Bad Words: Badder Writing That I am Too Madderer!

Hello and welcome to another installment of “Bad Words” (actually, I just made up that name – the first installment didn’t have a series title, but guess what? It does now!) where we take a look at some common mistakes many writers make and how YOU the reader can learn to identify them for fun and profit. Just kidding. There’s no profit here for you. About the best you can hope for is to get a laugh or two and look at the pictures. On the other hand, if you’re an author, you might see something you do from time to time that you never knew bothered me. And, OF COURSE YOU’LL WANT TO CHANGE THAT BEHAVIOR! Pleasing me should be of paramount importance in your everyday life and so it is a matter of course that your writing should also take my tastes into consideration.

I have wants, people! Needs! They must be satisfied or… or… they will continue to be unsatisfied! And that is unsatisfactory!

But seriously, some of the stuff I point out below is just me making mountains out of molehills, but I thought I’d take the time to explain what bothers me about them because I’m seeing them a lot lately. I’ve been doing some intense reading of other self-published works in my chosen genres (mystery, fantasy/sci-fi) and although most of the stuff out there is garbage, there are a few writers who are quite good and I’d like to read more of their work. However, even though they are clearly talented and can make words do pleasing things on the page, they still make very aggravating mistakes that make me want to pelt them with Cheetos and slap them with deli ham! I want to grab them by the nipples and shake them and scream into their faces “Don’t you know how close to awesome you are? Don’t you know how many truckloads of ham and Cheetos I want to dump on you? DON’T YOU KNOW I LOVE YOU?”

But I’d likely get arrested for that, so instead I’ll just tell you how I think some writers could be soooo much better if only they’d stop doing dumb shit like…

The deus ex machina: You’re probably already familiar with this term, but for those of you who may have slept through a few too many English classes, I’ll explain. It’s a Latin term meaning “God from the Machine” and it refers to any sort of resolution to a conflict that seems to come out of nowhere. This is easily forgivable if an author just uses it to tie up loose secondary plot threads, but is unforgivable when it appears in the main action of the story.

Ridiculous Example: Our swashbuckling hero is busy bravely fighting the forces of doom and destruction at the climax of the book, but things take a turn for the worse and he finds his back against the wall and his feet in the doo-doo. His every strength has been countered and now the enemy is about to destroy him by exploiting a known weakness! Lament! Oh, lament! But wait? What’s this? Our Doubting Thomas of a hero can reach down deep within and summon the strength of a god? One of the allies he thought lost suddenly and inexplicably bursts in and aids him? The spirits of his ancestors distract the enemy just long enough to provide an escape? The evil-genius villain decides to walk toward the hero instead of just shooting him from across the room? Our sword-wielding hero can suddenly cast magic missile?

And on and on. You see what I’m getting at. A final confrontation only ends satisfyingly when our hero uses the tools and experiences he picked up through his journey to defeat the final boss. Nothing should suddenly appear. The reader should be able to trace the solution to the problem to something (or things) that happened earlier in the book or else it all just falls flat.

 

Just like this guy!

Just like this guy!

 

Getting lost on a tangent: This is where the author attempts (as all good authors should) to weave a multi-threaded plot line, but ends up losing the main thread, either for too long or permanently. This is incredibly easy to do, but is also fairly simple to spot on revision. While you can afford to spend perhaps a whole chapter devoted to a secondary plot point, any more than that and you risk confusing the reader regarding what’s actually important. Unless you use those one-sentence chapters, then I suppose you could spend a chapter or two or nine. God, don’t get me started on one-sentence chapters. What an arrogant waste of reader attention.

Ridiculous example: Our hero is hired to rescue a kidnapped princess. After investigating for a chapter or two, he finds she’s more or less a willing prisoner of her captors. She tells him to get lost. Unsure what to do, he spends a day thinking it over and during that time he receives a message from an old friend in need of some help. The hero shrugs and leaves to go aid his friend and for the greater part of the book, the action revolves around that new plot point. After more or less resolving the problem, the hero eventually comes back to convince the princess she shouldn’t hang with the bad guys and that brings the story to a close. Maybe the author makes some loose connection between the two conflicts, but FAR too much time was spent away from the “rescue the princess” plot to have it be at all meaningful anymore.

 

"...if you still care about that sort of thing, that is."

“…if you still care about that sort of thing, that is.”

 

Stretching suspension of disbelief to the breaking point: There’s a lot of suspension of disbelief in genre writing. The reader is often expected to believe in time travel, instantaneous communication through space, magic, fantasy worlds, etc. All of this is generally accepted as de rigeur, but I’ve noticed in one area – specifically dystopian sci-fi – authors seem to take just too many liberties. If you’re dealing with Earth or even an Earth-like planet with human-type peoples, you have to keep in mind that your readers will have certain expectations that can’t be disregarded.

Ridiculous example: The world is going to die within a handful of generations and humanity’s only hope is to gather up its smartest people and lock them away so they can tech our way out of it, hopefully. But the organization behind such a noble effort turns out to be nefarious in its designs. When the smartest people enter its secured compound, they are never heard from again! And… nobody wonders why. Not one single lonely boyfriend or worried mother picks up the phone to call. Nobody. Everyone just simply accepts that the smarty pants people need to “concentrate on their work.” Our hero only finds out that something is amiss when one of the smarty-pants finally manages to sneak a message out… YEARS LATER.

