Sunday, April 17, 2011

Silencing your infernal ... er, internal ... editor, so you can smell the roses.

As writers, we've all experienced it. Cozied up in an easy chair, we crack open a brand new book, breathe in the fresh pages, and let the words swallow us whole.  Then our eyes stumble. Once, twice, three times. Before we know it, we've slammed our eyes AND the book shut, disgusted such a travesty was ever published.

How can a story with so many glaring mistakes and such weak writing ever have made it past an agent, much less an editor, and onto the printing press?  What a monumental waste of paper and ink! Didn't those publishers see the wooden dialogue?  What about the info-dump in chapter one, or the dream sequence that hopped from one POV to the next?  And there were at least seven commas in sentence # fifteen on page ten.

But is the book really so bad? Would we have noticed the blunders had we not read every book out there on "How to write", had we not taken every creative writing class offered at the local community college and attended each and every workshop / conference accessible?  Would we have cared, were we not inundated every moment with rules, rules, and more rules, that will assure us acceptance by an agent and ultimately publication with some big New York house?

Something happens when an avid reader learns to write.  Books that used to carry us to new and wondrous places, can't carry us past the lumpy cushion on the loveseat.  It's a catch 22. I can't argue that my internal editor has improved my writing by leaps and bounds, but yet it's stifled my enjoyment of the written word somewhat. The innocence is gone. 

And I know I'm not alone.

I've heard more than one frustrated writer ask why there are so many "bad" books that get agented and published (loathe to admit I've been guilty of such thoughts myself). How can "those kinds of books" possibly make it past querying, submitting, and slush piles to be a shiny new title on the shelves when they're lacking quality?

Thing is, do any of us really agree on what constitues a "bad" book?

Is it:

1) adverbs dominating each sentence?
2) too many passives?
3) excessive use of "that"?  (my personal weakness--grrr)
4) comma splices, dangling participles, punctuation faux pas, etc...?
5) head hopping?
6) cookie cutter cardboard characters or wooden dialogue?
7) unsatisfying plot / ending?
8) a flowery or sparse prose?
9) information dumping?

Okay.  So, numbers 1-4 are universal grating points.  Nothing is more frustrating than when we see someone slide into home plate and be counted safe while breaking all of the grammatical rules we've been taught as writers.  The rules we bang our heads against the walls day in and day out to uphold.  I'm so anal myself, that before I finish revisions on a MS, I'll go through with the FIND tool and search for all "was-derivatives", "thats" and LY adverbs in an effort to make those sentences stronger. 

But should we let it ruin what might be a perfectly good story by dwelling on the errors instead of skimming over them and reading on to find the meat?  There had to be something there that made an agent and editor love it enough to accept it despite its faults.  Aren't you curious to discover what that was? Maybe even learn something in the process?

And what about numbers 5-9?  There comes a point when we cross the line from grammatical to personal writing style, and some of the "rules" we've learned as writers can bleed into voice to be counted as style, much as it makes us choke to admit it.   

Read multiple reviews for the same book and you'll see it all boils down to subjectivity.  Where one reader sees wooden dialogue, another will think the dialogue sings.  While one sees the prose as too drippy and purple, another is swept away by the lyrical flow.  Head hopping or info dumping?  That can be argued as the author's personal approach to narrative, as long as they can swing it without jolting the reader from the story. 

It's kind of magical actually, when an author can bend the "rules" we've all been taught, and do it in such a way that the typical reader won't notice ... in such a way that the reader isn't shaken from the story but instead is left floating in a suspension of blind faith until the story's final sentence. 

Maybe, as writers, when we put on our reading caps, we need to borrow that nugget of wisdom from everyone's favorite pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow: "Hang the code and hang the rules. They're more like guidelines anyway."

Personally, I'm going to try it. I'm nostalgic for my innocence.  I miss the pleasure of just reading

It's time to smell the roses through someone else's nose, to taste the flavor of rain on their tongue. It's time to get lost in a story again.

*For a related post on this subject, visit Elizabeth Moon's blog entry on  "Why Bad Books Work."


  1. I, too, have become one with my internal critiquer. Yes, I do see things in published works that I would have otherwise overlooked.

    Side observation: This internal critiquing voice? A killer. It's the number one reason for any of my writing hiatuses. I just can't shut it up when I sit down to write. It's a whole 'nuther being. Like, when you have an angel sitting on one shoulder and a devil on the other? But, it's my muse sitting on one shoulder and my internal crit voice sitting on the other. And then the internal crit voice jumps over my head to tell the muse to come up with something good, or sit still. Yep. Haha. Gotta love those two.

    Oh, did I write all that out loud? O.o

  2. There was a series that I read and loved, before I was so involved with writing. I picked it up again and was surprised by all the things that I would have done differently. The info dumps. The purple prose. It made me a little sad.

    It's hard to ignore that voice sometimes, but there are times when I can turn it off and just read for the love of reading.

  3. I am Number 5.
    I'm getting better at keeping it to one head per scene -- although sometimes, i hop into a second head.

  4. The quote from Pirates was in my mind too.

    Recently, I slammed a book down after it mired into backstory and differing POV.
    Two years ago, I didn't even have those terms in my vocabulary.

