On Heavy-Handed Writing

When the author’s voice is so loud it distracts you from the story.

One of the things that I think clearly identifies a good author is his voice. Simply said, when I read fiction, I expect to be drawn into the story, with each word, sentence, paragraph, and page feeding my imagination with clear and smooth descriptions of the characters, settings, actions, and dialog.

Seems pretty simple, huh? Unfortunately, not all authors are able to pull this off. Some try so hard to paint scenes or describe action that their heavy-handed writing prevents readers from getting into the story. Instead, the reader hears the author’s voice, often shouting for attention about how clever he is.

The Silent SeaThe best way to illustrate this is with a passage from a “Clive Cussler” book I just finished. Let me present two versions of the opening paragraph and offer a critique before I explain why I put Mr. Cussler’s name in quotes.

A Bad Start

I bought the Kindle edition of this book from Amazon after reading a synopsis written by an acquaintance. The book had the elements I like in a good fiction read: a mystery, action, suspense. And the fact that it was (apparently) written by an author I knew didn’t hurt things either. I was eager to pick up a book that would keep my mind off the other crap going on in my life so I bought it without first reading a sample. I somewhat regret that.

The truth of the matter is, if I’d read the first paragraph of the book before buying it, I probably wouldn’t have bought it.

A golden blur leapt over the small boat’s gunwale just as the bows met the rocky beach. It hit the water with a splash and plowed through the surf, its tail raised like a triumphant pennant. When the retriever reached land, it shook itself so that drops flew like diamond chips in the crisp air, and then it looked back at the skiff. The dog barked at a pair of gulls farther down the beach that took startled flight. Feeling its companions were coming much too slowly, the purebred tore off into a copse of nearby trees, her bark diminishing until it was swallowed by the forest that covered most of the mile-square island just an hour’s row off the mainland.

This is just one example of the heavy-handed writing I found in this book. The author is trying to show off, trying too hard to show what a great writer he is. All he succeeds in doing, however, is calling out his voice to the reader, who has to stumble over his awkward sentences to get the visual the author intends.

Want some specifics? How about these?

  • Using the word bows instead of bow to refer to the front end of a boat. While this is technically okay (either word works), bow is more commonly used. (I honestly thought it was a typo until I looked it up.)
  • Putting a tail on a “blur.”
  • Referring to a dog as “it” and then clearly indicating its gender later with “her.”
  • Identifying the thoughts of a dog.
  • Using five different words to describe the same character: blur, it, retriever, dog, purebred. (Purebred was over the top for me; it’s a snobbish way to refer to a dog.)
  • Overall awkward sentence construction for several sentences. I was especially bothered by all the geographic facts jammed into the last sentence.

I also had a problem with a dog swimming with its tail straight up, but I resolved that by looking at photos of a retriever in water; one in particular seemed to illustrate what the author had written. Still, it bothered me enough to want to look it up. Most dog breeds known for swimming skills use their tail as a rudder in the water.

I started wondering how the author could have presented the same information without his voice shouting out to be heard. As an exercise, I rewrote the paragraph:

A golden blur leapt over the small boat’s gunwale just as the bow met the rocky beach. The retriever hit the water with a splash and plowed through the surf, her tail raised like a triumphant pennant. When she stepped onto the beach she shook herself, sending drops like diamond chips flying through the crisp air. She looked back at her companions in the skiff, then barked at a pair of gulls farther down the beach, startling them into flight. Impatient, she tore off into a small grove of trees nearby, the sound of her barking soon swallowed by the forest that covered most of the mile-square island just an hour’s row off the mainland.

I identified the blur as a retriever right away so she (not it) could logically have a tail. I liked the visual of the diamond chips, but not the construction of that sentence, so I changed it. Copse reminds me of corpse so I used the more common small grove; I also took the adjective nearby out of the middle of the noun phrase and put it at the end. I couldn’t do much with the geography lesson without moving it to another paragraph, so I left it.

I don’t know…is it better? Or just more to my taste?

My point is this: a well-written sentence/paragraph/page/book should not make a reader want to rewrite it to remove distractions.

By or With?

And that brings me to the author, Clive Cussler. The reality is that Mr. Cussler did not write this book. It was written by Jack Du Brul. On the cover (see above), the word with is used instead of by. Mr. Cussler’s name is in huge letters — indeed, as large as the book title’s — and Mr. Du Brul’s name is added in tiny letters, almost as an afterthought.

This, in my opinion, is misleading.

Unfortunately, this is very common. An author writes a few bestsellers, perhaps with a series character. For whatever reason, the author stops writing. But because the author has a huge following, his name has a ton of value to the publisher. The publisher either actively searches for a writer willing to publish additional titles under that author’s name or simply considers proposals by authors to do so. The result: the famous author’s books continue being published, but they’re written by someone else.

Clive Cussler is not the first author to do this. Tom Clancy has done it. So has Robert Ludlum. And I’m sure there are dozens of other bestselling authors who are allowing their names to appear on books written by others.

As if readers can’t tell the difference.

