Go on holiday when you’ve got deadlines to meet

How To Write Badly Well will continue on Monday 5th July. In the meantime, why not read the excellent language blog Inky Fool?


As the helicopter neared Pudding Lane, Edward could better make out the details of it. Slung below the cabin was a large tarpaulin, secured at each corner and hanging low with the weight of its contents.
‘Dear God,’ gasped Hobbington. ‘It’s water! The whole thing’s full of water.’
As the helicopter swooped low over the burning bakery, two corners of the tarpaulin were released and a deluge of Thames river-water came crashing onto the fire. For a moment, all was smoke and steam and chaos, but when Edward had picked himself up and blinked away the ash, he could see that no spark of flame remained in the charred, sodden building.
‘They did it!’ he shouted, tearing away the strip of cloth he had tied over his mouth. ‘The fire’s out.’
‘And not a moment too soon,’ added Hobbington. ‘It was just about to spread to the adjoining buildings, then into the tinder-dry slums and eventually out across the whole city, destroying much of London’s skyline and necessitating a huge program of rebuilding and architectural renewal.’
‘Phew,’ said Edward. ‘That was close.’

HISTORICAL FICTION WEEK #4: Don’t get bogged down in research

With the blaze now rising to the upper stories of the building, Edward leapt into action. First, he kicked off his shoes – the plastic soles would be sure to melt in the heat of the fire. Next, he tore a strip from his pinstriped suit and wrapped it round his face to prevent smoke inhalation. This meant removing his glasses; he cursed that he hadn’t worn his contact lenses today.
‘You’re not... going in, are you?’ Hobbington asked, aghast. Edward nodded grimly.
‘There might be people in there,’ he said through the cloth covering his mouth. He dug into his pocket. ‘Could you hold my keys?’ he asked. Hobbington took the bunch of keys. ‘Oh, and my mobile?’
Just as Edward was about to dash into the heart of the blaze, he heard a noise in the sky above. Spinning around, he looked for the source of the muffled thudding. There, emerging from behind London’s famous Eiffel Tower, was a rescue helicopter.

HISTORICAL FICTION WEEK #3: Cater for cameos

Just as Edward and the Reverend Hobbington were about to make a start on extinguishing the fire, an elderly man approached them.
‘That’s a leviathan of a blaze,’ he observed. ‘Someone should do something about it.’
‘Indeed,’ replied Edward. ‘We were just discussing the best way to go about it.’ The old man nodded sagely.
‘In situations such as this,’ he said, ‘a strong central authority is needed in order to prevent chaos.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Edward, slightly annoyed. ‘I didn’t catch your name.’
‘Tom,’ the old man said. ‘Tom Hobbes. Well, good day, gentlemen.’ With that, he was gone. The two would-be fire-fighters watched him walk away.
‘How strange,’ said the Reverend. ‘Odd little fellow, wouldn’t you say?’
‘Yes,’ Edward agreed. ‘I didn’t like him. He struck me as nasty, brutish and short.’

HISTORICAL FICTION WEEK #2: Allow your characters to be centuries ahead of their time

‘Fire!’ shouted Edward, pointing at the bakery. ‘Hobbington, old friend, we must do something.’
‘Should I fetch buckets?’ asked the clergyman. Edward shook his head.
‘No,’ he said. ‘The pace at which that fire is spreading would make buckets useless. We ideally need a pressurised system of pipes and tubes to spray water across the building from a distance, possibly carried on some kind of large vehicle.’
‘Such a thing would take many men to operate,’ observed the Reverend Hobbington.
‘Men and women,’ said Edward. ‘There is no reason whatever that women should be considered inferior to men in carrying out physically demanding tasks or taking on other responsibilities. In fact, should we ever have a system of government which functioned purely on the basis of a popular mandate, I think that women should be given an equal say to men.’
‘My goodness,’ laughed Hobbington. ‘You do have some novel ideas, Edward.’

HISTORICAL FICTION WEEK #1: Include passing references to major historical events

‘This is the damnable thing,’ muttered Edward, stepping gingerly over a bubonic-plague-carrying rat. ‘What with the resurgence of hostilities with the Dutch, who knows when the trade routes will be passable again?’
‘Indeed,’ replied his companion, the Reverend Hobbington. ‘I am as keen as you are to see the merchants’ ships sailing again. As a nonconformist minister forbidden to teach in schools as a result of the Five Mile Act of 1665, I am keener than ever to travel abroad.’
‘I know, my friend, I know,’ said Edward. ‘It is as our mutual friend Sir Isaac says – there are forces at work which remain beyond our knowledge. You are just as likely to find passage to the continent as old Isaac is to crack this problem of his, whatever it might be.’
‘Something of great gravity, no doubt,’ said the clergyman, skirting round a plague pit.
‘Yes,’ replied Edward, squinting at a shop across the street. ‘I say, does that bakery look a little smokey to you?’

Generate atmosphere by using dogs

With thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin
I struggled frantically with the oxygen valve, my gloved hands slipping and panic beginning to rise in my belly. I no longer felt like I was floating a mere cord’s length from the shuttle – instead, I had the sensation of falling in every direction at once, the void of space pulling at me. The radio crackled in my ear.
‘I’m bringing you in,’ said Friedman.
‘No,’ I gasped. ‘No time.’ The valve shifted a millimetre or so. ‘Almost...’
‘Taylor, I’m bringing you in.’ I felt a tug as the cord went taut. Then, nothing. I lifted my arms out of the way and looked down. The frayed end of the cord was floating away from me. I grabbed at it, but it was already beyond my reach. I kicked my legs uselessly, as if I could swim towards it. The effort made my lungs burn.
‘Taylor,’ said the voice in my ear. ‘Taylor. What happened?’ I wouldn’t have said anything even if I’d had the breath. I felt a numbness spreading through my body. For what felt like minutes, I just floated there, completely alone in the emptiness of space. Somewhere far off, a dog barked.

