I try to stay away from badly written books and totally worthless movies. Yet, they might be goldmines! A writing professor of mine once said that he finds a lot of value in both because he used them as writing prompts. How? The challenge he saw in them was figuring out how to fix them.
In the world of major publishers and agents, this is one of the editor’s jobs, though they don’t intentionally begin with something worthless. They begin with something that has promise but needs a lot of work. They help the author turn the work into something much better.
You can practice your writing skills in a similar way by taking badly written books or movies and figuring out what makes them badly written and how you would fix them if you happened to work for a major publisher as the author’s editor. If you like writing prompts, fixing bad books–or scenes out of bad books–gives you an infinite number of exercises.
Think of the kinds of complaints you read in one-star Amazon reviews: thin or unbelievable plot, one-dimensional characters, skimpy information about the novel’s setting, storyline padded out with too much description or lengthy and inane conversations that don’t move the plot forward, etc.
Pick one scene and make it work. Make sure it’s a scene that requires better writing and not a scene you would cut altogether. For example, if there’s a section of lengthy description, try to re-write it at half the length. If the dialogue is inane, what can the characters say to each other at that point in the story that makes more sense? You can give yourself a bigger challenge by writing within the original author’s voice and style rather than your own.
My professor thought that one way of learning how to diagnose and fix weaknesses in our own work was by diagnosing and correcting problems in the works of other writers. It’s an interesting exercise and, goodness knows, there are hundreds of books out there we can use for raw material.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently release short story collection “Widely Scattered Ghosts.”