Tag Archives: bad writing

Scriptura, Interrupta

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Let’s face it, sometimes life gets in the way.  In typical fashion, I come screaming around a corner, trying to do two things at once and SMACK! I run head first into it.

It is now Friday and I’ve gotten nothing done.  Nothing. Zip. Nada.  The children have both been desperately sick with a nasty flu bug – high fevers, excruciating headaches, and other assorted symptoms too disgusting to talk about.  My brain is just a hunk of non-functioning gray matter taking up space in my skull right now.

The Novel lurks in a desk drawer like a restless demon.  In the middle of the night, I can hear it scratching and banging, begging for attention.  I ignore it. The sheer daunting nature of fixing what is wrong with it, imagining more things that might be wrong with it scares the bejabbers out of me.

At two-thirty in the morning, as I fill a glass at the kitchen sink, I contemplate killing the whole project.

In my gut I know I won’t kill it and then I wonder why the hell not.  As I place cool wash cloths on a child’s fevered brow, I carry on this internal argument.  At dawn I find myself asleep at the wrong end of our  bed, curled up like a small dog.

I need to give myself a bit of a break. I am tired, half-sick, and over-caffeinated.  I begin to doubt every single thing from my use of punctuation to my ability to construct a story to whether my voice is really mine.

The absolute worst thing any writer can do is ignore the natural voice.  It would be like Taylor Swift trying to sing an aria from La Boheme. I’m no opera aficionado but I know that the result would be…painful.  If anyone tries to tell Ms. Swift that she should cut a CD of operatic classics, she should take her hair and whip that person across the face with it.

My voice is pretty well-defined.  Good thing because I’m a lousy imitator.  I know its range and that’s what bothers me sometimes – is it too limited?  Can it ever be richly layered, complex – like a very good wine?  Wine, not whine…

My voice is sounding a bit strangled right now because I’m hyper-ventilating.  Taking a deep breath, I open a book I’ve acquired entitled, A Passion for Narrative by Jack Hodgins.  There is a passage that shines like a lighthouse’s beacon through coastal fog.

When the Irish writer John McGahern was asked how to write good fiction: “he replied that first you write one good sentence, and then you must write another good sentence to follow it.”

Alistair MacLeod said basically the same thing.  He said he takes a long time to write because he’s careful with his sentences.  He writes one sentence.  He ponders it, speaks it out loud.  Then he writes another.  It is a slow, careful process.

This book by Hodgins also recommends throwing down a first draft quickly, with no editing or revising.  Ha!  I think that’s my problem.  I keep forgetting that The Novel is still in shitty first draft stage.  It’s not supposed to be pitch-perfect and it’s ok for parts of it to be horrible, ridiculous, unfettered, and foul.

There’s life: horrible, ridiculous, unfettered, foul.  In the next moment, it’s sweet, lovely, and deeply satisfying.  Writing is no different.  Sometimes, the writer must just slow down and take a deep breath.  And, some Advil.

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Fifty Shades of Okay

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I applied to a summer writing program yesterday.  I feel relatively sure I won’t get in  – especially after I read their FAQ page.  The answer to the question”what writing level is accepted?” puzzled me.  ALthough they say that they’ve taken outright beginners as well as published authors, the administrators said they do not usually work with “mass market work.”

What the hell does that mean?  They want to work with authors that no one will ever read? Call me crazy but it sounds a bit…limiting.  Are mere mortals like myself not to apply?  Or did I misunderstand the answer?  What kind of writing is good enough?  It’s a question nearly impossible to answer.

There is nothing like exceptional prose – the writing flows, the story captivates, evoking emotional responses.  As a writer, to hit those notes is a feeling unlike any other.  I experienced something akin to a “runners high” once when a teacher described my prose as “lyrical.” But lesser praise is fine.  “Very good” or  nicely done” can assure a good night’s sleep.  “It ain’t dreck” is reassuring too.  But am I good enough?  If I poll three different readers, I might get three different answers.

My answer?  No.  I will never be good enough.  Or, I will never stop trying to be better.

What constitutes “good writing” and a “good read” is incredibly subjective, as different and diverse as the shades of gray. One man’s gun-metal is another man’s pewter.  Some think gray an incredibly versatile colour, almost magical in its ability to change hue with changing light.  Others find it dull and dreary.  In a writer’s world, whether a manuscript is considered magical or dreary is for someone else to decide.  Two editors might yield two different decisions.

It has always been so and yet sometimes it seems anything can get published.  If my cat wrote something that was on trend, she might very well get published though she’d be hard pressed to use the word cat in a sentence correctly.  Can I blame the workshop admission people for having high standards when standards might be falling?

