Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Bad Stories

I'm a judge for a writing contest, being held by an organization that shall remain nameless.

Being a judge involves reading over a thousand short stories written by newbies.

It's a painful job.

Ninety-nine percent of the entries share similar problems. These problems occur with such frequency that I've decided to write a story to illustrate them.

In the following short, try to spot all of the things that would make it a losing entry:


It was a very sunny day in the spring of 2004 in fact it was so sunny, that even the sun had to wear sunglasses! It was on this very sunny day that I first met my wife. Her name was Rhoda, and she loved life. She lived in a house at 8786 Cranberry road, with her mother and three dogs named Sharpie, Bull, and Doxie, who are a Sharpei, a bulldog, and a doxhund. Boy were those dogs trouble! Yes they were! Trouble spelled T-R-O-U-B-L-E with a capitol T! But Rhonda loved those dogs, so much, that I never would have guessed, how it all ended up. And, boy, did it end up, bad! On a very cloudy day in the fall of 2006, Rhonda took the dogs out for a walk, but you can actually say that they walked her. Those were some frisky dogs! As they all walk to my house, Sharpie sniffe d out a skunk and got squirted, which smelled even worse. Sharpe thought it was a cat, but he sure was surprised! When Rhonda brought the dogs into my house, boy was I ever really very upset.
"You need to get that foul smelling pooch into a bath of half tomato juice and half vinegar and half baking soda!" I loudly exclaimed with a huge frown creasing my unhappy face.
"But Sharpie is allergic to tomato juice!" proclaimed RHonda as she stamps her foot and pouts with her hands on her hips cocked out like a diva.
""I not asking the pooch to drink any tomato juice, just take a bath in it!" I loudly laughed hard.
The next week I proposed to Rohnda, and we were married at St. Vincent's Church on 472 Smith street on a very sunny spring day and Sharpie was supposed to be the ring barer with a little pillow tied to his back but guess what? He got into another skunk right before the ceremony! That screwy pooch just didn't learn better! So Sharpie comes runnin down the isle and everyone in the church is holding their noses. They were literaly in the pews saying PEE YOO. Now I wasn't going to say my vows wearing a light tan medium wooden closepin on my nose, so I told my best man Zeke to take Sharpie out of that church but make sure to bring back the rings so we coudl still salvage this disaster. Four minutes later, Zeke locked out Sharpie outside the church but guess what?!? Now he smelled like skunk! I should have known to bring some tomato juice to my wedding day!
I told him ""Sorry Zeke my best man but you have to wait out outside the chucrh with Sharpie" I said funnily because I am holding my nose! Everyone laughed especially my bride as Zeke stomped dejectedly out of

the church like an unclean leper. He felt so terrible he wanted to go jump in a lake, and he thought maybe he should because that will get some of the skunk stink off but he couldn't because the tuxedo was rented!. The next year Rhonda died of pnemonia and cancer, but I still have the dogs to remind me of her, and I love little Shapie but I always keep some tomato juice around just in case!


And yes, unfortunately, some of the stories are this bad. But mostly this is an amalgamation of the many things wrong with newbie short stories.

Some of the errors are obvious. Some are a bit harder to spot. But there are close to a hundred faults, any one of which would make me stop reading and file the story in the trash.

How many can you spot? I'm not looking for a blow-by-blow list, but rather general rules, such as spelling problems and changing tense.


Jim Winter said...

To paraphrase Chris Rock, I'm not saying I agree with the rule about using weather in an opening...

"It was a very sunny day in the spring of 2004 in fact it was so sunny, that even the sun had to wear sunglasses!"

...but I understand.

Kristi Holl said...

Goodness, where would a person start???? The run-on sentences, the misspellings, the exclamation marks!!!!!!!!!!!!! The telling instead of showing... The single/plural pronoun mix-ups (everyone in the church is holding their noses), etc. But it was funny!

Kristi Holl

Michelle Rowen said...

"That was teh funniest thing I've read in forever!!!!!" I shrieked excitedly while crying tears of humor.

