Thursday, January 28, 2010

Stephenie Meyer Sucks. And How?

We all have our guilty pleasures. I loved Hudson Hawk, the 1991 musical comedy starring Bruce Willis. That's right, loved it. This is the same movie Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers called "unspeakably awful." Not to stop there he says, "You want to throw things, yell at the actors, beg them to stop. But the film drags on, digging horrible memories into the brain." And yet, to me, that movie rules. It has characters inexplicably survive tremendous falls from buildings and cliffs. It has Sandra Bernhard in it (shudder). It makes cartoon slapstick sounds like those in Batman & Robin. The villains are named after candy bars. And, as if that wasn't enough, David Caruso as a mime!

Awesome.

I get it. I understand liking something fun and familiar and just a little bit awful. Stephenie Meyer books appeal to adolescent girls, and the occasional misdirected boy, because they are high-school-age fantasies in which new readers don't know the outcome. I can even get behind the idea of people liking them for the same reason chicks like romantic comedies and guys like watching stuff get blown the hell up. Unfortunately, people are defending this woman's writing, and that, my friends, is horseshit. When Stephen King trashed her, some fans shouted "sour grapes!" claiming he was jealous of her popularity. I've even heard from her fans who think J.K Rowling is a bad writer compared to her. That statement did not come from the mentally handicapped or insane (maybe a little insane). It came from her common, normal fans. I don't believe all of her fans are stupid enough to say something like that, but I've met plenty who are.

Most readers who have a basic knowledge of English will know something is not quite right with her writing, but won't be able to point at what it is and say, "here's why." I can.

Let's start with punctuation, the simplest fundamental in language. It signals when thoughts change topics, when those topics are related, and when they are not. Glancing at the first chapter of Twilight tells me that she has no idea how punctuation works. She uses dashes instead of using the various punctuation marks that differentiate meanings. In my years at college, my hatred for dashes softened. At times I even employ them. They can be useful. They set apart extra details that would alter the narrative course. They are not supposed to relate to any other sentence or paragraph outside of the sentence that contains them. Some people use parentheses to the same effect. Meyer, on the other hand, throws dashes into anything and everything, for any reason, on almost every single page. Do you want to see examples of Meyer's use of dashes? I thought so.

Page 4 (which is actually the second page of the story): "Bella," my mom said to me--the last of a thousand times--before I got on the plane. "You don't have to do this."

This sentence sucks for several reasons. I know we're trying to focus on dashes, but that's not the only problem. First of all, she split the sentence in two. The mother's line of dialogue is one sentence ("Bella, you don't have to do this"); therefore the writer should not break apart the dialogue with a period. By writing it the way she did, she is effectively saying that "Bella" is a sentence in itself. It is not. Back to the main point: dashes. Instead of dashes, you may be asking yourself, what is she supposed to put? Nothing. Those dashes aren't in place of anything, they're just stuck in for no reason. The sentence would read fine as: "Bella," my mom said to me the last of a thousand times before I got on the plane, "you don't have to do this." You could argue those dashes replace commas, but to place commas in the sentence disrupts the flow with wasted excess, neither adding nor detracting meaning. You know, the same thing her dashes do.

Page 5: I didn't see it as an omen--just unavoidable. It should be a comma. I didn't see it as an omen, just unavoidable.

Page 7: The thing, I thought to myself...it had possibilities--as a nickname, at the very least. I nominate this for the worst published sentence ever. For whatever reason, some of Bella's thoughts are in italics and others are not. Unless, of course, emphasis is supposed to be placed on "the thing." If that is the case, Meyer shouldn't be putting emphasis on "the" as well as "thing." Ellipses (...) are normally used to show an omission of words. Recently, in dialogue, they've been used to show hesitation or the trailing off at the end of a sentence, leaving the line unfinished. It does none of those here (I suppose Meyer could have used "that" originally then omitted it and put ellipses in its place, but doing that would imply her blunder is due to overthought. I have serious doubts about that). She is using it to replace a comma. The dash, again, serves no purpose. It is just shoved into a sentence that doesn't need punctuation there. The comma after "nickname" is also pointless. I know why she added all this punctuation, though. The sentence has two qualifying statements at the end. By adding the qualifiers, Meyer's sentence developed a roller-coaster effect. Just when you think you've reached a logical stopping point, there's another hill. This is what the sentence would look like with correct punctuation: The thing, I thought to myself, it had possibilities as a nickname at the very least. The real problem is that the sentence sucks and instead of changing it, she punctuated it. Here's a good way to write that sentence: The thing, I thought to myself, at least had possibilities as a nickname.

