Learning From A Book I Didn’t Enjoy

I read novels for entertainment and escape from everyday life. Since I started writing in 2009, I read them differently. Now, I also look for what works—and what doesn’t—for my tastes. And I’ve made a discovery.

I learn more about writing from books I don’t like than from those I enjoy. And the book I just finished reading taught me a lot about my own drafts. I won’t say which one I read, but it was science fiction about time travel. Yes, I was checking out the competition.

Problem 1

Writers are told to begin with action. I was dropped into the action, all right. People hurriedly preparing for assignments, running into colleagues, but never the ones they sought. Changes in plans were everywhere and everyone was complaining. And me? I was floundering. Hey, author—slow down. Who are these people? Why are they time traveling? Can we meet fewer main characters first? It’s the 21st century. Don’t they have cell phones? Shouldn’t someone ask what’s going on with all these changes? Those are just some of my questions from the first two chapters.

What did my test readers say about my initial drafts of Death Out of Time?Who are these time travelers and what are they up to? You’re jumping around so much at the beginning, I can’t get a handle on the main characters. Hmm.

Writers have to provide enough information for readers to connect with the characters and story. Yes, I’ve revised my opening chapters.

Problem 2

I had a hard time keeping track of all the characters. Using my Kindle’s x-ray feature, I learned there were 120 characters or people mentioned. No wonder I couldn’t keep anyone straight. And some characters popped up in the middle of the book with point of view status. But I don’t think I met them before. I didn’t recognize them as “undercover versions” of the previously identified Main Characters. Then they disappeared. I’m still not sure who they were or what their purpose was.

What else did my test readers say? — You’ve got a lot of characters. I had to keep going back to remind myself who they were. Too many have POV status, including some that don’t appear until late in the book.

I had 61 characters originally. So far, 19 have been cut, leaving 42. Fourteen had POV status. We’re down to six. This is far more manageable. Some minor characters are now unnamed, letting the reader know they aren’t important to the larger story. They’re clearly “potted plants” in the room.

Problem 3

Much of this book is set in a particular historic time. And the author goes into excruciating details. Hey, some detail is needed. And I don’t begrudge an author a chance to showcase his research skills. But don’t overdo it. I was skimming sections in no time to find some action. I’m someone who doesn’t mind more details than the average reader. If you lose me, you’ve lost a lot of readers. If the author had cut half of this information, a “sequel” wouldn’t be needed.

So guess what test readers pointed out in my work — You dump a lot of information in some sections. Some dialogue provides information to the reader, but the speakers already know it. They shouldn’t be talking this way. The story slows down when you present big chunks of history or details.

You bet I’m working on this.

Problem 4

Finally, authors are told to put Main Characters through hell, and then send them back for more. This provides tension to keep the reader engaged. How will the Mains pull through? This is good storytelling. However, I wish I’d see more “expert advice” that warns writers — don’t overdo it.

Everything these characters tried to do was derailed. And I mean everything. Yes, Robin, I mean tried. Nothing went as planned. Was the writer making a point that Time will keep you from changing the past? Possibly. But I’d been hit over the head so many times with all these failures that my brain hurt. Cut some of these scenes, too, and two books wouldn’t be needed to tell the tale.

I haven’t overdone the tension in my drafts. In fact, I’ve been told I need to add more. But I refuse to make Job’s life look easy by comparison.

Off My Soapbox

Okay, enough ranting. But this book reinforced the importance of reading to become a better writer. Many writers in the audience already know this, although a refresher doesn’t hurt. And I hope non-writers enjoy a peek into the behind-the-scenes-work that goes into your favorite books. Few good writers spend their days sipping cocktails on a beach with the Muse. Instead, they’re hard at work, writing your new favorite story.

How about you, writers? Has reading a book you like or didn’t like been more helpful?

Readers—what do writers do that make you toss their books aside in boredom or frustration?

58 thoughts on “Learning From A Book I Didn’t Enjoy

  1. Yes immensely. Things like pacing and dialogue done poorly shout out and wave their arms around. I find a good book doesn’t feel like reading and clunky one does.