You can argue that a reader can clearly see who the author of a book is by simply looking at the cover. After all, the real author’s name does appear there. But when a “name brand” author’s name appears on a book cover, I expect to get a book that would meet the level of quality of that author. I don’t think Clive Cussler would have written an opening paragraph like the one I quoted here. And I don’t think the book would be full of other examples of loud author voice as this one was. So I don’t think his name should appear on the cover at all.

About this Book

What’s interesting about this book is that although it had plenty of examples of awkward author voice, there were plenty of times when the author’s voice faded into the background and the story just came out. Almost as if there was another author involved — maybe Mr. Cussler after all? — or a very good editor. Or maybe the author just couldn’t keep up his screaming throughout the book.

Overall, the book was readable, even for a picky reader like me. I could overlook the writing problems because of the interesting plot twists. And although the plot itself was outrageously unbelievable at times, I was able to overlook that, too. In the end, it gave me just the kind of distraction that I needed.

If I had to rate it, I’d give it 3 (out of 5) stars. Worth reading, but get it from the library.

Thank You to Donors for the New Dictionary Project

The fronts of the Thank You cards the kids made this week to thank donors for the dictionaries.
Thank You Card Thank You Card Thank You Card Thank You Card Thank You Card Thank You Card Thank You Card Thank You Card Thank You Card Thank You Card Thank You Card Thank You Card Thank You Card Thank You Card Thank You Card Thank You Card

The New Dictionary fundraising project closes with some thank you notes from the dictionary recipients.

I asked my friend, the teacher at the school that received the dictionaries we raised money for to write something up to share with donors. She sent me the following:

Gratitude Attitude

Corny title, huh. That’s okay I’m feeling a bit sentimental towards the people that chose to become involved in my students’ education. Saying thank you because you made a difference sounds trite, but let me explain.

So often we are frustrated by the state of education and don’t know how to help. Funding alone will not make the difference, but getting involved does. When I felt defeated using dictionaries not adequate for my class and expressed this to my friend Maria Langer she chose to become involved. She set up the Indiegogo account and monitored its progress. Thanks, Maria!

Incredibly, people I’ve never met cared enough to donate to a fund to purchase 32 new dictionaries for over half of our school’s 6th grade class. Wow! Not only did you make this possible, but you have inspired me as a teacher with your involvement. Thank you for trusting me with your donation and your support.

Our first day back from winter break brought excitement as we unpacked our dictionary shipment. We explored our new books and students discovered word origins, geographical names and locations as well as all the usual components of a dictionary.
We practiced learning new words by me, the teacher, asking questions such as, “What would you do with a plover?” and offering the following multiple choice responses: “Till the dirt on your farm?”, “Observe it in the sky?”, or “Drive it? ” Then students would hurriedly flip through the pages to be the first to define it. New text to discover!

Excitement in learning made possible because of your contributions. Thank you for caring enough to share and changing my attitude of some resignation into one of gratitude and renewed energy.

My friend’s class also created Thank You cards, which will be shipped out today to one of two donors who contributed $100 to the project. (The other donor elected not to get a bonus.) I’ve scanned the fronts of the cards to show them off here. The insides are full of personal notes and student signatures. Kid art rocks!

Thanks again to everyone who contributed to this project. It really made a difference to this sixth grade class.

Update on the New Dictionary Project

Disappointing results, but not for the kids.

Back in November 2011, I blogged about my friend’s sixth grade class, which was using dictionaries so old that they didn’t include the word “Internet.” I was appalled by this situation and launched a fund-raising project on Indiegogo to buy enough dictionaries and thesauruses for both sixth grade classes in this severely underfunded rural school.

The goal was to raise $1,500, which would cover the cost of 100 books (50 each of the dictionary and thesaurus) and the fees Indiegogo charges to help raise the money.

Unfortunately, we only got $431 from 13 contributors, two of whom were extremely generous. After paying Indigogo’s fees, that left us with $379.28 for the books.

DictionaryRight before New Year’s Day, I ordered 32 copies of the Merriam-Webster’s Intermediate Dictionary from Amazon.com and had them shipped directly to my teacher friend at her school. (Because I’m an Amazon Prime member, shipping was free.) This was in addition to the copy of the Dictionary and Thesaurus I had bought back in early November to make sure they met with my friend’s approval for her class.

On January 7, when the kids got back to school, they were thrilled to have the new books. My friend told me briefly about the few games she played with the kids using the books. (I’m hoping she’ll have something in her own words to add here.)

My friend kept 25 books for her class and gave the remaining books to the other sixth grade teacher for her class.

Although I’d love to reopen the fundraising campaign to get the rest of the funds for the remaining books, I don’t think it’s worth the effort. Times are tough. Most people believe that a school district should get funds from local sources. I agree — to a certain extent. But this district is so poor that funds just won’t come. What we’ve managed to give them is a lot more than they ever expected. I think I need to be satisfied knowing that.

In the meantime, I want to thank all of the contributors for their generosity. I still believe that we made a difference in the lives of at least a few of these kids — and the kids going through the sixth grade in this school in the years to come.

