I Can’t Believe I Said That

Kage Baker wrote some really clunky lines.

All writers do. The more you write, the more you are statistically likely to write something really bad. Even if you are a splendid writer – and Kage was – sometimes the neurons slip their clutch, and complete crap is the result. I believe it’s one of the primary reasons for sudden fits of cursing, and of inexplicable hysterical laughter, from writers deep in the throes of their craft – they pause to look back at what they’ve done, and are ambushed by something ghastly.

I’ve spent an enormous portion of my life observing writers, editing, proof-reading, playing Dedicated Reader; as well as writing a lot myself, especially in trading off chapters with Kage.  Plus, I read all the time, frequently in desperation that leads me to read utter crud rather than not read. (It’s a problem for all those addicted to the written word …) Thus, I have proof of this ongoing deadly babble from all available angles. Faux paux, spoonerisms, malapropisms, solecisms, oxymorons,  catachreses and just general rotten writing are everywhere, Dear Readers.

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, of course, celebrates these unfortunate and often immortal monsters of creativity. It is based on the turgid fascination of this deathless example of purple prose: It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

It’s deathless because it’s a zombie, lurching along blind and insensate, hampered at every turn by the stiffening sinews of its own poor construction. Most people only know the first few words of it, and thus are not aware of the depth, height and width of its awfulness: you have to read the whole ting to really get the impact. Nowadays, clever writers compete with it by deliberately reviving their own undead monsters, vying for the prize – but you can bet that if the Right Honourable Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, ever even noticed what he’d written, he thought it was just fine. If he had ever figured out how awful it was, it wouldn’t have been published for our future amusement and edification. (And it was, kids; so don’t give up on that High Romance/Fantasy featuring Ancient Toltec poison arrow frogs just yet.)

Kage once wrote an appalling scene about a couple of nuns embarrassing bandits into not raping them. It was not only in questionable taste, it was badly written; she could never fathom what possessed her to write it in the first place. Afterwards, she remembered that it cracked her up when she did it and then horrified her when she re-read it: but she could never ascertain what had prompted it at all. Sometimes, though it happens on purpose. She deliberately wrote some appalling space opera in the adventures of Space Captain Marshawke, as fictionalized by Literary Specialist Lewis – that was terrible, but it was intended to be, as part of poor Lewis’s personal curse was that he longed to write but could not.

Stephen King did the same thing in his novel Misery. There, his protagonist has written a private spoof of his own melodramatic Victorian heroine in a piece of cheerfully wretched pornography – which he does because he can’t stand her anymore. When that backfires badly, he ends up writing an amazing, florid, over-the-top novel for his insane Biggest Fan. That turns out to be actually good, because he gets interested in it – but he initially writes it to be as horrible as possible, on purpose. And Charles Dickens is rumoured to have written several awful death scenes for Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, so sick and tired of her he had grown in the interminable serialization of the story.

Not even the best of writer is immune. There is usually no hint of why, either. There’s no knowing, at this late date, what Shakespeare has in mind in some of his less-felicitous lines, though some are undoubtedly jokes (probably obscene) that most people no longer understand. There’s just no explanation, though, for what Kage felt was one of the worst sentences ever written in English: from Henry VI, Part 2: Act 4, Scene 1: 

The gaudy, blabbing and remorseful day
Is crept into the bosom of the sea;
And now loud-howling wolves arouse the jades
That drag the tragic melancholy night;
Who, with their drowsy, slow and flagging wings,
Clip dead men’s graves and from their misty jaws
Breathe foul contagious darkness in the air.

All one sentence. On a pirate ship. And what the hell has the wings? The wolves? The horses ( one meaning of “jades”), possible unmentioned whores (also “jades”)? Animate Oriential gemstones (“jades” again)? Kage figured this line was an indication of Shakespeare drunk, hung-over, or in the kind of desperate hurry that afflicts every actor/writer from time to time. And unlike the presumably unaware Baron Bulwer-Lytton, one must assume Shakespeare knew what he was doing and just didn’t care.

I was in a desperate state myself when I was last writing for this blog – some unhappy social encounters, some idiots running loose, fatigue and a lot of back pain. Until, that is, I read back over my heart-felt and melancholy prose and encountered: Social media has become a dark wood of spiderwebs and cat poop. And then I just started to laugh.

Holy moley, what was I thinking? That’s as melodramatic a piece of  – well, spiderwebs and cat poop as I have ever read. Sometimes you just have to start giggling, you know? And it might as well be at yourself.

