Tuesday, May 5, 2009

In Which I Relive My Most Embarrassing Moment

Long long ago, in a far distant galaxy, I went to college. At that college I did not major in English, but I did take a fair amount of writing classes... I think I filled every elective with writing classes. Which may beg the question why I didn't just major in that, but I was far too practical for that.

Anyhoo, I took lots of writing classes, and I learned a few things in them, one of which was that there were a lot of people who wanted to be writers, and that most of them couldn't put two decent sentences together, let alone a 20 page story. Another thing I learned was that I should keep my mouth shut.

The idea that I actually learned that is, I suppose, debatable.

The incident that spawned this little lesson was a round table discussion of the writing class about books. I happened to be taking a young adult literature class at the same time (that, miraculously, wasn't an elective - oh joy! I got to read about 30 YA books for credit!! It doesn't get better than that! But I digress...).

I'd just finished reading a book that I thought was horribly written. Flimsy plot, awkward use of language, flat characters. But it was engaging story-wise, and held some real emotion if you could sift through the bad writing. So I posed the question:

Can a good book be badly written?

This got the attention of the professor, who then played 20 questions with me about the book. I tried to be coy; I hate slamming authors and criticizing their writing, especially by name. And this guy was a big name in YA circles. A bestseller. But the professor wanted to know why I thought it was bad. I explained the plot - or lack thereof - and the fact that all of the characters seemed to be stereotyped cardboard cutouts, and that the language seemed very contrived. You know the kind - when adults write books trying to pretend they know how kids talk.

And he asked why then I thought it was a good book. And I said, well, beyond those things, something about it touched me. It was about war, and at the time my boyfriend was fighting in Kuwait. It felt personal. And relate-able.

And he pounced on that to pronounce that then it couldn't have been bad writing.

(The horrible and embarrassing end of the story is that he finally wrangled the name of the author, who I only named under severe duress and peer pressure, and it turned out the author, who I had been berating for a full ten to fifteen minutes, was a close personal friend of the professors. Ouch!)

The reason I bring this up is that, in an effort to get a more full feeling of what Christian fiction is, I've been reading more of it lately. And I chose one particular author because she is widely known and has sold tons of books. And I was left with the same feeling. How can a book that is so badly written I can't stop thinking about that, cause me to cry? If I don't like the story, the plot is contrived and preachy, the characters are one-dimensional, and only seem to serve the point of teaching the reader a moral, and if the dialog is hokey, and if the description is repetitive to the point of making you want to throw the book down in a tantrum...

How can this be a good book?

And yet I read it. All of it. And I cried when the flat, one dimensional character died and when the other flat one dimensional characters had to find a way to grieve and move on. But I was disgusted with myself the entire time I was crying, because all I could think was, "How can I cry at this drivel! I don't even like it!"

So what about you? What makes a good book good? Can a good book be badly written? Can a beautifully written book be a bad one? And why do agents and editors leap at these when there have to be thousands out there that are both?

And maybe, more importantly, does the blog look good in pink? My husband says I am so not a pink blog girl, but I kinda like it.


  1. I like the new blog, but then I liked the old one too! I don't know if that's what you wanted to hear or not. Pink works but then it's a special pink--nice and warm, not off putting at all. I detest some colors which can be classified as pink.

    I not sure I like the title Some Mad Hope. I have to think about that. As to whether a badly written book can be a good book I guess my answer is yes, because good is defined by whoever reads the book and therefore good has many different interprestations. Would it be good to you or me? Probably not but a lot of people like pure escape stuff--desperately need it maybe. As to why you cried when this cardboard character died? You're into that kind of character and you relate with what happened to that character and therefore you build the character up in your own mind, give him or her more depth than the writer does. Does that make sense?

  2. i like pink :) good book - one that keeps my distracted brain's attentin - its hard to do - mostly suspenseful type books.

  3. Marsh, I've said before that whether or book is good or not depended on the person reading it, so it was good for you to remind me of that. Of course, there are wide variations of how to write!

