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What I Learned About Writing This Week…from Disappointing Reads

Ready To Quit

Greetings, my precious inklings. Today, we’re going to talk about pickiness.

Once upon a time, I was much more meticulous than I am now in many areas of my life. True, I still alphabetize my books by author; and recently, for the first time ever, I shelved all of those alphabetized books by genre. And yes, I do stack the glass bowls in a certain order every time I put them away. But it’s only because that’s the most efficient way to get them into the cabinet! I swear!

Anyway. I have, indeed, retained some of the picky preferences of my youth. But I’ve also relaxed quite a few of my personal rules over the years, especially in regard to books I read.

By The Book

Once upon a time, if you borrowed a book from me (read: if I most generously lent you a portion of my treasure), that borrowing came with the strictest of rules: Don’t dog-ear the pages. Don’t even think about turning down the corners. And whatever you do, you’d better bring that book back to me with an unbroken, unmarked spine — because after I read a book, it still looks like it’s fresh out of the bookstore, and you had better return it to me in precisely that condition!

As you might already have guessed, gentle readers, not many people even wanted to borrow any of my books. Much less gained my approval for a loan.

Oy vey.

In the meantime, I have grown older, mayhap a bit wiser, and most certainly less anal. Borrow my books. Break all of those rules — please. Because none of those rules exist anymore. I’ve finally figured out that if you return my book in broken-spined, dog-eared condition, it probably means you’ve enjoyed it. Heaven forbid. 😉

But onward and tally-ho. Another book-related rule I’ve always followed is that even if I’m not enjoying a book, I must finish reading it. After all, I’m not a quitter, right?

Um. Wrong.

The One Where I Give Up

I’m a quitter. I’ll admit it. I’ve decided that I don’t have time to finish books I’m not enjoying. I read for fun, not for intellectual exercise. If I finish a book I don’t like, then yeah, maybe I’m learning what not to do as a writer. But I’m having a hideous, miserable time doing it. Why torture myself, when I can learn just as much from my writer’s bible (read: Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft) or from UnstressedSyllables itself — and enjoy every moment of that refreshing, well-writ prose?

Over the last month, I have picked up and almost immediately set down again two novels in particular. I won’t name them, because that would just be sad. But I’ll tell you a little bit about them.

The first was a sci-fi fantasy epic (although according to Josh, I need to revise my personal understanding of “epic”; revision is dutifully in-progress; and Josh, you’re makin’ me want to write one; thanks 😉 ) — where was I? Oh yes, sci-fi fantasy “epic” with oodles of potential, what with an entire planet’s memory getting erased and so forth. As Mr. Spock would say, with lifted eyebrow, “Fascinating.”

But I don’t care what the jungle looks like or what Minor Character X did with his financial holdings twenty years before the story starts. And even if I did care, I certainly wouldn’t want to read about it for fifteen pages. Halfway through this book, I was so bored and so desperate to find the tiny bits of Story contained within it, I flipped to the last chapter, read that the hero kills his enemy and gets the girl, and then closed the book one last time with a sigh of relief.

Uffda. Somebody preserve me from fellow fantasy/sci-fi writers who indulge themselves so generously in world-building, reading them is like watching the most boring documentary you can remember from high school.

The other book I picked up and then dropped was an urban fantasy involving flying horses. Sadly, I never got to the flying horses part because the characterizations in Chapter One made me want to cry. And not because they were so tragically good that I was overcome by the empathies they elicited within my heart. Can we say “wooden dialogue” and “paper doll cutouts”? Yes, dear inklings, I do believe we can. I didn’t even get to the end of Chapter Two.

I’ve Just Had An Apostrophe ( — I think You Mean An Epiphany)

And that’s when it hit me: If I’m not enjoying a book, I don’t have to finish it. Nobody’s pointing a gun at my head or threatening me with dismemberment if I refuse to continue adventuring into the realms of a poorly-written novel. The Evil Imps Of Noveling Retribution are not going to swoop in and tattoo “I’M A LOSER” on my forehead.

