Cranky, Obnoxious Oddball Vents Spleen on Innocent School Kids

Back in the nineties, I was in a two-person writers’ group with another would-be novelist. M had a master’s degree in English and considerably better writing skills than I had. I learned a lot from her. She had agreed to judge the fiction-writing contest for high school students in the city where we lived. Our metropolitan area had a population of over a million, and she found herself buried under submissions. I offered to help.

We split the pile of manuscripts. I was to read the submissions in my half and look for stories that I thought were worth a second look by M, who would make the final decision.

All the submissions were read to the last word by at least one of us. You won’t find such courtesy in a commercial publishing house.

Some of the pieces were very good. One or two could have passed for the work of an adult professional writer. A few were incredibly bad, as in “aren’t you too young to be drinking heavily while you write?” kind of bad.

The bulk of them showed an honest effort to write a good short story, but unfortunately the kids didn’t have a notion of what good fictional technique even looks like.

Before there were authors of how-to-write-fiction books to swindle people out of their money, people who wanted to write fiction usually taught themselves. The classic route was to begin by reading a large stack of fiction. Once you had done that, you would select an author you admired and closely imitate that author until you developed a style of your own. This system of learning through imitation works, and not only in writing. Early Beethoven sounds eerily like Haydn. Van Gogh spent days at a time staring at a single painting in a museum, studying the brush strokes of Rembrandt.

The kids, I soon decided, hadn’t read very much. Some of that was their age. They hadn’t had time to read and digest a bookcase of fine writing. Some of the problem, though, was what they had read. I suspected that they had mostly read badly written cotton-candy fiction, such as cheesy romance novels or clumsy science fiction and horror tales.

If it’s true that you are what you eat, it’s true that how you write is largely a product of what you’ve read. Garbage in, garbage out.

At the time, I wished I had a way to give the honest-but-erring kids some feedback. Twenty years too late, here it is:

I’ve created the beginning of a terminally-ill short story:

“Don’t look now,” handsome, tall, dark-curly-haired John said to his lovely wife Laura, blond, blue eyed, C-cup, sexy in her low-cut, eggshell-blue top with matching skirt, shoes, and jewelry, “But there are a couple of old ladies sitting two tables away who are staring at me as if they want to hypnotize me.”

John and Laura were happy that night. Very happy. Happy, happy, happy. Theirs was a happy marriage. And playful, too. They liked playing games in restaurants and making things up. You could just tell they were playful. They played happily a lot.

Laura pretended to yawn and turned around and looked up into the sky as if the were looking for airplanes the way her father, whom she had never gotten along with and who disliked her husband, their cats, and her favorite ketchup, and who never liked the way her hair looked even after Margaret, her favorite hairdresser, who was getting a divorce from her husband because he liked beans, had it just the way John liked it when he got all excited, but no, this was never good enough for Daddy, and it made her cry sometimes when he looked for airplanes that weren’t there, even though he lived near mountains as beautiful as those inhabited by elves from mythical realms, and where if you wished really hard wishes would come true, and bluebirds danced like fireflies over an azure sea.

People who submit stuff like this have no idea what good writing looks like. They think they are writing fiction because what they produce isn’t much worse than the junk they read. It’s like believing that a Styrofoam sandwich with rubber-band filling is food.

If you forget everything else I say here, remember this: make a daily habit of reading the work of people who write a lot better than you do.

The is the opening of the short story “Don’t Look Now” by Daphne du Maurier:

“Don’t look now,” John said to his wife, “but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotize me.”

Laura, quick on cue, made an elaborate pretense of yawning, then tilted her head as though searching the skies for non-existent airplanes.

That is a pro at work. I am envious. Using just forty-eight words she has told us—mostly indirectly—that these are married people sitting in a cafe or restaurant, that they are in good moods, that at least Laura is rather playful, and that something odd is going on at a nearby table occupied by a couple of older women. There is not a single wasted word.

Authors who insist on telling you, frequently, how characters are feeling, instead of showing you, are telling you something else as well: they are telling you they are amateurs. (Okay, even pros occasionally tell readers how a character is feeling, but in most cases it’s a bad idea, like spitting chewing tobacco on the carpet when you’re visiting your clean-freak grandmother who has a severe heart condition.)

Also, Ms du Maurier didn’t start off with a detailed physical description of the characters. The reader doesn’t need that to begin the story, so she left it out when she set up the initial situation. (However, if the character just woke up as a giant cockroach, and that isn’t his normal look, go ahead and begin the first paragraph with a description that explains why sales clerks won’t accept his old photo I.D. when he tries to buy beer.)

I swear that the very worst writing I saw during my stint as a contest filter—bad for many other reasons besides excessive description of looks—contained the most detailed and lengthy and irrelevant physical descriptions of the characters no later than the middle of the first page.

