Apple and the DOJ, Round 1

iBooksIt’s hard to know what to make of the mess that is the Department of Justice suing Apple over ebook price fixing. Or alleged ebook price fixing–just to be clear. Anyhow, while everyone is falling over themselves to talk about this story (hey, no exception here!), there’s a bit of thought going on that Apple might succeed in this battle.

One reason lies in the Justice Department’s 36-page complaint, which recounts how publishers met over breakfast in a London hotel and dinners at Manhattan’s posh Picholine restaurant, which boasts a “Best of Award of Excellence” from Wine Spectator magazine. The key point is that Apple wasn’t present.

The Department of Justice “has a far better case against the publishers than Apple,” says Dominick Armentano, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Hartford and author of Antitrust and Monopoly who’s now affiliated with the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. “If the CEOs of the various publishers got together in hotel rooms to discuss prices, they are sunk” and might as well settle, he says.

Oops. Apple wasn’t there. That doesn’t mean that some phone calls weren’t made or other visits didn’t happen, but if that’s the crux of the DOJ’s case (or at least an important part of it), then I think the various “legal experts” may be right. If nothing else, Apple has some seriously good lawyers on retainer, and considering how the publishers have been falling over themselves to settle, Apple may yet escape this.

I suppose the question is, with the publishers settling, does it matter? If we’re about to see a return to wholesale pricing (something that may not be a good thing for indie writers if it means the big-name traditionally published authors see their ebook pricing drop (again)), then the DOJ basically won, regardless of whether Apple was found guilty.

And even if Apple were to be found guilty, they’re so beloved by many (and also so hated by a few certain groups) that they’d emerge on the other side of it basically unscathed. Remember, Apple is a company with a crapload of money at their disposal and a market capitalization of over $600b. They’re not a powerless company.

So, here’s how I see it for a few different people:

  • Indie authors: stay the course.
  • Traditionally published authors: well, do what you want, but know that your royalties for ebooks may get worse.
  • Traditional publishers: welcome back to 2007 and the days of Amazon running the marketplace and charging what they want for ebooks.
  • Consumers: celebrate?

Read more at Cnet about how they think Apple is going to win.

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Amazon Is Okay, or, How Random House Screwed Vincent Zandri

Vincent Zandri, an internationally known author and guy who has sold a lot of books, has a great blog post up about how he was screwed by traditional publishing. I’m sure this doesn’t come as a surprise to indie folks fighting on the front lines these days, but it may be a surprise to those who aren’t in the know as far as the volatile publishing industry is concerned.

Anyway, to the point, Zandri had a contract with one of Random House’s imprints, Delacorte (heard of them? I bet you have), and well, as he says it, they screwed him. Here’s a bit of what they did. Un-fucking-believable, if you ask me (and unforgiveable):

–I was contracted in 1999 for mid-six figure two book hard and soft deal.
–I was told to change the name of my novel, The Innocent to As Catch Can, because another author in their stable was publishing one of the same title. As Catch what?????
–While the hardcover was being produced, talk around the office centered on Delacorte being swallowed up by another publisher. They more or less dropped attention on As Catch what???, and rushed a very poor front cover into production…Yup, an insider pulled me aside and admitted the cover was a total fuck up….Oops, it’s just people’s lives we’re dealing with here…
–I was promised ads in The New York Times and support for a Northeast tour. I got neither.
–Delacorte shut down and was indeed swallowed up by the new publisher only weeks after the publication of As Catch what????
–I was suddenly the bastard child of the new publisher.
–They reneged on the contract and only agreed to publish the second book in the deal in paper. It was of course my right to sue them. But who in the world wants to sue a conglomerate cartel like Big New York? The big wigs laughed at me and went on vacation in the Hamptons.
–The second book was printed. Not published. Not even the B&N around the corner from Times Square had one in stock. It was around this time I met my then editor for a drink in NYC. In her words, “You didn’t hear it from me, but they are preventing you from selling books.”
–Now that I didn’t sell out my 250G contract for no fault of my own, another publisher wouldn’t touch
me if a gun was pressed to his or her temple. And at one time, the most powerful agent in the world was repping me: Suzanne Gluck. I must assume that an agent of her caliber chooses only manuscripts she sees tremendous potential in.
–Delacorte (Random House) refused to release my rights…even though they remaindered my books. An evil, self-serving move if ever there was one. “We’re not going to sell your books, but ahhh, neither can you!” Hitler comes to mind here…Too harsh? Okay, at least Uncle Joe Stalin.

He goes on to add that he lost his house and his family, his reputation and sanity were in the crapper, but he didn’t give up.

He persevered, and in the end, landed a nice contract with Amazon. But I’ll let you read the specifics on his blog. It’s an eye-opening read if you’re unfamiliar with the Titanic that is publishing right now, and still interesting even if you know what’s happening now. If you’re a writer, or thinking of trying your hand at writing, this is a must read.