    • That’s probably why I don’t learn as much from well-written books. I’m too caught up in the story, and there’s nothing jarring that pulls me out of it. But when I stop and say, “hey, wait a minute,” my inner critic takes over. And I take notes on something else to check for in my WIPs.

  2. JM, That’s so funny–I’m reading a book where I’m learning a lot from the wrong things, too. I picked up a thriller/action book by a very successful author. I used to love to read his stuff, but I’ve been reading a lot of women’s fiction and classics in recent years.

    I know now why I stopped reading books like his. One of the comments the man in our reading group sometimes has about my writing is that the character is self-conscious/self-analytical. She tells a lot about her inner workings. I thought it was because I was a woman, and my fellow writer is a man that some of those problems grated. But now, reading this novel BY A MAN, I’m getting annoyed. Stop telling me stuff about your inner workings, dude.

    While the tension is there (something I at times have struggled with in the past), there are plenty of blunders. And this guy is a best-selling novelist.

    Maybe I should start doing the wrong thing? ; )

    • I can relate to the self-conscious/self-analytical characters! That’s another point I have to deal with in Summer at the Crossroads. I have to turn some of that internal thought (and narrative discussion) into ACTION. Not shoot-’em-up car chases with lots of explosions, but something!

      Boy, there’s a post about new writers over-analyzing our writing that begs to be written. I see a lot of us posting about “doing things right” and making sure we follow “expert” advice. And we need to understand the rules. In reality, we ARE held to a tougher standard than established authors. But sometimes? I think we’re too cautious and too hesitant. And we take something in our writing that works well and break it.

  3. Great post, JM! Very funny. Don’t worry. We’ve all been there and remain humble. You’ll get through this! :)

    Great books make me relate to characters. I either understand what made them the way they are or I would simply want this kind of character for a “friend” if they existed in real life.

    My humble opinion is bad books teach us what “not” to do. ;)

    • Well-written books just suck me into the story. :) I care about the characters and what happens to them. And after I finish the book, I’ll wonder what the future holds for them. But because I’m immersed in the story, it’s hard to analyze what worked so well!

      As I said to SubtleKate above, it’s easier to critique books I don’t enjoy because I’m never getting into the story or the characters.

      (And I had to do something a little lighter after Tuesday’s post. ;) )

      • Exactly. A spell bound story line always captivates readers and we care so much about the characters. We want them to succeed. :)

  4. Yes, I agree, this works in other things as well as reading/writing. I worked on a short film a few months ago and my friend Stacey did the editing. I showed the film to a professional actress friend of mine and after she had watched, it I commented about what a good job I thought Stacey had done on the editing, and my friend said “Oh yes, I didn’t even notice the editing!” – as far as I was concerned, that proved that the editing was good because if it had been choppy and awkward, she certainly would have noticed it! There is definitely often a lot more to be learned from things that are wrong than from things that are right!

    • That’s so true—when we do something well, it looks effortless and smooth. It’s easy to forget or miss all the practice and hard work that went into the final effort. I’m working to find and fix the mistakes in my books before I do any querying or publishing of any kind. I don’t want reviews pointing out a mess of them and trashing the books. Recognition of the problems is the first step!

  5. Great post, and I find I do some of the same things. Both reading for how it could be better and what they’ve screwed up, and also comparing it to what I do in my own writing when I find something that bothers me. I usually learn better from my mistakes, especially whenI take the time to figure out what I’ve done wrong and fix it. That said, it’s even better when I can avoid the mistakes on my own by learning from those of others. :) Good advice, by the way, on not overdoing the things we’re told we have to do. Balance in all things, right?

    • If I truly have what it takes to be a writer, my future books should be better at an earlier stage. First drafts, of course, will always be rough. But I hope I’ll remember, from page one, not to make some mistakes that are easily avoided. And hopefully the number of revisions needed to make a polished story will decrease.

      I wonder if I’d be rocking the boat with a post about new writers taking chances by bending or breaking the rules. Okay, I would be. But I think the comments would be a fascinating discussion! :)

      • I think I’ll be looking forward to that post. There will definitely be a lively discussion around it.

