Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bad writing, and why it's a good thing

by Anna Jones Buttimore

I was recently asked to look at a novel someone else was writing in order to pick up any cultural problems since it was set in historical England (yes, I'm that old). I have changed it to protect the innocent would-be writer, but I'll recreate something along the lines of what I read in just the opening paragraph:

"I crept down the stairs in the early hours of the morning. I was the only one awake so early. I went into the parlour, sat in the armchair and closed my eyes. I watched as mother took the whistling teapot off the stove, and father said "Only another week until the holidays.""

I picked out several problems:
  • She said she was the only one awake, but mother and father were in the parlour
  • Her eyes were closed, so how could she see mother and father?
  • Teapots don't go on stoves, and they certainly don't whistle.
  • Every sentence begins with "I" which sounds boring.
  • The last sentence, where she "watches" as father speaks,could have been better phrased.
  • Over here, Christmas is called Christmas. We never refer to "the holidays". The word "holiday" has a completely different meaning.
Here's how I would rewrite it:

"I crept down the stairs in the early hours of the morning, sure that I was the only one awake so early. Tiptoeing into the parlour, I sat in the armchair and closed my eyes. I heard mother take the whistling kettle off the stove, and father say to her, "Only another week until Christmas.""

The problem is that's just one paragraph. Based on that, I suspect that the entire book needs to be completely rewritten. One of the difficult things about being a published author is that everyone knows that they could write a book, but they also know that they'll stand a better chance of getting it published if you'll help. But while everyone might be able to string together 90,000 words, not everyone can do it well.

I would include myself in this; I have had more books rejected by publishers than I have had accepted. It's very difficult to write with clarity and style, to evoke mood, to build believable characters and to weave an intricate story and still maintain continuity. I struggle with it, and envy those, like my fellow geese, who do it so well and apparently effortlessly.

I have decided to stick to my brief to the letter, and while I will correct the "holidays" and "teapot" I will not be telling the would-be author about her continuity errors, or poor style. Most people who write novels do so because they want to. I think - I hope - very few do it with dreams of being the next JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. If everyone gave up writing because someone told them they were no good at it, we would have no JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. I think we need to encourage everyone to write the novels that are within them, whether or not they are likely to be any good at the end of it. Writing is an incredibly fun process, and we can only get better with practice.


Cheri J. Crane said...

Great post, Anna. And I agree, I think it's important to encourage others to develop their talents.

Look where we would be if Thomas Edison had heeded the teacher who called him "addled." ;)

Jennie said...

I agree, Anna. I want to encourage, not discourage writers. It's important to point out major flaws, but if we get too nitpicky we may cause a potential great writer from continuing to try.