Way to go, Vincent! Sorry about all the other crap, but glad you’re succeeding now.

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Why We Need Big, Bold Science Fiction

Popular Mechanics, the magazine renown for its literary contributions and advice (yes, that was sarcasm, but the good-natured kind since PM is a cool magazine), has a great article up about why we, as a society and humanity, need science fiction. But not just any science fiction, but for people to write big, bold, inspirational science fiction.

The future isn’t what it used to be. And neither is science fiction. While books about space exploration and robots once inspired young people to become scientists and engineers—and inspired grownup engineers and scientists to do big things—in recent decades the field has become dominated by escapist fantasies and depressing dystopias. That could be contributing to something that I see as a problem. It seems that too many technically savvy people, engineers in particular, are going to work for Web startups or investment firms. There’s nothing wrong with such companies, but we also need engineers to design bold new things for use in the physical world: space colonies instead of social media.

Anyway, they say that science fiction paved the way for real technology. When scientists were young and were still students and not the amazing people they are now, they looked to science fiction for inspiration. Think about it: how else can you explain man getting to the moon? (You do believe that happened, right?)

Anyway, Popular Mechanics posits that science fiction has become more escapist and less inspirational, and that we need these big, sweeping, inspirational arcs to continue to push us, as humans, further along. For the most part, I agree, and I say that as someone more interested in fantasy than science fiction. We don’t want to just throw our hands up and say we’ve accomplished every technological goal we can think of, so, let’s just stop, do we? I mean, we have Facebook, so what more do we need?

Yeah, I don’t think so, either.

Read more: Why We Need Big, Bold Science Fiction – Popular Mechanics. When you’re done reading, get out there write some hard science fiction. Inspire someone!

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Read Your Crap Backwards – A Quick Editing Tip

Unfortunately, when I first thought that there was a lot of bad writing that needed to be pointed out and that it’d be an easy and fun excercise for me to do so, I didn’t count on how much work and time it’d require. It’s really the latter requirement that’s the difficult one, because this really isn’t work, at least not in the traditional sense.

But time is always the deciding factor, and since I don’t want to endlessly ream authors for poor speaker attribution, time becomes a limiting factor because it can be surprisingly difficult to find terrible passages from books. At some point I’d like to graduate to larger-scale topics that can only be covered by reading something terrible from front to back, but again, time.

Alas, editing is something I’ve harped on for some time now, so instead of dragging another author into the spotlight and highlighting what’s wrong and then showing how to fix it, I thought I’d be proactive and share one of the many tricks in my editing toolbox that I’ve learned along the way. I in no way claim this to be my idea, but it’s such a good — and simple — one that I really think it’s worth sharing.

If you, like me, suffer from a brain that is several words ahead of your fingers then you’ll sometimes find you’re susceptible to writing passages that just don’t make sense. Perhaps you used the wrong word (maybe you meant “your” but put “you’re”) or you omitted one (oops, where’s that “the”?) or made some other little mistake that spell checkers and grammar checkers can’t catch. There’s any easy way to find them: Read backwards!

This doesn’t mean that you should start at the end of your manuscript or speech or essay and work your way back to the beginning, rather, start at the end of the sentence and read backwards but in standard order. Sound weird? Give it a shot. You might be surprised to find that some of the most common errors you make are ridiculously obvious when you completely change what your brain expects to see.

And that’s why this works: Your brain is complacent and needs a kick in the rear. Your brain knows what the paper or screen should say because, well, the brain was responsible for writing it even if it used your hands and fingers as its means of communication. And since you know what should be there, your brain very helpfully fills in the blanks or corrects incorrect word choices or flat-out ignores typos becuase the brain is able too quickly determine meaning and translate where necessary. (Did you notice that I used “too” instead of “to” in the last sentence? Chances are you did because you didn’t write that passage, but if you had the error might not be so obvious.)

While proofing your writing by reading it backwards is definitely an effective editing tool, it’s not meant to be a catch-all. Editing goes far beyond catching minor grammatical errors or other such issues that are easily corrected, but catching those small problems can often be the difference between a polished, professional piece of writing and an amateurish one that is destined for the slush pile or a poor grade.

I’ll come back with some additional editing tips in the future, but for now I think I’ll be scavenging for another example of terrible writing. With some luck, I’ll find a topic that I haven’t covered yet.

If you have a quick editing tip, share it with others!

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Dr. Shawn Phillips, Part 1 – Dillon’s Dream: Water & Earth

Oh the joys of self-published fiction and the plethora of bad writing examples they present. This is doubly exciting for us (more likely you than I) because Dr. Phillips has graced us with a bad example that doesn’t have anything to do with dialogue, attribution, or redundancy (well, that’s not entirely true, but I’m not pointing those problems out this time). Thank goodness for something different, right?

