Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How to write a terrible novel

Photo by Phaitoon,

 I recently read two of the very worst books I’ve ever encountered.

The first was a book-club selection; an author I’d never read before. This could have meant that I came in with zero expectations, but the fact that this author has sold 15 million copies of her books led me to assume she must be pretty good.

Never assume. Never, ever assume.

I couldn’t make it past chapter five. It was that awful. I’m not being a literary snob in saying this. I can appreciate the skill that goes into different genres of writing, even when a book isn’t to my personal taste. This book was, quite simply, terribly written. And I wasn’t the only one to think so. The ladies in my book-club ripped it to shreds – the first time I’ve ever seen such unanimous disgust from these women. And we’ve read everything from Pulitzer prize-winning literary works to the latest pop-fiction crime thriller. There’ve been books some of us haven’t liked; but none that were roundly hated and derided by every single member of our club. (“Maybe she paid someone else to write this one for her? Like a school kid or something?”*)

(*Actual quote from disgruntled book-clubber.)

The second book surprised me with its awfulness. I expected to like it. The author was multi-published and had achieved success with his YA novels. When his name beckoned me from a bookstore bargain bin, I picked it up. Then I read the back-cover blurb, and I was hooked. The premise sounded fantastic. His first adult novel? No problem. The guy knows how to write, and I trust him. Besides, the book only cost $5. Surely I couldn’t go wrong for $5.

Hmmm. After dragging myself through 233 painful pages, I wasn’t so sure. Suddenly it became all-too-clear why this book had been in the bargain bin.

Two bad book experiences in a couple of short weeks. It made me wonder. Where had these authors – multi-published, successful authors – gone wrong?

Here’s what I learned from them. And so I give to you my top ten tongue-in-cheek pointers on How to Write a Terrible Novel.
Photo by stockimages,

1. Cram your writing with clichés.
Originality is overrated. Writing should not be a stretch; it should not require undue mental exertion. Put down the first turn of phrase that comes to mind. If it’s been used a million times before, so much the better. That means it’s tried and true – vintage, almost. Like a really, really old lump of cheese.  

2.  Don’t give your protagonist a clearly definable goal.
Let the reader wonder: what does this character really want? Is it a bit of this, or perhaps a touch of that? Goal-oriented characters are so… aggressive. So… (*shudder*) active. No, you must make him passive. Let him never want anything in particular or care about anything all that much. Sit him at the kitchen table and give him cups of tea and let him ruminate comfortably about his life. Preferably while a cat sits, purring, on his feet.

3. For heaven’s sake, keep the stakes low.
What will happen if the character never quite meanders his way toward that elusive, undefinable goal? Absolutely nothing. At least, nothing the reader will care about. If you make the stakes meaningful, the reader might be tempted to actually turn the page. This cannot be allowed! Our aim is to bore the reader into a mental coma.

4. Make the characters unlikeable.
To help keep the stakes appropriately low, it is essential that the characters do not engage the reader’s sympathy. Let’s say a boyfriend/ girlfriend relationship hangs in the balance. The guy is scared he’s going to lose the girl. Hmmm. This has the potential to be emotionally meaningful – a risk we cannot run. Solution: make the girl so irritating, so cold-hearted and pretentious and uncaring, that the reader is actually rooting for the guy to dump her. Bingo! The protagonist might have a goal, but the reader couldn’t give a rat’s whiskers about it.

5. Ensure your author voice trumps the story.
Your erudition and lyricism should take center stage, even though it sounds like you’re trying really, really hard and not quite succeeding. Doesn't matter, because the author’s voice is far more important than the story! Think of it as literary camouflage. The most skilful proponents are able to mask the story altogether, forcing the reader to wade through pages of try-hard authorial brilliance in vain pursuit of what the author is actually trying to say.

