1. divided_crown
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    divided_crown Member

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    I just advised a beginning writer to read bad fiction

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by divided_crown, Nov 20, 2012.

    Okay, let me explain myself properly: Even though I myself am just a novice writer, friends who want to get into fiction writing occasionally ask me how to get into writing and similar questions. One such case occurred recently, when someone asked me what they should read to build their "feel" for language.

    He had read a bunch of books from all different eras - from Hemingway to Robert Stone (Flag for Sunrise is recommended in some writing guide), but came out discouraged and confused. He admitted that he didn't get what made them great in the first place and that, because many texts bored him, he would never get to that level. He thought he was missing something important.

    At first, my answer was going to be simple: Find the big names of the genre you like, and read them. There are more legends than just the old-fashioned classics. Find your genre, and fan out from there...

    And then it occurred to me: reading the classics is fine and well for your cultural education - but as a beginning writer, it's poison. You will quickly start thinking that a) this is the only way you are supposed to write (who are you to argue with Hemingway?!), and b) that your writing is absolutely inadequate. In fact, however, you feel that because you write what you want to read, and let's face it - while most of us can appreciate the wordcraft and artistic value of the classics, we also know that they are not "entertaining"/"fun" to our modern sensibilities in a conventional way.

    So here is what I said instead:

    Read what is "fun" to you, even if it's flawed fiction. Read what other novice writers wrote, because when you're starting out, the one thing that you need to keep going if nothing else is the though that you CAN do better than others. Read self-published stuff, read garbage, but only if you are passionate about the subject. Read things that lack in execution. You can do better, that's the key.

    So far, it appears that this has basically cut the knot. We now have long conversations about his first book, which always include rants about how some author he read messed up a potentially great scene by using the wrong point of view, or how some words are just misused way too often, or how something was boring to read although it showed promise. He has also gotten better at critiquing my work as well as taking criticism on his own - sure, his Kindle is now cluttered with eBooks that are not exactly the greatest masters of literature, but here's the thing:

    As far as the "masters of literature" are concerned: we only read their over-and-over-edited masterpieces, rarely their first steps. But as a beginning writer, you need to relate somehow to what you read, to how it was created. It's better to see that other works are flawed as well, and feel that you can recognize these flaws, rather than trying to imitate an all-time classic.

    But that's just my take on it. What do you think?
     
  2. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    I think telling someone to read poor fiction is to encourage poor writing. People pick up ideas/skills from who they read.
     
  3. divided_crown
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    divided_crown Member

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    I suppose my point is more about not trying to hard to read the big names just because they're the big names, but about reading what you are actually interested in.
     
  4. Gallowglass
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    Gallowglass Contributing Member Contributor

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    Read the big names of the genre they're trying to write, but do not say 'read bad stuff.' If they read bad books and aren't well-versed enough to know what makes them bad, they'll pick up bad habits. Try to avoid most Victorian stuff too. Their stories may be enduring, but their writing styles definitely aren't.
     
  5. Pheonix
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    Pheonix A Singer of Space Operas and The Fourth Mod of RP Staff Contributor

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    I'm gonna play devil's advocate here. Reading 'bad fiction' isn't always bad. You have to see how not to do things, otherwise you'll never know what the great fiction works. If you read critically and a wide variety, it doesn't matter how good it is, you'll form your own ideas on what works and what doesn't. To get there though, you have to read a lot and in variety.

    To be a good writer is to read a lot, and even if it it's the best of fiction, reading is still beneficial to open a person's mind.
     
  6. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Agree with Pheonix - a good writer is well-read, meaning they read a variety of books, and they know how to read critically, not just for pleasure. One has to see what works and what doesn't.
     
  7. TimHarris
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    TimHarris Senior Member

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    I partially agree with this. Seeing other peoples mistakes can often make you a better writer. But you need to recognize bad writing when you see it, and know why it's bad, otherwise, what's the point?
    I would probably reccomend reading fiction generally accepted as good to somebody just starting out as a writer to build up a good basis for a better comparison to less great fiction in the future.
     
  8. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think there is some validity to what you said, but I would quibble with your assessment -- there are plenty of good fiction books out there that are neither poorly written, nor are they "classics." Your advice to read beyond Hemingway, et al is spot on -- writers should read books that are similar to the books that they want to write. If your friend wants to write a contemporary story, then by definition, the classic literature isn't going to be quite comparable, simply because their time period is different from our's. There are a lot of current writers who are considered to be excellent writers whose books aren't quite considered "classics," but they are well respected current writers. You can find good literature if you peruse the nominees for National Book Awards and such. But there are many good, successful writers who write current stuff who aren't award nominees. Again, this also depends on your friend's taste and what type of book he wants to write. It is immensely helpful to read stories that are written well.

    That said, it can be helpful to read stories where you can find fault, although that doesn't necessarily have to be with stories that are poorly written. There are plenty of people who have well-thought out reasons for why they think some classical author is actually terrible. But it's always good to develop critical thinking skills and critiquing other's works can be one of the best methods to improve your own. So, I think your advice is helpful, but I'd be careful about going too far with it. Don't forget about reading well-written current stories -- after critiquing so many, it might be refreshing to see one that is enjoyable to read. It's easy to pick up bad habits, so I'd make an effort to balance out the good with the bad, and really try to read more good than bad.
     
  9. Knarfia
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    Knarfia Member

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    1984 is considered a classic. So is Fahrenheit 451. Both are easy to read.
     
