In which I read a Bad Book

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It is one of the small sadnesses of writing fiction, that doing so can break the pleasure of reading. It’s like being a magician at a magic show. You can be impressed at the skill on display. You can feel professional respect for the fellow conjurer on the stage, but if you can see too much of the craft you don’t actually get the thrill of feeling the magic. Occasionally, a book comes along that’s so good, or so far outside your own writing experience, or both, that it forces you to switch off your analytical writing brain and just enjoy the story, but a lot of the time you find yourself thinking, “Oh. Very good. I see what you did there, ” rather than just “Wow!”

Occasionally the opposite happens. A book so bad comes along that rather than thinking “Wow,” or “I see how that works,” you just think “How?” How did this get past an editor? How did this get published in its current form? Just how? I am currently reading just such a book, and, rather churlishly you might think, I’m not going to tell you what it is. There are reasons. Firstly, any book review is subjective and I resolved when I started this blog that I would only post reviews that were at least 51% positive. Secondly, I’m a member of more than one professional organisation for authors. I meet other writers. I’m also English and middle-class and therefore prepared to do pretty much anything to avoid potential future confrontation or social discomfort.

Anyway, this book is a mainstream published book by a successful “Sunday Times bestselling” author. It’s not a debut. It’s not a poorly edited self-published tome by an enthusiastic newbie to the writing game. Looking at it’s Amazon reviews, it’s a book some people have loved. As I said, my opinion is entirely subjective. However, what I don’t think is subjective is that this book almost certainly wouldn’t have attracted the attention of a publisher or agent if it was a debut. It commits many of the sins that newbie writers pay good money to conference organisers, creative writing teachers and writing consultancies to be warned against. The setup for the story is long, so long, too long, taking up about a third of the book. Then about halfway through the style of the story changes so you’re not reading the sort of book you thought you were at all. The writer headhops – jumps between the points of view of different characters – abruptly and without obvious reason. Headhopping isn’t a writing sin because it’s inelegant; it’s because it’s really confusing for the reader, and as a reader, in this case, I was really confused.

And in a sense, so what? A debut novel doesn’t just have to be as good as the general malaise of stuff out there in your genre. It has to stand out. I know plenty of talented writers who had novels rejected not because they weren’t good, but because they weren’t stand out enough to be a debut novel. Some of those “not good enough for a debut” books were then published very successfully as novel 2, 3 or 4.

I wonder though whether there’s a point of success where quality control ceases to be a consideration. Reading this book, my natural urge, as a writer, is to get a pen and a notepad and start to make editing and revision notes. It feels like an unedited draft, rather than a finished novel. More than anything I’m confused by that. I don’t understand how the novel got through an editing process in its current form. Maybe the writer is at a level of success where the publisher reckons their work will sell regardless. Maybe the writer knows it ain’t a great book, but was pressured by contractual and commercial obligations to put it out. I don’t know. Lack of editing though, is one of the criticisms used by mainstream publishers to bash the self-publishing sector. Sometimes that criticism is justified, but as a criticism of a whole sector of an industry it’s too much of a generalisation, especially when the big publishing houses are putting out their own, albeit possibly smaller, share of poorly edited material.

So that’s my confusion for this week. Feel free to chat about bookly things in the comments – particularly bad books, poorly edited books, books you wanted to chuck across the room. Off you go.

 

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22 thoughts on “In which I read a Bad Book

    Rhoda Baxter said:
    August 28, 2013 at 8:30 am

    I know exactly what you mean with this. I’ve read a similar book, which ended up being a best seller. There were logical inconsistencies, head hopping, cliches, all combined to make one confused reader. (Admittedly, I am easily confused). I don’t understand how publishing houses with editors can put out books so spectacularly bad.
    On the other hand, it was a best seller and some people loved it. So maybe it was just me.

    Like

      Alison May responded:
      August 29, 2013 at 2:28 pm

      The book I was reading is a big seller too with plenty of decent reviews. Rather than think it might just be me though, I’ve concluded that everyone else is wrong 😉

      Like

    Ros Maynard said:
    August 28, 2013 at 11:15 am

    Surely the fact that it was a best seller necessarily means everyone who bought it enjoyed it. Perhaps they bought it because they had enjoyed previous books by the same writer, and were then disappointed in the latest one!

    Like

      Alison May responded:
      August 29, 2013 at 2:23 pm

      It is one of the oddities about statements like “bestselling” and about things like box office figures in the cinema. All they really tell you is how good the promotion was, not whether the book/film etc was actually any good.

