Writers, put down those red pens, because I have bad news for you.
We’ve all seen the lists of words to weed from your prose, phrases editors hate, little pet peeves that get on other writers’ nerves, and even those of a few readers. If you are a dutiful and Good™ writer, you went through you manuscripts and changed your saids to quizzed and growled and quipped, and then switched them right back again. A long moment disappeared, and you spent fully half an hour trying to find a better way to express someone talking in a quiet voice that is not a whisper without saying they were talking quietly.
In short, you listened well, did the work, and changed your writing. It got better. Tighter. More writerly!
This is a great shame, in many ways, because nine times out of ten you’ve just wasted a massive quantity of time.
I wish I was joking. I’m not. But before you despair too much, let’s talk about what exactly this means.
The first thing any reader looks for in a book is the genre. Romance, sci-fi, thriller—this is the primary indicator for whether a reader will read your book or not. Of the genres, the ones requiring beautiful writing are as follows: Literary.
Will the rest of them benefit from it? To a point. But obsessive polishing will not sell your book to the average agent or genre reader with money to spend, because in genre, story trumps all.
Remember, your average genre reader reads to escape a humdrum job or a boring train ride. They read to give themselves excitement, passion, or a cozy warm feeling. Some read for adrenaline, others to help them sleep, but they all want to escape from their surroundings. And for that, they need a good story.
You think I’m kidding? Check out the last genre book you read and loved, or heck, check out Harry Potter. Fifty Grays. The Tom Clancy novel of your choice. Terry Pratchett. Any author who keeps charting book after book, year after year. Their prose is littered with adverbs and long moments and pet phrases. Honestly, it’s not brilliant. But why do we love those books and read them again and again? Because they have damn good stories.
Unlike, say, most of the classics, which the average reader reads once, sort of, to say that they have.
“Oh yes, Crime and Punishment was beautiful.”
“Would you read it again?”
“I mean, if you paid me.”
The books we love are the stories we love, not the writing. Changing your dialogue tags will not change whether your story is appealing. Books filled with clichés top the charts because they have stories that readers of their genres love and language they understand instantly. Would these books do better with slicker metaphors? No. Will your book? It’s doubtful. If your book doesn’t have the right story for your genre, a lack of adverbs won’t help.
In fact, make your writing too good and you will start losing readers. All that advice to change tell to show? Take it at your own risk. Tell is popular because readers prefer it.
Hyper-sensitive betas might understand that the character is nervous because her eyes just widened and she’s worrying her the hem of her sleeve, but readers used to being hit over the head with she was nervous will miss that emotion entirely. And heaven forbid your character says “I’m a terrible person” without immediately following that utterance with a puppy-saving level of good deed, because no matter how much it’s been illustrated, readers will remember the label “terrible person” before the world-saving deed two chapters ago.
Example: Harry Potter book 1: Snape tried to make a child kill their own beloved pet for no apparent reason. Harry Potter book 7: Snape saves Harry and loved Lily all along (and arranged her death by accident!) and Harry declares him a hero. What do readers remember Snape as, the psychopathic child-abuser or the twagic hero?
“But!” I hear you cry in tones of despair, “If this is so, why is there all that advice out there from readers saying the opposite??”
There isn’t. Most lists of “reader pet peeves” are not written by readers. They are written by writers, editors, agents, and occasionally reviewers: people whose job it is not to read books, but to scrutinize them.
99% of readers do not scrutinize what they read in this way. They pick up their ereader for an hour before bed for a bit of a thrill and then go about their lives doing other stuff. They are your audience, and they want the story spoon-fed and up-front. Story. Writing they couldn’t care less about.
Do I wish this wasn’t so? A thousand times yes, but it is. Don’t believe me? Go read the bestseller list in your favorite genre, and the gushing reviews about the plot and characters and twists. Or tell a friend about the “beautiful prose” in a book you highly recommend and another friend that you read a great book about “a creep who kidnaps girls and tattoos butterflies on them” in that same book. Which friend will follow up on the recommendation? The one who heard about the story.