  10. evelon
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    evelon Active Member

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    And then it occurred to me: reading the classics is fine and well for your cultural education - but as a beginning writer, it's poison. You will quickly start thinking that a) this is the only way you are supposed to write


    Doesn't that also hold true if you encourage people to read badly written books? Surely a beginning writer needs to know how to recognise poor writing - and that he does by reading well written books.

    b) that your writing is absolutely inadequate.

    Meaning that you endeavour to improve. If you read poorly written books, accept them as the norm and judge your own skills by those alone, how are you ever going to recognise the areas in which you need to improve?
     
  11. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I'm for reading a mixture. Classics aren't all dull nor are all hard to read. It's really about
    finding what you like but also giving a book a chance. Movies have dulled us to the point
    that unless we're gettinga hot rock song or an explosion in the first few minutes we're
    bored. Modern fiction has picked up on that and offered snappy first sentences and
    great openings.
    But there are tons of easy to read classics
    - Call of the Wild
    - To Kill a Mockingbird
    - 1984
    - Jane Eyre
    - The Grapes of Wrath
    - The Catcher in the Rye
    - Breakfast of Champions
    - The Hobbit
    - The Color Purple
    - One Hundred Years of Solitude
    - Lord of the Flies
    - The Great Gatsby
    - Uncle Tom's Cabin
    - The Maltese Falcon
    - The Picture of Dorian Gray
    - Brave New World
    - On the Road - Jack Kerouac
    - Catch 22
    - The Metamorphasis
    - The Red Badge of Courage
    - Cannery Row


    Reading lousy books isn't going to make you a bad writer, but reading only lousy
    books and never realizing their lousy that can definitly make a bad writer.
     
  12. Kinch
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    Kinch Member

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    Sometimes, reading popular "bad fiction" can fuel me to tap into the repressive parts of my writing which I wish came out more often.

    Providing that one has enough literary knowledge and insight to recognize and avoid the "bad parts" of "bad fiction," I think it is better to read "bad fiction" while writing than nothing at all.
     
  13. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Reading bad fiction can be just as instructive as reading good fiction, as long as you can recognize which is which.

    I know I've learned a lot about what to avoid doing!
     
  14. Thumpalumpacus
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    Thumpalumpacus Contributing Member

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    It's helpful. More important, to me, is reading with a critical eye.
     
  15. Night Herald
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    Night Herald New Member

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    I tend to agree with you. I have read quite a lot of fiction ranging from bad to mediocre, and I feel I've gotten something out of it. If there are certain things that irk me about for intance prose or a certain scene,
    I try to figure out exactly what bothers me and how I would write it better. This approach to reading is relatively new to me, and I take that to mean I've developed a more critical way to approach literature.
    So in my mind, bad fiction is not all bad if you use it "right". Of course, it goes without saying it should be balanced out with reading good books, to really understand what makes or breaks a piece.
    It might not work for everyone, but it works for me and seems to be working fine for your friend.
     
  16. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think reading bad fiction is only helpful if you know it's bad, and I don't mean because someone told you it's bad. You have to be able to recognize its badness yourself. Reading good fiction is helpful because it gives you a target to aim for - it lets you know what can be accomplished in prose.
     
  17. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    I wonder if eating bad food makes someone a better chef.
     
  18. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    There are all kinds of good fiction, from classics to a good trashy potboiler. I see no particular reason to seek out "bad" amateur fiction.
     
  19. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    Actually reading poor fiction can be valuable, as long as you can find the reasons why it's poor. Learning from mistakes is always valuable. So for your friend I'd advise that if he went that route, that he also read some critiques of the books. And surprisingly many books do have a lot of good critiques of them. At the very least there would be the Amazon reviews, and also Goodreads, which can be insightful. There's also library thing, and professional reviewer sites.

    Best way to do it in my view would be to read the critiques, then the book and hopefully as you go through you'll notice the errors that others have picked up.

    And yeah, stay away from most of the classics. There's a reason they were considered great, but for the most part they're outdated. If you wrote a play in the style of Shakespear, I doubt that many would enjoy it no matter how well written it was. Times have changed.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  20. Trilby
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    Trilby Contributing Member Contributor

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    If your friend is an absolute beginner, the danger in advising him to read poorly written books is - he may not be knowledgeable enough to grasp what is wrong with the writing and thereby pick up bad habits. You need some degree of understanding of writing/grammar to be able to be critical.

    If you want to learn anything - then the best people to learn from are the experts in their field. Good writers are the best teachers.

    Try learning to drive from a rubbish driver - you will most likely pick up bad habits that are hard to shift.

    I agree with Greg above - about outdated writing.

    That's my take on it!
     
  21. SuperVenom
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    SuperVenom Contributing Member

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    I would have agreed about reading good only until I read a book called how not to write a novel, which gave issues and then pointed them out. You cant appreciate the highs if you don't understand the lows. Get them to read one of each (using a list from the guys here would be great as with the pool of knowledge I bet they can point you in the right direction for both good and bad) and then compare with them so they know what is good and what is bad. FYI for a bad one try - The Skull - Shaun Hutson (some like it but not me) Good hmm im a huge terry practhett fan so any of them if you like humor but i think there are better for any genre.
     
  22. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think you should read whatever interests you - if it's captured your interest, it's doing something good, right? And besides, frankly, however bad the book is, the author's probably doing better than you, which means there's still something to learn from it. As you improve, you'll shed bad habits, you'll see the same book in a new light and you'll start developing.

    However, my critical eye was developed by reading good writing, not bad writing. But in general, reading anything is good, in my opinion because, well, if it's captured your interest enough for you to read it cover to cover, like I say, it's probably doing something right!
     
  23. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Ditto this. Hard.
     

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