Learning From The Mistakes Of Others

There seems to be some kind of time-honoured tradition which insists that those who would become writers (or artists, or musicians, I guess) have to learn their trade by studying The Great Predecessors. And so we read Shakespeare and Byron, Joyce and Hemingway and Woolf and so forth, and we sweat and we strain and we analyse, and then we wander off and write, having ‘learned’ something.

Learned what, exactly?

Prithee, sirrah, I know not what I may have glean’d by study of The Bard, save mayhap a surprising command of the tongue common to the Elizabethan stage… and my, oh my, isn’t that in demand in today’s publishing market?

It’s not just me. Famously, Hunter Thompson typed out the entirety of — was it The Great Gatsby? I think it was — just so he’d know what it felt like to write a masterpiece. And of course, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is obviously a tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Of course. Yep. For certain.

So far as I can tell, the best you can hope for by studying the greats in detail is to learn how to write more or less like those great authors. But it’s not that simple. When I read Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece Crime And Punishment, even in translation the power of his prose grabbed me by the scruff and wouldn’t let go. I read the book in thirty-six hours; just devoured it. It was brilliant.

And I’ve never read it again.

I wouldn’t mind. I quite liked it. But the problem is that for nearly a month afterwards, all I could write was a bad Dostoyevsky pastiche. Truly dreadful stuff. Because, you see, I’m not Dostoyevsky, am I? I don’t think like him. I don’t have his experiences. My native language isn’t Russian, and I don’t have hundreds of years of Russian culture behind me.

Trying to write more Dostoyevsky is a waste of my time.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advising against reading the great stuff. It’s brilliant, and I love it. These marvellous and accomplished writers supply all kinds of ideas and inspiration, elements of colour and nuance and style… but personally, I suspect that trying to take from them is a lot like trying to drink from a fire hose, you know? You lose your own voice. You drown in the stuff. If you’re lucky, you may be able to assimilate enough that your own writing will start to sound a bit like your literary gods and goddesses. You may even be able to acquire and somehow reconcile a number of different influences into your work.

But is that really what you want? Didn’t you get into this to tell your own stories, in your own voice?

There is another approach to this process. It still involves reading the works of other writers, yes. But instead of looking for great writers to emulate, you look for dreadful writers, and you learn from their mistakes.

It’s not a stupid idea at all. We all make errors, but the better we get, the harder it is to recognise those errors and correct them. As a martial arts instructor I am constantly learning from my beginner students because I see them making the same errors to which I am prone, except that in these newcomers, those errors are writ large. It’s easy to see big, clunky mistakes, and if you learn to recognise them, you can school yourself into not making the same errors.

Think about it. If you learn from Shakespeare, Woolf and the others, at best you come up with a grab bag of techniques and ideas that made others famous. On the other hand, if you study… well, utter crap, you learn how to avoid being equally crap. But at the same time, you’re still free to experiment, and find your own voice.

Now, I’ve raised this idea with a good number of people over time: at conventions, in bars, at writer’s groups, in critique sessions, and so forth. And every time I mention the idea, it draws a laugh or two. People chuckle at the idea of reading crap and learning from it. But then they move on, and forget about it.

Okay, fine. It would seem I have an interesting opportunity.

So here it is: from time to time, I’m going to post here about What I Have Learned From The Masters Of Crap. I’ll present a sample of work from a well-known writer, and I’ll show you how the sample points up nasty flaws in the prose. I will show you precisely what I have learned from people like L Ron Hubbard, Jackie Collins, and Dan Brown. I’m not going to cheat, and pick on self-published newbies. That simply wouldn’t be fair. Nope, I’ll stick to the really well-known stuff, because I can’t really harm the reputation of folks like Stephani Meyers, can I? No matter what I say around here, her legion of fans will continue reading about sparkly vampires and hairy-chested werewolves.

And that’s fine. I don’t want to spoil anybody’s fun, and there are plenty of people who get real enjoyment from these works. Nevertheless, the books are still crap.

So: read along! Agree, or disagree, argue and explore. There’s no joy in having an opinion if it doesn’t get tested and tried. We can have some fun around here, and you’ll recall that is precisely what The Last Bastion is for.

Read some crap today. It may not make you a better writer. But if you pay attention, it will help you avoid being worse…


  1. Though the other implicit relationship that underlines your argument is that a writer and a reader share traits or abilities that help you do both better.

    Not saying there isn’t, just that I haven’t seen anyone explicitly consider the possibility that what makes a good writer ‘good’ would make you a good ‘reader’?

    Trying to recall the last poorly written book that I could recommend, there are a lot of ‘self/vanity published Zombie fiction I have read which would fall into this category, space opera too. What about E.E.Doc Smith’s The Lensman series, or is/was it ‘good’ writing and a victim of the time it was written?

    1. Mister B: the question of The Lensman series and Doc Smith in general is a very good one. Unquestionably, it couldn’t get a look-in with a full-size publisher today… unless somehow Doc Smith had managed to build a fan-base out of small-press and self-published books on Amazon, etc.

      To a degree, there’s always the question of whether the writing does what it’s supposed to do. Doc Smith set out to offer rip-roaring outer space adventure. Certainly, he achieved that.

      Could he have done it better? Probably. Was it necessary at the time? Certainly not. Does the same argument excuse Jackie Collins and L Ron Hubbard?

      I want to say no. I’ve read all three. Smith and Collins both nailed their demographic, but I don’t think Smith was underestimating excitable boys aged 10-18, while I’m pretty damned sure that Jackie Collins brutally insulted the intelligence of women in their twenties and thirties. Unfortunately, I’m also pretty sure that women of that age back in the 1980s were simply accustomed to having their collective intellect ignored.

      Oh, and L Ron cleverly built his own audience by founding a religion… but his books didn’t really do that well before Scientology.

      Doc Smith isn’t a great writer. But I don’t think he falls into the class of really, truly awful that I’m looking for. Even now, I can finish reading a Doc Smith book, although I do so with the odd guffaw. Dan Brown, though — last time I tried one of his tree-zombies, I flung it across the room, and then finally, out the window.

  2. IN that case might I recommend The Eye of Argon by Jim Theis which can be read in full here *http://www.ansible.co.uk/misc/eyeargon.html) I first stumbled across this gem in a review by Jason Henninger on the Tor website

    “It’s pretty much the paragon of everything a fantasy story should not be. It’s full of sexism and random violence, in turns bewildering or predictable, but neither ever at the right time. Grammar, spelling, consistency: an Ecordian cares not for these things.”

    including this excerpt as a sample of the narrative majesty.

    “The trek to Gorzom was forced upon Grignr when the soldiers of Crin were leashed upon him by a faithless concubine he had wooed. His scandalous activities throughout the Simarian city had unleashed throngs of havoc and uproar among its refined patricians, leading them to tack a heavy reward over his head. He had barely managed to escape through the back entrance of the inn he had been guzzling in, as a squad of soldiers tounced upon him. After spilling a spout of blood from the leader of the mercenaries as he dismembered one of the officers arms, he retreated to his mount to make his way towards Gorzom, rumoured to contain hoards of plunder, and many young wenches for any man who has the backbone to wrest them away”.

  3. Heh. I know of The Eye of Argon. There’s an old tradition at conventions: people compete, trying to read from the thing without bursting into tears of laughter.

    The problem with the Eye of Argon is that there’s just too much wrongness going on. The good thing about published, actual writers is that usually there are one or two really obvious, identifiable things you can kick around.

    “Eye” is just hilarious. I really must get a complete copy.

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