Life is too short to read a bad book


Life is too short to read a bad book.

I recently saw someone post an idea that, when reading, you should give the book 100 pages minus your age. If you are not enjoying the work by that point, move on to the next book. I have often justified giving a book 100 pages, whether I like it or not. Then, I can decide whether to keep reading. Yet, I also then justify to myself that I've already given the book 100 pages, I may as well just finish it. 

But then I saw this particular post while reading a particular book. 

I read for pleasure. I have read for a job. I have read manuscripts in the slush pile and found how 90% suffered from the same issues. I have beta-read and found where an author's intention does not fall in line with the voice on the page. I have also read my own work over and over and over noticing where my techniques fall short, from not connecting disparate threads appropriately or leaving a character's arc dangling. 

Each time I justified why I needed to keep reading, how it would help the author, how it would eventually help the reader, and why-as an author-100 pages was a courtesy I would want a reader to give to my own books, my own writing. 

Then I saw this post while reading a certain book. 

Part of selling books is book reviews, but I don't want to disparage this author for the book they wrote. They obviously have a fanbase that came out of a successful previous novel. 

However, this current book was not successful. We enter the story as if we already know the characters, as though this novel is just a continuation of the previous one-not a sequel-but a continuation, with an assumption that we already understand character dynamics, personalities, and purpose; with the assumption that we already know the author's writing style and the intentions of the antagonists. 

Just as quickly as a character is mentioned, they are discarded with no emotional resonance or weight. Just as quickly as our characters are put in a suspense situation, they come out on the other side with no lingering pressure, anxiety, or tension. It felt like reading a screenplay instead of a novel, and while actors provide the emotional depth based on their portrayal of the characters, without those acting, a screenplay can lay dead on the table in need of interpretation. 

But by the time I read the simple idea that I should only read a book up to 100 pages minus my age, I was already over halfway through this particular book and once again justified the reason I should read to the end. And with each page, I grew more impatient. I grew more frustrated. I wanted to reach for my pent and scribble notes into the margin that point to where the author could "show not tell," the moments where character dialogue served no purpose beyond reminding the reader the character existed, the moments where we needed emotional connection but instead were left with useless superficial and cliched words.

I often tell students that...

 If we gave great writers three elements they must use in a story, the authors would still create completely different results. If we gave Stephen King, Haruki Murakami, and NK Jemisin the guidelines of using a cat, a missing teenager, and a radio, you know they would each approach these details from different angles. 

Perhaps King returns with a demon cat who uses the radio waves to lure an unsuspecting teenager into an abandoned building. 

Perhaps Murakami uses the cat as a magical element that helps guide the character to their favorite radio station after the host of a famous broadcast passes away. Perhaps Jemison Uses the cat as a pet inside the teenager's bedroom as the radio subtly broadcasts clues to the alternate universe the girl had stepped into. 

Each author demonstrates their individuality

As each other demonstrates their individuality with each story no matter the subject matter and plot, each character should do the same. We shouldn't have to look back at a book we haven't read to understand the characters in the book we are reading. 

We shouldn't have to learn about an event that took place in a book we haven't read to learn about an event taking place in the book we are reading only because a similar event is taking place. Don't tell me we can use the stamps on the misplaced luggage to reverse engineer where the luggage went like our characters did in the last book only when the luggage arrives. 

We should have breadcrumbs pointing to the idea of the luggage, its probability of it going missing, the fact the characters had to track it down before when flying this airline, and the idea that it could never happen again long before the luggage gets lost—again. 

This is not just a diatribe against bad writing and how upset it makes me when it's perfectly avoidable. It's also about how to avoid bad writing, whether when doing the writing or the reading.

When writing:

  • Use foreshadowing
  • Leave little clues that point to the idea long before the idea is confronted head on
  • Don't expect the reader to know the characters from a previous book
  • Dan Brown, love him or hate him, is a master at reintroducing his characters to readers in the opening of his Robert Langdon series. In quick but effective sentences he either reminds the reader who Langdon is showing him doing something personal, such as swimming, or shows an item personal to Langdon, such as the Mickey Mouse watch.
  • Don't spend more time explaining or showing a weapon than an emotion
  • This doesn't mean explaining in excruciating detail someone crying. People cry, we get it. But the writer needs to explore how an emotion affects this character individually. How does adrenaline feel in their veins, like cold ice or like hot lava, does it make their stomach hurt or does it slow the world down?

When reading:

  • Give the book at least 100 pages minus your age
  • If you are 36, use this equation:
  • 100 - 36 = 64
  • In this example, you would give the book 64 pages before deciding whether you should keep reading.
  • Remember that a writer is trying their best
  • Most writers are eager to share their stories. It isn't about making millions, It's about telling a story they have deep down inside that they can't keep in anymore; whether it is good or not, they are trying.
  • Not all stories are for all people
  • It's ok to not want to read a story, not because it is bad, but because it just doesn't speak to you.
  • But remember, just because it doesn't speak to you, it doesn't make the story bad.

Contact me if you want to talk more about writing, reading, and the writing life. 

Or contact me if you want to gripe about how much you didn't like a certain book.