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Bad Books Versus Genre and Taste

My husband read a bad book. He downloaded it for his kindle, and because it was free, he hadn’t done more than read the description. When he began to read, it became quickly clear to him that it was BAD. He gave it more of a chance than I would have, but he quit at the halfway point. We discussed this book, which shall remain anonymous here, and I’ve been thinking about what makes a book bad or good. I think that there are some absolutes.

What exactly am I talking about? What makes a book all-caps B-A-D? Here are those characteristics I would consider to be unforgivable:

– Blatantly wrong grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

– Excessive use of simile and metaphor, or flowery adjectives and adverbs that don’t even make sense. If the word choice keeps me reading solely for laughs and the book isn’t intended as humor, that is BAD.

– Contradictions in the setting, character motivations, or plot that are so bizarre that they can’t be attributed to secret motives, hidden plots, or other authorial devices.

– Disregard for research in a particular skill or trade, or complete ignorance of the laws of physics or biology when no effort has been made to say that the world in the book is different than ours. I can forgive some mistakes in areas that I am familiar with (fencing, horses, medicine), but if this is a central aspect to the plot or a main character, you’re going to lose me.

Most of the items on this list would be caught by a good editor (if the book was even accepted for publication in the first place). These are problems that I come across mostly in self-published works. The book that my husband read was self-published, although the author had gone to some trouble to make it appear that it was not. This is not to say that self-published always = BAD. The problem with a lot of self-published books is that there is no filter (i.e. agent, editor, copy editor, publisher). Anyone who can type and fiddle with some software can now publish their own book on amazon and other outlets. When I’m offered books to review, many of these are self-published. I try to give them every chance. If the description or blurb interests me, I still won’t take the book on unless I can read a sample of it. I’ll look at Amazon’s preview feature or I’ll check the author’s web page. I reviewed one self-published book some time back, and it was quite good. I have at least two more in my queue to be read.

I have also read (or tried to read) what I would consider a bad book from a major publisher. One in particular from last year comes to mind, but it will also remain anonymous here. I found the word choice to be bizarrely amusing when it should not have been, and the plot was incomprehensible. I’m not sure why – was there a shake-up in the editorial staff? Was it rushed to print? Am I so dense that I just didn’t get it?

Have you ever looked over reviews of one of your favorite books and found that some horrible terrible awful confused person gave it a one star review? Were you even reading the same book? Have you ever picked up a book that everyone loved to find that it was nonsensical drivel? Here is where I think the variety of styles, genres, and the multitude of human personalities and tastes comes in. I picked up a romance novel by a best-selling author a few years ago just to try to read outside my favorite genre of science fiction and fantasy. (One of my favorite science fiction books is largely a romance, so I’m not opposed to this as an element or theme.) I read this best-seller (that was also made into a movie), but despite the appeal to other people, I found the book boring and sappy. I don’t think that makes it a bad book. It simply wasn’t for me.

I’m also not talking about taste as in, “You have good taste. He has bad taste.” I think that all that taste means is that everyone has different preferences. I didn’t pick up George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and expect it to be the same as Harry Potter. Yes, they’re both fantasy, but TOTALLY different. There are readers who love one series and can’t get through the other. For some, GRRM’s writing is too graphic and the characters are too dark. For other readers, Harry Potter is too juvenile and stereotyped. (I love both of these series though.)

Have you read any bad books lately? Are there other factors that you feel may put a book in that BAD category? How about your tastes – have they changed over time? How varied are your tastes as a reader?

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When Stories Have a Mind of Their Own

The past few weeks have been taken over with holiday recovery, that icky sinus crud that has attacked everyone in the area, and this one persistent story that seems to have a mind of its own.

First, a little news. I have two short stories that will be available in the near future. “Those Magnificent Stars” will appear on February 12 in Perihelion SF. This is an online magazine and is free to read. It focuses on hard sci-fi, so there’s no fantasy to be found here. My piece is a story about a teenage girl whose only birthday wish is to take an excursion outside the dome to see the stars.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) - ESA/Hubble Collaboration

NGC 602 and Beyond. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) – ESA/Hubble Collaboration

The second story to be published is “Princess Thirty-Nine”. This is a fantasy tale and will appear in the Universe Horribilis anthology from Third Flatiron Publishing. This is a themed anthology about an uncaring or hostile universe. My story follows a captive princess and her struggle to understand the world from her limited perspective.

Now back to that story. It started out as a fun exercise. I wanted to take a break from trying to craft a “more serious” story. I decided to write a short adventure tale about space pirates. Somehow a plot device involving nuclear physics crept in. It never managed to get beyond the opening pages, but it was fun. I put it away and went back to other tasks.

A couple of months ago I resurfaced from a writing hiatus after Hurricane Sandy swept across our area. My husband and I were lucky that we only sustained minimal damage with a few downed branches and buckled siding. I rewrote a fantasy story and kicked it out the door (submitted it to an online magazine). I needed a fun project again, and that silly space pirate story called to me. It needed to be written from a different point-of-view, perhaps with an added complication to the plot and more depth to the characters. Maybe it would end up at novelette or novella length. I started typing.

Last week I found myself floundering as the plot branched into avenues that I had not fully considered. I decided to outline the plot threads to help extricate myself from this mess.

Now I have a novel synopsis.

I don’t need another novel idea, but there it is. All laid out in pretty synopsis format. Half the science behind the fiction is physics, half is biomedical. The main character is clear in my head and the secondary ones are lining up to tell me about themselves. So I guess I’m writing a novel. Maybe I’ll finish this one since it seems to have developed a mind of its own.

For any writers out there, do you ever find that one of your stories takes off like this? Do you ever have the opposite experience in which a novel turns into a short story?

Many well-known novels began as short stories (Anne McCaffrey with Weyr Search/Dragonflight; Orson Scott Card with Ender’s Game). Do you ever read a novel and wish that you had only read a short section of it? Is there a particular short story that you would love to see extended into a novel?

Goals – Do You Set Them?

It’s a new year, and also a time at which many of us think about goals and accomplishments. This may be retrospective – thinking about your activities over the past year. Or if you look forward, then it’s more about making new goals for the future. It can also be both.

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For myself, I had several different goals that I had set for 2012. I’m not sure that I met any of them. BUT – I worked at these goals. For one example, I decided that I would participate in a 2012 reading challenge over at Goodreads. I set a goal of 50 books. I think I read 28. I blame George R.R. Martin and his long, long books for slowing me down on this one. But you know what? I still read a lot of books. More than I probably did for 2011. I’m trying it again in 2013 and I have a better idea of what it will take to read all 5o.

One of the larger goals that I had set was to write the first draft of a historical fantasy novel. I did manage to start much of the research, outline characters and some of the plot, and write a few chapters. I took a break from it, but instead of halting all my writing, I went back to short stories. I wrote at least eight of those through the year. So while I finished other tasks that weren’t my original goals, I still feel like I’m making progress on my writing.

I also try to constantly fling rejected stories back out to other potential markets. I had done pretty well with this in 2011, but mid-2012 I slacked off. My rejected stories would linger in my files for weeks before I would research the markets and send them off again. I regained my focus around August, and now I have two stories that have been accepted for publication and will be out in 2013.

So, as a writer, do you set goals for the upcoming year, next month, daily? Do you go back and assess how you did? What are your plans for 2013?

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