During a recent bookstore trip I realized there are a ton of horrible novels on the shelves written by celebrities. This made me grumpy. It’s bad enough that people like Dan Brown, Nicholas Sparks, and the like make it hard to find the good books on the shelves. Add in celebrities with no talent but agents willing to sell anything and it’s practically impossible.
I will now tear apart the opening passages of three awful books by talentless “writers.”
Let’s start with Hilary Duff’s Elixer.
I COULDN’T BREATHE.
Wedged in the middle of an ocean of people, I gasped for air, but nothing came. The heat from a million writhing bodies radiated over me, their sweat weighing down the air. I searched anxiously for an escape, but painfully bright lights strobed on and off, clouding my sense of direction.
I was losing it. I was going to pass out.
I forced in a deep breath and tried to talk myself down. I was fine. It wasn’t like I was anywhere dangerous. I was on a dance floor, in the most exclusive nightclub in Paris. People lined up all night in the freezing cold for even a chance to stand where I was now.
Dreadful isn’t it? Ms. Duff does seem to understand the importance of varied sentence length, but that’s all this has going for it. “A million writhing bodies?” Hyperbole much? Also, the heat isn’t radiating over you. Presumably, the writhing bodies surround you (as you are on the dance floor). Envelop is probably closer to the meaning you were after.
Now, let’s talk about those pesky -ly words. They are often overused. My high school students have this problem (note: they are not published novelists). Let’s ditch “anxiously” and “painfully.”
The next paragraph is two sentences long. It should be one.
The last paragraph contains imprecise word choice at its best. What does it mean to “talk myself down?” Down from what? Calm maybe, instead of talk? Is that what you mean? “It wasn’t like I was anywhere dangerous,” now watch the magic: “I wasn’t anywhere dangerous.” That is called word economy. Make it your friend. Also, why is dance floor followed by a comma?
This excerpt is making me angry. Time for something fresh. How about conservative windbag Glenn Beck’s The Overton Window:
Most people think about age and experience in terms of years, but it’s really only moments that define us. We stay mostly the same and then grow up suddenly, at the turning points.
His life being pretty sweet just as it was, Noah Gardner had devoted a great deal of effort in his first twenty-something years to avoiding such defining moments at all costs.
Not that his time had gone entirely wasted. Far from it. For one thing, he’d spent a full decade building what most guys would call an outstanding record of success with the ladies. Good-looking, great job, fine education, puckishly amusing and even clever when he put his mind to it, reasonably fit and trim for an office jockey, Noah had all the bona fide credentials for a killer eHarmony profile. Since freshman year at NYU he’d rarely spent a weekend night alone; all he’d had to do was keep the bar for an evening’s companionship set at only medium-high.
Always nice to open with a broad judgment of humanity. At least the intro paragraph is coherent. That’s more than I can say for the single-sentence convolution-fest that is the second paragraph. I’m not even going to try and point out everything wrong with it. I’m just going to rewrite it: “Noah Gardner was happy with his life and had devoted his early-twenties to avoiding such moments.” There, isn’t that better?
I don’t even know what to write about that last paragraph. It’s a complete disaster. Once again, he’s making judgments about what large segments of the population think. This is bad form and can be alienating, so it’s a good idea to avoid it in your first three paragraphs or so. I think my favorite moment in the paragraph is “companionship.” Someone give me one reason why that shouldn’t be “companion.”
Time for the cream of the crop. I give you the first paragraph of Nicole Richie’s Priceless:
As the beautiful young woman strode through the international arrivals terminal at JFK, several people turned to look. A flight attendant noticed the way she carried herself, the clothes she wore, her shoes, and guessed she’d just walked out of first class. She was right. A young man pulling espresso paused, distracted by the girl’s obvious sexuality and lovely figure. She felt his gaze and turned slightly, favoring him with a brief smile that made his hand jump, causing him to scald himself. A man in a Savile Row suit lowered his Wall Street Journal and raised his eyebrows. Hmm. Charlotte Williams was back. Her father would be happy. The market would go up. He folded his paper and called his broker.
I think that is the worst paragraph I have ever read in a published novel. First, there is the obvious problem of telling instead of showing. We here all about how gorgeous and sexual this woman is, but nothing about her appearance or demeanor is described. Then there’s a nice believability issue. Who spills coffee on himself upon seeing a pretty girl? Also, “favoring him?” That’s the best you’ve got? Really?
What’s most interesting about all of this is that each “author” lacks the ability to look past him/herself. Hilary Duff gives us an account of a teenage girl on a dance floor! Glenn Beck tells us what the whole world really thinks! Nicole Richie writes about a pretty girl with a rich dad! I always talk to my students about writing what you know, but it’s nice to do it on a level that isn’t entirely superficial.
I will now go weep in a corner while wondering why this schlock is on the shelves while I remain a lowly English teacher.