Reading Terrible Books Isn’t a Waste of Time

A writer I really admire said the greatest piece of advice she can give to aspiring writers is to read good literature.  And she isn’t the only person I’ve heard/read this piece of advice from.  It makes sense: read good literature, learn what works.  Read enough good literature and you’ll see patterns, rules, and formulas emerge.  When you are first getting started, this is incredibly helpful.

I’ve been a lover of classic literature since my youth.  I read Little Women at age 10.  Next came Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.  High school introduced me to Pride and Prejudice and my instantaneous love of all things Austen.  During college and for several years after, I rarely bought a book unless it was considered a “classic.” (Harry Potter being the obvious exception!)  All that changed with those damn Twilight books.

For the record, I read all four books in about a week.  Also for the record, I saw immediately the lack of quality in the writing of Twilight, which enhanced my perception of the brilliance of the writing in my beloved classics.  To this day, I will tell anyone who asks that, yes, I’ve read Twilight.  I will also tell them that I’m not a “fan” of Twilight, but I have to admire Stephanie Myers a little anyways.

The quality of the writing in Twilight is very poor, in my opinion.  It’s all adjectives and repetition and teenage angst.  However, the plotting- the actual story and the world created- is pretty damn good.  I read all four books because even though I was annoyed by the poor writing quality, I was caught up in the story.  I wanted to know what happened.  It also made me want to write.

Before I read the Twilight books, the only thing I could have compared my own writing to was Austen, Dickens, Eliott, Hardy, etc.  How could I compete with such masters of storytelling?  I would always find myself lacking.  I never even gave writing a thought, and I think that’s why.

But after reading Twilight, I felt confident that I could write something, if not better, than at least AS good.  And if Stephanie Myers could write a 4 book series, the least I could do would be to write one book.  So I did.

I’m so glad I read the series.  It gave me a week’s work of guilty pleasure and a lifetime of satisfaction in knowing that I managed to write a book.  My book probably isn’t ever going to be published and while I like it, I can’t testify with any certainty to it’s quality.  But that’s not even the point, is it?  Knowing that I accomplished something so huge as simply putting the words down on paper and making sense out of them is enough.

I recently started reading another book, which I also find to be lacking in the quality-writing department.  Friends kept mentioning the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy to me (and later the Fifty Shades of Grey movie), insisting that I read it.  Like Twilight, I resisted for as long as I could, but eventually my curiosity got the better of me.  Unlike Twilight, I was prepared for less-than-stellar writing.  I’d read a few reviews and looked up the backstory behind the book (it started out as Twilight Fan Fiction then was self-published. There’s that damn Twilight again).  I knew what to expect.

My expectations were met- which isn’t often said for books.  The book isn’t bad (so maybe the title of this post should be “Reading Just Okay Books Isn’t a Waste of Time”), it’s just not good.  The writing quality is okay, there aren’t any major grammatical errors and it’s easy to read, but it feels forced a lot of the time.  The author likes adjectives and repetition, just like Mrs. Myers, and, in my opinion, she likes to sound smart (some of you may question my use of the word “sound” here, maybe you’d like “appear” better?).  But in attempting to sound smart, she comes off as the opposite, and frankly it makes me think that she’s trying too hard.  Writing should flow, it should feel natural and easy, but as I’m reading it, I can’t help but wonder if she had a dictionary, thesaurus, and medical journal open in front of her at all times so she could find the perfect, intelligent-sounding words for every occasion.  I’m only half-way through the book and she’s already used the term “medulla oblongata” TWICE.  Really?  Is that necessary?  I don’t think so (unless you are the Waterboy).  Also, her characters “giggle” way too much for 20-somethings.

I worry now that I may be coming off as trying to sound smart, too, so I’ll get to my point.  I’m appreciating this book because of it’s writing.  I know, that’s confusing, isn’t it?  What I mean is, I appreciate seeing all of the things I don’t like because it makes me realize changes I need to make to my own book.  I know I still have a long way to go before Twenty-Five is publishable (even self-publishable).  I find myself noting similarities between Fifty Shades and Twenty-Five and realizing that I have a lot of editing to do to produce the quality of writing I want representing me.

So I will persevere.  I will finish the book.  I may even read the whole series.  I probably won’t call myself a fan, but I’ll probably like it in the end.  Not in the same way I like P&P or Bleak House, but in the same way I like Twilight: as a satisfying-in-the-moment guilty pleasure whose movie(s) will probably be much, much better than the actual book(s).  And I’ll continue to allow myself to get talked into reading these trendy books, because just like great literature teaches me how to be great, terrible books teach me how not to be.

