on writing

So You Want To Write A Cruddy Story

Before we get started, I’d like to tell you how impressed I am with your commitment to bad writing. Sitting down to write is hard enough, but doing so with the intention of writing an absolutely awful story takes a real set of cajones. Of course you might be trying to avoid the puddles that muddy up an otherwise good story idea, but I choose to believe that you’re the kind of contrarian who wants nothing more than to waste your readers’ time. Kurt Vonnegut encouraged writers to “use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted,” but what did he know?

Anyway, here are five quick tips for turning that great story idea into an unreadable mess:

Don’t let the reader know when (or where) they are. Entering a story is a bit like waking up from a coma. (Well, maybe. I’ve never been in a coma.) Where am I? Who am I? What day is it? What year? Imagine being that disoriented while the people around you behave as if you already know the answers–never mind that, they behave as if those aren’t even questions. Until I’m somewhat grounded in time and space, I can’t focus on your story.

Granted, the worst opening line in literary history–Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “It was a dark and stormy night”–establishes time, so you can still be awful and ground your reader. Just don’t accidentally use the opening line of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as your template: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” Everything the reader needs to know about the next 127 pages is contained in that one sentence. How are you going to keep your reader disoriented with an opening like that?

Hide your characters. Concealing the “who” is nearly as important as hiding the when and where if you’re really trying to ruin your story. Melville really pulled a boner with that “Call me Ishmael” business. Great, now we know who is telling the story. Thanks, Herman!

Especially when writing in third person omniscient, where you expect your reader to jump from one character’s brain to the next, bad writing hinges on liberal use of pronouns. Let the reader dangle for pages and pages, wondering who “she” is that is talking, thinking, acting.

Focus on world building, not characters. This is especially true for genre fiction like fantasy and sci-fi, but not exclusively. Describing every little detail of the universe you’ve created is a great way to bore readers. Remember: Selfies are more popular than landscapes because people are fascinated by people, so if you really want to turn your reader off burn twenty pages describing your landscape. And if you’re really committed to bad writing, you’ll expect the reader to remember those twenty pages of minutae 200 pages later when you make them essential to the plot: Wait, the amber cliffs of Bligstorf were where what happened again?

Fall in love with your own voice. Never mind whether a passage moves the action forward or reveals character, the important thing is that it demonstrates what a brilliant writer you are. Sure, some writing teachers will tell you to “kill your darlings,” but they don’t understand how truly awful you’re trying to write.

Not sure what falling in love with your own voice sounds like? Try this sentence from Paul Harding’s Tinkers:

“He thought, Buy the pendant, sneak it into your hand from the folds of your dress and let the low light of the fire lap at it late at night as you wait for the roof to give out or your will to snap and the ice to be too thick to chop through with the ax as you stand in your husband’s boots on the frozen lake at midnight, the dry hack of the blade on ice so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars, the soundproof lid of heaven, that your husband would never stir from his sleep in the cabin across the ice, would never hear and come running, half-frozen, in only his union suit, to save you from chopping a hole in the ice and sliding into it as if it were a blue vein, sliding down into the black, silty bottom of the lake, where you would see nothing, would perhaps feel only the stir of some somnolent fish in the murk as the plunge of you your wool dress and the big boots disturbed it from its sluggish winter dreams of ancient seas.”

(Note that Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, proving that falling in love with your own voice isn’t enough to sink a good story. If you want to write badly, you’re going to need to do more than ramble.)

Don’t have a point. Life is ambiguous and so are bad stories. Leave your reader wondering why they wasted all of those hours reading a novel where nothing happened and the characters neither changed nor learned anything. Think of your friend, the one who tells anecdotes like, “Yesterday I went to the store and there was this guy buying soup.” That’s it. That’s the entirety of his anecdote.

A good story answers a what-if question: “What if a timid man finds himself in a battle over the last can of soup?” As a bad writer, you don’t want any part of that.  Stick with “a guy bought soup,” then perhaps write 3-5 pages baroquely describing the soup, the store, the man.

Granted, there have been a few brilliant writers who managed to incorporate all of these guidelines for bad writing into good novels, but I have faith in you. I know that you can get out there and use your readers’ time in such a way that he or she will feel that it was totally wasted, much like I just did. You’re welcome.


Categories: on writing

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