Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Reading Bad Books Can Be A Good Thing

I did a bit of reading over the holiday weekend. For the purposes of this post, I will not be discussing the specific titles. Let's just say that one of the books is from a long running series that pretty much always delivers. The other is from a relatively new young adult author who has been getting many, many kudos in the writing world. I have to say, both were HUGE disappointments. I'm actually still in the middle of the YA, and let me tell you, it's a struggle to keep going. In the end, though, I'm determined to push through. I'll tell you why.

I can't remember which agent said this… Kristin Nelson, I think…but someone once said that it's important to read what's popular. I'm sure I'm getting the exact reason wrong, but it had something to do with understanding what people want to read. Obviously, if a book is selling well, there's SOMETHING about it that is attracting people. So, if you can get some sort of understanding of what that is, you can take that knowledge and apply it to your own work. Blah blah blah.

I agree with that general idea behind that, but at the same time, disagree. Mostly because I don't think there's a sure-fire formula for what will hit it big. A lot of what makes a book popular is timing, a lot of it is the particular mood of readers during certain periods… LUCK LUCK LUCK…and MORE LUCK, in other words.

That said, I have my own set of reasons for reading bad books. And trust me, I have to force myself to do it. Most times I say to heck with it and that book hits the wall. But with certain books—particularly ones I know people LOVE—my curiosity wins out and I just have to keep turning those pages. Even when the book is a big ole' hot mess.

To put it bluntly, I do it for one reason, and one reason alone: It teaches me what NOT to do.

Now, I'm not saying my writing is all that and a bag of chips. I have my issues just like any other writer out there. Certain blind spots that I need to have pointed out to me. I use crit partners to help with some of that…but lately I'm finding that reading less than stellar books is equally useful. When I see something that amounts to bamboo shoots up my nail beds, I KNOW I'll work double time to make sure I don't repeat the same thing in my own work. I'm sure some people might argue that I see these trouble spots because they're things I struggle with in my own work. (I wasn't really going to get all psychological in this post, but whatever.) It could be true.. some of the things I've noticed in these two books ARE things I've given a lot of thought to during the course of writing my books. So yeah, maybe there's something to that argument. Perhaps I'm just bitter that they got away with it when I'm struggling so hard to eradicate the problem in my own work? Perhaps, indeed! J

Anywho – I know people always preach that in order to write well you need to READ READ READ… especially good writing. Books that move you. Books that paint vivid pictures in your mind. Books that are well-plotted and just overall superb. Yeah…that's great. But sometimes in order to see the bad stuff, and to KNOW what to avoid…you gotta dig your heels in and read some CRAP. Yeah, I said it. J

So… a few things I learned this past weekend:

