If you were to ask published authors their advice for aspiring writers, at least one author would encourage you to voraciously read great books to understand how to craft solid stories.
A year and a half ago, I decided to take this common tip to the next level. Using a spreadsheet, I catalogued every book I read and the lessons I imbibed as a writer. This forced me to dwell on what I learned from the novels I read—whether it was the power of a compelling protagonist in Into the Fire, or Xenocide’s demonstration that philosophical debates can be engaging in novels when natural to the characters.
I’ve matured since starting this practice. But I’ve had an unexpected revelation as well. I learned a lot from the great books I read.
But I learned just as much from the terrible books.
This surprised me at first. Isn’t the standard advice to read great books so you can mimic them? But the more I read terrible books, the more I grew as a writer. I now intentionally seek out books I know I won’t like because of this.
Why is reading terrible books so helpful? In true sermon fashion, let me boil it down to three main reasons.
#1: It Shows You What Not to Write
I never realized the importance of a compelling protagonist until I read a Christian fantasy novel that lacked one and discovered how dull the story was. This prompted me to examine the book to pinpoint why the protagonist failed so I could avoid making those mistakes in my manuscript. Although having ideals to aim for is crucial, fear can be an impetus as well. When I saw how a flat protagonist ruins a story, my dread of committing the same error motivated me more than my desire to create an impressive protagonist.
I added a new step to my spreadsheet: instead of recording only the positive lessons each book taught me, I began logging the negative lessons too and why the author’s techniques worked poorly.
Next time you’re reading an unenjoyable book, contemplate why you hate it, and be specific. Are the protagonists getting along too well? Is the protagonist not in enough danger from the villain? Has nothing happened over the past fifty pages?
Even if it’s a principle you already grasp, observing bad writing is more effective than hearing about it in theory. The more you’re exposed to bad writing, the more you’ll despise it, and the sharper you’ll be at catching weaknesses in your own novel.
#2: It Indicates the Preferences of Today’s Audiences
A difficult truth I’ve had to accept as a literature major and an English teacher is that both our general and evangelical culture enjoy some terrible stories.
However, as writers, we can’t dismiss these books. It’s easy to bemoan the culture and long to hearken back to when authors wrote great books. I’ve done my fair share of that before.
But, to sell books today, we need to understand why audiences savor terrible books. Even if the books are inherently flawed, they must be doing something right to become wildly popular.
I recently read Twilight even though I suspected I’d dislike it (spoiler: my assessment was correct). I wanted to study it to ascertain why readers enjoyed it so much. I gleaned some fascinating insights about how to engage readers’ emotions, which I explain in this article here. This is why I try to unearth positive lessons in popular books I dislike. Though I intend to produce better stories, these books reveal what current audiences are looking for. Moreover, they equip me to effectively reach those audiences—while providing a more meaningful story to chew on.
#3: It Trains You to Fix a Work
After reading a book or watching a movie I dislike, I’ll sometimes jot down the changes I think should have been made to improve it, which has proven to be a beneficial writing exercise.
For example, I enjoyed the first fourth of Attack of the Clones, but the rest was rather boring. Given critical consensus on the film, I wasn’t the only person who recognized this problem. If I’d been given the imaginary screenwriter’s chair, I would have revised the Second Act to feature Jango Fett constantly striving to capture and kill Padme, Obiwan, and Anakin while the heroic trio try to figure out what’s going on. I’ll spare you the pages of fan-fiction, but the experience taught me how to repair a defective script and, in turn, strengthen my own manuscript.
I learned about suspense as I pondered the absence of it in Attack of the Clones and how the narrative could have been tweaked to include more suspense. When I faced a similar problem in my work-in-progress, Empyrean Vengeance, my mental rewrite of Attack of the Clones prepared me to restructure my novel’s Second Act.
This is more time intensive than simply noting why a novel failed, so I don’t do it with every story. However, when inspired, it’s an interesting and educational way to approach a bland story.
Read More Terrible Stories
The above header is not one I thought I’d ever write. But I’m writing it because it’s true. This is why I haven’t intentionally put a book down without finishing it for the past six years. Not only do I want to give authors the benefit of the doubt to see if they can reverse a train wreck with their climax (occasionally they do), but I can also learn so much about why a novel doesn’t work.
For the younger readers in our audience, be careful not to use this as an excuse to read immoral books. However, next time you read a terribly written book, don’t cast it aside. Instead, after finishing it, think about why you didn’t like it and what lessons you can learn to make you a better writer.
I bet you’ll find it worth your time.