When Writing Goes Wrong
When I first started writing, a cruel fan immediately initiated something called ‘Fowler’s Howlers’, which listed the prose mistakes I’d made, usually very nitpicky ones, the kind dug out by someone with limited imagination. (Never work with the public if you’re sensitive; you’d kill yourself within days).
I rarely make grammatical errors, but I believe in making the reader do a little work rather than simply spoon-feeding them. You select, cut and re-order events to make them flow, and this to me is acceptable. However, if you’re going to write, you might try learning to avoid dumb mistakes, because today’s editors don’t always pick them up. I thought about this as I read a quote from a book called ‘The Sherlockian’ by Gerald Moore, pointed out in this month’s Interzone:
He looked down at the tiny silver piece. It was a Victoria-era shilling, worth only five pennies in its day.
There are two things wrong with this. First, the obvious point. No, it was worth twelve pennies in its day. Second, the value of what we call a penny had changed between the past and the present; it is worth five pennies now. The author, Graham Moore, has crushed together two understandings of the term and come out with a mistake. It’s an honourable one, though. He understands correctly but has explained it badly.
The column in which Interzone magazine nails literary howlers is called Thog’s Masterclass, and also quotes Lionel Shriver, who is responsible for some surprisingly appalling writing. But bad writing is different from making mistakes. Lest we feel respect for the recently departed, this is from Tom Clancy’s ‘Debt Of Honour’:
The last chance to stop the operation had passed by. The die was now cast, if not yet thrown.
A tangled metaphor that has arisen from the misunderstanding of the phrase. We’re shifting toward something other than a mistake, which brings us, inevitably, to Dan Brown’s strange illiterate world…
“I’m looking for Robert Langdon,” a man’s voice said.
Voices don’t ‘say’. It’s incorrect but also sounds wrong on the ear. Someone has taken the trouble to analyse every single chapter of Brown’s execrable ‘Angels & Demons’ on a blog, pointing out that there’s an error on every page. Presumably Brown’s editors just threw up their hands in defeat.
He closed his eyes and tried to fall back asleep. It was no use. The dream was emblazoned in his mind.
You can fall back to sleep, but falling back asleep has an entirely different meaning. To emblazon is to depict a heraldic device. I suppose in a push both are legitimate, but inelegant. Not that Mr Brown cares. But it’s interesting that though much of his prose is not technically wrong, it is horribly clumsy, like someone stumbling about with their shoes on the wrong feet. It hurts the eye. Mr Brown is, by its very definition, a bad writer. But he knows how to tell a story, which is a different thing entirely.
This is close to the kind of winning entries you get in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest, the purpose of which it to come up with the opening sentence of a novel through which the author’s intentions poke, and which will absolutely prevent you from reading on.
“Don’t know no tunnels hereabout,” said the old-timer, “unless you mean the abandoned subway line that runs from Hanging Hill, under that weird ruined church, beneath the Indian burial ground, past the dilapidated Usher mansion, and out to the old abandoned asylum for the criminally insane where they had all those murders.” — Lawrence Person, Austin, TX
Let’s not even go near ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. In the light of the unfortunately snotty remarks recently made by literary agent Andrew Wylie about the kind of people who read popular novels (and on Kindles, instruments of the Devil!) I’m almost prepared to make a case for popular literature’s low end. Certainly Mr Brown can make readers turn pages and get the big picture while not worrying about the, ahem, small print.
This post is because, today, I’m doing my first tutorial. It’s not entirely altruistic; as the teacher, I’m hoping to learn more than the pupil.