Home, Con-crud, and Bad Writing

Posted: September 2nd, 2014 under Craft, Life beyond writing.
Tags: , ,

It’s not all negative.  I had a great time at Dragon-Con,  the con-crud is not (so far) really bad, and the bad writing was/is hilarious.    I don’t trash other peoples’ books in public, so I won’t tell you who wrote this gasper, only that it’s not in SF/F (I indulged my interest in another genre).   I won’t even quote it because someone lurking here would undoubtedly run it through a search engine and figure it out, after which someone (maybe a different someone) would hasten to tell the author that I trashed the book, and the author’s fans would then come hurtling down on me, and those who like internet fights would sit around cheering.  I  have a better idea.

I actually read three books over the course of the trip and part of a fourth.   The best-written was a nonfiction book on Icelandic history; the next best pair were a) mystery and b) science fiction.  The fourth is our Lesson of the Week on how not to write.

What could possibly go wrong with a published book?   The wrong words, the wrong order, and lack of editing.

What wrong words?   For starters, an overabundance of adjectives.   It’s a rare noun that needs two adjectives (and most don’t need even one, if it’s the right noun.)   “Furry, round” [noun], “sad, pitiful [noun], “bulky, green” [noun], “harsh, callous” [noun] are bad enough if this is the pattern for most of the nouns on the page, which it was on too many pages.   And some of the noun/adjective pairs don’t fit, attributing emotions and motivations to inanimate objects.  Overly vivid verbs were another problem, particularly combined with subjects that could not do the action described.  Heavy objects “soared.”   Clothing and body body parts gained agency, apparently moving around independent of the person they were supposedly attached to.  Writers have been warned about this–if a reader suddenly visualizes actual shoes “following” something, it becomes a different kind of story.   There’s said-bookism (characters gulp, hiss, smirk, instruct, etc instead of saying their lines.)  There’s a lot of infodump, both in the added descriptions, the extra adjectives and adverbs, but also in the large chunks of text that are irrelevant to the plot, and delivered in long lumps of explanation.

Why talk about this?  Because one way to develop your own writing is to notice what other writers do wrong, as well as what they do right.   A really good writer is harder to dissect–you as reader are sucked in and carried along, the good writing having its way with you and not letting you notice it.   A less skilled writer offers multiple chances to notice when a phrase throws you out of the story, when you’re losing interest during an infodump,  when you have to read something right to be sure what the writer meant, when the rhythm of the prose is monotonous.   Good writing is more than avoiding error, but competent writing (a step down from good) will avoid the errors that infest bad writing.


So what about the con-crud.  Typical–started with dry scratchy throat and has progressed to a fairly typical post-convention array of symptoms.  I will recover.  I’m hoping for a short bout, but you never know whose virus you’ve got or what it is until it’s fully developed.

Otherwise Dragon-Con was a lot of fun, as usual, and thanks to my own idiocy (arriving at the airline desk on Thursday without my driver’s license) I now have personal experience that will show up in another book someday.  Paksworld isn’t much on ID documentation, but the SF story-universes are.  Heh-heh-heh.  Not having photo ID did keep me out of some things at DragonCon that I’d hoped to do, but…so it is when you’re careless.





  • Comment by Julia Coldren-Walker — September 3, 2014 @ 5:33 am


    I am curious about the Iceland history. Is it a new one? I particularly like the sagas with Njala being my favorite. Also I have always loved the character Höskuld.


  • Comment by Sarah Stapleton — September 3, 2014 @ 8:09 am


    I had hoped to make it to Dragon Con but discovered it’s too hard to attend for one day, with travel, parking, etc. I’d left it too late to get a hotel. Have to plan earlier.

  • Comment by Annabel — September 3, 2014 @ 12:07 pm


    What gets me in a book – and these days it’s all too common, given that people self-publish and their books don’t pass the eagle eye of an editor, is egregious mistakes with apostrophes and spelling (“alright” for “all right” is extremely common, and irritates me to the point that I had to stop reading one book as it’s all the characters ever seemed to say to one another!).