Thanks for the laugh, and my condolences for having to wade through the crap.

Picks by Pat said...

I just worked a fourteen hour day, but I counted 36 errors of various sorts, including run-on sentences, mispelled words, huge leaps in the story line and a general problem with suspension of disbelief. And I probably missed quite a few. But I'm just tired enough to think this story can be fixed!
Oh, did I mention I'm an optimist? Yeah, that's right...I'm a writer.

P.S. Good luck with the rest of the reading.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I ca'nt see anythings wrong with it!!!! Maybe if the if was a brighter day!!!!

Anonymous said...

Dude. I stopped counting after the first 25 in the first paragraph or so... but I gotta say, your story made me loudly laugh hard. :-)

Mark Terry said...

Oh brother.

Getting away from the, er, more obvious problems. THe use of detail is repetitive and inappropriate, there's no focus (the story, if there is one, is about the dog you wanted in your wedding tangling with a skunk the day before, I guess), bad grammar, mispellings, incorrect format and punctuation...

But what do I know? It could be the winning story. Stranger things have happened.

Jude Hardin said...

Maybe we should have a worst story contest. Here's my entry:

"Crapola!" Jake was a writer. He was mad as a hornet because he felt like his writing was just that--crapola. After he said "crapola" he started tapping on the keys of his old Olivetti portable typewriter which he could barely see through the coke-bottle glasses that he wore! Then he took off his glasses and could barely see anything--he was practically blind as a bat without those coke-bottle glasses.

TAP, TAP, TAP went his fingers on the keys of that very old Olivetti portable typewriter which he could barely see. Then, all of a sudden, he had a really good idea. His fingernails were really dirty! Maybe if he just cleaned his fingernails real good he could be a better writer because cleanliness is next to godliness and God is a really good writer--he must be, he wrote the Bible, the bestselling book in the world!

So Jake wondered about the best way to clean those dirty fingernails of his. Then, without warning, a guy with a gun busted in!

"Your money or your life," the guy with the gun, who looked just like an alien from outer space, said. The guy had a hairy mole on his chin. He thought Jake looked weird.

Jake looked at his dirty fingernails and thought they would probably never get cleaned now because he was fixin' to die. "I don't have any money," Jake said, "but I do have a pocket full of magic beans."

"All right then," the guy with the hairy mole on his chin and gun said. He took Jake's pocket full of magic beans and left with an evil grin on his face. He thought Jake was a fool!

Jake went to the bathroom and turned the hot water on and started scrubbing his fingernails real good. If he could only get them really clean, he kept thinking, maybe, just maybe, he could be a better writer.

Then he looked in the mirror. His eyes were blue. His hair was brown. He had a hairy mole on his chin, just like the the guy with the gun! Jake started breathing real hard...

Then, Jake woke up. It was all just a dream! He went back to sleep, dirty fingernails and all, and lived happily ever after. He never did get around to writing a very good book, because his fingernails were still dirty and he had given away all his magic beans. Poor Jake.

JA Konrath said...

LOL, Jude. I should have used the "all just a dream" cliche.

Josephine Damian said...

Errr, Joe. Did you know a certain big magazine that sponsors a certain big short story contest mentions the name of a certain writer as one of the judges?

But do I feel your pain. I'm a screening judge in a nation-wide contest, one of three people who has to read each and every God-awful story submitted to that I can winnow it down to a select, best few to present to the final judge.

Telling, not showing is the biggest no-no I see, along with no conflict or emotion, and not creating a sympathetic character.

It's a chore but also a learning experience in seeing what not to do in my own writing, and there's always the belief that the next one in the pile will be the gem, the big discovery.

Anonymous said...

Love, the commas!

Anonymous said...

Joe, I think it's actually pretty good and here's your first author blurb, in case you decide to publish it: "An explosive extravaganza of words on paper!" JMH

Conda Douglas said...

My favorite was the change of p.o.v. to the dog. Hilarious, as was Jude's short story. We all start at this point, don't we? I've judged a few contests myself and taught a few workshops and classes. Sometimes the newbies are completely with the program--and the next story is far better. Sometimes not.

