Learn from the Stories You Hate

Monica Valentinelli is an author who lurks in the dark. She has over a dozen short stories out in the wild, two novellas, and more on the way. Recent releases include “Don’t Ignore Your Dead,” which debuted in the anthology Don’t Read This Book and Redwing’s Gambit a science fiction adventure novella.

I don’t like every story I read and I’m guessing you don’t either. In fact, I’m quite certain there are some very popular books that make your blood boil as soon as you hear about them. Maybe it’s a story about a vampire who glitters or a tale where the relationship is based on bondage. Maybe it’s a tome about a teenager hunting down other teens or a zombie apocalypse series.

There are a few well-known stories that have caused me no uncertain amounts of angst over the years. To make my peace with them, I critiqued the work and tried to understand why it was so popular.

For the purposes of this article, the popularity of a book isn’t just about book sales. It’s also about word-of-mouth advertising. Imagine readers who are so blown away by a story they have to share it with someone else in their life. Commenters who hate a book so much they have to talk about it. (Both are forms of publicity, by the way, especially online where the value of publicity is the volume, not the quality, of the chatter.)

So what makes people talk about a story? Well, to understand that, we have to go back to why you or I would get upset about a tale in the first place. The answer is really very simple because it circles back to the books we love. It all boils down to that emotional connection with the reader. Powerful stories invoke strong emotions. The more potent the feeling, the greater the chance we’ll need to express what we think or feel about it.

Knee-jerk reactions occur even if we haven’t read a story – especially in cases where the contents of that book are so bizarre or are outside our personal tastes. I am not a fan of Twilight for many reasons, but I don’t begrudge Meyer her success. (Good for her!) Since I have been embroiled in the vampire genre ever since I can remember, I am hyper-sensitive to changes in the vampire mythos. This simply means I am not the audience for her books.

Being that engrossed in a genre or subject matter isn’t always a good thing, because to reach that general consciousness, to achieve mass market popularity, the story needs to have a broader, less-specific, appeal. To do that, sometimes old techniques like tired genre tropes work really well. Other times, it’s about taking a universally-recognized concept like religion or forbidden love and twisting it in such a way that it touches many readers. Can that be done intentionally? Well, the only real evidence we have originates after-the-fact. If everyone knew how to write a wildly popular book (or which ones to publish) I’m pretty sure we’d all be millionaires.

Regardless, the point here that I’m trying to make is that it doesn’t matter what makes a best-selling book popular. That’s just one example of something I took away from a series I can’t stand. So what does? Well, maybe (just maybe) it is possible that the books we hate are learning tools that can help us craft a better story. I feel that statement applies to every author, regardless of experience, because the more we continue to write, the more our work evolves. I also believe that there is a lot we can get from stretching outside of our natural parameters and reading books we would never write (but a lot of other people love).

It’s easier to think critically of a book (or genre) we normally wouldn’t read because we have some emotional distance from it. Mind you, negative emotions color our perspective significantly, so if you are diving in to a work you don’t appreciate, I’d recommend reading it a few times or discussing it in a book club. Then, ask yourself this question: “What’s so great about this book that so many other readers need to buy it, talk about it, and share it? What am I missing?”

The answer may surprise you.