On Reading Bad Books To Become A Better Writer

I don’t know what happened to me.

I used to be able to devour books like a hungry, gasoline-fed fire. It wasn’t unheard of to finish a book in a matter of days, and never more than a month. But now, I can barely finish a book in a month if I’m lucky.

I know a lot of things keep me from reading as fast as I used to—TV is probably chief among them, as well as the fact that I seem to have a much shorter attention span than I did before, thanks in no small part to the Rise of the Devices, where I feel this idiotic need to constantly check my email and Facebook and Twitter. I used to be able to read for an hour or two straight with no problems. Now I read a few pages then start feeling distractions pulling at the corners of my brain. My ability to focus while reading has seemingly gone by the wayside.

As I’ve been working on strengthening my writing, I’ve put in a lot of work and I think that hard work is starting to pay off. Even though I still have a long way to go, I’m feeling a certain confidence in my writing that I didn’t have before and I think it shows. The thing is, for all the writing, editing, and studying I’ve done to improve, there’s one piece of advice I haven’t taken, and it’s always bothered me.

That advice is (paraphrasing): Read as much as you possibly can, even books you don’t like or that aren’t very good. You can learn just as much if not more from a bad book than you can from a good one.

Really?

I mean, it makes sense on a certain level. I suppose that carries over to other arenas as well, not just writing. But the thought of spending my valuable time reading a book I don’t like or isn’t very good seems, well…crazy.

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Now that’s not to say I won’t finish a book I don’t like by an author I do like. I’m about 50 pages into Bag of Bones by Stephen King, and even though I’m still waiting for something actually happen, I’ll be patient and I’m sure I’ll finish the book even if it doesn’t pick up. But reading a mediocre-to-bad book by an author I don’t even like?

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 Reading a book is something I try to enjoy. I say try because unless what I’m reading has me absolutely engrossed, I’m still a little distracted, looking at word choice or use of punctuation, and not enjoying the book like I feel I should. I’m reading more like a writer than a reader. If I was trying to read a bad book I’d probably never finish it because I couldn’t keep myself interested. It is worth noting, however, that of the very small amount I read of one of the Twilight books, Stephanie Meyer managed to make sure I never use any form of the word incredulous.

One thing I have been doing, though, is slowly dipping my toe into the pool of online critique groups. I mentioned my Reddit ‘No Sleep’ experiment before, and that was fun, but you don’t get any actual feedback there. I did some more exploring and found the subreddit Shut Up and Write, which is a point-based peer critique system. As you review and critique the work of others you earn points that you cash in when you submit your own work for review.

So I guess I’m still improving my writing by reading stuff that isn’t necessarily top of the line, it’s just that instead of going ‘Ugh, this sucks,’ and chucking a book in the trash I’m giving some hopefully useful and constructive feedback that helps the other writer. It feels much more productive than reading a poorly written book.

Hopefully then end result is pretty much the same, because I really don’t want to read bad books. I really, really don’t, but I will if it’s that valuable to my writing. But you tell me—do you finish every book you start, even the crappy ones? What do you take away from them?

The Reddit ‘No Sleep’ Experiment

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So do you guys reddit? With all the mandates on writers to use all forms of social media (including my reluctant creation of an account with Google+, which I’m still trying to get a feel for), I assumed that most everyone would have at least dabbled with the internet behemoth. After reading a post from fellow writer/blogger Katie Cross, however, I realized that may not be the case.

What is reddit? Man, is that a loaded question. In a lot of ways, reddit is a microcosm of the internet itself. It has everything you could possibly imagine—cat videos, pranks, world news, politics, technology, fitness, pop culture news, plus a plethora of content that is both NSFW and NSFL (and if you don’t know what those abbreviations mean, you’re probably not going to want to click on anything with those tags on them—not safe for work and not safe for life, respectively).

There are literally thousands of groups, all categorized into areas called subreddits, that you can subscribe to and decide what you do and don’t want to see; the music subreddit, for example, is listed as /r/music. There are links to content, such as photos, videos, and articles, as well as (usually quite lengthy) discussions about said content.

And just like the internet as a whole, there are several useful resources for writers: workshops where you can submit work for critique, articles to help you strengthen your skills, discussion groups about various aspects of writing…all, of course, helpful in its own way.

Then there’s /r/nosleep.

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The design for the brand new nosleep t-shirt.

No Sleep is a subreddit dedicated to trying to frighten and disturb you; it’s kind of like gathering around a virtual campfire and swapping ghost stories. All stories are told in the first person as true experiences. The people who read the stories and leave comments treat them as if they’re real, because one of the guidelines is “Everything is true in /r/nosleep.”

One of the keys to reddit is its unique upvote/downvote process for determining what’s popular. It’s a bit like Facebook with added negativity. Anything submitted to reddit is subject to its users’ approval or disapproval. This goes for No Sleep as well.

After reading stories there for the last few months, I decided to give it a whirl. I had been tossing around an idea for a flash fiction story that I thought would meet the criteria of the group, so I submitted it last week. Surprisingly, it was upvoted by the majority of people who read it, and there were quite a few encouraging comments. Encouraging in that they all requested more—updates to the situation I detailed in my story. I then decided to write a second chapter with the intention of it being a bit of a bridge to the third and final installment, bringing the story to a (hopefully) satisfying conclusion.

