Writing Bugbear #1

I'm cheating on my 12 books for 2011. I knocked Amy Hempel right off the list within the first week of January so I sneakily allowed myself a library addition. And I'm not enjoying it. Still reading it, but not impressed. It's a disappointment because I've enjoyed other work by the same author, and this one can be summed up by a 'meh'. I find it impossible not to finish books I've started, no matter how awful they are, and can only think of one exception to this compulsion - a book that was so highly rated, yet made me so utterly irritated I had to stop before I ate it or something. It was a debut novel, yet it could have been edited in half - what on earth was going on there, and who did the author know in high places to get it published in the first place? I'm not going to name names because it's kinda bitchy, but there have been hours spent in the company of books that I wish I never started.

In editing this novel I've begun to really pay attention to what I admire and aspire to in the writing of others - aaaaand what I want to avoid at all costs. The books that fuck my head up with awesomesauce have their pages heavy-petted in an attempt to distill what makes them so saucy. The ones that curl my lip in disdain get tutted at and dropped in the bath. The things that irritate me are easier to pin down, certainly, so here's just one example. I plan on adding to this DO and DON'T list as and when I am inspired to do so. My blogging is a bit sporadic at the moment due to the whole editing thang, and singlehandedly working a job that should be shared by about three people.

Without further waffle, here's my first writing bugbear:

Searching questions: How could it have come to this? What was he supposed to do now? What could she have done differently? And so on. I mean, don't ask ME, I'm the frickin' reader. If your character is asking these kinds of questions, it means you can't be arsed to show the theme that lies behind. Or you don't know how. It's much easier to sum up the general predicament of a character by putting in a vague, searching question - profound in its wonderment... But it's lazy, and it's essentially useless, and I dont believe I have ever asked myself a single question like this in reality. It's a substitute for real exploration of feeling, which you can discover by using your stock question to provoke new, more probing questions which you then answer by writing proper bloody prose instead of useless querying :

How could it have come to this? What has it come to? Why is it such a shock? Is this breaking point? What is your character's physical reaction to this revelation?

What was he supposed to do now? How about some motherflipping suggestions? What do you do when you're lost, when you've come to the end of your tether, when you just want to sit down where you are and sob? Skip the soul searching, head straight for the tragedy buffet - does he shut off, does he break something, does he shout, does he get on the first bus to anywhere? What is he going to do now?

What could she have done differently? Aaaaaand cue a handy little sum up of the previous events. Too easy. If you're going to flashback, then sit for a minute and try to recall a vivid memory - how much of it do you actually remember? Snippets. Smells. Snatches of conversation. We collate all this into a jerky trailer for the movie adaptation of our lives, but it still contains the tiny, interesting, remarkable details that make it truthful. Write those truths rather than: well, she could have done this, but this got in her way, and now she's here, wondering what she could have done differently. Poor little lady.

It all just smacks of melodrama to me, and will elicite an eye-roll rather than a chin stroking 'hmm'. Don't do it. Or fine, do it, just don't expect me to read it.

Posted on January 20, 2011 and filed under Editing, Novel, Reading, Uncategorized, Writing.