How To Be A Very Bad Writer
I don’t like the normal April Fool’s thing, where you pull a prank on your readers, because I think it’s a violation of reader/writer trust and also that it’s a glut of foolishness in one day. In the past I’ve done wink wink nudge nudge, you know we’re both joking and got away with it, but this year I want to do something different.
Having been informed that simply suggesting stories we like for the Hugo is a bad thing, because stories we like are inherently bad, and having compared the stories we like — people like Kevin J. Anderson and Jim Butcher and the people who regularly win awards, we’ve come to the conclusion the syllogism goes something like this: bad writing sells (A LOT) and good writing gets awards (but doesn’t sell a heck of a lot.)
Now, of course the goal of every writer is to get lots of awards and either starve in a garret or achieve tenure at the university where they have their day job. That is after all what Shakespeare would have aspired to if he’d been alive today. Marlowe too, if he’d not been so busy being a triple agent. And Jane Austen herself is recorded as saying “If only there were awards I could win so I could have a comfy tenured position. Perhaps in women’s studies. I can study women like nobody’s business. I have a small hand mirror, and it would be so refreshing.”
However, there is no accounting for taste, and I know some of you (us) don’t have jobs at colleges and aren’t therefore on the tenure track. We also, unaccountably, do not long to starve in a garret. In my case it is because moldy bread has way too many carbs and carbs set off my eczema. Also, I don’t like rats. Having been raised in a house where you had to plug up the rat holes so they didn’t run over you in the night, but you could still hear them run back and forth through the window, I can tell you it disrupts sleep and therefore interferes with the creative juices.
So in case you long to be a bad writer, just like many of us dream of being bad writers, here are ten tips to speed you on your way. (Tips presented in no particular order.)
1- Do attempt to write a story in the genre you’re aiming for.
Thanks to indie, you can now do more cross-genre stuff, so obviously that’s not what we’re talking about here. More this: if you aim to write mystery there should be a crime or at least the suggestion of something illegal going on. If you aim to write science fiction there should be some science or futurism involved. If you aim to write fantasy, there should be something fantastic happening and some sort of supernatural reason it happens beyond “it’s magically convenient to the plot.”
Sure if you want to win awards it’s fine for fantasy to just have someone fantasize or dream or hallucinate. But the reading rubble and their pocket book won’t be parted for anything less than the supernatural in fantasy, the sciency in science and the mysterious in mystery. Go figure.
2- Know what you’re writing about.
For instance if you have your character go into a rough bar in the US in the twentieth century, be aware those uncouth troglodytes are more likely to drink beer than gin. Worse, they’re likely to drink domestic beer. Or make sure your science makes sense and also that it sounds like science fiction and that your opening scene doesn’t sound like badly written fanfic fantasy. And if you’re writing something set in, say, the 1930s, study the time like Bad Writer Larry Correia did, instead of relying on comic books and bad movies for your research.
This will totally kill your chances at an award, where the cogniscenti KNOW history as portrayed by Hollywood is really true, but remember, this is how to be a bad writer and you must make some sacrifices.
3 – Let your writing be transparent.
The words are not supposed to get in the way of what you’re trying to say, and your sentences should parse. Yes, I know, some people like John C. Wright and on occasion myself (both of whom are admittedly bad writers) can sound like we nursed on dictionaries and were weaned on thesauri. This is mostly because that’s who we are. However our sentences still parse. We still make sense and we don’t use big words just for the joy of showing we know them. This means we are bad writers. There is some room for bad writers like us to make money. However, if you want to be a REALLY bad writer, who sleeps on a pile of money, you should continually strive to make your words disappear and for people to see only story. (This is somewhat different in short stories where there is room to revel in wording.)
4- Establish Characters
Establishing characters means relying neither on stereotypes nor on informed attributes that contradict how people actually behave, or just reality and life. What I mean by this is that you should make sure you show your characters doing things that actually lead us to like them/dislike them/see them working through the story. Don’t tell us Mary loved her little lamb. Show her wearing out her shoes searching for the dratted creature, and go easy on her love of lambchops in mint sauce. And please don’t rely on the fact Mary is a female (we assume. Only the kinkiest trans would wear that outfit with all the ruffles and the shepherd’s crook. Though, you know, some of our friends… ahem. Anyway) to make her sympathetic, or a victim. We know it’s horrible to contemplate but the vast majority of people did NOT attend your women’s studies class (they didn’t have a hand mirror) and don’t know that to be born with a vagina is a horrible plight that means you lose at life unless some kindly and enlightened soul gives you victimhood points and a tenured position. So you must abase yourself and meet that cash-bearing public where they live. Terrible, I know, but it will lead to regular meals and sometimes one must suffer for
5- Have a Plot
Ideally, to be a bad writer you should have things happen in your book. And they should be real things that really happen, not just “it was all a dream.” If you were writing a more refined form for a more refined audience, you could have “it was all a dream” or “it’s an hallucination that symbolizes his repression and the horrible bonds of capitalist society.” But unfortunately Joe six (probably domestic) pack and his wife, Jane boxed wine aren’t as refined as you and I, my friend. They expect stuff to happen in their stories and roll their eyes and snort when they get to the end and find that this harrowing adventure they’ve been following was just sound and fury spun by an
idiot intellectual and signifying nothing.
