NaNo Tip No. 22: Read Bad Books

Yesterday Scott talked about the importance of rereading books you love to figure out how the writer made you react the way you did. He advised rereading good books. Today I’m going to recommend reading and examining bad books.

This may sound like strange advice but often you learn more from examining a broken thing than something that’s in perfect working order. It’s actually easier to do this than it is to figure out how a good book achieves its effects. This is because it’s much harder to get sucked into the narrative of a book that’s broken. Every time I reread Pride and Prejudice I have to work crazy hard to look closely at the writing and avoid getting absorbed with Lizzy Bennet’s story all over again.

The next time you’re reading a book that you hate, stop and figure out why. What is it that the book is doing to annoy you? How is it broken? Are the characters thin and unbelievable? What in the writing makes you feel that way about them? Why do you think the plot makes no sense? What would you have to do to fix it? Look carefully at the text and identify what’s not working and then—and this is the important part—figure out how it could be made to work.

Now all you have to do is to avoid doing any of those things in your own writing. And remember all your excellent solutions to those plot snarls and lame characters, because one day you may need them to fix your own broken novel.

Easy peasy!


  1. RJSWriter on #

    Ha. I started a book yesterday and am disliking it thoroughly — there is a line between paying homage to Tolkien, and engaging in cringe-inducing imitation. But I will try to finish it….

  2. Rebecca on #

    hmm. i did that with the last book i read. that is excellent advice. at first when i read the title for the advice, i was like, “WHY?!” but now i see what you mean.

  3. Jim Breslin on #

    Funny. I find this hard to do. I am reading a book of short stories now and the second story was unreadable! I would like to take the story and have my son’s high school English teacher grade it. I worry when I read bad prose that I will develop those bad habits. I think to myself, “well, they did it and still got published!”

  4. Philip on #


    Sorry, I’m just surprised to see someone else out there has realized what I have, that the bad books and movies and whatnot can be just as instructive as the good, in that they teach you what not to do.

    If anyone out there is interested in seeing a really in-depth analysis of bad books, there’s a blogger who goes by the name Slacktivist who, for a few years now, has been going through the Left Behind series and picking out how atrocious these books are. He’s an evangelist like the books’ writers, so there is a lot of theological discussion to sift through. But even if that’s not your thing, he also examines the mechanics of charactertization, dialogue, plot structure, cliches, and all other things literary.

    The only thing more impressive than how bad these books are (and they are front-runners for the worst books of all time) is his committment to this project.

    He has an archive of his posts starting at, but be aware they’re in reverse order (ie. newest posts are at the front of the archive).

  5. Jessie Sams on #

    I completely agree! I keep a section on my bookshelves for books I don’t like, and I try to keep them in mind as I’m writing my own book. I think it’s often easier to write when you know what *not* to do rather than trying to remember all the things you should be doing. I think I like more about books than I dislike, so for me thinking about the negatives is a more focused way of providing a writing guide. I’ve also found it serves as motivation: If that book can get published, mine can, too!

    It may not work for everyone, but I embrace it. 🙂

  6. Justine on #

    RJSWriter: This method turns your suffering into something useful.

    Rebecca: Awesome that you’re already doing it!

    Jim: I think that if you’re consciously looking at why the writing is bad it’s very unlikely the bad writing will contaminate your own.

    Philip: Yup his commentary is just astonishing. I could not do it. I am all admiration.

    Jessie: Exactly. My first published novels—the MorM trilogy—were inspired by all the bad fantasy I’d read.

  7. Joe Iriarte on #

    I’ve heard that advice before, and tried to buy into it. For the most part, though, I find that the flaws I notice in other people’s works are things I notice precisely because they’re the things I *don’t* do. So I end up mostly validating my choices but not typically learning something new.

    On the other hand, I was recently reading a big fat book in a popular fantasy series who actually *did* have one of my biggest faults as a writer–the tendency to go on at to much length, to really drive every point home. And it gave me a real clear experience of how frustrating and even infuriating it would be for my readers when I did the same thing.

    So . . . um, no real bottom line here. I just thought it was interesting. Wish I could figure out a way to implement that advice effectively every time.

  8. wandering-dreamer on #

    So all those books I hated in AP Lit are going to become important someday after all? Dangit, now I actually have to remember them! Although after reading Mrs. Dalloway I decided to never write a book in astral-projection, stream of consciousness POV….

  9. Laura Sibson on #

    Dear Justine,

    Thank you for your words of encouragement re: NaNo when I met you today at Children’s Book World. I’m very much looking forward to reading LIAR when NaNo is over!

    I appreciated your post as well. Though I dread going back to books I’ve abandoned, I can see the value in trying to tease out what didn’t work for me.

    Thanks for all the tips and for your gracious nature.

  10. Katie-wa on #

    Editing is probably the best way to learn how to write. You see lots of different styles, mistakes, and things that work. But of course, writing is the best way to become good at writing. ^_^ It’s good to keep learning, but you have to do the writing part to actually GAIN those abilities, rather than just know them. Great tip.

  11. Carrie Ryan on #

    Great advice! I also learned a ton not just from reading bad books but also from judging unpublished entries in contests and critiquing. Often the books we read have already been vetted and edited but contest entries haven’t and you’re likely to see flaws and understand how they get in the way of the reading experience. I def feel like I learned a lot about too-long openings and generic details/characters by doing this. Plus, you’re often helping someone out in the process.

  12. Rhiannon Hart on #

    I think that’s the best thing about writing courses–reading everyone’s bad writing and pinpointing exactly why a piece is not working. It’s incredibly helpful for your own writing.

  13. Chris on #

    I’m so glad that I can recognize bad writing now when I see it. Always fun to go back and re-read a book you once thought great only to realize otherwise.

  14. Amber on #

    This is true. When I read a bad book, I criticize it and think of everything that I would do differently. When I read a good book I think, “this is awesome!” but don’t want to take the time to dissect why, and though I do try to figure out why as I’m going, I just try to enjoy it.

  15. Mac on #

    In an odd way, I’ve sometimes found reading books I don’t want to imitate more helpful than reading books I wish I COULD imitate, but am too busy being intimidated by!

  16. sylvia_rachel on #

    This is excellent advice.

    I think it’s important, though, to distinguish between bad books and books I don’t like (although of course these categories will often overlap). For instance, I detest every novel I’ve read by Thomas Hardy (his poetry is OK), but his books were very popular and influential and continue to be widely read, and not only by unfortunate Grade 11 students slaving away in English A HL courses; and when I can manage to turn off my dislike for them even I can see that they have their merits. Similarly, one may dislike an entire (sub)genre, but this doesn’t make a books published in that genre ipso facto a bad book.

    I find the most useful application of this technique is to take apart a book I dislike in a genre that I generally like — IOW, a book I had every reason to think I would like before I started reading it — and try to be really objective about why I don’t like it and, as you say, what would have to change in order for me to enjoy it.

  17. Lauren on #

    I know that this has nothing to do with the NanoMo writing tips but I just read you’re story out of “Love is Hell” and I was wondering why I couldn’t find it on here…. and also if you had written a different ending because that story has left me wanting more….. Also (Sorry Scott!) But your story was WAY better than any of them…..

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