Instructively Bad Writing – Part VII

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

The alien onslaught had burst upon Earth shortly after Tommy Williams had been born.    Seventeen years later, he pondered his future and his purpose in life.

His mother, on the other hand, seemed more concerned with other issues.  She leaned back in her chair with a surprised expression on her face, bumping the AR-15 assault rifle slung over her chair.  “You broke up with her?” she asked skeptically.

Tommy looked at his mother and sighed.  They sat across from each other at a small table in Salsa Rio’s, a neighborhood Mexican food joint contained within a larger strip shopping center.  The Sunday afternoon lunch rush had passed, and only a few other tables were occupied.  At his mother’s insistence, they both had their VRD’s, virtual retinal displays, pushed up on their heads so that they could look at each other eye-to-eye without all the distractions of an augmented reality display.  Tommy’s earpieces sat on the table, again at his mother’s insistence.  The phone was tucked into an armored pocked in his tactical vest where it usually remained all the time except when it was recharging.  It was basically just the battery and the CPU, the central processing unit, but everyone still called it a phone.  The wirelessly connected VRD headset handled all the phone’s actual functionality.

“Yes, mother,” Tommy answered his mother’s question concerning who broke up with who, somewhat dejected but not too surprised to be getting this response.  He now waited for her to finish up the insult with what had become the all too common retort of, “she is way out of your league. I can’t believe you’re the one doing the breaking up.”


The alien onslaught had burst upon Earth shortly after Tommy Williams had been born.    Seventeen years later, he pondered his future and his purpose in life.

Wow.  This author does not screw around.  Aliens and pathos, all within one opener.  The problem I have with this, and most of this whole introduction, is it has nothing to do with aliens.  They are never mentioned again.  As you’ll see, the whole thing bumps around like a drunk trying to find the bathroom in the dark.

Having said that, I don’t think this is a terrible opener.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion: The alien onslaught burst upon Earth shortly after Tommy Williams had been born.    Seventeen years later, he pondered his future and his purpose.

His mother, on the other hand, seemed more concerned with other issues.  She leaned back in her chair with a surprised expression on her face, bumping the AR-15 assault rifle slung over her chair.  “You broke up with her?” she asked skeptically.

His mother, on the other hand, is determined to keep this from being an interesting story about aliens, and instead will bother us with the minutia of a recently-dumped girlfriend.

This line, and everything that follows, completely trivializes the opening line.  Seventeen years ago, aliens burst upon the Earth and nothing happened as a result.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion:  His mother seemed more concerned with other issues.  She leaned with a surprised expression, bumping the AR-15 assault rifle slung over her chair.  “You broke up with her?” she asked.

Tommy looked at his mother and sighed.  They sat across from each other at a small table in Salsa Rio’s, a neighborhood Mexican food joint contained within a larger strip shopping center.  The Sunday afternoon lunch rush had passed, and only a few other tables were occupied. 

The author provides further reassurance that the aliens changed nothing.  They burst upon Earth, but there are still functioning strip malls, Sunday lunch rushes and yummy Mexican food.  This author is doing a wonderful job at undercutting the opener.

If the aliens attacked, I want a weird apocalyptic hellscape, not a relaxing siesta.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion:  Tommy looked at his mother and sighed.  They sat at a small table in Salsa Rio’s, a neighborhood Mexican food joint.  The Sunday afternoon lunch rush had passed, and only a few other tables were occupied.

At his mother’s insistence, they both had their VRD’s, virtual retinal displays, pushed up on their heads so that they could look at each other eye-to-eye without all the distractions of an augmented reality display.  Tommy’s earpieces sat on the table, again at his mother’s insistence.  The phone was tucked into an armored pocked in his tactical vest where it usually remained all the time except when it was recharging.  It was basically just the battery and the CPU, the central processing unit, but everyone still called it a phone.  The wirelessly connected VRD headset handled all the phone’s actual functionality..