  5. You know what I discovered? The more you write and work at your own craft - the more you'll see works by other authors who haven't - and they're often on the shelves.

    How can they have gotten an agent with a prologue? Dont' agents DETEST prologues?

    And OMG 0- there are ADVERBS everywhere!

    It's baffled me, I can't deny it. So you know what? Now I just try to grit my teeth and bear it. Fact is, despite the many so-called rules of publishing - rules are meant to be broken.

  6. The book I'm reading now is about a vampire slayer (who happens to be named ANITA--woot woot)and I actually did set the book down when I saw they had misspelled MIATA--as in the Mazda Miata (not miaDa) and grumbled, "and I can't get published...whatever." But, I picked it up again, allowing myself the tiniest bit of pleasure knowing this best-selling author didn't get it right all the time, either and lost myself into her world of vampires and zombies.

  7. Really great post, Anita! Isn't that the truth. I'm going to live by Captain Jack Sparrow's wise advise, not only because I heart him, but I'd like to enjoy reading without being judgmental.

    One caveat though: Surrounding yourself with bad books might affect the way you write. So be careful. At the same time, don't be too nitpicky. Aim for balance (as with all things in life).

    Happy Monday!

  8. Seeing as my "day job" IS as an editor now--be it of submissions or actual editing of fiction--I find it an incredible relief to just tell myself to STFU and read. I'm reading a book right now that needed an edit so badly it hurts, but I refuse to quit. There's got to be something good in it. And I will find it. And enjoy it, dammit!

    Yes, we all feel it, I'm sure.

  9. Mary~ thanks for stopping by! I agree about the internal critique voice. I once read about a writer who bought a gremlin action figure and envisioned it as his inner editor. He'd shove it into a drawer every day at the beginning of his writing session, then take it out when ready to revise. Worked for him! Maybe it's worth a try? LOL

    Kayeleen~ Don't you hate that? It is kind of sad. I have a few books that are the same way for me now.

    Hi David! A lot of thriller/suspense writers use omniscient POV, so I don't think you've too much to worry about there. You can get by with more than some of us. ;)

    DU~ I agree! And I've found that even the books with the worst writing offer something we can learn from. Something the author did right to such an extreme it negated all of those mistakes enough for an agent and writer to love them. If we go into it with that in mind, and read to find the secret, we might jsut learn something to strengthen our own writing.

  10. Woohoo, Bethany! The Anita Blake series, aye? Go you for diving back into the book and getting lost despite it. ;)

    Very wise words, Cherie. I could never surround myself with "bad" writing because it would make me crazy. what I do is limit myself to the books that "make it huge" in spite of all of the bad reviews on their writing. That way I can figure out what they did do right, you know? Thanks for the great insights!

    Katey~ I imagine it would be even more difficult for you than the rest of us, since that's your day job, too! I hope you find that diamond in the rough, because just think of the satisfaction you could glean from polishing it up to a sparkling gem. ;)

  11. Hi Anita :o)

    I notice grammatical things more than I used to, but not to an extreme. My big thing is plot. Sometimes I'll read a book, and I'm amazed by how "blah" it is. It might be written beautifully, but if it can't hold my interest . . . what's the point?

    Good post, Anita :o)

  12. Thnx Angela! Yeah, I'm a stickler for plot to. I just read one recently that was pretty huge in the YA market, and all it was was set up for the next book in the series. Nothing EVER happened aside from the MC's day to day meanderings, and those were sooo boring and typical, they didn't even warrant being put on paper. Stuff like that gets under my skin.

  13. I try to keep my internal editor at bay during the first draft but she never shuts up for long. Usually when I read the last few pages before starting a new scene, I end up editing anyway.
    Great post, and nice to meet you!

  14. Hi Lydia! Yeah, I tend to edit the chapter I wrote prior to a new writing session, if for no other reason than to appease my internal editor. After that, she usually leaves me free to write for the day. ;) Thanks for stopping by, and nice to meet you, too!

  15. Anita, a gremlin doll! Yes, I might have to try that. Thanks!

  16. It's worse when the book is a bestseller. I had that experience, for example, with the wretched "Mockingjay." (I loved the first one in the series, and the second one was OK, but that third book...oofh! A stinker. Info dumping...telling not showing...) I wanted to take a pen to it, all the while being jealous of the author for having a bestselling series!

  17. It's such a relief to know I'm not alone. My daughter is reading a middle grade mystery to me and it's all I can do to bite back the "nasties" on the tip of my tongue.

    On the other hand,(I'm aware of the hypocrisy)I'm much more intimidated writing something I know other writers may read (blog posts, for example). I'll never know all the rules; so many are contradictory anyway.

    I can spend way too much time worrying how others are going to slice and dice what I've written. I try to stay very focused on what I'm trying to convey and the method I want to use to convey it. It was so much easier writing teen romances for my friends in junior high. ;)

  18. Hey there, Dawn! No, I think it's a very typical reaction once you've started learning all the writing rules. No doubt it's comparable to when someone training to be a graphics designer watches movies. They start to find all the flaws in the special effects that the rest of us wouldn't ever notice.

    LOL about the teen romances. Weren't those the days? ;)