           

Starting with Action…

When I was workshopping Twenty-Five on TNBW, several reviewers told me I needed to delete the opening scene and jump straight into the action.  So many reviewers in fact, that eventually I broke down and listened to them.  And I didn’t have second doubts about following that advice until I got my rejection from Scott Eagan.  He said that there was a lack of character development.  I wondered at the time if my character development suffered because I deleted the opening scene.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately.  I’ve read 13 books since the start of the year.  And not a single one of them starts off going straight into the action.  Granted, one is Jane Austen and no books from the early nineteenth century started with action (at least none that I’ve read), but the other 12 are all late twentieth or twenty-first century.  So….  My thoughts on that are that maybe I don’t need to start with action immediately.  Maybe that’s just a rule they throw out in writing workshops and on agent blogs because it sounds great in theory and because books that do it well, do it great.  But it doesn’t make sense for my romance novel which is based around the characters and not around what happens.

I took a couple days and re-read my MS.  Again.  And I really noticed the lack of character development at the beginning.  I was shocked, honestly.  I never thought that was a problem I had.  I assumed the biggest problem with Twenty-Five was that the plot wasn’t unique enough, which is still a problem when it comes to writing the query, but I actually think it kinda works for this book.  Anyways, my point was, it looks like you can’t listen to everything reviewers say.  Now, I’m not stupid or vapid or naive enough to believe that if I add that scene back in it’s going to magically fix my character development problem.  The opening scene is going to need a lot of editing and the action scene is going to need a lot of editing to make it work with the opening.  It’s going to be a lot of work.  But I believe in this book.  And I know I’ve said that a million times.  But I do.  So I’m going to do the work and I’m actually kind of excited about it.  It kind of makes me sick at the same time, but I’m going to focus on the excitement.

Creative Void

I’m feeling a bit of a creative void.  It’s not writer’s block, it’s more of a listlessness.  A non-desire to write, create, produce.

I got a really bad review of a chapter of Twenty-Five a couple of weeks ago.  The reader said the characters were cookie cutter, the sentence structure monotonous, and the dialogue cliche.  They said “there’s no story here.”

Of course, reading a review like that is like diving head first into freezing cold water.  It’s a shock to the system.  You wonder- did this person read my work and actually think that?  or were they just being mean and spiteful?  I have to believe that it’s a little bit of a mixture of the two extremes.

I know, deep in my heart, that my characters are not cookie cutter.  They have histories, dreams, plans for the future.  I know what they look like, how they act, their likes and dislikes.  I’ve thought them through completely and I didn’t just base them on the archetypal characters you see in book after book, story after story.  However, I can understand how, in an isolated chapter, without the buildup of the beginning of the story and their relationship, a reader would miss their complexity and depth.

With the monotonous sentence structure comment, I think the reader may have a point.  I’ve been reading through my book slowly the last couple of nights and I think I do have issues with varying sentence structure.  There just aren’t that many ways to structure a series of actions without getting into lavish descriptions and similes and metaphors, which I hate.  So, one of my goals is to find fresher ways of saying what I want to say.

As far as the dialogue being cliche, I have to say- WHOA.  I am really surprised anyone would say that about my dialogue because if there’s one thing  that 99.99% of my readers have agreed on, it’s my realistic dialogue.  I can only assume that this is another instance of the isolated chapter, but will defend myself a little in saying that real people in real life use cliches when they talk.  Cliches are around for a reason- they are recognizable, memorable.  Just about everything we say in everyday life can be considered cliche.  For example, if I write this exchange:

“Hey.”

“Hey, how are you?”

“Fine, you?”

“Fine.”

is the cliche police going to strike it down and tell me I can’t use it?

The last comment is the one that really hurt.  “There’s no story here.”  I’ve put my blood, sweat, and tears into this book for the past year (and yes, I realize blood, sweat, and tears is cliche, too) and for someone to tell me there’s no story there, I mean, I can’t even express how much that hurts.  I know its not the first bad review that I’ve gotten, and I know it won’t be the last, but DAMN!  I would never tell someone that there was no “story” in their story.  Because anyone who writes has a story they are trying to tell.  And yes, some stories need more work than others, but everything is a story.  Life is a story.

So all of that to say that it’s been really hard for me to write lately.  I don’t want to be a failure and yet that’s how a review like that makes me feel.  Everyone says, “you’ve got to have a thick skin to make it in this industry.”  But isn’t that true of any industry, of any career?  Is that why I’m still stuck in limbo, I don’t have a thick enough skin?  Am I going to be a failure for the rest of my life?  Am I going to be stuck in the void for the rest of my life?

Book Review: The Smart One and The Pretty One

I promised I’d let you know how I liked the book from my Barnes and Noble bookshelf browsing experiment, so here it is!

I just finished the book about an hour ago. The biggest compliment I can give it is that the characters were SO REAL. I mean it. I immediately related to both sisters, Ava with her belief that she is always second best to her sister in the looks department while priding herself in her intelligence and non-chalant about looks attitude (yeah, right!), and Lauren who’s up to her ass in debt , but ignores the situation because she just isn’t ready to deal with her own failings.