  • Comment by elizabeth — September 3, 2014 @ 12:39 pm


    Annabel: Even with editors, copy editors, and writers’ own eyes on the book, things will slip past, largely because of deadlines but also because of familiarity. Apostrophe errors bug me, as does “alright,” but some publishers’ style books allow “alright” (and copy editors will change “All right” to “alright” and then I have to stet it.) The not-great book I discussed above had homonym errors and tense errors and the now very common confusion of lay, laid, and lie, lay, lain. Bare is not bear, bate is not bait, and so on. And yet…I have with my own fingers typed it’s when I meant its (and vice versa.)

    Sarah: If you want a convention rate for DragonCon, you need to reserve a room in one of the convention hotels now (or very soon). Hotels fill up very fast because many people come every year.

    Julia: The book is Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, by Nancy Marie Brown, Palgrave, 2012. She has written other books, including one I particularly want to find: A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse.

  • Comment by Daniel Glover — September 3, 2014 @ 8:02 pm


    I have become somewhat less strongly affected by some less than well written sections in books since you’ve shared your own story Elizabeth. I’ve recently finished a book by an author whose other writing I have enjoyed thoroughly but this one had a few spots that had me contemplating putting it down.

    The author did mention in the forward/afterward (to further de-identify said individual) that life experiences had caused a delay in the usual (yearly) publishing schedule. I am now more willing to plow through these rough patches and see what lies beyond. In this case it was satisfying, if not stellar.

    Elizabeth, thank you for sharing your story and your story writing with us here in Paksworld.

  • Comment by Joyce — September 4, 2014 @ 6:30 am


    Amazon lists a used paperback copy of A Good Horse ….and it’s amazon prime, even!

  • Comment by Annabel — September 4, 2014 @ 12:33 pm


    Oh, I always type it’s when I mean its and vice versa, but I do go back and correct – or edit, if it’s something that can easily be edited, like a Facebook comment. My former boss used to get very irritated when people sent him texts, etc, with typos in them: “Can’t people proofread?” Which, no – I have a shaming tendency not to find the mistake until the text is published….

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — September 4, 2014 @ 8:48 pm


    Oh my! The lie and lay verbs. My seventh grade English teacher used to chant, ” lie, lay, laid, lay, laid, lay-in,” all the while walking back and forth and popping her girdle. She made two syllables out of “lain”. The performance generated the expected sniggers, but clearly sent the pattern to long-term memory in my case.

  • Comment by Lise — September 4, 2014 @ 9:24 pm


    My English classes were all advanced second language. Most of the students mastered the usual homonym problems, since they were really drilled in and there was often no English home environment to cause trouble. The main problem was when there is an exception in conjugation or plural, but the form that followes the rule actually has another meaning ex: peoples. One High School teacher laughed for a week after marking a stack of texts where the student had apparently “hanged out at the mall” with their friends. She found it rather morbid.

  • Comment by Karen — September 5, 2014 @ 6:43 pm


    God/gods bless us all.

    I was never/never aspired to be a “grammar girl.” I did, however, learn a lot of language from “made-up” words in science fiction/fantasy and refuse to judge anyone who wants to use words in a game of Scrabble that aren’t in the official dictionary.

    So please get well and let the rest of us rest… on our laurels….

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — September 6, 2014 @ 2:59 pm


    Obviously a good editor is a requirement. I suspect that Ms. Moon writes well enough that her editor can enjoy the work.

    Not to impose an undue burden, but do you have any idea as to how many changes your editor makes – and how many are really just typing errors and not spelling or grammar mistakes?

    I don’t know if I have ever dropped a book because it was poorly written. I have dropped a dull book or one which put women in trouble.