I once asked a well-known and respected New York editor, "How many exclamation points should there be in a novel?" To which he replied, "None." !!!

JA Konrath said...

This is for a completely different contest, Josephine. And I'm sticking to that.

Besides, anyone who has ever entered a writing contest knows that their stories are flawless and I couldn't possibly be talking about them...

T. M. Hunter said...

Thanks, Joe...after a few sentences, I now have to run to the cabinet and get a handful of headache medicine...

Maybe we should have a worst story contest.I seemed to remember reading that someone already had one of those contests...I wonder if the winner gets to put the victory as a credit in their next query.


Anonymous said...

I am just SPEECHLESS!!!! I DON'T know WHERE to begin!!!!

But I am LMAO!!!!

Anna Scott Graham said...

Just found your site from... uh, oh I know... NANO forums...

I had to laugh... thanks for a good send off to bed...

much to absorb! ta love for another source for this budding writer...

Martha O'Connor said...

I loved this story! The most entertaining thing I've read all week. :)))))

Anthony Izzo said...

Needless description, repetition, opening with weather, dialogue tags,changing tenses, and trying to be cute. That's just off the top of my head.

JA Konrath said...

Here's my list, but I probably missed a few:

Spelling errors.
Grammar errors.
Punctuation errors.
Too many explanation points.
No hook.
Changing tense.
Changing POV.
No conflict.
No resolution.
Bad metaphors.
Telling not showing.
Unecessary details, such as addresses.
Starting with weather.
Passive voice.
Unrealistic dialog.
Unfunny humor.
Word and phrase repitition.
Formatting errors (no paragraphs, line break problems.)
Too many modifiers.
No sense of setting.
Anecdotal, not fiction.
No beginning or ending.
Skipping around in time.

Christine Norris said...

Ouch, my brain, it hurts me!

Make it stop!

Jude Hardin said...

Here are some of the things that make my story bad:

Starting with dialogue
Protag a writer
Word and phrase repetition
Abundance of Then…
Multiple clich├ęs
POV shift
Exclamation points
Deus ex machina (the magic beans)
“Just a dream”
Author intrusion

Together, I think we covered most of the mistakes beginning writers make, Joe.

Your list is longer than mine, but if I’d had more time I could have done worse. :)

Aimlesswriter said...

Info dump, useless information, too many !!!!
Now, what the heck was the story about anyway???
Ouch! My eyes! My eyes!!!!!!!!!!!!

Steve MC said...

The fingernails on the chalkboard for me are the exclamation points. As Fitzgerald put it, “Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”

I think it was also Fitzgerald who said that outside of dialogue, you're allowed to use only five exclamation points during your entire writing career. That's not a bad rule of thumb! Damn, I'm down to four! No, three! Argh!

NL Gassert said...

Aside from Joe’s bad story, what’s the problem with weather in the opening?

JA Konrath said...

Stories are about conflict. Unless your story is about a tornado, it's better to open with a hook.

Hooks involve characters and goals, not what day of the week it is, how the sun is shining, or which season we're in.

Setting your scene should be part of the story, not separate from it. Reveal what is needed, in a place where it isn't boring or distracting.

The first line, and the first paragraph, is where you're trying to hook the reader, and not a place for description that 99.9% of the time isn't necessary.

Nick Kelly said...

I'm packing a gun and a shovel and putting 8786 Cranberry Rd. into MapQuest.

Great post, Joe!

Stacia Kelly said...

I didn't get past the ...........well, first few lines. That's my writing....a good long time ago and no, I won't say when so I don't embarrass anyone who writes like that.

It's a lesson. And everyone is putting themselves out there...and learning...some of us had the benefit of critique classes, as painful as they are.

Kudos to you for judging... I love judging contests :)

Jude Hardin said...

I think it's okay to start with weather, Joe.

As long as it's damn BAD weather that augments the conflict, and as long as your name is Ray Bradbury or Dean Koontz. ;)

JA Konrath said...

