For about a year, I've practically stopped buying new fantasy novels because I always find a major problem with them. Part of the problem is that I don't like the dark tone of many of the novels published these days. But even in novels I wanted to like, I often felt cheated because the story promised at the beginning of the novel was not what the novel was actually about or because one of the characters acted out-of-character at the end and destroyed my enjoyment of the whole novel. I began to wonder if my critique-focused mind was making it difficult for me to enjoy books as a normal reader would.
Have any of you found this to be true?
Well, I actually decided to turn this to my advantage. I know my first novel isn't quite good enough to be published, but all the writing books seem to only cover the basics I've already mastered or aren't explaining things in a way that I can see how I'm not doing it in my novel.
So I bought a big stack of fantasy, sci-fi, and mystery novels and have been reading them to see how they achieved or failed at certain storytelling elements. It's been vastly enlightening. In fact, it's helped me see the deeper root of the surface problems that my critiquers were pointing out in my novel.
Since I found this so helpful, I thought I'd pass the idea along.
Sounds like an interesting exercise, DebbieKW. I'd be interested in hearing some of your more specific thoughts, if you're willing to share them.
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This is something I have been thinking about recently. The importance of reading bad books. I am completely serious when I say a turn in my writing was reading Eragon. I realised what mistakes I too had made and rewrote my entire WIP trilogy from the start taking out all the stuff I had thought needed to be in fantasy to make it 'exciting'.
I read a number of books for a book club that I wouldn't otherwise, generally not fantasy, more modern fiction (read the Da Vinci Code when no one had ever heard of it) and I think reading the good and bad even in a different genre helps my writing and the book club setting allows me to not only express my thoughts, but hear from other people why they didn't think it worked (or did work).
quote: I've practically stopped buying new fantasy novels because I always find a major problem with them. Part of the problem is that I don't like the dark tone of many of the novels published these days. But even in novels I wanted to like, I often felt cheated because the story promised at the beginning of the novel was not what the novel was actually about or because one of the characters acted out-of-character at the end and destroyed my enjoyment of the whole novel. I began to wonder if my critique-focused mind was making it difficult for me to enjoy books as a normal reader would. Have any of you found this to be true?
All the time. If it distracts me too much, I'll drop the novel. For the most part, I can accept that there is no perfection to be found...anywhere. But, I love to read. As I see parts that I have problems with, I think: "I could do better", and then I consider how. I seem to find at least one such part in every book. But I enjoy reading so much, that I can accept quite a bit. What's hard, for me, is reading books I once loved (bestsellers at that) and finding how badly they are flawed since I've begun honing my own craft. It's tough.
For several years I often threw down a book in disgust, muttering "I could do better than that, dammit." Then one day, an inner voice said, "Why don't you then?" And I started learning how to write SF.
Recently I threw another book down, again thinking I could, can, will do better. I turned from disgust to feeling that, well, if that's the best they can find to publish, there must be a slot for my work somewhere, somewhen ...
Yes, absolutely, reading the work of others is very educational. I don't read stuff I threw down to see why it failed, it's often clear why that was so and I haven't the patience to read bad stuff again in order to further understand its failings. Rather, I like to read stuff I enjoyed again, to learn how it works and to see how the author uses and bends the "rules" of writing.
Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I learned by doing this was the use of foreshadowing, a technique I had read about but not fully understood. Seeing the various ways in which authors establish things the reader will need to know later on has been fascinating for me. (Watching favourite movies again has been similarly rewarding in this respect.)
[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited July 28, 2008).]
Perhaps I've become a snob. In my younger days I devoured every new fantasy book I could get my hands on. With age has come refined taste, or so I'd like to think, and I've discovered that fantasy is a genre that produces a lot of really bad books. There's a market out there eager for fantasy and willing to settle for formulaic plots, an absence of pacing and mediocre prose, and publishers pursue it with whatever they think will attract its attention.
But every now and then a writer breaks the mold, and puts out a book that breathes new life into the genre. I suppose writers like that lead to readers like me - because once you've sampled that sort of writing, it's hard to settle for what you'd been reading before.
I don't think it's critiquing the books that makes it harder for you to enjoy them. You're just becoming a more selective reader. That's a good thing, because while everyone likes a bit of brain candy now and then, someone aspiring to become a good writer shouldn't spend too much time reading bad ones.
[This message has been edited by Khalan (edited July 28, 2008).]
I've run across a lot of bad books that were professionally published. I find it hopeful, in a way. If they're able to get their bad book published, I should be able to get my bad book published.
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Not all the novels I'm reading are necessarily "bad" novels, even if they failed in a significant way. For example, I've enjoyed Brandon Sanderson's books, especially the first book in the Mistborn series. What I loved about that book was that I was never sure what was going to happen next and the tension kept me turning the pages late into the night. I started reading the second book in the series, "The Well of Ascension," expecting the same thing.
The book starts with one of the main characters, Elend, looking out at an army that's come to take over his city. Obviously, his goal will be to save the city. Then, about two pages in, we switch to Vin. Vin was the "critical" main character in the last book (without her, the group would have failed). She's worried about the mists changing. The mists are connected to the Well of Ascension, the very thing named in the title. Even the back cover says she's going to go search for the Well. In the book, it quickly becomes clear that the world is in danger unless she stops the mists from changing (i.e. finds the Well), but she won't leave the city until her boyfriend, Elend, does. Yet he's the king and will do anything to save the city.
So for the first 600 pages, I rooted for Eland to fail at all the power games he's playing at to stay king and save the city since the real danger is the mists and they need to leave the city for that. That's 600 pages of well-written, tense action totally destroyed for me (i.e. I was impatient, not tense, and wasn't really engaged in the story) because the author wanted to surprise the readers on page 658 (of 763 pages) with the news that keeping the city is absolutely critical.