I suppose that if you have mostly read cheesy romance novels sold for the purpose of, well, lets call it “private self-enjoyment” to keep this post G-rated, you’re used to enough physical description of impossibly gorgeous and sexy humans to complete a missing person’s report, and think that’s how it’s done in good fiction.

Think again. Many great novels and short stories lack a full description of the main characters. We don’t even know what color Elizabeth Bennet’s hair was in Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Austen had an entire novel to get around to mentioning it. (She did make it clear that Lizzy was not a “handsome” woman, so forget about the pretty actresses who play the character in films.)

I also loaded my dying story with a ton of irrelevant garbage that has no bearing whatsoever on the story. Details are fine, even desirable, if they matter, but bad fiction is crawling with the irrelevant and swimming with red herrings.

When it’s time to edit, put every detail and every sentence you toss in during the white heat of writing the first draft on trial for its life. Does it reveal something important about the characters? Does it advance the plot? Does it help to sustain or enrich the fictional dream by making a real contribution to the description of the scene? No? Off with its head!

Overblown description, a common disease of amateurs, usually occurs when a writer tries on a narrative voice that is too big for him. (Bad imitations of William Faulkner come to mind.) I admire good lyrical prose, but it’s a high-wire act few of us can pull off. If you don’t have a real gift for it, please tell your story in simple declarative sentences. Some great fiction has been written in bare, minimalist language.

As a final test, kids, read your dialogue aloud. If it sounds stupid, it probably is. Fix it so an actor could read the lines without snickering. Keep writing, and good luck!


75 thoughts on “Cranky, Obnoxious Oddball Vents Spleen on Innocent School Kids

  1. I remember when I first started writing fiction with the hopes of publication. My prose wasn’t as bad as that example you had there, but it couldn’ve been if I hadn’t read a lot of Anne Rice and Stephen King and whatnot. Thankfully I’ve improved over time, but I can see why you cringe. If anyone ever comes to me asking for advice, I’d say, “Read a lot, write a lot, and whatever you read, it better not be any crappy Twilight-esque stuff, it’s got to be quality!”

  2. I’ve heard that advice many times before and I fully agree with it. You should read lots of books by authors in your genre and then pick an author you really like and try to imitate them as best as you can in an effort to develop your own style….. But if aspiring authors still choose to ignore this sound advice, then at least they can keep in mind your last point, “read your dialogue aloud. If it sounds stupid, it probably is. Fix it so an actor could read the lines without snickering.” Well-said! 😀

  3. In fairness, I’ve seen this kind of writing among adults as well, but it is most common among children and teens. It’s a byproduct of the way kids are taught to write these days. All the emphasis is on length and, on the rare occasions creative writing is introduced, the only instructions given to the kids is “use lots of detail.” No one ever explains the difference between good detail and bad, and the books available to young people don’t really help.

    • I think when you are working on the first version of a new chapter or something you should just keep typing no matter how much of it is nonsense. Pure stream of consciousness. Then you go back, toss out everything that doesn’t contribute to the story, and see if what’s left will work. Bad pop fiction is nothing new. Northanger Abbey is partly a spoof of bad Gothic fiction that was being written for excitable young girls to read by candlelight circa 1800.

  4. Get rid of most adjectives, get rid of most adverbs and read what you’ve written OUT LOUD. I say it over and over to students. Like du Maurier, epic characterisation in movie making….Erin Brocovitch. say less and leave a greater impression. Great post.

  5. I think reading one’s work out loud is one of the best pieces of advice you could give a writer. If you have to take more than a couple of breaths while reading a sentence out loud, you’ll be asphyxiating your reader as well. This was very enjoyable to read – thanks!

  6. I agree with this entirely.
    I find most young people these days haven’t been exposed to writing with any substance or value. It’s sad that the popular authors are normally those who do not write inspiring or even remotely artistic novels.

    I enjoyed your post!

    • Goodness knows that a lot of the mass-market stuff isn’t very good, but ever since the printing press there has been a lot of bad fiction floating around. As I told someone else earlier, Northanger Abbey is partly a spoof of bad “young adult” fiction circa 1800. I have nothing against books that are just fun reads. For goodness’ sake, I’m writing a genre horror novel. However, we should eat some real food before we eat dessert.

    • My characters come to see me at 2:00 a.m., furious about their clumsy dialogue.It’s quite an incentive to crank up the laptop and fix it. You’re right. We should keep pushing ourselves to do it better.