The way back should have been uneventful as always, but Dillon was yet again caught-up reflecting on a normal object in his path.

Who determine that a light pole should be so high? Who figured out the optimal distance between two light poles? Why is that huge lizard leaking on the light pole? Wait, that lizard doesn’t belong…

The sound of the impact made far less noise than the screeching coming from the 1998 Honda Accord. Dillon’s body hurtled through the air like a rag doll before coming to a sudden bone-crunching stop against the cement curb. His skateboard shattered on impact, launching the larger pieces over a brick wall and into a backyard some fifty feet away. For a moment both the body and the car lay motionless. Then the Accord’s driver-side door slowly opened and out slid a tall, lithe man who cautiously made his way to the near-lifeless body.

Damn, this is not going to look good on my record. The man looked around as if searching for something. Strange that it could happen. Maybe my vehicle needs a tune-up?

The driver methodically lifted the boy’s unconscious body out of the pooling blood and calmly placed it in the rear seat of his car. He nestled back into his own seat and shifted the car into gear. It nudged smoothly into the busy intersction and merged between the other cars before dissolving without a trace.

In spite of the rush hour traffic, there was no indication that anyone noticed what had transpired – except for the four-foot lizard propped up nearly human-like against a freshly painted yellow fire hydrant. An unsettling grin lined its face.

From Dillon’s Dream: Water & Earth by Dr. Shawn Phillips (italics his), page 5 (no previews are available).

Since I already said I’m not going to highlight something we’ve already looked at, you might be wondering what the topic is. Well, if there’s one thing to notice about the quote it’s that there’s a very distinct shift in perspective from one character to another. While this could simply be a case of an omniscient perspective, this perspective is an anomaly within the framework of, say, the first two chapters.

Consistency is one of the most important things in writing. Just as consistency is important in life, consistency is important in writing because it establishes expectations. When you establish that you’re operating from a mostly-limited perspective and then jump into an omniscient one without warning, you have problems.

We started in the head of Dillon in this selection, switched to Sandy (the unnamed driver) without warning, and then switched to god (or whoever the narrator is) for an effective total of three perspectives when no such trend has been established or is even continued upon afterward (for as long as I bothered to read, anyway). What the hell?

Imagine if you were reading Tolkien and he all of a sudden changed to a first-person perspective and then went right back to what he normally does. It’s disruptive as hell and really makes itself stand out. This one scene is practically wearing several thousand candle power equivalent of lights while standing in the middle of a dark field. It’s just plain glaring. (Ooh, bad pun.)

While you can write poorly and get published (see some other examples on this site), each of these heretofore highlighted authors share one thing in common (aside from terrible speaker attribution): they’re consistent. Consistency goes beyond just setting the stage for what the reader expects to see: It’s one of the major pieces of the framework for the entire story and beyond.

While it may be going a little overboard to take one example of a shifting perspective and turn it into a fairly sizable diatribe on consistency, there’s still some truth here. Writing fiction, writing essays, writing of any kind requires more than just vomiting words out onto a page. Except for those rare storytellers who are gifted with an ability most of us can only hope to ever find, most of us have a lot of planning and editing to do when it comes to writing. Mistakes are going to happen, but that’s what editing is for.

For the established authors who sell boatloads of books, they’re consistent. That consistency has allowed them to grab an audience that follows them and buys their books as soon as they come out because these readers know that their favorite authors are going to deliver something they want to read, even if it is formulaic garbage. There’s a reason that authors publish under a pseudonym when they switch genres.

Consistency in writing goes beyond the simple novel. It’s a statement about the kind of things you write (thrillers, hard-hitting exposés, literary fiction), your marketing, and perhaps most importantly, your skill. One simple slip does not ruin a masterpiece, but a series of them sure does.

This slip in consistency is really just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If there’s one kind thing I can say about this particular story, it’s that it’s consistently bad. Wait, is that kind?

As an idea of other issues this work suffers from, this passage and others contain such problems as unnecessary details, characters that speak the same way, characters that are completely unbelievable in their dialogue, lots of telling and not showing, and other issues.

There’s really nothing I can do to fix this quote outside of breaking it up into separate scenes or rewriting the entire story to be written from an omniscient perspective, and I have zero desire to do either. But even if I did, there’s so many other problems that I really don’t want to waste any more of my time or yours on it than I have to.

Bleh.

(But it’s a gold mine and we may need to come back to it. Consider yourself warned.)

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David Weber, Part 1 – Out of the Dark

Thus far we’ve looked at teen fiction and a thriller/mystery for our bad writing examples. Continuing to prove that bad writing exists in fiction of all kinds, we’re looking at a science fiction novel by a generally well-regarded author. Too bad for him this book is full of bad lines, but I’ve selected a mere two.