        And you’re right, you always hope that first drafts will improve as you write more books, that the number of revisions per book will decrease each time. Who knows though. I mean, when you stretch as a writer, push yourself to grow your skills, sometimes it can increase the number of revisions, only because you’re trying something new. Nothing wrong with that either.

  6. I definitely think reading helps your writing. I think we gravitate toward those writers (ones we call our favorites) that kind of write like we do (or would like to!). I’ve trudged through a book before even though I didn’t care about the characters or what happened to them — a very bad sign. But, some I just can’t finish.

    I think you’re brave for writing a book with so many characters. I couldn’t do it. I have trouble with just a few! I think it takes a skillful hand/writer’s brain to incorporate alot of characters and I’m looking forward to seeing how you do that, JM!

    • I’ve set down a number of books, including best sellers, either because they weren’t very good or because they just didn’t “click” for me. And there is that difference. No book, however well written, will appeal to everyone. But some leave me wondering how the heck the author got an agent and publisher.

      You know what I think is the most important thing to have when writing about a large cast of characters? A good spread sheet! :D Seriously, in addition to using the Character Sketches in Scrivener, I have an Excel file for the entire cast with basic info for each. Those sketches include information that won’t be in the books but which helps flesh out the characters in my mind. I couldn’t keep them straight without that!

      I also don’t have them all in the first chapter. The six POV characters are introduced over four chapters. The first two chapters are now firmly grounded in one place and time to let readers get their bearings. This should make it easier to follow. But we’ll see what test readers say when I polish up Draft 3…. :)

  7. Absolutely, JM! The last one I learned from was one of predictability. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good, until the ending chapters. She got those right – I didn’t see the SURPRISE! coming.

    • Of course, we want the build up to the ending chapters to be good, too! And I hope people won’t be sure about what happened in my book until they get to “the reveal.” ;) I hope I’m getting those revisions right, too. :)

  8. Okay, I confess, when I’m overwhelmed by too many characters, I flip to the last page and skim for the names of those that make it to the end…that way I know who I should be paying attention to. Second, if such a poorly written book was published and sells, yours is a cinch! xoM

    • What’s surprising about this particular book is that it’s not the author’s first. In fact, the author has won major Sci-Fi awards on previous books. But this one’s getting about 3 stars on average on Amazon. It’s not just me. ;) And this might be a case of “established author can get away with this, but new writer can’t.”

      You peek?! Gasp! Shock! Oh, wait. I’ve been known to do that on occasion…. :) But only sometimes.

  9. I enjoyed the way you compared the book’s faults to some that your own manuscript suffered. Your ability to look objectively at your work is admirable and will help you fine tune your manuscript to brilliance.

    We definitely can learn from the less well-written books, though they can be tough to read all the way through. Then again, I worry what others will “learn” from my book; what mistakes they’ll try to avoid in their own? Yikes. I don’t even want to go there. :)

    • I purposely didn’t say which book this was because I don’t feel like I’m in a position to pass judgement, being unpublished. And as I just noted to Margarita, this is an award-winning author. But it’s not getting many good reviews, so I don’t feel too bad about my thoughts.

      I like to think I can be objective, but I certainly needed the feedback from test readers. There were some things I knew needed fixing. But my readers told me how much more remained to be done. :) Now the big hurdle is making changes that will make it better.

      Between your editor’s and your own revisions, I’ll bet yours will rank in the learning good things category. :)

      • Oh, I don’t know about that, but I scored a great editor. He’s already gone through it and sent me his suggestions, which happily are not structural, and thus don’t require major rewrites. So I’ll be a little busy the next couple weeks. :)

        • See? I’ve seen new authors post about all the structural and substantive changes they had to make for their books before publication. It sounds like you’re ahead of the pack already. :)

  10. Ha ha! Thanks for the mention.

    I hadn’t thought about this before, but you are right. A lot can be learned from what NOT to do. I usually give up on a book I don’t care for before taking note on why I don’t like it. Hmmm . . . perhaps I should use the experience as a teachable moment. (That phrase should go on the annoying list.)

