Let’s Discuss: Bad Writing, #1

As a reader, I wholeheartedly believe that less is more. I don’t mean that description should be sparse. Instead, a writer should give us just enough. And frankly, I think it’s a difficult balance to achieve. For instance, repetition signifies importance, but at the same time, it can also suggest a small vocabulary. Description can transport the reader into another world, but it can also come across as too flowery.  Long sentences can create a beautiful rhythm , but they can also become disjointed and confusing.

I recently read Olivia Twist by Lorie Langdon, a book that managed to encompass all three of these problems within the first page.  If you haven’t heard of it, this is a “sequel” to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist wherein we learn that Oliver was never actually a boy.

Langdon begins her novel with this: “For long minutes, there was considerable doubt as to whether the child would survive to bear a name at all.” Then literally a few lines down, she writes, ““Extended moments passed as the babe lay on a thin, flocked mattress, struggling to find that first, essential, life-giving breath while the parish surgeon warmed his hands by the meager fire and the nurse slipped into a dark corner to find fortifications within a tiny green bottle” (1).

There were three problems I had with these passages:

  1. The repetitive nature of the language and ideas.
  2. The overuse of adjectives.
  3. The poor use of complex sentence structure.

Within a few lines, Langdon addresses the “long minutes” and “extended moments” that passed a surgeon and nurse waited for a baby to take its first breath. Essentially, it felt like Langdon noticed that she was repeating a phrase, referenced a thesaurus, and changed the second to “extended moments”. Not only are both phrases incredibly awkward and specific, but she’s also expressing the same information. Instead of showing how agonizing these “long minutes” might have been, Langdon pulls attention to her word choice.

In addition, the author is too reliant on adjectives. Don’t get me wrong. I love descriptive writing when it’s done well, but this example isn’t done well. Instead, I notice Langdon’s use of adjectives. There’s a “thin, flocked mattress”, the “first, essential, life-giving breath”, the “meager fire”, a “dark corner”, and a “tiny green bottle”. To me, this is purple prose. It’s too much in a short amount of time. In other words, it’s cheesy.

Finally, the second sentence consists of two ideas that don’t mesh well. I think this stems from the author’s attempt to mimic Dickens’ writing style. After all, he was known for his long-winded sentences. But the difference between Dickens and Langdon is that Dickens was able to use this technique to impact the pacing and the mood of his writing whereas Langdon could not. Yes, while the baby is struggling to take her first breath, the nurse and surgeon are doing other things. However, these two ideas are awkwardly presented in one sentence. Using “while” to transition between the two  felt artificial. And if I’m being completely honest, something about it just rubbed me the wrong way. I can’t quite place it.

In the end, writing should be creative and complex, but at the same time, it should be clean and well-thought out. Anyway, I know that this post was more of a rant, if anything. But let me know your thoughts in the comments below: Do you agree? Do you have similar or different pet peeves? Run into something similar? Seriously, I’m curious. 🙂

Writing Ramblings: Info Dumping

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I think we’ve all accepted that info-dumping is a bad thing. I don’t need the history of a world or a character, a description of how a magic system works, etc. all at once. When I buy a book, I don’t want to be bored with textbook type writing. I want to be submerged into a new world, and I want to feel like I’m experiencing that world with the character. Info-dumping takes that away.

Anyway, I’m currently reading Truthwitch by Susan Dennard. I did not go into this book with high expectations. Honestly, I just wanted something fun to read. And while I’m enjoying parts of it, I got stuck around chapter three or four. I can’t remember which.

Anyway, in this chapter, we are introduced to a new character, Merick. The info-dumping didn’t happen right away, but the change into Merick’s point of view was so abrupt that I was confused. Who was he? Where was I? What in the world was going on?

Now, I’m all for the reader having questions and building suspense and curiosity. But this was neither. I was completely lost, confused, and beyond frustrated. And it had nothing to do with my reading comprehension.

Anyway, Dennard soon started info-dumping about the magic system and about the history of this imaginary world and Merick’s history. Look, I get it. You’re trying to develop your world, but everything was just so vague and not very well thought out.

There are times when things need to be explained. I get that. But it needs to be done well, and it doesn’t need to happen all in one chunk. I’m all for a paragraph here and there. To me, that’s the more effective way of conveying this information.