Okay mysterious author, you can’t have it both ways.  You’re trying to paint a picture where everyone is equipped at all times with high-tech, futuristic, alien-fighting hardware, but you’re doing it while out at a relaxing Mexican lunch at a strip mall.

Either the world has plunged into madness or it hasn’t.  Either you have time to think about dating and your place on the earth and what to have for desert, or you don’t.

If I had bought this book, at this point I’d be concerned the author hadn’t really thought through the details of the world.  Also, why is the author fixated on the technical nuances of the equipment?  My guess is that this book contains a lot of in-depth detail about firearms.  That’s fine if that’s your thing, but it’s pretty pointless for the story.

Also – “where it usually remained all the time except“.  It remained there “all the time” or it didn’t.  If it’s only “usually” there, “except” sometimes, then it’s not there “all the time”.  Write what you mean.

Let’s try to fix the paragraph anyway

  •  “If I had to keep it” suggestion:  At his mother’s insistence, they had their VRDs pushed up on their heads so they could look at each other without distractions.  The phone was tucked into an armored pocked in his tactical vest.  It was the battery and the CPU, but everyone still called it a phone.  The VRD headset handled all the functionality.

“Yes, mother,” Tommy answered his mother’s question concerning who broke up with who, somewhat dejected but not too surprised to be getting this response.  He now waited for her to finish up the insult with what had become the all too common retort of, “she is way out of your league. I can’t believe you’re the one doing the breaking up.”

Man, once I hear that aliens burst upon the earth, I for sure want to hear more about the minutia of two strangers dating.  Mysterious author, you had a good opener!  Why are you squandering it?

Also, the mother’s “all too common” retort is: “she is way out of your league, I can’t believe you broke up,” etc.  Implying that in this brutal and desolate alien-invaded landscape, there is ample time for teenage dating, and social hierarchy.   In other words, more reinforcement that the aliens didn’t change anything and the author hasn’t really thought out the world.

Lastly, none of what follows the opening lines has anything to do with Tommy “pondering his future or purpose.”  It’s a silly conversation between a heavily armored teenager and his mother about dating while eating Mexican food for lunch.  Weird.

  • “If I had to keep it” suggestion:  “Yes, mother,” Tommy answered.  “She is out of your league. I can’t believe you’re the one doing the breaking up.”

 


Revised version

The alien onslaught burst upon Earth shortly after Tommy Williams had been born.    Seventeen years later, he pondered his future and his purpose.

His mother seemed more concerned with other issues.  She leaned with a surprised expression, bumping the AR-15 assault rifle slung over her chair.  “You broke up with her?” she asked

At his mother’s insistence, they had their VRDs pushed up on their heads so they could look at each other without distractions.  The phone was tucked into an armored pocked in his tactical vest.  It was the battery and the CPU, but everyone still called it a phone.  The VRD headset handled all the functionality.

“Yes, mother,” Tommy answered.

“She is out of your league. I can’t believe you’re the one doing the breaking up.”


It’s shorter, but it still squanders the interesting opening line.

Here’s what I learned from this:

  • You can’t simply throw words on the page and call it a day.  When you put something down, you’re making a promise to your reader.  “There are aliens here, and a young boy is wondering how to fit into this new world.”  That’s a great hook – I’d read more.  Don’t waste it by writing stuff that has nothing to do with your opener.
  • More importantly, figure out what you’re writing about?  The author is trying to convey an awful lot in this first chunk of text.
    • An alien invasion
    • A young man, confused about his purpose
    • A strained relationship with his mother
    • Dating?
    • A world that necessitates AR-15 rifles and body-armor and tactical headsets and battery phones BUT
    • pleasant Mexican lunch at a fully-functioning strip mall

It’s all over the map, thematically.   There’s about four different things competing with one another, I can’t tell if the tone is supposed to be tense, or relaxed or urgent or whatever.

Writing is hard.

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