    • I wanted to give up on this one, but given the genre, I thought I should stick it out. And I thought about why I didn’t like it. What bothered me? And when I realized they were elements that my test readers pointed out…. Well, that reinforced what they had said.

      Will the annoying list be a section in the editing handbook? :)

  11. Nice post. I never thought how true it could be until the other day. While at work a colleague offered a book for me to read. I couldn’t finish a page. It was terrible. Felt like I was reading their 2nd draft. I could learn a lot on how not to write from that author.
    That being said, I may be able to notice bad writing in another’s work, but in my own work, it is ever elusive.

    • It takes time, but you develop an eye for it. And that’s one reason we need objective readers to look at our early drafts. I wouldn’t send the first draft for critique. When you finish it, put it aside for a few weeks or more, and then go through it again. I guarantee you’ll find plenty to change.

      On the second or third draft, steel yourself for criticism and find a couple of test readers. It’s hard to take, but if you’re serious about being a good writer, it’s critical to get that feedback.

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  13. I usually love time travel stories but a lot of them do go overboard with the historical detail. It’s as if they want to prove that they did their homework. I happen to like the detail but even I find it too much sometimes—it ruins the flow of the story. Too many characters is also a pet peeve of mine—I find myself having to go back to remember who they were, especially if they’re only peripheral characters. Why bother then? There are definitely many authors out there who are great examples of what not to do.

    • For a time travel book, mine is quite focused on our time. We do get to see others, but much of the action takes place here. So I can avoid some of that detailed description. Finding the right balance of enough details to orient the readers but not so many as to put them to sleep is tough. I’m still trying to find it!

      (And I hope you won’t think there are too many characters. The ones that remain will have a role in moving the story forward….)

  14. What you say is so true jm! I recently read a not-so-good book from a well-known writer and all through the story I kept asking myself questions…why is this in here? why did they say that? wait, what just happened? who IS that guy?…In the end, I learned so much from the writer of the book–what NOT to do! Still, I have to ask how in the world did they get published? LOL!

    • I honestly believe established writers with a large enough audience can get away with publishing garbage. I’d bet good money if you or I wrote these two examples, neither would have gotten an agent, let alone a traditional publisher.

      Thank heaven I read my “inspiration” piece as a library loaner on my Kindle and didn’t buy it. I would’ve wasted my money!

  15. Excellent! I learned a lot, too. Having my story officially edited, picked apart, and explained (that was nice) to me has made me more observant of those books and other things around me. It can’t hurt us! Can it?!

  16. I think that bad books are easier to see the flaws and learn the lessons, than good books are to see how everything should work, or could work. You raise some good points. I especially like the part about everything going wrong. Sure there are obstacles, but if everything goes wrong, then all the characters just look like morons. It is a balancing act for sure, but finding a way where your characters can have some successes, with failures which move the plot along, I think show a more balanced character. Well dependant on the story of course.

    Good post!

    • Thanks, Elliot! Yes, I wanted to grab these characters and tell them they were hopeless. They had no business time traveling if they were going to be so incompetent about it! And there comes a point where I say I can’t believe so many bad things are happening to one character. Please give me some sign s/he’s growing/moving forward/reaching the end of the tunnel—something! But constant failure or horrible situations wear on me as a reader.

  17. So true! I loved how you were able to make the connection with your book to help you further. I actually have a few books that I thought were poor for various reasons, and I keep them handy in my bookcase. I will go through them sometimes to make sure I haven’t done what those authors have done. I’ll re-read highlighted passages and notes that I wrote in the margins. These books are just as helpful to me as the books that I think are well-written, that are also sitting in my bookcase.

    • This would be a good one to mark up, but it was a library loaner on my Kindle. And I don’t think I want to spend the money on it! ;) But I hope I’m fixing the same mistakes in my manuscript. I’d like you to think Draft 3 is a significant improvement when you see it. :)

  18. Great post. Loved seeing your comparisons with the book you read and your own. Awesome. Isn’t it fun to see your WIP look more beautiful day by day? That story of yours is going to win the beauty pageant (for writing) when it’s finally done.

