In the first part of my 2-part series on good and bad literary trash, we learned all about good and bad literary trash, especially what makes good trash good. In this post, we’re going to explore common mistakes bad-trash authors make, as well as go over a list of what to do if you want to land in the winner’s circle.
Let’s begin with 3 issues I see consistently in those semi-professionally written cozy mysteries and romance novels I’ve described as “bad trash.”
Grammar and idiom
Almost to a (wo)man, bad trash is loaded with grammar mistakes and poorly proofed copy. Issues such as misspelled words; using that instead of who when describing a human being; and misuse of words, idioms, and phrases are just a sampling of the mistakes I’ve encountered in the past month alone.
Although I personally deplore it, the use of who instead of whom is becoming de rigueur even in good trash. For example, it is now acceptable to say “The musician who I like.” On the other hand, no professional writer would ever countenance the following: “To who do I owe the pleasure?” The Grishams and Folletts of the writing world (and/or their editors) would never make this mistake.
If you want to use who occasionally instead of whom, pay attention to nuance and make your choice carefully.
For a more in-depth treatment of the who/whom issue, see the guest post I wrote here.
2. Bemused and nonplussed
With regard to misused words, almost all the authors of bad trash I’ve read use bemused and nonplussed incorrectly. Bemused means bewildered, confused, dazed, or lost in thought. It does not mean amused. However, thanks to the decline of English skills in the past generation or two, Merriam-Webster now allows it to be used with the meaning of “having or showing feelings of wry amusement especially from something that is surprising or perplexing.” That last part is Merriam-Webster’s nod to bemused‘s original and correct meaning.
Similarly, nonplussed means “unsure about what to say, think, or do; or perplexed.” Unlike its position on bemused, however, Merriam-Webster adds the following to its definition: “The use of nonplussed to mean “unimpressed” is an Americanism that has become increasingly common in recent decades and now appears frequently in published writing. It apparently arose from confusion over the meaning of nonplussed in ambiguous contexts, and it continues to be widely regarded as an error.”
3. Parallel structure
Parallel structure remains a problem in bad trash. Here’s a real winner:
“It was the constant round of preparing lectures, assignments, and then grading those assignments that was the problem.”
Simply put, this is a lousy sentence. Parallelism is but one of its problems.
The parallel structure problem is that the word preparing goes on both lectures and the first occurrence of the word assignments, but not on the term those assignments toward the end of the sentence.
Here’s another problem: A sentence that begins and ends with “It was…that was” is awkward and clunky.
How about one of these instead:
- “The problem was the constant round of preparing lectures and assignments, and grading the assignments once they were turned in.”
- “The problem was the constant round of preparing lectures combined with creating and grading assignments.”
- “The problem was the constant round of preparing lectures, creating assignments, and grading the students’ school- and homework.”
What [not] to do
I’ve gathered a few suggestions from my vast experience with bad ebook trash. Following these guidelines will lift you up and out of the slush pile and into the category of a professional and published writer.
- Don’t give your characters names that start with the same letter. Surprisingly, this is very common in bad trash. I can’t tell you how confusing it is to get everyone straight when you have a Kitty, a Kathleen, a Blaine, and a Baily. (These four names are from the same awful book.) Finessing the details goes a long way to being seen as a real author.
- Keep track of who’s talking in lengthy dialogues. Recently, I came across a several-page conversation that switched characters in the middle. Don’t do this. When writing your first draft, put characters’ names in brackets before each line of dialogue, and delete them when you’re finished writing the conversation.
- Keep a “book bible.” If you’re writing fiction, list every character in the book: first name, last name, age, where they were born, hair color, basic personality traits, etc. Nonfiction writers: Get the spelling of names, cities, colleges etc. correct, and get your dates right. Write all of this information down. If you’re writing a biography, create a family tree for yourself. Inconsistency with regard to any fact marks you as an amateur.
- Stay professional. When creating an author’s bio, don’t add how many dogs or cats you have, and don’t tell us that you love to knit in your spare time. You’re allowed to have a spouse and kids, and you’re allowed to live somewhere, but that’s about it. Authors of good trash generally mention only that they’re the best-selling author of 105 books and live with their family in rural Mississippi. This isn’t an anti-animal or anti-crafts thing; it’s a being-taken-more-seriously thing.
Honestly, it really doesn’t take that much to hone your writing abilities. A few significant tweaks can do it. The above ideas will help you continue to grow.
Bottom line, you need
- a strong grasp of grammar, and
- the knowledge of what does and doesn’t sound good.
Fiction writers can add to this list realistically drawn characters and plots that make sense. Nonfiction writers need to remember that all literature – even a computer manual – tells a story.
Make it a priority to read good literature, whether modern novels, classics, or nonfiction. Stay away from old, hackneyed cliches, and keep asking yourself, “What am I trying to say?” You’ll be surprised how well-received your writing will become!