When Bad Books are Good

I love finding books that speak to me. Books that allow me to lose myself in the story, that keep me up all night reading, and when I do go to bed I can’t stop thinking about the characters. Books where the writing reminds me to just how good it can get, where the words strung together are greater than the sum of their parts. I long for these books, whether I’m searching the racks at my local used bookstore or scanning my favorite blogs for the great new books about to come out. And I always do my research before I buy anything, because I really, really hate finding a flop.

And still, sometimes I’m disappointed. Sometimes, the book is so bad I want to throw it at the wall in frustration. I used to hate books like this. Books where the main character suddenly stops acting like herself, or the setting shifts and I don’t know how the characters got there. Or the times when I spend half the book rolling my eyes at the obviousness of the plot, when the characters can’t see it. You know those books, you’ve read them too.

A couple years ago I picked up a book that was a huge bestseller with great reviews. The cover was absolutely beautiful and while I know you can’t judge the story by the picture on the front, I just knew that this book would live up to its promise. Wow, was I wrong. The characters were as flat and stiff as cold pizza. The plot was convoluted at best. The setting was almost non-existent. And I was so frustrated I just wanted to fling the book out the window and into Puget Sound. But I didn’t. Instead, I sat down and started to write.

First I wrote down everything about the book I didn’t like. Then I went back over the list and wrote about why I didn’t like those aspects of the book. I saw that sometimes I didn’t know why I disliked something so much, and found myself going back to the text and re-reading sections just to piece together what went wrong. And then I started asking the most important question for myself as a writer – HOW did it all go wrong? We all know not to write cardboard characters, but now I was really digging in and looking at what was missing. What aspect of a certain character’s personality could be tweaked/expanded on/added to make that character come to life? It can be a bit hard to see sometimes. I kept working my way through the list and when I finished I’d learned some pretty big lessons for my own writing.

I now have a list of things to watch for when I revise my work. I’ve got the big, obvious stuff on that list, but I’ve also got a lot of little nuances to make sure I’m not missing the important subtleties that make a story come alive. So now when a book takes a turn into a proverbial ditch, I don’t toss it. I smile and take out my notebook.