I recently wrote an entry, scheduled to appear 5 April, for the Incwriters website:
which is this month dedicated to DOGHORN PRESS:
The entry concerned Bad Writing, and here is the explanation for the story STEVE AND THE REALLY HORRIBLE MONSTER in My Selected Short Stories blog.
A writing colleague had sent me scurrying off to read The Eye of Argon, one of the worst fantasy stories ever written (and there’s a lot of competition!). It should be required reading for all writers, as well as Hollywood script-writers of the last ten years. A detailed account of its history, and, more important, links to the text itself, can be found here:
It is, as I think someone has said (or might it have been my very own Original Thought?), the prose equivalent of William Topaz McGonagall’s poetry. (And if you haven’t read this master rhymester, his poem on my home town, Torquay, begins:
All ye lovers of the picturesque, away
To beautiful Torquay and spend a holiday
'Tis health for invalids for to go there
To view the beautiful scenery and inhale the fragrant air,
Especially in the winter and spring-time of the year,
When the weather is not too hot, but is balmy and clear.
After this powerful stirring start, the poem deteriorates considerably.
Some think that The Eye of Argon may have been a spoof, though this seems unlikely, since the writer got very upset at the criticisms. Another, later, notoriously bad book, Atlanta Nights, IS a spoof, written by a group of top SF writers (none of whom had any idea of what the others were writing), deliberately crammed with every possible and impossible writing error, and sent to the infamous Publish America to test their quality control. Some of you will at least have heard of the book. If not, rather than Wiki, or as well as, read the customer reviews on Amazon:
Amazon.com: Atlanta Nights (9781411622982): Travis Tea: Books
There was even a long review (maybe not quite so well known!), the brainchild of a disreputable defrocked Norfolk priest, Peter Tennant, who induced another group of writers (again maybe not quite so well known!) to concoct it without having read the original Atlanta Nights, and again without seeing the contributions of their colleagues. This masterwork appeared on the now defunct Whispers of Wickedness site (which might explain the ‘defunct’ bit). This is totally irrelevant, and I only mention it because I was one of the ‘reviewers’. That’s one of the perks of blogging.
The point of all this is that the Awfully Bad can be Magnificently Hilarious. Provided, that is, the reader has read enough to know what good writing is.
But between the really crass, and the deliberate spoof, lies a whole range of writing which might (or might not) be considered ‘bad’. As many of you will know, The Guardian a month or so ago ran an article in which a bunch of top writers were asked to give their ten rules for good writing:
Writers included Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Neil Gaiman, PD James, Michael Moorcock, Ian Rankin, and many others. I don’t want to discuss here the validity or not of these ‘rules’ – this has been done in many places – except to mention that, as the contributors themselves point out, according to some of them both Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood would be bad writers.
(In passing, let me mention that the advice itself, especially on some so-called writers’ help websites, can also be unintentionally funny (if also depressing). One is frequently led to imagine a platypus instructing a duck in the rudiments of flight. Here I quote from an article on “common mistakes that writers make”. Soaked in the milk of human kindness as I am, I will not name the perpetrator or his tenebrous cyber-abode:
‘Remember that the reader does not know what you the writer knows. As we writiers put our stories on paper, we can see the events take place in our minds eye. The readers only see what images we put in there. So in a lot of cases, it is important to be decriptive. Rather than saying "Angar swung his hammer into the guards face." Try something like "As Angar swung his hammer into the guards face, a sickening crunch was acompanied by a spray of blood." Sounds a bit grusome but it brings the image to life.’
Yep, ‘sickening crunch’ is ‘grusome’ all right, besides being as much overused as John Holmes’ cinematographic member. I found twelve errors there, maybe you can find more.)
A large part of the Guardian writers’ advice, and that of a few thousand websites (some of them very good, to be fair) , is inevitably concerned with what not to do. Inspired by this, I made my own list of what I think are the commonest errors, especially – but not only – beginners’, and then crammed them all in the small seven-page story, Steve and the Really Horrible Monster. I didn’t bother to include such obvious things as bad spelling or punctuation (except for, hopefully, humorous effect), or problems such as bad pacing, applicable mainly (but not only, of course) to longer works. I then titled this My First Story, and sent it without comment to an Oxford University alumnus. His email reply was muted, guarded, and non-committal, as if he sensed something was not quite right, but he couldn't quite pin it down. (Of course, this response might reflect not on his reading abilities, but on his previous experience of my writing!)
This story cannot compete with the oeuvres mentioned above, but it has the advantage, I think, of being readable in a few minutes. Besides, I confess I rather like it. If anyone has a really boring job, the boss is asleep, and they’ve run out of vampire or zombie books to read (Irish Catholic priests are more likely to run out of little boys first!) then it’s in My Selected Stories to the right of this blog. I’m sure that anybody who has read a lot throughout their life will spot all or most of the infelicities at once, and I’m equally sure that a person who has read little or nothing would miss 90% of them. But, as with Atlanta Nights, I hope it can still be read with pleasure.
Here is the list of what I personally consider most annoying ‘faults’, all included in the story, although of course with the caveat that everything depends on the context and purpose of the writing.
Describing physical aspect of every character when introduced
Going into the characters’ past even if that is irrelevant or hinders the flow of the story
In general, irrelevant or long-drawn-out descriptions
Suddenly switching POV within scenes
Overuse of dialogue tags (“he growled”, “he interpolated”, etc.)
Clichés (not just verbal, but also clichéd plot lines, clichéd reactions of characters, pointing of moral, etc.)
‘Fill-in’ rhetorical questions: “Would Superbloke arrive in time?”
Infodump (especially one character telling another what he already knows)
Lack of credibility (within the universe postulated, which may well be incredible)
Weak moralistic endings, endings that don’t logically follow from everything that has gone before.
Forgotten or unexplained major loose ends (not everything needs to be explained, of course)
Exaggerated emotions, sentimentalism (on the writer’s part, not necessarily the characters’)
Inconsistency and/or inaccuracy of facts, unless deliberate
Clumsy phrasing, inadequate or misapplied or flowery vocabulary, overuse of adverbs, lack of control of register
Stating the obvious (“Fuck off”, he said, wanting her to leave)
Use of dramatic metaphors and similes that don’t actually stand up to scrutiny
Lack of rhythm in the writing ( a tricky one, that)
FLAT WRITING IN ALL ITS FORMS (see McGonagall poem above)
LACK OF ORIGINALITY. If I’ve read a story once, why should I want to read it again????? (Unfortunately, a lot of people do feel comfortable with what they’re already used to, hence bestsellers, cinema blockbusters, and most TV series. A Spanish channel has recently started to air its very own series about a bunch of kids who – oh my god, why didn’t I think of it!! – find they have ‘powers’, such as turning invisible, or telepathy.)
In connection with this topic, I would also like to mention that Doghorn Press recently published another satire, MISTER GUM, by Rhys Hughes, on bad writing, or, more concretely, on the frequent nonsense of Creative Writing courses, in this case featuring a seedy and scurrilous writing tutor named Mister Gum who tries to demonstrate – and breaks – certain sacrosanct rules, such as the notorious Show Don’t Tell, in the most Rabelaisian and deliciously obscene manner possible. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who has reflected on the absurdity of rules such as mine above applied to every writing situation:
Or if, as Google says, you are ‘feeling lucky’, and adore a good bargain, you could try:
(Yes, buy the two books, and you get a bargain price!!)
So off you go to suffer my own contribution to a genre that has not yet quite achieved literary respectability, but that will surely outlive all others: Really Bad Writing.