What I learned from a Bad Book

Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

I believe this to be true. I can’t help but notice the voices in my head respond differently depending upon what I’m reading. A well-written book nourishes my mind, stimulates my ideas and inspires me to write.

Of course, if you want to be a good writer, you should read good writing, right?
That is so much easier said than done. What is good? Good is subjective and oftentimes hard to describe. One person’s “good” is another’s waste of time.

As much as I hate to waste my time, there are benefits to be found from reading a bad book.

I think if you want to be a better writer, read bad writing.

I just finished reading Life as we Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer. This book has a fabulous premise; the moon gets knocked out of its trajectory by a huge asteroid which throws the earth’s weather into chaos with tsunamis swallowing the coasts and volcanos erupting globally. It’s told in diary form by a sixteen year old girl.
It also has a cool cover.

I’m interested in reading about these post-apocalyptic, dystopian futures because one of the novels I’m working on touches on this premise. I like to see how other authors handle this subject. How do the characters adapt? Relate? Survive? How long does it take before your cupboards are empty? Before society loses its civility? What is the science and logic behind the tragedy, how do they explain it?

This book provided me with no answers. It’s really bad. Poorly formatted, poorly executed, poorly researched, and rather insulting to the reader in general, but teenagers specifically.

I believe the author, in addition to being atheist and liberal in their most extreme definitions, also suffers from an eating disorder. Or she thinks every teenage girl has issues with food. I didn’t count, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that food in some shape, form, or lack thereof is mentioned on at least 200 of the 337 pages.

I don’t think the author did a lick of research. She had this cool idea and winged it. Shame on her, her editor, agent, publisher, and friends & family. Luckily the characters are so busy eating/not eating (she actually tells you what they eat and how often on a near daily basis) that they don’t have time to be bothered with considering the outcome of this major catastrophe. Oh, and they also collect kindling and chop wood.

There’s no one in charge of the city, no governmental forces step up to assist frightened citizens, no united civilian’s brigade. But the school board keeps the schools open.
The library also keeps hours. Our characters frequent the library regularly, but never check out any books on you know, science. Wouldn’t it be nice to know about astronomy? Weather patterns? What the hell is going on, what to expect and how to deal with it?
Or basics like finding out how to hunt, fish, trap—what plants are edible, etc, etc….

They sometimes have power and when they have power, they have internet! Because that’s how it works! The shift in the moon’s gravitational pull would not have affected cell towers or satellites or the millions of people employed in these businesses.

She tells us that millions are dead. Entire baseball teams! Oh no, not the Yankees!

Oh, and they get mail. It was worth an illogical mention that bills are still coming.

Gas is $12 a gallon, exact cash only, and only available on Tuesdays because, well, why not? Really? Only twelve dollars? Exact cash only? Because money has value? Thank goodness because the mother has a HUGE amount of cash on hand. WTF.

And as for the “diary” format, um, no. Putting a date in a handwriting font between sections does not a diary make. No one writes in a journal in full dialogue. There’s a part where she says something like, ‘and then I wrote in my journal.’ Really? You wrote in your journal that you were writing in your journal? OMG.

I could go on. And on. But honestly, nothing happens in the book so to continue might be misleading.*

That said, what did I learn? How can I apply the misfires of this book to improve my own?

1. Know my facts. Research. A cool premise alone does not make a good book. (And man, do I have a cool premise!) The premise is just the diving board– you need to have enough water for your readers to safely cannonball into a well-developed story.

2. Check my personal agenda at the keyboard. No one cares how I feel politically or religiously. That’s not to say that my choices won’t influence my characters, but I need to avoid stereotypes, clichés, and unwarranted commentary. Respect the reader.

What’s that old writer’s saying? Kill your darlings? Ah, yes,
3. MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN. It’s the end of the world as we knew it, my darlings shall suffer and the reader shall feel it.

4. If I’m going to break the rules, I’ll break them logically and consistently.

5. Be aware of overusing things. I know I have a tendency to “like” a word and use it often, without even knowing it. It was the perfect word! The first twelve times, haha. But really, I need to pay attention to what my characters are doing, why and how often. There are habits and personality quirks that help define a character. Then there’s just collecting kindling.

*All of my negative commentary on this book does not change the facts that
a) she got it published through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
b) has at least four books in the series, and
c) she has probably sold millions.

I should be so “bad”, right?

About Mary Fran Says

I am an artist, crafter, designer and writer. I enjoy working with mixed media-- applying visual and tactile manipulations to telling a story. Not a lot of market for that, though, :), so I'm focusing on short story submissions and novel completions. Yes, plural. Lots of beginnings, too many ideas, not enough focus.
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5 Responses to What I learned from a Bad Book

  1. that’s just sad. 😦
    btw good title, I couldn’t wait to click on “What I learned from a Bad Book”.

  2. Roy Powell says:

    Too funny, I started this book and had to quit just past the half way point. I agree with your review, this book was just awful. And clearly Pfeffer made no effort to do any scientific research. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that had such gaping holes in the plot. And although I agree that an author must check their personal beliefs at the keyboard, to a degree, I’m not sure that you can just assume that an apparent political or religious bias, of the protagonist and other characters in the book, are that of the author. And after all, real people hold political and religious biases and so why not fictional characters as well. A good example of this would be A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. All kinds of angry folks wrote reviews chastising the author for not checking his beliefs at the keyboard when clearly the protagonist’s beliefs were not John Irving’s. Anyone who was a fan would have known as much, but instead folks just made assumptions, and clearly you can see the irony in that. On a humorous note, I for one, have never considered the possibility that Stephen King might be a closet serial killer, have you?

  3. Good point on the politicizing. I guess the comments were just so unnecessary, they jerked me out of the story. It wasn’t like the character’s actions or everyday conversations supported the lines– they seemed forced. Or, honestly, I took them as something the author was giggling about, “look what I got away with.” But that’s presumptuous of me. Thanks for the input.
    As for your humorous note, well I have now!

  4. Roy Powell says:

    Case in point, a one star review I cut and pasted from Amazon in regards to Stephen King’s new novel, Under the Dome.
    By CYNTHIA KLOBUCHAR – See all my reviews
    Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
    This review is from: Under the Dome: A Novel (Kindle Edition)
    Book is full of foul language,explicit killings and sexual content. I had to stop reading it due to those reasons. I felt the author was defiantly making a political statement against a right leaning Christians. Can’t give it any stars.

  5. Pingback: Calories and Pages | Mary Lamphere

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