Instructively Bad Writing – Part 1

Amazon is a filled with authors who lost patience with the process and self-published too early.  They are not necessarily bad writers, nor did they necessarily write bad books.  They did write bad opening paragraphs.

In this series, I pick random opening paragraphs from self-published novels and deconstruct what went wrong.  I have not read the entire novels and for all I know they’re fantastic.  But the opening paragraph doesn’t give me much hope.

So here we go.  Let’s dive in together and learn what we can from instructively bad writing.  Here’s the first one I found:


Original, unedited, first paragraph

Spring is here.  Lady Winter in her snow coat finally took her leave, dragging lazily behind her dying chilly winds whose bites fail to find a victim who cares.  Like a last witness of her now-defunct reign, a thin cold rain is falling almost silently on the timid grass and naked trees.  It rains on Alex’s head, but he doesn’t care, for it also rains in his heart.  Water drops hit the grave he is staring at, eyes devoid of emotion, before running down the cold marble as if the stone cries the tears the little boy can’t shed himself.  Alex is flanked by two standing silhouettes – silent, solemn, almost sculptural.  His parents are waiting for him to bid his last farewell, holding an umbrella over the young head, like caryatids above a temple entrance.  But not even the repetitive crackling of water on the tissue can distract Alex from his motionless mourning. 
Spring is here, but it brings no joy.


There’s lots going on here and lots to learn from.  Let’s break it down:

Spring is here. 
Don’t start a story with the weather.

Lady Winter in her snow coat finally took her leave, dragging lazily behind her dying chilly winds
Don’t start a story with the weather.  This whole sentence is oddly constructed and it reads like the author trying to show off.   Don’t try to show off.  Just write.  I think the flow is better if you remove “in her snow coat”.

Also “dragging lazily behind her dying chilly winds” is a terrible sentence.  It’s the “behind her” part.  Is it her dying chilly winds (as in they belong to her?) or are the dying chilly winds dragging behind her (as in she is dragging them)?  I think the author meant the second, as in “Behind her, she dragged dying chilly winds.” but I honestly can’t tell.  It might as easily be “She dragged her own dying chilly winds”

I get that this seems pretty pedantic, but this is why people stop reading after one sentence.  Even if you don’t consciously pick up on the problem, your brain does.

whose bites fail to find a victim who cares. 
I had to read this about a dozen times, because I kept reading it looking for a period, as in “..whose bites fail to find a victim.  Who cares?”  Finally I realized the author meant “failed to find a victim who cares about the dying wind”.  Ugh, Jesus, this sentence is a mess.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion:  Winter took her leave, dragging her chilly winds.

Like a last witness of her now-defunct reign, a thin cold rain is falling almost silently on the timid grass and naked trees.
So in this sentence, the thin cold rain is the last witness.  In the authors mind, this is how rain falls.  Like a last witness.  That… is meaningless.   Try this at home.  Next time it rains, casually remark “Man, that rain sure is coming down like a last witness of a now-defunct reign.”  See if you get any weird looks.

Naked trees aren’t bad.

Kill “almost”.   The rain either falls silently or it doesn’t.  If the rain is making noise, it’s not “almost silent”.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion: A thin, cold rain is falling on the timid grass and naked trees.

It rains on Alex’s head, but he doesn’t care, for it also rains in his heart. 
That’s a bit overdone and melodramatic.  I’d have used “because” instead of “for” but that’s because I am an unfeeling monster with no time for flowery prose.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion: It rains on Alex’s head.

Water drops hit the grave he is staring at, eyes devoid of emotion, before running down the cold marble as if the stone cries the tears the little boy can’t shed himself.
I was completely thrown by “…the grave he is staring at, eyes devoid of emotion” because my first interpretation was that the line after the comma would refer to the grave, not his eyes.    This sentence is structured like this: “thing about graves, thing about eyes, thing about graves, thing about the boy” and that’s why it’s confusing and hard to read.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion: Water drops hit the grave, before running down the cold marble, as if the stone cries the tears the little boy can’t.

Alex is flanked by two standing silhouettes – silent, solemn, almost sculptural. 
Eh.  This is fine, although I’d lose the dash and you don’t need to tell us the silhouettes are standing if he’s flanked by them.  You know how I know the word “standing” is useless?  Replace it with any other word “Alex is flanked by two sitting silhouettes.”  “Alex is flanked by two lying-down silhouettes.”  Nothing else makes sense.  “Flanked” strongly implies standing.

Ultimately though, I’d kill the whole sentence.  It doesn’t add much to the paragraph, we can already mentally paint the picture of the boy standing in front of the grave.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion: I’d kill the line.