But here’s the thing. When you are info-dumping, you better know your world pretty darn well. It needs to be well thought out and it needs to be logical. If it isn’t, your reader will be confused and frustrated. That’s why I think it’s SO IMPORTANT to take time building your world, especially if you’re writing fantasy.

The writer needs to know the history of the world, how the magic system works, how the political system works, how each country works. If the writer doesn’t understand that or really hasn’t thought about it, it shows in their writing. The world will feel incomplete. And no one wants that.

Yes, I like fluff. Yes, I like young adult fiction. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay for a writer to cut corners. No matter what we’re writing, I think we owe it to our readers to develop our characters and our world fully. Otherwise, we’re cheating them out of time and money. Okay, maybe that’s harsh, but whatever.

So basically, info-dump for yourself. Write it down. Figure out if it is logical. Work out the kinks. Make it consistent. But most importantly, don’t give it to the reader all at once. Spread it out. Mix it in with the story because that’s what the reader is there for. When I’m reading a book, I’m not really there for the world building. I’m there for a good story, but it can’t be a good story without a well-built world, so I guess it’s all tied together. I don’t know.

Writing Ramblings: Authenticity and Slang

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Writers strive to create voices that feel authentic, and sometimes, it can be a struggle. This is especially true for the young adult genre because more often than not, it’s not teens who are writing young adult lit but rather adults. And sometimes adults forget what it was like to be a teen.

One way some writers try to create authentic teen voices is by writing “like teens”.  But usually this includes slang, and usually adults don’t get it right. I remember as a teen, some of the slang we used were words like “uber”,”phat”, and “cray cray”. Yeah, I’m old. Whatever. But how many of us used these words regularly and seriously? From my experience, not often.

Most of the time we spoke like normal people. You know, minus the occasional “that’s hot”.

And I think that’s how dialogue should be. Teens aren’t always going to be using slang. More often than not, they’re not going to use it very often. Dialogue should be a reflection of that.

When your writing is littered with slang, it becomes dated. It feels forced. It looks like you’re trying too hard.  Ultimately, a little goes a long way.

Writing Ramblings: Originality

 

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Sometimes it feels like its particularly challenging to create original plots today. But I guess it feels that way because there’s some truth to it.

Everything we read has been done before. After all, people have been telling stories for quite some time now. There’s bound to be some repetition.

I guess there’s this fine line between following some archetype and blatantly plagiarizing another novel. If you’re a writer, you need to be aware of what you’re doing. And sometimes, it feels like some writers aren’t. Or maybe they are and they don’t care.

For example, last year I read a book called The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye. It’s about two enchanters in Russia who have to duel. One will win and become the adviser to the Tsar, and the other will be sentenced to death. Essentially, it’s about two magicians who are involved in a magical competition and there’s this big chance they may just fall in love with one another. Sound familiar? It’s incredibly similar to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  In both stories, the magicians/enchanters have been separated from each other and trained by by mentors.  The magic is performed in turns. They can “feel” each other’s magic. Etc., etc.

The Crown’s Game is what I want to avoid. Do I think Skye intentionally used the same plot and watered it down (can you tell I don’t like the book)? No. But it was the same story. It was too similar.

There’s a difference between using “the chosen one” archetype and writing a book called Gary Flopper and the Enchanter’s Rock.  But even though that rule seems pretty clear, I definitely have to take a few steps away from a book I love when I’m beginning a novel. That or I have to read a lot more than usual because it’s easy to let those books you love influence you too much. But who knows? Maybe I’m the only person that has those struggles.

Writing Ramblings: From Rags to Power

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It’s not a secret. I’m a sucker for a good fantasy novel with a strong female protagonist, especially when said female protagonist doesn’t realize her strength. Mostly because, you know, girl power.

But the problem is there’s this trope in the fantasy genre that’s a little…overdone. You know the one. The ordinary peasant girl with no powers whatsoever finds out that she’s super powerful. Like you know, there hasn’t been anyone like her in forever.

I get it. The girl who finds out she’s powerful, the girl who came from nothing, makes for an interesting story. People always love a good rags to riches story. And more importantly, we all want to be super special, so by having a super special protagonist, we get to live out that fantasy. And isn’t that part of the joy of reading? Living out the things we might never experience? Escaping from our reality?

