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.

8 thoughts on “On Heavy-Handed Writing

  1. Amazon.com allows the kindle owner to read excerpts of the book before purchasing it. Quite an extensive excerpt at that. My wife uses it all the time. Sometimes she winds up not buying it. Personally, I liked your version better.

    Truman Capote was quite the writer but his final “Answered Prayers” had to be finished by someone else and from the accounts that I’ve read, fell way short of a Capote book.

  2. >>>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.

    Some writers *want* that. James Patterson is no longer one writer. He’s become a factory, with ghosts who aren’t even credited. Then there are greedy estates that allow “spin-offs” or “derivatives” based in a world the original and now-dead writer created.

    • Who wouldn’t WANT that? Imagine being able to rake in the bucks by letting others do the writing for you! But it’s usually the reader who suffers. After all, if these “co-authors” were any good, they’d have their own line of bestselling titles, no?

      • I’m not sure any writer who is an artist would want that. Hugo? Poe? Dostoyevsky? Nerval? Raymond Chandler was an artist. The bestsellers hailed in his day are all forgotten and his work survives. Patterson won’t be read after he’s dead. Patterson was never an artist.

  3. It’s interesting that you bring this up. I used to love Clive Cussler’s books (Dirk Pitt is still one of my favorite characters). I can definitely tell when it’s not him writing, though and I don’t even bother with any of his books if there’s another author listed. I understand why they do it, but that doesn’t mean I like the old ‘bait and switch.’

    • I’ve only read one Cussler book, Raise the Titanic! (a long time ago!), so I don’t know his style. Am thinking of picking up a copy of that book at the library (if there) to re-read it. But I have read fake Clancy books and I was very turned off. They’re doing readers a disservice, in my opinion. Glad I’m not the only one who notices this.

  4. I have read a few Clive Cussler books because they fall into the “good story badly written” category of my personal filing system. Also his books are cheap at the local 2nd hand store. This author has a huge problem with dialogue which is obvious by the strangled adverbs “get out, he grated”. His description of female characters is so basely shallow and out of date that it borders on insulting (a female scientist being described as a gorgeous creature). The “thrilling” scenarios he places his hero in are completely contrived. The over description of almost every scene is a stumbling mishmash of adjectives that makes it impossible to get through the other side without wondering where the hell you were going in the first place. A character is supposed to invoke an emotion in the reader, I am not concerned whether any of his characters lives or dies. I will be re-thinking my cheap fiction choices from now on. Life is too short. May I recommend that Mr Cussler reads “The Elements of Style” by White and Strunk.

What do you think?