Starting with weather is ultimately subjective, and all rules can be broken.

But, as a judge, I will almost universally pass on stories that begin with:

"It was a sweltering July day at noon."

But if the story began:

"The sweltering July sun sucked the moisture of of Cowboy Bob's lidless eyes." then I would keep reading.

Jude Hardin said...

LOL! I'm hooked.

And Cowgirl Kate said, "Hey, Bob, is that a bottle of Visine in your pocket or you just happy to see me?"

Laura K. Curtis said...

Egads...well, there goes another keyboard lost to soda spew!

I currently have a manuscript out for a contest (NOT this one--it's a novel contest, not a short story one), and I don't know how to thank the judges enough because I know they must see some truly frightening work. And I don't mean that in a good way.

So I have to ask (as I did fairly recently on the Women of Mystery blog), what prompts you to volunteer your time for such a thing?

I haven't come up with much in terms of motivation for my own various volunteer positions except that "helping makes me feel good" or "someone has to do it, and I have the time," neither of which I'd accept as character motivation in my own book. Human beings are so damned complicated. Sheesh.

JA Konrath said...

Laura, I do my damnedess not to volunteer for anything. Been there, done that, and learned (as all others have learned) that no good deed goes unpunished.

I've blogged about volunteering before. In rare cases, you can learn something from the experience on a professional level. But most of the time, what you're learning is that your efforts are unappreciated at best, reviled at worst, and that you've devoted hours/days/weeks to something that has done absolutely zero for you.

Cynical, maybe. But I came upon my cynicism fairly.

In short, it will be a very rare day you find me doing something both selfless and for free.

Steve MC said...

I hear you, J.A., about the above comment.

It's also pretty funny if you picture Jesus on some distant world, leaning on a bar, and saying exactly the same thing.

Jana Oliver said...

Actually, rather than list all the problems, I go by my instinctive desire to reach for something sharp to slit my wrists.

Right now I'm eyes the butcher knife.

Unknown said...

99% of the time, the writer should use 'said' for dialog tags. Also, the speakers are doing impossible things AS they are speaking, such as laughing loudly, or frowning widely...I think you get the point. If something is physically not possible, don't have a character doing it.
I didn't read it all. Too much crap like this in on the internet already.

Thanks for doing this.

Unknown said...

99% of the time, the writer should use 'said' for dialog tags. Also, the speakers are doing impossible things AS they are speaking, such as laughing loudly, or frowning widely...I think you get the point. If something is physically not possible, don't have a character doing it.
I didn't read it all. Too much crap like this in on the internet already.

Thanks for doing this.

Anonymous said...

I've been afraid to write beyond my drafted plot because I'll probably make many beginner mistakes. But thanks to this post, I'm not as afraid to enter contests.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
astryd said...

Jesus Christ! After the first 3 lines indicating how sunny it was, I was numb! Could not handle the rest!

Kyle said...

Oh dear lord.

The whole story was just terrible, but that last sentence was amazing.

Pneumonia AND cancer. Oh god. He didn't even transition into that.

Oh sweet Jesus, I laughed.

Natasha said...

This is so funny. My 9-year-old son writes better than this. He could use some work, I know, but, uh, he's NINE. He even came up with that blog domain himself. Cute, I thought.

Thanks for this blog.

Anonymous said...

What is(was) his wife's name? Is it Rhoda is it Rhonda? A rose by any other name would stink as badly!!!!! Lots-o-exclamation points to topple that offt !!!

Anonymous said...

I can't even list all the things I didn't like. It was just... a bad story.

But, two things I'll point out: Cliches and repetitiveness. They just shouldn't happen in a story. Unless you make humor out of redundancy, but SPARINGLY.

I wonder if I should rewrite the story to make it good, or if that would destroy the point of this how-not-to?

Unknown said...

"The Golden Scorpion" by Sax Rohmer starts with the main character waking up, covered in perspiration. I really like your blog. I've learned a lot.

Jonathan-David said...

The last line is probably the best I've read in any short story ever, I really enjoyed it.