• Better Writing Through Bad Reading

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in Strategies     Comments 11 comments

    by Dave Ervin

    Writers must read–a lot. In order to hone our craft we should take in the work of writers with more talent/success/experience than us and learn from it.

    But not everything we read is worthy of emulation.

    What can we take from a bad book? Why is it important for a writer to finish a novel even if it’s no fun to read? As Stephen King points out in On Writing, it can be incredibly helpful to occasionally read something that leaves us saying “I don’t ever want to write like that.”

    Below are reviews of two popular books that turned my stomach, and what they had to teach me about becoming a better writer.


    1) Relentless by Dean Koontz

    Everything about this novel is obnoxious.

    The story, which sets up as a dark comedy about a writer being pursued by a murderously insane book critic with an elitist agenda, could have worked if it were treated with a wink at the audience. Instead, the novel decides to take itself seriously, and it’s just too implausible for that.  For example, the fact that the antagonist has seemingly every high-tech device and ninja skill known to man could have been funny, but instead Koontz attempts to frighten us with this aspect of the villain and we are left laughing at, not with, the author.

    The main reason I hated this book is the way it tries to blend genres. It starts as a comedy, then turns into an action caper, only to delve into some deep realms of sci-fi the reader is in no way prepared for (genius kids? time-traveling dogs?). All of this is interspersed with a grisly backstory that is more at home in a Sue Grafton novel.

    I don’t mind reading a stupid book once in a while; just let me know up front what I’m in store for and I’ll go with you. Don’t change course on me midstream.

    Lesson: Don’t cheat your audience–anything is acceptable if it’s earned. Make sure the spices in your novel stew blend together.


    2) The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

    This much-loved novel is not loved by me.

    A young man has dreams of finding his one true treasure in Egypt and sets off on a quest to find it. I get the whole allegory thing, but perhaps that’s what turns me off. Not that allegory is necessarily a bad thing, but it begins to lose steam over the length of a novel. Allegory lends itself to broadly drawn characters with good and bad clearly defined, leaving little room for complexities in the characters or the story.

    This approach can work in genre fiction (the work of Joseph Campbell has almost made character archetypes and formula plots a necessity in fantasy/ sci-fi), but when a novel aspires to be something else–a piece of Literature with a capital “L”–the trappings of allegory fall flat.

    The Alchemist is not trying to entertain in the same way the Harry Potter novels are. It doesn’t want to excite and bedazzle us with larger-than-life characters and the intricacies of its specific world. It wants to move us and to teach us and to touch us deeply. It doesn’t. Instead, it comes across as condescending and predictable.

    Lesson: Don’t talk down to your audience. Don’t consciously use your novel as a teaching tool–instead tell your story and let the lessons/themes emerge organically.


    Reading is a necessary pleasure in a writer’s life. But even when the pleasure turns sour, the task is worth it. So next time you’re stuck for what to read, find some bad books and take joy in the fact that you’re better than that.

    Then read something good.


    Discussion questions: Do you ever intentionally read bad books in order to become a better writer? How does reading a bad book improve your own work? Any examples to share?


    A writer and teacher from Fort Worth, Texas, Dave has been published in print, on the web and in literary journals. Visit him at daveervin.com

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    Laura Roberts

    I *almost* read Twilight as a learning exercise, but after I watched the movie, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. There are too many good books in the world to learn from; I am not about to purposely subject myself to shit just to learn from the pain. Also, I review indie books for a living, so that statement may or may not be redundant. (I kid because I love. But seriously, there are some terrible ones out there, and I have been forced to read them. I am reading one right now, actually, but I can’t name any… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Oh come on. Name some names. Name some names!

    Like Dave, I learned a few things from reading Dean Koontz. But he puts out so much useless shite that it’s hard to keep up.


    I *hated* The Alchemist. I felt like an 8th grader could have written it, and yes, it was dripping with condescension. Isn’t is so frustrating when non-Twilight books that are meant to be heavy and life-changing are abysmal on the craft level? Yes, different people find different stories meaningful for different reasons, but good lord when a book is so technically clumsy it’s hard to see the craft to anything else.

    David Duhr

    Any more examples, Leah? Perhaps we should compile a list.

    Jose Skinner

    The worst I’ve read is Danielle Steele. OMG.

    […] have recently contributed to WriteByNight as a guest blogger. You can read my article here – an updated version of a post that appeared on this website last […]

    Jose Skinner

    If you go to Ginger Man in Austin you’ll find some shelves fulla hardbacks that they must’ve gotten at garage sales and put out to give the place a learned vibe, i guess. Some of these are atrocious, some not so bad. Most are authors you’ve probably never heard of, but the publishers are mainstream (Henry Holt, St. Martin’s…) I did recognize Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby), but the book by him at Ginger Man was pretty bad. Got bad reviews, too. The experience is semi-depressing, but semi-ecouraging, too: one can write a mediocre book, get it published, and have it… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I effing love that wall. It’s so ridiculous and so comforting at the same time. The rest of the place isn’t at all made up to look like a gathering spot for the literati, so it’s just so random that one small corner is. And the books, like you said, are mostly garbage that nobody else wants. The kind of stuff that Half Price Books would turn down.

    Gene Hull

    I nominate Fifty Shades of Gray for the most-awfully-written-best-selling “book” prize

    […] Bad Reading […]

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