(The Reason I Hate Everything)
“Life is too short to read books that I’m not enjoying.”
If I were to give you a rundown of every novel I’ve disliked, hated or tossed aside you’d think I just hated books in general. It doesn’t take much for me to put a book down. It can be a jarring paragraph, a disjointed narrative, an overly linear plot, a convoluted mess of a story, an over-sentimental group of characters, an under-sentimental crew of people, a clanging back and forth of dialogue, an errant phrase, an imbecilic metaphor or simile, or it could be a constant annoying overuse of dialogue add-ons such as: He nodded, he shook his head, he smiled. Sometimes my reasons are less obvious: I’ll be gripped by the writing style but the story will lack drive or character motivation or the whole thing will be thematically bereft. I guess I’m hard to please.
I’m critical of almost everything and anything. And in my barely humble opinion this is how every writer should read.
With an eye to hate everything — and work out how to fix it.
“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” ― Henri Bergson
Reading critically is essential for every aspiring writer (read more about that here). But there’s no point simply quitting books and moving on to the next one without any introspection. You won’t learn anything that way. You need to not only quit but analyse why you came to that decision. What turned you off about the book?
The plot? The wooden dialogue? Did the characters ring false?
Even when I pick a book with all the ingredients I’m searching for — crime, violence, murder, sex, bad language — I still throw eight out of ten to the side out of boredom or frustration. They don’t engage me on a full spectrum. They may pique my interest in small ways, but unless I feel like the novel is something spectacular, I give up. In order to not miss out on a potential classic I’ll give it a few chapters first, especially if I’m impressed by the prose, but after that I throw it to the side with the rest of the trash.
But the more I analyse what makes my engine click and my heart tick, the more I spot patterns — both positive and negative. I’ve noticed, for instance, Michael Connelly overuses tags such as He shook his head. I once read a page of his with five or six head shakes. That’s a lot of head shaking. And if they weren’t shaking their heads, they were nodding. It became a game to me: I’d look out for the next nod or head shake, which was usually only a page or so away. Pick up one of his books now, flip to any page and you’re almost certain to find a nod or a head shake. Most people won’t notice, or care, but the constant repetition didn’t fade into the background like He said. Instead it reminded me that I was reading and pulled me from my connection with the book. Which is a shame, because I enjoy his writing other than that.
And that’s just one example of many. Stephen King always seems to have a character that laughs at something innocuous or unfunny until he cries, tears streaming from his face. Elmore Leonard, in many of his novels, has dialogue that’s too cute and so cool it’s actually distracting — every clipped word and dropped syllable comes across as stylised rather than natural. What started out as a great ear turned almost into a parody. Robert Crais has characters call each other by their surnames all the time, even if they’ve just met. “Hi, I’m Dave Seltzer,” one will say. “Nice to meet you, Seltzer,” the other guy will respond. He does it in almost all of his books and it detracts from my reading experience.
And the list goes on and on and on.
Because the more I’m aware of the things that bug me in other writers, the more I can excise it from my own work. And it goes deeper than that: on top of pattern searching I analyse other aspects too. Why did the book turn me off? At what point did I stop reading? What did I hate about it? What did I like about it? Again, with each question I learn something.
The quickest way to improve is through reading someone else’s mistakes.
“If there was one life skill everyone on the planet needed,
it was the ability to think with critical objectivity.” ― Josh Lanyon
You’ve got to know what’s bad, to write what’s good. Or at least you should know what you consider to be bad. Others may disagree with your likes and dislikes, but that’s okay. You want to write a novel that you would be proud of; something that you’d place on your shelf with pride, and you do that by picking apart your competitors. If you don’t know why you like some books but hate others, how can you weave the right elements into your manuscript? If you put down a novel because the villain has a weak motive, remember that. In your next draft, go over your own villain’s motives (if you have a villain) and analyse them again. Are the motives strong enough? If you were reading your own work objectively, as a new reader, would you connect with the characters?
I embrace books with strong plots, narrative drive, realistic dialogue, depth of character, and a subtext of deep emotion. I want the full package. Having said that, even the fantasy books with these elements still tend to bore me. I shy away from them. But that’s okay: fantasy just isn’t my thing. Even still, I don’t discard them entirely — it’s always good to read work out of your comfort zone — and yet I have a clear idea of what turns me on. And as a writer you need to know that. If you love everything, your standards probably aren’t that high. And it’s high standards that leads to good writing.
If you enjoy a particular genre, get the top ten writers and read their work one after the other. Note down the aspects you liked and the parts you didn’t. Pay attention to the way each of them constructed their plot, or their subplots, or built characters, etc. Keep focused on what they’re doing in every scene, even the stuff that’s under the surface.
The more you’re aware of these things, the more picky you’ll become. You’ll judge books like a literary agent: you’ll hate almost everything you set eyes on.
And that’s good. It means you’re cultivating a preference and standards.
Which you will eventually transfer to your own work.
“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees.
When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” ― Stephen King
As you begin to hate the books you read, you’ll also find that you love the ones that work. The fact they pass your test and hit every (or at least nine out of ten) of your requirements will excite you. You may even feel pangs of jealousy, wishing you could write something so great, and telling yourself (wrongly) that you’ll never be able to.
That’s okay. It can work as your motivation. Just never stop evolving. Don’t turn that critical eye off. Keep reading and judging and nitpicking and chopping books up.
And in the end you’ll either be a bestselling author with strong work —
or a bitter book critic who lives in your mother’s basement.
It’s a thin line: so walk over it very carefully . . .
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