Being a Better Writer: When Readers like It … but It’s Bad

This is an interesting one, and one that I’ll freely admit I never would have thought of on my own—at least not in such context. Which means that, yes, today’s post is another reader-requested topic (which reminds me, we’re getting closer to needing more of these, so start thinking of questions you’d like me to address).

But first, some quick news. Those of you who read my LTUE recap might remember the uncertainty around the Barnes & Noble upset? Well, it’s still going. Though it didn’t seem to make the news most places, hundreds of former B&N employees have now spoken up an confirm that yes, almost most if-not-all full-time employees of the last remaining physical book retailer have been let go. At least a thousand people from one department alone confirmed as gone. B&N has since seen that yes, it has “saved” the 40 million it won’t be paying those employees … but it’s stock has also tanked (dropping by around 60% in a single day last I heard) and seen a massive bailing of investors and stock offloads.

So head to your nearest B&N store and pick out the furniture you’d like to take home, because they’ll be selling it soon!

Second, Alpha Editing on Shadow of an Empire continues to progress. The good news is that we’re not seeing any major changes, just tiny alpha tweaks. The bad news? Well, you can’t read it yet, I suppose. But soon! Still looking at a spring release!

Right, that’s the news! Onward to bad writing!

So, you’ve just put the finishing touches on your latest story. Maybe it’s a fanfic, maybe it’s something original you put together after a workshop or on the train ride to work. What matters is that it’s yours. You wrote it, and you’re proud of it.

Well … almost. Or crud, maybe you are in the moment. Point is, you’re excited and enthused, and with a few clicks you throw your story out there into the wild. It hits the net … and your readers love it. You go about your day, and come home to a barrage of comments, attention, and fanfare. Great!

Except there’s just one problem. The comments aren’t what you expected, and as you look over your own story you realize that in the excitement of getting this idea down on paper it kind of slid past you how bland the rest of the story really is outside of that concept. You start noticing all the errors that you should have fixed before posting, all the flaws, but at the same time …

All these readers love it. Is it really so bad?

That’s kind of what we’re talking about today. The original question, posed by a reader, was ‘What do we do when we write something that’s bad, but readers love it anyway, even though it’s bad?’ Or something extremely close to those lines, anyway.

It’s a very valid question because this happens. Go to any fiction site online (exercise caution if googling; this is the internet), especially those with a rating system, and take a look at their “top rated” work.

Will you find some good stuff? Sure. But you’re also going to find a lot of, well … poorly-written dreck. Sounds harsh, but it’s true. Same even goes for online fiction storefronts: You’re going to find stuff that’s not that great, but is popular anyway. Like, say, Twilight. Because popularity isn’t the same thing as something that’s well-written.

Now, yes, there is a bit of a grey area there. After all, there are those “literati” that insist that something widely enjoyed and well-written isn’t well-written simply because it’s not “sophisticated” enough. Like my old high-school English teacher, who insisted and constantly reiterated that The Lord of the Rings was “garbage” and derided those that read it simply because she didn’t like Science-Fiction or Fantasy (or really, anything that wasn’t both boring and pushing what she saw as aggressive-progressive issues).

To make things clear, we’re not talking about that grey area of “Oh, this is a Bentley of fiction, you’re reading a Honda Civic.” Nope, that’s not our topic today. No, we’re talking about actual application of “This is poor writing.” Stories rife with errors. Stories that fail to resolve plot-lines or address them outside of simple ‘and then it was fixed” moments. Stories with flat characters, or poor plotting.

You know, the stuff that these Being a Better Writer posts try to prevent. What happens when your story is rife with errors … but readers love it anyway? What do you do then? Stop improving?

Well … usually no. And I really don’t hope any of you thought I would suggest otherwise. See, there are two ways I can see this result, this “it’s bad, but the readers are still loving it,” coming to pass.

The first, and the most likely, is that your readers know there are flaws, but are okay with them because there’s plenty there that isn’t flawed.

Okay, let’s talk about this one for a minute and look at an example. Twilight, actually, of all things. Now look, we all know that Twilight is an extremely poorly-written book. The prose is horrid. The characters are flat (especially the protagonist). There’s a wealth of material on why the story doesn’t make sense, or why the writing is subpar … For a series that’s so popular, it definitely doesn’t have many singing its praises insofar as quality goes.

Yet it was still a huge seller despite the lack of editing, clarity … I could go on. I suspect many of us could (and yes, I know I don’t normally name bad books, but … come on, it’s Twilight).

But why? If it was so bad, then why was it such a huge hit? Well, if you talk to those that read it, it’s not that they didn’t know it was bad. Many of them did. But at the same time, something in the story scratched an itch. There was something there that they wanted to read that they weren’t finding in other stories. Maybe it was the love triangle. Maybe it was the fantasy appeal of non-human lovers in a non-erotica title. Or maybe it was the setting? All three, other reasons beside, or none of the above, that doesn’t matter. But the point is, they knew the book wasn’t well-written. But there was something there they enjoyed all the same.