  7. Kind of odd — lots of likes, but no comments. So here goes. Age is an excuse for not having much writing experience; it’s not an excuse for not having read much. I’m also a cranky, obnoxious oddball, so take that into consideration. By the time I’d started high school, I’d read a good-sized bookcase of books, mostly classics. By the time I graduated, I’d probably added several hundred more, a mix of classics and contemporary fiction, plus biographies and an assortment of popular science writing. Today, kids are watching TV, playing video games, and reading mostly Disneyized dreck written down to what is supposedly their reading level. Nuff said.

    • I was in the third grade when I discovered Heinlein’s science fiction novels and branched out from there. With all the video distraction out there now, I’m not sure I would have read nearly as much as I have.

  8. “Make a daily habit of reading the work of people who write a lot better than you do.”

    Great advice! It is something I try to do frequently, but I struggle with the balance of reading for enjoyment and reading to glean. I have found it difficult to do both at the same time. I loved this post, by the way.

    • Thanks! I understand about the different styles of reading. I used to have a job that required me to skim mountains of stuff every day. I had a terrible time changing gears for reading fiction.

  9. Reblogged this on Seeking the New Earth and commented:
    This blogger has some good, direct thoughts on the concept of description, and avoiding the preponderance thereof. And he presents it in a witty and elegant manner. Reblogged here for educational purposes. Enjoy!

  10. I’ve read my share of both good fiction and bad. While I much prefer the good, I have to admit that there are times the bad fiction can be worth it just for a fun ride. Just skip all the extraneous description and be careful not to pick up bad habits. I haven’t yet figured out the key difference between the writers who can describe a tree and impress me with their skill and the ones who describe a tree and make me want to beat them over the head and tell them that I KNOW what a tree looks like, thank you very much.

    Just for the record, though, I should point out that Jane Austen does say Elizabeth Bennet is very pretty, something along the lines of “second to Jane in beauty as in age,” along with references to the attractiveness of the Bennet sisters with Mary being the only one who isn’t pretty (that is stated explicity somewhere). The comment that she wasn’t handsome was from Darcy and served only to illustrate that he was a jerk, which just reinforces your point about including only the details that matter. (No, I’m not an obsessed Janeite, but I’m too nitpicky for my own good.)

    • I guess I was thinking of the passage where Darcy was noting lack of symmetry, whatever that was supposed to mean:

      “Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely
      allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the
      ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no
      sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly
      had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered
      uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To
      this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had
      detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry
      in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and
      pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those
      of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness.”

      I’m inclined to read that as she wasn’t all that attractive, but was intelligent and playful, and that it was those qualities that attracted him. However, while I greatly admire Miss Austen’s work, I am hardly an expert, and will happily defer to your exegesis of the text. I was mistaken. Thanks for the correction!

  11. It is unfortunate that that great ‘critic’ of writing, James Kilpatrick, is dead. His column “The Writer’s Art” said what you’ve said. He would often say “read your writing!”. He was an advocate of only using a word if it was needed.
    I would add to your post the following: Learn to spell!

    • I used to read Kirkpatrick. He was a fine essayist who knew his craft. May he rest in peace. I didn’t get into the spelling issue, but often consult a dictionary to be sure a word I want to use really means what I think it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. I wish picking up a good dictionary was a more common habit.

  12. This is great. I make no pretense about the fact that I’m an amateur aiming to not be and what you’ve said here is really helpful and articulates what I’ve been wrestling with. Thank you.

    • Exactly! My first few drafts are usually as successful as the guy who gave the little talk before he tried to impersonate a pigeon. I understand, believe me. Great clips!

  13. This is great advice. I love the comparison to the slogan, “We are what we eat.” It’s so true. Just yesterday I told my students I want to be a published author one day, and one replied, “Oh, maybe you will be the next J.K. Rowling.” My reply? “God, I hope not.”

    • I think there is a tendency in this society to assume that if something is popular it must be of good quality. I have nothing against fun reading — I’m writing a horror novel, for goodness’ sake — but I think you’re right that the quality of best-selling fiction could be better. Joyce Carol Oates wrote in an essay about Gothic and horror fiction that it doesn’t matter whether something is genre fiction of not. It matters whether it’s written well. You’re an English teacher working in the trenches? God bless you!

      • I agree. Many of the best-selling fiction novels aren’t that well written, but people who enjoy reading tend to look for one of two things when they read: a good plot, or good writing. I think good writers pay attention to good writing, but the majority of the population just want a good plot.
        Yes, I’m teaching in China. It’s been a fun adventure so far! I’m definitely learning a lot.

  14. I enjoyed your post, as it offers advice I need to be reminded of.

    I taught writing at my state’s flagship university for a number of years, composition actually. I am currently writing a memoir and find myself making the same mistakes I so often warned my students against. Sometimes I could kick myself.