  • Comment by Kathy_S — September 7, 2014 @ 1:26 am


    I have little tolerance for poor grammar, but also become grouchy when entire categories of speech are derided as “bad writing.” Get rid of the adjectives! The adverbs! Those book-saidisms! I think that statements of this type reflect the critic’s stylistic preferences rather than “bad” vs. “good.” A paragraph of description replete with adjectives and adverbs will be an evocative word picture to one reader, but boring filler to another. One reader’s “lean, well-crafted prose” is another’s “sadly impoverished language.” Some people claim that any speech descriptor but “said” throws them out of the story, while others find endless repetition of “s/he said” excruciating. I am one of the latter. If the dialog is unremarkable enough for “said” to be the most appropriate “said-word,” the “s/he said” is there only as a marker of who’s who. Occasional use is fine, but a competent author will also insinuate names of speakers in other ways, including via the dialog itself. (And if the poor souls must keep “saying,” without even “reply” or “answer” permitted, couldn’t they at least “say” with an occasional adverb?) However, if the character is hissing or gulping or muttering, I want to know, and although conveying tone shouldn’t be limited to “saidisms,” they are often the most straightforward tool for bringing speech alive. I think the current campaign of writing teachers to erase them is just as damaging as their prior insistence that a different “said-word” be used in every sentence. (The “worst” approach, if you want my own prejudice, involves paragraphs of hissssed sssspeeeech and gu-gu-gu-sob-gulps.)

  • Comment by elizabeth — September 8, 2014 @ 12:10 am


    Jonathan: Most of the changes my editors ask for are structural: they find something confusing, or extraneous, or want more or less of it, or question a whether a character would really do that, etc. Occasionally it’s a continuity error (“on page 246, you said this character’s wife’s name was X, and on page 382, you said it was Y. Two wives, or which name?”) Some editors do both structural and line editing (my current editor, for instance.) This means I get a letter with requests of the “less of this/more of that/develop this character’s motivation more/dump that character” type, and then a letter with specific small changes, mostly having to do with style, but sometimes substance. Unfortunately, the advent of Track Changes in Word has allowed editors and copy editors to make inline changes that I find very hard to work with (becuase they’re so visually distracting–being in color–right in the middle of my text.) If you’ve revised 20+ books in a way that works for you, being asked to switch to something completely different is very difficult. Especially for someone as color-sensitive as I am. But anyway–it’s generally the copy editor who is tasked with marking typos, spelling, and grammar errors, though too many of them think they’re supposed to rewrite the book into contemporary American business usage.

    I can’t give you an average on how many changes Editor asks for because every Editor is different–sees the work differently–and every book is also different. In general, I find that most Editor requests can make the book better if (which isn’t always true) I understand what exactly the Editor wanted the change to accomplish. “Change this” offers me no clue what the problem with the scene is. “Cut this scene” is the same, and insists on a fix that may not be the best. Simplest–easy for the editor to say–but it may be the wrong cure for a real problem. “I can’t tell whether Rupert intentionally insulted the governor, or whether it was an accident, and as this section is in Rupert’s POV, it needs to be clear…” shows me what bothers the editor, but gives me the freedom to come up with a solution that may or may not involve dumping the whole scene. At any rate, on the whole most of the requests eventually make sense and dealing with the problems Editor has spotted improves the book. As I’ve learned more about the craft, though, I don’t feel obligated to accept every change. I do feel obligated to think about every change, and ask for clarification if I don’t understand it. Editors have experience with many books, and with the performance of books in the marketplace; it would be stupid to ignore what an Editor said without at least giving it a good look-over. But Editors can be wrong, so if–after consideration and at least three looks at the passage, one of them reading it aloud again–I still think that’s the best way to do it–I’ll stet it.

    When Editor and Writer respect each other–each trusts that the other really does want the best book possible to come out of this–and neither is an obnoxious butthead–the fact that Editor and Writer don’t agree 100% doesn’t ruin the working relationship.

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — September 8, 2014 @ 7:40 am


    Thank You for an really interesting insight. I have always said that writing is really hard work – even for those few authors who seemed to just sit down and have the words flow out (Rex Stout comes to mind.)

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