A Lesson Before Writing

Have you ever said you were going to do something only to later regret it? I’m sure most people can relate to being in that position at one time or another. Well, I find myself there yet again, and like most times it’s because of my desire to help someone. I was hoping to turn you on to a good book when I promised the author, a local sister who boasts "best seller" status, that I would definitely read her story and to boot, I would promote it here. At the time, I was excited because this author has written nine novels and according to the word of a local bookstore owner, one of her self published titles sold over 60,000 copies. She's been on the Essence best seller list, so I just knew class was going to be in session when I cracked the book open. Never mind the fact that it was urban fiction -- not my favorite genre -- because I was sure with all those accolades that I was going to enjoy the book anyway. However, I'm sorry to say, that was not the case. I didn't make it past page thirty.

If you follow my blog regularly, you will remember in my 365 day challenge (I'm behind on my writing projects by the way - but not for long) that I also promised to read and review some writers. So that is what brings me here today. I'm keeping my word to the author, who will remain nameless for now, and I'm keeping my word to you, the viewer of my humble pages.

Before I get into this, let me first say the premise of the story was good. While I didn't read the entire book, my college age daughter and a co-worker that I let borrow the book did read it in it's entirety. My daughter said it was "typical" urban fiction, but I'm not sure what that meant since I don't read it and my co-workers said she liked the story (she said it was a good little nasty book) but she also agreed to some of the reasons why I didn't like it. So, why didn't I take to it? It's simple; It was poorly written. I know someone might be thinking, Rich is hating. Truthfully, I'm not. I'm actually disappointed that the book wasn't an all around treat as I expected, but it is a good model for some of the things I've been wanting to discuss about writing. So, before anyone gives me “the business” let me explain.

In the pages that I read, I realized that the author was prone to writing paragraphs that are mechanical in nature. As a reader, it was hard to engage in the story while accepting the delivery. Here’s an example of what I mean. In this excerpt, the female character is speaking; I have altered the names to maintain the anonymity of the book.

I turned on some soft music and went over to the small sofa in the far corner of the room. After taking a seat, I removed my peach linen stilettos and propped my feet up on the coffee table in front of me. I unbuttoned my white silk blouse and leaned back. Thinking deeply about what Marcus was up to, I put the bottle up to my lips and tilted it. I gulped down a few sips of Martel and put the bottle on the table in front of me. I then reached for my cell phone clipped to my skirt and dialed his number. Surprisingly, he answered.

Surprisingly, I made it to page thirty! I will say that the entire book is not written in this way, I skimmed some of the other sections, but there are enough instances that it would irritate the crap out of me. As a writer, you shouldn't have to describe every little thing to get your point across. That's my beef with the passage above and similar passages in the book.

The other thing that bothered me in the story was the poor use of descriptive language. There are times in the story when the author could simply use a different choice of words and it would have made for a world of difference. Alright, I know what you are thinking, “Maybe that is just her style. Writers should be free to have their own style, right?” Most definitely, but there should be some standards that we all should live by if we are going to call ourselves writers, let alone authors. Stephen King gives great tips in his book On Writing, if you decide you want to hear it from someone who's been in the game longer. The second half of his book deals exclusively with how to be a better writer.

But since he's not here, you can take it from me. Check out these sentences from the book.

As I got ready to hit the busy streets of St. Louis, I stood in the bathroom’s doorway with my white T-shirt and blue police officer pants on.

This is the sentence that revealed to the readers that the leading male character was a cop. It was also the sentence that made me realize this read was going to take a lot of energy. If you don’t know what’s wrong with the sentence I’ll just pray now that you are a reader and not a writer. In the meantime, try this next one on for size.

Thomas handcuffed him and read him his rights. After he lifted him from the floor, Thomas searched his pockets and shoved him in my direction.

“Marcus, take this bastard to the police car. I’m gon’ stay and talk to the young lady to see what happened.”
(without reading the book, you probably wouldn't get this one, but the author kept referring to their patrol car or squad car as a police car and that just didn't bode well with me since it was two cops in the scene).

And this one:

I changed clothes, and since I didn’t want to drive my police (there it is again) car to Gabrielle’s house, I drove my white Dodge Ram truck with major horsepower that was already parked on the lot.

I don't think I need to speak to these examples more than I already have. Again, in the thirty pages I read, I kept encountering sentences like these so I just gave up on the book.

Now on the positive side, the author does at times find her stride and narrates well and creates good dialogue. However, on a whole, I think she may have rushed this effort out of the gate a bit too soon.

Needless to say, I toiled with whether I should write this review, but I ended up compromising by not exposing the author or the title. At worst, reviews are pompous outpourings of our own self indulgent opinions about a particular work, but at best it is a pure objective examination of the work in question. You’ll never please everyone. In fact, by merely writing, you will offend someone. With that said, I still hope my comments will encourage those that write to push themselves to be the best they can. As far as the writer who is the beneficiary of this review, she is a real nice sister and it's likely that we'll run into each other again so I wanted to be kind. I’m not in her inner circle, but if by chance she reads this, I hope that she sees that my main goal is to inspire her to higher heights. Although, this may be a bitter pill for her to swallow since it is her ninth title. I suspect that when a writer manages to garner sales and attract a publisher who is able to broaden that writer’s distribution that it is hard to hear from those of us who have yet to fully walk in their shoes. But I would challenge any writer to never stop developing their talent in the craft. Take some writing classes; try a different editor – one that will push you. And read other good writers, which I'm sure would help this writer immensely since I read an interview posted on her website that stated she didn't read any of the well known writers. Instead she read a lot of the authors that are up and coming, writers that she have become acquainted with I'm sure. I know she was trying to cast a little light on her friends, but I think she should reconsider her position on which writers to read.

