I Learned It From a Bad Book

It goes without saying that a writer can learn gobs from reading excellent work. The best that literature has to offer (and by this, I don't mean just capital-L literature, but everything that moves us) reaffirms our belief in character, setting, and plot twist nirvana, in the power that a great voice brings to the page.

But there's something to be said, too, for the lessons contained in a "bad" book. Though I never set out to read something that I'll hate, I run across what I'll call missed opportunities quite often -- or at least books that didn't work for me. In some ways, that's actually a good thing, I've decided, because when something's working really well, I'm often too mesmerized to objectively analyze why I love it, let alone figure out a way to replicate the magic.

In the case of a missed opportunity, my growing emotional distance allows me to step back and look at where I feel the book's train left the tracks. Was I unable to engage with unlikeable characters? Annoyed by superficial, trite, or obvious plot devices? Confused by unclear motivations? Or bored stiff by flat description?

This is one reason I judge first chapter contests for unpublished work whenever I can. A desire to give the entrants helpful suggestions makes me look at the chapters with an editor's rather than a reader's eye. For every hour I put in volunteering, I find myself becoming more aware of ways to smoothly introduce backstory or help the read quickly emotionally engage with my manuscript's protagonist. As well as running across amazing talent, I'm also reminded of potential pitfalls I can avoid in my work.

So the next time you're bogged down in what you subjectively consider a "bad" book (you're allowed to be subjective in your own head!) stop and think about the lessons that it has to offer. Perhaps it can save you a few missteps in your own manuscripts.


I learn a lot from reading my students' work. What's interesting is that I see places where they could be so good, if they just did that one more revision. I see the potential as well as the flaw. It's a great way to sharpen your own skills as a writer, although it doesn't entirely stop the blindness problem. It is so hard sometimes to get perspective on one's own work.
Something else that interests me is when I read a book that I think is ultimately flawed, but it still moves me. Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones is that book for me. It's such a special, special book, and in some ways has the most in common with what I'm trying to do in my own work versus any other book, BUT I find it very flawed. And yet I gave it a five star review on Amazon DESPITE the flaws, because of what Sebold ATTEMPTED to do.

For me, if you make an amazing attempt and walk in waters no one else is brave enough to, that gets me so much more than a perfectly executed piece of fluff. There's a piece in a lit mag out there now that is perfect--I mean clean enough to eat off of, but in the end I was so unsatisfied, because I felt like the story didn't add up to anything. And people were going on and on raving about this piece, and I just wanted to say "so what? The character is narcissistic and nothing really happens. She never changes." I felt cheated, and yet here everyone was, talking about "superb characterization" and voice and tone. Grrr.

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