I Learn More From a Bad Book Than a Good One

A week ago I finished Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig.  He does some great blogging about the craft of writing, so I went into it with a mindset along the lines of: “you talk a big game, Chucky–let’s see if you have the word-smithing cred to back it up.”

I’m pleased to report that he does, in fact, possess said cred.  Empyrean is a great read; a haves-and-have-nots dystopian tale in the vein of Hunger Games.  It’s that rare, perfect blend of concept and execution.  I plowed through the entire thing in a single weekend, which is pretty fast for me, then picked up the sequel Blightborn without hesitation.

Given that Wendig has a lot to teach us about writing, you’d think that his actual novel would be inspiring, leading me to new insights about the craft.  In fact, I was somewhat excited to read it for that reason alone.

So, what did I, as a writer, learn from Under the Empyrean Sky?  Nothing.

Okay, not quite nothing.  When I finished the book, my first thought was “damn, I have a lot of work to do as a writer to get to this level.”  I suppose that counts as learning, in the same way getting hit by a delivery truck teaches us to look both ways at the crosswalk.

Part of the problem was that I was enjoying the book too much to step back and think about it from the perspective of how it was made.  I suppose “write well enough that readers don’t get hung up on anything,” is a good concept, but there’s nothing tangible I can really take away from that.  What exactly did Wendig do to ensure I got immersed in the story?  Maybe it was something he didn’t do.  I will probably never know unless I read it again with a more critical eye.  It’s difficult for me to enjoy something when I’m looking at it critically, and vice versa.

Before jumping directly into Blightborn, I started reading something else.  It’s another sci fi book, one that was strongly recommended by a few people I follow on Twitter.  In the cowardly polite interests of not saying anything bad about a hard-working author, I won’t reveal the title; besides, as you’ll see, the identity of the book isn’t relevant to my point here.  This particular story started off with some promise, but it went off the rails about 50 pages in and hasn’t come back yet.  I started off caring a great deal about the protagonist, but now I just want to get through this thing, all the while hoping that the author will find his way back to something resembling a point.

Here’s the thing though: I’m learning a tremendous amount about writing as I read this book, which is exactly why I haven’t put it down in frustration.  As soon as I stopped being entertained my critical mind came out, and boy did it come out.  Not only do I see the problems leaping off the page, I’m actually starting to piece together exactly what the author did to cause these problems.

An example: through most of the story so far, the protagonist has no idea what’s happening or where he and the rest of the characters are going, simply because the other characters are deliberately keeping him in the dark.  He occasionally gets frustrated by this, as one would, and each time this happens, the female lead only female character takes him aside and says some variation of “we can’t tell you that right now, nor can we tell you why we can’t tell you.”  The protagonist blithely goes along with this, until something else triggers his frustration and the cycle repeats.  I find myself getting annoyed both at and on behalf of this character: I feel his frustration at being kept in the dark, yet I wish he had the balls to say “fuck this, I’m outta here” after a couple attempts to shut him up.  Essentially, I’m confused why the author felt the need to string him along like a flopping fish.

In the midst of this read, my critical mind sent a text to my analytic mind.  The two of them had a quick meeting in a quiet corner of my brain, and came up with a theory: the protagonist is devoid of agency because if he wasn’t, the author would have to come up with natural–dare I say, “organic”–ways of keeping him in the dark.  Instead, our rag-doll protagonist is carried through the plot because the author probably laid everything out like that and refused to accept deviation.  The result is a dull story about a guy being thrown from one situation to another like a UPS parcel.

If this critical read were an isolated incident I wouldn’t have bothered to blog about it.  As it stands, my tendency to purely enjoy good books and learn by example from bad books has been a common theme ever since I started writing Winterwakers.  I’m left wondering whether or not it’s a bad sign that I’m only able to extract writing lessons from the mistakes of others; it seems cynical at best, downright cruel and catty at worst.

Perhaps I should be grateful that I’m able to extract some kind of value out of a less-than-good book.  Then again, screw learning: I’d rather read a good book that kicks me in the nuts than a bad one that teaches me a thousand lessons.


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