Page 8: It was too green--an alien planet. By the way, this sentence is also a paragraph. Besides rewording and fleshing out, this "paragraph" needs a comma, not a dash. It was too green, an alien planet.

Page 9: All of the kids here had grown up together--their grandparents had been toddlers together. There it is! The cardinal sin of dash use. Meyer combined two complete sentences with a dash. It's the same as a comma splice. The only way to combine two sentences is with a semi-colon. In that regard, you may want to follow Kurt Vonnegut's advice, "Never use semi-colons."

I left out any criticism of dashes in dialogue because dialogue always breaks rules, in real life as well as in fiction. That and there are so many dashes and ellipses in her dialogue that it looks like Morse code. I could probably show examples of poor punctuation on every page for the rest of the chapter but I would likely kill myself before the end. Let's move on to another part of language.

Word choice is my favorite aspect of linguistics and communication. It is difficult and rewarding to make every word in an article or story the most correct, accurate and functional. Every word in every language carries its own stigma, nuance and connotation. Every word has history and social value. Constructing a most perfect sentence out of the most perfect words is the job of every novelist. Meyer constantly fails to get the correct meaning or feeling across to the reader because of her inability to recognize nuance. Most readers blow over these errors in judgment quickly because her writing is comprised almost entirely of common words and clichéd phrases. The words just wash past the reader in a blur. Using common, accurate words can be wonderful. As shown by: Ernest Hemingway, Elmore Leonard, Stephen King, W. Somerset Maugham, J. M. Coatzee, and Cormac McCarthy. Using slightly inaccurate words and clichés is not. Shown by Dan Brown, many unpublished authors and most bloggers. Meyer is in the latter group.

In my college writing classes, I met several students who tried too hard to use poetic descriptors (like 'beautification,' 'gargantuan,' or 'sanguine' when 'improvement,' 'big' or 'happy' would work better) . The words were usually long and sounded good when sitting by themselves, outside contact with any other words. These students would add these words to otherwise normal and simple sentences. It was beyond their ability to write anything more complex. Instead of improving their skills by rigorously studying sentence structure or even accepting their weaknesses and playing to their strengths, they would cram these flowery, overly-descriptive, slightly inaccurate words into their sentences. Not surprisingly, most of these students would write about vampires. These writing students gave me a lifelong aversion to the word "crimson." In their stories, crimson liquid was always running down someone's chin, down walls, down windowpanes, splashing across the floor, flowing from fresh gashes and cuts and puncture wounds. I would write on their papers, "it's fucking red!" Stephenie Meyer is the same way they were. She is the same type of writer I took care to help out of the thesaurus-stage of writing. Either no one helped Meyer in workshops or she ignored the help. For proof, I'll copy a section from the early pages of Twilight. As I think of better words, I will put them in parentheses after the words that suck.

It was to Forks that I now exiled myself (traveled)--an action that I took with great horror (nervousness, trepidation, regret). I detested Forks.
I loved Phoenix. I loved the sun and the blistering (enveloping, dry, extreme) heat. I loved the vigorous (vibrant), sprawling (omit) city.

(Before I get to vocabulary, I wanted to point out that the first sentence is in passive voice, a high school sophomore no-no) Here are the reasons for my edits. By using the already awkward phrase "exiled myself," she adds more description to the action than needed. How she "exiled" herself is explained throughout the chapter. She doesn't need to burden the sentence with this extraneous idea. "Horror" is an awfully strong word to describe something she's gone through before, traveling to a town she knows. How will her feelings be described when she's truly terrified? Perturbed? Miffed? "Blistering" is the idiotic word choice that first drew my attention to this section. "Blistering" is an inflated description of the discomfort heat causes. It is a complaint about heat, not to be misused as a compliment. Unless Bella is a sadist, she doesn't "love" anything that is uncomfortable. She can love heat; that's fine. It has to be for positive reasons, though. Some people like saunas for their extreme heat, but they don't describe the comforting envelopment of warmth as "blistering." "Vigorous" implies a massive effort showing someone to be full of life. A city is full of life or it is not. There is no attempt. Finally, what city isn't "sprawling?" This adds nothing but flowery nonsense. Cut it.

In other sections of the book, it seems as if Meyer lost her thesaurus and had to rely only on her ingrained vocabulary. Which, apparently, doesn't exist. Check out how she describes Edward when Bella first gets a chance to examine him up close.

I couldn't help myself from peeking occasionally through the screen of my hair at the strange boy next to me. During the whole class, he never relaxed his stiff position on the edge of this chair, sitting as far from me as possible. I could see his hand on his left leg was clenched into a fist, tendons standing out under the pale skin. This too he never relaxed. He had the long sleeves of his white shirt pushed up to his elbows, and his forearm was surprisingly hard and muscular beneath his light skin. He wasn't nearly as slight as he'd looked next to his burly brother.

