When Enough Is Too Much

Tonight I was looking at book covers on Amazon. I happened to click the Look Inside for a certain book, partly to see the cover image in a larger display and partly because the description of the book was rather interesting. I’m not going to mention the name of the author or the title of the book, because there’s no need to drag the guy down. But his opening paragraphs … hoo, boy.

Here’s the opening:

Halting to rest, Devlin Wilson, PhD, leaned back against the cold boulder and drew in several extended gulps of air. He was struggling with the change in altitude, combined with the exertion required to scramble over and between the sharp-edged slabs along the trail.

The fact that the author felt the need to mention, in the very first sentence, that his lead character has a doctoral degree is not a good sign. “Halting to rest” is needlessly wordy. But the rest of the stuff in this paragraph is not actually awful. It’s at least concrete. I might quibble that a gulp of air is always going to have the same size, because it’s limited by one’s lung capacity, so “extended” is perhaps an inauspicious adjective, but we’ll let that one slide by.

Here’s the next paragraph:

Wiping perspiration from his brow, Devlin squinted into the bright rays of sunrise beginning to shine over the ridgeline and fished for the water bottle holstered to his belt. He swallowed greedily before dragging the fleecy sleeve of his jacket across his mouth and restoring the bottle.

Oh, dear. It seems odd to me that his jacket sleeve has fleece on the outside, but I’m not a mountain climber. The opening participial clause, you’ll notice, has him wiping the perspiration from his brow while simultaneously fishing for the water bottle, which is a bit unfocused. It’s a dangling participle. I might question whether rays are beginning to shine. The day is beginning, but the rays are not beginning; they’re just there.

But the big problem here is filtering. The author could simply have said, “Sunrise shone over the ridgeline.” Adding the fact that the viewpoint character squinted at the sunrise (or into it) is called filtering. It’s poor technique. And “restoring the bottle” is too much detail. The reader can be relied on to assume that.

And then it gets bad:

Focusing attention on the GPS tracking device he now held in his left hand, Devlin peered at the screen to judge how much farther he needed to climb. The flashing red ping of his target destination was roughly a mile ahead and another 600 feet higher in elevation.

At this point, the writer’s status as an amateur stands out in bold relief. The reader does not need “he now held in his left hand.” However, given the fact that in the previous paragraph we’re told he put the water bottle back in its holster, we may be entitled to wonder whether the GPS device leaped out of his pocket and into his hand of its own accord. A suggested rewrite would be, “He pulled the GPS device out of his pocket and peered at the screen.” There you go.

You’ll note, also, that the flashing red ping is not a mile away and 600 feet higher than he is, though the sentence alleges that it is. The ping (is “ping” the right word? a ping is a sound) is right there on the screen of the device he’s holding in his hand. What the paragraph should have said is, “The flashing red ping showed that his destination was still a mile ahead and 600 feet higher.” The phrase “higher in elevation” is fully as bad as “held in his left hand.”

And then:

Gathering his energy, Devlin stepped forward to resume his ascent, disappearing into the shadow of the mountain’s jagged profile. As he trudged on, his anger grew more pronounced.

The phrase “stepped forward to resume” is like “now held in his left hand.” It’s needless detail. The phrase “disappearing into the shadow” is a viewpoint shift. Devlin is the viewpoint character. Did he disappear from his own view of himself? Doubtful. And does a profile have a shadow? Probably not. Finally, we discover that he’s angry. Not only that, he’s been angry all through the preceding three paragraphs, because his anger is now becoming more pronounced, and yet the reader was not given a hint about his anger. Whether “pronounced” is a good adjective with which to describe growing anger I’ll leave you to decide for yourself.

None of these mistakes was necessary. A good line editor or a decent critique group would have flagged most of them instantly. When I read this kind of prose, I can’t help suspecting that the writer was so enamored of his work that he didn’t feel it necessary to have anybody critique it.

He’s got the active vocabulary part, I’ll give him that. Jagged, trudged, squinted, holstered, greedily, dragging, peered, to judge, exertion, scramble, sharp-edged slabs — these are all very serviceable words. Active writing. Good job. The unresolved problem is the manner in which the words are deployed in sentences and paragraphs.

In four short paragraphs, this writer has managed to warn discerning readers away from his book. Possibly the story he’s going to tell is actually interesting, but who is ever going to find out? After an opening like this, discerning readers will pull the rip cord.

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2 Responses to When Enough Is Too Much

  1. This is a pretty great look into the common mistakes that writers make. I myself am very guilty of filtering, as well as ‘Jane does this, then she does that’ kinda writing. This was an insightful post indeed. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Judith Robl says:

    Jim, I just found this because I found you through a FB group. I happen to love your voice. Exactly what I would expect to hear over a cuppa or a tall glass. And this post resonated with my sentiments exactly. Too many novice writer are too much in love with their own words. Who was the writer who said “don’t be afraid to murder your darlings” or something to that effect? Bravo!

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