Learning From the Bad

What We Can Take Away From Books That Just Don’t Get it Right

 

Last week, I quit a book.

I’m terrible at quitting books. Mostly, even if the narrator grates up my spine or the main character sounds like something out of a PBS special, I’ll keep listening or reading, if for no other reason than to prove that I’m no quitter. For one, I like giving books the benefit of the doubt, but more than that, I tend to be pretty fickle, floating from one topic to another, so I worry that if I quit books too often, I’ll never actually finish any.

None of that mattered, when it came to this book.

No, I’m not going to say what book it was. I didn’t like it, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to start a smear campaign. I put nearly five hours of my time into the audiobook, and with every passing minute I felt my head get closer to an explosion. In case you’re wondering, this was a New York Times best selling book by an author of many other award winning novels. Fifty Shades has already proven that just because something is popular, that doesn’t mean it’s good, but this book definitely reinforced the theory.

Still, despite the waste of several hours of my time, and the fact that I literally could not handle finishing this book, I’m glad I gave it a try. When people ask me what advice I would give to aspiring writers, there are only two things I say: Write. Read. Write, because if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer. Read, because every time you pick up a book, you learn – new words, new characterization techniques, ways of integrating setting or time period, how to add a dog. 

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In the case of this book, I learned a little about what not to do.

Let’s start off with the basics. I’m 24 years old. I’ll be 25 in May and I like to think I have a pretty good grasp on the way millennials communicate. We’re a generation that came of age in the times of technology and it shows, but we’re also more than capable of stringing together a single sentence.

According to this author, that’s not quite the case. Her heroine, a character in her mid-20s does not act like a millennial, she acts the way a non-millennial thinks a millennial acts. She speaks in strange, convoluted sentences, goes to really weird and expensive clubs, and texts like she’s literally never had a human conversation in her entire life. It’s just weird.

On a digression, I don’t think we need that many more 24 year-old characters in romance, speaking as one. Diversity includes age, and the romance genre has a major issue with heroines over 30, not to speak of 40, but back to my point. If you don’t know how kids these days communicate or behave, don’t write one. It’s better to find a reasonable explanation for her older age than to make it obvious to the reader that you literally do not know how they think – to the point where it’s borderline offensive. I graduated Summa from a top journalism school in the country, and I have literally never, ever texted ten smiley faces in a row.

Our heroine had a lot of other issues too – mostly, she lets a lot of things happen to her. Agency, what agency? I wasn’t a fan of the lack of direction she had in her life, and it didn’t seem like it was necessarily a plot point, so much as her being kind of lazy and distracted. Again, 24, career oriented, let’s give the kids some credit, okay? I also really didn’t like how she dealt with her creepy boss. I completely understand that in real life, hierarchy dictates how women behave to their creepy bosses, but this character didn’t seem to be making a choice to handle his advances to keep her job. She just seemed to not respond, another example of how everything kept happening to her, which goes against one of the cardinal concepts of romance – women have agency.  

book-2135811_1920So far, these are all things I’ve filed away in my head for later writing – how well do my characters talk to each other? Let’s limit the amount of texting in stories because ooph. (We can discuss this, but I think that text conversation heavy stories are missing some of the best parts of romance.) From this, I also had to reevaluate my own heroines. If they do seem a little floaty, is it intentional or because I didn’t anchor them down properly? These are all helpful lessons that I took away from a book that, after four hours, I legitimately hated. ( I really don’t say that a lot.)

It didn’t stop with the heroine either. The hero, despite the outward fixings, money, power, hidden identity, sex on a  stick looks, was as dull as damp cardboard. His whole personality was the trimmings, the suits and the secret life, but there wasn’t actually much to him, unless you count the borderline domestic abuse level of protective he was towards the heroine before they officially started dating. He was adamant about who she talked to, showed up at her work, and was generally kind of bullish about the whole thing.

Which made the relationship… weird. The sexual tension was off the mark and there were no obvious signposts as to where things were going. Usually, I love a will they or won’t they, but in this case, like the heroine, I didn’t really care. 

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There are more elements of this story that I struggled with, but that’s not the point. The important part is, even though I thought the book was bad, I learned an incredible amount from it and I think my current WIP benefited from seeing all the places I could go wrong. The biggest and most important element of writing romance to me is the female agency. When you strip your heroine of that, you miss the point of the genre completely.

The truth is, writing is an ever changing process. We may have our one big hits – Harper Lee – or we may write one epic after another – Diana Gabaldon. But, as writers, we are always learning and evolving, taking the information from the books we read, the shows we watch and the places we go. I’m not advocating going out to look for bad writing. I already said I didn’t finish this book and I have no intention of ever reading another one by this author. But, if you do end up with a real dud in your hands, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to give it  a try. After all, you never know what you’re going to learn. ♥

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5 thoughts on “Learning From the Bad

  1. thesarahdoughty says:

    Hmm, of all the straight up romances I’ve read, I’ve never actually heard of the ‘female agency’. Can you elaborate? But even that said, without some direction, some evolution, there’s no real story.

    Like

    • hollandrae says:

      Hi Sarah!

      Good question – Female agency refers to the actions and decisions a characters makes. When you have ‘agency’ your involvement is active, instead of passive — meaning you say, behave or think in a way that directly influences your path. Passivity can be agency, as long as it is a conscious choice a character makes. For instance — they decide not to go to the police after witnessing a crime. The agency is their decision, not their lack of action. When a character lacks agency, it means that the movement and changes in their life are happening despite them, rather than because of them.

      Traditionally, most characters with agency are men — think action heroes, romantic leads and more. The women in their lives are affected by their choices, instead of making their own decisions. That’s why romance is such an important genre — female characters are in control of their own destinies.

      I hope this explains it well!

      Like

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