A few years ago, following in Twilight‘s wake, if your story contained angst-ridden, sexually repressed and impossibly good looking vampires, you were in.  After The Da Vinci Code, if you wrote about a)the Vatican b)Templars c)riddles hidden in the Holy Land that could only be solved by a boring Ivy League professor, you were in.  Stay tuned for a glut of  stories about uber-wealthy, sexually twisted men who deep down just want to be loved but who are, in the meantime, ok with having page after page of steamy sex.

All someone like me can do is strive to craft the best stories possible.  Trust me, I labour over every word.   I do not chase mediocrity as if it were the ice cream truck nor am I fond of thin, exclusive air.

To my craft I am: Careful. Passionate. Thoughtful. Devoted.  I think workshops should want writers like me.

 

Fasten Your Seatbelts, It’s a Rant

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I grapple with jealousy daily.  I spend almost 94.8% of my time grappling with jealousy.  The things I’m jealous of would take up way too much space on the page so I’ll keep it very, very specific for the purposes of this post.

Jealousy threatens to consume me whenever I pick up a book written by a person barely out of puberty, a book hailed as a “triumphant debut” (aren’t they all?), a book that shoots instantly onto the New York Times best seller list.  I turn the book over in my hands and stare at the photo of the author.  I want to scratch her doe-like eyes out.

But the single biggest thing that makes me go batshitcrazy is when the pre-pubescent prodigy can’t write.  In my humble, unpublished opinion, a basic requirement for publication should be…let’s see…good writing.  How does bad writing end up on a bookstore shelf?  I can almost (it makes me gnash my teeth to write this) forgive over-sentimentality in writing more than I can forgive shit writing.  Just saying.

There is nothing more heinous than a badly written book.  It’s like a mouthful of sour milk. What really gets me?  When the horrendous, gobsmackingly bad book has a banner printed across the top saying, “New York Times Bestseller!”  Seriously? It’s bad enough that someone published it; it’s worse yet when thousands, perhaps millions of people bought it.  Studies should be done on the brain damage inflicted by bad books.

Please don’t think me a literary snob.  I am quite the opposite.  Classmates of mine go on interminably about reading this highbrow tome or that and I literally fall out of my chair snoring.  I don’t have time to ponder the hidden, mystical meaning in a book.  I like straightforward, well-written stories with interesting plots and characters who aren’t self-indulgent whiners.  There are as many different opinions on what constitutes a good book as there are people in the world.  I get that. But I would think there would be certain basic requirements for publication.  Good sentence structure, perhaps?  A story?

I just put down a book (read: hurled across the room) purported to be about a young woman’s search for balance and happiness in a large, anonymous city where such searches can be difficult.  Oh, the potential there! There was a subplot (allegedly) about her love for dogs. I love dogs.  I was prepared to be hooked.  By page 30 I was skimming.  Maybe, just maybe, things would improve in a few pages…after all, it took me well over a 100 pages to get truly drawn in to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Some books start slow like roller coasters.

The book about the big city girl never improved.  Every chapter was like a bad re-write of the one before it. The girl whined incessantly.  She didn’t even own a dog.  By page 73, I wanted her to be chased out of the city by big, snarling, rabid dogs. The book would have been better if it had been written from the POV of the dogs.

This miserable excuse for a book was a “best seller,” this book so utterly devoid of charm.  I want to write a letter to the author conveying my bitterness and dismay. I would tell her the main character should be eaten by dogs.  She wouldn’t lose one moment’s sleep; after all, she is a “best-selling author” now.

I think of other bestselling authors I loathe.  It is a frighteningly long list.  There are some very, very popular authors with enough earnings from destroying the brain cells of innocent readers to buy themselves entire islands in the Caribbean.  Their formulaic, treacle-doused stories have weighed down countless bookstore shelves. I think of all the trees these books killed.  I get very sad.  I get very angry.  I fear I might be having a breakdown because in my darkest hours, I wonder if I should be attempting to write books like such as these..

Badly written but wildly successful books pose moral dilemmas (making them that much more hateful).  I agonize over every sentence of The Novel.  I try to ensure my characters have life and the plot moves.  I want the reader to want to turn the page not to see, goddamn it, does it ever get better but because they can’t wait to see what happens next!  I lie awake at night and worry that the whole thing is as flat as a pancake.  Why should I worry?  Why shouldn’t I just grab one of these lowest-denominator reads and imitate the hell out of it?  If I sell my soul to the Devil, maybe I won’t be dogged by the Green Monster anymore.  An island in the Caribbean would be…