So, first story: 152 upvotes, 37 downvotes. Not bad. Reddit’s nice enough to let me know that means 81% like it. Second story: 68 upvotes 19 downvotes. 78%. Still not too shabby, but the real story is in the comments. The first story had 33 comments, ranging from ‘keep us updated’ to ‘please update soon, the suspense is killing me.’ The second had 10, mostly just saying ‘uh-huh, keep us posted,’ and one sarcastic butthead. Obviously the first story resonated with people more than the second one. It’s not exactly a line by line critique of your work, but what I like is that it’s instantaneous feedback from some of the most honest people on the planet—anonymous strangers on the internet. If they don’t like your story you’ll know, because they simply downvote and don’t comment on it.

If you like to read creepy stories, or want to see how people like the stories you make up, jump on over to /r/nosleep and give it a shot. They have monthly contests for the most popular story, and a sort of a ‘behind the scenes’ subreddit for discussions about the group. I’ll be writing the conclusion to my epic saga in the next day or two, so you may be reading my story there soon. I may end up posting the whole thing here on the blog at a later date as well, time will tell. So, who are my fellow redditors out there?

Top 5 Movies I Hated Initially, But Now Love

Before I get on to the topic at hand, a quick note:

In 1992, my old band opened for the death metal band Cannibal Corpse. We had only been together a few months, and only had a half hour’s worth of material at most. But thanks to our lead singer’s relentless hustling of tickets to the show, we were awarded the opening slot.

So there we were: an inexperienced group of kids, thrown on a stage in a crowded, sweaty little club that had been packed in excess of the fire code thanks to the greedy owner, with all eyes on us. Waiting. Expecting.

That’s sort of how I feel right now, after getting all the love and affection from the WordPress community. Having my previous post selected for Freshly Pressed was surreal to say the least. Here I was going about my business in my quiet little corner of the blogosphere, then I got an absolute tidal wave of page views and lovely comments, and it’s been an absolutely wonderful experience. But now I feel all these virtual eyes on me. Waiting. Expecting.

I didn’t know how to follow that up, so here’s a post about movies 🙂

I found myself reading a thread on Reddit earlier singing the praises of the film Shutter Island. I don’t remmeber liking the movie very much, mostly because the trailer made the “twist” ending kind of obvious. I watched the movie and was disappointed to be proven right.

But reading all the comments from people saying how much they liked it made me think I should give it another shot. It is Scorcese, for Pete’s sake.

That got me thinking about movies I didn’t like (and in some cases downright hated) the first time I watched them, but after some time went back to them and did a complete 180. Here’s the top 5.

5. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (Jay Roach, 1997)

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It’s just so stupid, I remember thinking. I had already made up my mind I hated it before the opening credits were over. I can’t even remember if I finished it the first time I watched it, to be honest. I love comedy, but I don’t always like the really over the top stuff like the bottom-tier Wayans brothers (Marlon and Shawn), and every Adam Sandler movie since Big Daddy.

Then, one day I walked into the living room and my wife had turned it on, the scene where Will Ferrell’s character is telling Austin Powers how badly burned he is. It hit my funny bone just right, and I ended up settling in and watching the whole thing like it was the first time. I howled at it this time. It was like I was on a different wavelength that first time, and now I crack up at every stupid scene.

4. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)

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Despite the title of this post, I don’t really love this movie, but I like it a lot more than when I first saw it. The first time I watched it, I thought it was pure crap. I just didn’t get it. I like Johnny Depp, I like Benecio Del Toro, but I don’t know…it just didn’t click. I think what helped was becoming more familiar with Hunter S. Thompson and what kind of crazy he was. Now when I watch it I appreciate it a lot more, and I feel bad for how harsh I was about it. I literally told a friend who liked it that I was sorry I ever watched it.  Sorry, DJ.

3. Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)

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Another one where I just didn’t appreciate the humor and satire the first time around. I enjoyed the gore (of course) but I just couldn’t bring myself to like it. I later gave it a second chance and was really glad I did. I love this movie now, and can’t imagine what the hell was wrong with me when I watched it the first time.

2. Swingers (Doug Liman, 1996)

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Okay, now here I was just being stubborn. I had the misfortune of seeing this movie literally after everyone I knew had already seen it. They all declared it the best movie ever, and that put an enormous chip on my shoulder. There was no way it could ever live up to the hype my friends gave it, so I basically crapped all over it when I watched it. Of course, now this is one of my favorite movies, and I feel like the ultimate hypocrite for being so cruel initially.

(As an aside, if your safe search is turned off and you do a Google image search for ‘swingers,’ you’re going to have quite an experience.)

1. Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, 2004)

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I’m sure I’m not alone here. I knew plenty of people who just flat didn’t like this movie when they saw it, and a lot who seemed to instantly  hail it as an instant classic. I watched it with a raised eyebrow, unsure what to think of the dull, thick-headed characters I was seeing. It took several partial viewings before I finally started seeing the genius that this film actually was. Now I have a hard time not laughing just looking at stills from the movie.

So now it’s your turn.

I want to know what movies, books, TV shows, or music you really didn’t like the first time you experienced it, but now you really like it.

One last plug – I started using this website Readwave to publish a few short stories. A couple are nonfiction that I’ve already posted here on the blog, and a couple are stories I wrote just for shiggles. Feel free to wander on over and check them out, and leave me a comment to let me know what you think.