Crud, Twilight readers aren’t the only ones guilty of this. I’ve absolutely read and put up with poor stories just because while some part of it was poor, there was another part of it that I was really enjoying. Like say, a book where none of the characters had a distinct voice, but the setting was one I’d really wanted to read a book set in for a while. Yup, I read it all the same. Doesn’t mean it was good, but I was willing to, for the most part, put up with the flaws for what it did well.

When you write something that’s “bad” but still rakes in the popularity, it could be that this is the exact situation you’re finding yourself in. It’s not that the bad isn’t there—it is. But you’re focusing on what’s flawed, while the readers are looking at what isn’t. They likely know the flaws are there, but they also know what’s good, and they’re willing to put up with the flaws because what’s good is a nugget that they’ve been looking for.

Now, the original question posed in-line with this was “What do you do in this situation?” And in this case, where you’ve written something that’s gotten popular despite its flaws because you’ve got the nugget in there that people want to read? Figure out what the gold is; you want to keep that. Then fix the stuff that is flawed. Your readers aren’t likely to mind, not as long as you don’t take away that shine from what they were enjoying. Many of them may enjoy it more, since you’ll be in essence shoring up the weak areas to be more on par with the bits that they liked. Or at the very least, you’ll have let them relax a bit more when they read your work, as they won’t be consciously skimming over the weak areas to get to the good parts.

That’s all there is to it. So we wrote something that isn’t that great but it’s popular anyway? Figure out what made it good as well as what made it weak, and then keep the good while building up the weak spots.

But … what if that’s not the case? What if our readers aren’t there because there’s gold buried there that they want … but genuinely like it because it is bad? And I don’t mean in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 sort of way (though I will come back to that in a second). What if they’re readers that just don’t care about what goes into a good story, proper grammar, developed characters, whatever?

This reader does exist. And yes, they are part of the reason that schlock-writing can thrive. They don’t want good writing, or stories that require them to think or engage in comprehension or meaning.  They want the fictional equivalent of cheap reality TV. A quick buzz. They want to browse through as much as possible, with as little activity as possible, and get … well, whatever they’re interested in. A good story, sadly, will turn these readers away, saying that it takes “too much effort” to understand (and yes, this happens). They don’t want good writing … but they can still give you views and boost your ratings.

What happens when your story becomes “popular” with that group? What do you do then?

This is kind of a tricky one because there isn’t really a “right” answer I can give you. I mean, if you can make money (or fame, or hits, whatever you want out of those readers), is that enough for you? For some, this is. I’ve actually read interviews with authors that have stated outright that they know they’re not good, but they’re popular and that’s enough for them, so they make no effort to improve or get better. They don’t mind. They’re okay because, just as some readers will read a poor bit of writing for the gold within it, those authors have gotten the “gold” of popularity or hits or whatever (in some cases, literal money!) and don’t really care about the dross around it.

At that point, what does what I think matter? They aren’t my stories. Granted, I’m not likely to read any work by such a writer … but I’m not their audience either. They’re not writing for me, they’re writing for those that want what they write. If they wrote something else, that group would probably abandon them.

Which means that if you find yourself in a similar situation, well … what are you looking for? What do you want from what you write? Are you content with an audience that doesn’t mind that it’s poor writing? Are you content to let yourself be a poor writer in exchange for whatever you receive in return?

I can’t answer that question. Only you can. So that one’s up to you. You can be popular writing junk, and get what you want out of it. Or popular and successful writing not-junk but not-gold either. Formulaic, basic stuff sells. It’s up to you whether or not you want to be satisfied with one yardstick of success or with another.

Now, what about that Mystery Science Theater 3000 thing I mentioned? The “so bad its good” category? Because that’s a real thing, and you can make a living there too. There are authors that deliberately write far below their capacity, but in a tongue-in-cheek way. They know it’s bad; it’s that way on purpose. And those that read it are reading it because it’s “the good kind of bad.” They’re there to laugh at its absurdities and inanities, to find humor in the schlock.

I bring this up because it’s a deliberate case of writing something bad, as well as a case of knowing one’s audience to the level that one understands why they want something that’s bad. And I can’t say at all that it’s not a successful career path, nor would I want to. It totally is. It also takes skill. Sort of like that old line that it takes a good actor to play a bad one. You need to be good at what you do, understanding your craft, in order to toe the line of “so bad its good” unless you’re simply counting on dumb luck. Which you probably shouldn’t.

But backing up, with both of these approaches, I think it really comes down to the author and what they are looking for in terms of success. Do you want to be known for writing stuff that’s well-written and enjoyable? Go after the first one. Find your gold in the dross, then improve your weak areas. While you might lose a few readers looking for dross, you’ll likely keep the majority that wanted gold.