“I don’t know that I’d go that far,” Dvorak said. “I mean, we–”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Mitchell interrupted brusquely.

From Out of the Dark by David Weber, page 308.

Once again we’re looking at speaker attribution, but as a bonus we’re also getting absolute laziness because it extends across two lines and turns into something worse.

I know I ranted against speaker attribution in the really, really long post Stephenie Meyer, Part 1 – Twilight, but this warrants a little more because this eclipses the awfulness of her line. When discussing what Meyer did, she essentially told the reader exactly what the character just said. But this? Not only did Weber decide to tell the reader exactly what the character is doing, he’s also opted to be redundantly redundant about it.

It is universally accepted in writing that when one ends a sentence with an em dash, the speaker has stopped speaking. So in the quote above, the line “I mean, we–” means that the speaker, Dvorak, has stopped speaking immediately after saying “we.” Pretty simple, right?

Interestingly enough, just because someone starts speaking immediately after someone has abruptly stopped doesn’t mean that the new speaker is interrupting the first. Granted, the majority of the time this is going to be the case, but there do exist possibilities where someone could stop speaking to listen in on another conversation or a message that’s being played or some other possibility. However, when the new speaker is calling the original one an idiot, that’s an interruption.

In this quote, Mitchell (who appears to be something of a jerk based upon this tiny instance) has clearly interrupted Dvorak. If the em dash followed immediately by dialog from a new speaker wasn’t clear enough, then the first thing that comes out of Mitchell’s mouth should be. In case you were asleep at the book, Weber tells you that Mitchell has interrupted Dvorak. To make matters worse, Weber takes this a step further to tell you that the interuption was brusque. Really? You don’t say. Let’s look at the definition of brusque and see what it means.

brusque – abrupt in manner; blunt; rough.

Huh. Well what do you know, brusque means abrupt. Now, if you don’t happen to know what brusque means, then you may not know that this is insanely redundant, but if you do, you’re likely shaking your head right now. While it is possible to interrupt someone without being brusque (such as raising one’s hand and waiting patiently until being acknowledged), you don’t typically interrupt people by inferring they’re an idiot without coming off as brusque (or worse).

So let’s look at the whole of this tiny quote and reassess the issues:

Dvorak stops speaking in mid-sentence; Mitchell, we’re told, interrupts Dvorak by telling him not to be an idiot; and the interruption is brusque. This is definitely some facepalm-worthy material. Thankfully, it’s going to take about two seconds to fix.

“I don’t know that I’d go that far,” Dvorak said. “I mean, we–”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Mitchell said.

But wait! If you look at page 308 and see the quote, then you know that I’ve lopped off quite a bit of dialogue from Mitchell following his rather rude interruption. This opens the door to be really minimal because there’s another line or two coming out of his mouth immediately following where I cut this short.

“I don’t know that I’d go that far,” Dvorak said. “I mean, we–”

“Don’t be an idiot.”

Wow, was that so difficult? It’s lazy, stupid crap like this that really drives me insane and makes me question the quality of products coming from major publishing houses. Considering that we’re in historically uncharted territory where publishing is concerned (a rant for another day), it seems reasonable to think the publishing houses would be the gatekeepers of quality. Clearly, they’re not.

I realize it’s a bit unfair to suggest that the overall quality of a work is compromised by a couple of bad lines, but if you’ve read the reviews then you likely know there’s other issues with this book. I’ve simply chosen to examine a very, very small (and incredibly minor) portion of it because I’m really trying to make a point about attribution and redundancy. They both suck, okay?

I’m just calling for better editing.

I’m not sure what else you could do to this quote that I didn’t, but if you have a better idea then tell me about it! Leave a comment. (That’s a little bonus redundancy, in case you needed be to told.)

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James Patterson, Part 2 – Don’t Blink

(This is part 2 in the first of what will likely be additional James Patterson topics. The first part looked at a specific quote from his newest book, Don’t Blink, and included a wee bit of critique about it before ending abruptly because I have a tendency to be very, very wordy. Oops.)

In a hellish blur, Bruno Torenzi whipped his arm around, plunging the scalpel deep into the puffy fold above Marcozza’s left eye. With a good butcher’s precision and hard speed, he cut clockwise around the orbital socket. Three, six, nine, midnight…The blade moved so fast, the blood didn’t have time to bleed.

“ARRGH!” was a pretty good approximation of the sound Marcozza made.

He screamed in agony as the entire restaurant turned. Now everyone noticed Bruno Torenzi. He was the one carving the eye out of that fat man’s face–like a pumpkin!