My biggest complaint about the book is that some of the situations seemed a little too convenient. Lauren calls a man who her family knew when she was a small child, but who she hasn’t seen or talked to in twenty-some years and he’s more than happy to meet with her and her sister, without question or hesitation? I don’t quite buy that, but I liked Russell, so I’m kinda glad that he doesn’t exactly play by the rules of modern social interactions.

My second biggest complaint is that the book ended too soon! There is still so much I want to know about the characters!

I know a book is good when I get lost in it. That’s what happened with this book. I started reading it around 9:00 pm on Saturday night and didn’t stop. At 1:46 am, my mother came in my room “You still up?” I had completely lost track of time and gone 3/4ths of the way through the book. With the TV on the whole time! The book just sucked me in!

I have to admit, it was really nice to read a book where I wasn’t looking for typos, grammatical errors, or awkward sentences. Lately, all I’ve been reading have been works in progress on TNBW, so I am constantly in “review mode.” But I was able to turn my inner editor off for this one and really just get swept up into the story.

I liked that the book dealt with a family I felt could live down the street from me and that the issues they were dealing with (sibling rivalry, sisterly affection, a parent with cancer, debt, loneliness and romantic troubles) were all sincere, real life issues. No end of the world in sight and no one acting like any of their problems were going to cause the downfall of humanity. It was simple and sweet and truthful.

I’m so glad I choose to buy it!

Other People’s Happy Moments

That’s what pops up on my laptop screen when it falls asleep.

You see, for some reason, I have my screen saver set to play a slideshow of my iPhoto gallery.  So whenever I step out of the room for five minutes and come back, there are pictures of weddings looping over and over on the screen.  Now, were I also happily married, I’m sure I’d ooh and aah at each successive picture, and hey, sometimes I do.  But not lately.  Lately, it’s just depressing.

What is it about looking at other people’s happy moments that makes me want to stick a pencil in my ear and jiggle it around?

The fact that it has never been me?  Or the fact that it will never be me?

Or both?

 

On a happier note, NANO is going really well for me.  I have seven chapters written already and 11,381 words!  Not bad for day six!  I posted my first chapter on TNBW and it’s gotten really positive feedback so far.  I know the TNBW-ers well enough to know they don’t give false praise… at least not all the time 🙂

I guess that’s a happy moment, right?  I should take a snapshot of my reviews and upload it to my iPhoto gallery.  Not exactly the same as a happy shot of a bride and groom smashing cake in each others’ faces, but it will have to do for now.

 

Oh, I got my second rejection from an agent yesterday!  🙂  I’m really feeling good about it.  More letters going out today!

 

Oh, and on the financial trouble front, I’m looking for a new job.  I told one of my bosses yesterday.  I don’t know if I’m going to be able to find one, but I wanted to be upfront with my boss about it.  I don’t really want to quit either of my jobs, but I can’t keep going on the way things are.

 

So, yeah, now you know what a basketcase I am…

One Hour To Go…

NANO officially begins for me here on the East Coast in one hour.  I’m stoked!  I can’t wait to begin.  I’ve had little ideas for my project running in and around my head for weeks and I’ll finally get to put them down on paper.  I’m excited to finally start getting to know my characters.

 

On a completely separate note, I sent my book, Twenty-Five, to three of my friends to read.  I got an email from one of them, Madison, today.  Here’s what she said:

WOW Rachel! Just WOW! I finished the book this morning (I would have finished it last night but Justin MADE me stop reading). It was sooooooooo good. I can tell you really spent time and enjoyed writing it. I had a little trouble getting started with it. I read the first few chapters but wasn’t fully involved. But after my third day of reading I got so engrossed into the story and the characters. It got to the point last night that I got mad at Justin for interrupting my reading. The story was just amazing! I’m so proud of you! The characters are very interesting and they stay true to themselves throughout the story. And you had so many twists and turns I was not at all expecting. Overall, I think it’s a great love story and anyone would be blessed to read it. I tried to make Justin read it, but he doesn’t read =( I would love to see it published and even then made into a movie. I think it was excellent. If you have any specific questions for me about things, please don’t hesitate to ask.

On a side note, I loved how Abby was similar to you and you followed your heart finding your Mr. Darcy (I almost laugh cried when they read their vows!). I also love that you made a Madi, even if she was a slut.

Congrats and I hope so much they publish this!!!! I”ll totally go buy a copy and make everyone read it!

Pretty much a glowing review!  I’m sooo happy that someone I actually know has read it and liked it.  It’s huge for me.  It feels huge for me anyways.

And tomorrow I’m going to start sending letters to agents.  SUPER HUGE.  I don’t know if there’s an agent out there willing to take a chance on a book without a unique plot and story and which is completely gimmick-less, but here’s hoping.  Keep your fingers crossed for me!!!

So this post ended up being about Twenty-Five and not NANO.  Oh well.  47 minutes to go now.  I’ll keep you updated on my NANO progress and my agent querying process.