Learning from all Books

A lot of folks know, if you want to write a bestseller, you should study bestsellers. Reading is an activity, not a passivity, for writers aspiring to do bigger things.

And because writing is a learning process which never ceases, there is something to be gleaned from every book we pick up.

Even those we don’t find well written.

Let’s face it – someone is going to find fault with every book. It doesn’t matter; I’ve heard criticism on Shakespeare, for Pete’s sake. I’ve heard some of the “flaws” of the ancient myths. I’ve read about people who find “weaknesses” in pretty much every book you can imagine.

I had one writer tell me she didn’t like so many adjectives in her stories (very good advice, by the way), and that maybe it as a genre thing. I didn’t realize until later she assumed being a commercial genre writer meant being inferior in craftsmanship somehow. Literary snobbery from someone who’s still floundering away in obscurity, just like I am.

But the fact is, I learned from the criticism. I learned from the critic too. I won’t ever give someone that sort of backhanded advice. Ever. I’ll be sure to let them know, “Hey, this is heavy on modifiers and that means you’ve got weak prose going on. See what you can do to invigorate the writing a bit.”

Everything can be of benefit.

I ran afoul of a forum thread today where someone posted about how a book they found to be poorly written actually provided inspiration to do better, than they were already “better” than the author of the book they’d found, and how the book in question was incredibly “bad” (the poster’s word, not mine).

The rest of the post pointed with incredulity at the fact the reviews for the book were 4/5 stars, and those reviews were “rave” reviews. But the poster concluded by saying even bad books can be a good teacher, and then threw the opinion out to see if others felt the same way.

I was a bit surprised by the response. The original poster was met with a fair degree of derision and snark. Someone pointed out she’d used the word “literally” for “figuratively” (which, just as an aside, is now acceptable, somehow, in at least one dictionary). Another stated “I thought this post was going to be about how writing a bad book yourself can be a good lesson,” before chastising (mildly, of course) the OP for saying a book is bad.

Still another response indicated the OP probably shouldn’t do that in a public forum because…because it lacks class, honestly. But one other person pointed out that the book got 4 and 5 star ratings. That means it resonated, struck the right chords, with at least some people. So while the OP didn’t care for the book, someone else did, and those people who enjoyed it took the time to rate it highly.

I learned a lot from that post. I learned how other authors, no matter their opinions off the Internet, are going to be guarded and maybe even defensive on the Internet. None of them want to be perceived as calling someone else’s work “bad,” or of being “negative” in a place touting itself as supportive.

I learned because I’ve signed into that forum with my author name I have to be extremely careful what I say, and how that statement appears. It might be a good idea to just use a pseudonym, as many others do, or perhaps just offer encouragement and positive things…irrespective of what I might really think.

I learned someone will take you to task for an opinion they don’t share and people are quite willing to be rude, especially when they don’t have anything to risk. Some of the harshest words came from those with pseudonyms and no books listed in their signatures. (The forum signature generator allows authors to provide a brief list of their books in the forum signature.)

But I was reminded I’d been guilty of this myself in the past. The embarrassingly recent past, actually. I’ve “judged” myself “superior” to a lot of pretty well-known, well-established authors. I’ve chided as “bad” books I didn’t find to my liking. I’ve compared myself to a lot of established or published authors and thumbed my nose at them for being less a craftsman than I am.

The fact is, some aren’t as developed as I am in craft, some just have a different voice or style than I do, and some are going to be better at picking words and phrases than I am. When I look at books now I seldom see those things unless they’re blatant. I’ve read some good advice from people I would have considered bad or mediocre at craft not that long ago, and I’ve put it to good use. I’ve learned to shut up about other authors and focus on this one, me, because my opinion isn’t going to be worth much to anyone unless I hit The Big Time.

And you know what? The Big Time means something different for all of us. I have a writer buddy whose dream is be a published author. Never mind he could find an audience outside of legacy publishing, and never mind he might be very successful if he did things as meticulously as I know he can. His dream is his dream, and my opinion of his dream doesn’t amount to a pile of what he flushes whenever he gets off the pot.

I know another author who was this way, shared this dream. I railed against it, and knew my way – a way that would garner them readers instead of rejections – would be “better” for them, no matter what their dreams were.

All that got me was one less friend. Maybe two.

And for me? Well, my definition of The Big Time is probably all tied to money somehow. If I can make my living – or better yet, a better living – selling stories to people, then I’ll have hit The Big Time in my book. (I reserve the right to change that definition at any time, however.)

I’m traditionally published. I’m also self-published. Having been on both sides of the fence, seen both types of processes, I know where I stand, and what I’ll choose every time. But others don’t want to hear about that. And you know what?

That’s okay. It’s their life. It’s their dream. They should pursue it however it suits them best. Besides, who am I? Neither of my publishing journeys ever got me into The Big Time.

But I did learn something.

I’m going to read the books I think will help me learn to do things better than I’m doing them now, things I think will make me a better storyteller. If I become a better writer along the way, that’s great, wonderful, awesome actually. But my goal is to become a better storyteller, and sometimes those things aren’t the same.

For those pursuing a dream, run to your heart’s content. I wish you only success. I hope you’ll keep an open mind, and when you’re out of options in the first method, maybe look at the second. I had to.

I thought I was a planner, an outliner, and it turns out I’m a hideous pantser. Depressing, but I’ll run with it until it doesn’t work for me anymore. I write faster and stronger stories that way. And I don’t tend to choke on the ending as I did with the book I outlined. I had to acknowledge what I wanted didn’t work, but another way did.

Books we think are poorly written shouldn’t be discounted without first looking to see what other readers think. I believe there’s merit in most things. And if at some point in the past I insulted you or intimated I might be superior to you somehow, well…I humbly apologize. I was wrong. I hope you’ll forgive me.


One thought on “Learning from all Books

  1. Most of it is just point of view and highly subjective. What one writer might find bad, another might find great inspiration. I think the bottom line is readers. If other writers don’t like your stuff, well phooey on them, they’re probably just jealous. But if readers hate your stuff – and by that I mean they’ve read it, then that’s a whole other ball game and something to think about.


    I think readers are always the bottom line. In the end, that’s what we write for, and I think part of the trick of being a good storyteller is not losing focus on that. I know so many writers trying to write for publication. That’s just backward. They’ve lost sight of why books which seem questionable in quality – and for many that includes stuff like Twilight and The DaVinci Code – do so very well.

    Write to entertain your target audience, whoever they are. DWS has it right (write?) – if you entertain and master storytelling, the readers will find it. Just keep writing.

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