The lesson I took from this was: Don't go for surprise over suspense/tension. If you are withholding a piece of information to create a surprise later but it decreases the suspense up to that point in the story, then stop withholding that information. Suspense always trumps surprise because suspense is what makes the reader continue reading to the end.
Likewise, twists in the story should never be surprising even if they are unexpected.
I might have read advice like this elsewhere, but I didn't gut-deep understand it until I'd seen how defying this "rule" could severely decrease a reader's enjoyment.
I'm writing the other discoveries I'm made on my blog ( http://www.deborahkwhite.blogspot.com/ ) as Writing Tidbits. I'm not sure they're as meaningful to anyone else, but I wanted to record them somewhere so I wouldn't forget the lessons I've learned.
[This message has been edited by DebbieKW (edited July 29, 2008).]
I was actually just about to make a post about Brandon Sanderson, since I just finished reading Well of Ascension, and was going to put forth the opinion that so far, his stories are among the most flawless I've read. (not to say they ARE flawless, just that they're FAR better than most)
I have to say, though, I had exactly the OPPOSITE reaction you did, mainly because I felt the tension between the characters rather than from the situation. I kept worrying how Vin & her need to stop the mists would get reconciled with Elend & his idealistic idiocy / learning to lead, as their goals gradually moved further and further away from being compatible with each other. By the time the surprise came about, I didn't really care, since there were far more pressing tensions in place. For example, does Vin REALLY know what she's doing, and WTF is REALLY going on with this well.
I really didn't get ANY of it as withholding information, as the characters were as legitimately puzzled by the mysteries as the reader is supposed to be.
And honestly, I marveled at some of the character deaths, not so much for the fact that he wrote them, but for how they affected me. They felt genuinely tragic, rather than just 'consequences of evil'.
Okay . . . so . . . hopefully that was as vague as possible and non-spoiler-y while still being useful. In any case, valuable lesson learned, even if I maybe disagree slightly with your critique. I actually enjoyed the tension, character evolution & betrayal FAR more than most fantasy / SF books I've read, but I agree . . . the withholding thing is just a killer for almost every story that tries it.
But I think if you go back and look a WoA, you'll see some rather skillful foreshadowing of all the 'surprises' that happened. I think THAT is the difference between 'withholding' and 'skillful literary deception'. To me, in the end, it felt like a satisfying, if agonizing, resolution to the tension, because I felt like it had been earned.
One of the examples I would have chosen to critique is Terry Brooks' Shannara books. (sp?) I read the first one . . . suffered through it, I think is more the appropriate term . . . because I had been told they just got better and better. I could go on for hours about how poorly written that first book is. (To be fair, I've read some other Brooks stuff so I know he CAN write fairly well.) I learned more about how not to write from reading that book and the 'Series of Unfortunate Events' books. (honestly, what an EXCRUCIATING series. I have NO IDEA why that series is so popular) because the lessons are SO OBVIOUS and easy to learn.
Another example from a series I LOVE is the 'Dresden Files' books. GREAT stories, and I love reading them, but Jim Butcher pulls the first person ". . . after a bit of thought I had a plan. The bad guys had no idea what was about to happen to them. (but I'm not going to tell you until it happens)" gimmick at the end of the books. Now, generally, the endings are rather clever, and for the most part Harry Dresden himself isn't REALLY quite sure what his plan is since he's usually improvising, but STILL!! The unnecessary withholding annoys me sometimes.
And the one final device I absolutely HATE in fantasy (and as much as I like Harry Potter, those books were ANNOYINGLY guilty of this trick) is the "oh, yeah, and by the way, here's something ELSE you didn't know was possible in my magical world which I've never alluded to in any way prior to this moment where it has now become a useful plot device" syndrome.
Now . . . have you become a snob, as Khalan worries about? I say no. Just a bit more experienced and discerning. You're only a snob if you've raised the bar too high on what I like to call the "threshold of badness". I love stories I know aren't terribly good, simply because they haven't crossed my threshhold of badness. However . . . once the literary faux pas have added up to a certain point, I just go "Yuck! Get me out of this story NOW!"
I'd say if your threshold leaves you absolutely disgusted with more than 80% of the works you consume in a genre you like, you might be approaching snob status. But even then, what does it matter? You read for your OWN enjoyment, not anybody else's. So what if you hate 3/4 of the books you read? The only person suffering is you.
As for me, I HATE about 90% of the fantasy stories I start reading.
But I'm still not a snob 'cause I don't even LIKE the fantasy genre. Sci-fi all the way, baby!
-Falken (posing as Corin)
[This message has been edited by Corin224 (edited July 30, 2008).]
I was being facetious regarding my self-accusation of snobbery.
My point was simply that fantasy publishes a lot of terrible books because a market exists for them, and as your standards are raised through encounters with better works and the development of your own craft you shouldn't be surprised to discover that there are a lot of published fantasy novels that leave you unsatisfied.
I don't think I'm a snob for no longer purchasing books from certain publishers and leaving certain epic fantasy sagas unfinished even though later volumes have been released, I just think I have better taste than I used to. There is only so much reading time in any given week for me, and there are too many good books out there that I haven't read to be wasting that time with bad ones.
[This message has been edited by Khalan (edited July 30, 2008).]
Y'know, we've got this forum available to us, "Discussing Published Hooks & Books." Seems the perfect place to start a discussion about a book, even if it's one you think bad. So long as the discussion doesn't dwell too much on the writer's ancestry and habits, I think it'd be okay to discuss flaws in something published...
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