"Through the screen of my hair" is terrible. Hair doesn't have or resemble a screen. Why not use the most obvious choice 'veil?' Less good, but still not as bad, would be "through the woven threads of my hair." "Stiff position" makes sense and is difficult to mistake her meaning, but it's boring. I would have chosen 'imperial posture.' "Hard" is a textural description. Unless Bella reached out and stroked Edward's forearm, she would have no idea if it was hard or not. It can look hard. It can seem hard. Unless she touches it, it cannot be hard. "Hard" is a boring word choice anyway. Solid, taut, toned or sinewy would all be better. Just to put my money where my mouth is, I'll rewrite the paragraph so you may compare the two.

I couldn't help peering through my veil of hair at the strange boy next to me. During class, he never relaxed his imperial posture. He sat rigid on the edge of his chair, as far from me as possible, his left hand clenched into a fist, tendons straining under the pale skin. He had the long sleeves of his white shirt pushed up to his elbows. His forearm was surprisingly taught and muscular. He wasn't nearly as slight as he'd looked beside his burly brother.

I don't have much to say about the overall story because someone, somewhere, can make just about any story entertaining, no matter how vapid. The only problem with the story I have is that Stephenie Meyer seems to be so devoid of ideas that she can't even form a basic plot structure without stealing from famous literary works. It's kind of like rappers sampling famous seventies funk songs and overlaying them with new lyrics. It's lazy and defiling. For Twilight, Meyer raped Pride and Prejudice’s plot; for New Moon, she rips off the most overused story in all history, Romeo & Juliet; and Eclipse steals the plot from Wuthering Heights. I'm guessing the only reason people like her books is because they were originally someone else's.

One more thing. I riddled this blog entry with exceptions to rules just to show that if you know what you're doing, exceptions are acceptable. There are so many rules that if you followed every bit of writing advice about what pitfalls to avoid, you'd have a stack of blank pages. However, if you don't know what you're doing and you still try to write a novel, you will probably write like Stephenie Meyer.

P.S. Most people don't become millionaires by writing trash. She's lucky and I hope she knows it.

15 comments:

  1. Nice. I agree with everything you mention, but you've undermined yourself a bit with a homonym swap: "Solid, taught, toned or sinewy" and "His forearm was surprisingly taught". It's 'taut'. It would indeed be surprising if his forearm was taught.

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  2. True. And that wasn't the only mistake I made. I went back and fixed it and others.

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  3. “The thing, I thought to myself… it had possibilities — as a nickname, AT THE VERY LEAST” !!!

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  4. I thought that I was the only person in the world that LOVED Hudson Hawk! I even bought the video!

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  5. Hell yes! I bought Hudson Hawk out of the bargain bin at Wal-Mart.

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  6. @ Bast. Guh. Yes, I know it's "least." I write on a tablet and sometimes the handwriting recognition does some wacky things and I don't catch them.

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  7. This blog post makes me feel a little better about the world.

    http://www.feakysnucker.blogspot.com

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  8. Hudson Hawk is genius. Shouldn't the publisher have had some sort of editorial process? I hope they didn't have an editor or that he or she learned how to actually do the job. Great article. This has been one of my biggest arguments against Meyers.

    Also, I hate to do this, but shouldn't "I met several students that tried too hard to use poetic descriptors" have "who" instead of "that"?
    I am a pedant. I am sorry.
    This is great stuff. Thank you

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  9. Excuse me but, why should a writer make obvious word choices? A writer has the poetic right to choose whatever words he/she likes. That's what makes a writer's style unique and not the obvious choices. I bet that Meyer writes the way she imagines a scene, and if it is a screen of hair she sees, that's what she should write as well. Veil? What if the writer doesn't imagine Bella's hair to be similar to veils? Why should writers follow wording customs? Where is poetic freedom then?

    And I think you only have the right to criticise a writer if you can do it better. The chance is there for everyone. Go write a book and have it published, and we'll see what mistakes other bloggers will point out in your book. :))
    Cheers

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    1. Your logic is retarded. If her not writing a book makes her unqualified to critique Stephenie Meyer's writing, then YOU not writing a book make you unqualified to DEFEND Stephenie Meyer's writing. Whether or not she wrote a book is irrelevant. She knows what she likes in a book, and she knows that Twilight didn't deliver and why. That's all she needs to know. You're being just a tad bit hypocritical.

