Sunday, June 3, 2018

When Bestsellers Are Badly Written [Rant]

There's a Darwinian belief that great books become bestsellers and bad books never even get past the slush pile. Of course, we all know that's not true. If you look on lists like Goodreads' Worst Books of All Time, you'll find books like Twilight and The Da Vinci Code. Those books are riddled with weak characters, ridiculous plot twists, and bad grammar. At the same time, we can all agree those aren't really the worst books of all time. I'm not saying those books are well-written, but they clearly aren't the worst. I mean, Moon People by Dale M. Courtney and The Eye of Argon by Jim Theis aren't even on the top ten. Also, there are plenty of people who think these books are fabulous, enough to make them bestsellers. So why are writing problems in so many bestselling novels hated?

The truth is that somehow bad writing is made worse when it's in a successful book because it seems so undeserved. When writers who agonize over every comma in their work never even get published at all while other writers who break basic rules of grammar become rich, it makes people angry. Well, I know it makes me angry.

This all came to a head for me last month when I noticed a certain series of novels rocketing to the top of the science fiction bestseller lists. Of course, when you see three or four books in a series in the top ten on Amazon, it gets your attention, so I looked into it. I'm not going to name the books or the author because I'm not here to shame anyone, but I was struck by how horribly written they were. It's seriously some of the most clumsily written fiction I've ever seen in a novel, let alone a monstrously successful one with a four-point-five rating from over 500 reviews.
Not the actual book
I'm going to include an excerpt, but I'm changing some names just to keep from identifying it. I also want to add that I've made no changes other than the names, and that I chose this because it's literally where I'm at in the novel, not because it's a particularly bad section. The whole book is like this and there's much worse.
He heard it then, someone was knocking on a door.
"John Steel, this is detective Schumer! Please open the door."
"Oh s--t," Ruby grumbled, rolling out of bed.
"Yeah," John agreed, standing up, "I don't have any clothes in here!"
"You left your robe in here yesterday," Ruby said, moving over to the back of the door where it was hanging. Grabbing it, she tossed it to him, and he quickly put it on while she donned her own.
"Mr. Steel!" he heard again, followed by more knocking.
Opening the door, John leaned out and looked at the man knocking on his door. Actually, there were two of them. One was dressed in a plain suit with a badge hanging out of the breast pocket; the other was wearing a uniform. John noticed that George, the other guy living on the floor, was looking out of his door, and when George saw him stick my head out of Roxy's room, his eyes got wide.
"What do you want?" John grumbled. "It's early."
They both turned towards him. "Are you John Steel?" the one in the suit, obviously the detective, asked him.
John nodded. "Yeah, that's me."
Now this one's a self-published novel so some mistakes can be expected but this one I found almost unreadable because the editor in my head kept screaming about all the mistakes. If the author came to me for editing, I would grab a red pen and scrawl the following all over it:
He heard it then [Of course he heard it. What would he do, breathe in someone knocking?], [You don't use a comma, but a period, because you're starting a new sentence] someone was knocking on a door. [Which door? He's in his bedroom. The bedroom door? Clarify as "front door"]
"John Steel, this is detective [capitalize "Detective"] Schumer [Police don't normally give their name before someone opens their door, just state that they're police]! [No need for an exclamation point] Please open the door [Police also don't say "please open the door," way too polite and at the same time, stiff. Change this to: "Can you please open the door" or skip the obvious and say "We'd like to speak with you." Opening the door is implied]."
"Oh s--t," [Brilliant dialogue right there. Shakespeare would be proud.] Ruby grumbled, rolling out of bed [Cliche. And unless she rolled out of bed onto the floor, I'd expand this a little to say something like "She rolled over and climbed out of bed"].
"Yeah," John agreed [Do we really need him to agree with her? And why say "agreed" at all? Him saying "yeah" means we know he agrees with her], standing up [So did he roll out of bed, too or what?], [no comma needed] "I don't have any clothes in here!" [again, no need for the exclamation point. And is that his biggest concern with police knocking on his door, is his lack of clothing?]
"You left your robe in here yesterday," [Okay, these two are facing police pounding on their door in the morning for unknown reasons and they're more worried about getting him dressed. Doesn't ring true, especially since they just killed some people in the last chapter. There's no sense of the fear or urgency to the situation. They might as well be responding to a FedEx deliveryman knocking on their door] Ruby said [We don't need "said" here at all, since we identify her with the description], moving over to the back of the door where it was hanging [Why bother saying anything about the robe and explaining where it came from when it's literally right in front of her? It feels like the author is just filling pages]. Grabbing it, she tossed it to him [We can assume she grabbed it if she tossed it to him, I'd cut "grabbing it"], and he quickly put it on while she donned her own [After all the tension and drama of him getting his robe, I'm surprised the author didn't wring more out of it by including a conversation about where her robe came from. Did she buy it at Wal-Mart? Was it on sale? Inquiring readers demand to know!].
"Mr. ["Mr." is supposed to be "Mister" when it's in dialogue] Steel!" he [Who?] heard again [The police officer didn't say Mister Steel last time, he said "John Steel" so this wouldn't be "again"], followed by more knocking.
Opening the door, John leaned out [This is awkward. How did he lean out of his front door to look at someone standing right in front of it? Was the man not directly in front of him? Or did John open the door just a little so he could lean through the gap?] and looked at the man knocking on his door [This is so stiff. It's not really necessary to say he "looked at the man." You could be more descriptive to rewrite the whole sentence as "John opened the door to see the man with his hand up, ready to knock on the door again]. Actually, there were two of them [Then change the last sentence to "the two men at his door." It's like the author changed his mind but didn't bother to go back and fix it]. One was dressed in a plain suit with a badge hanging out of the breast pocket [Okay...I guess that's the way some police dress.]; the other was wearing a uniform [What kind of uniform? Say police uniform]. John noticed that George, the other guy living on the floor, [He literally introduces this character out of nowhere for the sole purpose of this one moment. Don't really need his name.] was looking out of his door [Start a new sentence], and when George saw him stick my [Uh, this book is third person but switched to first person. This happens a few times in the book, actually.] head [The author just said John leaned out, not stuck his head out. Make up your mind!], out of Ruby's room, his eyes got wide. [Literally no explanation for why his eyes got wider. Was he surprised about the police? John being in a girl's bedroom? The fact that John had a robe? What?]
"What do you want?" John grumbled. "It's early." [Honestly, if I had just murdered some people and police knocked on my door the next morning, I wouldn't start out so hostile, but that's just me.]
They both turned towards him.[Wait, they were facing away from the door? I thought they were knocking on it. Did they knock on the door, hear him inside, and decide to turn around? Why would they be facing away from the door they expect someone to be opening? Also, wouldn't John leaning out and talking to them have made them turn around before this?] "Are you John Steel?" the one in the suit, [I would rearrange this to avoid the comma, saying, "The one in the suit asked, "Are you John Steel?" Or better yet, avoid another "said" by using description instead like "The one in the suit looked down at his notebook"] obviously the detective [Why is this obvious?], asked him.
John nodded. "Yeah, that's me." [Again, brilliant dialogue.]
Okay, so...there's that.

