Sunday, August 1, 2010

This Book Sucks

If all we can say about a book that we read is that it sucks or it was good, then we've failed.  Nathan Bransford talked about The One Question Writers Should Never Ask Themselves When Reading this past week, and while he was specifically talking about writers-as-readers, I'm mostly going to talk about readers in general.  Got that?

NB's question to be avoided was "Do I like this?"  Readers in general can ask themselves that question, sure, but they owe it to themselves to give more than a yes/no answer.  "Yes I liked it" or "no I didn't" is different from "it sucks" anyway.  The first two are statements about your reading experience.  The other is  a judgment that you pass on the writer.  We tend to use the two interchangeably, but we shouldn't be so sloppy;  we don't like our writers to be sloppy and careless, so we shouldn't be that way as readers.

It's a two-way street.

Even as a non-writer reader you should be able to articulate why you liked or disliked a piece of writing.  You should also be able to admit that your feelings were not all one-sided:  you didn't like the ending, but wished one of the minor characters was available to be your best friend, say.  There's something of value in everything we read.  If we can't see it, it's because we're deficient somehow.  We're blind, deaf, ... dumb.

And even if you loved a book, you have to be honest about its failings.  And it's got failings -- nothing's perfect.

As writers we can learn from what worked for us in someone else's work, and what didn't.  Did the story seem to be all setup until halfway through when things finally started to happen?  That's what I'm finding with "The Windup Girl".  I'll be sure to guard against that in my own writing.  The author manages a huge cast of diverse characters.  Too many for me to keep track of, almost.  But all those characters packed into a sweltering, teeming, sweaty city of decaying slums add to the claustrophobic setting of the book.  I never thought of the cast complementing the setting in quite that way before.

As non-writer readers, it makes sense to notice the same sorts of things.  If you stop reading when a story drags, you'll never hang tight and finish any of the books whose action doesn't kick in until the second half.  Reading with a critical eye gives a deeper experience.  The writer didn't bang out that book in a week or two, so you can take a few minutes during your week or two of reading it to examine it.  That way, even if you read a book that sucks, you'll still have profited by the reading.


  1. Personally, I disagree with Mr. NB. That is usually the first question I ask myself when I'm playing a game (yeah, I don't read much anymore get over it). However, it's important to immediatly follow that question with "Why?". Why do I like this? Why does this suck? If you don't ask those, you can't incorporate the answers into your own work.

    I purposfully started demanding these answers from myself when I decided to go into game development. It has frequently surprised my friends (even those studying the same field) how quickly I can answer, and how many reasons I supply, when they ask about a game I'm playing.

    A question I think you should ask yourself that you havn't mentioned is "Would I want to read(play) this book(game)?" If you're not writing a book you want to read, something's wrong.

  2. NB's point was that a published work doesn't just "suck". Sure, it had problems, and you may not have liked it, but as a writer you need to be able to say why -- exactly as you said you do with games.

    As to your last paragraph, I'd have trouble doing it, but I'd guess someone could write a book for an audience of which they're not a member. Think "Twilight" written for teen girls by an adult woman. Evidently, whatever her current reading tastes, she wrote properly for her chosen audience.

  3. Hi John!
    I typically don't ask myself if I like something while reading it. I do however make judgements about the author's style if I notice a bunch of info. dumps or long, boring paragraphs of description or internal monolog (which often times I skim over). I just returned from a writers' conference where they stressed understanding your characters' goals/motivations/conflicts and beginning/ending hooks for each scene/chapter. When I read a book I don't try to identify these things. I'm either into the story or I'm not. No matter how bad the book, I usually read to the end just to see what happens. It's rare that I feel I've wasted my time, yet sometimes I do.