This will be the first of three (maybe four) posts that explore my writing over the last twenty years, focusing on how it has changed, and, hopefully, improved. With twenty years of writing under my belt and about fifteen of those years being the paid, professional variety, I have a lot of examples to draw from. I’ll be using the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores to assess passages from various stories so we can get good hard numbers on each piece of work and see how it differs from those that come after it.
Okay, let’s start with the early years, basically 2000 to 2005. This is before I actually published anything besides poetry (a whole other story), and though I think I had some solid ideas, the execution of those ideas were, well, lacking. A quick disclaimer before we dive into this. This post is an examination of my writing, what worked for me, and what eventually led me to publication and full-time writing and editing gigs. (Getting the whole me thing?) If I say something is bad or purple or whatever, I’m only doing so to compare my unsuccessful works with my successful ones. Much of what is coming is going to be opinions on style based on personal experience, so, please, keep that in mind.
The first passage comes from 6,500-word short story called “Lullaby” I wrote sometime in 2000. This is one of my first true attempts at a short story and the first I actually finished. I never sent it out for submission, well, because by the time I started doing that, I realized the story had some issues. That said, there is still a compelling idea here, but it REALLY needs a rewrite. Anyway, have a look.
I am not sure what woke me that night, but near three o’clock in the morning my sleep-numbed mind began the rigorous ascent to consciousness. I opened heavy lids to absolute darkness and a shivering chill that filled the room and pierced even our heavy comforter. As my eyes adjusted to the weighty gloom, I heard Karen breathing in short quick gasps and felt the tension in her body even through the heavy padding of our mattress. As I reached out to shake her from the grip of whatever nightmare held her, I caught, from the corner of my eye, a visible shifting in the deep shadows in one of the corners of our room near the floor. I froze, my hand hovering over Karen’s trembling form and watched with growing horror as a single shadow separated from its brethren and began a slow, stalking undulation towards my wife’s side of the bed.
As the shadow grew closer, and my eyes adjusted further to the darkness, I was able to discern a definite, fiendish outline to our unwelcome visitor. There was most certainly a roundish protrusion from the central mass of shadow that could only be a head, and two amorphous appendages projecting from either side that pulled the thing along the floor towards my slumbering wife. There were no legs to complete the vaguely man-shaped bulk, only a wispy trail of fading darkness that ended in the corner among the shadows that pooled there.
So this is how I wrote twenty years ago. Can you say purple? I knew that you could. Talk about tortured sentences. I mean, “. . . my sleep-numbed mind began the rigorous ascent to consciousness” is, uh, well, one way of saying “I woke up,” and probably not a good one. The other issue is that I’m aping the voice of writers I was reading at the time, such as Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard, who are very wordy. For the record, there’s nothing wrong with writing Vancian science fiction or Howardian sword & sorcery, but it’s important to have your own voice while playing in the literary sandboxes of those authors. I was obviously struggling with that.
So what about the raw readability numbers for this passage? Have a look.
No passive sentences is great, but, oof, those readability scores are off the charts, in the wrong direction. You’ll find very little popular fiction this dense and wordy. Most of that is going to have reading ease scores between 65 and 90 and grade level score between 4 and 9, with most of it being in the middle of those two ranges. For actual literary comparison, you’d have to look at the writers like H. P. Lovecraft and other pulp fiction and turn-of-the-century authors. In other words, not many folks write like this anymore, and those that do it successfully do it way better than this.
Okay, let’s jump ahead a bit and see if a few years taught me anything.
This next passage is from a 3,500-word story called “Rearview” that I wrote in 2005. The difference between this one and “Lullaby” is I actually submitted this one. I’ll tell you how that turned out after you read the passage.
Jacob first noticed the object at midnight, a small luminous shape hovering silently in the center of his rearview mirror. It lacked any real substance or definition and called to mind the infamous unidentified objects, the “foo fighters,” that military pilots sometimes encountered over lonely stretches of the Pacific Ocean. Jacob struggled to discern the distance that separated him and his unidentified pursuer, but the isolated section of Interstate 5 cut through the featureless Nevada desert in a straight and unwavering path, making such a judgment nearly impossible. The object was the only thing he had encountered for most of a very dark and moonless night. The gloom receded, somewhat reluctantly it seemed, from the twin glow of his Mustang’s headlights, but beyond this splash of yellow illumination Jacob felt the ominous weight of a truly stygian darkness.
Despite the eerie atmosphere, Jacob felt nothing more than a mild curiosity regarding the object in his mirror, dismissing it as the monocular glow of a motorcycle’s single headlight or something equally harmless. The fact it had stayed with him – neither receding nor gaining ground – also didn’t concern him. The motorcycle, or perhaps it was a car missing a headlight, was likely traveling at the same speed he was, allowing the distance between them to remain a constant. Jacob was traveling at seventy-five miles per hour, trying to keep a tight rein on his notoriously leaden foot. Despite his caution, Jacob could not bring himself to drive the speed limit, figuring ten mile-per-hour over wouldn’t tempt any Nevada Highway Patrol he might run afoul of.
Uh, yeah, not better, and, honestly, a little worse. It just so wordy, and, I mean, how many adjectives do you need in one paragraph? The answer is less than this. I really did a bang-up job making that second paragraph sound like a complex math problem too. Hey, and how about the term “monocular glow”? Yeesh.
Anyway, let’s check the numbers and see if it’s more readable than my 2000 story.
Ye gods, that is dense. Folks, the only things with readability scores this low are like technical manuals and, well, H. P. Lovecraft again. This is not an improvement. I’m still trying to sound like the writers I’m reading (and not doing a great job of it), and I don’t have a clear voice. Like “Lullaby,” there is a decent story in all this mess, but it would need a complete rewrite.
As I said, I did actually send this one out for submission, and if you’d like to see how that turned out, check out the post Baby’s First Rejection. 🙂
So those are my first attempts at writing fiction. In the next post, we’ll look at some of my work that was actually published in the late aughts, and see if things improved at all. Thoughts or opinions on these passages? Let me know in the comments.