But what if you don’t care about that? What if you just like the attention? Well … you don’t have to improve. You can keep writing bad fiction if you want and as long as your readers deliver what you want in return. I can’t speak much more on that because it’s not my area of expertise … but I’ve seen writers go for it and even do it.

So, again, ultimately it’s your call. What are you hoping for from your writing? The answer is one I can’t give you, but one you have to reach on your own.

But whatever it is, good luck. Now get writing.

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3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: When Readers like It … but It’s Bad

  1. I recall reading a story that was initially written years ago, and published chapter by chapter on the web. After several dozen chapters and quite a positive audience reaction, the author took all that he had learned, and published anew, in a new location, fixing what he considered to be the weak parts of the story. And I preferred the previous version. It felt to me that by polishing his work, he had polished out the uniqueness of his voice. So. A very difficult line to walk.

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  2. I don’t think your claims have any epistemological foundation. If a lot of people like a story, it’s in some way a good story, by definition. If your concept of “bad story” includes stories that lots of people love, you’re using a very peculiar definition of “bad story”, probably an ideological one.

    Let’s take your example:

    “Okay, let’s talk about this one for a minute and look at an example. Twilight, actually, of all things. Now look, we all know that Twilight is an extremely poorly-written book. The prose is horrid. The characters are flat (especially the protagonist).”

    First off–I don’t believe you’ve read the book. The prose is fine. Not striking, but it isn’t ungrammatical. Here’s the first page:

    <<<>>>

    That’s actually pretty good prose, IMHO.

    Is the main character flat? Yes, very much so. Also, she isn’t described, although the male leads are described frequently, in loving detail. This isn’t a flaw; it’s a convention of the wish-fulfillment romance genre.

    Now you might say that wish-fulfillment romances are bad. I would, too, but I would be aware that I was using an ideological definition of “bad”, and not talking about grammatical errors or “poor prose”.

    Twilight is /efficient/. It is excellent at doing what it’s supposed to do. The people who complain about it just don’t like what it does, because engaging in wish-fulfillment is a thing which, ideally, one ought not to be doing at age 50 (a typical age of book reviewers).

    However, the fact that a person isn’t as intellectually or emotionally mature as you want them to be, or that they’ve had a rough life, or are in bad circumstances, is no justification for depriving them of the literature they instinctively know they need where they are now.

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  3. Hmm, apparently angle-brackets are a secret WordPress code to delete all the text in-between and then shift into italics. Let me try that again:

    I don’t think your claims have any epistemological foundation. If a lot of people like a story, it’s in some way a good story, by definition. If your concept of “bad story” includes stories that lots of people love, you’re using a very peculiar definition of “bad story”, probably an ideological one.

    Let’s take your example:

    “Okay, let’s talk about this one for a minute and look at an example. Twilight, actually, of all things. Now look, we all know that Twilight is an extremely poorly-written book. The prose is horrid. The characters are flat (especially the protagonist).”

    First off–I don’t believe you’ve read the book. The prose is fine. Not striking, but it isn’t ungrammatical. Here’s the first page:

    –BEGIN–

    I’d never given much thought to how I would die — though I’d had reason enough in the last few months — but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

    I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.

    Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something.

    I knew that if I’d never gone to Forks, I wouldn’t be facing death now. But, terrified as I was, I couldn’t bring myself to regret the decision. When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it’s not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end.

    The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me.

    –END–

    That’s actually pretty good prose, IMHO. I’d change that “would not have imagined it like this” to a “wouldn’t have imagined this”, but that’s personal preference, and she’s probably trying to emphasize the first sentence by using more-formal language.

    Is the main character flat? Yes, very much so. Also, she isn’t physically described, although the male leads are described frequently, in loving detail. This isn’t a flaw; it’s a convention of the wish-fulfillment romance genre.

    Now you might say that wish-fulfillment romances are bad. I would, too, but I would be aware that I was using an ideological definition of “bad”, and not talking about grammatical errors or “poor prose”.

    Twilight is /efficient/ at what it’s supposed to do. The people who complain about it just don’t like what it does, because engaging in wish-fulfillment is a thing which, ideally, one ought not to be doing at age 50 (a typical age of book reviewers).

    However, the fact that a person isn’t as intellectually or emotionally mature as you want them to be, or that they’ve had a rough life, or are in bad circumstances, is no justification for depriving them of the literature they instinctively know they need where they are now.

    This attitude is even more intrusive when talking about books for very young children. The books that get published for young children are nothing like the stories that children tell themselves. Children like wish-fulfillment stories, sometimes ones that aren’t very scary and don’t have much tension, because that is what kids need when they’re 5 years old and almost everything is scary. Instead we give them stories about bunnies, with plot structures designed for adults.

    People who’ve been seriously abused, or people who just aren’t very smart, also like different kinds of stories–and these stories are always called “bad” by people who have no idea what it’s like to be someone else.

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