Thursday, January 21, 2010

Repeat Thursday: Stripping Grammer Naked

Once in a while, somebody will ask me where I learned to write. Sometimes I tell them about the year I spent under John Rechy at Princeton. Sometimes I tell them about the short-story classes I took with Edmund White, or the sabbatical at that writer's colony off the woodsy coast of Nantucket.

And sometimes I tell them the truth. That I learned everything I know from sitting naked in front of my computer and reading lots and lots of godawful porn.

Experts know the best way to learn what's good is to study what's bad. For instance, I learned how not to cook Mexican food from Taco Bell, what not to wear from Wal-Mart, and how not to have sex with ex-husbands 1, 2 and 4. Desperate to find the very worst in writing, I cruised the sleaziest internet porn sites, searched Google for every four-letter word, and scrutinized every fan-fiction site where Spock and Sulu ever touched.

To save you time, though, and from discovering your belongings heaped on the doorstep by an intolerant boyfriend who knows about Internet Explorer's "History" file, I've compiled the most miserable writing I've found in many hard years of study. If we take a moment to examine these examples and see what mistakes were made, we can use that knowledge to write up some rules that we can use to improve our own work.

(1) "He had nice thick chest hair that covered his entire body."

The first thing we learn is, never eat breakfast while surfing porn sites. Because while chest hair can be reasonably fetching on, say, a chest, when it creeps over to the forehead or the elbows it can make Jim Belushi spew up his Sugar Pops. It doesn't take an expert to realize chest hair is best confined to the upper torso, in much the same manner that toenails should remain in the vicinity of the feet.

(2) "Jim grabbed his ass through his tight shorts and said, ‘I want you bad.'"

From this awkward construction we learn that if there are two or more males in your story, avoid using the word "his." Your dramatic scene will turn farcical if the reader thinks your hero is grabbing his own body parts and expressing his feelings of desire. Similar examples include the following:

-- The stranger wrapped his hungry mouth around his mushroom head.
-- Standing at the side of the bed, Gustavo grabbed his ankles and lifted them high into the air.
-- Slowly Maury worked his lips down to his stomach.

(3) All night long Carl slept, sprawled naked across the bed, and Max approached with anticipation.

What we learn here is, modifiers in the first half of your sentence also apply to the second. We’ve got a scene that’s probably eight hours long, which means Max moves about as slowly as gay rights.

(4) "Brad's endowment was throbbing so hard Joshua thought it'd explode."

The problem here is painfully obvious: Don't frighten your reader with images from Japanese horror movies. You've spent hours conjuring up the perfect picture, then you go and spoil the mood:

-- Chuck's erection grew so hard it could have knocked over Hitler.
-- I'd never seen an ass pounded so relentlessly, and I watch Bill O'Reilly.
-- His equipment, trapped in those thin white shorts, looked like my grandma in her bra.

(5) Max took out Walter's penis and played with it.

Watch out for the words “took out.” While you may assume it’s equivalent to “bared" or "uncovered,” the reader may opt for another meaning, like “to remove from a box.”

(6) I really wanted to have sex with him. After I finished my coffee, I slid over next to him and brought it up.

Here we've got a confusing pronoun -- in this case, the word "it." The writer is hoping he can refer all the way back to his previous sentence, but instead the reader stops at the closest noun, which just happens to be "coffee."

Other regrettable examples are:

-- My wife and I made love on the deck of our pristine white yacht, then I tied her to the pier and went home.
-- Cooper and I took the dog for a walk. I couldn't resist the way his ass swayed back and forth, so I dragged him behind a bush and took him from behind.

(7) "He grabbed hold of his meat and pulled out a condom."

This sentence shows that sometimes there's a weird synergy between different parts of your sentence. Either half of this line is fine by itself, but put the two together and it sounds like a magic trick.

Similar missteps include:

-- I squeezed the bartender's nipple and he refilled my empty glass.
-- Wayne rubbed Raoul's butt until Barbara Eden appeared.

(8) "On my knees, Stephen grabbed my head and guided it toward his groin."

This is what's called a "dangling modifier," because the writer has misplaced a clause. Rather than being turned on, the reader pictures a Cirque du Soleil-style attraction. Re-read your articles searching for sentences like:

-- Covered with mayonnaise, Roger took a bite of his sandwich.
-- Engrossed in the newspaper, his penis lay there quietly.
-- Nearly at orgasm, Puddles the dog trotted in.

Well, we've just barely scratched the surface, but today's lesson has to come to an end. Remember, there are serious side effects to reading too much porn. You start to feel inadequate by constantly comparing yourself to these perfect, unreal images, and your self esteem can suffer as a result.

Honestly, though, I swear to you: usually I can go on for hours.

2 comments:

Yet Another Steve said...

Superb and well worth repeating. I probably laughed harder this time than I did the first time you ran it, 'way back before anyone had found your blog.

jee said...

I'm in nerdy writer/editor heaven. Thank you.

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