From Don’t Blink by James Patterson and Howard Roughan, page 8, chapter three of the prologue (!).

We went over the problems with this quote in James Patterson, Part 1 – Don’t Blink, so without wasting any more time let’s rewrite it and then discuss some of the changes afterward. First, I’m going to rewrite it by only using my delete keys (and one CMD-I to get rid of unnecessary italics):

In a blur, Bruno Torenzi whipped his arm around, plunging the scalpel deep into the puffy fold above Marcozza’s left eye. With precision and speed, he cut clockwise around the orbital socket.

“ARRGH!”

He screamed in agony as the entire restaurant turned. Now everyone noticed Bruno Torenzi. He was the one carving the eye out of that fat man’s face.

Look at that. All I did was get rid of the really, really bad lines and extra words and it’s already an improvement. Does it lose a little something? Perhaps, but what it also loses is the sense that the text is laughable. It’s still rough and could use a little polishing, but on the whole, it’s an improvement. Let’s go one step further and make some actual changes beyond deletion this time:

Bruno Torenzi whipped his arm around so fast that it was a blur. Scalpel in hand, Bruno plunged the blade deep into the puffy fold above Marcozza’s left eye and got right to work. With the precision of a man who has performed this operation countless times before, Bruno swept the blade clockwise around the orbital socket of Marcozza’s eye to an eruption of blood.

“Arrgh!”

Marcozza’s scream cut through the noise of the restaurant and all eyes turned to the pair, the other voices suddenly gone quiet. The ferocity of the attack left Marcozza defenseless and he flailed about in panic. Plates and glasses flew off of the table to crash to the floor as Bruno carved his face like a pumpkin.

Phew. That wasn’t so bad. Now, is this perfect? No, it’s not.

First things to notice: no italics, no all-caps, and no author interjections. It’s primarily just a little rewording, and that’s always a matter of author style and taste. Me? I don’t like mixing “-ed” an “-ing” on the end of the verbs. It’s not inherently bad, but it does open your writing up to unintentional impossibilities (see Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, pages 193-195 for examples of this) if you’re not careful. In this specific case this wasn’t an issue and I don’t mean to insinuate that it is, it’s just a stylistic difference.

However, note that while I got rid of a lot of things, I kept the pumpkin reference because even though it does seem like a stretch, I wanted to show that there’s much better ways to say the exact same thing without disrupting the narrative.

There’s certainly something lacking in my rewrites versus the original where style is concerned, but that should be a given. When it comes to style, Patterson and I don’t have a lot of overlap. Patterson sticks to short sentences, paragraphs, and chapters (ugh) and spells everything out while I tend to be a little wordier and don’t fill in all of the blanks. In this case, I’m trying to be true to my own style while mimicking Patteron’s style and I think I’ve done a decent job of maintaining the punchiness of the story.

The biggest difference between either of my rewrites and the original is really minor, at least in one sense, but profound in another: The really obnoxious bad lines are just gone. That’s all. Sure, I don’t like italics and caps, but that’s a matter of style. But getting rid of clunker lines shouldn’t be.

If you’d like a shot at rewriting Patterson’s quote or think I did a great/terrible/okay job at rewriting it, then share! There’s a big comment box right below this, so put it to use.

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James Patterson, Part 1 – Don’t Blink

In a hellish blur, Bruno Torenzi whipped his arm around, plunging the scalpel deep into the puffy fold above Marcozza’s left eye. With a good butcher’s precision and hard speed, he cut clockwise around the orbital socket. Three, six, nine, midnight…The blade moved so fast, the blood didn’t have time to bleed.

“ARRGH!” was a pretty good approximation of the sound Marcozza made.

He screamed in agony as the entire restaurant turned. Now everyone noticed Bruno Torenzi. He was the one carving the eye out of that fat man’s face–like a pumpkin!

From Don’t Blink by James Patterson and Howard Roughan, page 8, chapter three of the prologue (!).

Can you feel the excitement? I know I can, and I’m not talking about the excitement of melon-balling someone’s eye!

To set the scene, if you read a little more of the prologue that this selection comes from you have Bruno, the attacker, sitting in a restaurant watching his mark, Marcozza. He then approaches the mark and proceeds to move so quickly that blood doesn’t even have a chance to flow, which is physically impossible unless the body has previously been drained of all blood (he hasn’t been). Let’s waste no more time and get right into the dissection.

(“In a hellish…”) The first sentence gets a pass, because really, it’s action and fine. We can bicker over word choices and whether blurs can be hellish, but really, it’s fine. The second, arguably, is also fine, although I’m curious what exactly “hard speed” is and how it compares to “soft speed” as well as “medium speed,” but that’s getting really persnickety. It’s the next two sentences that brings us all together.

