June 5, 2012

Reading Like a Writer

I've been a reader a heck of a lot longer than I've been a writer, so reading was always a source of entertainment or escapism for me. Unless it was for school, in which case it was usually a source of torture. Books that I read were subconsciously graded on a scale of Super Entertaining to Only 'Meh' Distraction, with zero attention (most of the time) to quality of writing. I was able to get lost in a story without stumbling over plot holes, slightly 'off' word choice, or cases of deus ex machina out the wazoo. And love triangles that serve no purpose.*

Until I started writing.

Now I'm lucky if I can get through a single book without pausing to ponder something writing-related. Most of the time I'm stopping to admire something that the author chose to do, or taking note for future reference. But sometimes it's the opposite. Sometimes I'm face-palming through 3/4 of a book wondering how on God's green Earth this thing wasn't brushed up or tightened up a bit more before hitting shelves.

I just finished reading a book like that. Out of respect for the author I won't say which book, but I will mention what I found disappointing. And let me tell you, folks, there was a lot:

Setting Confusion
I could not pin down a temporal or geographical setting for this book. There were things that made me think one thing, but then something would inevitably come up that would shoot that theory to bits. From cover to cover I was left with no clue whatsoever when and where this hot mess took place. This is not keeping readers on their toes, this is (in my opinion) unacceptable. 

Lesson Learned: The reader should have some idea when and where the events of the story are unfolding. It's okay to be a bit vague, but readers shouldn't be left entirely in the dark. Honestly, it's just plain distracting.

Ridiculous Characters
Are they good? Are they bad? Oh wait, so and so betrayed the MC. But wait, that other dude also betrayed her. And buddy that you thought was dead...isn't. Hmm. Sounds like really bad daytime TV, doesn't it? And I didn't even mention the gagworthy love triangle, or the MC who has completely unbelievable reasons for her actions or inaction as the case may be. It is not a good sign when the reader wants to pummel 9 out of 10 of a book's characters. Love interests? Lame. MC? Worse than annoying and not likeable. Villain(s)? Just cheesy.

Lesson(s) Learned: Characters should have some redeeming qualities, and they should also serve an important purpose in the story. There's a difference between a character making bad decisions sometimes and a character whose actions never make sense. Villains who are one 'mwah haha' away from mustache-twirling are just silly.

So-So Storytelling
As readers (and writers) we can sometimes overlook less-than-stellar writing if the story is just so darn compelling. It's not an ideal situation, but the reader in us does enjoy getting lost in a good story. But when the story isn't even that exciting, when we're just ploughing through it to get it done, or *gasp* skimming large sections—there's a problem. When you haven't made us care what happens to the characters or what happens at all, I start to wonder: What the heck was the point? And even worse, it's part of a series. Um...pass.

Lesson Learned: We need to make readers care about our story and about our characters. Mediocre characters should not be stumbling through a mediocre storyline. Something has to grab our attention, especially if there are sequels. If readers can't invest in the first book, they sure as heck aren't going to pick up any that follow.

Okay, so here's the thing: This book has a pretty high rating on Goodreads. People obviously liked it. A literary agent and a publisher obviously liked it. Or maybe they just knew that they could sell it. Maybe I'm totally out to lunch, but maybe there are a number of people willing to overlook things that I wasn't. Who knows? The point is, as a writer and as a buyer of books**, I'm not as easily able to brush those things aside. 

If I'm being honest, it both irritates me and gives me hope. It irritates me because I know that there are some pretty great stories out there that have been passed over, but this got published. It also makes me hopeful because then maybe my story will have a fighting chance (not that I think it's a steaming pile or something).

But more than anything, after the fuming and ranting died down, I chose to take this as a learning experience. We learn from both the mind-blowing books (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Divergent) and the frustrating ones (fill in the blank). I'm taking what I thought could have been done better and what I seriously disliked, and I'm making sure that I avoid doing the same in my own writing. So I guess that makes it worth the read.

For writers: Do you feel that you approach books differently?
For readers: Are there things that you find inexcusable in books?

* I say this because I'm not against love triangles when they're done right or serve an important purpose.
** Mediocrity especially blows when you're paying out of pocket for a book. Thankfully, this was an ARC.

23 comments:

  1. I've been viewing books differently ever since I started studying them properly for my A*Levels. That was actually when I started criticising the writing quality of Harry Potter and gave up on it. Prior to that I was enjoying the books.

    But I do tend to mentally make notes of things I like and don't like. I review books and I write stories so I'm constantly on the look out for things I can learn from. I think its an important part of a writer's development.

    As a reader I'm pretty tough on authors who can't make sacrifices. So if there's a book with bloody battles and dangerous threats I expect the author to show some brutality and start killing darlings. If everyone magically survives with a happy ending tied up with a pretty pink bow and no sacrifices are made I'm not impressed. Also when characters die and then find a way to come back to life. I really don't like that - it feels like the author is chickening out because they don't want to upset readers by killing off popular characters properly.