Seriously? You’re talking about humans here. Humans on Earth. No one would accept such an obvious kidnapping for any length of time much less for years. Well, unless there is already a clearly established system of gulags and work camps in your world. That might pass inspection. Or maybe everyone has been pacified with some sort of chemicals in the contrails of planes or something. Or perhaps a really taste brownie mix tainted with hallucinogens that trick family members into believing they’re still in contact with the smarty-pants relatives could work… Anyway, the point is – don’t forget the human condition. Never forget that. No matter how much your writing revolves around zombies or vampires or robots, your readers are all very human.

 

I don't care how many dragons you birth, you're still just a lost little girl looking for a home. Fuck you, George R.R. Martin, you brilliant bastard.

I don’t care how many dragons you birth, you’re still just a lost little girl looking for a home. Fuck you, George R.R. Martin, you brilliant bastard.

 

 

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Well, that’s all I’ve got for you today, except to announce this week’s winner of the T-Shirt giveaway.

John Cataldo!

Congrats, John! Look for the newsletter in your inbox (or possibly junk folder) and reply with desired size and mailing address.

So long everyone! Don’t forget to review a good book and tip a nice delivery driver!

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Time Travel is Stupid and other observations

So, today is Back To the Future Day (or #BackToTheFutureDay for all you Twitter fiends) and I couldn’t be more ambivalent. Everyone is celebrating this day like it is both a National Holiday and Day of Mourning. I even saw a little video detailing how many things the movies predicted would happen by 2015 and nearly all of them have. This is no big thing, by the way. You can take a film like 2001 or a show like Star Trek and do the same thing. The human capacity to forge our own realities seems to continually amaze people. I think the only thing Back to the Future failed to predict was the enormity of its own lasting popularity deep into 2015. Look, I liked the movies. I remember seeing and enjoying them in the 80’s, but I never would have guessed they would have had as much staying power as they’ve had. Honestly, in 1985, I would have sworn that Ice Pirates would have ultimately proven to be more successful. I still think it should have. Shows what I know. We miss you, Robert Urich!

 

Look at that. Nobody swaggered like Urich.

Look at that man. Nobody swaggered like Urich.

 

Anyway, I thought this would be a great time for me to sound off about all the problems I have with any story that involves time travel. Although it is one of the most popular  science fiction plot engines, it also happens to be the worst. Seriously. Stories about monkeys taking over the planet are better than anything involving hopping back and forth in time. So, what’s my beef with temporal high jinks?

Well it’s just one thing, to be honest. And it’s not scientific. Time travel is possible, most especially for going into the future. In fact, you can see this happen on an everyday basis. All you have to do is take a long flight. Going backwards through time is still pretty iffy, but who cares? This is science fiction after all. No, my main bone of contention with time travel in movies and books is the blatant disregard of plot holes.

Plot holes are the things that sink a story. I’ve written before that they can be small and therefore not leak too much suspension of disbelief, but they can also be Titanic-hitting-the-iceberg huge. Time travel plot holes invariably fall into the latter category. The one that bothers me the most also happens to be the most common one I’ve noticed. It occurs when the writer neglects to carry the accounting of cause and effect to its ultimate conclusion. Take Back to the Future, for instance. Marty goes back in time and fixes the screw ups he inadvertently causes so he can make sure his parents get together. All well and good, but along the way he also can’t resist adding in a few “improvements” that result in his parents being happier and more successful when he travels back to the future/his present.

That is, he thinks it’s his present, when in reality it is not. None of the memories that Marty McFly have are valid any longer. The life he once knew no longer exists. So, how can he remember his mom and dad being losers when it clearly never happened? One answer is that it did happen, but he did not travel back to that timeline. Instead, he traveled forward to the new timeline created by his actions. So, what then? Is time subjective? Do each of us only have timelines we perceive and others are not real? I hope not. That would be a highly anti-social stance to take. Is Marty a god, then? Are we all just living at the pleasure of his timeline? Or did he travel back to the future and somehow supplant the Marty McFly that had existed in that future – a future created by the Marty-McFly-with-loser-parents? What happened to the happy Marty-who-only-knew-winner-parents?

 

Poof?

Poof?

 

And let’s never mind the whole Travel-Back-In-Time-To-Kill-Hitler headache. If you traveled back in time to kill Hitler and were successful in preventing WWII, you could not conceivably come back. Why? Because the whole reason your time machine was invented ceased to be. There’s no longer a future where you sent yourself back, so how did it ever happen? Or did you think that everyone in your future suddenly breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Thank God you went back and killed Hitler! Now come on back and we’ll all talk about these fake memories we have” and then went on about their day? No, seems like if you really believe in cause and effect, then it’s a one-way trip, so get comfortable in the Weimar Republic, baby! Catch a cabaret or two and try not to have sex with your grandparents. That is, unless you believe in alternate timelines. You still shouldn’t have sex with your grandparents, but you can stay in the past and live out your life in the alternate timeline OR you can travel forward and see what the new one would look like – assuming it was technically possible, of course. And if you believe in alternate timelines, which I do, then why bother with time travel at all? Surely, at some point in time in the future (or maybe the past?), someone has already tried this and WWII was averted, only we didn’t get to see the results. Well, the “we” in this timeline, anyway.

 

"Nyah-nyah. Looks like you're stuck with me."

“Nyah-nyah. Looks like you’re stuck with me.”

 

This stuff just makes me crazy.

No, the only time travel plots I can stomach have more to do with letting go of the past than changing it. The Buttterfly Effect is a good one. The more the protagonist tries to change the past to “fix” the present, the more he destroys his life. We are forged by our experiences – to try to go back and change them is to unmake ourselves. So, when used as metaphor, time travel is ok. When used as an actual sci-fi plot engine, it’s unfailingly horrible.

Thanks for hanging out, everyone! Don’t forget to tip your driver!