But every time I see that said protagonist has a super rare gift, I roll my eyes. Every time characters are surprised by her powers, I roll my eyes. She has two powers instead of one? Very few people have more than one power? I mean, come on.

So if we need a protagonist who is special, who’s worth telling a story about, how do we go about that without creating a chosen one-esque character?

In fantasy, our protagonists don’t have to be chosen ones. They don’t have to have a super special power. There doesn’t need to be a prophecy. But they can be determined, and they can really want something. It’s not always about power. It’s about desire.

So make what they desire worth while. Make them exceptionally brave. Make them exceptionally determined. But you don’t have to make them exceptionally powerful.

Instead, they can work with others who have strengths they don’t possess.

Instead, they can fight to survive and suffer for it.

Instead, what makes them great and what makes their story worth telling is what they overcame and how they got there. The person with the strongest power isn’t always the most interesting. Sometimes, it’s the person with the strongest will.

Writing Ramblings: Backstory

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Jane Eyre. Great Expectations. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

What do all of these novels have in common? They’re all Bildungsroman novels, and we spend almost a decade or two with the protagonists.

In the context of these novels, it makes sense because they are so focused on protagonists growing up and overcoming hardship. But it’s also something I don’t see often, and for that I’m thankful.

By the time this is published, I will have finished The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. The reason I mention this is because this novel is what inspired me to write this post. While I enjoyed reading it, Arden spends much of her time building up Vasya’s childhood; it’s a little long-winded, and I’m not entirely sure it was all necessary.

To me, a good novel begins shortly before the main action of the story. Quite honestly, I don’t think I need much backstory, even for my protagonist, even if it is focusing on them overcoming hardship. I can come to know and understand a character without much of that. Unless it serves the story or message, I think most books can do without pages and pages of backstory. Besides, too much history and too little plot makes for a rather boring book.

I also think there’s value in not knowing everything, in leaving some elements of a character’s backstory up to interpretation or imagination. Besides, I would rather get to know a character throughout their adventures rather than through their irrelevant history.

This isn’t to say that I’m opposed to some backstory. It’s more that I’m opposed to excessive backstory. Maybe have a short prologue with a glimpse into an important moment in the protagonist’s life. But I don’t need to know everything right away. Every page of backstory must serve a purpose, and more than likely, fifty or so pages don’t serve much purpose.

Essentially, I think that we need to remember that the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know everything the writer knows, at least not right away. You can weave a character’s history into the novel instead of telling it all right away. And honestly, that’s what I enjoy more. When you meet someone new, you don’t know everything about them right away. More than likely, you learn as you go. Why shouldn’t that be the same with the characters we meet in books?

But I also know that I’m one person, and there are people out there who might disagree with me, so I’m interested in hearing your thoughts. Do you like a lot of setup (world building or backstory)? Do you hate it?

Let me know in the comments below. 🙂

Writing Ramblings: Romance

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Romance. It seems to play an important role in many of the books I read, and I don’t even really read romance novels. But in so many YA books, it’s part of the subplot. And it makes sense. Most of us experience our first love in our teenage years. That experience is part of growing up.

But sometimes the books we read fail at creating realistic romances.  Sometimes it’s because there’s no chemistry. Sometimes it’s because it’s instalove. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense considering the characters’ circumstances. After all, when they’re fighting for their lives, how the hell do they have time to make out with their crush?

So what makes a romance good? For me, it’s the buildup, and I think that’s why I prefer romantic subplots over romantic novels. I like the tension, but I want a touch of it here and there, not an entire novel of it. And honestly, I’m a big sucker for the will they or won’t they trope.

For me, a good romantic build up takes time.  I want it to take up most of the novel. Let the romance emerge slowly as the characters get to know each other. Let them debate their feelings for the other character, debate whether or not they want to go for it. Or if they have a crush on someone, make them doubt the other’s feelings for a while. Make ‘em suffer a little bit.

Let them fight. Let them discover something they don’t like. How many of us see our partners as faultless? How many of us have discovered something about our partner that made us stop and think: is this person really right for me? Part of loving someone is accepting and loving their faults. For a young person, this might be difficult, but it’s a passage into adulthood and it’s something that needs to be explored  a little more.