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    1. If a book is really compelling, I find that I stop watching for and noticing any potential issues with the writing. I try to make sure I'm paying attention though, because it can be really helpful.

      Speaking of killing off darlings in battle, J. K. Rowling actually did a really good job of hitting us where it hurts toward the end of the series. She killed of some crowd favourites, which must have been tough to do as a writer. I want characters to make it through all right, but I do think it's important to have an impact as well.

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  2. I think there's a principle here that applies to both queries and books: if the query/story is compelling enough, it doesn't have to be grammatically or syntactically perfect. It can have a few dodgy descriptions, some parts that could have been better-phrased or better-edited. If you are sucked into the story, loving the characters, and turning pages, that's what you'll remember most, and really, that's what you care about the most. When I'm reading, my writer-brain is looking out for the good and bad, the "to do" and "not to do" lessons. But I find that voice grows increasingly silent in the face of a darned good story. So, when writing, I care about every turn of phrase, the beat of every sentence, the flow of each paragraph, the dialog--every little thing. But at the end of the day, its the big picture that matters. That's what I think, anyway.

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    1. I stop noticing any writing issues if the story is compelling enough. I kind of turn off the writer brain and the criticism if I'm pulled in. I think that certain things about a book can be disappointing while other things redeem it. That's why it's so frustrating spending the time reading a book where you can't find those little bits of good. Like I said, I take all of these things—good and bad—and allow them to teach me.

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  3. This is something I think about a fair amount, especially since I've started requesting ARCs for review. Back during one of the recent-ish kerfuffles over author/reviewer relations on Goodreads, a lot of people I respect pledged to only post positive reviews, and I adopted the same policy (generally three stars or better, although I made an exception for a celebrity memoir because frankly, I just don't imagine famous actors being bothered by a two-star Goodreads review.) I've read a few ARCs--and I do try to finish them--that I just couldn't in good conscience say something nice about. (Usually what gets me is a clunky voice. Ugh. I've read a lot of crummy books that were saved--for me--by a good voice. If the voice is off, I just can't.) I've read others that had a lot of flaws, but I definitely tend to downplay those flaws if I can find enough truthful positive things to say. So, those Goodreads reviews might be skewed by folks who try to find something good to say. I think if you read my reviews regularly, you can tell the difference between a rave and a "meh"--and I do tend to give three- and five-starred reviews fairly judiciously, so that's usually a clue. But I often look back and realize I was too nice to a book, especially if I have reason to believe the author might see it.

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    1. I'm really hesitant to review books that I wasn't crazy about, and tend to avoid it altogether. I purposely didn't mention what book I was speaking about here in this post, because I'm not willing to slam an author's work in a public forum like that. I even removed the star rating I had put on it on Goodreads because I felt so guilty about it. I always worry that someday a scathing review written by me will come back to haunt me, you know? A book like INSURGENT I didn't mind reviewing because aside from some little-ish issues with it, I mostly really liked it. I tried to make that evident despite some of the criticisms I made.

      I think I tend to be a little too nice in my star ratings too. I originally gave INSURGENT 4 stars because I liked it a bit less than DIVERGENT. After seeing that pretty well everyone else I knew gave it 5 stars, I kind of felt like a jerk and bumped it up to 5. After writing what I thought about it, I felt like I really needed to change it back to my original rating. I really liked it, but not as much as the first one, so I felt like that needed to be reflected in my rating.

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    2. Yeah, I definitely also feel peer pressure, of sorts, looking at what everyone else thinks of a book! I'm usually worried that I will speak too highly of a book other people don't think is "good"--what kind of writer would like a book like THAT, you know? But then if there's any possibility an author will read it (and with ARCs of books by debut authors I think it's especially likely) I start to go the other way. Hopefully those joint pressures balance out!

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  4. Great post! There was a time when I was convinced writing had ruined reading for me, forever! Thank goodness that wasn't the case. Although, I have found I still notice things and can get distracted from time to time(as you mentioned). The last book I read, the author used so many bizarre and HUGE words, I found myself using the dictionary function on my Kindle to try and figure out what in the heck she was talking about. It made me feel pretty silly and pulled me out of the story every time I had to pause to look something up.

    However, I know that before I was a writer, I never paid any attention to the writing quality. It was all about the story. So, now as a writer, I thank my lucky stars that most readers are not writers and can enjoy a story without such a critical eye.

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    1. I'm really glad that writing hasn't ruined reading for me. That would be just terrible! I do sometimes wish that I could go back to just enjoying a book simply for the entertainment factor, though. I know what you mean about feeling pulled out of a story when you have to constantly look up words. The hubby and I bought an annotated version of Dracula and found it impossible to read without looking down to all of the footnotes. Needless to say, neither of us got very far.

