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Read Terrible Books

This guest post is by Kristi Boyce. Kristi can be found on her very funny blog, The Lady Doth Protest Too Much (Pop Quiz: what Shakespeare play is her blog named after?) and on Twitter (@KristiBoyce).

The top five slots on this week’s New York Times bestseller list (for combined hardcover and paperback fiction) include three books by E.L. James, one by Deborah Harkness, and another by James Patterson.

Oh, yes. Summertime beach reading is in full swing. But before you shame yourself for buying one of those guilty pleasures, try a different approach to reading. One that gives you license to read terrible books every now and then.

Allow me to speak from experience. Story time.

Beach Reading, Trashy Books, Guilty Pleasure, 50 Shades of Grey

Photo by Will Ockenden

I should’ve stopped on page six, but didn’t.

“”She smoked like a chimney.”

What?! How did a cliché like that get past editors? No. How could a professional writer–a former New York Times columnist who went on to become the editor of a major Condé Nast magazine– PUT IT ON A PAGE?

It was a red flag, but I ignored it. Two hundred pages later, I closed the book with a “So glad that’s over.” (If you’re like me, you have a weird, completely illogical guilt that comes with leaving books unfinished.)

Lessons From Terrible Books

But you know what? I learned a lot in the process.

Because at page 75, I grabbed a pencil and started a rollicking game of Highfalutin Book Editor. (What, you’ve never heard of it?) I crossed out superfluous words, metaphors that tried too hard, overused adjectives (how many times is “gossamer” really necessary?) and–at the end of one chapter–wrote “WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THE LAST 20 PAGES??”

I learned a lot because I forced myself to read with a hypercritical eye. It felt like I was mentally teaching that writer how to improve, which was a great method for ingraining certain writing lessons into my own mind.

Brain research shows that we remember 90% of what we teach, so playing Highfalutin Book Editor might not be such a bad idea. Bust it out at parties.

Of course, it’s hard to play that game with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Or Fyodor Dostoevsky. Or Mark Twain. When I read The Greats, the game that usually ensues is Try Not To Get Too Depressed With What A Poseur I Am. Obviously, we learn the most from great literature, so it should take up most of our reading list.

But if you’re heading out for a beach vacation soon, don’t feel too guilty over picking up the latest Janet Evanovich or Dan Brown novel. Just be sure to bring a pencil.

PRACTICE

Spend fifteen minutes playing Highfalutin Book Editor.

Go to your bookshelf and pick out a terrible book (you know you have some!). Select a passage–maybe four or five sentences–that could use some help. (If it’s a truly terrible book, this shouldn’t be hard to find.) Rework it. Gut the entire thing if necessary. Post your shiny new version of the passage in the comments below, and be sure to type up the original version so we can see your improvements!

 

About Kristi Boyce

  • The moment I finished reading the practice, a book title (maybe two) automatically popped into my head.

  • Kristi, I’m with you in that I must finish reading a book no matter how bad it is. This is a great exercise. I’m naturally critical of books like this so I’m glad you’re encouraging me in that. 😉

    And, Joe, I think we found Wednesday’s word: gos­samer

    Katie

    • 🙂

      That’s going to be the word for the whole year. People really need to know that one. 😉

      • Marianne

        I love gossamer. It was my favorite word when I was young.  It comes from Goose Summer, the time of year when webs clung to the ground and trees in the early morning.  At least that’s what a word-a-day dictionary I had said.  It’s hard to use in writing though.  I like egregious too.  

        • Mmm… that’s beautiful, Mariane. I didn’t know that. Now I really am going to make it a word of the week!

          I’m a fan of egregious too. Why do there have to be so many fun adjectives when I try so hard not to use too many adjectives.

          • I’ve to be honest here. Didn’t know what egregious meant before reading it here and looking it up.

            I like laconic and cacophony (though cacophony isnt an adjective)

          • Marianne

            I didn’t think of that. I’ll try to think of some good verbs and nouns.  We should be concentrating on them anyway since they’re the basics.  

        • Steph

          Love that, Marianne. I will always think of gossamer and Goose Summer now when I see that.

  • Tim

    Thanks, good exercise to do.  When I finished reading it I flew on gossamer wings to my nearest indie book store and said gimme your worst novel.  Another exercise a writing teaching told me about is find the earliest published writing of one of the greats (Twain, Hemingway, O. Henry…I’m looking at early Joseph Mitchell now) and do a similar exercise, comparing it to their later more mature writing.

