On Bad Fiction

Practice before you publish.

I read some very bad fiction today. It reminded me why so many writers can’t seem to get published.

They suck.

The story was a short mystery in a magazine I downloaded into my iPad from MagCloud. I blogged about the free content there just the other day. Now I feel as if I should add a disclaimer to that post: Some content may not be worth the time it takes to download.

The thing you need to know about MagCloud is that it’s a tool sometimes used by self-publishers to get their content published. In this case, someone had put together an anthology of short fiction in a “Special Short Story Edition” of their magazine. The magazine itself is poorly designed, featuring dense lines of tiny print and low resolution images — yes, I do mean pixelated images; you know resolution has to be very low if a photo doesn’t look good on an iPad. The images have nothing to do with the stories. Not at all. Well, I should amend that description. Not all of the stories were dense lines of small type. Some were rather spacious. There was really no consistency in the magazine’s layout. It was the most amateurish thing I’ve seen since the days of typewriters and wax pasteups.

I don’t know where the editor got the stories he put in the magazine. Maybe he created a contest. Maybe these people actually paid an entry fee to “win” a place in the 60-page PDF that would cost a whopping $13.95 plus shipping to get in print. But that’s beside the point.

The point is that I read one short story and it was bad. Very bad.

There are three points that made the story bad and they repeated themselves throughout the story: author voice, missing information, and factual inaccuracies. Let’s take a look at each.

Author Voice

I am a huge believer that the author’s voice should not distract the reader from the story. The author is narrating — telling the reader what’s going on. She’s setting a scene, describing action, reporting dialog. As you read the author’s words, you should be able to step into the page (so to speak) and see and hear what’s going on.

Good writers can do this. Great writers can do this even when editorializing along the way.

But bad writers absolutely suck at doing this. They’re so hung up on writing the descriptions, using the right words, reporting the things they think will bring the scene alive. They so obviously write with a thesaurus nearby.

Take this opening passage:

Detective Emma Knightwood sighed heavily as she stared at the body lying only inches in front of her sensible brown shoes. Emma was a petite woman of fifty-four, with salt and pepper black hair and green eyes. Although it was nearly midnight, her ivory silk blouse with the elaborate lace bow looked as fresh as when she’d put it on that morning and she never would have admitted that she was perspiring beneath her brown tweed suit. Emma was as frugal and exacting as a miser slowly counting his piles of gold and her support hose had been carefully darned several times over, rather than being replaced with a new pair.

This is the opening paragraph of the story. The paragraph that’s supposed to be “the hook.” I’m not hooked. I’m turned off by a cheap spinster detective wearing brown and darned support hose.

But here are some specific problems:

  • The first sentence mentions that Emma was looking at the body that lay at her feet, but the remaining lines of the paragraph don’t mention the body again at all.
  • Is her hair salt and pepper or black?
  • How is it that her silk blouse can look fresh at midnight if she put it on that morning and she’s sweating?
  • Why wouldn’t she admit she’s sweating? Is that a character trait?
  • What’s with the miser counting gold? That run-on sentence takes the reader away from the character and the story before bringing the reader back to the character.
  • This is the opening paragraph of the story. Do we really need to know all these details about this main character now? Or ever? Nothing else that comes later in the story refers to any of this.

Here’s a bit more, with dialog. It comes after a few paragraphs about the victim, the fact that there have been multiple murders lately, and an introduction to Emma’s partner, Detective Stanton Reynolds. Reynolds has just asked Emma what she thinks.

Emma straightened and pushed her wire rimmed glasses up her small nose. “I don’t know. Read me the summary of the victims again.”

“Okay,” Stanton replied, flipping through the pages in his small blue book. “The first victim was Ophelia Danworthy, age sixty-eight, married with four children, retired. The second and third victims, Candace Winters and Henry Simpson, worked together in the same jewelry story and were killed while attempting to make the store’s nightly deposit at a bank. Ms. Winters was single, unmarried and Mr. Simpson was a bachelor, nearing retirement.”

“No signs or a robbery attempt on the store employees?” Emma queried.

“None. The bag of money and deposits was found with the bodies. Victim number four was Sophie French, age thrity-four, a successful businesswoman, unmarried and no children.”

“And now Rachel Zerinsky,” Detective Knightwood sadly mused aloud.

This, like most of the rest of the story, is screaming at me in the author’s amateurish voice, preventing me from getting into the story, forcing me to nitpick every sentence.

  • Emma’s nose is small here, but it’s also slender a few paragraphs later when she does the glasses poke again.
  • Ophelia Danworthy? Rachel Zerinsky? Oddball names for no reason can be distracting, too.
  • Ophelia was 68 and she had four “children”? I hope they were grown children.
  • Emma’s “query” about signs of robbery is so obviously contrived as a way to pass information to the reader using dialog. Emma would have to be a pretty crappy detective to forget that the jewelry store employees were not robbed when a “bag of money” was found with them.
  • “Queried” and “sadly mused aloud” are two examples of overstated dialog attribution. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, Google “dialog attribution” and see what comes up. Although I don’t completely subscribe to the “he said,” “she said” school of dialog attribution, I agree that using an excess of odd attributions — especially combined with adverbs — is extremely distracting. (Stephen King’s On Writing goes into this in a good amount of detail.)