    I guess I was thinking at the time about all the things that we were taught to do to make our writing better in that class, and then comparing them to the lack of that in the book. If you'd taken any one paragraph out of the book and read it by itself, I still think anyone would have said, "Man that stinks!" But all together... maybe the story was just bigger than the writing.

    I'm still frustrated when the writing is so bad that I am thinking of that more than the story.

  4. I have read "badly written" books before that still moved me. It's like those really sappy made-for-TV movies with bad acting, and they still make you cry. Some basic human dramas will always make you cry, no matter how badly portrayed. So I agree with you and not Professor. And I like pink.

  5. I've had the same thing happen, Heidi. I think you're right - a good book can be badly written. It's a shame that the more popular a writer gets, the less influence an editor has over their product...because in some cases the quality does go down.

    And I don't think you have to be embarrassed about that - I'm acually really proud of you for saying what you think, regardless, but trying to have the tact to not bash by name. Well done.


    And I like the pink.

  6. Don't even get me started on the pink, cuz you know I used to hate it and now it's my favourite colour!

    As for books... yeah. I wish I could explain it. All I can come up with is that it appeals to the average person, the grand masses, dare I even be so arrogant as to say, the lowest common denominator.

    Maybe it was embarrassing for you to have to explain yourself to that professor, but way to go - somebody has to! Every now and then somebody needs to say, "Hey man, this book really isn't the best writing in the world. HOnestly. Also the emperor is nekkid, people, so you can quit blabbing about how much you like his new outfit. Just sayin."

  7. Shelli - I like a good suspense too, especially if it's done well enough for me to buy into the premise!

    Jessie - thank you! I think you hit the nail on the head.. it's the basic human drama. If someone is writing about the death and grieving process, it's hard for me not to put myself in their place.

    Jen - do you think it's that writers who have lots of deadlines just get sloppy? It's true that as they get more popular, the less editors can edit. It's just a shame the writer can't say, "I need another month to make sure this isn't total crap. After all, it is my name on the book."

    Of course, I think they don't see that, either.

    Heidi - you just make me laugh out loud!

  8. I've thought long and hard about whether to post a comment on this topic since I know absolutely nothing about writing a book. I do a ton of writing in my job, but that is different. I guess I think of whether a book is good or bad and whether it a book is well written or poorly written as very different things. So, I think you can definitely have a good book that is poorly written and a wonderfully written book that almost has to be read more as a collection of perfect sentences than as a book.

    Pink - As a concept I do not in any way associate pink with the Heidi that I knew growing up and that I am getting to know once again. That being said, until I read you asking about it, I never even really even thought of this as being pink.

  9. Tony - I'm so glad you said that about the pink! Jean used to tease me that I only wore pink, but I am so not a pink person. Not then, and most certainly not now!

    But I like the blog. So it'll stay for now. Until I feel like changing it. :) Again.

    I don't think you have to be in publishing or writing to answer this question. I think everyone who's read more than a few books could answer it for themselves. It's really a very subjective thing.

    Maybe before I wrote I could get through badly written books better than I can now. Now it's hard to read a book purely for the story and not also focus on how it is written. As much as I may grit my teeth over bad writing, though, I will keep reading if it's an engaging story.

  10. I definitely think it goes *both* ways, there are books that are fun reads and are modestly written at best, and there are beautifully crafted books, with moving prose, but with a story that falls completely flat. The trick is, I suppose, finding a way to juggle both...or at least locating that middle ground.

    Oh, and yes, the pink blog gets the thumbs up!

  11. I absolutely agree with you!!!
    I think that is some people don't understand about Twilight. Writers are quick to point out the number of adverbs used and the sparkly vampires, but the story itself speaks to people (obviously!).

    Anyways, I just found your blog and enjoy it. Christian fiction is one of my favorite genres - so good luck getting published!!

  12. Welcome Megan Rebekah! I think twilight is a perfect example. It's been criticized a lot for bad writing, but it must have a compelling story lots of people love, so you can't discount it. There are probably millions of people who wish they could have written it!