    • Wow, great idea! I get caught up in thinking that the Twains and Hemingways of the world have ALWAYS written the way they have. 

      EVERY writer is capable of improving…what a concept! 😉

  • Laurie

    Get out your Kindle, filter to your genre of choice, and download the first 99 cent book you find.  It is that easy to do what Kristi suggested. 

    Actually, I am thankful to the brave authors who have written those self-published works. Until I read a few of these things, I never thought I could be a writer, though it has always been a secret dream. I just knew I wasn’t good enough to come close to my idols. But after reading a few of the indie writers out there (with 4 and 5 star reviews!) I realized that I could do better than *that*—and thus I became a writer! 

    Not very noble to be inspired by weak stuff rather than some epic novel, but there you  have it. I’m also taking the Berkeley Editing Sequence on-line. If I can’t make a go of my own writing, I can certainly found a profitable business providing editing services for all those indie writers out there…

    • HA! I love this because I can so relate.

      Writing takes a lot of courage, and most writers are insecure because very rarely do we get “real” validation of our abilities. Olympic sprinters can immediately look up at the clock and see their time. We have nothing like that, so if you need to scoff at a crappy indie novel every now and then to make yourself feel good, I think that’s warranted 🙂

      • Laurie

        It does take a lot of courage, but once you start it’s addictive! BTW, I live in Sandy-I would love to get together sometime and compare notes.

  • Trish Barton

    I, too, suffer from the affliction of finishing every book I touch.  Magazines too.  There’s a stack on my desk.  I will not throw them out until I’ve looked through each one.  My husband believes that if, God forbid, anything should happen to him, I will soon drown in piles of books, magazines, newspapers and paper in general.  

    On to the subject of bad books.   Yes, I read the whole Twilight series.  I must admit I enjoyed them, as much as someone enjoys piles of candy they know will add fat rolls to the thighs.  I couldn’t stop reading though I knew most of it was horrendous for my literary health.

    Case in point: From Twilight’s Preface, 1st Paragraph: 

    I’d never given much thought to how I would die — though I’d had reason enough in the last few months — but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.  

    UGH.  I’d had?  Isn’t that redundant? I had had.  Too many has, haves, etc.

    Here’s my revision:

    I’ve never thought much about my own death, which is remarkable after these past few months.  But even if I did, this is not how I would imagine dying.

    •  Amen Sister!  I now know that I am not alone.  Thanks for the great post.

    • She definitely deserves credit for that! People don’t make movies out of boring stories 🙂

      • Trish Barton

        Yes, she does.  Like I said, the books hooked me!  🙂

    • Steph

      Good eyes! Yours is much smoother. 

  • The problem with being an editor as well as a writer is that I’m over-the-top picky. Fortunately, I don’t have your particular compulsion to finish a read. Don’t like it? Hit Delete. Though I do think your writing-improvement program has merit!

    What helps my writing is putting my work on my Kindle. It’s absolutely amazing how many sloppily crafted sentences I can find that way. 

    • Marianne

      I didn’t  know you could put writing on a Kindle.  Maybe I have the wrong kind.  Why do you say you find more sloppily crafted sentences that way.  I’m probably being dense here but I would like to try that if I can figure out how to do it.  

  • The last time I typed a passage from a published book (granted, a rather long passage) on the blog, I got my knuckles rapped for violation of copyright.  But I know I’ve got at least one terrible book just as you describe, so I may be back later today with a re-work of a SHORT  passage . . . .  

    • Sorry about that John! The only reason your knuckles got rapped is because MY knuckles got rapped for suggesting it!

  • I had the world’s greatest time doing this!  My guilty pleasure was Amanda Hocking’s, My Blood Aproves.  Even though it was an NPR interview with Hocking that inspired me to ditch the conventional route and self-publish, I had a field day playing Highfalutin Book Editor with her barely edited work.

    Thanks for this!

  • Allyhawkins

    I also have an illogical guilt if I don’t finish a book. I wonder how many readers have it.  Not long ago I picked up one of the Gossip Girls books, and was irrated by the second page. That one I did put down and haven’t picked up again. I started it because I write YA and those books have been hugely popular and successful. Maybe I’ll give it a second go with a red pen in my hand. Thoroughly enjoyed your post and I’m off to go check out your Lady.