Thanks!

“Internet” is Not in this Class’s Dictionary

Help me fix this problem.

Note: I’ve been purposely vague about my friend’s identity and details about her school. In all honesty, she’s a tiny bit concerned about her job and would prefer to remain anonymous.

A good friend of mine is a teacher in a local elementary school. The school has several hundred students and is located in a low-income, rural area just outside Phoenix. My friend has a class of about 23 students and is constantly struggling to keep their interest and teach them with the tools she is provided by the school district. More than a few times, she’s dipped into her own pockets to buy things her students need that aren’t provided by the school.

My friend doesn’t make much money. Although she loves to teach, she finds her job frustrating. She wants to help the kids learn, she wants to help them break the cycle of poverty and make better lives for themselves. But there isn’t enough money in the school district to buy the tools the kids need to learn. She’s considered leaving her job, but doesn’t want to let the kids down — their class has already lost two teachers mid-term in previous years. She thinks it’s important for them to have continuity throughout the year.

Meanwhile, the school district superintendent, who only has two schools to manage, is reportedly pulling in a six-digit salary and gets a $750 per month clothing/car allowance. His bonus last year was more than my friend earns as a salary.

Internet Not in the Dictionary?

Internet is not in this dictionaryThe other day, she and I were talking about how kids have access to things we didn’t have at their age. Referring to her class, she said, “When I tell my kids that we didn’t have the Internet when I was a kid, they don’t believe me. So I had them look it up in the dictionary. Our dictionaries are so old, they don’t include the word ‘Internet.'”

I was floored. Her class was using dictionaries that were that old? The word Internet came into general usage in the 1990s — her dictionaries was older than that?

Old DictionaryWe talked more about it and I discovered that not only were the dictionaries old, but there was a mix of them and not enough for all the kids. And although she was required to teach the kids about synonyms, they didn’t have any thesauruses.

I whipped out my iPad to see what an appropriate dictionary would cost. A decent paperback was available for only $5.99. It would cost less than $150 to buy 25 of them for her class. Or about $300 to buy enough for both classes in that grade. A fraction of the school superintendent’s monthly clothing/car allowance. Yet the superintendent got his check every month while the kids went without decent reference materials.

Can you imagine how much that annoyed me — a writer?

What Can I — or We — Do to Help?

It also got me thinking…what could I do to help?

Yes, I’m willing to spend $150 to buy 25 dictionaries for my friend’s class. But I could do better. With the help of my blog readers and social networking friends, maybe I could raise enough money to get all the kids in that grade a better, more durable hardcover dictionary and a thesaurus.

DictionaryI did more research on Amazon.com and found Merriam-Webster’s Intermediate Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Intermediate Thesaurus. The books were recently published, so they were up-to-date. They were designed for the right grade level. I could get both books for $24.77 with free shipping from Amazon prime. 50 copies would cost about $1,238.50.

I thought about The Oatmeal raising a ton of money for the Tesla Museum. I know that $1,238.50 is a lot less than the $1.37 million the Oatmeal raised. Yes, I have a lot less influence. But even if I got 100 people to donate $13 each, I’d have enough. And if I came up a little short, I could make up the difference.

No, I’m Not Nuts

At this point, you’re probably thinking I’m nuts. After all, what do I care about these kids? I’ve never met them and I’m never likely to meet them. And will having a decent dictionary really make a difference in their lives?

I’ll admit that for the vast majority of the kids, it probably won’t make a difference at all. But imagine it making a difference in just one kid’s life. Maybe he or she develops an interest in reading or writing or just using words to communicate better. Maybe browsing through the pictures in the book leads him or her to a word that sparks an interest in science or geology or history. Maybe just having a good reference book to learn from might help him or her score better on an exam down the road. Any of these things could change his or her future. It could break the cycle and open doors to a better life. Isn’t that enough to make it worth helping?

And these books would be around for years. Imagine making a difference on one kid’s life every year for the next 20 years. Isn’t that enough to make it worth helping?

I know it would make my friend’s job easier and a tiny bit less frustrating.

And yes, it’s a damned shame that tax dollars are funneled to superintendent compensation before educational materials for students — or even teacher pay. But I’ve tried fighting in the political arena before and got nowhere. I’d rather spend a few dollars to solve the problem from the outside than years of my life trying to fix it from the inside.

Will You Help?

With all this in mind, I set up a campaign on Indiegogo to raise $1,500 to cover the cost of the books, the rewards for big donors, and the campaign fees. I’m hoping you’ll click over there now and donate a few dollars to help me reach this goal.

If we come up short, I’ll try to make up the difference.

If we go over, I’d like to buy the younger kids copies of the Merriam-Webster Elementary Dictionary, which is designed for grades 3-5. I’d get as many copies as I could — hopefully enough to outfit at least one classroom. Those books are $11.66 each with free shipping.

And maybe you can also spread the word about this campaign? Tweet or share this blog post or the link to the campaign.

Thanks.