Even as a kid I loved telling stories, but I first thought about becoming a writer in my late teens and of telling stories on paper for others to read.
Two things persuaded me to try my hand at the author thing. First, I wanted to enthrall others the way I’d been enthralled by L’Amour, Bradbury, Burroughs, Howard, MacDonald, and many others. Second, I figured I could do better, or at least put more effort into it, than some of the other writers I was reading. I won’t mention names, but I was finding books that just didn’t move me. The prose was leaden, the pace stagnant, the characters as stiff as new jeans.
Sometimes the poor writers just didn’t know how to tell good stories. But more often it seemed these authors were writing too fast and not giving the care to their work that being a craftsman required. To me, this became, and remains, the definition of a hack. Turns out, however, that I learned quite a bit from the hacks, mostly, I hope, about the things a writer should not do.
I learned that well-written prose strikes the ear like music, not like the sound of a bell without a clapper. I learned that description is boring unless it fires the imagination or sets a mood. I learned that good characters can’t become chess pieces to be shoved around, that they have to have integrity of action and consistency in their behavior over time. I learned that fiction should give the illusion of reality even when it can’t illustrate reality absolutely, as when dialogue sounds as if real people are talking rather than serving mechanically to advance the plot.
One important thing I learned from bad writing is that there is no suspense for readers when things come too easily for the characters. I read a book where the villain gathered a huge army and cornered the last heroes. The villain had a great bomb but the hero defused it, and the enemy army just suddenly ran away. I might once have thrown that book across the room, but this time I kept reading, wondering what other gems of “thou-shalt-not-do” wisdom might be found between the lines of a weak tale.
Of course, the most important thing I’ve learned from poor writing is that good writing takes concentration and effort, and there is no substitute for either. It’s easy to tell a bad story. The good ones take time.