Create passion. Early into our romance, we are passionate. Everything is new and fresh and exciting. If our characters are truly falling in love, there needs to be real passion and chemistry. And if the passion feels off or unnatural to you, it’ll probably feel like that for your reader. More importantly, I think this moment of passion is best towards the end of the novel, especially if your couple is “endgame” because if it happens too early, it’s going to feel forced. It’s going to feel like instalove. For your reader to buy into the passion, they have to know the characters, and they have to have felt the passion.

I know, I’m cruel. But the more work it takes, the sweeter it is. And honestly, insta-love just isn’t satisfying. In the real world, we fall in love once we get to know a person. Sure, we might have a mega-intense crush on someone, but we certainly aren’t in love.

I guess this isn’t meant for writers of pure romance. And honestly, I’m not a big romance reader. I like it in parts, but I don’t want it to drive plot. Ultimately, I want a good story, and I sometimes want a good romance to arise within that story, but I don’t want it to take center stage.

Writing Ramblings: Pacing and Characterization

Lately, I’ve been posting negative posts. What not to do, the things I learned from the books I hated. But today, I’m going to throw ya’ll through a loop by talking about some positives.

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I guess I should give credit where credit is due. I wrote this post after finishing The Shining by Stephen King, and I’ll be honest. I adore Stephen King. He’s one of my favorite writers, so naturally he’s someone I tend to “learn” from.

Anyway, without further ado…

  1. Pacing can be everything. I mean, most of us probably already know this. Pacing is important. If it’s too slow, your readers will stop reading. Too fast and your characters are unrealistic and your plot’s too wild. But pacing can impact your audience’s emotions. It can create tension, especially when you’re trying to scare them. Slow down, drag it out, make them anxious by making them wait, letting them know something bad is about to happen. If your looking for a good scene that does this, check out The Shining and read the chapter when Danny goes into Room 217.
  2. Love all your characters and never “side” with them. Jack Torrance is a dick, but Stephen King doesn’t let us forget that he’s human. King doesn’t hate him and doesn’t “side” against them, despite how horrible some of his actions are. He understood Jack as a person and he found something he liked about him, something he could relate to. As writers, we can’t “side” with our characters. It can make our writing sound preachy, our heroes perfect, and our villains caricatures. If we like all of our characters, if we see them all as human, then we aren’t going to purposely make someone look bad just because he or she is the villain. We’re going to make them whole.
  3. Naturally, narrators can be a little biased, especially when we write in third-person limited or first person. We’re going to see other characters through their eyes, and that means we aren’t seeing things for what they really are. We are experiencing their interpretation of a person. But a good writer can leave little clues here and there to let us know that maybe there’s more to that person than what our narrator sees.

Writing Ramblings: Forced Themes and Edginess

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When I first started this blog, I mentioned that I love to write, and obviously, I love to read. I’m a firm believer that you cannot be a good writer if you don’t read. Yes, I know many people claim that you can be. But I’ve beta-read enough works by people who don’t read to know that’s a bunch of bull.

Because of this, I tend to make notes of the things I like and the things I don’t like as I read. I think it’s an important way to learn and grow.

I’m interested in writing young adult literature, I tend to focus on reading young adult literature. And because of this, I’ve noticed some trends that really annoy me.

Anyway, let me know your thoughts about these topics in the comments below!

