Let me pull out the big guns right at the start. There's a great line by Tolstoy (see, I warned you)-- Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. There's a wonderful lesson in those words, and it's what I wanted to pontificate about this week.
Everyone reading this has read something that was awful or seen a movie that just sucked, right? I mean, if you're doing your job as a writer and taking in everything you can, it's unavoidable. We've all been exposed to some serious crap.
Time for another one of my random guilty confessions. I love bad stuff. I can watch awful movies for hours (sometimes I even get paid to watch them). I've been exposed to crap scripts that are getting off easy with the label crap. I read horrible books cover to cover, and I've read some stinkers. My girlfriend is often in awe (we'll call it awe, anyway) that I continue to read things even as I lament how bad they are. I admit I take a certain perverse pride in being able to say I've finished almost every book I've ever picked up. Some took longer than others, and some I'm still working on, but I don't think I've ever given up on something once I started reading it.
That's a fair question. I mean, why subject yourself to the bad stuff? There's plenty of great stuff out there, after all. There are timeless works of fiction in all genres. Some phenomenal movies and television. Why should anyone waste time and effort going over the crap?
Let's play a little game. Name five writers someone must read if they want to be a good writer. No ifs, ands, or buts, you have to know these authors' works. You can write them down if you like, or just keep them in your forebrain for a few minutes. This won't take long.
Shakespeare's probably there on your list, yes? Maybe Hawthorne, Dickens, Hemingway, or Steinbeck? If you're a bit more horror-oriented, odds are you have Lovecraft or King. Bradbury and Matheson both bridge horror and sci-fi quite nicely, if that's your focus.
The point of the game--of this round of it, anyway--is that I probably just named at least three of your top five authors, didn't I? Maybe even all five? The reason I can do that is because everyone picks the same authors. We could do the same thing with five filmmakers every budding director or screenwriter should study. Go on, try it with your friends.
That brings us to round two. Can you name five authors someone should avoid at all costs if they're studying to be a writer? Heck, can you just name five books?
It's been said that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. The unspoken lesson is you can't just study all the winners, you have to study the losers, too. Knowing why Ronald Reagan won his election is good, but it's also good to know why Jimmy Carter lost--and no, they are not the same reasons.
The same goes for writing. You can take dozens of classes that will teach you (and tens of thousands of other people) all the same things about all the same good authors and novels. Then all of you can turn out the same good stories of your own that imitate those same authors and novels.
The problem here is that you're not learning how to avoid the problems and pitfalls of writing-- you're being taught they don't exist. It's the literary equivalent of the spoiled rich kid whose never had to do anything for him or herself. Paris Hilton never learned how to change a flat tire because in her world there's always a repairman and a back-up limo one phone call away. Does that make her an expert at car repair or just someone who never has to deal with it?
Of course, just reading the bad stuff and rolling your eyes doesn't help. Anyone can say "that sucks." Anyone. It doesn't take any special skills or education. Heck, you can train a parrot to say it. Keep that in mind. When someone points at a piece of writing and just mocks it for no reason, they're operating on the same level as a bird (or celebutante daughter of a hotel magnate) with a brain the size of a walnut.
No, you need to look at the bad stuff and be able to explain why it sucks. What mistakes did the storyteller make. What's wrong with the dialogue? Why can't you believe in the characters? Is it an actual problem or a matter of personal taste? Why was the resolution so unsatisfying? And the most important question to answer, of course, is how could you make it better? What would it take for this piece of crap to be something passably good, or even great? Again, you want to have a real answer, not a smart-aleck, off-the-cuff response. A real writer can discuss a crap book just as easily as a good one.
Which brings us back around to the why.
Y'see, Timmy, if you can honestly identify and critique another piece of work, it's going to make it easier for you to judge your own work. Being able to honestly judge your own work is how you're going to improve. There are a lot of ways to be a bad writer, and if you can't recognize them for what they are--and figure out how to avoid them--then odds are that's the path you'll end up on and you won't even know it.
So go forth and learn from the badness.
Next time, I'd like to talk about something completely different.
Until then, go write. And for God's sake, write something that doesn't suck.