Writers can learn best from the worst

The not so great book disappointed me as a reader. When I read, I want to be taken on that magic ride. But as a writer it was gold.

One of the crazy things about being a writer and an editor is that it’s very difficult to read anything without picking it apart, editing it in the head, considering what could have been done differently. I can’t even watch TV — or TV commercials — without doing that. Every time I see that Ford commercial that urges drivers to “Go further” I yell at the TV, “Farther! It’s FARTHER! OMG!”

I find I do this — not the yelling, just the noticing — even with good writers. It’s more appreciative than critical. Recognizing what they’re doing in a particular passage, how they do their dialogue, how they weave in descriptions and information without plopping down a paragraph of exposition. I can’t help myself. I find myself saying, “Oh yeah, I see what he’s doing here. Good lesson.” And I’ve learned something I can tweak my own writing with.

The exception to this is the really, really good writers. I learn nothing as a writer from them while I’m reading their books. They suck me right into their story and I forget it’s a book. I am in their world. They weave magic and I’m grateful for the ride.

The best teachers, I’ve found, are the not-so-good writers. No magic ride here — more like frost heaves, speed bumps and potholes. You want to get to the destination, but boy is it a slow trip. Gives you plenty of time to think about what’s slowing you down.

I thought a lot about this last week as I tried to get through my pile of library books before they were due. I read two Richard Russo books in three days. He’s one of my favorites. Whenever I read one of his books, I’m too busy falling into the story to remember to pay attention to how he constructed it. When I come back up for air, usually at about 3 a.m. because I couldn’t put it down, I say “How did he do that?” Hell, I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention, I was too lost in the story.

On the other hand, I read a not so great book last week, too. The plot didn’t come together. Characters weren’t well-developed. There were too many adverbs and adjectives, those words ending in ly that can drag a sentence down. I get really impatient with people doing things instinctively, asking questions curiously and running quickly.

Dialogue didn’t make sense in a lot of places. Or almost as annoying, people said things that didn’t follow from what the other person said, something I call contrived dialogue. It doesn’t flow easily and you end up stopping while you try to figure out why the character would make that reply to the other character’s statement. I actually go back through dialogue to figure out if I missed something. Talk about losing focus on a story. One of the most important things a writer must do is keep the reader engaged (right! like the really great ones do). Then there’s the inattention to time passage and day and night. Throws me right out of the story when time is all over the place.

On top of it, I figured out who the murderer was on page 60. Not from any clues the writer had given or anything else. Simply from the fact that he seemed to be a satellite character, but was getting a lot more detailed attention than other satellite characters. So at the end, I wasn’t surprised. Kind of like an episode of The Mentalist.

The more I focus on what’s going on writing-wise, the less involved I am in the world the writer wanted to take me to.

The book bummed me out. I’ve read this author’s books before and always come away dissatisfied. I finish them because I want to know who the murderer is and why, but it’s a lot of work to read a book that makes me take constant mental notes about what not to do with my own writing.

And I certainly didn’t feel that deep, satisfying want-to-make-everyone-else-read-it feeling I got after finishing both Russo books.

Yes, the not so great book disappointed me as a reader. When I read, I want to be taken on that magic ride. But as a writer it was gold. Going back to my own writing, I’ll take the lessons I learned from Ms. Unsatisfying to heart and try not to do what she did.
As for Russo? I can only dream of doing what he did, but I’m glad I wasn’t paying enough attention to figure it out, though — it would have spoiled the ride.


About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Notes from a Cranky Editor all by herself, as well Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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3 Responses to Writers can learn best from the worst

  1. Karla says:

    “They suck me right into their story and I forget it’s a book. I am in their world. They weave magic and I’m grateful for the ride.” So true. And so rare.

  2. Great post. I am the same sort of reader, and so GRATEFUL for the books that are so good I don’t notice how they are made.

  3. Me too.
    But it makes me crazy slowing down on a really good book and trying to figure out how the author did it.
    I’m reading a lot of indie books lately. Lesson learned?
    Be sure to get your book professionally edited.

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