Monday, August 07, 2006

Analysis of a Book -- #1

Yesterday I picked up a novel that seemed to have a good message – life is a gift and we should not waste it. But instead of being inspired and uplifted, I got so caught up in the poor construction of the book, I couldn’t concentrate on all the beautiful truths the author was trying to present. By page 8, I was ready to return the book to the library, but then I realized it would be fun to evaluate it on my blog and give you some concrete examples of what comprises bad writing.

But then I ran into a problem. I don’t want to hurt this author’s feelings by pointing out everything he did wrong. I don’t know him personally and he’s national, not LDS, and so the chances of my meeting him are pretty slim, but authors do like to hit the Internet and Google their names to see what everyone is saying about them. Generally they’re looking for good things, not bad ones.

So, I’m not going to broadcast what book this is. I’m also going to change enough of the particulars to (hopefully) make it less recognizable and create less embarrassment for the author, including changing the characters’ names and a few words in each quote. I’ll do this any time I analyze a book. Unless, of course, an author contacts me and says, “Yes, I want to be publicly shamed. Please use my name and mention it as often as possible.”

As a side note, the characters “Libby” and “Tiffany” are grandmother and granddaughter, respectively.

With that long-winded explanatory note out of the way, let’s proceed.

1. “Here was Tiffany, balled up in her bed, her knees drawn up in a fetal position.”

This is a classic example of word redundancy. If you are in a ball, that automatically indicates that your knees are drawn up. Because of the way that our bodies are made, there is no other way to create a ball out of your body. The author should have chosen one or the other description. He did not add any new information with that long-winded description.

2. I’m making note here of all the ways the author avoids using the word “said,” giving just the speech attributions from a very long conversation.

…” Black continued.

…” Larry jumped in, nodding his agreement.

…” Black noted.

…” Larry shifted.

…” he paused.

…” Larry offered.

…” Sherry stammered defensively.

…” Larry insisted.

…” He shrugged.

…” she announced suddenly.

This is only half of the conversation. But you see what’s happening here – every single sentence ends with an unnatural speech attribution (i.e. telling who said what) There is nothing wrong with the word “said.” You don’t want to use it every time, but you also don’t want to get too creative and use everything but said. The above conversation was stiff and dull, and I spent far too much time counting how many speech attributions there were when I should have been caring what the characters were talking about.

3. “He was whispering instructions to some no-doubt-harried assistant until Black’s impatient glance caused him to close his phone.”

At the beginning of this sentence, we are envisioning the assistant standing next to him or leaning over him, receiving these whispered instructions. It’s not until the end of the sentence that we know he’s talking on the phone. The assistant suddenly poofs into thin air where they were once standing in the scene with us. This is very jolting. The author should have told us from the start of the sentence that the character was on the phone, and he should not have used the word “whispered.” You can’t whisper into a phone and have it come through properly at the other end, regardless of how good your plan is. He could have been speaking softly, but “whispering” was not a good word choice.

4. In one paragraph, the character ends his speech with “uttered simply.” In the next paragraph, the other character ends his with “uttered, hopeless.”

“Uttered” is a word you want to use carefully. Again, it’s another tack to keep from using “said” too much, but “utter” is an unusual word. You can probably get away with it once per book or once every other book, but not twice in the same book, and most certainly not in two paragraphs so close together.

5. Larry writes a check and then the narrative reads, “His wife would breathe a sigh of relief that the buck had been passed.”

This is a very unfortunate choice of words. “Passing the buck” does not mean handing money to someone. It means handing responsibility or blame for a situation over to someone. By using this phrase right after the character writes a check and gives it to someone, the author is either a) unaware of his blunder b) unaware of the true definition of the phrase but most certainly c) making himself look unprofessional by using words that sound really corny and like a bad play on words (buck = money)

6. “She took the check and put it in her pocketbook with a snap.”

This sentence reads funny. Did she say “snap” when she closed the pocketbook? Is there a snap in the pocketbook and she put the check next to it? Because the sentence starts with “She,” we are going to assume that everything else that happens in the sentence relates directly to her, but the “snap” is a sound made by the purse, not her. The author should have said, “with a snap of the clasp,” which clearly shifts the subject to the purse and the noise it makes.

7. “… face of a homeless man encased in a sleeping bag, drinking from a bottle in a paper bag . .”

Again, an unfortunate sentence. Here we have a face that is encased in a sleeping bag. Do you get, like I do, the mental picture of someone in a sleeping bag, who has gathered it up around his head, so that only his face is sticking out? If you do, can you explain to me how he is holding the bottle in the paper bag? Where are his arms? Well, they’re inside the sleeping bag, of course. In addition, it’s not just the face that’s doing the drinking, although the sentence reads that way. No mention is made of the man as a whole, just his face. So we’ve got a disembodied face, drinking from a bottle that’s floating in midair?

8. “As the driver removed their bags from the trunk, Libby offered him a nice tip to take them up the steps.”

From a strictly grammatical viewpoint, it’s difficult to say why this sentence confused me. The “them” was not clearly defined with a noun, at least, to my mind. For a split second I was seeing the driver taking Libby and Tiffany up the stairs. I would completely switch this sentence around and say, “Libby offered the driver a nice tip to take the bags upstairs when he lifted them out of the trunk.” Or, even better . . .

