I have a scholar-friend who reads three to five books at a time. When he is bored with one, he will put it down and he will pick up on of the others. I read one book at a time, straight through. Personally, I have finished numerous books that I have disliked. He claims to have never finished a single one.
“How?” I am obligated to ask him.
“I just stop. Why read it if you don’t enjoy it?”
This seems ludicrous to me. Borderline madness. I don’t know why, but I have to finish a book once I start. I hate knowing that there is a story I have started but don’t know the end to. So it astonishes me that my friend can just set a book down. In my search for an answer to this issue, I considered something I hadn’t thought of before: the different contexts for reading.
Some people read purely for information, some for enjoyment, some for a grade in a class. As a writer, I read to study. That doesn’t mean I don’t read for enjoyment, because I do, but when I read I am looking for things other than just plot. I am looking for syntax, for grammar, for character development. I pay special attention to dialogue, because I know that is where my writing suffers the most.
So why read bad books? Obviously it depends on why you’re reading, but personally I enjoy seeing what not to do. To be clear, I am talking about improving the craft of writing. I am not talking about selling a million copies, or getting published, because obviously if I am reading the bad book it has been published before. I am talking, purely, about improving your skills as a writer.
When reading a bad book, you will come across certain things that, in your opinion, make it bad. Notice those. Don’t just think “that was a terrible paragraph” and move on. Question the paragraph, figure out why. Was it the wording? The syntax? Was it to much showing and not enough telling? Were the characters paralyzed without any kind of action? Was the paragraph purely fluff? Find out why you don’t like it. This can be tedious work, but the more often you do it the more you will recognize poor paragraphs.
Find the Silver Lining
This book got published because an acquisitions editor believed it could be marketed to a specific demographic for a profit. And here you are, reading this book. What made you pick the book up? Is the cover appealing? Did you get a recommendation from someone? Do you typically enjoy the author? What about this book IS marketable? Even if you don’t enjoy the book, find out what this book does well.
Establish the Story
This can be difficult, especially if you don’t enjoy the book. Even bad stories have some value, and you should identify it. In a few sentences, determine what the plot is. Try reading the first few chapters, and then guessing what will happen. Your ability to recognize plot and to create stories is what makes you a good storyteller, and that is a skill that needs to be exercised.
What reasons do you have for reading a bad book?