So I was talking with a mate, who, in a fit of despair, threw his hands to the air and exclaimed, “you know – I don’t even know what ‘bad writing’ means any more.”
Certain things I’m gonna say before I carry on from that sentiment. Firstly: all writing, or more importantly all reading, is subjective. And I don’t say this in a wishy-washy justification way, simply because it’s the case. The most successful book of last year was 50 Shades of Grey, a novel that falls very much under the ‘not my cuppa tea’ category. My all-time favourite writer, Roger Zelazny, is considered a bit niche. Judgment is, by definition, judgmental, and that’s just fine.
Secondly, ‘writing’ is a massive tag within which many things may be slotted. Raymond Chandler, for example, is a beautiful writer with almost intelligable plots. Dan Brown, on the other hand, has hugely linear plots that rollock along at the speed of sound and a writing style almost entirely dependent on variations of ‘suddenly’. I tend to write a lot of location, and my style is, shall we say… conversational. I do not have Dan Brown’s sales figures – once again, all merits are subjective.
Chandler, when asked to review a book, once put a metaphorical finger on it when he replied that, while the work was finely plotted and full of character, he couldn’t give it a good write-up because the writer ‘didn’t hear the music’. It’s a quote I’ve always liked, in that, as a reader, I can read a work and find myself immersed, absorbed and dragged in, and to my internal ear there is a kind of lyricism, a sort of musicality within truly fantastic writing that can carry you away. Chandler had it; Zelazny had it, and I’d argue that Shakespeare when performed well also has that quality as, at its very best, you can listen to a Shakespeare play and forget it’s pentameter, forget it’s theatre, and just surf along with the words. However, as that’s rather raising the stakes, let’s briefly pull it back down to trivialities and a few things that are, for me, bugbears of bad writing.
Certain things are obvious. Words that get tangled up on themselves. It’s something I found studying history. When not 100% convinced of an idea, in a need to express it and tangling with all the things that are trying to be expressed so then when this happens and under this circumstances a sentence becomes as you see like this the expression looping round again uncertainly writer’s lack of confidence.
Which let’s face it, hurts to look at. (And hurt to write.)
At the other end of the spectrum, over-indulgence is something that irritates me, though I am guilty of being a fairly self-indulgent writer. It’s not necessarily self-indulgence in the prose, but indulgence in terms of what the prose focuses on:
“The battle was being fought beneath the walls of the castle, those magnificent stones built in 850 AD by the famous architect Simon reverberated beneath the pounding cannon and smoke-filled roar of the ballasts atop Robert’s Hill as the air blackened like a coal mine and the sun on the western horizon seemed to bruise with blood. The Hero fought his Nemesis who, being a second-level vampire-mage of the circular order, naturally used his xi’llolck to fight against the Hero, armed with his bluebell picking runes bestowed by the elven queen of the great forest who loved honour and had inherited her throne from the great archmage Bob.”
… would be, for example, a sentiment that exasperates me. Images tangle together without any great respect for their neighbours; similes drip out of the structure, information is shoved in for the sake of information rather than the story and, as a reader, you bounce up and down in your seat screaming, yes, that’s all very well, Simon’s magnificent walls and that, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BATTLE?!
At the other end of the spectrum:
“His blade blurred, and three men lay dead,” is a sentiment that I personally feel should only ever be used with light-hearted glee. Make no mistake – sword fights are hard to write. Almost as hard as car chases, which Eddie Izzard correctly summarised as being exhilarating in film, not so groovy in books.
“He drove fast… he drove faster! He turned left without indicating!”
… perhaps not so much.
Spectacular battles are always fun to write, but spectacle without respect for the thorny matter of what is being fought for always irritates me. It’s not just that Frodo is marching to Mordor to stop Sauron. He is – absolutely he is. But by the time he’s got to the volcano he’s also marching because there’s no choice left, no going back; because he’s sacrificed too much to stop. Because there’s a voice in his head and it’s threatening to consume him from the inside out and because he needs to defeat the temptation, beat the darkness inside…
To put it another way, a volcano should never ever be just a volcano…
Unwavering adoration for a character is something that gets me down a little. Characters who are too beautiful, too sexy, too nice, too generous, too good with a samurai sword… it pushes at the boundaries of my sympathy and willingness to engage, not least as I feel every book should push at the limits of a character and see where the borders lie. On which note, sex scenes in general are tricky items. One or two scribblers have got away with it; many more have failed. ‘Pulsating’ is not a verb well-suited to the moment, it appears.
Another great test for me of writing, is the way in which important information is conveyed. Exposition, that well-known bane of writer’s calm, is always tricky. Personally, I tend to just deliver it in direct address and get it over and done with:
“She said, what’s that, and I said this is the sword that will kill the emperor and when he’s dead things will be better, and she seemed okay with that idea,” is my preferred way of handling it.
However, too often, it becomes tempting to put this sorta information into the mouths of characters who should know better:
“Bob – what’s that sword you’ve got?” she asked.
“Sandra, this is the magic sword of Smurrf.”
“The magic sword?”
“Yes, the magic sword!”
“What makes it magical?”
“It can kill an evil creature protected by a particular spell.”
“What, like a level-three protection spell as cast by the red-robed druids of T’inga’ling?”
“Exactly like that.”
“That’s immense! With a sword like that you could kill the Emperor!”
“Yes, I could, if I could get near enough.”
“And then things would be better, because the Emperor is evil!”
“You’re so right – things would be better! Let’s do that!”
My final bugbear – and I promise this will be the last – is the under-writing of a character’s voice.
“Bob, you have a magic sword!” exclaimed Sandra, looking excited.
“Yes I do,” Bob replied, holding it protectively to his chest.
“Can I touch it?”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he said, holding it tighter.
“But why not?” she asked, face falling.
“Because it’s magic.”
All of the above causes me pain. It causes me pain because the emotion, the feeling in what a character is saying, is being conveyed entirely by the footnotes, by the bits that follow the ‘she said/he said’ stuff. It’s not even being conveyed with subtle respect to a character’s nature. Sandra’s head doesn’t hang, she doesn’t tug nervously at a sleeve, she just looks a bit glum. And I grant you, not every character you meet in a book is going to have the kind of over-the-top voice that can explode off the page like a steroid-fueled peacock, but there are ways to infuse feeling and voice into a text without falling back on, ‘she said with feeling.’
“Oh my god, Bob! You’ve got a magic sword!”
“Yes I do, and it took a lot of getting so please speak more softly, my ears are still ringing from the roar of the dragon that guarded it.”
“But that’s amazing! Can I touch it?”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“Oh. Okay. Can I ask… why not?”
“Trust me; it’s magic. Better off staying clear.”
These are all, I grant you immediately, small matters that are personal nit-picks within a whole world of writing. There are more possible combinations of words in the English language than there are atoms in the universe, more books which can be written in more manners and to more ends than the mind can conceive. It would take more space than a blog has to discuss plot, structure, character; the turn of a metaphor or the twist of an idea, these are things that require books in and of themselves to nail. Nor do I intend this to be criticism, in that I get easily bored by literary criticism and tend to just bounce up and down shrilling, ‘wouldn’t it be easier to read the book?!’
All writing is subjective, as are my judgments on it. I merely figured I’d share some of those that get me down…