    • Sigh. Right now the book looks rather scruffy, and it feels like it will be years before its debut. I need to recognize what’s wrong, though, in order to fix it. But I’m still moving forward. :) Baby steps in molasses, but forward!

  19. I’m more likely to notice what I’m doing wrong when something makes me cringe in another writer’s work, because I stop and ask myself what it was that bothered me so much about it. Errors in a story or novel leap off the page, disrupting the story arc, and so they’re highly visible when we see someone else make them. Having recognized them, any writer who realizes that they have flaws (don’t we all?) knows to look out for them in their own work in the future. Stories I admire contain characteristics I aspire for and nudge me to write; they also encourage me to look for what the author did well. All the same, with a great story, I get lost, I forget to analyze and don’t want to lose my joy in the first read through. I think both are useful. I need that internal cringe followed with “Am I guilty of that?” every bit as much as I need stories and authors that I’m in awe of.

    • If I’d read as much as I should have these last few years, I probably would have learned this valuable lesson earlier. But with only so many hours in the day, writing has to take priority over reading. But I’ve learned I need to leave more time for reading than I have been.

      And it is so hard for me to read good books critically. Like you, I forget to analyze as I get caught up in the story and characters. That’s probably why we have the expression “lost in a good book” and not “trying to escape from a bad book!”

  20. Great insights. Yeah, note to authors: don’t spend so much time decorating the room/scene that even your characters get bored and aimlessly wander off.
    Feel so much better now about skipping paragraphs of details in books to get the point where the character do something…anything. (Always felt a little guilty that the author worked to get those paragraphs just like they wanted, and I just ran right past)
    great read

    • Oh, I love that advice! It sounds terrible for a writer to say she skims while reading, doesn’t it? But I’ve always been a quick reader. And as a working adult, there just isn’t as much time to read at a leisurely pace.

      I enjoy some description. And I can probably handle more than most readers. But too much of anything is too much. Finding the right balance is just one of the challenges of writing. And I still have a way to go myself.I think I’m getting better at recognizing some of the weak points in my own work.

  21. Very nice post, and I think you’ve really hit on something – looking at what not to do in other books because you can see how it turns you off. Seeing that you’ve done some of the same things yourself leads to the next step, which is seeing how you actually fell into those mistakes so you can feel the impulse as it comes upon you the next time and NOT DO IT.

    • That is what I really hope to take from this—to not make some of the same mistakes in the next works. We never stop learning in life (well, we shouldn’t), and writers can always improve—whether it’s from book 1 to book 2 or to book 20. I also hope I can reduce the number of revisions needed in the future.

      This particular book really reinforced the points my test readers had raised. I was already working to clean up the draft, but I think this experience will help me whip this version into better shape than I might have before.

  22. I’ve definitely learned more from reading a book I disliked. But reading craft books and then reading books I love also reinforces what is working and why for me. And the books I love definitely inspire me to stretch my writing abilities.

    My biggest pet peeve is too much setting. If a writer spends two pages describing a room–I’m out. Like seriously I can’t take it. It drives me bat shit crazy. :) That is a technical term I stole from True Blood. :P

    • Books I love are definitely inspiring. It’s just hard for me to get a handle on good lessons with them because I get so caught up in the story and characters! When a writer has done a good job with the words and structure and pacing and tone…..well, it reads so effortlessly. But we know how much work goes into that illusion. :)

      Did you happen to see philosophermouse’s comment above about decorating the room? It’s perfect! I enjoy good fantasy, but that overdescription often kills it for me. Yes, we need more details when it comes to fantasy or alien worlds to help the reader “see” the setting. But I don’t need 500 pages of it!

      I get to escape part of that in my sci-fi book since much of it takes place on Earth in our time. :)

  23. Poor dialogue. Unrealistic characters. Flat action. Overly complex prose. I’ve come across it all and it always drives me bonkers. Less so these days though… Probably because I’m reading a lot of different styles and genres instead of just high fantasy and horror.

  24. Pingback: A Character’s View On The Book—Madeleine O’Brien « jmmcdowell

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