6- Have a Plot that BUILDS
This means that in your plot actions must have consequences. Plot has been defined as “things that happen in a story” but that’s not the only meaning. I’m very aware of that since I’ve been reading Disney comics during recovery from surgery. There is a tendency (particularly in the newer European comics) to have a lot of things happen, but they just happen, without the character doing anything really to bring them about, and without any consequences for each action. For instance Donald is walking through the zoo and a bucket falls on him, then he walks a bit more and a monkey steals his hat. It’s gorgeous, well drawn art and very cute to watch, but there’s no continuity of plot and no consequences. Then he walks more and he trips on the rake. Anyway, believe it or not the reason these comics are plotted that way is because in Europe things are superior, which is why so much Award Winning fiction is plotted that way too. Once more we regret to inform you that the people on the street, those who’ve never seen the inside of a faculty lounge expect each action to lead to the next complication. It’s a horrible imposition and, yes, we are TOTALLY aware that logic (in fact, language itself) is a tool of the patriarchy (we, here at MGC have more degrees between us than a very finely graduated thermometer) but there it is, if you want to be a bad writer, you must have plot continuity.
7- You Must Start With Your Character Wanting Something
And for the plot to take off and move, the character should start out wanting something concrete. Sure, in more enlightened circles it’s all right to want something like “world peace” or “equality for women” but this is very hard for the mundanes who haven’t been as thoroughly educated as you to visualize. They’re more likely to empathize with a character who wants to “go home” or “get his wife back” or even “kill monsters.” I know, again, think of it as the sacrifices you must make to keep the electrical bill paid. Hold your nose and visualize your exquisite, sensitive character wanting something as mundane as… to pay his electrical bill. This means the opposition to it will also be easy to visualize and probably physical. Which can lead to action scenes. Yes, we saw you shudder, but we’ll cover the need for action scenes later, to give you a little time to recover.
8 – You Should Have A Character Arc
What we mean is not that your character should join cirque du soleil and make a perfect half circle with his body (sorry.) What we mean is that your character must change/improve/get worse/find redemption, whatever. It can’t all be “he’s a victimy victim and becomes aware of being a victim and gets more victimy points.” Again, remember that not everyone on the street is as smart and enlightened as you (or the legitimate bestower of awards) are. Even long running action series have an arc of sorts, where you can see the character learn and change overtime. And this is important: the character must learn from the consequences of his actions, which is why it’s important for your plot to develop via action and consequence. For some reason people who have not been trained to appreciate real literature like that.
9 – Action, Character, Plot
If your plot is properly worked out, (for a bad book, of course) and your character is working his/her way through it by learning and improving in trying to reach his goal (or finding out his goal was not what he/she wanted anyway) you’ll have action and then a calmer, more reflective portion (depending on the book, this can just be some moments of dialogue) while the character and the reader re-orient and get their breath.
In a properly plotted (for a bad book) character arc, there will also often be a redirect as your character, who, in a bad book, wasn’t born being always right and perfect by virtue of falling in a victim class, sometimes realizes his/her internal flaws have led him/her towards a false goal and finds what goal he/she really should be pursuing.
We really are sorry for this one, as we understand it violates the principles of collective guilt and collective punishment or reward regardless of the character’s deserts and is therefore an affront to social justice. However, you must remember not everyone was as exquisitely trained in Marxist dialectics as you were.
10- Message Should Issue Forth From Your Story NATURALLY
What we mean by this: we know you’re going to point out some of us bad writers have messages in our fiction. Sometimes several messages. As the writer of A Few Good Men I have to admit to that. And even ur-bad-writer Robert A. Heinlein had messages. In fact there are a lot of very sly outright messages in his stories. However, there’s message and message.
First of all, even bad writers can’t avoid message, if they tried. After all everyone has a point of view and everyone has a bunch of beliefs about the world (bad writers just never learned the correct ones, which is why they are so hopelessly low class. But don’t worry, even someone as enlightened as yourself can fake it) and so it will show in their characters, in their world building and in their characters’ goals and rewards, unless they fight it, and sometimes even then.
Second, you can have a load of message in just how the plot develops, not to mention the articulations and eructations of your various characters.
So what do we mean by “naturally”? Well, we realize if you want to win awards you must have not just the correct message, but the obvious message. Stuff like “lower class people are naturally violent towards the better educated, and naturally homophobic because they just are.” Or “Being gay is great and you should get on to telling your entire friends and family who of course will be shocked because they all live in the 1950s and don’t have eyes, and will totally not roll their eyes and say ‘we know.'”
That is fine if you want to win awards. But if you want to be a bad writer who sells books, your messages needs to be more… what is that word again, we use it a lot when we try to lecture the less enlightened on how to perceive the world? Oh, yeah, nuanced. It should issue forth more subtly from how people behave. You can still have some of it in character speeches, but if you’re really good (at being a bad writer) sometimes you’ll have your characters make speeches you don’t agree with and which are disproved by the plot itself. (You have to be careful with this though, since the right people, you know, the ones who give awards and rave reviews to good books, sometimes will take your character’s obviously wrong rants and attribute them to you.)
Don’t worry. The mundanes, aka readers of bad books, are freakishly good at picking up messages from your stories, even if you don’t beat them over the head with it. And if they don’t get it consciously — unlike your professor in Deconstructionist Literature And Why The West Sucks 101 they read for, what is it called, oh, yeah, FUN and so sometimes they fail to analyze the book to see if it has the correct meanings — they will get it subconsciously.
So if your book is, in the words of a great author “beautiful and full of meanings” they will still catch on. Eventually. But meanwhile they’ll have paid you enough money that you can even move down from the garret and get some seasoning for that ghost rat.
So, be a bad writer. And be good at it.