Perfection is like a unicorn…

…That no writer will find, not even the fairytale virgins.

There’s a saying that every writer has a million bad words (badly written, not obscene) in her, and only once those words are gone will she write something decent.

I figure that by this stage, I’ve got to be getting up near my 750,000 bad word mark, maybe more.

People also say that nothing is perfect the first time around, and only with X number of drafts will you begin to approach that sly minx of a unicorn. (I’m not doing more than one draft of this blog post, though, so the mixed metaphors are staying put.)

Still, even with all these helpful bromides in mind, it’s a little horrifying to read over the early chapters of my novel and see really appalling beginner mistakes: clichéd descriptions (long, slender legs, anyone?), perspective slips, adverb abuse… You name it, I’ve done it. Let’s not even discuss the appalling initial chapters written in first person with a massive flashback containing a good third of the story.

But as an exercise in humility (and good-natured self mockery), I thought I’d present a couple examples of just how bad some of my bad words are. For your entertainment and edification, I’d like to present: the glance in the mirror and the info dump. Enjoy.

The Narcissistic Protagonist: Sure, my main character is completely self-centered, but the glance in the mirror is just about the worst of the worst. At least I wasn’t writing in first person anymore when I did this.

Languidly, she stretched her long, slender legs and stood, walking slowly to the mirror. She stood in her shift, carefully studying her murky reflection. Still too thin of course; she had been since she’d had the coughing sickness as a teenager. But she’d recovered her breasts, and the high flush left in the wake of the ravaging fever complemented her fair skin. It showed now in the dreadful heat. She turned her head from one side to the other, admiring her fine straight nose and dark eyes.

Satisfied, she nodded to herself and reached for her corset.

Please imagine me shuddering as I reread that. Ugh.

The Info-Dump: I have no excuse for this one, except to say that I was writing my first chapter, and this was one of the first things I wrote.

Smythe’s gem collection was well known. With the outland trade embargos strictly enforced and no natural deposits, their country (name?) had a finite number of gemstones. Most were owned by the nobility, and were circulated in a game played by thieves, jewelers and even some nobles. Thieves were hired by a jeweler to obtain a wealthy person’s gems; the settings are then melted down and the jewelry reformed. In some cases—like this one—they hired by one wealthy person to steal gems from a rival. Unwilling to give up owning new, fashionable jewelry, most nobles (and the law) turned a blind eye to the practice, regarding it as a nuisance at worst, as a game at best. Penalties for thieves and their employers were minor, generally consisting of a fine or a month of mild indentured service. Rarely could a victim of theft prove that the gem sold in a remade necklace was stolen, so most practitioners lived unscathed by the law, unless they were caught in the act.

Smythe’s gem collection was considered unfair by most of the nobility because he didn’t even wear the gems; it was well-known that he kept them in cases to be admired. However, no thief had been successful at accessing the collection. Yet.

That’s interesting, sure, but it would be a lot more interesting to learn that over the course of the story, not in two paragraphs on the third page.

Both of these selections came from my very first chapter, written two years ago. I think I’ve learned a lot since then, and hell, at least these count toward my million bad words. Thank goodness. And at least reading clips like this make me feel better about my more recent words, which inspires me to keep hunting that stupid unicorn.

Please feel free to make me feel even better by sharing your own horrible writing mistakes.

14 thoughts on “Perfection is like a unicorn…

  1. Don’t feel bad. These were my first written words, fourteen years ago.

    “Morgan bolted upright, throwing the forest green cashmere blankets from him. They landed in a heap on the floor as Morgan panted. He pressed his hand to his chest and forced himself to fill his lungs. Deep breathing had helped him relax after his last nightmare; perhaps it would help him now, ten years later.”

    • Forest green cashmere! I think Morgan and I need to trade bedding. 🙂

      That’s not so bad, and just remember: right there, 55 of your million bad words are out of your system.

      • I like to think that I hold myself to high standard; I imagine the shades of Mickey Spillane and Alexandre Dumas waiting to hit me upside the head whenever I write such tripe. On the other hand, I enjoy writing stuff like this:

        “This is our world,” said Claire, refusing to be cowed by the Insof’s display of power. “We eradicated smallpox, and we’ll eradicate you.”

        • I think that part of good writing is balancing our inner Dumas with our inner Piers Anthony. Too much seriousness gets tedious, just like too many juvenile puns get tedious. But it’s all in good fun.

          • I don’t have an inner Piers Anthony. I do have an inner problem child. I keep him bound in a black leather straightjacket and locked in a padded cell located within a Faraday cage 69km underground in a reinforced bunker. A squad of heavily armed Asura Emulators guard the airlock.

            The little bastard still gets out from time to time. It never takes him long to find the explosives.

  2. Sweet baby jesus, I shudder when I think of all the horrible writing I’ve done … OK, and still do. Definitely guilty of the info dump in the last short story I was working on.

    Question: When you identify the bad writing, how long does it take you to go back to it and fix things up? Sometimes it take me weeks or even months … well, by that time, I’ve probably already abandoned the project.

    • I think the shudders are what clues me in to the bad writing… Also, talking/listening to other professional writers. If you cringe when they mock something, you’ve probably done it. (That’s how I learn.) 😉

      As far as fixing, I’m trying NOT to fix at this stage. If I start revising mid-novel, I’ll never finish it. Today, for instance, I came across a major character inconsistency in two almost consecutive scenes. Since it was a major mistake but a minor character, I did a shoddy fix and flagged it for a bigger revision in my rewrite after I’m done with the first draft. It’s different that some people’s write one day, edit the next day system, but it works well for me.

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