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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In Which I Have a Shitty Week by Rahnia Collins

Image description: Man in helmet, dust mask, and gloves
using tongs to hold a diaper.
[CN: Non-figurative "shitty." Poop. Actual excrement. Literally human feces. This person has a newborn, so you understand what you're getting into here, right? Okay.]

In Which I Have a Shitty Week
by Rahnia Collins

It’s been a shitty week! But not quite in the way you may be thinking. Poo has loomed large in my life this week both literarily (yes, I know it’s not a word) and physically. So if you are sickened or offended by descriptions of bowels and their movements, look away now.

Physically, I’ve been elbow deep in poo. My three-month-old daughter has been the Queen of the Poonami this week. If you’ve never heard of a poonami, then thank all that is holy or not, depending on your preferences. By my count so far just today we have had three of these beauties. For the uninitiated, a poonami is a baby poo which goes everywhere. Think bright yellow, liquid faeces smeared liberally over every nappy-adjacent part of the baby’s body, soaked into the suit of clothing, the car seat, my clothing where I unwarily held the baby close to me, my hands, on one occasion it even dripped onto the floor. So...shitty!

Hang on, I hear you say, isn’t this supposed to be a website about writing? When did it turn into a Mummy blog? How right you are, it is and it didn’t. This week has also been a literarily poo-themed week (I know, still not a word). I seem to have had a run of shitty books lately, which is always depressing. I have long been of the opinion that life is too short for shitty books. I have no qualms about abandoning a book that I loathe or one that bores me (but more on that another time). I’ve been a high school English teacher for more than fifteen years now and in my time I have read some truly dreadful creative writing – absolute shockers. I have seared my eyeballs and reduced my IQ with far more bad writing than any one person should ever have to bear. And, I’ve got around twenty more years of this to go unless I make it big in my writing career (bring on that Scottish castle JK- style, baby!). All this has reduced my threshold of tolerance for poor writing to mostly non-existent. This hasn’t changed for me in essentials, but it has made me start to appreciate that there might be writing benefits to be had from shitty books.

Prevailing writing wisdom has it that a budding writer can learn as much from a badly written book as from a brilliant one. I’ve been deliberately deaf to this advice because of all the reasons stated above for some time now, but I’m finally, cautiously embracing this wisdom. So what made me change my mind? It was poo-week. I finished reading ‘The Graveyard Apartment’ by Mariko Koike and it was just dreadful, luckily it was a library book, but ‘The Secret of Crickley Hall’ by James Herbert wasn’t. I really wanted to abandon both books mid-read and I really wanted to throw ‘The Graveyard Apartment’ at the wall, but I resisted. I followed that prevailing advice and I finished the damn things, although it hurt my brain and damaged my delicate sensibilities along the way. And you know what? ‘The Graveyard Apartment’ taught me an important lesson about plotting. It showed me that no matter how intriguing the various events of your plot, if they don’t hang together as a coherent and logical whole, you’ve wasted all that intrigue and thrown away an opportunity for suspense-building. Do you know what a Buddhist graveyard, a sort of supernatural death ray, apparitions of children and ghostly hand prints on a door that prevent it opening have in common? No, neither do I and I read the whole novel.

‘Crickley Hall’ taught me that I should not belabour character attributes, especially in dialogue, in what was a splendid exercise of telling not showing. It is fine to show that your character is a transplanted American by having him use the word gas instead of petrol. But it is not necessary to do this every chapter for five chapters. Now I will be careful to be subtle when using dialogue to reveal information about characters and show that information. All of this does not mean that I will be actively seeking out badly written books just because they can teach me important writing lessons, but when I stumble upon them this is what I have begun to do.

I identify the issue and then I free write it. I figure out how I would go about fixing it and, if possible, I spend some time rewriting it, because it’s all very well being an armchair critic, but it’s not so easy making that writing better. For example, I couldn’t and had no desire to rewrite the entire plot of ‘The Graveyard Apartment’ but I could take those plot points which didn’t hang together for me and work out how I would link them more coherently. None of this is intended to sound arrogant and like I’m some kind of hideous know-it-all, after all these authors are published and I am not. But now, rather than abandoning these novels I can use them to my advantage and (hopefully) improve my own writing. After all, to bring this back to my poo-theme, manure makes excellent fertiliser. And now, you’ll have to excuse me, I need to go and change the baby!

Rahnia Collins is an English teacher by profession, a writer by aspiration and a reader by addiction. She wishes there was some sort of grant that would fund her reading habit. Her other addictions are tea and cats. If her husband had not set a strict two cat limit she would already be a crazy cat lady. 

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  1. Love it. Poo is one of my favourite topics of conversation (nurse and recent Mum) and you've tied it into my absolute favourite topic reading! Bravo!!

  2. Thank you for this piece! Among my favorite parts: "Do you know what a Buddhist graveyard, a sort of supernatural death ray, apparitions of children and ghostly hand prints on a door that prevent it opening have in common? No, neither do I and I read the whole novel." Holy moly, did I ever need a laugh. Thanks for reminding me that even when what I'm reading is bad, I can still learn from it. (Or at least write a funny blog post about it.) Well done!

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