    • Marla

      I have the same problem! I’ve read some terrible books, thinking the author worked hard to write it.

  • My guilty pleasure is true crime.  (The books are easier to hide now that I download them.)But recently, and this is harder to admit, I bought (downloaded) Fifty Shades of Grey, after two of my friends promised me it was worth the read.  Oh no!  Such bad writing, and not sexy at all, at least to me.  Maybe because I was spanked as a child.  Just bad dialogue between an underfed naive college girl and an overbearing rich guy.  Oh My! and Oh Gee! show up a lot to show emotion.

    Lesson here?  It’s okay if you’re treated badly as long as the prizes include computers, cars, and 1st class airfare.  I even read that the S&M community is angry because the book puts THEM in a bad light.

    Anyway, here’s a rewrite of an early paragraph.  Note the number of adjectives.

    Behind the solid sandstone desk, a very attractive, groomed,
    blond young woman smiles pleasantly at me. 
    She’s wearing the sharpest charcoal suit jacket and white shirt I have
    ever seen.  She looks immaculate.

    REWRITE

    The receptionist smiles at me from behind her desk, which is
    sandstone, like the floors and the walls. 
    It’s a sea of blond in here, I think. Blond walls, blond women, blond
    furniture.  I ask to see Christian Grey,
    and I see her right eyebrow twitch.  “Is
    he expecting you?” she asks, and tugs the cuff of her white blouse.  It is so heavily starched I think it might
    break, like ice falling from the roof.

     

    • SO refreshing to hear about another person who hates “Fifty Shades” for all the reasons I do! I haven’t read it, but my beef isn’t that it’s “mommy porn.” I refuse to read it not because I’m a Mormon, but because I’m a feminist. The message that “Fifty Shades” gives to women is just vile.

      ANYWAY.

      I LOVE your rewrite! It has tension that the original passage lacks. Well done!!

      • Marla

        I’m right there with you, Kristi!

    • Steph

      Blech, I hated 50 Shades, too! It started out as just a horribly written book, then slid into smut, and then jumped off the cliff into a pit of just plain vile. I ditched it halfway through. Obviously, your rewrite here is superior, Marla!

      • Marla

        I read EL wrote it on a fan fiction site & Christian was a vampire in the first draft. Still, terrible writing and a depressing story. I hear there’s gong to be a movie, oh my!

    • Marianne

      Pretty horrible. I had a friend that downloaded it because it was a best seller (she never listens to me when I tell her best seller doesn’t mean best), and she was horrified when when she found out what it was about.  She is sure she is now black listed as some kind of S&M pervert on the web  because she downloaded it on her Kindle. I almost laughed out loud when listening to her tell me about that.  She seemed a bit irritated with me like I should have steered her away from reading it.  I’d never heard of it until she told me about it.  She was peeved! (sorry I had to write it)

      • Way to use your vocab. 🙂

      •  Oh no!  Tell her if she’s on the list, she’s in good company.  The author is  rich from all the sales, so it would take them a while to track us all down!

      • Tim

        Perhaps we could pitch an idea to Kindle.  We could suggest they develop the electronic equivalent of a “plain brown wrapper” to deliver such books in.  If the Post Office could accomplish it in the past, Kindle and the internet should be able to do it now.  Perhaps Marianne’s friend could meet someone in an alley and they could slip her an electronic version of FSOG surreptiously.  I could see her now proffering her Kindle to the “pusher”, he plugs a mysterious black box into her Kindle, waits 2 minutes and then slips away into the night as the friend ducks back into a taxi.

        • Marla

          I LOVE this idea?

  • Kristi, I obviously don’t have your patience or endurance. I can put up with poor writing if the story is great. Or wondrous writing that goes on…and on…and… (Ann Radcliffe’s old gothics)

    But if a book has neither of these redeeming qualities, I read the ending and toss the book.

    That being said, I’m a huge fan of children’s picture books. Probably because I’ve taught preschool for many years and so my academics and humor level are stuck at age 4.

    • Marianne

      I like children’s books too, especially the illustrations.  My mother was a librarian at an elementary school, and my sister is one now.  They always had wonderful books to share with the rest of us. 

  • Steph

    This exercise is perfect for me because I accidentally downloaded what might be the stupidest book in the history of books last night. I saw the title and confused it for another on my “to-read” list, what can I say? 

