Monday, January 30, 2012

Read Books That Make You Squirm with Envy

I started reading John Green's new young adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars, today, and I immediately found myself hooked by his writing, his protagonist's memorable voice, and the novel's central predicament: a wisecracking, terminally ill young cancer patient named Hazel finds a new love in her life. Even as I sit here and type these words, I'm tempted to chuck all attempts at getting any writing done today and dive back into his story.

My instant love of Green's novel got me thinking about all the books I've read—from the disappointing to the brilliant—and I realized I can place them into four categories:

Category #1: Books I dislike shortly after I start reading them. Perhaps a rave review, the opening chapter, or the promising premise got me to pick up the book in the first place, but the book rapidly goes downhill. I usually set these novels aside instead of forcing myself to read them.

Category #2: The so-so books. I give the book a fair shot and eventually make my way through to the end, but it's not without some pain and regret. Usually I hold onto the hope that the ending will make the difficult journey worthwhile, and sadly, I'm often disappointed I stuck out the ride.

Category #3: The good books, worthy of 3- to 4-star ratings. I enjoy the reads, but there are one or two flaws that fail to make the book superb.

Category #4: The superb books. The authors are so skilled at their craft that they're able to juggle fascinating characters, a compelling plot, and ridiculously gorgeous writing without letting any element fall to the wayside. Typically, these are the award-winning books, and leaving their fictional worlds behind when I close the last page usually makes me feel a little lost. It's always hard to find a worthy follow-up read after finishing this type of book.

As a writer, I find Categories #2 and #4 are the ones that challenge me to write better books.

When I come across a so-so book in one of my favorite genres, I'm disappointed as a reader. In response, I set out to write the book I wanted to read. If all books in a genre were superb, I probably wouldn't feel such a compelling need to spin my own tales. For example, I've never experienced an overwhelming desire to write children's picture books, namely because the messages I'd want to get across for that age group have already, in my opinion, been achieved incredibly well by someone else. 

When I come across a book in the superb category, I feel my own writing improve. The skilled author sets the bar high, and as a writer, I find myself trying to climb to meet their nearly impossible standards and produce a story equally as compelling as theirs. It's like a cook who wants to improve themselves by eating a feast prepared by a master chef: you savor, you absorb, you fill yourself up with the other person's bounteous talents, and you learn.

If you're a writer, seek out the superb books as often as you can. Find yourself squirming with envy at an author's work. Treat your mind to writing that blows you away.

Never, ever be afraid of a challenge.

Your readers will be thankful.


Ara Burklund said...

Great post! I don't have the patience for categories 1 or 2. I know what you mean about learning from trying to identify what's wrong, though. Kind of like those old do's and don'ts from the back of the magazine--very educational.

Everyone at the conference kept talking about how great John's new book is. I'm still reeling from reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone, the prose was so delicious.

Cat Winters said...

Ah, you read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, too. Yes, definitely delicious prose! And Laini Taylor gets extra credit from me for being a Portland author (with pink hair, no less).