Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What I Learned from Bad Writers

Even as a kid I loved telling stories, to myself if not to others. But I first thought of becoming a writer in my late teens (17, 18) and of telling stories on paper for others to read.

Two things persuaded me to try my hand at the author thing. On the positive side, I wanted to tell stories to enthrall others the way I had been enthralled by Louis L’Amour, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and John D. MacDonald. On the less positive side, I figured I could do better, or at least put more effort into it, than some of the writers I was reading. I won’t mention any names, but I was finding books that just didn’t move me. The prose was leaden, the pace stagnant, the characters indistinguishable from the stiffness of new jeans.

In most cases, it appeared that the writers I didn’t like were writing far too fast. They weren’t taking the time and giving the care to their work that being a craftsman required. To me, this became, and remains, the definition of a hack. In later years, however, I realized that I had learned quite a bit from the hacks, mostly, I hope, about the things a writer should not do.

I learned that well-written prose strikes the ear like music, not like the sound of a bell that has lost its clapper. I learned that good characters can’t become chess pieces to be shoved around willy-nilly. I learned that description is boring unless it fires the imagination or sets a mood. I learned that good writing takes time and effort and there is no substitute for either. And while I have not always achieved these things, I have always tried.

How about you? Have you learned anything from bad writers? Or do you think that reading bad prose leads to writing it? What’s your take?


VampireFaust said...

What I've never understood, though, is how REALLY bad writers get contracts? I see shelves of half formed ideas and barely digestable concepts that are selling like hotcakes when truly talented writers are scrambling and begging for a chance to show their work to the world...

X. Dell said...

One cannot defend dull writing in fiction. Of course, in non-fiction it could be necessary. Scholarly papers, court records and government hearings are hardly page-turners, but quite enlightening in the long run. Such works also contain endless repetition, jargon and prepositional clauses up the wazoo. But linguistic specificity eliminates ambiguity.

Of course, I'm rationalizing a bit, for I once made a living as a hack writer. Not a lot of fun, but it kept me fed.

To me, bad writing in fiction is that which isn't psychologically real. The stiff-jeans characters that you mention are a good example--as though the writer thinks in stereotypes, and doesn't really know people, their motivations, their behavior, etc. all that well. I also am beginning to revolt against formulaic narrative.

I think what some writers, especially screenwriters, learn from bad writing is that it's lucrative. It keeps them fed.

Cath said...

Charles - I hang my head in shame. I have not visited you for soooo long and you faithfully come over, read, comment, encourage. I am so grateful.

I have just caught up on a load of your posts. I had forgotten how well you write. I have to add you to my list of blogs so I don't miss you again! Don't know how I didn't do it before... Your post below this is just so well written. The images jump off the page (well, screen). I have been compelled to read on, and on, and on. That is the sign of a good writer.

So, to look at this post about how do bad writers get published? I really wish I knew because then I might stand a chance! lol

Thanks for coming over Charles, and this time, I WILL be back!

Sidney said...

I can remember especially as a young reader being a little off-put by an author who seemed to grind out titles. How much care could go into a book if it was one of twenty a guy put out that year. I know there are some great writers who are uber-prolific, but I was a mite skeptical and you know, some of the really fast writers are the ones who wind up in books like "Gun in Cheek."

SQT said...

I totally agree with Sidney. Take James Patterson for example. He had turned his name into a brand now, I don't know how many titles he (or a "co-writer") churns out a year now, but it's a lot. I liked one of his series' years ago. It wasn't deep but it was entertaining. I made the mistake of picking one up after he started the whole co-writing thing and it was crap! There was very little that resembled a plot and it was so rushed it read like a screenplay. Basically only a skeleton of a story.

I've noticed a couple of established writers doing this and I don't know why you would sell your credibility just to make some $$.

Charles Gramlich said...

Vampirefaust, I wonder that sometimes, but I think you hit the nail on the head in your post. They sell. I don't understand why but they do. I hate to see great writers go unpublished or underpublished when such crap litters the field. Great website btw, and thanks for dropping by.

X-Dell, you're right, sometimes there is no exciting way to say some kinds of non-fiction material, like how to manuals or some very academic work. There's no excuse in fiction, though. I've never been offered to make my living as a hack writer but I might lose my principles if I did. Everyone needs to eat.