No. The only consequence of permanently closing a bad book is that I gain more time to delve into books containing quality writing.

I’ll make no complaints about that.

And The Moral of The Story…

Perusing the Unstressed Syllables archives, you’ll find plenty of helpful hints on how to grab a reader’s attention and keep it. Get in late, get out early. Craft a baiting first line and a killer first paragraph. Know your characters so well, your readers fall in love on page one. And so forth. You don’t need me to reiterate, dear inklings. This site is ripe for your picking.

So when you come across a book that doesn’t hook you from the get-go, remember all the stuff you’ve gleaned from this site and from other writing resources. Pay attention, put your own stories to the test, and be honest with yourself about what’s interesting and what’s not. Commit to your art and write a story that makes your readers want to devour the next chapter and the next and the next — instead of skipping to the last page to find out how you cleaned up the mess.

Make them want. And that’s WILAWriTWe!

(For more on the subject of “liking” or “disliking” a particular book, check out Aaron’s series on reading like a writer, especially this article.)

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

6 Responses to “What I Learned About Writing This Week…from Disappointing Reads”

  1. Allison says:

    I have just started doing this too (read: without shame), and it’s so freeing to actually give myself the choice! Funny how I’d especially had a problem with this before when a book had been recommended by “everyone”–so i thought I definitely had to like it too.

    No longer! I stand proud on my mountain of personal taste and enjoyment and don’t expect anyone to join me…you heard me! 🙂

    • Courtney Cantrell says:

      Woo hoo! Way to be a rebel, Allison. I love it. It’s funny how we let majority opinion influence our thoughts, even though we really do know better than to let that happen. Sometimes, it just takes a “No more!” from a few firm voices to start a literary revolution. Bring it! 😀

  2. Heather says:

    I used to be ashamed of “quitting” a book, but someone recommended a popular book which I won’t name (but which involves the author’s book-advance funded trip to three countries beginning in the letter “I”) after my third kid was born. After enduring about 100 pages of a yoga-class bimbo’s excruciatingly self-important ramblings (no offense to people who enjoyed it), I decided there was no way I was going to waste any more of my paltry spare time on that dreck. The book is in the baby’s closet, right on top of the giveaway box. No regrets. Chucking terrible books into the dustbin gives me time to enjoy the good ones.

    • Courtney Cantrell says:

      Exactly, Heather! I’m learning that time is a far more valuable commodity than I ever dreamed. We definitely don’t have enough of it to waste it on self-important ramblings, be they bimbo-ish or otherwise!

      By my front door now sits a lovely stack of to-sell books, more than half of which I didn’t finish. I indulge in a gleeful chuckle every time I think of my next trip to Halfprice Books, where I shall exchange those unenjoyable reads for ones of greater value!

  3. Wow. This post is so freeing. I’ve always been taught (by self, maybe?) that it’s wrong to leave a book unfinished. But I am getting more and more courageous to do just that. I, too, just experienced a horrible read and after pausing mid-book, I’ve decided I’m just going to let it die.

    Hi, my name’s Rebecca, and I don’t finish books I don’t like.

    There I said it. 🙂

    (Oh, and did you quote Hook? Couldn’t help but notice.) 🙂

    • Courtney Cantrell says:

      Chorus (sing-songy voices): HI REBECCA!

      The first step is the most difficult — but you’ve taken it! Welcome to the freedom of unfinished reads! Welcome to liberty! Odds bodkins, isn’t it wonderful?!

      I don’t know who taught me that I Must Finish Every Book I Start Reading. I’m not even sure that was the principle; maybe it was nothing more than I Must Finish What I Start. The latter isn’t a bad principle, per se — but it’s terribly detrimental if we apply it to everything.

      (And yes! I quoted “Hook.” That movie is full of some of the best one-liners ever!) 😀