Sure, there are readers who crave polish and subtlety, but they’re not the mass audience, the one the agents and publishers cater for. They’re not who will buy your books by the gross on Amazon. Chase them, by all means; they’re panting for more and trust me when I say they write the best fan letters, but if you’re pursuing wider publication, they aren’t your audience.
So when you go to edit that masterpiece, make sure it’s grammatical. Check that you haven’t changed the character’s name spelling halfway through without noticing. Eliminate the really gaping plot holes, and any smaller ones that sort of annoy you.
Then find a reader or two who reads your genre obsessively and ask not “is this well written,” but “did you enjoy reading it” and “was it clear?” “Did you like the characters and why” is another favorite. Always ask why.
If all they can talk about is your excellent use of similes, you didn’t do your job. You didn’t transport them. Work on the story and to hell with the adverbs. Personally, I like quietly, and so do your readers. It does the job with a minimum of fuss.
Good writing will sell an artsy short to a literary magazine for half a dollar. Genre readers just want an escape, and for that, story trumps writing every time.
This post is not meant to discourage writers, but actually solve the mystery of “Why aren’t agents/readers/publishers buying my book?”
Probably the story didn’t carve closely enough to genre conventions. You presented it from the wrong angle or your idea was too complicated. Your characters were real in the wrong ways (too fake doesn’t seem to be a problem). It wasn’t enough of an escape. It was predictable in the wrong ways. Your cover or blurb were wrong. Pick one or several of those.
But I promise you, as long as you understand basic grammar and are using words mostly correctly, it was never that your writing is bad. It might be terrible, but that isn’t why your book wasn’t a success. And that is the honest truth.
(Maybe I should write a whole post on that topic, with examples. I couldn’t hurt.)
This is the most depressing blog post I’ve ever written, but I had to get it out of my system. I’m just sick to death of seeing five billion idiotic lists about adverbs and other crap that, in the end, do not matter. Anyone telling you books that don’t do whatever stylistic thing don’t get published and aren’t loved is flat out wrong. It seems like an innocent wrongness, until you realize that people are literally killing their chances of success over it.
I’m not advocating bad writing. I’m not saying I like the above. Good grief YES do I prefer show to tell and smooth dialogue and adverbs used sparingly. But I’m saying it’s true and it’s privately and quietly acknowledged by the authors making bank outside traditional publishing. (Traditional publishing seems to make writers feel their writing is amazing no matter whether it is or not. It might be, but what got them published that way was that people believed their stories were strong, however they felt about the writing. There’s a difference.) This is the reality of writing genre books for any reason but to please yourself.
Want to sell lots? Tell a story that a lot of people want to hear in the way they usually hear it. It all goes from there.
26 thoughts on “Writing Is the Least Important Part of Your Book”
Great blog post. I also prefer show don’t tell but what you say is basically true! It’s all about the story.
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This is a bit soul-crushing when I wear my writer’s cap and unfortunately rings true when I wear my reader’s cap. If the story is really great, I do find myself willing to excuse some of the writing blunders. Fair play to you for writing the honest truth! And excuse me while I go rock forwards and backwards silently in the corner…
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My every sympathy. This is why there have been no updates from me in a long, long while: not because I was holding this in, but because I realized it was true and holy crap is it depressing. Because it’s not just if the story is great, it’s if it is genre-conforming. Like, your love story might be beautiful to tears, but OMG THAT CHARACTER CHEATED ON SOMEONE WHEN THEY WERE TWELVE THIS IS ABOUT CHEATERS 1 STAR AUGH. Or your story could be amazing but too complicated for most people. Or rely on people understanding that a stereotype is wrong, but not being *about* the stereotype being wrong, because that’s an “issue” book and people love those. Or, or…
I guess I wrote this because I was so sick of no one admitting it.