    I was Freshly Pressed along with you yesterday. Just wanted to stop by and say hello. Mine is the post about front porches. Thanks for these important lessons–ones all of us need from time to time.


    • I love your piece about the porches. With your background, you are far better qualified than I to write about writing. Let me know when your memoir comes out. I’d love to see it. Take care.

  15. So many people, including myself, think they have what it takes to publish a fabulous piece of literature. But, with the invention of ‘blogging’, myself and I hope, many others, have been brought down to earth. Out in the blogosphere, there are thousands of examples of great work, usually just typed out, quickly and without much thought, in the thick of the night. Now, if I look at how long it takes me to string together some words in an intelligent way, I realize that writing is damn hard work! So, well done to the bright sparks who obviously have ‘the gift’.

    • Anybody with the guts to put something out there is fine by me. It probably takes better-than-average writing skills just to write a bad story. Good ones require talent and an awful lot of hard work. I was encouraged by reading that Hemingway had to rewrite the end of A Farewell to Arms dozens of times to get it right. I’m not sure I can get to fabulous. I’m shooting for a good yarn.

  16. I won the book Alice in Deadland. I was looking forward to digesting this book. It is hiding somewhere in my bedcovers with a dog-ear at the end of chapter two. In the first 18 pages, if my memory is correct, there were 6 references to the fact that school is now a place where kids go to learn self-defence and how to kill zombies. The book might have been the first novel by a 15 year old girl. It it was, it would have been a good effort but not a publishable one. Imagine my shock to find out it was written by an adult male and it was his 11th published book. I can’t help but wonder if his mother is publishing them for him. The idea is a good one. The execution of that idea should not have seen print.

  17. Pingback: Cranky, Obnoxious Oddball Vents Spleen on Innocent School Kids | Cartastic! :)

  18. Certainly good advice, but i feel like I’ve heard it somewhere before… It is possible i suppose that two experienced writers could come up with these concepts completely independent of one another, but this post bares a striking similarity to stephen kings how-to-write/memoir “on writing”. Given the length of time that has passed since i read it (and the fact that its past midnight as i write this and i don’t feel like getting my copy off the shelves and flipping through it to find the parts of the book where he writes something along these same lines) i won’t make any accusations of plagiarism, but i can’t shake the feeling that i had read some of those same sentences verbatim somewhere before. i suppose it is also possible that the author and i have simply read the same book and they condensed some of the more pertinent advice into this post, but had this been the case shouldn’t there have been some credit given to mr. king? if i am completely off base i do sincerely apologize, and in any case any one reading this who found it helpful should read “on writing” by stephen king, it helped me tremendously in my pros, and was very entertaining as well.

    • I honestly don’t believe I did, but I don’t own a copy of Mr. King’s On Writing, so I don’t have a way to immediately check to see if my unconscious was up to no good. I’m pretty sure I leafed through it in a bookstore once, but found the advice so similar to other sources I’d already read, I decided it wasn’t worth it. It occurs to me that Mr. King and I are close enough in age that we may both have been beaten soundly by instructors bearing copies of William Strunk, Jr and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style (I still have mine, for which I paid $0.95). OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS!! is branded into my soul.

    • I love it when someone says something like “i won’t make any accusations of plagiarism, but I can’t shake the feeling I had read some of those same sentences verbatim somewhere before.” Serves the same function as when someone says “I’m not a racist but…[insert racist statement].” If you want to make the accusation, make the accusation. But please don’t specifically say you are not making an accusation in the same sentence in which you accuse. It’s annoying, and frankly cowardly. That being said, could you provide a citation from On Writing to the verbatim sentences you mentioned? It would need to be beyond general writing advice you find commonly like “show don’t tell” “less is more,” and the importance of reading in the development of writing skills. If you don’t find the sentences, an apology might be in order.

  19. To be unintentionally morbid, I’ve taken to that phrase “kill your babies” as I become more deft as a writer. Sometimes it’s in editing ourselves that we truly get to the crux of the story. Wonderful post!

    • I may not be remembering this correctly, but I seem to remember that Hemingway said you write and then throw away the good stuff. Believe me, I understand how it hurts to toss stuff you loved writing, but that doesn’t add to the story in some way. Sigh.

  20. The title alone caught my attention. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed with such a helpful and instructive post. I also thank you for reminding me, in your comments, about Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House and the works of Robert Heinlein. Both are authors whom I have read and enjoyed.

    In my blog, I occasionally write spoofs of romance novels, which I call “Fallen Arches; Novellas of Broken Romance” but, quite honestly, I would have a difficult time competing with your “terminally-ill short story.”

    • Thank you! I love your oddball humor, and I’ve tried to do a follow, but the software isn’t cooperating for some reason. I will try later. Fallen Arches, indeed!

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