(“Three, six, nine…”) By this point Patterson has already written that Bruno made a clockwise cut around the orbital of the victim, and now we get this really awful analogy that is so strained it practically steals all of the attention from everything else because of how downright terrible it is. Clearly, this isn’t needed considering the story is already over-the-top. Furthermore, this strained attempt at sprucing things up becomes redundant because the previous sentence already described this, and this isn’t something important enough to warrant repetition, especially since this is still the prologue (which has multiple chapters, mind you).

Really, just stop and read that analogy. Who the hell refers to twelve as “midnight” when they’re referencing a clock face? It’s just…bleh. It’s not that the overall image is a bad idea, because it really does provide a little punch to the story (not that it needs it), but it’s just so poorly executed.

But wait! Just when you think it can’t get any worse, there’s the last line in that paragraph.

(“The blade moved…”) Now I didn’t go to medical school and I’m no doctor, however I’m fairly sure that, under normal circumstances, one bleeds when they receive a severe cut. The end.

The victim isn’t in a vacuum, doesn’t have miraculous clotting abilities, and is nothing but a normal person. You cut his eye out and you’re going to get blood all over your hands. It’s just the way humans work.

But no, not in Don’t Blink. In Don’t Blink it’s possible for blood not to bleed (putting those words together is so beyond stupid that I almost go apoplectic upon seeing them). Of course this isn’t meant to be taken literally, but that doesn’t stop it from being problematic. This sentence is meant to convey that Bruno was so quick and precise in his movements that he did everything before the victim was able to bleed, let alone all over him, but the way it’s said is so ridiculous that it’s a challenge to the sanity and intelligence of any who read it. Really, I’m angry now just seeing that those words were actually published and not in some sort of ironic sense. Let’s move on before this turns into nothing but a rant.

“ARGGH!” is just awful. You know what the problem is? That anything was written after it. A  simple “Arrgh!” would have been just fine. We’re not idiots — we get that the guy is screaming in pain and that it doesn’t sound exactly like “Arrgh,” but probably something close to that. Why spoil what is an otherwise serviceable line that says a lot with very little?

(“He screamed…”) Finally, the last paragraph. I’m getting sick of this crap so I imagine you are, too. The first two lines in the last paragraph are fine and throwaways (though I’d lose the italics because forced emphasis is just that: Forced), but the last one is a winner. The last three words read like someone who thinks they’re really clever when they’re not: “‘Like a pumpkin!’ Ha! I’m brilliant! Look at me and how I was able to use an em dash and interject something at the end of the sentence so that the readers can see that it came from me, the writer, and be awed by my sheer awesomeness! Awesome!”

I know the facepalm meme is somewhat tired and overused, but this is the perfect place for it. With those last three words, the scene has been completely ruined (well, assuming it wasn’t already ruined by all of the other afore-mentioned problems) by the narrator forcing himself upon the reader.

The writer should be invisible, not in your face. That’s not to say that the author doesn’t have a voice, because they most certainly do as they’re the one crafting the whole thing. But as soon as your narrator turns from the narrator into you, you’ve failed as a writer. This is exacerbated by this narrative being told in third person. If it was being told from first person then this might be an extension of the narrator’s personality, but in this case, it’s the author interjecting himself and nothing more.

This isn’t a call for perfection, but editing. I know my writing isn’t perfect and I know there are going to be folks who think I’m too wordy or that I’m too conversational or that I’m an idiot because I’m savaging the writing of their favorite author or any number of other possibilities, but this isn’t difficult. Really, it’s very easy to get rid of bad lines. Writing good ones is difficult, but getting rid of bad ones should come naturally to a novelist.

Part of the ideal definition of a novelist is that the person should also be an editor. And if they’re not, they should find someone who is. At the very least the publisher should find some poor intern with an English degree and a red pen to go through this stuff. It doesn’t take that long. I realize that the industry no longer functions in this way, but it’s still frustrating.

Alas, I’m in danger of turning this into another Stephenie Meyer sized post, so let’s just call it a day for now. When we next reconvene, I’ll go find my red pen and it’ll be rewriting time!

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Stephenie Meyer, Part 1 – Twilight

I expect this will be the first of many, many Stephenie Meyer posts. Sure, it’s easy to pick apart her writing, but it’s also instructional. Just the same, I’ll try to refrain from focusing on her at the expense of others, but since I promised I’d start with her (you did recognize that quote from the introductory post, didn’t you?), then I very well better.

I originally thought I’d just take that one line, you know the one:

“Shhhh,” he shushed me.

But then I asked myself if I was missing out on other possibilities that might help to explain why this book is so full of dreadful writing. Talk about a loaded question. Let’s take a closer look at this quote and the setup to it and then we’ll expand on this quote.

