There’s nothing like a good book. Give me an interesting story, a credible cast of characters, season with just the right amount of atmosphere, and hours–sometimes whole days–will evaporate as I devour page after page. It’s a feeling we’ve all had (I hope), and every time we crack open a new book, we’re doing so hoping for that experience.
Of course, books don’t always live up to our expectations. A lot are pretty much crap.
But wait! Just because you’ve gotten into a novel only to discover it’s a giant mess, doesn’t mean the book is without value. One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard goes something like this…
Bad writing can often teach you more about the craft than good writing.
When I’m about to give up on a book, a little voice chimes in. “You might learn something,” it says. So I stick it out for another hour, treating it like a textbook on how to abuse the English language and bore your reader to tears.
I was hit by one of these novels last week, and since I didn’t finish it, I won’t be writing a review or doing any naming and shaming. What I will do, though, is share three of the lessons I found waiting within. Even if you already know them, it’s always good to keep mistakes like these fresh in your mind.
Beware of describing too much.
Throughout the book I was bombarded with descriptions of everything from the precise dimensions of the main character’s back yard, to complete backstories for every single character the author introduced. The main character couldn’t even buy gas without my being subjected to a three paragraph accounting of the station attendant’s service record during the Vietnam war.
No one cares. If a setting or character isn’t a critical part of the story, the reader doesn’t need to know all this stuff. Little asides like these might have a place in your notes, but they have no business being in the finished book.
Beware of supermen (or women).
A real person doesn’t have a two-by-four broken over his head, spring cat-like to his feet and take out a group of hardcore felons. Nor does he get one surfing lesson and become the best at the beach in under a month. And he especially doesn’t do all these things while excelling at his career without even trying, doing over a hundred pushups in under two minutes every day and fending off legions of women throwing themselves at him.
This is called an “author insertion fantasy” and it’s the worst kind of self-indulgent hackery. It’s the kind of writing you get when the author is more interested in writing who he wants to be in real life, rather than writing a character the reader would believe and empathize with.
Do people really talk like that?
Your characters have to talk like real people. Even the most casual of readers can pick up on bad dialog. Bad dialog dumps your reader into the Uncanny Valley. They find themselves surrounded by approximations of humans, and to say they’ll be put off is putting it mildly. Take this…
“It has been years, Sally. I cannot even remember the last time she and I made love,” he whispered humbly.
“It’s been years? God, Joe, I have no idea what to say,” she gasped.
“I don’t know what to say either, Sally,” he despaired.
People just don’t talk like this. Ever. Not even after serious head trauma.
Conclusion: Don’t give up on a bad book right away.
When you get the urge to toss a book across the room, tough it out a while longer. Maybe even take notes. Best case scenario? You leave the novel knowing you can do better. Worst case scenario? You learn something new to watch out for in your own writing.
God knows I’ve revised my stuff far more after reading a terrible novel than any book on writing.