  1. Comedy. It's a hard, hard, hard, HARD thing to pull off. There's a line that can't be crossed in my opinion. That line is when reality takes a backseat to unreality… When you push the line too far towards the ludicrous, you risk people rolling their eyes and saying, "Yeah, right!" to the heavens. I did exactly that this past weekend and it's just not a good thing to do. My comedy will always border on the ridiculous—I know that—but at the same time, I never want anyone to say, "That can't happen!" Therefore, one of my feet will ALWAYS be planted firmly on mother earth. If it can't happen in real life, it ain't happening in my book.
  2. Relationship driven books are wonderful—but relationship books with nothing else going on are too much for me to stomach. I need a plot, people. Is that so wrong? One of these books is literally so focused on the relationship between two teenagers (when it's supposed to be a paranormal mystery of sorts—I assume, anyway) that there's no time in the book for plot development. I swear to all that is holy, every "clue" that is found is heard second hand from some secondary character. Mostly recounted while the two teenagers are alone, lusting after each other and staring at each other's butts… There isn't any real time action that tells the story for them… OH GAG. Seriously. I suppose the author thinks all the flashbacks are a cheat around this particular problem, but trust me, it ain't working. I want to throw this book at the wall so bad, there's practically a dent in the drywall already.
  3. I'm never, ever…EVER going to tell a story in alternating first person POVs. Especially if I can't make the voices distinctive. The book I'm reading is told from both the male and female MC's POVs. And honestly, I can't tell them apart. All I know is that "listening" to two separate MC's lusting after the other character is EXHAUSTING. And that's all they've done for 200+ pages. I'd rather be in the head of the bad guy. Whoever that might be. I'm not really sure WHO the antagonist is supposed to be at this point because I'd say about a page or two of that 200 has been devoted to the plot of the story. Yes, 'tis sad, but true. And no, I won't tell you what this book is. LOL. You get suckered into buying it, sucka. (Kidding. Sort of. I do regret the duckets I shelled out, but them's the breaks, kid. Hey, you might like it. A lot of people do.)
  4. This goes for YA: The absent parent thing is GETTING OLD. And this is DEFINITELY something I think a lot of YA authors struggle with (myself included): How to get the parents out of the picture without making them totally absent from the lives of their children. I have to tell you, though… the flighty artist thing…OLD. The workaholics… OLD. The dead parents…OLD. Do something crazy, people. Have the parents be an active part of their lives… and..excuse my language…F*ck a duck…have them get in the way of whatever the teenager is trying to achieve. Isn't that REAL?? I know my parents foiled more than one of my teenage spawned plans. I don't know about you, but I was pretty much a normal teenager on a lot of levels. I did some pretty whacked out things like spending time with my parentals. I sat down to dinner with them on occasion. Hell, I even had whole conversations that didn't involve them ignoring every word I said because they were too involved with work. On occasion, they even busted me doing something wrong! And—gasp!—I got in trouble. Parents aren't the problem in a young adult book. The problem is the tendency to want to treat and draw teenage characters that are more adult than child. Get over it, people. Kids are kids. Let them be kids. Nine times out of ten, that involves a parent occasionally popping in.
  5. Personal growth over the life of a series is a MUST. If you're going to write the same book over and over, why bother? If a character doesn't change in some way over the course of a book…let alone a crap load of books…what's the point? I can read the first book over again if that's all you're going to give me. I want to see characters who make mistakes and learn from them… or DON'T learn from them and end up spiraling into some fucked up existence that could've been avoided had they made a different decision somewhere along the way. Even a character that's completely messed up is interesting to me. If nothing else, I can root them on to getting back on their feet. Just because you've reached a point of huge success, doesn't mean you should stop pushing in your writing. Try something new… surprise us. I want to be surprised, all right?

There are more things…oh so many more things…that I learned from these two books. But I feel myself getting all grumpy. I'll stop here.

The point is… these books are bad. (At least in my opinion.) And while I wouldn't want to emulate them in any way, I've taken many 'a lesson away from them this weekend. Do I wish I had read something I absolutely loved? HELL YES. YES, I DO. But then, sometimes it's easier to deconstruct what doesn't work in a book than it is to figure out what an author did right. Because when they DO do it right, doesn't it seem flawless to your eye? Almost impossible to replicate? Yeah, that's how I feel sometimes… so even though they're painful, a bad book—occasionally—is a very good thing.


  1. Oh, good, so my recent read of Terrible Trendy Book wasn't a total waste. Seriously, I found it sensationalistic, gratuitous, and objectionable, both on philosophical and literary grounds. I'll just chalk it up to a learning experience. ;)

  2. Brilliant post Jen, and oh so true! Although when they're really bad I tend to skim. The last one was Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty; I just couldn't get over how bloody modern the character sounded. 3rd person might have worked a lot better in that case.
    I can guess what one of your books is - the long running series... I had a feeling it might be kind of same old same old so I haven't splurged on it yet.
    And oh, speaking of parents, I've been rereading the Anne of Green Gables series and there are parents all over the place in that! E Nesbit used to balance that out pretty well too. I hope I managed it in Austin's story; Rose's story is a little different cos she's trying to find her parents!

  3. A great point, Jen. I find myself analysing while reading all the time now, noting the good and the bad. I hope all the study eventually pays off! :-)

  4. Precie -- That's probably for the best. (g) Just don't think about the time you lost. LOL.

  5. Deniz,

    Yeah, I had the same problem with AGATB. I found REBEL ANGELS to be much better on that front. It's my favorite book of the series, and I can't recommend it enough.

    And yeah...the long running series was pretty obvious, huh? DISAPPOINTED. LOL. Oh well, maybe I'll wait for the next one to hit paperback before buying it. Might ease the pain a little. :)

  6. Rachel,

    You--and I--have to believe it will. Reading this tripe has to have some purpose in life. :) At least let's hope. lol