The more time I spend writing, and thinking about writing, the more I get out of reading. Because I’m more aware of the craft of writing, of the techniques being used, of the structures in place, I gain a deeper appreciation of the skill and hard work that’s gone into a piece of writing, or the mistakes that have been made. It’s the reason why you need to read if you want to be a writer – seeing what others do is part of the learning experience.
Recently, I’ve found that I’m learning most from mediocre stories, things that are put together in a competent way, and that find themselves a reasonable audience, but that don’t dazzle, that don’t make me gasp or cry or yearn for the next instalment. The sort of stuff that I normally avoid, but that I’ve started dipping into to rest my brain.
I think I’m learning from these stories because I’m not fully absorbed. An excellent writer, something I barely dream of one day becoming, will pull you into the story so deeply that you don’t notice how it’s being told. You’re dragged along by the words and never stop to notice how they’ve been put together. The techniques may even be hidden, structures rendered so skillfully that they become invisible, character ticks delivered so subtly that, while you know who’s talking from their every sentence, you never feel like they’re repeating.
If something’s more mediocre, competently but unimpressively put together, then those ticks and techniques will show. I’ll enjoy the story enough to keep going, but not so much that I don’t spot the plot turns, the contrasting highs and lows, the obviously recurring dialogue ticks. I notice them when they’re successful, drawing me into an otherwise unimpressive story, and when they aren’t, pulling me out of an otherwise engaging scene.
I’m not sure what the moral of this is. I don’t want to encourage anyone to seek out mediocrity. Perhaps it’s that we learn from more than the outstanding and the abysmal, and looking at what’s done passably is important because it’s a step on the road to excellence.