Reading Makes Writers Better… Or Worse

January 17th, 2016 Comments Off on Reading Makes Writers Better… Or Worse

One of my favorite shows on TV these days is The 100 on the CW. It’s pretty grim sci-fi with a touch of fantasy, and while the teenage love/angst can get in the way sometimes, it generally works. Whenever I love a show or movie, if I find out it’s based on a book, I have to read the book. It only seems fair—we all know the cliche that “the book is always better.” Unfortunately, in this case it’s far from true. The book (sadly, books, plural) written by Kass Morgan are among the most poorly written books I’ve ever read. This concerns me not because I believe all books should be great, but because reading books is how writers indirectly learn to write, and this book is geared to the young-adult market.

I know, I know: The real issue is that this kind of “mill” fiction is written for fast money, and that’s all, and it’s not exclusive to “young adult” fiction like The 100. But with books marketed to “young adult” readers, those indirect writing lessons are amplified because the readership hasn’t yet read widely enough to fully understand the sometimes subtle differences between good and bad writing. This double whammy—the money mill combined with kids reading bad books—only serves to substantially lower the bar, to the point that well written books are considered “too adult” for young readers, not due to the subject matter but because they’re harder to read.

So back to The 100—and, more recently, Black Widow: Forever Red by Margaret Stohl, which has the same exact issues. Both books are stuffed with “Buzzfeed headlines”: overly exaggerated cliches that become meaningless. For example, from The 100:

Wells watched Clarke stride off into the woods, feeling as if she’d punched through his sternum and torn away a chunk of his heart… Every cell in his body screamed at him to go to her, but he knew it was hopeless.

The problem here is that it’s just incredibly poor writing: I’m not clear how he feels, honestly, never having had my sternum punched through and part of my heart removed. I’d also like to hear what it sounds like when every cell in a person’s body screams. The “every cell in his/her body was…” motif is annoyingly common throughout the book, and—adding fuel to the fire that the same mill is generating this crap—was also used in Black Widow: Forever Red. The author (or editor?) of both also lacks focus. For example, in Black Widow she left characters holding whole conversations lying on the floor after tripping and falling over (instead of getting up to finish the conversation), or looking down at something in their hands right before saying their eyes were locked on someone else (well, which is it?). To make it even worse, Black Widow has to mention Marvel characters every chance they get, even when illogical, undoubtedly due to a contractual obligation.

Aside from all that, the stories don’t build tension at all and the characters are horribly rendered. For example, The 100 relies on young lust as the motivation for, well, everything that happens. I told my daughter I didn’t want her to read these books only because I don’t want her to think that is how people should write, even at the YA level (whatever that means). I simply can’t encourage flat characters, limited plot, and failed writing.

Bottom line is: Parents beware. You shouldn’t pre-read books for your kids just to make sure you agree with the themes they present. You should also be making sure the books are a good example of writing, because if you have a budding writer on your hands, you could be doing them a huge disservice. My parents read novels to me, mostly, like Watership Down and The Little Grey Men. We discussed the difficult themes and I heard good writing. I’ve done the same with my own kids. In my opinion, you’re not doing a kid any favors by reading them easy (and poorly written) books.


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