The Classroom of Dissatisfaction

One of the best things a writer can do to hone their craft, is read well-written fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and drama. We learn to emulate them, and try new techniques that we see in these works. We learn language; we learn turns of phrases.  All of this gets dumped into our “primordial ooze,” as Virginia Woolf called that fecund place from which we grow our stories. We enjoy the reading, and then start thinking about what the writers did and how they did it and we analyze words and sentence structures, paragraph and book structures. We don’t always do it consciously, but we tend to do it all the same. It’s how we are always learning our craft.

But good books don’t teach us everything. We can learn from bad books, but I like learning from books that are a mix of good and bad–which for me, leads to a vaguely dissatisfying experience that niggles and can make me put down a book without finishing because I don’t necessarily want to keep reading.

I’m reading a book right now that falls into this category. Except that I’m not reading it. I put it down and haven’t picked it up in days and I don’t know that I ever will. It’s a paranormal romance set in a really cool place and obviously had promise in the blurb. It starts with some unexpected elements, and then moves into some cliche. I no doubt suffered from the fact that I recently read a much better book with the same early trope, but much better executed.

I realized I was having a mix of reactions to the book. I wanted to know what happened with the two main characters. I wanted to know what kept them apart and how they overcame it. Only as I read on, I found myself deciphering the foreshadowing and not believing the woman’s reasons for being so terrified (terrified is repeated–as in, really fearful). I would expect her response to what happened to her to be anger, humiliation, hurt–but terror? I don’t think so.

Likewise, he’s never noticed her and suddenly she’s his ‘mate.’ (This is a shifter story). He’s apparently been dreaming about her and even though he’s known her previously, never paid attention to her. But what bothers me is that when he realizes he has to work to win her affections, he doesn’t stop to consider what their relationship has been, how they’ve interacted before, and why she might not like him.

The more I read, the less I’m convinced that their attraction is real instead of shoehorned into a situation without enough attention to actually building a believable foundation.

So what do I learn from this? Well, stuff I already knew. The motivations have to be believable. The character interactions have to be genuine and real. That readers want to stick with the story but won’t waste their time if there are significant cracks in it. But I also learned that you can have things in the story that will pull a reader along despite problems. That a reader *wants* to like the characters and will be fairly forgiving if you just smooth out the road a little.

I’ve read books that I wanted to put down because of the problems, but I kept getting dragged along because *something* in the book demanded it. But then I get to the end and I have regrets that the book wasn’t executed better. And those regrets make me sad.

I read another book lately that I didn’t finish because there was no finesse in the language. And by that, I mean it was: She went here. She did this and had fun. He said something obnoxious and she got mad. There was little showing, and too much simplified Dick and Jane stuff. I wanted to like it. I just couldn’t. The main character was super likeable. It just wasn’t enough.



About Diana Pharaoh Francis

A recovering academic, Diana Pharaoh Francis writes books of a fantastical, adventurous, and often romantic nature. She's owned by two corgis, spends much of her time herding children, and likes rocks, geocaching, knotting up yarn, and has a thing for 1800s England, especially the Victorians. Check out samples of just about everything on her website:


The Classroom of Dissatisfaction — 12 Comments

  1. One of the things we also learn is that there are different definitions of bad books. Something I consider unreadable, someone else thinks is wonderful. And vice versa.

    I think it’s useful to break down what words for us as readers, and what doesn’t. We can use that, as writers, to train our craft to better appeal to readers who have a lot of our same impressions about plot, prose, characters, voice, la de da.

  2. Do you find that the more you write the more “picky” you get when you read? I think that I have grown disproportionally annoyed at books that a younger me might have accepted without question – simply because now, now that I’ve WRITTEN so many stories, I can see through the veils of words straight through to the bones of the thing and if the bones aren’t solid it is no longer enough – for me at least – for those bones to be draped in pretty camouflage. It is just instinctively unsatisfying on some level. And if I hit THAT speedbump… I start deconstructing the book. And that’s the end of “reading” it.

    I got a book for Christmas *three years ago*. I started reading it early in that new year, and then put it down, and then picked it up again to take with me to a doctor’s appointment for hubby where I knew I’d have to sit around and wait for a good long time, and then when we left the doctor’s office the book got tossed into the back seat of the car. I think it’s still there. It’s a book by a well known and talented writer, a book that got a lot of attention and quite a bit of acclaim… and yet I simply cannot connect with it at all. There is something about – as you say – motivations that just doesn’t come together for me, and the book simply never called to me enough to return to it…

    • I’ve noticed that I get pickier on some things and not on others. Or maybe it’s that I”ll tolerate some things when I can’t tolerate others at all. It’s a matter of degree. I’ve a couple of hugely acclaimed books on my shelves that I simply can’t get through. And yet I feel oddly guilty about that and keep trying. Maybe I should just accept I’m not a fan of those books and move on. Make room on the shelves for more books that I like. It’s actually one of the reasons I read books on kindle a lot. I don’t feel as bad when I don’t like an electronic book. Maybe it’s because I don’t have to see it in the back of the car. I can just forget it exists.

      • Virginia Woolf. Ian McEwan’s “Atonement.” And Moby Dick.

        That last is one of those books that are touted as “must read before you die.” Well, it looks like I’ll be living forever, because I’ve never managed to get more than halfway through it.

        And I’m not usually one to abandon books mid-stride.

        • I just can’t stand Steinbeck. Never have been able to. Hemingway is a little bit sparse for me, so I’m not a fan of his either. I do love Faulkner, though. In the course of getting my PhD I had to read a number of things that I thought would kill me to get through–classics, a lot of them. On the other hand, I adore some books that people despise. Here’s the weird thing–I love Jane Eyre but am not the tiniest fan of Wuthering Heights. Most people I’ve spoken to who like one or the other are just the reverse.

          • Wuthering Heights made me want to line all the characters against a wall and smack them upside the head!

            I, too, loved Jane Eyre, though.

            Amazing how sisters can have such a different way of articulating a narrative…

          • I think Wuthering Heights is was written by about as aspie a person as you can get. But I understand how its sheer id vortex appeals to a lot of readers, even if I myself find it unreadable.

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