His parents are waiting for him to bid his last farewell, holding an umbrella over the young head, like caryatids above a temple entrance. 
Coming on the heels of “Like a last witness” in sentence two, the “last farewell” is repetitive.  “Like caryatids above a temple entrance” is an abysmal simile.   Also, he’s already told us it’s a “little boy” so don’t need “the young head”.  ALSO, it’s “his” young head, not “the” young head.  “The” young head suggests an arm’s length narrative distance that I don’t think is intentional on the part of the author.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion: His parents are waiting for him to bid farewell, holding an umbrella over his head.

But not even the repetitive crackling of water on the tissue can distract Alex from his motionless mourning. 
Hm.  Not sure how I feel about “crackling”, although it’s an interesting word choice, so let’s keep it in.  Referring to an umbrella as “tissue” forces the reader to do mental gymnastics because first you need to realize the author really meant “fabric” but was trying to be clever.   Also – avoid alliteration always – “motionless mourning” is a no-no.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion: Not even the repetitive crackling of water on the fabric can distract Alex from his mourning.

Spring is here, but it brings no joy.
Fine.


Revised opening paragraph with my edits

Spring is here.  Winter took her leave, dragging her chilly winds.  It rains on Alex’s head.  Water drops hit the grave, before running down the cold marble, as if the stone cries the tears the little boy can’t.  His parents are waiting for him to bid farewell, holding an umbrella over his head.  Not even the repetitive patter of water on the fabric can distract Alex from his mourning.
Spring is here, but it brings no joy


Here’s the problem.  It’s still an entire opening paragraph about the weather and it reads like the author is warming up.  Doing some early stretching to limber up before getting down to the business of writing.  Personally, I’d kill the whole opener.

Here are the tips I learned from this:

  • Don’t open a book with the weather.
  • Similes are really tricky and unless you’re a very good writer, they can do more harm than good.
  • Don’t try to show off in your writing.  Just write.
  • You get maybe 250 words to catch a reader.  Do you really want your first paragraph to be about a boy standing there, doing nothing, getting rained on?


Categories: Instructively Bad Writing

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11 replies

  1. Curious what you think of the first two paragraphs of my short story. 🙂

    https://silentfall.blog/2016/10/17/a-sinister-easter-and-the-angel/

    • Did you want me to respond here or message you directly? Happy to look over your stuff 🙂

      • Here is fine. Rip away, lol!

      • “The Texas desert seeped cautiously into the southern part of the city, on into the rural outskirts where the land was cheap and mostly parched, save for twelve acres of cornfields. The residents there often pondered how the soil had been cultivated for that particular crop when no other real greenery or foliage existed. There were no trees and nary a single green plant to be seen for miles.

        It simply wasn’t their business to inquire, though, those residents. They just kept their heads down and their mouths shut. They were all in silent agreement and everyone there instinctively knew they’d arrived at this end of the earth because it was hard to find and it made for good cover from the rest of the world. Victor Roth was no exception to this dogma, having escaped being caught for different crimes on more than one occasion.”
        ——————————————————————

        I think this does a fine job of introducing the scene and setting some decent stakes. The most interesting part of the introduction is Victor Roth – can he be the focus in the first sentence? That’s really where your hook is. Victor is a guy with a past and he’s hiding from it.

        “On the Rural outskirts where land was cheap” is perfect the way it is. It tells me everything I need to know about the setting. Everything else is just reinforcing that point. Nothing gave me more clarity than that sentence.

        Other than that, minor tweaks:
        – Remove all the adverbs (cautiously, simply, mostly). They don’t add anything
        – Remove all the words that vacillate (mostly, often, just). They reduce your impact
        – Watch out for cliches (“Kept their heads down and mouths shut”, “on more than one occasion”)
        – Minor cleanup (“on into”, “having escaped being caught”)

        Also – I read more. It’s a good story, and crazy dark. I liked it. Thanks for sharing!

      • Omg, your comment didn’t appear in my notifications. I’m dumbstruck that you took the time and your notes are unquestionably perfect. I am humbled. Please forgive my effusiveness. I am 100% sincere. I will implement your advice. Thank you again.

  2. Editing someone’s poor writing is extreme punishment. A single sentence can take ten or twenty minutes and once resolved so easily be undone by the next. Editing poor writing is a punishment. A single sentence might take ten minutes to resolve and be undone by the next. A sentence can be a real sentence. Editing is a dying art.

Trackbacks

  1. Instructively Bad Writing – Part II – Michael James
  2. Instructively Bad Writing – Part III – Michael James
  3. Instructively Bad Writing – Part IV – Michael James
  4. Instructively Good Writing – Michael James

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