Write On, Wednesday Thursday: What you can learn by reading a bad book

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My critique partner and I love to, well…critique. It’s part of the job. Occupational hazard. We critique our own work, we critique each other’s. We gripe about good authors who write bad books and bad authors who write good books.  We compare ourselves to other debut authors–what have they got that we don’t?  What made an agent sign them, but not us?  We love to find fault with characters and plot, and dumb sentences.

We aren’t perfect. Therefore, we can’t possibly write a perfect book. No one can. In this business, we find that there’s a buzzword: subjective. What I like, she may not. What she likes, I am may find garbage. And then there’s the whole literary agent rejection letter, “We wish you all the best, and please keep in mind that this is just one opinion and another agent my feel differently.” [hint: subjective].

So, what can be gained by reading a so-called ‘bad’ book?

A lot. For one, we learn what we don’t like.

Be it too many f-bombs, or too many details about what the character is wearing. Or, perhaps too few details about the character’s style. If I don’t know if the protagonist prefers plaid to cashmere, then I can’t “see” her properly. Authors don’t need to be overt about this, but to weave it into the threads of the story.

If I can’t relate or sympathize with the lead character, then it’s over. We need to care on some level. We may not care about the entire character, but we need to care about some aspect of her. A recent book (I won’t say which, don’t want to offend anyone), had a female charcter that seemd too whiny and needy. Did I *not* care about her? No. I cared. But here’s why: she was also pregnant. Maybe she’s more hormonal because of that, um…little parasite growing in her uterus. Makes sense. I could relate to her because I’m a mother have have been pregnant twice. I know the twinges, the tightness, the feeling of oh-so responsible-ness. So, even though this character wasn’t my all-time favorite, I still enjoyed her story.

Bad books teach us:

  • What to do and what not to do as writers
  • To layer in plot, character traits, sub-plot, because being overt about it is, well…dumb
  • To avoid ‘habit’ words. Those are words like, ‘so,’ ‘but,’ ‘and,’ ‘were/was,’ etc. In one book I was very distracted by them. “So, he ….”  Get rid of the ‘so,’ and jump in with what he actually did. ‘So’ is a filler. ‘So’ may be how we talk in real life, but in books, it’s needs to read clean and snappy.
  • Avoid cliches. They’re hard, I know. I want to slip them in, too but when I read them in a published book, I get it…they don’t add a thing. Don’t use them.
  • Let your reader putz through a few slighty confusing passages, that is–let her puzzle it out. You don’t have to be writing a mystery to do this. Just don’t give all of the facts all at once. Give some nebulous ones, a little pliability won’t hurt.

As for “good” books–we’ll tackle that next week!

Write on, Wednesday. Thursday.

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