[Perry] Why You Should Read Bad Books

I’ve recently finished listening to an audiobook by Stephen King called “On Writing.”

This is not one of his hair-raising tales, but…well, it’s hard to describe.

It actually reads as almost two separate books.

The first half of the book details his childhood, the things he found himself interested in as he grew up, and the influences that eventually turned him onto the craft of writing.

Stephen King details his first forays into fiction, the first dollar he ever made off writing (an original four page story that his mother bought), to his first really huge success (Carrie) and the things that happened after that.

The second half details a few of the stronger lessons that he feels every writer should know, and he lays them out in a language that’s easy to understand, with arguments that are hard to ignore.

A big chunk of the advice are things that I was first introduced to by Tami, actually. The biggest offender (and the longest section) actually deals with the hated passive voice, how King hates it, and how it can be fixed.

But there are some gems in there that our dear Authoress hasn’t really covered in depth quite yet (as far as I’m aware… >.>), so I’m taking the liberty of sharing some of the advice imparted by the book.

Largely speaking, this type of advice really applies to the craft of writing, but I would assume that there’s at least a little bit of a cross into other hobbies and disciplines as well.

Read bad books.

This will help you more when you’re just starting. Once you really sort of hit your stride, this advice falls to the wayside, but I hadn’t really thought about it before.

Bad books have just as much to teach you as good books.

Actually, scratch that.

I think that bad books teach you MORE.

This is closely related to some advice I shared a while back from a guy named Ira Glass. Essentially, it comes down to a matter of taste.

If you’re a writer (and even if you’re just a reader), you have a taste for books, and that taste is killer.

You KNOW what you like, and you know what you hate.

But here’s the interesting thing.

Until you attain a certain…proficiency with writing, this will hold true.

When you finish a GREAT book, if someone were to ask you “what made you like that book so much?”, generally speaking, there isn’t much in the way of specifics.

You’ll talk about how the characters were good and well-developed. You’ll talk about how the plot was well-paced and had a certain rhythm to it. You’ll talk about how it worked to scare you, or how it made you laugh…

But if I press you?

WHAT made the story scary?

HOW were the characters well-developed?

WHAT about the plot elements made it well-paced?

Well…it’s a little hard to say exactly WHY you enjoyed those elements quite so much, only that you did.

Let’s take the opposite case, though.

Let’s say you finish a book that left a bad taste in your mouth.

If someone were you ask you, “Why didn’t you enjoy this book?” or “Why couldn’t you finish this book?”, I’ll bet that you’ll know EXACTLY why.

Your answers may include things like:

“I found the dialogue too stiff and formal. Nobody talks like that in real life. It made the characters very flat and unbelievable.”

“The plot was too jumpy. It’s great that the author is trying to show us all these different perspectives, but he jumped from character to character too fast, I didn’t get the chance to really care about anyone before they died.”

“Well, I thought it was alright until I got to the ending. And then the author just pulls a deus ex machina and has a godlike power swoop in at the last second to make everything alright? Fuck that.”

It’s a matter of taste.

In the video about writing up above, Ira Glass says that it’s all about taste.

When you fall in love with a hobby, whether it’s watching TV shows, or reading or writing or listening to music…your taste is killer.

You KNOW what you like, and you KNOW what you don’t like.

Glass says that the problem is when you start trying to emulate or create (you start by loving reading, then you try writing. Or you start by listening to music, then trying to create the music you love), your skill isn’t on par with your taste.

When you encounter something that’s GOOD, it’s usually because it was created at a skill level that you can’t attain (at the beginning at least).

You KNOW it’s good, because your taste in books is good, but you don’t know exactly WHY it’s good because your skill level isn’t quite there yet.

On the contrary, when you encounter something that’s BAD, it’s usually because it was created at a skill level that you’ve attained and surpassed.

Or, at least, you FEEL you’ve passed it. And because you are more than a match for that level of skill, most times, you can identify exactly what’s wrong with it or the specific elements that made you dislike it.

Your mileage may vary.

Once you reach a certain level of proficiency with the craft of writing, you can reliably identify exactly WHAT about a book you liked, made you enjoy it.

You can talk about the realistic development of a character that made them feel genuine.

You can talk about the subtle nods throughout the plot that led to the climax that you registered subconsciously and had you combing back through the book once you’d finished to see how it all holds together under a second reading.

You can talk about the realistic dialogue and how the book made you feel you were eavesdropping on a conversation between two characters instead of reading words off a page.

In closing.

The books that you hate, or that you think are abominations tend to stand out in your mind.

You remember the foul taste of it long after you’re done with the book and a bad experience can easily cause you to shy away from an author for years to come.

I don’t think I’ll ever be reading another book by Peter Hamilton after my tragic experience with his deus ex machina nonsense.

The books that you hate…you remember exactly why you hate them. And when you turn your talents toward creation and writing, you clearly avoid making those same mistakes because it rubbed you in SUCH the wrong way.

Reading bad books impart powerful lessons, ones that will last for a damned long time.