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    2. Have you read twilight ?
      There isn't any plot. There isn't any action. Themes stolen from classics in name of "inspiration", but not even justified. Plus the horrible grammar. Now I am not a native english speaker and my grammer is not perfect, but reading twilight only harmed my English !
      Some heinous mistakes in book are -


      - saying food got burnt....while floating in water? How can food be burnt while still in water ?
      - incorrect usage of words. There are many in the book. Like saying "color of warm teak". teak is a wood. What is warm teak ? Does teak change color at higher temperature? Twilight is full of these, "colour of LIQUID topaz", "dust MOATS". Yeah, rubbish senseless words used for making flowery language but is a fail because they don't mean anything.
      - narration withing narration is done horribly.

      Now just because someone is published doesn't make them a good writer. Stephanie is a shrewd business woman who knows what sells. Her book is equivalent to porn, enjoyable but has no substance.

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  10. teemah, I think you missed the point. "Screen" is the more common word. So if you're talking about which is "obvious," it's "screen." More importantly, that word is inaccurate. It is a bad word choice, as are most of hers. Her vocabulary is limited.

    And I am a writer. That's my job. I can also write better than Stephenie Meyer. Second, people do critique my writing (see comment right above yours). Writers make mistakes. I make mistakes. The difference is, I know it's a mistake when it's pointed out. Stephenie Meyers doesn't, because she can't write.

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  11. Brandon, I've spoken with publishers and editors about this and they often only give books a cursory glance before they're published, to limit typos and glaring errors. Heavy edits are mostly reserved for books with high projected sales numbers. You can see the difference in editing between Twilight and Breaking Dawn. I'm don't know if Stephenie Meyer has gotten better or if editors have gotten more involved. I'd guess it's a little of both. It's still not particularly well-written, but Breaking Dawn is a surprising improvement.

    P.S. Don't feel bad about correcting me when I've made a writing error, ESPECIALLY when I'm trashing someone's writing. I'd much rather know about it.

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  12. Hey Reese figured I'd help you out here since you like to know when you've made a mistake. I noticed in the comment above you put "I'm dont know...." so I figured maybe your writing tablet messed up again. I would very much like to keep in contact with you as I will need someone to critique my work when I complete a book I'm writing. Please give me a shout at my hotmail account chelle.1988@hotmail.com. Please let me know it's you or I may end up deleting it thinking it's junk mail. Thank you in advance and I do agree with your critique of Meyer's work. It was very refreshing to see someone's blog that was actually grammatically correct.

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  13. While most of your points are accurate, I can't say I agree with all of your criticisms. Stephanie writes in an informal style, and it sounds a lot like a teenage writer. It is not too flattering to write like a teenage writer, but her writing provides an easy way to set the character's tone and personality. Your inclusion of the phrase "imperial posture" sounds out of place and awkward, as if Bella Swan wrote like an aspiring author. One of the greatest strengths of Twilight as a series is Bella. Bella is a terrible character, however, she functions as a mirror or a placeholder for the reader to project themselves on to. Her writing, intentionally or not, uses dashes and ellipses in ways that teenagers talk. They serve as symbols for breaking up of sentences. I would never contend that her use of punctuation is grammatically correct, but it is an effective tool to give readers a setting to role play in.
    Another thing. Effective writing conveys only the most essential information to the reader. Often times in fan fiction writers go to great lengths to describe their character's clothes and setting. Description does not create quality. Talking about his white shirt or his surprisingly taut muscular arms does not add more to the writing than saying his rolled up sleeves showed his hard arms, or whatever crap she wrote. An overly informal tone or a highly descriptive passage would only serve to make the book awkward, jarring and unnecessary. Description should be kept to a minimum, only to reveal actual character or set up plot. Everything else about the character should be left to the writer's maxim: "Show, don't tell." The reader can imagine a handsome man much better than we can ever tell them through paragraphs of writing. Sometimes her writing is describing the unimportant. She focuses on clothes and narrative to convey emotion and setting, rather than using sneaky tricks writers use to say a lot without actually saying anything at all. Great writing can play upon our stereotypes to give us gender, race, mood and personality. And that writing might never state any of those things once.
    I realize that my writing is overly long and that I have made many mistakes in my writing. Please don't let it detract from my ideas. I agree that Stephanie often writes like a teen recording her misogynistic fantasies. I even understand the criticism of using Bella as a placeholder. However, that does not mean that her writing can be simply fixed by editing to her punctuation and an increase in accurate descriptive writing. That is not a solution. Your edits are your bits of style. You may be a wonderful writer, but their is no best style. An increase in description is not a solution.
    Also, just for fun: http://www-users.cs.york.ac.uk/~susan/sf/eyeargon/eyeargon.htm
    Bad writing with a lot of description. Not that you write like this, but it is pretty hilarious.

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