As writers, we've all experienced it. Cozied up in an easy chair, we crack open a brand new book, breathe in the fresh pages, and let the words swallow us whole. Then our eyes stumble. Once, twice, three times. Before we know it, we've slammed our eyes AND the book shut, disgusted such a travesty was ever published.
How can a story with so many glaring mistakes and such weak writing ever have made it past an agent, much less an editor, and onto the printing press? What a monumental waste of paper and ink! Didn't those publishers see the wooden dialogue? What about the info-dump in chapter one, or the dream sequence that hopped from one POV to the next? And there were at least seven commas in sentence # fifteen on page ten.
But is the book really so bad? Would we have noticed the blunders had we not read every book out there on "How to write", had we not taken every creative writing class offered at the local community college and attended each and every workshop / conference accessible? Would we have cared, were we not inundated every moment with rules, rules, and more rules, that will assure us acceptance by an agent and ultimately publication with some big New York house?
Something happens when an avid reader learns to write. Books that used to carry us to new and wondrous places, can't carry us past the lumpy cushion on the loveseat. It's a catch 22. I can't argue that my internal editor has improved my writing by leaps and bounds, but yet it's stifled my enjoyment of the written word somewhat. The innocence is gone.
And I know I'm not alone.
I've heard more than one frustrated writer ask why there are so many "bad" books that get agented and published (loathe to admit I've been guilty of such thoughts myself). How can "those kinds of books" possibly make it past querying, submitting, and slush piles to be a shiny new title on the shelves when they're lacking quality?
Thing is, do any of us really agree on what constitues a "bad" book?
1) adverbs dominating each sentence?
2) too many passives?
3) excessive use of "that"? (my personal weakness--grrr)
4) comma splices, dangling participles, punctuation faux pas, etc...?
5) head hopping?
6) cookie cutter cardboard characters or wooden dialogue?
7) unsatisfying plot / ending?
8) a flowery or sparse prose?
9) information dumping?
Okay. So, numbers 1-4 are universal grating points. Nothing is more frustrating than when we see someone slide into home plate and be counted safe while breaking all of the grammatical rules we've been taught as writers. The rules we bang our heads against the walls day in and day out to uphold. I'm so anal myself, that before I finish revisions on a MS, I'll go through with the FIND tool and search for all "was-derivatives", "thats" and LY adverbs in an effort to make those sentences stronger.
But should we let it ruin what might be a perfectly good story by dwelling on the errors instead of skimming over them and reading on to find the meat? There had to be something there that made an agent and editor love it enough to accept it despite its faults. Aren't you curious to discover what that was? Maybe even learn something in the process?
And what about numbers 5-9? There comes a point when we cross the line from grammatical to personal writing style, and some of the "rules" we've learned as writers can bleed into voice to be counted as style, much as it makes us choke to admit it.
Read multiple reviews for the same book and you'll see it all boils down to subjectivity. Where one reader sees wooden dialogue, another will think the dialogue sings. While one sees the prose as too drippy and purple, another is swept away by the lyrical flow. Head hopping or info dumping? That can be argued as the author's personal approach to narrative, as long as they can swing it without jolting the reader from the story.
It's kind of magical actually, when an author can bend the "rules" we've all been taught, and do it in such a way that the typical reader won't notice ... in such a way that the reader isn't shaken from the story but instead is left floating in a suspension of blind faith until the story's final sentence.
Maybe, as writers, when we put on our reading caps, we need to borrow that nugget of wisdom from everyone's favorite pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow: "Hang the code and hang the rules. They're more like guidelines anyway."
Personally, I'm going to try it. I'm nostalgic for my innocence. I miss the pleasure of just reading.
It's time to smell the roses through someone else's nose, to taste the flavor of rain on their tongue. It's time to get lost in a story again.
*For a related post on this subject, visit Elizabeth Moon's blog entry on "Why Bad Books Work."