have to move quickly, pal. We already have an elite team on its way to Nigeria to rescue the pilot. But these paratroopers are going to stand out like chocolate chips in vanilla ice cream without some assistance on the ground. I need someone to be there to meet them or they’ll be minced meat.”
What did you learn? It’s trite and boring because the writing is obvious, full of clichés and the “chocolate chips?” Make it stop. Send the elite team? Why would you send the non-elite team? And yes, we do have to move quickly because moving slowly would. . .well. . .you know.
Sample: “Hi, Bob! Sorry, I’m so late! She awkwardly returned the kiss, her kitbag bumping against her knees and her laptop bag hanging from one shoulder.”
What did you learn? First, cut the exclamation points. You’re allowed only a few per book, and they should be reserved for “Look out!” like when a rock is falling on a character’s head. Show me how she “awkwardly returned the kiss”; don’t tell me. Last, who cares about her kitbag hitting her knee or that her laptop bag hung from one shoulder? (Can a laptop even hang from two shoulders?) What does that sentence add? Mood, ambience, emotion, anything? Nothing! (I used the exclamation point because I felt that I was in danger.)
I was going to offer one more example, but this exercise made me a little sick to my stomach, so I’ll stop here.
Again, why read crap? So you know what not to do. You’re learning from others’ mistakes without people like me making fun of you in this blog. We are all guilty of lapses in writing judgment. I have made the same mistakes that I detailed here (which I seek and destroy in the rewriting process) especially because I come from the non-fiction side of writing books where some of these transgressions–like telling instead of showing–is not only acceptable but encouraged. In fact, one of the tenets of non-fiction writing is “tell people what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them.” Do this in fiction and you’re inviting readers to pummel you.
My advice is to read some crap every once in a while but not too much. And don’t pay for it. Please. Read the free samples on Amazon. You only have to read (thankfully) the first few pages to learn their abject lessons.
Guest post contributed by Larry Kahaner. He is the author of more than a dozen non-fiction books and has just finished the draft to his first thriller. Check out more of his posts at his blog.