The driver lifted the first bag out of the trunk and set it on the ground. The loose gravel crunched beneath the weight of what could only be books. Libby reached out and tried to pick the bag, willing herself to have the strength, but her positive thinking didn’t work.

“Too heavy,” she gasped. The driver set the second suitcase down with ease.

“Would you carry these bags inside for me?” Libby asked, straightening her back. “I’ll give you a nice tip.”

See how we went from telling to showing?

9. “Libby helped Tiffany unroll and prepare the sofa bed.”

Is that like helping someone unwind at the end of a long day? Why was Tiffany rolled up, and how did Libby help her unroll? Of course the author means that the sofa bed was rolled up, but when you have an “and,” you want everything before the “and” to make sense and everything after the “and” to make sense, and this sentence clearly does not.

10. “She fell into a fitful sleep.”

There’s nothing wrong with this sentence grammatically or plot-wise, but it happens to be one of the most overused phrases in fiction. That and “fitful slumber.” And wouldn’t you know, the next thing we have is that she’s waking up with a start. Another very overused phrase, and here they are back to back. Poor girl; she went to sleep and woke up on a cliché. Very uncomfortable.

11. Without quoting too much actual text, let me summarize the scene: Tiffany is teaching Libby how to swear. The dialogue as written is very funny, but the author keeps inserting adverbs into the narrative like “wryly” and descriptions like “eyes twinkling.” This whole scene reminds me of how stand-comedians used to have a set of drums behind them and every time they’d make a joke, they’d get a background drum roll and crash of cymbals as if to say, “That was a joke! Get it? Get it?” In a scene of this nature, the dialogue should stand on its own. It’s funny dialogue. We don’t need the author hovering over us, saying, “See? She spoke wryly and her eyes are twinkling. It was a joke. Get it? Get it?”

12. “She observed the life teeming around her.”

Again, a very overused phrase. “Life teeming” and “teeming with life” -- avoid both of these at all costs. There are so many other ways to phrase things – find them.

13. “Tiffany looked up at him, his eyes pleading.”

Did Tiffany have a sex change operation halfway through that sentence? How are his eyes pleading when Tiffany is a girl? Okay, when we think about it, we can tell that she looked up at him and saw that his eyes were pleading, but that’s not how the sentence reads. When you have a comma like that, you’re expecting everything in that sentence to be about Tiffany. It would be much better to say, “Tiffany looked up at him, at the way his eyes were pleading” or “Tiffany looked up at him and noticed his eyes were pleading” or “noticed the pleading in his eyes.”

14. “The two of them would often press their heads close together on the edge of the bed at night, delighting in the playback of sights and moments Tiffany had captured that day on her Camcorder.”

This sentence is wrong on many, many levels. When you first start reading it, you’re picturing them pressing their heads together on the edge of the bed. Why are they doing that? Is it some sort of bonding ritual? Will their foreheads stick if they hold them together long enough? By the time you reach the end of the sentence, you understand that they are sitting on the edge of the bed, watching the replay on the Camcorder, and because the screen is small, they have to lean their heads toward each other so they can both see. Well, why didn’t the author just say that? Why leave the explanation of what they’re doing clear until the end of the sentence, and why make it so muddled? And let’s show it, not tell it. How about this . . .

“Come here,” Tiffany said, patting the bed beside her. “I want to show you something.”

Libby took the offered seat as Tiffany punched a few buttons on her Camcorder.

“Oh, there’s me standing on the dock,” Libby said. “The screen is so small, though; it’s hard to see.”

“Put your head close to mine,” Tiffany said. “We can watch together.”

Now, doesn’t that make a lot more sense?

15. A little bit later on, Libby is remembering how she and her husband had been to this spot before, and we get a little flashback. Then the narrative shifts to things that she and Tiffany were doing together at that moment, and there is no clear definition of the end of her flashback and return to present day. We go from “her husband had insisted that just for one evening, they enjoy themselves.” Next paragraph: “They spent the day . . .” “They” refers to Tiffany and Libby, but we don’t know that until halfway down the paragraph. We think we’re still talking about Libby and her husband. The author should have made that shift much more obvious.

16. And then again with another comical conversation, but the author just can’t keep his hands off it. He’s inserting words like “she deadpanned” and “they all laughed hysterically.” The author should not have to point out to the reader that they have just heard a joke. If he has to tell them to feel amused, he should either delete the joke or completely rewrite it, because it’s not working.

Overall, I enjoyed the message of the book and came to care for the characters. I just wish that this author had studied his craft more carefully, edited himself more stringently, and demanded more of himself. A powerful story needs, and deserves, to be told powerfully.

Hope this was helpful.


Keith Fisher said...

Very helpful. I discovered some of the errors that I have committed.

Tristi Pinkston said...

I'm glad it was helpful, Keith. It certainly is my longest blog to date!

Framed said...

First, Tristi, thanks for visiting my blog. I always like to hear from someone new.
Second, this is an amazing post. I probably wouldn't have picked up on all the errors that you noted, but I have read books where the errors are so glaring or silly that I couldn't concentrate on the story. Your insights as an author were very interesting.

Tristi Pinkston said...

Hi Framed,

I loved visiting your blog and will come back often. Thanks for the return visit! I appreciate your comments.

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