Horrible Writing: Why Bad Prose Sells
Happy Halloween, writers! Tonight’s holiday might seem to be a good time to explore how to structure a horror novel, write a screamer of a short story, or develop a fantastically ghoulish character. But why stick to the script? Halloween’s a night for lawlessness of all kinds, so I’m going to buck the trend and talk about truly horrible writing — the kind that makes readers cringe for all the wrong reasons.
On Horrible Writing
Let’s begin with the Holy Grail of horrible writing contests, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Award. Every year since 1983, this award has been given to the most awful opening lines ever written. I’m a bit confused as to why Buller-Lytton was considered such an awful writer, as he did give us the infamous “It was a dark and stormy night.” Nonetheless, the contest persists, and has given us gems like:
She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination. — Chris Wieloch
She sipped her latte gracefully, unaware of the milk foam droplets building on her mustache, which was not the peachy-fine baby fuzz that Nordic girls might have, but a really dense, dark, hirsute lip-lining row of fur common to southern Mediterranean ladies nearing menopause, and winked at the obviously charmed Spaniard at the next table. — Jeanne Villa
Here’s a truly frightening thought — I kind of like that second one.
Moving along, let’s look at one of the most popular (really, people, for shame) pieces of, er, literature in recent years: 50 Shades of Grey. E.L. James is guilty of many, many sins in this tome, but it’s made her a crap-ton of money, so who am I to judge? Oh, right, I’m also a reader, so judge I may — yippee! I think E.L. was off her meds when she sat down to write. Much of her prose is sprinkled with horrible writing concerning communications from her all-too-real subconscious and a rather cheeky presence known as her “inner goddess”. Ugh. Take a valium now, because here we go:
- “My very small inner goddess sways in a gentle victorious samba.”
- “My subconscious has found her Nikes, and she’s on the starting blocks.’
- “My inner goddess glares at me, tapping her small foot impatiently.”
- “Jeez, he looks so freaking hot. My subconscious is frantically fanning herself and my inner goddess is swaying and writhing to some primal carnal rhythm.
Hmmm. She’s got quite a few people in her head. Too bad none of them are writers.
Let’s contrast her with the mother of all scary writers, Stephen King. He’s sold a kajillion books (okay, 350 million, but who’s counting?), consistently appears on the NYT bestseller list, and has even written books on writing (On Writing — buy it and he wins again!). But he’s not immune to shitty writing, either. This great article in the Huffington Post explores a passage from Mr. Mercedes, one of his recent releases, as an example of bad writing, King-style. The upshot of the article is that Stephen King seems to be okay with bad writing as long as the story is good. And, of course, as long as it’s his version of bad writing and not yours. Another article in Salon wonders at King’s bestselling status and considers him overhyped as both writer and storyteller.
Well, maybe he is and maybe he’s not. After all, much of what is considered good or bad (read that second Bulwer-Lytton submission again) is just opinion. Yours. Mine. Theirs. If you can tap into a niche of people whose synapses fire like yours do, you’re in. You’ll be a bestseller, no matter what the crabbed naysayers may shout from the sidelines.
I want my writing to be great. I want everyone to love it. But fact is, not everyone will. Ever. Even if you sell 350 million books, you’ll still contend with crushing criticism from the people in the cheap seats. E.L. James might be raked over the literary coals, but her inner goddess is cashing checks that say somewhere around 60 million people bought, and perhaps liked, her book.
So finally, it comes down to this: popularity. Not the structure of your sentences, the twisting of your plot, or the complexity of your characters, but whether or not your story strikes a chord with readers. There’s no magic formula, no golden ticket, and no rules that will set you on the road to fortune and glory. And that, dear writers, is the truly scary part.
Before I leave you on this awesomely frightening holiday, let me give you one message of good cheer–a lifeline to cling to when you’re ship is well and truly sunk, if you will. The one thing you can control is the amount of writing you produce. If you feel like practice makes perfect, then obviously more is better. If, instead, you look at publishing and popularity like a lottery, then everyone knows the more times you play the more chances you have of winning.
So write. Write lots. Win.