Crazycath, no problem. I enjoy visiting your blog. Thanks for stopping by mine.

Sidney, I know. I felt the same way and I think in most cases I was right about the quality. Of course, some really can pull it off, but they are not many.

SQT, I read a Patterson years ago, when he first started, and liked it, but later I picked up a few and browsed a bit and found them often written at an incredibly childish level. But, to echo Vampirefaust, they sell like hotcakes. Sigh!

Shauna Roberts said...

I try to avoid bad writers for fear of picking up their habits.

Like the others, I shake my head in wonder at the interesting and original books my friends write that don't get published or are published by a small press, while stuff that isn't worth ink and paper gets put out by major houses.

Lisa said...

I learn something from everything I read. One benefit I've found to making friends with lots of writers is that I have read quite a few books that I probably wouldn't have chosen if I read only what appealed to me. I haven't read any bad books, but reading a variety of genres has helped me to see a number of styles and techniques done well that I might not otherwise have run across or been conscious of. I can honestly say I haven't read anything that I'd consider bad writing in a long time. Too many good books -- too little time :)

Lana Gramlich said...

There's an entire publishing house full of bad writers now. It's called Llewellyn.

Michelle's Spell said...

I used to have a teacher who was very strict about the whole garbage in/garbage out thing, but the fact is that I read almost everything I can afford/find/is lying around and can get something from it, no matter what. The thing is to be a good filter -- find the most interesting things and learn from them, use the facts that you wouldn't know and so on. Of course, I hate when a book I think is total douchebaggery makes a splash, but what can you do?

Donnetta said...

I sure hope reading bad prose doesn't lead to writing it. I hope it leads to opening the eyes of writers who can do better. But then, of course, when bad writing sells...needy/hungry writers may feel obliged to head down the same path. No accounting for taste when you're hungry, I suppose. I've read some pretty boring and/or ill written pieces and was amazed that they were ever published. Perhaps the audience is felt to be simple minded? Go figure.

Heather said...

Before I started writing I could read bad prose without freaking out about it. Now I can't even read it, it drives me batty. I find myself editing as I read and that is not enjoyable.....educational yes, but not enjoyable. I think there is only learning to be done whether you are reading good or bad prose. You will get something from it.

Bernita said...

Perhaps writers are more hyper critical than average readers?
And we tend to focus on the things that make us wince and ignore the things the published stuff(which we think is crap) do right?

laughingwolf said...

to your list of good writers i'd add heinlein, asimov, and bradbury, to name a few

but you're right, many folk hack up whatever... to pay the bills or play up their 'name', and it's not just limited to writers

i also note a lot of screenplays are as abhorrent, as mentioned here

J. L. Krueger said...

I think writing is a lot like can learn from other's mistakes. You can learn from seeing the bad as well as the good.

I agree with you that writing is a lot of do it right. I wish I could always claim to pay enough attention to detail. Then I put something out for critique...thinking it is perfect...only to get shot down in flames. Back to work.

Travis Cody said...

I agree that we can learn plenty from bad writing. The problem is muddling through the bad writing!

I have a hard time sticking with a badly written book. I want to learn from the mistakes, but I'm also in it to be entertained.

Charles Gramlich said...

Shauna, these days I definitely avoid bad writers, for the most part, but when I was young I wasn't so discerning.

Lisa, I agree. I think I've learned from both good and bad writers. And the inbetween.

Lana, I remember you complaining about some of their books.

Michelle, if I don't have something good handy I will definitely read whatever I can find, and it might not be that great, but still I can pick up some stuff of interest.

Donnetta, I think Bernita might be right. At least in some cases the audience of readers is looking for something different than the writer who is reading is looking for.

H.E., I can still read something pretty bad if I'm stuck without something better to read, or if I'm reading it for a purpose, to try and understand why it is bad or what other folks see in it.

Bernita, I think you are absolutely correct in many cases. Readers don't always care about what writers care about in a tale.

Laughingwolf, you're right about screenplays these days. Definitely I'd add Bradbury. For Heinlien and Asimov, I was never enamored oftheir writing styles but they told some great stories.