Anyway, one way and another, writing that long sour moan made me feel better. And today is May Day – Happy May Day, Dear Readers! – and the excellent  Adrian Tchaikovsky actually noticed my mention of his novel Children of Time and responded most courteously (Squeee!) and I can walk better today and all in all things are improved.

And I learned, yet again, one of those good lessons in writing that you cannot learn often enough. So there am I happy. And I hope all of you are, too.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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12 Responses to I Can’t Believe I Said That

  1. Luisa Puig says:

    I actually was rather fond of “The Dark Woods of Spiderwebs and Cat Poop.” Especially this weekend, where we, at the Farm House, have been slowly (yet successfully) trapping four kittens in our barn; truly a den of spiderwebs and cat poop.

    Happily, no kittens were lost to spiderwebs (or other barn dangers), and all are now spayed, neutered, and being lovingly adopted by us to be … well, barn cats, of course.

    Well, and little socialized kitty-witty-poohs, too. They have already measured us up to be pushovers, and captured our very hearts and souls.

    So I’m glad you got a giggle from your *much* better than Bulwer-Lytton prose.
    And May Day is as good as any other to leave that ‘dark wood’ behind.


    • storkus says:

      Too be fair. You really cant use Poop in a sentence and not get a laugh. Even poop deck is subject to barely stiffed giggles in sailing circles. (sailing circles?)


  2. Kate says:

    Well, I’m glad the phrase made you laugh too. Man, that was awful … but huzzah for rescuing barn kitties to a life of love, service and kitty crunchies! Might photos and names be available some day soon?


  3. mizkizzle says:

    Bad writing gives me the sadz. A manicurist one recounted the plot of Fifty Shades of Gray to me as I sat trapped at her work station, unable to flee due to the enamel that was being applied to my fingernails. It was like some kind of horrible torture, torture not of the body but of the very soul. Explain to me how that dreck became wildly popular.


    • Kate says:

      Money is how it gets published – or, more specifically, the desire of the publishers to *have* lots of money, combined with their belief that you can never understimate the intelligence and taste of the buying public. Plus, sex sells … and, all too often, their estimates of the appetites of their audience is correct. So sad, too bad, but there you are. Most people would rather read lewd graffiti on a wall than a work of literature – which can be proven by the surviving walls of the past 6,000 tears.


      • mizkizzle says:

        I liken it to two dreadful books of the mid -twentieth century: Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls. Both were horrible and yet they sold like hotcakes. Forever Amber was a much better read. It was spicy enough to be banned in 14 states, but it had a good plot and simply oodles of interesting historical detail about life in Restoration England.


  4. Medrith says:

    One of my husband’s grandnieces spent months trying to get me to read Twilight. But Aunt Medrith, you like Harry Potter!


    • Kate says:

      One of my nieces tried the same well-meaning argument. Out of auntly love, I did try the first volume – it was obvious within a half-dozen pages that I was NOT the key audience. My niece and I agreed to disagree. Mind you, I myself (and Kage, too) wrote a lot of teenaged crap when we *were* teenagers – but it had a sense of humour, and better characters … I remember, though, that many incidents took place in a central cafe known as the BM Outlet (Bran Muffins!), which for some 14-year old reason struck us as hilarious: so no, we were not actually endowed with preternatural good taste …


  5. Kara says:

    Now I want to read Nuns vs. Bandits.


    • Kate says:

      No. It will never see the light of day. I am bound by the dying geas of Kage, who will do awful haunt-ish things to me if I ever reveal this (or a few other secrets) to the mortal world …


      • Kara says:

        Aww, too bad, it sounded hilarious. Of course wishes like that are to be respected. But Kage Baker wrote some damn good nun characters. (Although they were usually the stern and scary kind)


  6. Kate says:

    Kage knew a lot of nuns – 12 years n Catholic school – and most of them were stern and scary. In high school, it wasn’t so bad; but in grade school, she had the kind of nuns who turn up in horror movies, and the audience cheers when they are ultimately eaten. I was much luckier, and most of my grade school nuns were cool – but even so, there were some real psychotics. The sort of grownups who tell you stories about Hiroshima and Dresden while you’re under your desks in an air raid, or explain that women are demons and the word means “woe to man”, or make a 2nd grader spend lunch hour on her knees on stone pavement for the sin of pride in doing an extra page of homework … Come to think of it, the stories would have been just TOO creepy.


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