Monday, January 9, 2012

How Reading Craptastic Writing Makes You A Better Writer

There is absolutely nothing more satisfying to me than reading a fantastic book, being completely drawn in by the characters, description and dialogue and immersing myself in their lives. By contrast, there is nothing more frustrating, as a writer, and as a reader, than investing your time and the writing is just blah, the story pointless and the ending unsatisfying. However, there is just as much to be learned from utterly craptastic writing, if not more, than great writing.

Case in point: This weekend I read a YA novel that I had been looking forward to reading for some time. It is in the genre I love, the storyline had me completely hooked in, the author had written an earlier book that had been successful and this had received advance praise, and I anticipated a thoroughly satisfying read. Um, not so much. (Obviously, this is totally subjective and just my opinion - clearly the publisher took a different view, and you might as well.) Because I read so many books in this genre, I was immediately able to spot exactly wasn't working for me, and why, and make a conscious point when writing my own work to not employ any of these mistakes. (At least not consciously, and hopefully that's what crit partners and beta readers are for!) The purpose of this post is not to bash the writer or the book, but merely to serve as a template for showing how what didn't work can truly make or break a story for your reader. So, without further delay, here is my list of writing pet peeves, which an author-who-shall-not-be-named did an excellent job of bundling together in one book:

This story primarily focuses on a relationship that evolves over the years between the male main character and his female best friend. At no point did I ever see or feel what bound these characters together, other than history, and both of them were fairly surface, if not unlikeable. Just giving your characters a few likes, dislikes and quirks does not give them a personality, nor does making them angst-ridden and moody make them "troubled" and make me care what happens to them. In fact, one of the characters was so completely "angry" that I wondered from early on why the hell the male main character didn't run like hell. Instead, he starts to fall for her, wanting to "save" her, and based on the way she talks to him and treats him, not to mention what a self-proclaimed stud he is, the reader can't imagine why. The thrill of the chase? Is he just that desperate? A masochist? It's one thing to draw wounded characters, but you must still give them some redeeming qualities that make the reader root for them and have compassion for them. Think of Matt Damon's character in the movie "Good Will Hunting."

I love great dialogue, especially when it helps propel the story in a way description simply can't. However, I hate just reading page after page of characters talking about absolutely nothing. And just sitting at a coffee shop shoving food around on their plate with their fork over and over while doing it. For six pages. It's worth it to sit with long passages of dialogue and figure out what the objective of the scene is and how what the characters are saying to one another furthers the story. Otherwise, it just feels like filler.

Nothing helps paint the picture of the character and their surroundings, or the action at hand, than great description. However, over-description can get boring and lead the reader to skim. Is the author just describing the same thing over and over in a myriad of ways? If so, it starts to feel like gratuitous words on a page, or a writer just enjoying hearing himself speak. When this pattern repeats itself a multitude of times over the course of several hundred pages, you isolate the reader.

Parents come in all shapes and sizes, and can be integral characters in a YA novel or peripheral, minor characters. However much they make an appearance, the rules for creating them as three dimensional beings are no different than it is for the main characters. To have parents that say "sweetie, sweetheart, honey, sugar, etc." at the end of every sentence when addressing teens, particularly their own, seems stilted to me, unrealistic and one-dimensional. I may have talked like that to my daughter when she was three or five, but I don't talk to my sixteen-year-old or his friends that way. I I did, he'd probably ask me if I was feeling all right. :) If the character is going to talk like that, back them up with character traits that help explain why. Are they over-protective and always tend to treat the main character like a child despite their age? Are they medicated and spacey half the time? Self-absorbed and dismissive and not even really listening to what the teen is saying? Do you know a lot of people who talk this way in real-life? What are their personalities like? For some reason, I have noticed that giving parental dialogue the short shrift is not uncommon in YA, and I often give these passages of dialogue extra time and review in my own. Part of this has to do with the age of the writer as well. I know before I had kids, it was hard to write parental dialogue with the same ease and truth as it is now that I'm down and dirty in the trenches of it.

I actually love when writers use funny chapter names that tie in to the context of the story. It draws me deeper in. In my own novel, BAND GEEK, each chapter of my novel starts with the title of a Beatles song. The main character is a ginormous Beatles fan, and the Beatles play a minor role in the story itself. Additionally, the "theme" of each chapter ties in nicely with the titles of their songs, so I used it. An editor or a reader may not agree, because using chapter names can also be viewed as a cheap or gratuitous device if not used effectively. Case in point: using a song title when the chapter has nothing to do with that song, or the idea the song brings, and not being consistent by using the song titles throughout each chapter. For example, if I titled the first three chapters after Beatles songs, then randomly titled a chapter "Dating For Beginners" and then the next "My Life As A Goldfish" and then the next was named after a Duran Duran song fro the '80's, it's distracting and makes the reader wonder, frankly, what the point is. Bottom line: Be consistent. Use it effectively, or don't use it at all.

What are some of the things that drive you crazy when you see them in books that you pay close attention to in your own writing?


Jessica Love said...

This is so true...and I'm noticing it more and more the more I write. (And read.)

Post a Comment