Instructively Bad Writing – Part II

Part I

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, however, 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.


Original, unedited, first paragraphs

Years of training, his whole life, had led to this. Still, he wasn’t quite prepared for the adrenaline; for the fear he felt before he suppressed it.  The guard lay dead at his feet, the last twitches and heaves of his chest both fascinating and terrible to watch.  It had been easy; he had been training with knives as long as he had memories. The guard hadn’t stood a chance.  A quick distraction and two fast strikes had opened up first the femoral artery of his left leg and then the carotid on the right side of his neck as he spun in uncomprehending pain.  He hadn’t uttered a word, just the strangled cry of sudden agony and shock before he was silenced forever.

Quickly, he remembered himself and dragged the body back into the shadows out of sight.  The guard’s death would invite a strong response very rapidly. They were all tracked and monitored and the failing life-signs of this unnamed and faceless number would be setting off alarms in the Citadel’s huge control room; a mythical and terrible place he had been told stories of, but had never seen.  They would know exactly where to go, and would be there all too quickly. He had stalked the helmeted, faceless solider from the shadows and low rooftops to make sure he was alone, and now he had to find another one quickly to keep the timeline.


Years of training, his whole life, had led to this. Still, he wasn’t quite prepared for the adrenaline; for the fear he felt before he suppressed it.

I don’t have much to say about this. It’s fine. I don’t think the semi-colon fits, I would have used a comma, but that’s minor stuff. My objection to this line is that the author contradicts himself. He had prepared his whole life / he wasn’t ready.  Which is it? I think if this is the route you’re going, use “but” instead of “still”. It expresses the dichotomy better

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion: I’d probably kill this line, but fine.  Years of training had led to this.

The guard lay dead at his feet, the last twitches and heaves of his chest both fascinating and terrible to watch.
The author does a lot of this.  Endless contradictions. They are very subtle, but it distracts at a subconscious level and makes the whole thing hard to read. In this sentence the contradiction is – the guard lay dead / the last twitches of his chest. A dead man can’t twitch. The guard lay “dying”, not dead. Also, did his chest twitch (small movement) or heave (large movement). Those are completely different things. Pick one.

  • If I had to keep it” suggestion:  The guard lay dying at his feet, the last twitches of his chest both fascinating and terrible to watch.

It had been easy; he had been training with knives as long as he had memories. The guard hadn’t stood a chance.
If it had been easy, then why did you start the book noting that even though he trained his whole life, he wasn’t quite prepared? What are you going for, author? A guy who is completely and ruthlessly trained, or someone who is uneasy and uncomfortable despite years of training. You’re going back and forth. Pick one.

  • If I had to keep it” suggestion: Kill it

A quick distraction and two fast strikes had opened up first the femoral artery of his left leg and then the carotid on the right side of his neck as he spun in uncomprehending pain.
Okay, so now you’re describing what happened before the death. You started the scene with the guard dying (dead) and now you’re rewinding 10 seconds to show us how he did it. But what vital information is being conveyed here? That he knows how to kill someone?  The sentence “he had trained his whole life” is enough, we know immediately from that line that the guy is trained and knows what he’s doing. This is just piling on. “Years of training had led to this.” Goddamnit, we know.

Also – I’m not going to say this is “wrong” but be very cautious with using words like “femoral artery” or “carotid” especially if you’re writing (what appears to be) fantasy.  I don’t have enough information at this point to know whether these terms are appropriate, but they represent very modern language.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion: Kill it

He hadn’t uttered a word, just the strangled cry of sudden agony and shock before he was silenced forever.
Again, so what? We’re now a few sentences in and the POV has mostly been from the perspective of a dying guard who has no agency. None of these sentences are adding anything to the story, we already know all this.

“Years of training had led to this.” Goddammit, we know.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion: Kill it

Quickly, he remembered himself and dragged the body back into the shadows out of sight.
Remember, we’ve been in the guards POV the whole time. So my first read, I thought “quickly, he remembered himself” referred to the poor, shitty, dying guard.

Never start a sentence with “quickly”.

Also “back” into the shadows? Implying that the guard had originally been in the shadows? Or did he mean he dragged the body “backwards” into the shadows. I think he meant the latter, but it’s confusing and pointless either way. It doesn’t matter in what direction the guard was dragged.

  • If I had to keep it” suggestion: Kill it, for reasons that become clear in the next line.

The guard’s death would invite a strong response very rapidly. They were all tracked and monitored and the failing life-signs of this unnamed and faceless number would be setting off alarms in the Citadel’s huge control room; a mythical and terrible place he had been told stories of, but had never seen.
This author does not seem to remember previous sentences. If the very fact of the death will invite a response and everyone is tracked, why the fuck does he need to drag the body into the shadows? Who cares? Just leave the body where it is. In fact, it’s more exciting if he leaves the body. Now our trained / untrained killer just seems like an idiot.
Also, this author loves semi-colons.  Personally, I’m not comfortable enough with their usage, so I stick to commas.

ALSO there are myths about the Citadel’s Control room? Not about the Citadel itself? I am not 100% positive if this was intentional. The thought of a control room being terrible is actually kind of interesting, but at this point I don’t trust the author.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion: His death would invite a strong response. The failing life-signs of this unnamed and faceless number would be setting off alarms in the Citadel’s control room, a place he had been told stories of but had never seen.

They would know exactly where to go, and would be there all too quickly.
Again – why hide the body then?

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion: Kill it

He had stalked the helmeted, faceless solider from the shadows and low rooftops to make sure he was alone, and now he had to find another one quickly to keep the timeline.
Who gives a shit that the guard had a helmet? What a weird detail. Also, this guy has used “quickly” three times. Quickly is the laziest writing you can come up with.  Don’t ever use quickly.

Having said that “now he had to fine another one quickly to keep the timeline” is actually the most fascinating line in this whole thing. It’s the first compelling thing he’s written. Why does he have to kill multiple guards? Why is he on a timeline? Finally, something I care about, too bad it took 500 words to get there.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion: He had stalked the faceless soldier from the shadows and now he had to find another to keep the timeline

Revised opening paragraph with my edits:

Years of training had led to this. The guard lay dying at his feet, the last twitches of his chest both fascinating and terrible to watch. His death would invite a strong response. The failing life-signs of this unnamed and faceless number would be setting off alarms in the Citadel’s control room, a place he had been told stories of but had never seen. He had stalked the faceless soldier from the shadows and now he had to find another to keep the timeline.

You know why this is terrifying?  Most of this isn’t “bad writing” as such.  Sure, there’s an overuse of adverbs, but it’s not terrible.  It’s more that that author clearly doesn’t have a good grasp on the action in this scene.  But this is why writing is the hardest thing in the world to do.  Even if you write well, you can sort of go sideways.  This hobby is relentless, I should have taken up something easier like juggling flaming chainsaws.

Here’s what I learned from this.

  • Don’t use adverbs
  • Don’t open books from the POV of a dying solider
  • Don’t use semi colons
  • If you’re unsure about a line, kill it.  Killing the line is always the answer.
  • For God sakes, write a second draft. None of this was beyond repair, but it really could have benefited from a second or third read.
  • (Mostly) don’t use the word “just”. It rarely adds value

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