Last week on her blog, VR Barkowski mentioned the advice I gave in a recent interview in The Writer, that writers can learn a lot about story by reading really bad books. Amongst the insightful and varied comments she got on the post were the three things I often hear when I talk about the value of reading bad books: It’s not fun. I can learn so much more by reading good books. And what is a “bad book” anyway? So I figured now was the perfect time to address them, it being a rainy Saturday morning in LA:
First, I didn’t say it was fun. At least, not in the way that reading a good book is. Although, bad books can be funny, just not on purpose -- which does make reading them sort of fun.
Second, good books are rarely as informative when it comes to understanding the principles of story. Probably because the first job of a really good story is to anesthetize the part of your brain that questions how it works its magic in the first place.
Which brings us to the key question: what is a bad book, and where can you find one? Because, while sure, every year a bunch of bad books are published, someone in the know did vet them. Several people, in fact: the agent who took a chance on the writer; the editor who bought the book; the bookstore owners who gave it shelf space. Which means that while these books might be seriously flawed, they’re not the kind of bad I’m talking about. Not by a long shot.
Nor am I talking about commercial fiction. In fact, commercial fiction authors are often such good storytellers that even though their characters might be stereotypes, their plots, formula and their prose, vanilla, their stories still manage to leap off the page and thus become many a serious reader’s guilty pleasure. Not that you’d admit loving Jackie Collin’s Thrill to your book club, mind you.
No, what I’m talking about is the kind of manuscript that agents and editors slog through day in and day out, searching for the few gems (and what seemed like a gem at the time) that they actually accept. Until recently you’d have to be an agent or editor to be privy to these unwittingly accurate lessons in what not to do.
Not to denigrate their authors, who I’m sure tried very, very hard -- but hey, rather than have all their effort be in vain, why not use their work as a primer on what not to do? It’s amazing how clear your idea of what a story actually is becomes when you read a novel without one. By seeing where it doesn’t meet your expectations, you begin to decode what a reader’s hardwired expectations are, and better yet, how to meet them.
The good news is, for the first time genuinely bad books are accessible to everyone, everywhere. They’re called self-published books. No, no, I’m not saying every self-published book is bad. Just the vast majority of them. And they’re easy to find, just go to iUniverse, xlibris, AuthorHouse - even Amazon has a self-publishing option - troll through their titles, read the synopses (believe me, you’ll know a bad book when you see one), then order a couple. It’s a great investment (plus, since the authors won’t know the real reason you’ve ordered their book, you’ll make their day!).
Don’t want to spend any money? Then go to authonomy.com, a website where writers download their manuscripts, hoping that others will read them and vote for them. Some are truly great. But most of them . . . not so much.
If nothing else, it can be a great ego boost. Reminds me of my first publishing job back in the day. I remember lugging home my very first manuscript to read (ah, the analog world, when every manuscript was actually written on paper), reading it over the weekend and thinking, jeez, no matter how much I have to learn, at least I’m a better writer than that guy!
What about you? Did you ever learn something from reading a bad book (besides never read anything by that author again)? Tell us about it!