So read an awful book now and again! Or, at least, read just long enough to know EXACTLY why you hate it before stopping, so that you can train your skill according to your taste.

Once you’ve attained a certain level of skill with writing, you can reliably STOP reading bad books…but even then. I think reading a horrible book once in a while can help keep the reminder fresh in your head…

And that reminder is?

YOU CAN DO BETTER.

…Now go out there and do it =)

12 thoughts on “[Perry] Why You Should Read Bad Books

  1. Jenny Gibbons

    You are psychic, sir.

    Yesterday evening, I gave up on a highly-praised, award-winning novel. I couldn’t take the male ‘characters.’ They were all one-dimensional Wank Monsters who raped and screwed their way through the events of the book. They raped the protagonist, repeatedly, at every opportunity. They slept with her, slept with her daughter. Hell, they even raped each other, when no women were available. Finally, when the main male character porked the ghost haunting their house, I gave up. I couldn’t take such shallow, stereotypical characters.

    This morning, I woke up with an awful realization: the main male character in my current book needs some love. While I was exploring the relationship between my heroine and her mother, he’s languished. He’s certainly not a Wank Monster, or anything half so horrible. But his motivations aren’t clear; he’s in danger of losing his extra dimensions. So I lay in bed an hour, thinking about him, his life, and what he wants. Today, I think I can breathe more life into him.

    All because I was mad at yesterday’s book. Bad writing really does help.

    • Perry

      What……what in the hell book were you READING? oO

      • lol, there my lol of the day

  2. Jenny Gibbons

    Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. National Book Award Finalist. Chosen as the best work of American fiction in the last 25 years, by a NY Times survey of literary critics and authors.

    Oh, the depictions of slavery were chilling, compelling, and horrifying. The prose is elegant. The first 50 pages kept me quite enthralled. But after a while, I found myself thinking, “Is there not one single man in this book that can control Mr. Happy? One who’s motivated by something other than sex? One who will not rape the protagonist, or sleep with the ghost of her infant daughter?”

    That last sentence is so wrong. But it’s the central plot of the book. A dead infant haunts a house, then takes physical form and seduces her mother’s boyfriend. I have no idea what I’m supposed to think about a character like that — or the guy who sleeps with her. Between that and the crappy male characters, I gave up.

    I know many people find the book deeply moving. It’s a classic, and probably not a good example of the ‘bad writing’ that you were talking about. But it highlighted something I hate in writing (two dimensional characters), and made me see the flaws in my own writing.

    • Perry

      I totally get where you’re coming from, Jenny.

      I feel the same way about a LOT of movies and books that are heralded as ‘classics’ ;)

  3. Great post perry, I think I might just read all of your posts today ;)

    • Perry

      Haha, thanks buddy!

  4. Bre

    Get.Out.Of.My.Head!

    I just had this experience yesterday when I was perusing my aunt’s audible and started to listen to a romance novel.

    I love romances in any form. I love romance novels. I have read MANY over the course of my bibliophile life and some are my favorite books ever.

    Except yesterday.

    Yesterday, I started to listen and between me groaning out loud at the bombardment of adjectives sprinkled in every sentence, I actually got mad when the main characters met each other- as in real anger.

    The idiot male lead started to sprout all sort of possessive nonsense about, “I WILL HAVE YOU.” and “You will care what I think.” and “Don’t resist.” All of this bullshit within the first twenty pages of the book! I couldn’t even get to the second chapter without me wanting the slap the crap out of the dude and then shake her for letting him talk to her like that.

    The author, “attempted” to make the heroine seem appalled and try to call him on his BS, but that didn’t stop her from being all amazed at his eyes and drawn to his domineering ass. Also, it didn’t stop him from completely objectifying her and listing all the body parts he found so “enthralling”.

    I could see everything I hated in that first chapter and how it showed me NOT TO DO THESE THINGS.

    It also made me think, when I was much younger, this crap wouldn’t have fazed me as much and I may have thought of the idiot man as “viral and sexy.” Especially since this was, sadly, very typical of romance novels in the eighties and nineties.

    Nope, not any more. And KNOWING men like these are shown to be some shining example of manhood to younger women, people who don’t read a lot of good romances, and men think this is what women want. Twilight and Fifty Shades are perfect examples of this. And that just needs to stop. NOW.

    Ugh, still trying to get the layer of eek of my skin.

    • Perry

      But….but…..WHO DOESN’T WANT TO READ MORE OF THE ADVENTURES OF RONALDO AND MARIA?!?!

      • Bre

        ROFL…only want to read more of them when it is part of a drinking game and you take a shot each time to words “chest”, “lips” and “drawn” show up. Double shots for “couldn’t resist” and “so confused” :P

        • Perry

          …We’d be drunk by the end of the first paragraph and dead of alcohol poisoning by the end of the first chapter >.>

  5. Mother of Three, Anne

    I think is why I read math books in my spare time! And Book Nazi does not give me much spare time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>