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.