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It’s brave of you to say it, no sugar coating here. But sometimes the harsh truth needs to be said.
La la la, I’m not listening.
But I tend to agree. I’ve gone back to read some of my favourite books recently, and this time through I’ve noticed how many “naughty” things they do. But before I was writing a lot I never noticed and they didn’t interfere with my enjoyment one jot.
Still, I’m inclined to think the genres can have strong characters and plots *and* great prose, and that’s definitely what I’m aiming for.
If a book has strong characters and plots and conforms exactly to genre expectations and is basically a variation on a popular trope, it will do great regardless of writing. That’s the formula. I wish you luck, believe you me.
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I agree. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try our hardest to also write beautifully.
But know that doing so is taking a risk. (I swear, I feel like I’m writing about informed consent here.)
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Why can’t readers expect both? Actually the writing in Harry Potter would have made me put the 1st book down early on if I weren’t reading to my kids. Meanwhile, when I read the Inkheart trilogy to them, I would sneak out of the room to read on and reread exceptional passages. Even my eight year old remarked that Cornelia Funke “painted the story in her head”. So, I disagree. I think publishers looking for the lowest common denominator make some faulty assumptions, much like in the music industry, much to everyone’s detriment. A good story does not have to be at the expense of good writing (which in turn does not mean obscure, precise or big words, but sometimes may)
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Some genre readers do expect both; I do. That means I almost always have to avoid the most popular titles in my chosen category, and that’s a red alert for writers. A lot of what you said confirms my post: you prefer the pretty writing of Inkheart, while the larger public prefers the not so beautiful words of Rowling. (I read Inkheart in my teens but can’t recall my impression beyond positive.) Yes, appealing to lowest common denominator is not a trend that suits everyone, but if a writer wants to make money in this industry, that’s w
Argh! Phone sent that before I was done.
I know I’ve mourned this trend; it’s why I read indie. By no means does a good story come at the expensive of good technical writing, but a highly saleable one does.
Some salient points here, but I’m not ready to throw out the baby and the bathwater to the unwashed masses (to mix a metaphor). I agree with May Hem that one doesn’t need to cater to the lowest common denominator — an author doesn’t have to pander — in order to write a successful, salable story.
Poorly written stories sell. Wonderfully written works with boring plots sell. And everything in between to varying degrees.
I do think expectations can be quite a bit lower for certain genres, but that isn’t an excuse to eliminate editing or to stop trying to make the writing better. Will you hit a point of diminishing returns? Absolutely. But in my opinion, the best books are those that throw captivating characters into an engaging story. The quality of writing can either be an obstacle to overcome, or a welcome enhancement.
Then again, I am a writer, and I don’t read like “normal people.”
Personally, even if every word in this blog post were absolute truth, it wouldn’t change the way I wrote. I am bored by reading predictable, pedestrian stories. I don’t think I could ever write one. Sadly, that might negatively impact my sales, but at least I know that what does get published is up to my high standards.
Art vs. business…profit vs. pride…etc., etc., etc.
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Writing sort of kills reading in some ways, doesn’t it? I’ve found it’s made me a hell of a lot more picky about what I read. It’s like being a chef who can’t go to other restaurants without noticing that the sauce is nice but there’s too much salt on the vegetables.
Oh, there’s no doubt this is a business post–the business of making money from writing, one way or another. I’ve done a couple experiments with pennames where I released different versions of stories, and I can say for certain that the less technically good version does better. As in, more tell, more adverbs, and more dialogue tags sells more copies and gets better reviews than more show, better word choice, and more subtle indications of who is talking. Not just me, either. Which sucks. It sucks hard. But my pain is someone else’s gain.
If you want to write as a business, aim for common denominators. Not lowest, but common. If it’s a hobby, do whatever makes you happy. That’s the point of a hobby. But at some point, if it turns out that your instinct is not the magic formula and you are unhappy with low sales, you have to decide which you’d rather your writing be. Both are valid, and you can even keep different pennames for this purpose (I do), but it must be a deliberate choice.
