The following was written by my friend Michael Thomas Ford, a prolific, innovative, and very good writer who is hilariously funny much of the time. Reprinted with his permission, of course.
I have written some very bad sentences. I’ve overloaded them with adjectives and adverbs to the point where they resembled rococo drawing rooms. I’ve used seventeen words when two would do. I once compared a character’s uncircumcised penis to a sleeping bat.
While it is embarrassing to find these sentences in my own work, I love finding them in other people’s books. It reminds me that I am not the only writer who has days when his brain goes on the fritz.
Every year I go to British Columbia and/or Alaska with my friend Lynn to go scuba diving on our friend Mike’s boat. We’re usually out there a week or so, and in between dives we read. We used to do things like look for orcas and bears and visit Haida villages, but after seven years we’re kind of over them. Especially the Haida villages. So we read.
Lynn reads much more quickly than I do and goes through maybe seven or eight books per trip. I get through two or three. The problem is that bringing more than a couple of books uses up valuable luggage space. What with the dive gear and assorted this and that there isn’t much room to begin with. Also, books are heavy, and now that the airlines charge you twice the price of a ticket for bringing more than 8 pounds of stuff we’re totally paranoid about that.
Because of this we rely on the ship’s library. Guests leave the books they finish and take ones left by other passengers. It’s a nice system, and every year we find ourselves with a new crop of books from which to choose. Except for Mercedes Lackey’s The Black Gryphon, which has not moved from its shelf in the seven years we’ve been going on these trips. Every year I’m tempted to read it because I feel sorry for it, but ignoring it is now a tradition.
Depending on the library for our reading material is of course something of a gamble. If the previous guests were of dubious taste you can end up with a lot of stuff you don’t want to read. Or–as happened to us one year–if the departing guests are German you’re left with books you can’t read even if you wanted to. But usually there’s something.
Because we are horrid people, Lynn and I like to share with one another the worst lines of the books we’re reading. It’s something of a competition to find the most awful one. On this last trip I found a doozy. In fact, when I came across it I knew without a doubt that I had found our winner for the entire trip.
Ready? Here it is.
“His praise was so effusive that, even reading it by herself, in her own kitchen, she was slightly embarrassed by the effusiveness of the praise.”
Isn’t it brilliant? We thought so. It’s practically a structural palindrome of hideousness. Every time I read it we would shriek for two or three minutes. Then Lynn would ask me to read it again.
Okay, it’s not bad in an “It was a dark and stormy night,” Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest way. It’s almost worse, because it’s such a nothing little sentence. Ordinarily you wouldn’t even notice it, skimming past to get to the murder, or the sex scene, or the part where the kraken swallows the ship whole. But because it shouldn’t stand out, it does. Kind of like the mousy girl who comes out of the restroom with the back of her skirt accidentally tucked into the waistband. You wouldn’t normally look at her twice, but now you can’t stop staring at her pink-and-purple-polka dotted underpants.
So who wrote this gem? It comes from the pen of Dean Koontz and is found in his novel The Eyes of Darkness. Written in 1981, the book was originally published under the name Leigh Nichols, and according to Koontz this was an early stab at writing a cross-genre novel. I know what it’s like to switch between genres. It’s difficult to change your approach and get the new voice right. Also, Koontz writes eleventy-six books a year and is bound to have a clunker now and again. So in some ways I’m tempted to cut him some slack.
Here’s the thing, though. According to various Koontz bibliographies, The Eyes of Darkness is his 38th published book (including books done under other pseudonyms). That’s a lot of books to have written, so many that you might be tempted to think he wouldn’t be writing sentences like that.
But he did. Because that’s what writers do. We write bad sentences. Not always, of course, but from time to time. Readers just don’t usually see them. Often we find them and get rid of them before anyone else sees the manuscript, and if we don’t then usually an editor or copyeditor finds them and tells us how awful they are.
But not always. Sometimes things get through. That’s just how it is. And inevitably some smart ass reader will send you or your editor a note letting you know that this horrible sentence made it past all of you. Sometimes they will helpfully offer to read future manuscripts for a small fee to prevent this kind of thing from happening to you again. Every so often they just tell you they hate your book and you should be ashamed of yourself for thinking you can write.
And sometimes they’re right and their comments are helpful. Several times I’ve used the wrong character’s name in a sentence. Occasionally I’ve made factual errors. (Did you know there are no laundromats in Provincetown? I didn’t.) In one novel I confused the nicknames for the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) with that of Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). And people let me know so that I could fix the errors in the paperback editions of the books. Which I mostly did.
It’s interesting to note that the version of The Eyes of Darkness that I read is the REVISED edition, published in 2008. That means, I assume, that Koontz looked over the original and did some tinkering. I wonder if he saw this sentence and decided to leave it alone because it amused him or if he saw it, was blinded by its awfulness, and like a victim of some terrible event (the Blitz, maybe, or someone who stumbles upon Glenn Beck’s show by accident) developed amnesia to protect him from the memory of it.
By all accounts Dean Koontz is one of the nicest human beings on the planet. He loves his dog. His readers adore him. He still answers fan mail. I like a guy like that. And I like him even more because he wrote such a terrible sentence. If we were friends I would call him up, read him that sentence, and say, “Ha ha! That’s crap, Dean!” And he would open one of my books, read something, and say, “It’s not as crappy as that, Mike!” Then we’d complain about how Stephen King never invites either of us to his poker games.
By the way, if you want to read a very, very funny account of the experience Koontz had with turning this and several other novels into made-for-television movies, check out this entry on his website. It’s hysterical.
And, by the way, if you want to check out more of Ford’s writing, click here.