Weekly Musing: Bad Education

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.
Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”

The above quote is attributed to William Faulkner and it’s a great piece of advice for both readers and writers. As a reader, it’s frustrating as hell when you read a poorly written book. Your rage bubbles up, you stop reading the book, or continue reading to see if by some miracle the author gets his or her shit together, or you throw the book across the room. Bad books make you appreciate the good books and the talented authors behind them.

I’d argue as a writer, you gain more benefit from reading bad books rather than good ones and the classics. I’m not saying reading only bad books; just realize they probably provide as valuable of an education as the good books. Yes, great books can show you how to really dig deep into your character’s soul. Show you the power and loveliness of the written word. Show you how to immerse you reader into a world they won’t want to leave.

But bad books have more value, in my opinion, because they don’t intimidate a writer. By being bad they can show you what NOT to do. Analyzing where you believe the author dropped the ball can boost your confidence knowing your writing is better than drivel not even worthy of lining a litter box. Use poor prose to push yourself to do better.

That being said, reading shit novels can also mess with you because you realize an editor, a publisher, an agent somewhere read a draft and went “Yup, we think we can sell this.” Some incredibly bad books have sold stupidly well, making their authors rich, while great books written by more talented authors languish.

As a writer when you read an awful book, carefully examine what about it bugs you. Is it the author’s use (or misuse) of the English language? Is it because the characters are underdeveloped and act inconsistently? Is the plot trite? Are you having problems visualizing the world? Is that world uninteresting? Are the descriptions laughable or confusing?

After asking yourself these questions and others you draw up, look at the answers. Use those to improve your own writing as you revise. If you use beta readers, pose those questions to them upfront so they know what to be on the look for as they read.

Also keep in mind that you don’t have to apply analysis to everything you read. Trashy or bad books can be a joy to read, sometimes more than great books. Reading for the pure pleasure of reading is the same as writing for the sheer joy of it. Not everything written has to serve a deeper purpose and can be for the hell of it. At the end of the day, as long as you read you’re learning whether consciously or subconsciously.

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Murder Swings the Tide by Linda Shirley Robertson

This month’s book review comes courtesy of a murder mystery set on fictional Seward Island off the South Carolina coast. In Murder Swings the Tide by Linda Shirley Robertson we meet interior designer Maggie Stewart who goes to Seaward for a much needed vacation and to re-evaluate her life. Within her first day, though, she discovers a dead body of a young art student. She clashes with the local sheriff believing he isn’t taking the cases serious despite this being the first murder on the island in quite a while. Deciding to launch her own investigation she enlists the help of several residents. Along the way she enters the first stages of developing a romance with one of the lifelong residents.

Murder Swings the Tide is extremely problematic. Everything from the main character to supporting characters to the plot to the prose to the pacing of the novel, it’s less than 200 pages, doesn’t work for me.

First, let’s start with Maggie Stewart. She’s incredibly irritating, egotistical, condescending, and judgmental. It was very difficult for me to buy her as someone smart enough to solve a murder better than the sheriff. For some reason she believes he’s not taking it seriously and is constantly asking him where he’s at with the investigation. She bugs him with her half-baked theories, all based on conjecture and no real evidence. It’s as if she’s watched watch too much “Law & Oder” and fancies herself some kind of expert.

In the beginning of the book she wasn’t too terrible. But as the murder investigation goes along, the more grating she becomes. For some reason she believes “employing” some of the dumber locals to help her makes sense. Never mind one of them is one of the most unreliable characters I’ve ever read. She’s incredibly judgmental upon meeting many of the locals, viewing them as stupid yokels. She shows her insecurity when meeting a lifelong friend of a guy she’s interested in. Immediately she writes the woman off as a bitch, she is overbearing and abrasive, and concludes the two are having an affair. As written there was nothing to suggest to the reader this is true. Not sure how she came to this conclusion no matter how many times he explains to Maggie the woman was his dead sister’s best friend.

The supporting characters are caricatures. Despite the author living in the south, she still writes many of the supporting characters as negative stereotypes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the cast of characters we meet in the local bar (or saloon as it was referred to earlier in the book). Pretty much they are dumb white trash types who need Maggie to save them and show them they can do better in their lives. Even Maggie’s potential love interest is just a caricature; stereotypical rich guy from a well-established family who is firmly anti-development. He’s boring though I do appreciate he’s a nice guy.

The plot is ridiculous, again because of how much of a pain Maggie is. It’s completely possible for a non-law enforcement person to be a competent investigator. Plenty of mystery series feature such characters such as Miss Marple and Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey. The plot doesn’t work because the motive for the murder is thin and the person who committed it suddenly goes into psycho mode. There’s no evidence to support it, other than the scene where the killer pulls the “This is how I did it and if it weren’t for you meddling, I would have gotten away with it!” There’s an unnecessary subplot only vaguely related to the murder in that a couple of people involved she thought were suspects.