The author attempts a lot of character development through dialog and by telling the reader about the characters. In doing so, she inserts so much of her voice that the reader can’t get into the story. She needs to learn more about what some people call the first rule of writing: Show, don’t tell. According to Wikipedia,

Show, don’t tell is an admonition to fiction writers to write in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character’s action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator’s exposition, summarization, and description. The advice is not to be heavy-handed, but to allow issues to emerge from the text instead, applies to non-fiction writing too.

Heavy-handed is the phrase I’d use for this author’s work.

Missing Information

One of the rules of mystery writing is called “fair play.” Fair play means that the reader gets all the clues the detective has. This is so the reader can solve the mystery or at least understand how the detective solved the mystery.

This author fails at fair play.

  • In the beginning of the story, she mentions “strange clues” left behind at the scene of each crime but never details what these clues are.
  • Later, when a diamond is found at the murder scene, she talks with her partner about the “stones found at the scene of the crime.” Are those the strange clues?
  • The analysis of the clues are far beyond the capabilities of an average person.
  • The murderer is identified during a dialog that presents new information unavailable to the reader. A name is thrown out as they race to the next victim’s apartment and, sure enough, he’s the killer.

To make matters worse, there are no real red herrings — clues that lead to false conclusions. There’s no challenge to the story, nothing to make it interesting.

Factual Inaccuracies

This story has more than its share of factual inaccuracies.

  • The murder victim described at the beginning of the story was supposedly bruised from being beaten with a strand of pearls after death. Although the story does not mention how long the victim had been dead, bruises for injuries inflicted before death can appear as red or blue flesh for the first five or so days after death. Bruises for injuries inflicted after death do not appear in color. This is likely due to the lack of blood flow after death. This document explains. (It took 10 minutes for me to confirm this using Google.)
  • Another police officer calls out to the detectives: “Mr Reynolds? Miss Knightwood?” If they are detectives — as they were both introduced to the reader earlier in the story — they would be addressed by fellow police officers as “Detective Reynolds” and “Detective Knightwood.” Even television can teach you that.
  • A diamond in the story is referred to as huge. Emma says, “It must be at least three carats, maybe more.” Sorry, Emma. Three carats is not “huge.” I wear a full carat on my finger and it’s smaller than the size of a pea. Two carats would be a fat pea. Three would still be smaller than a chick pea (aka garbanzo bean). Now if you were talking ten carats — well that would start getting closer to huge — for a diamond, anyway.
  • When a set of clues resolves into a series of numbers — 878910 — the detectives automatically assume they’re “latitude or longitude in hours, degrees and minutes.” Whoa. First of all, no latitude or longitude in the U.S. starts with 8 or 87. While it’s true that the coordinates could refer to a place in another country, that’s a pretty far leap for the detectives — especially ones who refer to coordinates in terms of hours. Latitude and longitude is measured in degrees, minutes, and seconds. There are no hours.
  • Here’s where the author’s spelling checker failed her: “Devon held Miss Barron in front of him like a shield, pressing the point of a long butcher knife over her juggler vein as his brown eyes shifted from one officer to the other.” [Emphasis added.] I think she means jugular vein. Oops. At least I got a good laugh.
  • Back to the diamond. Emma taunts the murderer by insulting the way he cut the diamond. (He’s supposedly an expert diamond cutter.) She says, in part: “Some of the facets are incorrect and you’ll have to admit, your cut is a little shallow, as well.” Huh? Putting that aside, she goes on to say, “You can always break it and try again.” Break a diamond to recut it? What the hell is she talking about? She then tosses the diamond into the air and the murderer lunges for it — apparently to prevent it from breaking. The diamond bounces on the “hardwood floor” and is unharmed. What else would we expect? A diamond is one of the hardest substances known to man. It isn’t going to break by being dropped on a hardwood floor. An expert diamond cutter would certainly know that, so why is it that he “lunged sideways to catch the diamond before it hit the floor”? Could it be that the author hasn’t got a clue about diamonds?

Bad is Bad

I could continue tearing this story apart, but I think I’ve done enough to make my point. This author:

  • Does not have good writing skills.
  • Is not true to her genre.
  • Does not know how to do research (or is too lazy to do it).

The resulting story is amateurish, almost to the point of being funny. In all honestly, the only pleasure I got from it was tearing it apart as a lesson to myself and anyone who might be interested in writing quality fiction. It’s a perfect example of how not to write a story.

I know I’ve quoted a lot of text from the story, but I’ve done so under the guidelines of fair use, presenting the material in an editorial manner. I have not mentioned the name of the author or the publication so as not to embarrass either one. If the author or publisher read this and want to be mentioned by name, please let me know and I’ll do so. Just don’t expect me to modify this post beyond that. There are lessons to be learned here.

Now excuse me while I purge this crap from my iPad.

2 thoughts on “On Bad Fiction

  1. I enjoyed your article. Just as a point of interest, however, I’ll point out that, while diamonds are very hard, they are also very brittle. They break quite easily along the crystal planes. It’s much easier to break a diamond than it is to break a piece of glass (for instance).

  2. @Tom
    Easier to break a diamond than glass? Come now, Tom. I’ve been wearing one on my hand for the past 25 years and haven’t broken it yet — but I’ve broken plenty of glass in the same period of time.

What do you think?