      Like

    John said:
    August 28, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    I really think there does come a stage where editing standards are no longer deemed to be important. One of my favourite fantasy writers wrote 12 brilliant books and then book 13 was honestly the worst book I have ever read. It read like a 5 year old describing what they’d done in a computer game…. “and then he said and then the other one moved and then they attacked etc.”. I found out after that a computer game had in fact been made based on the 12 great books and that the authour had then basically transcribed the dialogue and the movements and sold it as book 13. Awful and exploitative of his massive fan-base who would have bought the book unquestioningly.

    Back to your blog – I think it’s good that you don’t name the authour as you may well boost his sales. I, for one, would be curious to read the book and see if I agree with you on how bad it is.

    Like

    Rachel Daven Skinner said:
    August 29, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Boy do I understand this frustration well! I’m an editor and it’s Really tough for me to ‘turn it off’ when reading a book for pleasure. I often get caught up in not only the writing craft but even things like punctuation styling. 🙂 I have a few go-to authors that I know have the ability to sweep me away entirely and I always look forward to their new releases. As for published books that are poorly edited, it won’t come as a shock to know it’s also a pet peeve of mine! Logic flaws and inconsistencies are what really get to me.

    Like

    lizharriswriter said:
    August 29, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    A very interesting blog, Alison.

    It’s so frustrating to read a poorly executed book, which you suspect has been published merely because the author has a contract and a fan base that can be activated, when there are so many good manuscripts out there that don’t manage to find a publisher.

    Like

    bernimoonhouse1620 said:
    August 29, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    The POV thing is (to me) often confusing. Especially head-hopping. I hate having to go back pages to find whose head I’m currently in!

    I read and review books for the Dracula Society and so I do read I almost anything with a vampire in! It’s a thing 🙂 So a lot of the books – since the dreaded Twilight – have been YA.

    One particular YA series is written by a mother/daughter team – and anyone who reads the same genre will know the series I’m talking about. The last book in the series was told by a different character – in the first person – for each chapter. OK, not so bad, I hear you say, at least the chapter headings told you who was speaking . . . hmmmm . . .
    The head-hopping within each chapter left my head buzzing, and the very last chapter started in the THIRD person with the main character, and changed to FIRST person with the main character halfway through! I was so confused I had to go back to the beginning of the chapter and start again – it didn’t help!

    This book had been edited once in the States and (maybe) again here. Although, having worked in-house for years, I suspect the UK publisher will have just got the files from the US and re-printed without anyone reading it.
    Just inexcusably awful.

    Sorry this is a bit of a huge rant isn’t it? Great blog Alison!

    Like

      Alison May responded:
      August 29, 2013 at 2:27 pm

      Nowt wrong with a little rant here and there. Head-hopping is a real personal bugbear of mine too. I’m revising a novella at the moment where the 1st draft is a bit head-hoppy, and I’m pulling my hair out fixing it. That’s prob part of the reason it wound me up so much that big bestselling author couldn’t be bothered to do the same!

      Like

    Jane Lovering said:
    August 29, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    Am sitting here nodding madly. I’ve heard of some very well-established authors (and one in particular who writes vampire fiction…nod nod say no more) who won’t work with an editor, won’t accept revisions or edits and whose beta-reader is either her lover or her best friend. These books are falling rapidly down the quality scale into the ‘rubbish’ bucket. But she has achieved such fame and such high sales that I don’t think anyone is concerned. I’ve read other authors where I’ve thought ‘they’d publish her letters to the milkman if they could get them’, where fame seems to be all that’s needed to get into print.

    But then, we can learn just as much from reading really terrible books, ie, what we should avoid doing, as we can from good ones. Maybe you should start a ‘Really Bad Book Club’ for those of us who just love critiquing terrible fiction?

    Like

      Alison May responded:
      August 29, 2013 at 2:26 pm

      It just seems insane to me to refuse outright to work with an editor. Arrogant at all?

      Really Bad Book Club sounds like a marvellous plan – so long as we agree that our own books obviously couldn’t possibly be eligible for consideration 😉

      Like

    Margaret James said:
    August 29, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    A very interesting post – I identified with what you say!

    Like

    bernimoonhouse1620 said:
    August 29, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    Jane – I hear you 🙂

    Like

    Christine Stovell said:
    August 29, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    Playing devil’s advocate here – because poor editing infuriates me too – how much does badly-edited fiction matter to readers? Admittedly I only read the free sample chapter of FSOG and the lack of editing alone was enough to stop me reading any further, but clearly plenty of readers disagreed with me. And don’t get me started on Dan Brown, but, hey, again readers rush to buy his books. Like you, I want to be utterly transported by a novel and I simply won’t waste my time on a book that’s littered with mistakes or grates, but that’s the bar I set for my reading. I guess some authors are so popular that people would buy a telephone directory if they’d written it!