Keep in mind I’m not advocating *bad* writing. Nowhere in this post do I say “make it awful” or “do not edit at all.” I say writing does not sell books. If a book is a house, then writing is the framing. Anyone who’s ever worked on houses knows that most perfectly sound houses don’t have 90 degree corners, and that’s okay because people don’t look at them. They just want something homey and comfy and in their style, so a builder’s time is better spent on making sure the drywall is smooth and the kitchen nice, not obsessing about a few bent nails. If the house doesn’t sell, unless the house is falling apart, it’s not the framing’s fault. If it does sell, likewise.
Unless they’re literary. Literary is a mysterious entity does its own thing, possibly through black magic.
(I’d be happy to chat more in depth about experiments and marketing and other indie-pub stuff like that through email rather than public comments. Hit me up if you’d like to.)
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Yeah, my secret fear is that the answer to increasing sales is “dumb it down,” and I’m just not sure I’m capable. But then I watch shows like “Westworld” and “Legion” and “Orphan Black,” and I think, “Wow, there are people out there who enjoy nonlinear storytelling and are willing to work a little for their entertainment.” So we’ll see. 🙂
P.S., my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a reader, I agree (and I’m guilty) of almost everything you’ve written. I can’t stand to be told everything, but other than that, I can deal with less than stellar writing, even pretty horrible writing, if the story is good enough and I like the characters. I 100% base my review on the story, characters, and my frustration level with both as well as how many unanswered questions I had at the end. I don’t need an author to spell out and tie up everything in a pretty bow, but I do need answers to important aspects of the story that are introduced and then never mentioned again.
I’ve beta read for a first-time author who tried desperately to get published traditionally, but like most authors, kept getting turned down. Her book is probably my favorite of all YA books I’ve ever read. Was it a totally original story? Nope. But it made me laugh out loud and cringe with embarrassment for the MC, and I absolutely loved it. Now, thanks to the Negative Nelly publishers, I’ll never know how that story ends because it was going to be a two-book series, and the author has rewritten and resubmitted it so many times that she’s given up and decided not to write the second book (the last I heard). I’ve begged her to self publish (multiple times actually), but I think she’s a bit intimidated by trying to figure out the process.
So, I hope authors will listen to your advice. Write a great story. And I’ll add, if it’s great and publishers won’t publish it, self publish.
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Absolutely self-publish! It might not be big bucks (depending; YA is a smaller indie genre, but romance can rocket you), but it’s worth doing. That’s too bad for your friend. If she was submitting in the height of the paranormal phase, it just might have been a case of wrong place/wrong time and could be resubmitted, but I understand not wanting to try.
So much of publishing is just getting things out there, seeing what works, and going in that direction. Get the story right, the characters wrong, try again. Story and characters right, but now blurb is wrong, try again. And so on.
I like what is said here, but as an avid reader I can tell you writers have lost me to poorly chosen words and inconsistencies in language. Language, and how you use it, can really have an impact on the story told. Perhaps a mix of both – a good plot line and well-written narrative go hand in hand, I think, to create a classic. If you look closely at JK Rowling’s work, you can tell that some effort went in to choosing her words wisely and creating scenes without bringing attention to the language used to do so. Compared to Atonement by Ian McEwan – he has some brilliant scenes which he creates using a fascinating combination of words – I remember the words he used, at some points in his novel, more than the actual scene.
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Certainly care went into HP, as it does with every book. But it’s also a book vastly guilty of just about every “bad writing” sin out there. Does that make it a worse book? Not in the least. In fact, that’s part of its accessibility: anyone can read HP, even if they don’t read very often.
That’s the point. Make every metaphor an original piece of art and you lose people. Pretty passages have little to do with all those idiotic lists that get passed around. They’re pure storycraft.
Really, this is a business post, not a reader post. As a reader, I hate all this. As someone with money in the publishing industry, it’s just the way it is.