J. L. Krueger, yes, we can learn from other folks' mistakes as well as our own. And all of us put out stuff that is missing important details. That's not a lack of care, I think, but a lack of experience and, sometimes, the fact that our focus just isn't broad enough to hold everything in mind we need to get across.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis, my writing group has a debate about this all the time. I tend to finish stuff I start even if I don't care much for it, although I will allow myself to scan parts of the work. Other members of my group will tend to cut the work loose when they lose interest. I'm not sure there's a right or wrong way to do it, and there is definitely a wish to read a fiction book that is entertaining.

Travis Erwin said...

Nothing picks me up after a tough rejection like finding a bad book. It assures me there is still hope as i am led to believe if they can do it so can I.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I have learn more from the great writers than the bad ones, which in turn has intimidate me into writer's block, or fear, or whatever ... you name it.

JR's Thumbprints said...

... thus you can correct all of the above errors if you'd like.

MarmiteToasty said...

I can tell within the first chapter of a book whether its for me or not, to be honest I can read most things cos I love reading, and I've had to even read a kids book whilst on the loo once cos that was all the reading material there lol

Ive never been able to write, I was shit at Essays and making stuff up at school.....

But I do enjoy writing about me everyday stuff, just real life stuff, people say I type me blob with an accent, I cant see it meself lol.... and me grammer is rubbish and me spelling.... but ya see, I never plan what to write, I just sit at the computer and me fingers and the memories in me head just go with whats there....

I do LOVE to read though and Harlen Coben has been me favourite Author of late :)

Im gonna grab a cuppa tea and sit and have a little butchers at some of your other posts.....


Stacia said...

I learned TONS from bad writers when I was starting out. Now I tend to avoid it (avoid it after reading a few paragraphs that is) but a few years back I found it extremely helpful.

This is probably awful of me, but I found a piece of writing once so bad I saved it. And for a couple of years whenever I felt really bad about myself, like I'd never get anywhere, I would bring the file up and read it. At least I wasn't that bad. I could never be THAT bad. It was a little ego boost I needed at the time.

But yes, absolutely I've learned a lot from bad writing. How it feels "off", how sentences should be structured so as not to confuse, how to avoid cliche-ridden, overdramatic dialogue...

Man I wish I'd come up with this blog topic, lol!

Anonymous said...

I think that a lot of the time, bad writing gets printed because publishers are trying to cash in on a market (look at the huge amount of awful da Vinci code clones which are on the market now).

I find the popularity of some writers simply baffling. I recently tried to read something by Clive Cussler, but found the first chapter so clunky I couldn't bear to continue. I suspect he scored an early hit with "Raise the Titanic" and has been allowed to get away with anything ever since.

There is supposed to be a John Carter movie in production. Wouldn't it be great if it was such a success that publishers and booksellers suddenly jump on that bandwagon and fill the shelves with similar series?

Also, I don't think churning out titles is always an indication of hackiness (look at Dean Koontz who's always worth reading). And who doesn't love a good pulp series? I enjoyed every one of the 30 Dumarest books by E C Tubb.

Other writers I've read recently who've blown me away with gorgeous prose are Clive Barker, Michael Dibdin and Tim Willocks. I understand the point about learning what to avoid by reading bad books, but i think you can learn a whole lot more from the good ones :-)

ANNA-LYS said...

Hello Charles,
Another "difficult" post, in the midst of Walpurgis weekend :-D

I will be back with a dictionary, so I "Don't Miss A Thing ..."

(( hug ))

Paul R. McNamee said...

I would say I learn from both good and bad writing but I would rather not waste my time reading the bad stuff.

I'm not a fan of padding, either, even if it is well-written - but in a marketplace that hardly accepts shorts, I understand why some writers fluff out their novellas into novels.

I must be the only writer in the world who UNDERwrites. I never have stuff to cut - I have trouble reaching the wordcount!

ivan said...

Well, over here in Canada, writing is really a business. Certainly in the last twenty year.
The government gets busy with its grants, the publishers get busy collecting the grants and the writers get their $50,000.

Trouble is, nobody reads the books because--face it--they are so dull and politically correct.
Kind of hard to go along with a heroine who is non-smoker, a rootin'-tootin feminist and whose husband is a dweeb.
I think Canadian literature should be more like American literature--it should carry itself.
Otherwise, it is the government in power that determines themes and tastes.
Imagine if George Orwell lived in Canada (and he once did).
He could not have printed his l984 here. No way. People would sue.