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      Alison May responded:
      August 29, 2013 at 3:59 pm

      That’s a good point Christine. I think we do have to be careful as writers that we don’t get caught up in “writerly” worries and forget about readers. With this particular book I think it probably would have infuriated me without my writing hat on, because the pov shifts were really confusing.

      FSOG and Dan Brown are interesting examples. Like you I didn’t make it past the sample chapters of FSOG, but I’ve read The Da Vinci Code and one other Dan Brown (possibly Angels & Demons?) all the way through. I think some of his sentence structure etc. could be improved but the pacing and plotting of the story are a masterclass in how to pace a thriller/action novel. If the pacing was slow, perhaps things like the specific choice of language would bother readers more?

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    Terri Nixon Author said:
    August 29, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    I have read too many bad books to list here, and I wouldn’t name them in any case, but I have only ever thrown one book across the room (literally, that is; figuratively there have been many that have gone a-sailin’.)
    At least 4 top-sellers would be on that list.

    I agree with the way rules and advice overload tends to spoil the reading experience, but at the same time, basic standards should surely be maintained? There’s a line to be drawn between something standing out as good enough for a debut, and something so abysmally dreadful it prompts people to sit down and write about how awful it is. That line is where most of us would like to sit and write, I assume; the satisfaction/relief of having got that debut out of the way, without the pressure to churn out rubbish, sacrificing quality for quantity.
    And I LOVE the idea of a Bad Books Club!

    Like

    Margaret Morton Kirk said:
    August 29, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    It’s the perennial, ‘how did this dross ever get published’ thing again, isn’t it? If you set aside the Stephen Kings of the writing world, the ones who could write pretty much anything and be sure of mega-sales, I’m sure a lot of so-so books are sold on the blurb and the covers – think of the wretched FSOG’s host of imitators and the tedious teenage vampire spin-offs.

    The originals had…well, something. You could argue that it was a pretty rubbish something, and I wouldn’t disagree – but they had the dreaded ‘high concept’ idea, which if it takes off, takes off in a huge way and relies less on decent characters/writing/plot than that one inspired scenario. The more diluted and formulaic the genre becomes, the more pedestrian the writing/plot appears, but the books carry on selling until the genre dies a death (or at least takes itself off to lie down in a darkened room for a while).

    At least that’s what I keep telling myself…

    Like

    Liv T said:
    August 29, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    Fantastic blog, Alison. Although I wouldn’t really feel qualified to criticise the work of established writers, I can’t help noticing that some things manage to sneak in, which would never be allowed from a debut author, and it is confusing. POV, repetition, adverbs etc. all seem to find their way into a lot of books, and I’ve noticed head hopping from one of my favourite authors – but to be fair, I’d probably never have noticed it if my brain wasn’t now attuned to seeking these things out. I’ve never been confused by this writer’s books and it hasn’t spoilt my enjoyment. I just wonder why they’re allowed to do it – because it was probably frowned on in their first work, and if not – why not! These days, the books I enjoy most are those I can get so immersed in that I switch off and don’t notice all these ‘mistakes’.

    If the story is good enough, that’s the main thing. If it isn’t a good story, and has all the no-nos to boot, it must be very frustrating to an unpublished writer who may have turned out something a whole lot better.

    Like

    Jules said:
    August 29, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    That is the downside to owning a kindle …you can’t throw a bad book across the room. I’ve read an awful lot really bad self-published books recently which have been puffed up by nepotistic reviews. Really good post Alison.

    Like

    Katy Haye said:
    August 29, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    I wonder if some of the shoddiness of major-publisher published books is down to cost-cutting. The only 1* review I’ve ever given was for a book I could not finish because the proof-reading was so bad I kept getting yanked out of the story: “that” should have been “than”, “it” should have been “if”, etc. I’d read and loved the first three books in the series by this author, but I didn’t get past page 50 on this one because there was zero chance of getting lost in the story. The problem for me is that if professional publishing houses can’t be bothered to spend the money on editing and proofing then there ceases to be any difference between them and everything else out there – I’d hate publishing to become a race to the bottom because I so love a good book!

    Like

    beverleyeikli said:
    August 29, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    Really good post, Alison. Very thought provoking. And yes, some books are hard to read when you’re wearing your editor’s hat.

    Like

    52 Weeks: 52 Books – February | Alison May said:
    March 2, 2015 at 7:48 am

    […] blogged before about the ways in which writing can break the enjoyment of reading, and part of the aim of 52 Weeks: 52 Books is to try to work through that problem. I think that […]

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