6. Never delete a single word you write!
It’s much more interesting to waffle endlessly, create circuitous dialogue that leads nowhere, devote page upon page to never-ending scenes in which nothing actually happens, and repeat yourself ad infinitum, just in case the reader didn’t get it the first sixteen hundred times. If you follow this rule diligently, over 60% of your book should be entirely redundant. It takes skill to achieve this, but with a few verbal laxatives and stringent avoidance of the delete key, it is entirely possible.

7. It’s not boring enough yet. Make it more boring.
A reader will forgive the author a multitude of sins if you just tell them a good story. Whatever happens, do not give them the satisfaction. The keyword here, remember, is PASSIVE. Did some action occur on that page you just wrote? Dun-dunn. The only action you want is when the reader smacks herself in the head with the book to wake herself up at the end of the page. 

8. Throw in a sprinkling of the bizarre.
A random dream sequence that seems to have no correlation with the plot. (But it’s incredibly poetic, all the same.) A momentary mystical blurring of fantasy and reality, in a book that is neither fantasy nor sci-fi. A purple polar-bear levitating in the frozen-food aisle. You’re the author. You’ll think of something.

9. Let your plot threads lead nowhere.
Tying things up is passé. Don’t worry if you forget where you were going with all this “plot” business. It’s fun to string along your reader and then leave them hanging… forever.

10. Be sure to end with a fizzle!
Building tension is so exciting, isn’t it? Nearly as rewarding as the look on your reader’s face when that payoff you’ve been leading up to never happens. Ah, the joy of lame endings. Nothing beats a good anti-climax for making the reader hurl your book across the room. We’re all surprised they made it that far; they obviously have true tenacity. Now might be a good time to remind your faithful reader that all those hours spent struggling through your book are gone. Gone forever. Mwuhahahaha.

So there you have it: my top ten tips on How to Write a Terrible Novel. Any of these you’re particularly good at? ;) Got any others you’d like to add?

Karen Schravemade lives in Australia, where she mothers by day and transforms into a fearless blogger by night. Her popular creative home-making blog, A house full of sunshine, reaches over 20,000 readers a month. She's a Genesis finalist for women's fiction and is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such. Find her on TwitterGoogle+, and Pinterest.


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

hahahahaha!!!! This was hilarious! are a funny gal. It really is interesting that you read 2 bad books in such a short time. I've wonder if best selling authors just can't drum up new ideas...or if they are just tired. But why wouldn't an editor make it shine? Surely the publishers don't want a bad book? I don't get it.

Angie Dicken said...

This is a GREAT post...and one that EVERY writer should keep in mind! I have been very hesitant to pick up a book because of wanting to chuck so many bad ones across the room! I know there are good books out there, but I've come across a ton of bad ones!

Joanne Sher said...

LOVE this post, Karen. It gave me a giggle on a day I really needed it - AND wonderful advice to boot. FABULOUS!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

SHERRINDA, I've wondered the same things. I think there probably are plenty of books written by an author who's just plain burned out, but "has" to churn out another book anyway to meet a deadline. And the more popular and successful an author gets, I think sometimes the more leeway they get from their publisher. I can't imagine too many publishers saying to one of their most successful authors, "actually, that book stinks and is unpublishable. You can rewrite it completely, or give us something new." Because the bestselling author will likely leave in a huff and take her multi-million-dollar sales earnings elsewhere. And the publisher knows that even a terrible book is going to sell strongly based on name alone, when an author has amassed such a following. I don't really know - just trying to make sense of it. Unless no-one at the publishing house actually read the book - that's a definite possibility too... ;)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

ANGIE, I've been lucky that I haven't read too many books I've completely hated. This was a definite exception! It's always irritating to know we've wasted our precious downtime on a terrible book!! Life's too short!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

JOANNE, so glad this gave you a giggle! :) I love it when I try to be funny and it actually works. Yeah! *fistpump* ;)

Mary Vee Writer said...

This is fantastic. Those tips are definitely the true opposite of what we need to do. Well done!