Monday, August 26, 2013

Read The Bad Stuff, It's Good For You

When we first start writing, we are often drawn to some of the great authors in our genre. We want to "be just like them." In fact, this happens with a lot of different disciplines (teaching, art, sports and so forth). We want to learn from the best. In fact, I have spoke about this same concept several times here on the blog when we talked about critique partners or deciding on workshops and classes you want to attend. However, when it comes to learning from other author's writing, or say my son wanting to watch Ryan Lochte and learn from observation, that approach might not be the best.

The problem is that with many of these people who are really good at what they do, their talent is really coming naturally. They have likely moved past that clinical approach beginners take when it comes to their craft and we just aren't going to be able to see those small little nuances that make that huge difference in the final product.

There is also another problem we face by trying to learn from these people. As beginning writers, we are often in awe of this person and their craft. As we read their novels, we are "swept away with the story," or "we fall in love with their heroes." You know what I mean ladies. When you first read Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER you ran around dreaming of Jamie and wondering why your husband couldn't be more like him.

But how can we learn if we don't look at the best?

When I teach writing classes at the college, I often get students who ask me to provide examples of what I mean when I talk about something like "writing that is rambling" or "transitions that lack fluency." I have to say, coming up with an answer to this is harder than you think and the reason is simple. I don't look to provide examples of the bad writing, I try to provide the good examples, much like writers do when they go to the amazing writers for guidance. But, I have found the solution. I use their writing.

I spoke to one new author several years ago who had just signed up to judge the Golden Heart competition for the RWA. She was all excited. This was the best of the best! These were authors on "the brink of making it." However.... after she received the coveted package of submissions and read the material she called me. Her comment? "Oh my god this writing is awful!"

Now, don't get me wrong. I am not say all of the GH submissions are bad, but surprisingly, there is a large number that really are not that good.

Anyway, when she told me this, I had a simple answer for her. Learn from it! What  is it that the authors are doing that are not working for you? What techniques are they using that are working against the story or making the connection between the author and the reader not quite right? But more importantly, what would you do to fix the problem.

The idea is simple. If there are things that are bad in their writing, you need to find a way to NOT do what they are doing in their story.

Over my vacation last week, I had a book that I honestly have to say was terrible. This is an author who is supposed to be amazing. Now maybe her other books have been out of this world, but this one in particular needed to be thrown out of this world. I had barely made it though chapter 2 and I was already complaining to my wife about the writing. Normally, because I have so little time to really read, I would have tossed this book, but, since it was vacation, and since I was reading this author to get a better feel for the editor she works with, I continued.

However, the approach I took from that painful chapter 1 1/2 on was to look at what I hated about the writing. I really took the time to dissect what she was doing that ruined the story for me. Doing so allowed me the chance to really learn from the book and to find the things that I would guide my author away from doing. After I got back, I did a quick search of reviews for this book and, sure enough, this one didn't get the glowing reviews as the other ones in the series. What was interesting is the comments didn't focus on the writing but some smaller plot issues that really were not the problems leading to the less that quality writing I saw. Those comments the reviewer made resulted in the same thing I said earlier. They were expecting amazing but couldn't see what the problems really were.

So, if you want to really learn, start volunteering to judge contests. Read the bad stories. Read the stories that get 1 and 2 star reviews. Figure out what they are doing...

and then don't do it in your own writing.


  1. Thanks for sharing. I thought there was nothing to learn from bad books. Lol...

  2. Thanks for this particular post. I've heard from several sources that I shouldn't spend my time finishing a book that I think is bad. I'm always looking for new ways to learn, so I'll finish those bad books and look at it as an opportunity to improve my writing.