On Writing – The Good and The Terribly Bad

** my apologies for the wonky formatting; no idea why or how it is not doing it’s  usual thing.

It has been forever since I have posted – my last post was well before Christmas, and here it is already March Summer in Texas.  No idea why my muses had temporarily abandoned me, I just haven’t had anything to write about.  But I have been reading, a lot.  And I’m trying to assimilate – is that the right word? – the difference between good writing and bad. Assimilate is not the correct word.  I’ll think of the perfect one later.  Anyway, I have read some astonishingly bad stuff, or tried to – I mostly put a book down and walk away if it irritates me too much. Here is an example of really bad, from The First Shot (Lieutenant Kane – Dedicated to Death Series Book 1) by E.H. Reinhard:

“I pulled out my notepad from my suit jacket’s inner pocket and wrote down the husband’s phone number as the captain gave it to me.”

Really? It was crucial to the story that I know he pulled the damned notepad from his suit, jacket’s, inner, pocket?  And that the captain, who was the only other person in the room, so was the only one who could give him the number, needed to be referenced as the purveyor of said number? I got so het up over this sentence, I almost stopped there.  But I persevered.  Until I got to this sentence:

“I left Rick in the lab and took the stairs up to the third floor. I walked to my office, unlocked the door, turned on the lights, and grabbed a seat at my desk. I tossed my keys into the rolling drawer of my desk and glanced over at the wall clock—a couple of minutes past seven thirty.”

Oh.My.God.  This author was sending me into a coma.

Several years ago, I read that, when writing, you give the important bits of the plot more detail, and the less important bits less detail, which, at the time, seemed like a revelation to me (I told my niece-the-creative-writing-major this, and she looked at me with such pity in her eyes, I just cringed), but, apparently, this author had not read the same So You Want To Write A Book book.  I never did find out who the murderer was.

That is a lie. I skipped ahead and read the last few pages.  Spoiler Alert: the police officer did it.  (Like you were going to read it anyway, after these previews. Please.)

On the other  hand, sometimes I come across jewels of writing.  My daughter and I were recently reading the same book on a trip we were taking together. She had recommended it, and I always love her choices in reading. She reads thoughtful, non-fiction books, while I usually read escapist fiction.   Here is a great quote, from No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering  by Clara Bensen.  The book is about the author and her companion’s 3 week vacation in which they took absolutely nothing but her small purse, and just…traveled.  It is a great book.  The writing made us both laugh, smile, point out sections to each other, and, even better, consider.

“Yes, we must dream our big dreams and our secret desires, but dream them lightly. Follow them nimbly. Adapt, flow, and alter course as life lobs unexpected surprises in our direction. There will be occasions that require us to set old dreams down and gather new ones up. For every flourishing period of action and realization, there may also be dry periods that push us into the desert, devoid of direction. As in nature, these cycles are natural—necessary even.”
Now that is beautifully written, and, as we were reading it on the way home from our own vacation (full suitcase, backpack, cpap bag, and large purse, for 4 days away, thank you very much – no wearing one outfit for three weeks for me), especially evocative. I want to write like that. Of course, my impetus is to make people admire me, and tell me how wonderful I am – I run on compliments. It occurs to me that perhaps I am not writing for all the right reasons, and that may be a large part of my dry spell.
Recently, a friend asked me to help her with her cover letter for grad school. She sent me her notes, which were mostly free flowing, and I smugly reorganized them, pepped them up a little, added some frou-frou, and sent her back what I thought was a great cover letter.  Until she emailed me the final draft. She had taken my pitiful attempt and turned it in to a masterpiece.  It was beautiful, succinct, intimate without being maudlin, and, best of all, got her into grad school!  It bore very little resemblance to the paragraphs I had provided; if I squinted my eyes really hard and turned my head sideways, I could almost see a few of the picked-clean bones, but, since I started from what she provided, all I could claim for fame was cutting and pasting. I hate it when my smugness turns around and gives me the finger.
I think I’ve mentioned before that every morning I read The Writer’s Almanac, from Garrison Keillor, of A Prairie Home Companion fame.  I read it over morning coffee, and enjoy it all the more because I know my siblings are reading it at roughly the same time in their homes, with their coffee.  Often we will forward it to each other, with notes like “The poem today reminded me of mom!” or “Wow! I had no idea George II was responsible for us all standing for the Hallelujah Chorus!” and everyone will comment.  I sometimes reference it in my own little daily message I send out to the staff at school.  I had a point here, and now I can’t think of it. Squirrel.  Anyway, here is a recent poem featured that cracked me up.
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
by Tony Hoagland Listen Online

On Friday afternoon David said he was divesting his holdings
in Stephanie dot org.
And Cindy announced she was getting rid of all her Dan-obelia,
and did anyone want a tennis racket or a cardigan?

Alice told Michael that she was transplanting herself
to another brand of potting soil
And Jason composed a 3-chord blues song called
“I Can’t Rake Your Leaves Anymore Mama,”
then insisted on playing it
over his speakerphone to Ellen.

The moon rose up in the western sky
with an expression of complete exhaustion,
like a 38-year old single mother
standing at the edge of the playground. Right at that moment

Betty was extracting coil after coil of Andrew’s
emotional intestines
through a verbal incision she had made in his heart,
and Jane was parachuting into an Ani Difranco concert
wearing a banner saying, Get Lost, Mark Resnick.

That’s how you find out:
out of the blue.
And it hurts, baby, it really hurts,
because breaking up is hard to do.

Isn’t that wonderful?  Especially the “extracting coil after coil of Andrew’s emotional intestines” part.  Ouch.  We have all experienced that pain at some point, but only Mr. Hoagland expressed it so we remember just how excruciating the pain was, and explained it to us.  That right there is good writing, dammit.

And, finally, an author recommendation, someone who does know how to write, and has just written his second, very intense, enthralling novel: D.L. Young. His books are about a future post-secession apocalyptic Texas. Interestingly, the protagonists in both his books are young women. I do try very hard not to gender-type, but I have rarely found a male who writes a woman character as well as he does.  Indigo is his first novel, and his second, Soledad, is just about to come out – I had the privilege of reading it before it’s publishing date, thanks to Important People I Know – my brother-in-law, who is a friend of Mr. Young.    These are books that I became immersed in, and felt the dusty, hot, west Texas wind pummeling me as I read. The house needed cleaning, and I was so tired my eyes felt like they were bleeding, but I had to read to the end. Great books, highly recommend. If I knew how to put a link in here, I would, but I know y’all know how to Amazon.

Find them, buy them. Then thank me, because I’m all about the praise….

Postscript: I typed this entire post with a sticking C key.  Writing is hard.

Post-Post Script: Hah! Assimilate is the correct word! I rock. Go me.

1.take in (information, ideas, or culture) and understand fully.

4 thoughts on “On Writing – The Good and The Terribly Bad”

  1. What a great morning coffee read, dear Sister. I read your article BEFORE Writers Almanac…Love your writing.

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