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.
Hee, hee! You’re too funny! And so helpful at the same time!
(See how I helped you out by using 3 exclamation points? Yeah, that’s right. Got to make sure you have enough crap to read.)
For real, though, this was great. Thanks. I look forward to your next post.
Hahaha. First of all, I love the image of the dustbins. Secondly, this is a really good article. Way to flip the regular advice on its backside. I read crap quite often thinking its going to be good quality, but £1 ‘deals’ on amazon aren’t there for good books and sadly I’ve learnt that the hard way. I’ve waded through the thick sludge of bad writing hoping there will be some redemption in the plot and have always been sorely disappointed. Heck, there are even books I’ve read and thought, I really wish I could rewrite that myself because the plot is so GOOD but the story is so poorly written that it turns this whole book into trash. Urgh. So yes you have an excellent point there. Also, after reading crap, well-written books are a breath of fresh air! Love this article, did I already tell you that?
I like to read the debut novels of established writers. Sometimes I can see them learning their craft, because things are just a little rougher or more obvious. And sometimes I’m blown away and I peevishly decide they must have had an awesome editor.
It is important to be able to see what doesn’t work in writing as well as what does. The first time I remember looking critically at writing was when I noticed that an author was using “cried out” for practically every non-verbal vocalization in his story. Not a bad book overall, but I remember being struck with the realization of how varied wordings would have made the experience more engaging for readers.
I thought this a little glib. There is so much more to this especially for new writers.
Crap can also be read in bestsellers. It is amazing how many poorly written books are out there with Bestseller slapped above the title. This post is a great reminder to not only read good stuff but the bad stuff as well. It’s all about learning and improving. Thanks!!!!!!!!! (couldn’t resist) 🙂
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I confess that this is how I started writing horror.
While reading a book which was a real let-down. I said to my husband, “I could do better than this!”
My husband said, “You should.”
So I did.
Four books later… I’m working on stories for the next one.
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It’s so much easier to see mistakes in other people’s writing. This is how the writinng classes I took in college worked. Everyone had to write a certain amount, hand it in, where the professor copied it and handed it to everyone in the class. Then we would all discuss it. Feedback on your own stuff helped, but seeing others make the same mistakes really stood out.
On point! Yes. 🙂
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