This is not sour grapes on my part, for I have had Ontario writers' grants. But some have carped that my books were not up with the times, that is to say, politically correct.

Strikes me somehow, that there are superb writers in Canada-- as there were 30 years ago--but they had done the publishing on their own hook or in some other country-- no hand out for the Federal tip.

Oh generation of weasels!

writtenwyrdd said...

Reading bad prose has inspired me to write. The first time I got serious about actually writing something and finishing it was when I read one more bad genre vampire romance. so I sat down and wrote a really bad novel of my own, and learned a heck of a lot.

Reading regardless of the quality of the work read can offer valuable insights for someone who studies the craft (or lack thereof) in the work.

But doing actual writing is what teaches a writer the craft of writing.

Develop the eye, develop the instinct, develop the working set of flexible rules and tools for your writerly toolkit. Three-legged stool approach to the craft. :)

Erik Donald France said...

Excellent. Yes, we can always learn much from the good, the bad & the ugly of all kinds, and not just writers.

"Willy-nilly" is a nifty-fifty word combo in my book . . .

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Erwin, that's a mature way to look at it, my friend.

JR, I've put up my red pen for the moment. Maybe you should read more bad writers. I can recommend Lin Carter.

Marmitetoasty, an accent? I never noticed. ;) I've heard good things about Coben and will definitely try him at some point.

December/Stacia, I definitely think I learned quite a lot in the early days too, although now I mostly avoid it. This topic is wide open for expansion I would think. Have at it if you want.

Jon, I'd sure like to see a good John Carter film. Maybe it would help raise my own Sword & Planet books up. You're right, Dean Koontz is a good example of someone who can write pretty fast and still pull it off. I really enjoy his work, although I liked stuff like "Phantoms" and "Midnight" the best. Thanks for stopping by.

Anna-lys, enjoy Walpurgis Night. A worthy celebration.

Paul, when I started writing I wrote almost exclusively short stories and I often tended to produce very short pieces that had no fat to cut. Once I've started writing novels I've found that my tales have expanded. I'm not sure that's a good thing, though. I had to add a whole new chapter and several extra scenes to Swords of Talera to get it up to a decent word count for it's book publication, but that book I worte originally a long time ago and it was virtually a novella.

Ivan, that's very sad to read. I didn't realize it was that way. Anything that has to be essentially approved by a committee is likely to suffer as a result and have it's edge dulled.

Writtenwyrd, you were inspired in much the same way I was, by reading something that just didn't do it for me and thinking I could do better. As I said, that wasn't my only reason to start writing but it was a part of the reason.

Erik, I don't use willy-nilly that often but it felt right. Weird you should mention "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly," I was watching that movie again last night.

cs harris said...

I suspect many, many writers start writing after putting down something so awful they say, "Even I could do better than that! How did his thing ever get published?"

WH said...

I was inspired by sci-fi and mystery writers growing up, like Clarke and Asimov.

Many years ago I picked up Princess Daisy by Judith Krantz and was positvely revolted by the book (and all glitz novels). Jacquline Susan, etc ... ugh. Self-indulgent prose.

Last year, I tried to read a Robert Heinlen novel, unedited and published posthumously, originally written in 1951. It was so bad I had to quit it. Very sad. The narrative was constantly interrupted for 30-50 pages of backstory.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

I love that second to last paragraph! I thought it really captured the essence of good writing. strikes the ear like music - is lovely! And it is exactly what good prose does.

Tyhitia Green said...

Wow. I really like this post. Bad writing helps a great deal with my writing because it shows me what not to do. :*)

Some publishers insist on quick turnaround and it differs for every writer, and that can cause problems. I have seen some things I hope I never write.

Barrie said...

I can tell you that I've learned a ton about writing from judging contests. When you're paying that much attention to detail, you start to see what works and what doesn't and how that applies to your own stuff. :)

Sarai said...

That characters really are the most important part of the story. If the story doesn't have characters or they fall flat then the story won't work.

Charles Gramlich said...

Candy, I agree. It certainly seems so.

Billy, I liked Heinlein's stuff like Starship troopers and that period of stuff, but didn't care much for his later stuff. Too much of that wandering around in the prose.

