I’m travelling at the moment and am using the time off to read and write as much as possible. Thank goodness we’re in a car so I could bring a stack of paperbacks with me.
I’m making my way through books I’ve had on my list for a while. This included a YA novel which has been a runaway bestseller and has attracted thousands of five-star reviews on Goodreads. I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. Unfortunately, it took me a while to get into it. Towards the beginning, I felt quite neutral towards the book, as I got towards the end I actually felt anger towards it! I don’t really remember ever having such a strong negative reaction towards a book (bearing in mind I’m definitely in the minority and the book isn’t aimed at a 27-year-old woman). But, I decided to take this as a learning exercise.
Here are five things I learned about my own writing from a novel I hated.
Characters – The protagonists felt like characters rather than real people
I struggled to get lost in the story because characters seemed to lack depth for me. They often felt a bit like a series of traits and flaws, rather than real people.
This reminded me of the importance of knowing everything about my own characters, most of which will probably never make it into the final stories. If someone were to ask me who my character’s biggest influence is, their religious beliefs of their earliest memory, I should know this. I find it helpful to go through a list of questions about my characters, a resource I was given at a creative writing workshop. I’m sure there are similar things online.
Plot – It sometimes felt like a series of scenes rather than a flowing narrative
I found the format of the story a bit clunky and often it felt like certain scenes had been ‘put’ into the story to romanticise the plot. This was another element that distracted me from immersing myself in the world.
In my own work, plotting is probably the area of writing I find most challenging. It’s such an artform. I often read back my drafts after setting them aside for a while and find a number of obvious plot holes. This is why it’s been so vital for me to share my work. I’m just too close to it and don’t always see the blindingly obvious. Also, a tip from the Write Now Podcast has always stayed with me. To simply ask myself, what is the most interesting thing that could happen next?
Research – I felt it tackled serious subjects in a simplistic way
There were some very serious themes tackled in this book and at times I felt they were glossed over or sentimentalised. Clearly, for the majority of readers, the book has resonated with them very strongly and in many cases helped them. I am not the target audience for this book and am definitely in the minority but I couldn’t help feeling a little uncomfortable about how some of these issues were put across.
This has got me thinking about the importance of research. So far, I haven’t stretched too far outside the realms of ‘what I know’ with my writing. I actually find the thought quite overwhelming. Readers will notice immediately if anything in my work is factually incorrect or unrealistic, so getting these details right is really important.
Voice – The voices of the characters didn’t always feel authentic and sometimes I forgot which one was talking
This is a YA book, written from the perspective of young people. I am no longer a young person (sob!) so who am I to say, but the character’s voices didn’t always feel authentic to me. There were two main characters in the book and sometimes I didn’t find them distinct enough and I forgot who was talking.
I am definitely guilty of letting the ‘author’s voice’ slip into my work. Quite often my characters come out with things that they would never say if they were real. Getting a second pair of eyes to read my work is essential to wheedle these out and also putting my work aside for a few days/ weeks and re-reading brings glaring errors to the fore.
Takeaway – It was sickeningly sentimental
By the end of this book, I was making fake vomiting noises. It just reminded me that I was reading a story and I felt like I was being manipulated into feeling a certain emotion. This is from someone who loves happy endings and often finds myself bringing my stories to a ridiculously idealistic close. More often than not, this isn’t what readers are looking for. This is where it is vital to understand audience and ensure the work is suitable for the places I’m submitting to.
This just shows you that once your work is out in the public domain, you have no control over how people will interpret it. Getting a novel published is a huge achievement, one which I dream of in my wildest fantasies. I am just one individual and I have a completely subjective opinion on this work, one which seems to be at odds with everyone else. But, I’m glad I read it in its entirety and learnt about how I can tackle certain issues in my own creative writing. It certainly makes me question putting my own work out there, but I can’t really think of any books that are universally well received. This is what makes art wonderful and challenging.
Have you ever felt this way about a book? Did you learn anything from it? Does it make you cautious about putting your work out there? I’d love to hear about it, if so.