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  5. A couple high profile YA books I decided to put down because I couldn't gel with the story or handle the writing. It's surprising sometimes - the books you see on all the blogs with great covers and lots of publicity - sometimes the stories are weak. I wonder too, how is it book x was published when it violates all these industry No Nos I see on writing blogs, craft books and hear about at conferences?

    Baffling!

    Sure, there is a difference in taste. I haven't always read critically either, so books I read 7 or 8 years ago I might feel differently about now. I will overlook weak writing for great characters or a compelling story, but if the premise doesn't feel legitimate, that's when I can't handle it. I'm finding these issues - personally - in much of dystopian and sci-fi YA. Across the Universe by Beth Revis is an example of how it's done well - it doesn't surprise me to hear she's a life long sci fi fan. You can see it in her work. She puts a YA spin on it, but she's not just working a gimmick, there's a more cohesive world going on. "It's a world where no one's allowed to say "ME!" Ever since the government said it should be so and no one fought it. And also, there's a hot guy." NO.

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    1. I guess it all just goes to show that reading is mostly subjective. Some people will love a book, while others just can't get past drawbacks that seem too great to continue on with the book. This may very well have been the case with the book I wrote about above. Who knows? I know what you mean about no-nos that crop up leaving you shaking your head. Frustrating!

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  6. I find my writer brain restructures sentences when I read. I'm like "hmm, well, to cut words I'd do it like this." ^^;;;

    When I lose myself in a good book, my writer brain shuts off. However, when a book isn't working for me, I start to notice annoying little things and, yes, take note to make sure I haven't done anything similar.

    I also tell myself when the time comes, no matter what I do, there will always be people who won't like my book. And that's a tough thing to comprehend.

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    1. Haha! Or subconsciously swapping a word for a better one. :) Like you, when I pick up a really good book, my writer brain and criticisms shut off and I just enjoy myself. I can only hope that the stories I write will be interesting enough for people to overlook some of the issues that might have with my writing (I'm sure there will be issues). And you're so right about there always being people who will dislike what we write. Beth Revis actually wrote a really great post on that topic recently.

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  7. Ironically, I never really became much of a reader until I decided to start writing. So I guess you could say I've always read like a writer.

    I find myself perusing each book I read, taking notes and sometimes questioning the writer's choices. This happens with even the highly-regarded books like Divergent and The Hunger Games. So obviously the not-so-highly-regarded books wouldn't be spared either.

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    1. If I get caught up in some of the really good books like DIVERGENT and THE HUNGER GAMES, I'm not as aware of some of the details or issues that I might normally be. Sometimes it takes a second read to catch some of them (though there aren't many in these books). I agree with you: Obviously the not-so-highly-regarded books will get the same treatment!

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  8. Love this post. Am wiped from BEA. Cannot think to comment about anything else. Basically - I agree.

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    1. Thanks, Rachel! :) Hope you had fun at BEA (even though I'm TOTALLY envious of you).

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  9. It's much harder now for a book to just sweep me away and not make me think like a writer, though The Daughter of Smoke and Bone was a notable exception (LOVE that book). If I find too many writerly faults in a story, I'm so tempted to just put it down and forget about it.

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    1. There were definitely times where the writer in me kicked in when I was reading DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE, but for totally good reasons. I found myself rereading sentences just to enjoy the wording and to maybe soak up some of her talent. :)

      As for the book in my post, I had a really hard time not abandoning it. I think the only thing that kept me reading it was my Goodreads Reading Challenge. That's pretty sad.

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  10. I've become a much more critical reader since I started writing, which can be sad. But, when I find a book that still manages to leave me speechless--it's better than when I simply "really liked" books before.
    Whether I'm impressed by a book or underwhelmed, reading still manages to push and inspire me.

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    1. I do sometimes miss the days when I could just pick up a book and enjoy it without being distracted by writing-related issues. But, like you say, when you read a phenomenal book where everything is just great it makes the read feel so much more worth it.

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  11. It's hard for me to overlook bad writing of any sort in a published book. I never used to quit reading a book until I became a serious writer. I'd just push through, even if I was rolling my eyes the whole time. Now, I don't hesitate to put a book down if it's not doing anything for me, though I still try to pin down what's not working and learn from it. So, to answer your question: Yes. I do approach books differently. Now, I study them just as much as I read them for pleasure.

    Love this post, Jaime, and I'm dying to know what book you're describing... I've had a few similar experiences lately!

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    1. I'm one of those people who feels the need to finish something once she's started—well, most of the time. I'll watch a terrible movie from start to end because I feel the need to finish it. It's awful really. I'm the same way with a lot of books, especially when I hear about books getting way better after a certain point (JELLICOE ROAD is one that I've heard you need to stick with). I read a book recently where the writing was really not that great (the dialogue in particular was seriously clunky), but I got pretty caught up in the story and ended up really enjoying it. I guess it kind of depends on the book. Something has to be good about, you know? :)

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