Read a bad book.
I know common wisdom enjoins us to read only really good books. Read the classics! Children don’t read the classics anymore! If only we would read the classics everyone would be literate and erudite and smarter and vote for my party candidate.
It can get out of hand.
When it comes to the classics, I know I’ve done what you’ve done. Stood before the library shelf helpfully labeled “Classics” thinking, hell, I’m out of school. I don’t HAVE to read Tolstoy, not when there is a perfectly good four part series out on Netflix starring Lily James. As you reach for the latest James Patterson which he wrote with the help of some other author who you don’t recognize, I am here to tell you, go for it.
There is value in reading the bad book.
I just finished reading one – I am not mentioning the name because I believe in karma.
But, to start, this book was filled with pages of praise from newspaper reviews and other authors, I suspect because the author himself was a former newspaper reporter – he knew many people in the business. The author’s contacts surely helped seal the deal and get the book into bookstores. There were book launches, readings, reviews and an astonishing disconnect between the brand promise on the back cover and the laboriously revealed plot inside.
The book was little more than a series of “real” stories held together by an increasingly slender plot line that became stretched so thin at the end, it snapped.
Characters were created just to set up a scene from one of the reporting stories, then dutifully disappeared, only to begrudgingly brought back in the final chapter, likely at the insistence of an editor.
This was one of those books that was written because the author has led a “very interesting life” and was encouraged to write a book about it. Just as urban legends are true because the narrator heard it from someone’s relation, this book was sold and promoted based on its roman a clef nature.
Did I love the book? Nope.
Did it help to read it and think about my own work?
As soon as I realized the story was not as advertised, I became curious about how it would end. How would the author wrap up these disparate plot points? How would this all end? Whimper? Bang? It ended with a bang and not a very logical one at that.
Here’s what I learned:
Make the set up clear.
So that the transformation of the hero makes sense.
Don’t show SO MUCH. I don’t need every detail about lunch. In this book’s case, the details helped flesh out the word count. Like the new version of adding very, very, long words to a manuscript.
If it matters. Describe the daily ritual once: the character wakes, fixes coffee, eats toast while reading the paper. After that. The character can find themselves in the next day already at the office.
Sometimes the badly written book is helpful. It’s not like I don’t have a string of them to my own name.
But unlike reading the classes, the bad book can be a great instruction manual for what NOT to do.
Read a bad book. And remember to do what we all say, not what we write.