In the story, the narrator (Bella) has awoken in a bed with tubes “twisted up” around her hands and a tube “under” her nose (aren’t the tubes usually inserted into the nose?). As she realizes where she is and that the dreaded tube monster has caught her, she attempts to remove the tubes only to find that Edward is there with her. After Edward stays her hand, Bella gushes with excitement (and apology) at seeing him. For those reading at home (or reading on Amazon), you’ll want to start just past chapter 24, which on Amazon is page 459. We’re joining the action immediately following her dramatic apology.

“Shhhh,” he shushed me. “Everything’s all right now.”

“What happened?” I couldn’t remember clearly, and my mind rebelled against me as I tried to recall.

“I was almost too late. I could have been too late,” he whispered, his voice tormented.

Sigh. Allow me to make the obvious joke so we can move on: It’s too bad he wasn’t too late because then we wouldn’t have to read this drivel. There, I said it. You were thinking it, though.

Let’s go a line at a time and see just where Stephenie went wrong.

“Shhhh,” he shushed me. “Everything’s all right now.”

If you can’t see what’s wrong with this line, then you need to go read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Brown and Dave King. The authors, aside from having crafted a spot-on editing book, have a wonderful chapter devoted to dialogue mechanics and speaker attributions. While I probably couldn’t hope to do as good a job as they already have to describe the details involved, I’m going to try and I’m going to use this quote as my example.

In essence, Brown and King argue for the exclusive use of “said” for speaker attributions and I agree (while I agree with the philosophy, in practice I almost never use any speaker attribution. Why not? Because it’s unnecessary, and you’ll see an example of this below). “Said,” they argue, is almost mechanical, something like a comma or a period because when we, as readers, see the word we just process it as something like, “Oh, Joe is speaking now,” only it’s done on a fairly unconscious level, much as how we see a comma and know to pause for a moment.

They also go on to advise against any further attributions, and while they’re polite about it, I’m not.

This additional speaker attribution is not only unnecessary (1), but often times redundant (2), frequently insulting (3), and always lazy (4). Meyer, with one line, has done more to illustrate these points and with such an amazing economy of words than any I could think of, and hers was published!

“Shhhh,” he shushed me. “Everything’s all right now.”

That’s the last time I’ll quote it, so don’t worry, no need to scratch your own eyes out. Let’s see if it fits the four points I mentioned above about speaker attribution.

  1. Unnecessary? Completely. At this point in the scene, there are only two characters present and the narrator has just finished apologizing to Edward (why? Who cares?), and since we see beginning and ending double quotes for that apologetic paragraph, and on the next line see new double quotes, we should be able to intuit that we’re witnessing a speaker change. However, for those who are sticklers and are worried it’s not entirely clear, a simple, “Edward said.” would be acceptable and be far, far less awful.
  2. Redundant? Duh. He says “Shhhh” and the author tells us that he shushed someone.
  3. Insulting? Yes. To be clear, it’s insulting to the reader, though as a writer, I also find it insulting that anyone should write like that and a) make it through editing (clearly, line-by-line editing is a thing of the past) and; b) have it published. Standards, anyone? Anyhow, this statement is just plain awful. By his dialogue, Edward is obviously shushing her. He’s not singing a line from a song nor is he yelling (though that’d be oddly entertaining, I think). He is, quite simply, shushing her. You don’t need to tell the audience that he’s shushing her because it’s made clear by what he’s saying. Everyone who is able to read and understand basic sentences is easily smart enough to understand that “Shhhh” is the written way in which Meyer hears someone shushing another. For the author to have the character speak it and then turn around and tell us what the character just did is shocking to me. Shocking because she treats her readers as complete idiots who can’t think beyond “Eat. Sleep. Drink. Shit.” If anyone ever needed an example of why I won’t read her (never mind the ideals being instilled here which is a whole other rant entirely), this is it. I’m pissed off by this (after I stop laughing hysterically because it’s so bad it has to be intentional but clearly isn’t (I’d love to be proven wrong on this, but I don’t see it happening)).
  4. Lazy? Absolutely. Can you think of any lazier way to to write that a character just shushed another character? She was actually spot-on with the first part of it, having Edward do it in dialogue. There’s nothing wrong with that because dialogue is dynamic, it’s a form of action. But in attribution? That’s breaking the cardinal rule of writing (if there is such a thing): show, don’t tell. It’s that simple: SDT. Any time you find yourself telling instead of showing in the middle of what is supposed to be an important, emotional, or otherwise invested scene, you’re doing it wrong. Telling is the narrative in between, the parts that aren’t supposed to be under the spotlight but that give the story layers.

