Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Nerd Alert: Things That Bug Me

Nerd AlertNerd Alert Rating: 9

I'm a grouch. Especially when it comes to writing, lots of stuff bugs me. I know I'm a grouch because the puppeteer who voices Oscar the Grouch, Carroll Spinney, gave the keynote address at my brother's graduation. And he did much of it in character, hoisting Oscar out onto the podium and telling the kids in that gravelly voice about how, if they didn't work hard after graduating, they might end up in a trash can like him. And all the while I sat there in the audience, watching Oscar the Grouch and thinking, "Heh, this guy's an amateur."

Ask anyone: I'm a grumbling old codger when it comes to grammar and writing. So here are a few things that I've noticed lately in the books I've been reading that annoy the holy hell out of me. As much as I hate giving writing advice, maybe my observations will help you avoid these pitfalls in your own writing.

1.) Repetition of words
2.) Zero sense of humor
3.) No effort at plotting
4.) Overuse of the "to be" verb

Let's take them one at a time. I'll use the two most recent books I've read, "Through the Looking Glass" and "A Wrinkle in Time" as examples.

Repetition of words

These two books have a lot to recommend them: interesting characters, original ideas, and brisk pacing. But I have to say, Madeline L'Engle should've bought a thesaurus in 1961. She uses derivations of the word "pulse" so often that if she uses it one more time, I'm going to throw the book out the window. Everything pulses, for cripes sake: building roofs, people's eyes, planets: everything. How about using another word, Maddie? Like, I don't know, "quiver" or "tremble"? I'd avoid "throb" because that sounds gross. But seriously, there has to be another word in your repertoire that you can use.

Lewis Carroll is somewhat better at this, but then again, he's English. His people invented the bloody language.

Zero sense of humor

Again, Carroll wins out here, because his books are funny. So leave him aside for the moment. For as original and interesting A Wrinkle in Time is, one thing it's not is a laugh-a-minute jokefest. And that's OK. It doesn't need to make me laugh every 3.2 seconds. But seriously, just one laugh would've been great. This book is so dour and self-important that I needed to step away from it for a while. Which is weird, because I remember loving it when I was a kid. Why did I like it so much? I mean, it's super creepy, so I guess there's that. But I couldn't imagine spending even ten minutes with the Murry's, they're so humorless.

No effort at plotting

Not to make this sound like a contest, because it's not, but plotting is where L'Engle's advantage lies. She's good at keeping you turning the pages. You cannot guess what's going to happen next, and everything leads inexorably yet unpredictably to an end point. All the threads tie neatly together without any corners being cut (yes, I know I just mixed my metaphors: learn from my mistakes).

Carroll, on the other hand, isn't interested in plot. Which is why it became a slog for me to get not only through "Alice in Wonderland" but also "Through the Looking Glass". You can only meet so many borderline-Autistic characters until you just throw your hands up. "What," you may ask, "you didn't like Tweedledee and Tweedledum? You didn't like the knight at the end of the story who couldn't stop falling off of his horse? It was a hilarious commentary on the invariable hypocrisy in the heart of every person." Or whatever. To which I say, "I did not."

Give me a story. I know there are lots of people out there who like to read about weird characters essentially sitting around talking, which is fine. To each his own. But to me, character is revealed through conflict and action. When you push a person to the edge, how do they react? Do they run away or fight? Do they help those around them or sell them out to save themselves? This is why conflict is so crucial to good storytelling. Don't get me wrong: there's plenty of conflict in Alice's dream world, but what it boiled down to is a series of people standing around talking.


Overuse of the "to be" verb

I left this one till the end because it is the most forgivable offense. And both books I reference above use it so much that I wonder if the "to be" verb has only recently gone out of favor. I understand and agree with the principal behind minimizing it: use of "was" or "are" or "am" encourages passivity. In other words, instead of writing an active sentence ("Johnny punched Joshua.") using the "to be" verb makes the sentence passive because the action isn't assigned to anyone ("Joshua was punched in the mouth.").

I say split the difference: you're not going to avoid using "to be", so just try to minimize it as much as possible. But don't get cute, constructing elaborate, weird sentences just to avoid it. I can't think of any good examples of that at the moment, but I know I've run up against it in my own writing. I say if you have to think about how to avoid the dreaded "to be" verb for more than a minute, just go ahead and use it and move on.

Hopefully my rant has helped you on some level. Let me know if you agree or disagree!


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