Ello, thanks, I appreciate the compliment.

Demon Hunter, I'm sure you're right and the pressures of the market place and publishers have a lot to do with it. I know several writers who are frustrated by that pressure from their own publishers.

Barrie, I never really thought about that but I can imagine so. Great point.

Steve Malley said...

Whew! Popular post and I'm tardy to the party. These days, I'm on this sort of 'discovering-the-writer-within' kick.

That light, good or bad writing has something to teach us. If we let it...

the walking man said...

Me, not a struggling but prolific writer? *Shrug* sometimes the dull when dusted of becomes the gemstone of the present.

I hit this writing thing about four years earlier in age than you did Charles but much the same way. I thought I could do it as well as them that wrote the books I was reading, had been reading, etc. Starting with shorts (abysmal from what I remember) and going to poetry, I never stopped writing and wanting to be produced.

And then I read about ten of Dickens novels and I thought "Dude this guy discovered a way to tell the same story over and over again. That blows!" and then I looked at the other authors I was reading, and found they had found what I had found. Basically I stopped reading but for an occasional indy work.

I didn't stop looking for a publisher for the children I was shopping until a couple, four years ago.

Then I hit the open mic for the first time and started to get that longed for recognition there. I slowly stopped writing the longer pieces and focused on the poetry for a live audience.

I compare the two and I know what I prefer which is the immediate feedback live, Seeing the eyes of the audience, knowing if they are following you for your weekly three to six to nine minutes of fame and glory. yet that feedback will tell you without a stamp or cover letter whether the piece is shit or shinola.

No money in it but when you see them roll a tear out, get mad as hell, or wave the scoreboard with a "10" on it, to me that is enough. I have done my work as a writer and a performing poet.

The never ending circle eh?

Yes I have learned tons from bad and serial authors. Mostly not to do it.



Charles Gramlich said...

Steve Malley, the thing that interferes with the learning for me is when I get emotionally angry about a piece of bad writing, like when that person has sold millions, but if I look rationally at a work I will learn something from everything.

Mark, there is certainly something to be said for immediate feedback and that's part of the thing with the blog. We can get quick feedback on what we write. I get that kind of feedback every day in classes so perhaps I get my fix there. Now, I think the longer pieces are for me an enjoyable exercise in organization, in putting my stamp on an imaginary world at least.

Sarai said...

Hey Charles you won a contest over at my sight! Drop me an email ( and I'll send the books out to ya!

Mary Witzl said...

This is a great post, and all the comments you have here are perceptive too. Another good writer, damn it!

I learn a lot from bad writing too. And the more I write myself, the more bad writing I find. One thing I have noticed is that a lot of best-selling writers start off great guns, then their work begins to get sloppy. The first Patricia Cornwell books, for instance, were out of this world. After a while, they began to get formulaic, as though she was churning them out as fast as possible in order to satisfy a quota or perhaps meet a deadline. I agree with whoever liked Harlen Coben; I've found his writing consistently good too.

Bad writing gives me hope. There's so much wonderful writing out there -- enough to depress any would-be author. The bad writing assures me that I too may find a publisher.

Josephine Damian said...

Sqt: I call that "writing with one eye on the screen" (meaning movie screen, not squinting at the computer screen) - writing that is visual, and at an 8th grade level so that's it's easily adapted to film. As long as that's where the big money is, I doubt that type of writing will go away anytime soon. Grisham writes for the film deal, to make the screenwriter's job easier, he doesn't write for the reader.

Barrie: I just got done judging a short story contest (pity the fools who entered), but it was a really great learning experience for me as a short story writer - taught me what not to do.

Charles: More and more I see that the biz publishes books because of who the person is (their background, their job, personal expereinces) or who they know/schmoozed, and not the quality of their writing.

Still, the last thing I want is to encourage anyone to write badly, to incite anyone to take the cheap, easy way in.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sarai, I did so today. Hurray for me!

Mary Witzl, there is so little room in this commercial world for art. Sometimes I'm glad I don't have a contract with a big publisher for multiple books. I'd love for a lot of people to read what I write, but I don't want to have to write to someone else's definition of "good enough."

Josephine, yes, or what is hot in the world at the moment. People getting contracts for books who are underprepared to write them because they are writing in a hot zone of the moment.