A final point to this quote is that by using the speaker attribution, Meyer is drawing attention to herself as the writer. Writing, or storytelling, is one of the particular arts where, as the artist, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself. The point of writing the story is to write something so immersive that it draws the reader in and they find they’re invested in the story, the characters, in something. But if you insist upon writing in such a way that is so incompetent and insulting, you risk alienating readers because it’s almost as if when they’re reading you poke your head out of the page to say, “Hey! Edward is telling her to be quiet! You see? Get it? Get it? He’s shushing her! Look at me! I’m a writer!” If that’s how you choose to write, clearly it’s working for some, but you suck.

So with the first line down, let’s hack away at the others. They will go faster, I assure you, and we’ll wrap up with an edited version of what this piece of writing could have looked like. On to line two!

“What happened?” I couldn’t remember clearly, and my mind rebelled against me as I tried to recall.

This is mostly an example of redundancy, combined with insult and laziness and sprinkled with ridiculous. The chapter opens with Bella describing how she doesn’t know what the hell is going on, where she is, why she’s been mummified with tubes, etc. However, the astute reader would have noted that in hundred and fifty or so words that preceded this portion of the chapter that it has already been established that Bella is confused about where she is and what’s happening. However, for the readers with short-term memory loss, this is a reminder for you. However, for the readers with short-term memory loss, this is a reminder for you.

As if these problems weren’t enough, the final part is to point out that this writing is full of cliches and things that just don’t make sense. How does a mind rebel? What does it do when it rebels? Is it singing Rebel Yell? Is it doing complex mathematical computations while Bella is trying to remember what happened? Is it informing her of what happened, only in another language? Perhaps it’s telling her what happened, only in a slightly out-of-order way because it’s not really a rebel, but it wants its friends to think it’s a rebel so it makes these token rebellions so that later on it can embellish the story and not feel like it’s lying because, well, it really did happen. Ahem. What the hell does that even mean, that her mind rebelled? It’s stupid, lazy, and ridiculous. She’s confused and groggy, not in the middle of a mutiny.

“I was almost too late. I could have been too late,” he whispered, his voice tormented.

Finally, the last sentence. Who knew that one could wring 1500 words out of a few sentences? That’s quality, for you.

There’s no inherent problem with Edward repeating himself because he’s clearly upset. How do we know that? He repeated himself, and repeating things is what people do when they’re upset or lying, or they’re just trying to remember useless facts for a test, or perhaps are trying to make sure people heard whatever brilliant thing they have to say. However, this is a story of teen angst and drama, so we know he’s just upset. The problem is in the speaker attribution yet again.

I won’t go over each individual problem with the attribution again, but instead focus on the last three words: his voice tormented. Never mind that taken out of context it sounds weird, but this is pure drivel. Absolute lazy rubbish. Instead of giving us a beat, something that shows what Edward is feeling (even if he’s too cool to show any real emotion Bella should be able to notice something) would be good, but no, more telling.

So with those three lines and their myriad problems in mind, let’s rewrite this hot mess and make it, well, a little less hot and messy.

“Shhhh.” Edward placed his hand on my head and started to stroke my hair. “Everything’s all right now.”

“What happened?”

“I was almost too late. I could have been too late.” He looked away and his hand stopped in mid-motion, but for just a moment.

Ta-da! Still dreadful, still dripping with teenage angst and melodrama, but technically sound. You’ll even notice that I managed to do it all without using a single adverb (never mind that I’ve used them throughout this piece). I’m not saying it’s perfect, nor am I saying it’s great, but when one considers the original quote, it no longer exhibits any of the problems I identified earlier.

Do you know what’s the worst aspect of this? It took about a minute to fix it. A single minute. One minute of editing could have fixed the entire quoted passage, and instead we got crap. Well, someone got crap because I sure as hell didn’t read it.

Noticed some things I didn’t? Think I’m wrong and it’s a perfectly acceptable piece of literature and I’m too big a snob to admit it? Fight it out in the comments.

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“‘Shhhh,’ he shushed me.” Yes, that’s what we’re starting with.

If you can look at that quote and identify its author and the work it came from, then congratulations because you have read something written very poorly. And quite frankly, that’s what wasteofwords.com is all about. Sort of. Well, with some luck there’ll be some things here that aren’t terrible, but most of the quotes? Yeah, we’re talking that caliber.

Consider this a teaser because I’m not really going to get into that quote and what makes it so bad as well as how it can be fixed (the rest of the book is beyond a quick fix, however), but that’s the ultimate goal. The plan is to take some terrible piece of writing, a landmine, if you will, and expose it to the masses and show not only why it’s bad, but how it can be better. It’s easy to point the finger at something bad, but it’s not always easy to to explain why it’s bad nor how to correct it.

But, I’m a brave individual and think (or hope) I’m up to the task. So if that’s at all intriguing, then with some luck the follow-through will be worth it. For now, I’m not touching this terrible piece of writing, but I will, and soon. Perhaps too soon.

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