Monday, December 27, 2010

What I Learned From Bad Writers

Even as a kid I loved telling stories, but I first thought about becoming a writer in my late teens and of telling stories on paper for others to read.

Two things persuaded me to try my hand at the author thing. First, I wanted to enthrall others the way I’d been enthralled by L’Amour, Bradbury, Burroughs, Howard, MacDonald, and many others. Second, I figured I could do better, or at least put more effort into it, than some of the other writers I was reading. I won’t mention names, but I was finding books that just didn’t move me. The prose was leaden, the pace stagnant, the characters as stiff as new jeans.

Sometimes the poor writers just didn’t know how to tell good stories. But more often it seemed these authors were writing too fast and not giving the care to their work that being a craftsman required. To me, this became, and remains, the definition of a hack. Turns out, however, that I learned quite a bit from the hacks, mostly, I hope, about the things a writer should not do.

I learned that well-written prose strikes the ear like music, not like the sound of a bell without a clapper. I learned that description is boring unless it fires the imagination or sets a mood. I learned that good characters can’t become chess pieces to be shoved around, that they have to have integrity of action and consistency in their behavior over time. I learned that fiction should give the illusion of reality even when it can’t illustrate reality absolutely, as when dialogue sounds as if real people are talking rather than serving mechanically to advance the plot.

One important thing I learned from bad writing is that there is no suspense for readers when things come too easily for the characters. I read a book where the villain gathered a huge army and cornered the last heroes. The villain had a great bomb but the hero defused it, and the enemy army just suddenly ran away. I might once have thrown that book across the room, but this time I kept reading, wondering what other gems of “thou-shalt-not-do” wisdom might be found between the lines of a weak tale.

Of course, the most important thing I’ve learned from poor writing is that good writing takes concentration and effort, and there is no substitute for either. It’s easy to tell a bad story. The good ones take time.

24 comments:

David J. West said...

Absolutely Charles, I shudder at my earliest attempts when I was just throwing words down-and foolishly believing it would be as clear in the readers head as it was in my own.

Craft is a learned skill.

Charles Gramlich said...

David, learned and practiced and honed, like with good steel.

the walking man said...

Yes sir there are some who take me places I never wanted to go by routes I never would have traveled for myself. They are the ones collecting dust on the jacket,open, face down and waiting for me to decide how to recycle or to whom I don't like enough to gift the book to.

G said...

Oh man, did I learn the hard way about my earliest. I can look back on them now objectively and both cringe and laugh on how bad they really were (and can write about how bad my writing was back then as well), because they truly were just that bad.

sage said...

We can learn from the good and bad--that's an important life lesson! May you have a wonderful New Year, Charles.

Jodi MacArthur said...

Story telling is such a preciuos, wonderful art. It is an art tht can only be honed ovre timed as devoted student. I am delighted to haer of yuo speak of this topic, Charles. I ws thnking of this just teh other day. Story telling is one of the most ancient, powerful arts known to mankind. Our cultures, religion, and societies are built upon stories. So if one decides thy aer going to pursue teh craft---handle it wth all due respct! And yay, Bradbury is one of my loves too! Cant gt enuogh of his work.

(ps. sorry abuot the misspells! My mind is doing its rearrnging thng agian-argh!)

Liane Spicer said...

One important thing I learned from bad writing is that there is no suspense for readers when things come too easily for the characters.

Conflict, and more conflict. It drives a good tale. Building conflict is a work in progress for me.

In addition to the points you mentioned, I also learned:

-That a story with dozens of characters I have trouble keeping track of is a no-no.

-That no matter how good you are at writing dialogue, the occasional dialogue tag doesn't hurt so the reader doesn't have to keep tracking back to figure out who's speaking. I know one acclaimed writer who is guilty of that and it irritates the hell out of me.

-Cliches = lazy writing.

-Inadequate basic research annoys the reader. Example: When a novelist refers to my country, Trinidad, as Spanish-speaking. Yeah, it's a Spanish name and we're almost on top of Venezuela, but really...

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, these days I even keep the ones I don’t like, because I usually find them good blog material or I refer to them in articles.


G, The ones I’m talking about here were already published, and sometimes widely so when I read their stuff. All of us do some pretty poor writing when we start out. For sure.


Jodi MacArthur, Bradbury knows how to combine all the elements and spice it with a little love and passion.


Liane Spicer, Conflict. Yes! And too many characters spoil the book. I don’t mind dialogue tags much; I scarcely see them.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

My first effort was just that - a first effort!
There are also authors who excel at writing and are masters at their craft, but their stories are long-winded, dull, and uninteresting.

Stefanie Worth said...

I am amazed at how much there is to KEEP learning about writing. Once you think you've mastered a particular craft element -- character, for example -- you immediately notice weaknesses, say, in your plotting or sub-plotting techniques that need to be strengthened as a result. I'm sure that becoming a better writer is a career-long pursuit.

Charles Gramlich said...

Alex, I think writers used to be able to earn money while learning in the pulps and early paperback markets. Now the learning has to take place on the net, often for no pay.

Stefanie, you got it. Always another technique to uncover or improve, or another way of thinking about a topic.

Steve Malley said...

Hear hear! A mighty fine post and some great comments, too! :-D

Evan Lewis said...

Great description of bad writing. I'm always amazed to see that some of it is still being published.

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve Malley, I always get good commentary, especially over here at Novel Spaces. I'm very appreciative.

Evan Lewis, I kknow. I see a lot of struggling writers whose skill levels seem much higher than some of those who are selling hugely.

Ty Johnston said...

Charles, glad I could teach you a few things. ;-)

Ron Scheer said...

The irony is that you have to be an already pretty good writer to recognize bad writing.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ty, lol. At least you don't call me "grasshopper."

Ron, You know I think you're right. It does take a certain level of storytelling talent to recognize the worst stuff.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I started writing with the intention to publish not because of bad writers but because of stereotypical ones. I got fed up of the heroine in the romance being wealthy, overly beautiful and slim, and the hero being tall dark and handsome and if not rich titled.

I began making my heroines a little bigger, not perfect, and struggling or barely making it financially. The men were still handsome but they had flaws and and were just making ends meet.

As for bad writers: I have little patience for bad writing. I put the book down immediately.

jennifer said...

I found the post that I had written a couple of years ago about my experience with a black widow spider bite. I cringed! It was so poorly written. Of course, I was taking pain medication at the time that it was written but I don't think that was the only problem.

My writing made me want to edit edit edit!

Charles Gramlich said...

Jewel, it depends for me. Much of th etime I put the book down when the writing is bad, but sometimes I'll make my way through it anyway, depending on the genre and plot. I often end up scanning books too, without reading them entirely.

Jennifer, if you recognize your own bad writing then you're well ahead of those who write badly but don't even know they are doing so.

Barrie said...

Along the same lines, I've learned a lot from judging writing contests.

Charles Gramlich said...

Barrie, I've never done that. I should. I bet it would be interesting for sure.

X. Dell said...

I agree with Jewel, actually. A lot of what spurs me to write fiction is the overreliance upon stereotypes--and just a general lack of understanding about the world and its people--manifest by many big-name writers. These people obviously understand the craft of writing. But their narratives strike me as hollow because they really don't have much to say that hasn't already been done to death.

Charles Gramlich said...

X-dell, you're right. it's a combination of having the skill, and something to say. I could say the same thing for music, perhaps. At least lyric wise at least.