Instructively Bad Writing – Part IV

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

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 book, 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.

(Note – I wouldn’t actually call the below “bad”.  I find it a bit dull, but it’s not terrible.  I’m being pretty picky on this one).


Original, unedited first paragraph

The brightness of the blue sky blinded me when I opened my eyes.  It looked so peaceful and calm.  There was no sound, just a few puffy clouds floated by.  They were so close I reached out to touch one.  That was when I saw the flames.  The roof of the circus tent was on fire, and a big hole opened to the sky above.  As I lay on the ground looking up, I lifted my head to see a wall of flames had me surrounded.

I jumped up, and the sound came back on in my head, and everything went back to full speed.  I could see people dressed in circus outfits, running around trying to get out of the tent, and a crowd of people, mostly small children, screaming and crying while they ran for the exit.  My head swiveled to a log jam of people blocking the lone exit that led out of the tent.  I arrived too late.


The brightness of the blue sky blinded me when I opened my eyes.  It looked so peaceful and calm.  There was no sound, just a few puffy clouds floated by.  They were so close I reached out to touch one

Have you ever been blinded by something that you would describe as peaceful and calm?  If your friend crept up behind you and shined a spotlight in your face, would you describe the experience as calming?  Would you luxuriate in the peace you experience with 400 watts of direct light assaulting your eyes?

Me neither.

Also, never use the word “just”.  Do a ctrl+f, find every instance and replace it with nothing.  Just is a worthless word that adds no value.  It’s a soft, weak word.

Here is my general problem with these opening lines.  They contradict each other.  Now that I’ve started writing this series, holy moly, I see this all the time.  It’s nuts.  Here’s what I mean:

Statements that are aggressive / intense: The brightness of the sky blinded me, there was no sound

Statements that are soothing / passive: it looked so peaceful and calm.  Puffy clouds floated by.  I reached out to touch one.

The author is undercutting his own tension.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion: The brightness of the sky blinded me when I opened my eyes.

That was when I saw the flames.  The roof of the circus tent was on fire, and a big hole opened to the sky above.  

I read this a bunch of times, trying to figure out why I didn’t like it.  I think it’s because he’s unintentionally jumping between past tenses.

When you use the word “was”, you are writing in a tense called “past progressive” as in “The roof of the circus tent was on fire.”  The next sentence, “a big hole opened to the sky above” should also be in past tense, but the omission of the word “had” makes it run the line between present perfect “a big hole has opened” and past perfect “a big whole had opened”.

I really think the sentence would flow better by adding “had” – one of the few times I’ll recommend adding a word.  Full disclosure – I struggle with tense, a lot.  I’m not confident of this edit.

Lastly – “sky above” is redundant.  The sky is already above.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion:  The roof of the circus tent was on fire, and a big hole had opened to the sky.

As I lay on the ground looking up, I lifted my head to see a wall of flames had me surrounded.

I think he can kill “As I lay on the ground looking up.”  I already had pictured the person in this scenario laying on the ground looking up.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion:  I lifted my head to see a wall of flames had me surrounded.

I jumped up, and the sound came back on in my head, and everything went back to full speed.

The sentence runs on a bit.  I’m being pretty picky now.

There had been no previous indication that time had slowed for the narrator, so “everything went back to full speed” is out of nowhere.

I mean, I completely get what the author is going for here.  A person is waking up, confused and disoriented, into a chaotic scene.  I’m not at all lost on the point, but another edit could have strengthened the writing.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion:  I jumped up.

I could see people dressed in circus outfits, running around trying to get out of the tent, and a crowd of people, mostly small children, screaming and crying while they ran for the exit.

Circus outfits is pretty vague.  Does he mean clowns?  Ringleaders?  Trapeze artists?  Maintenance crews?

A crowd of people, mostly small children.   Hmm.  Picture a group of 15 children and three adults.  Would you call that “a crowed of people”?  I get that children are actually people, but I find the terms a little juxtaposed.

Also, he sees one crowd of circus people running and trying to get out of the tent and he sees a group of people (mostly children) running and trying to get out of the tent.

I get it.  People are trying to get out of the tent.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion:  I could see people screaming and crying while they ran for the exit.

My head swiveled to a log jam of people blocking the lone exit that led out of the tent.  I arrived too late

I don’t need to know his head swiveled.  When he looks at different things, I am already imagining him turning his head.  I mean, he can’t write “my head remained perfectly stationary as I looked at…”

Also – I’m really struggling with his constant omission of “had”.  I also am beginning to think this is preference vs. style.  So I’ll again edit to add the word had to “I arrived too late”, but I’m not sure if I’m being picky.

Also (x2) – “the lone exit” or “the exit”.  Do you think “lone” adds anything?  I don’t.

Also (x3) – the lone exit that led out of the tent.  Were you confused about where the exit led?  Did you think it led back into the tent?  Me neither.  Remove, redundant.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion:  A log jam block[ed] the exit.  I had arrived too late

Revised version

The brightness of the sky blinded me when I opened my eyes.  The roof of the circus tent was on fire, and a big hole had opened to the sky.  I lifted my head to see a wall of flames had me surrounded.   I jumped up, and I could see people screaming and crying while they ran for the exit.  A log jam block[ed] the exit.  I had arrived too late

Hmm.  I may have made this much, much worse.  Interesting.  I don’t normally do that.

Today’s lesson is brought to you by “sometimes I am full of shit”.

Here’s what I learned from this:

  • Kill your redundancies.   They will creep in.  They will work to destroy your otherwise tight and crisp prose.  Don’t let them.  They are evil.
  • Apparently I have significant issues with tense and I need to do much more research
  • Sometimes, the strength of a paragraph is the sum of its parts, not the individual sentences.  Sometimes, I can over-edit and take something salvageable and ruin it completely.

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2 comments

  1. I really enjoy and look forward to your deconstructions. When I was working, I always wanted to take a writing class but there was simply never time. Work and my family were my priority. I recently retired due to an illness so until I am better, a writing class is not in my immediate future. Having you drop in from time to time with such helpful insights has been a gift. I can often hear you in my head as I write. My deepest thanks…

  2. Well this is officially my favorite comment ever. I have decided that I am running a comment contest

    The comment contest is now over, thank you to everyone who entered. Patti Moore Wilson won. The prize? +10 points to her comment score (another thing I made up this moment). Thank you so much for reading 🙂

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