The prose of Murder Swings the Tide is incredibly stilted. Too many short sentences. Ordered oddly. As if Robertson was in the draft stages of the story. This doesn’t make for smooth or interesting reading. Descriptions are generic. The dialogue is often silly and makes little sense. When she tries to write in dialect for the locals, she makes them sound stupid and uneducated.

The pacing of the book is all over the place. It starts off at a reasonable clip, but then the last third of the book just plows through things as if Robertson was told by the editor to hurry up and just end it. Unlike a lot of mysteries where there’s tension, this book doesn’t have it. I never felt Maggie’s life was in danger other than in her mind.

Overall Murder Swings the Tide was one of those books I should have stopped reading. It’s a mess and doesn’t work as a murder mystery. One a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I give it 1 pencil because there’s a puppy named Possum in it.

Weekly Musing: Critique Group Dos and Don’ts – Writer Edition

A component many writers groups offer are critique sessions. This is a time set aside where an agreed upon number of pieces, be they a short story, poetry, or chapters from a novel, are submitted to the group for feedback. While the person critiquing the piece has a responsibility to be honest and fair, the author bears some responsibilities when submitting the piece. Below are a few things I’ve noticed within writers groups I’ve been a part of. Seemingly simple things I wish every author would do as it would set up critiques to be about the content instead of other issues.

So here are some suggestions for an author when submitting work for critique:

Don’t submit an unedited draft – First drafts are garbage. Doesn’t matter how long you’ve been writing, doesn’t matter if you’re a published author or not, your first draft is going to be a tangled mess of ideas. Because you are still trying to figure out what the story is, it’s not the draft to submit to your critique group.

What I mean by unedited is at very least clean up the grammar and spelling as much as you are able to. Most writers struggle with grammar and spelling. There are plenty of books, websites, and classes to help improve.

If I’m reading a piece and I have to stop to remind you put a period at the end of a sentence, to capitalize where appropriate, how to use (or not use) a semi-colon, etc., then I can’t concentrate on the story itself. When it comes to the story itself please go through your rough draft at least once to organize your thoughts. Make sure scenes are in some kind of order. Submitting a draft and admitting it’s in no particular order, and it’s not intentional or experimental, is frustrating as the reader. It’s not my job to cobble together the sequence of events.

Format the manuscript in the industry standard – It is easy to find via a simple Google search of what Standard Manuscript Format – Short Story and Standard Manuscript Format – Novel  looks like. Often publishers will even include a link on their Submissions page. NOTE: Times New Roman or Courier New are the accepted fonts.

To make life easier for you and for any potential reader, format your work in the industry standard from the very first draft. You can even set up a template in Microsoft Word for this. As a reader it’s frustrating tapping the writer on the shoulder to remind them of something as simple as Standard Manuscript Format.

In addition to putting your piece in the accepted industry standard, make sure you understand how to properly denote a scene break. Sometimes I see blank lines in between paragraphs. I have no idea if there’s a formatting problem that wasn’t caught or if there’s a scene break. I know I’ve read several novels where this was how a scene break was noted, but the industry standard is three *, sometimes you’ll see three # used, centered with double-spacing before and after. Also, learn how to use Window/Orphan Control.

Clearly note chapters – I’ve read a few pieces where it wasn’t until several pages into the story I came to a page saying “CHAPTER TWO” that I realized everything I read up to them was chapter 1. For me this changes how I read and analyze the piece. When I read a short story I’m looking to see if it’s a complete story. When I’m reading chapters from a book, I’m looking for something else. Does this chapter tell me a piece of the larger story? Should it be in the novel and at this point? Is there too much backstory? Am I intrigued enough by the character(s) to keep reading? Make it easy on your reader, note those chapters.

 

Putting your work out there for others to read and critique is a nerve-wracking endeavor. Your heart beat speeds up. Your hands get clammy. Sweat breaks out on your brow and/or your armpits. Your stomach is in knots. It’s a big step as you let others see what you’ve been working on for months or years. To make it easier on yourself, put forth your best effort. Correct the grammar and spelling, format the piece correctly, and learn to self-edit. I want to focus on your story. I don’t want to be distracted by easy fixes, things all writers must learn to do unless you want your work to be rejected without being read. It takes a lot of work to edit and revise. For many writers it’s not their favorite thing in the world, but it’s a necessary evil. Make the critique of your work easier on yourself. Allow the reader to focus on the content and how to help you improve.