Instructively Bad Writing – Part V

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.


Original, unedited first paragraph

You couldn’t ask for a better day.  In the mid eighties and not a cloud in sight.  Setting in the passenger seat of our car I watch the scenery moving by.  I always love to dive on the parkway as we go from one mountain peak to the next.  Fall is fast approaching but only a few of the trees are showing color.  Looks like it is going to be a late fall.

Glancing over at my husband I lean over and nibble on his ear.  I love this guy more and more.  He is a hard worker, good father to our three girls and a loving husband.

“Hey watch it,” he growls.  “I can’t be distracted while driving on these mountain two lane roads.”

I know he is right but I just could not fight the urge.  I lean against the door and study this man’s features.  Larry has blond hair cut short in a crew cut.  Narrow face with a predominant nose.  Black rim glasses perched on his nose.  He is carrying a little weight but not bad for a thirty seven year old  He always dresses in polo shirts and jeans when casual is required and today is no exception.  We slow as a deer bounces across the road followed by a fawn.

 


You couldn’t ask for a better day.  In the mid eighties and not a cloud in sight

Don’t start a book with the weather.  It’s overdone and tough to do well. “mid eighties” should have a hyphen, i.e. “mid-eighties”.  Typo count: 1

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

Setting in the passenger seat of our car I watch the scenery moving by.  I always love to dive on the parkway as we go from one mountain peak to the next.  

“Sitting”, not “setting”.  Typo count: 2.

“I always love to dive [sic] on the parkway” Typo count: 3

This author will lose every single sale she might have made.  Gang, get a professional edit done before you self-publish.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion:  Sitting in the passenger seat of our car, I watch the scenery moving by.  I love to drive on the parkway, going from one mountain peak to the next.

Fall is fast approaching but only a few of the trees are showing color.  Looks like it is going to be a late fall.

Is fall fast approaching or is it going to be late?  Seriously, pick one.

I see this so much reading first drafts.  Sentence constructions that contradict themselves.

This is another line about the weather.  Weather is pretty tough to write well or make interesting.

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

Glancing over at my husband I lean over and nibble on his ear.  I love this guy more and more.  He is a hard worker, good father to our three girls and a loving husband.

Glancing over / lean over.  It’s a lot of stage direction for a scene.  Just nibble the ear.  You don’t need the glance.  For example, you couldn’t really write “looking in the complete opposite direction, I leaned over and…”

That second sentence is a pretty clunky way to fit in some exposition about the family.

  •  “If I had to keep it” suggestion:  Glancing over at my husband, I nibble on his ear.  I love this guy more and more.

“Hey watch it,” he growls.  “I can’t be distracted while driving on these mountain two lane roads.

I already wrote an entire post about how to use dialogue tags.  I would recommend to not use tags like “growls”.  Use “he said”.

I’m pretty confident no one would specifically say “while driving on these mountain two lane roads.”  It comes across as very clinical, like he’s reading the script notes for the story he’s in.  If this was real life and someone nibbled my ear, and I was concerned about driving, I’d be more apt to say something like “Stop. I’m going to crash.” or “quit it, these roads are shit show.”

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion:  “Hey watch it,” he says. “I can’t be distracted while driving”.

I know he is right but I just could not fight the urge.  I lean against the door and study this man’s features.

The author chose to use “he is” instead of “he’s” and “could not” instead of “couldn’t”.  If that’s the stylistic choice the author feels like making, fine.  But you should know when you intentionally chose not to contract words when doing a character POV, you’re implying a lot about that character.

I would argue that most people, when thinking in their heads, think in contractions.  Couldn’t, didn’t, etc.  By thinking the full words, it implies the main character is a little more formal.

I didn’t read far enough ahead to know if this fits the character, but I wanted to point it out.

Also, don’t use “just”.  I wrote a whole post on this point too.

“I lean against the door and study this man’s features”.  Wow, that is a very cliche way to do a description dump.  You may as well literally write “I lean against the door and get ready to describe the other character in the novel.”

This is right up there with “I see myself in the mirror, and reflect on my looks.”

Also, up until this point, the main character is thinking is present tense (I watch the scenery, I lean over, etc), but the line “I could not fight the urge” is past tense.  It should be “I can’t fight the urge”.

Tense is super hard to get right.  I’d do an entire post on it, but…. you know.  Tense is super hard to get right.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion:  I know he’s right, but I can’t fight the urge.

Larry has blond hair cut short in a crew cut.  Narrow face with a predominant nose.  Black rim glasses perched on his nose.  He is carrying a little weight but not bad for a thirty seven year old  He always dresses in polo shirts and jeans when casual is required and today is no exception.  We slow as a deer bounces across the road followed by a fawn.

We’re now about 250 words in, and we don’t know the main characters name.  We only know Larry’s name.  But the book isn’t about Larry, if it was, it would be from his POV.  So far the whole book has been the main character describing events taking place around her.  She isn’t driving, but she can watch the scenery.  Her reflection of her home life is through the lens of her husband.  We’re about to learn, in detail, what her husband looks like, but she doesn’t even get a name.

This tells me this book is going to feature a wallflower main character who probably spends most of the novel reacting to action around her, rather than participate in it.

Holy, I wrote a whole post on this point, too.

You need to think about what you’re writing.  Of all the ways to start your book, why was this the spot you chose?  Why not have your main character do something?  The best you could think of was to make a passenger sit there and describe things?  Who would want to keep reading?

The first three sentences are a good example of how you need to change the “metronome” of your writing or it becomes boring.  She’s written the same sentences three times – Adjective Noun, with a placement.  Adjective noun, with a placement.

Blonde hair , cut short in a crew cut .
Narrow face , with a predominant nose
Black rim glasses, perched on his nose .

“Today is no exception” is a cliche.  Watch for those in your writing.

“We slow as a deer bounces across the road followed by a fawn” has nothing to do with Larry’s appearance and should be a separate paragraph.  This also needs a comma between “road” and “followed”. (typo count 4).

The whole paragraph is clunky and exposition heavy.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion:  He has blond hair cut short framing a narrow face with a predominant nose.

Revised version

Sitting in the passenger seat of our car, I watch the scenery moving by.  I love to drive on the parkway, going from one mountain peak to the next.  Glancing over at my husband, I nibble on his ear.  I love this guy more and more.

“Hey watch it,” he says. “I can’t be distracted while driving”.

I know he’s right, but I can’t fight the urge. He has blond hair cut short framing a narrow face with a predominant nose.


Well, that’s still not great.  At least it’s over faster, I mean up until this point the whole opening of the book is sitting in a car, describing your husband.  Not exactly breathless writing

Here’s what I learned from this:

  • Hire a professional edit before publishing
  • Try not to dump large amounts of character description, it’s not entertaining to read
  • Probably not the best idea to devote the first five hundred words of your novel to the main character describing things
  • It’s great when your main character has a name

Writing is hard.

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One comment

  1. I love these posts. Always reminding me that writing is very hard and I wonder how anyone can do it, but also just entertaining.

    Sent from my iPad

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