    The whole premise of this story is so inane that I couldn’t figure out what to address at first, but I decided to pick on the setting. In this dreadful romance, the characters attend a vague “Eastern University,” which, from the skimming I have done, is a smallish institution without any pretenses of greatness. While this is fitting for the cast, which is composed of idiots, I think a more prominent and exact setting would inspire the development of more compelling players who could then drive a more interesting story. 

    So….I hereby change “Eastern University to:

    Following freshman orientation, I stood in front of the triumvirate arched portals to Stanford University. I viewed the waves of red tiled roofs with a feeling of nausea akin to the motion sickness I feel when I launch my sailboat on the harbor on a windy day: I was excited, but I didn’t have my sea legs yet. These Mission Revival buildings held the laboratories that would become my home over the next four years of honors pre-med coursework. Little did I know an obscure organic chemistry stockroom in the basement of one of those sandstone buildings also hid Travis’s secrets, and Travis was the first man I would come to love.

    • Marianne

      I know what you mean about vague settings.  It only takes a few sentences for you to describe the setting, explain her feeling, say why she is there, and set up the romance that I assume will be what the book is about.  I don’t know how people get away with that kind of “blank” writing that doesn’t hold anyone’s attention. 
        

  • Loved the post. I have played Highfalutin book editor, but now I have a great name for it! I am the same way, it’s very hard for me not to finish a book. I read the 50 Shades trilogy because I’m weird that way – had to see what all the hoopla was about. The story was different from any I’ve read but the writing was as bad as everyone is saying, or worse. I was also glad to see Janet Evanovich on your list, I started on her series to put the book down after chapter three. Thanks for the great post!

  • Thanks Kristi (and Joe :-). I just read “Fifty Shades of Crap” and can really relate. Also read a bunch of romance that is execrable but… I discovered there is something alluring about a happy ending, though I’m usually in the literary camp. So there you go. A guilty pleasure out of some pretty lame writing. At least we know what not to aspire to!

  • Antonia

    I’m the same. I can’t put down a book, even if I hate it. If I do manage to put it down, there’s always an illogical voice telling me that I need to finish it. I read Twilight ok, but by the time I was up to page 150 of New Moon I had to put it down. That was three years ago, and the voice is still telling me that I need to finish it, though I’m pleased to say that the feeling gradually fades over time.

  • David Eubanks

    I do and have done what you suggest, but I include good books too. I would add that to make the activity most useful, one has to have a good handle on writing principles and guidelines. Relating the “mistakes” you find in someone’s text are best retained if you can relate it to a principle you hold in mind. Otherwise, what you may end up with is a very long, incoherent list of complaints.

  • I’m sorry, I completely disagree with this post. Writing best-selling stories is a talent, whether or not those stories include cliches.

    Too much writing advice focuses on the small things that don’t matter a whole lot (e.g. cliches, grammar, style) and ignore the important stuff (marketing, writing every day, getting & holding attention, story structure).

    That said, you made me smile Kristi. Cheers 🙂

    P.S. I agree with reading “terrible” books. I just don’t agree that they’re necessarily terrible because they include cliches.

  • i do this naturally now…. i dont remember when i started but i did. when reading divergent my mind was in full swing. not that it wasn’t an engaging book. i enjoyed it. but it wasn’t a good well written book. same with i am number four. 🙂 and city of ashes.  well for city of ashes, its just that i wasn’t interested in the people anymore… but i feel like i have to finish the series. 🙁

  • Now I feel better about all the ‘NOTE TO SELF’s that came from the terrible book I just did NOT finish…. I couldn’t even make it half way through, but I learned a lot about what NOT to do.

  • This is so true. I have a list of badly written books that I have learned so much from. You can see the mistakes so much better in someone else’s work. I also love playing editor because it keeps me thinking of how to fix scenes and make their story better. Loved this article.

  • Oooh, brilliant idea! I’m usually overwhelmed by the great books on my reading list–Shakespeare is rather daunting.

  • Hilarious! I do this mentally as I’m reading sometimes, especially if the editor of the book decided that things like periods and proper verb tenses were just fine to leave out of books.

  • brando

    I wrote my first short story ever and published it on amazon, i was never taught to write except for whatever i learned in high school so i had to try to pick it up on my own.no one has read my story yet so if anyone wants to read it and tell me how i could improve i would be grateful. it is called
    My Deathbed Conversation with Steven Spielberg: A Short Story