  1. I’m tired of books that attempt to be violent in an effort to be edgy. I’ve mentioned it in another review, but I think this stems from the popularity of Game of Thrones and this desire to portray things truthfully. But there are so many YA books that are violent and centered around selfishness and the desire for power, yet I haven’t found one (in the young adult genre) that didn’t feel forced (right now, I’m thinking The Red Queen and The Cruel Prince, both of which have power as the driving force of violence). And I’m not entirely sure what makes it feel forced. Maybe it’s the fact that the young protagonists still act like teenagers despite the violence they’re exposed to. Maybe it’s the romance. Maybe it’s how it’s written, but something feels off.
  2. Diversity is a wonderful thing, and the books we read should have a diverse set of characters. However, I’ve noticed that a lot of authors seem to make a point to make a minor character the figure of diversity, but that character never feels fully developed. I suppose I like that there’s an effort, but I absolutely hate when it feels intentional. And it feels intentional when the author makes a big deal about their white, straight MC being “accepting”. Honestly, it sometimes feels like the author is basically saying, “See? I have black friends”, and that definitely rubs me the wrong way.
  3. And finally, forbidden romance that’s just there to show two people overcoming racism or whatever. I’m think Carve the Mark here, but I know I’ve seen it elsewhere. Forbidden romance is fun if it’s written well. And I also love a good hate-to-love story. However, those relationships need to develop over time. More than likely, two people who are forbidden from being together are a.) going to have a hard time actually finding time to spend together and are b.) going to have a lot of preconceived ideas that will need to be proven wrong.

Lessons in Writing, #1

Lessons in Writing, #1

There are two ways we can become better writers, and they go hand-in-hand.

The first way is obvious. You have to write. A lot.

The second way is sometimes ignored. You have to read. I know, I know. There are people out there who say, “I like writing, but I don’t read.” How is that possible?

            We can learn a lot from the books we read. Maybe we like how the writer describes characters. Maybe we hate the way they portray vampires. But we can take something from any book we read. That’s why I’m writing this post, and why I plan on writing more like it. I think it’s important to document your likes and your dislikes, especially if you’re a writer. Remember those scenes you loved, and remember the ones you didn’t. Or you know, write a blog post about them. Whatever floats your boat.

I recently read City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare. I know, I know. I jumped on that bandwagon a little late. But whatever, at least I’m reading it now.

So if you haven’t read The Mortal Instrument series and you don’t want me to spoil it for you, stop reading now. Seriously. I’m on the fourth book. So…stop.

Lesson 1:  Don’t take things too far.

I struggled through the second book. Really struggled. And if you’ve read the series, you can  probably guess why. You know, when Clary and Jace still had the hots for each other when they thought they were brother and sister. More importantly, that Jace still wanted to pursue Clary. I almost stopped reading the series even though it was obvious they weren’t really related. It felt like an attempt to make their romance forbidden…were we supposed to still root for them? I’m assuming so, but I just couldn’t.  To me, this was pushing a little too far. Fine, they’re related. But can we stop with the incest? This isn’t Game of Thrones.

Lesson 2:  Can we be realistic about teen love?

It also had the insta-love thing to it. Yes, teenagers seem to feel love more intensely. When you fall in love with someone for the first time, it is intense. But it’s also not forever. And I’m definitely getting the feeling that Jace and Clary are endgame. Why can’t we be more realistic with these depictions of teen love?

I’m not saying that we have to kill the romance. I’m just saying that if you’re writing a series, it’s likely that your characters (especially if they are teenagers) will fall in and out of love. And it’s likely that one of them will become interested in someone else. Or maybe I’m just jaded, I don’t know.

Lesson 3: Adult presence makes for realism.

Adults don’t listen to teens. We don’t view teens as our leaders. We don’t think they know more than us. So why is it that in some books, teens have all this power? It isn’t realistic.

Luckily, The Mortal Instruments seems to have a pretty realistic grasp on that. The adults in the novel aren’t listening to the kids when they’re making important decision because Clary and the others are children. Yes, sometimes they’re right. But does that mean the adults in their lives think they are? Nope.

But more importantly, there is a clear adult presence in the novels (so far). The kids aren’t just running into some crazy adventure by themselves all the time. Someone else is there. Like Luke, for instance. And they have rules. For example, Clary can’t live at the Institute with her boyfriend. Pretty solid rule if you ask me.

Lesson 4: Look at how other authors write action.

In terms of writing, I like the paranormal action scenes in this book (like when Clary and Isabelle fight that demon). I like that it’s written in third-person limited. I feel like this is hard to find in YA novels, especially now.

Lesson 5: A new dialogue peeve…

But I also discovered I hate the word “whoa.” I swear.  I’m keeping a tally of how many times I encounter it in this book. I mean seriously. How many times have you ever said, “Whoa, you’re a werewolf?” It’s cheesy.

So there you have it. Let me know if you agree, disagree, or have anything to add in the comments below.

-Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.

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