In the end, the bottom line is that writing takes work. It is one of those things that I have found that you truly have to love enough to do for free. It can’t be about some perceived fame or big paycheck that comes as a result of writing a book. If you think that way, you will learn, sooner or later, that it just doesn’t work that way.

Now that I've given my views, I'd like to hear from you, what are some of the things that draw you to a particular writer?

About the host:
Rich Fitzgerald is the author of the short story "One to Remember" featured in Love and Redemption (Bloggers' Delight Vol. 1), a collection of short stories by authors who blog. To read excerpts or to order a copy of the title, visit i-Lit. The book is also available on Amazon.


Sharon said...

Really good post Rich. Based on conversations you and I have had in the past, I'm sure you know I was feeling this critique. Not having read the book myself as far as I can tell, I think there needs to be less "telling" in this writer's approach based on the limited excerpts available.

The story itself should parlay most of the information about the characters, settings, and themes being presented, which should make so much "telling of details" unnecessary. As you know, I am currently struggling with similar issues surrounding perspective and character voice, but thanks to the insightful critique and assistance of YOU and others, I'm making good progress IMO and moving right along.

Hopefully this author will take your critique in the spirit in which it is meant, but if not, I sure picked up a nugget or two here that might prove helpful so all is STILL not lost ;)

CapCity said...

As a budding author I am learning that DOING the dance of writing is more of a challenge than WATCHING the dance & READING about the dance.

There's a bit in my newly released piece that I think is too much Direct Explanation - but found it necessary because what I THOUGHT was a "universal" action was NOT. Just like dancing - the more you practice, the more partners you dance with, the more great dancers you observe and learn from - the BETTER we new dancer/writers become!

The important part:
Continue Writing & Dancing FOR LIFE!!

Rich said...

No doubt. I guess I was just a bit "hard" on this writer because they have 9 novels out. I expected more. I won't be as hard on the "new jacks".

Sheletha said...

you are such a snob, Rich. I agree wholeheartedly with you, so I guess that makes me a snob too!

However, Im a reader not a writer. So when reading I don't like coming across such redundancies that allow me to skip straight through to the dialouge.

Sometimes I don't wanna read about how much two people are so in love when you know some shit is about to jump off. Especially when a man in real life is tap dancing on that last nerve. No body want to read that mess!

Im call you out on Zane. Her message is consistant. They meet, they sex each other down, a variety of things happen, they sex some more, a twist, more sex, The End. CONSISTANT!

Nothing really beats her debut, Addicted, except for some hiccups like Nervous, she kinda went downhill. She's a hustla though, so I respect her gangsta.

Sheletha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
smoking guns said...

I see The Minstrel Show continues through the written word.

Sheletha said...

There are some writers that are notorious for their extensive detailing and redundancy.

BeBe Moore Campbell

Tina McElroy Ansa - I was told that shes partially blind, and that is the possible reason for her elaborate detail. She once dedicated a couple of chapters in her book "the hand I fan with" describing a house. i was so sick of this house by the time i finished it.

Mizrepresent said...

Riding is so subjective, and reading is even more subjective, but i understand your criticisms. As writers, we should take that criticism and seek to do better. I remember when my first novel was given 2 different reviews, 1 person gave me a 2 and the other gave me a 4.5...well i was of course unhappy with the 2, but wanted to know what i could do to make it better. That's when a writer grows, when they want to do better, seek to do better...because although we are indeed writing for ourselves, our ultimate go is to please our readers.

Sheletha said...

you gotta the highs and the lows...

me, i like to Ride high.

Don said...

I know I cant and shouldnt laugh but this was a funny post.

I know exactly what you mean. Sadly, Im to-be-published by a street lit publisher. Maybe. Originally it was cool. Now I am pretty much seeing how Im not really street lit, and the thought lingers in the back of mind sometimes, about what if.

Apparently she has a story to tell, cause 60,000 @ self-published is serious business. What was her age?

It was also the sentence that made me realize this read was going to take a lot of energy.

Five Things which draw me to certain writers:

1)good stories
2)insightful characters
3)empathy reads
4)the voice in which the story is told
5)something im able to identify with

Rich said...

@Don - based on what I've seen of your writing, it will come over different than the stuff I've seen, so that is all good. Even street fiction can be intelligent.

Sheletha said...

street fiction and intelligent should not be in the same sentence together

Anonymous said...

This post had me laughing because I feel your angst, Rich. I rarely read urban fiction due to the absence of developement. A lot of the stories are rushed and come across as if they were written by middle-schoolers.

I feel like we, as a people and writers/authors, need to step our game up. Study the craft. Don't just write a book 'cause Shantana down the street did.

Let's not get started on typos and putting out books that haven't seen the editing light of day.

I digress...

Things that draw me to a writer is their ability to tell a story that feels real. I want to feel the emotions of the characters as if I am living through the same situations. I can go on. Basically, a well-written story that exudes the person writing it cares about their story.

A New Man said...

I'm afraid to comment! This post may spark the next Black serial killer! LOL! CapCity pointed to a powerful fact: taming the tiger named "MyBook" is easier SEEN and IMAGINED than it is DONE. I have a completely different view of "bad" writers now. Some authors are pushing for their dreams and skimping on their products' editing to push their wares street-hustler style. Some see a market and write for that market ONLY, and that market wants a Memorex-close copy of its own speech and thought. There are so many variables that can affect a book negatively, and a self-publishing author is constantly weighing the P&E against artistic integrity. Just my thoughts...