Sideline a character

Meanwhile, far away from the intrigue of the Venetian court, Piero was trudging up a dusty road in a remote valley. As he walked, he kicked at the stones in his path and wondered what was going on back home. Would he return to find his brother ennobled, or dead? Would he return, for that matter, to find Venice at war, either besieged by some invading army or divided within itself? He had no way of knowing.
Just as these thoughts were occupying his attention, there came a clatter of  weapons from a sage thicket ahead of him. In an instant, his path was blocked by a ragged-looking group of thieves.
‘You! Rich man!’ the leader shouted. ‘Where are you from?’
‘Venice,’ replied Piero, not quite knowing what else to say. The bandit threw a length of rope at his feet.
‘Bind your hands,’ he said. ‘You won’t be seeing Venice again for a long time.’
As Piero picked up the rope, he wondered how many key events in the unfolding saga he would miss, and how many of those events he would otherwise have been able to influence or even prevent with his unique skills of diplomacy and coercion. Oh well, he thought. It will certainly be more interesting with me out of the way.

Delay the ending

Minkowski held the envelope in his hands and tried to judge its weight. There were probably three sheets of paper inside. On those three sheets would be the names of the double agents within his department. All he had to do was open the envelope and this whole, terrible mess would be over. Never again would he have to watch one of his people fall screaming from the plummeting wreckage of a sabotaged helicopter.
Of course, there would be work to do. There would be more bloodshed before this was over. Once he knew the truth, he would have to confront those responsible, setting in motion a fast-paced, dramatic sequence of events which would swiftly conclude this particular chapter of the organisation’s history. All it would take was him reading the names. For all he knew, the plot against him was already in motion, with the traitors waiting outside his office at this very moment, waiting to destroy the evidence that had been so costly to obtain – the contents of this very envelope. He had to act quickly.
‘Okay,’ he said, steeling himself for the shock to come. ‘Let’s do this.’ He glanced at the clock. ‘The moment I get back from lunch.’

Describe the wrong things

Carol stands absolutely still. In front of her, not more than ten feet away, is a fully-grown black bear. The ferns beneath its feet are crumpled and slightly browning, their delicate fronds pressed into the thick, wet mud of the forest floor. Carol hesitates. Slowly, very slowly, she looks around for a possible escape route. The light falling through the canopy of leaves has a pale, thin quality to it and the air is brackish with a faint scent of the stagnant water from the nearby estuary.
She decides to make a dash for it. Her shoes are slightly too tight, pinching at her toes and digging into the soft skin just above her heels. If she had put on thicker socks this morning, this wouldn’t be a problem, but in her haste to leave the house, she had grabbed a thin white cotton pair designed to sit low on the ankle, hidden below the line of the shoe. Seeing her move, the bear leaps forwards. A plane is flying directly overhead and the sound of its engines is like the rumble of a distant washing machine. It is a passenger plane of some sort – most probably an old 737 with a good few years of service still ahead of it. The bear eats Carol.

Think the unthinkable

What horror emerged, dear reader, I cannot even begin to describe. Its eyes were unspeakably dark, blacker than the very apogee of blackness, a depth of darkness beyond human imagination. Its teeth were unknowably sharp and indescribably huge, at least as large as giant machetes and twice as sharp. The roar that came from its unimaginably cavernous mouth was loud beyond comprehension, possessing a quality of sheer volume that cannot be adequately expressed in mere words, like the roar of ten jet engines at close proximity. My fear – O, all-consuming fear! – was beyond anything I have ever experienced, beyond anything I could possibly describe, beyond the limits of language and thought, inexpressible in its magnitude and effect, too powerful to even conceive of or begin to document using the paltry tools of language; that is to say, I pooped my pants.

Use alcohol as a plot device

I wandered into the kitchen and waved my hand uselessly at the cupboard with the painkillers in.
‘Morning, champ,’ said Pete. I turned to face him and my brains swilled in my head like unset jelly.
‘What are you... here... for?’ I managed.
‘Slept on the sofa, didn’t I?’ he said. ‘Thought I’d better make sure you got home okay, what with you picking that fight with the Mafia boss and everything.’
‘Wha?’ I mumbled.
‘And you stumbled upon a dossier of top-secret government files, and drunk-dialled your boss and quit your job, and acted on the long-standing sexual tension between you and Julie from accounts.’
‘In a good way?’ I asked, trying to guide a glass of water to my mouth. Pete shook his head. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I feel awful and I don’t remember anything.’
‘Yup,’ said Pete. ‘But on the upside, you initiated a few promising narrative strands which would otherwise have seemed completely unrealistic.’

Mismatch dialogue and action

‘You put all our lives in danger and for what?’ yelled Kali, tying her shoelaces. Claus stopped and looked at her.
‘Me? You think this is my fault? You’re the one who told them where we were. You might as well have waved a big target over our heads,’ he shouted, running his hand through his hair and grinning.
‘Guys, calm down,’ said Louis, clenching his fists and turning red in the face. ‘It’s no one’s fault. We’ve just got to work as a team.’ Kali wheeled round to face him.
‘Claus, can you tell Louis to shut his face before I shut it for him?’ she hissed, finishing her sudoku puzzle.