Most of my life, it's been my belief that becoming a better writer would lead to more readers. This book has shattered decades of writing practice with the realization that it just doesn't matter.

I learned this when I read the above section out loud to someone to show her how badly written it was and she shocked me by saying that she liked it and she could visualize the scene. I argued with her about the bad grammar and construction but she just insisted the same thing. At that point, I read her a passage from a book I'm currently writing and she said that she had a hard time visualizing the scene compared to the other one I had read her.

After over thirty years of writing, I have learned a valuable and important message which is that readers don't care about editing. They care about the story. Obviously, the bestselling series currently on Amazon is what people want. Some of the five-star reviews even mention that there are errors, but they don't care because they love it.

Most of my life, I've been writing with the goal of conforming to rules of grammar and spelling while also using descriptive phrases that captured the imagery I wanted to convey. Taking my beta reader's words to heart and the hated text in hand, I realized what the offending book does is deliver the story in simple and easy-to-understand language. It's not always accurate, but it does the job. My writing doesn't.

With that in mind, I humbly set down to rewrite the section I had written with the goal of making it easier to read and understand. To my surprise, the same beta reader thought it was much better, even though I had cut some of my favorite writing.

That's a lesson that all writers should remember. Most readers don't care about grammar. They care about how easy and fun the book is to read. By that measure, maybe Twilight and The Da Vinci Code aren't that bad after all because they did what they're supposed to do. Clearly, the books have value to the reader and that's what's important, not the use of commas.

What do you think? Is grammar more important than story? Have you read a popular book that was badly-written? Let me know in the comments.

You only know half the story of Jekyll and Hyde. Prepare to see literature's greatest monsters in a whole new light with Hyde!

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