Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Bad books hold value

By Jenny Hilborne, author of mysteries and thrillers

Most authors I know are voracious readers. We devour books and we feel cheated when we invest time and money only to be disappointed with our investment, especially when the book came highly recommended or has a slew of favorable reviews. It's like getting bad financial advice from a once trusted source. However, there is still value in "bad" books.

My experience with books creates a change in my mood, and it's far more noticeable after I finish a disappointing book. The last few novels I read lifted me out of the blah state the previous ones dumped me into and I started to compare the difference, see what tips I could learn from each of the books, good and bad, and determine what made some books great and others forgettable. 

The most important criteria of a mystery or thriller (for me) are a complex plot, compelling motive, and intriguing characters. The books I read were penned by respectable authors and the writing itself was fine. So, was the premise of the story. The problem I had was the writer's style. 

Lots of people rave about the TV show "Bones", based on Kathy Reich's character, Temperance Brennan. I've never watched it and I'd never read any of her work until 2 months ago, when I stumbled across one of her books in a phone booth 'library' in Britain. The blurb looked good and I settled in. I finished the book, and wondered why the show was so popular. 

The mystery seemed to be an afterthought, with the author's focus on educating the reader about her subject (forensic anthropology) rather than delivering an interesting story. The reader was required to have extensive knowledge of the human anatomy to understand much of what she wrote. I felt like I'd wandered into the wrong class and was forced to listen to the tutor ramble on about her subject. The story lacked suspense and I never got a sense of the southern charm of South Carolina. Perhaps the TV show is better than the books. Reich's is not the only author to bash the reader over the head with too much subject matter. Others do it with weapons. Too much detail makes the writing dull and slows the plot. It's indigestible to the reader.

I also read Taste of Fear by Jeremy Bates. I loved his first book, White Lies. Taste of Fear is about survival and is gripping from the beginning, with action, suspense, and danger. Bates focuses on developing the story, takes the reader on an intense trip, and fills the senses with smells, sounds and tastes. I still remember what this story is about. 

I'm sure writers make the most critical readers; however, for me fiction is escapism. It's supposed to entertain. In comparing my recent reads, I note how good books engage all the senses and good authors know when to withhold information. They take the reader on a journey, but they don't hold them hostage. Fiction is a way to learn. Writers have their unique style, but reading a lot of fiction helps shape our craft and develop/improve our own style. Well read authors make better authors. They learn what works, what doesn't, and take from the best and the worst. There is value to both. 


  1. You're so right! We can learn what not to do from bad books, as long as we don't waste too much time on them. A bad novel is what inspired me to start writing. At the midpoint, I threw it down in disgust and thought, I could write a better story than that. And once I thought it, I had to see if I could actually do it.

    I'm glad you make time to read. I've been on a short story kick, but I'm looking forward to reading a few novels while I'm between stories of my own.

  2. Before I began learning about the craft of writing, I would be disappointed in a book and not know why. Now I've begun to be able to identify, in fairly short order, what I dislike about a novel. I've had a lot more DNFs in the last few years.

    I'm always reading something, but these days it's often a long, slow read. Sometimes it's because I don't have as much time as I'd like, and other times it's because the story simply isn't engaging me and I'm trying to avoid saying so.

  3. Excellent post, Jenny! I too, read for escapism and entertainment, and if a book doesn't grab me in the first 10 pages or so I put it aside and pick up a different one. And I'll rarely go back to the first one, as there are always new titles to attract me. For me, it's the characters. If I can't identify with and relate to and start bonding with the main character within a few pages, I lose interest. And I'm with you about info dumps of excessive detail on a subject - boring and annoying - just get on with the story!

    Great stuff!

  4. And I have to repeat that, unlike Peg, if I don't like a book or the story drags or the characters don't appeal to me, I won't keep reading. That book is history for me - and probably the author, too! Life is too short.

  5. I used to be completely incapable of putting down a book, no matter how much I disliked it. Maybe it was a result of having to read so many books I never really "clicked" with as an English major in college. But with my TBR pile at record levels, I just can't afford that any more. And yes, character is key. I can stand a character being annoying or thick-witted - as long as I see the possibility that there will be some significant growth out of that behavior.

  6. Really good post, Jenny. I agree, I learn from bad books and enjoy good ones. The worst book I ever read was Neuromancer, by William Gibson, which is now considered a groundbreaking book in the cyber-punk genre. It was hypnotic, nihilistic, and ultimately hopeless. By the end, I didn't care if the protagonist lived or died. Did that ever open my eyes about what I'm looking for in a book!

  7. I find the older I get, the less tolerant I become in my reading. I used to stick with a book much longer than I do now. Like Jodie, if it doesn't grab me right away, I tend to lose interest fast. These days, unfortunately, I put more books down than I continue or complete. I'm not sure if this is because I write novels myself now, or if I'm just getting grouchy in my old age ;)

    Having said all that--there is value in reading bad books. For me (while I was still reading them) on some level, I'm sure I learned what to avoid and what makes a plot fail.

  8. Like some of the other commenters, if I'm not enjoying a book, I stop reading it. I read a LOT, and I've come to feel that reading a book I'm not enjoying is a waste of my time.

  9. Great post, Jenny! I think the reason "Bones" is so popular is because of David Boreanaz. :) I used to believe I HAD to finish a book, no matter how bad it was. Those days are gone. If I don't get into it by the second chapter, it's bye-bye.

    I also loved Jeremy Bates' White Lies. Great book!

  10. Great post, Jenny. And it's true that we sometimes learn by seeing things done "wrong." Of course, what's wrong to me might be perfect to someone else, so there's always that old "subjective" factor we have pounded into us.

  11. Jenny, thank you so much for your kindness and mention in your blog. It was a pleasant surprise brought to my attention by someone on Facebook.

  12. You're welcome, Jeremy. I loved both your books. Keep us posted on the next release.


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