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Yes, you have a point there. From a marketing perspective, you have to make what sells.
‘In genre, story trumps all.’ You said a mouthful there, S. I’m not interested in a book when people tell me there’s no story to speak of but the characters were great. But I don’t see why we can’t have both. Take A Tale of Two Cities or The Count of Monte Christo. I’ve re-read them several times over the years.
You just named two non-genre books written a couple centuries ago, which I specifically mentioned this post is not talking about. This is a post about writers making a living now.
I do apologise. I enjoyed your post and wanted to join in the conversation. I write articles, not novels, but will read anything I can get my hands on, including newspapers and magazines (only exception is porn, although 50 shades of grey proves that there’s money to be made from soft porn).
My sister who has had several chapter books published and a novel will tell you the same. Read everything to advance your craft.
My opinion only, but I have noticed that Pratchett often crowds his beginnings with characters and their storylines, confusing at first but becoming clear once you get into the story. The first time I read Pratchett I thought of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. Different century and language. Read everything. Nothing is wasted is my motto.
The books I love are the stories I love, but if the writing sucks or the research is sloppy (genre also has its rules,) I don’t love them so much.
There are books that will be a very good first time read but end up in second hand bookshops 6 months later. There are books you want to keep and reread. I’m currently binging on Terry Pratchett books. He’s dead, Agatha Christie is dead. Their books are being republished. So is Dickens. So is Shakespeare.
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By all means! I personally read pron more than anything. I find it honest.
I think Terry Practchett is such an interesting case, because I don’t think he would have gotten published today for exactly what you mention, plus the fact that his early books are rather muddled. These days, I don’t think Color of Magic would have seen the light of day, and possibly not Light Fantastic. Of course, it depends on the editor, and the publishing house, but while they are very clever books, they are not clear ones, and that counts more than ever. And boy would that have been a shame.
Funny enough, while readers who love complications can regard this as a “dive to the bottom,” I think we demand clearer writing than ever from books, and that makes books more accessible than ever. The average reader can’t tackle Dickens without a bit of help, but Fifty Grays went gangbusters with some seriously questionable language, because while it wasn’t precise, by golly you know where that whip went. (Or whatever, I only read enough to know I didn’t want to read more.) But as you mention, that does kill its staying power. It doesn’t have a lot of re-readability to higher-level readers. Will the author still be putting out books to the same acclaim in thirty years? We’ll just have to see.
Really, what this trend is doing is paralleling the fall of the mid-lister author, the one who never made the top lists, but made a happy little living writing books a fair amount of people liked. To make a living, most authors need to move volume, and that means diving for common denomonaters, whatever they may be. Of course that heavily depends on genre, but the romance mid-lister is flat gone, and a few other genres headed that way.
From a business stance, it sucks. From a reader stance, there are more books than ever before about more diverse subjects than there ever have been, for cheaper than we’ve ever seen. It’s a buffet out there, to be had for cheap. As much as we can complain about “there’s nothing good,” there’s plenty–the trouble now is knowing where to look. Browsing the “hot” list will get you what sold 100 copies yesterday, not what’s good. Bookshops will get you what’s commercial. Where are the good books hiding? Where they always have–the midlist, only now that’s also the invisible list.
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I just got done reading your blog and you gave me more information in ten minutes then all the books and papers I have read on how to write a book. I’ve struggled with a book for ten years, writing, changing it, writing somemore and changing it again. Always trying to make it sound perfict, but now I see sound isn’t everything, the plot IS.
I understand your points–you articulated them quite nicely–and I’m sure they’re true for a significant portion of readers, but when I read, I delight in stellar writing. I like to read writers who impress me with the way they put pen to paper and express their story. I don’t believe I’m in the majority group here (I’m certain I’m not), but that’s what I like in a story. Great write-up, you got me thinking!
I love this Blog, I appreciate that someone can recognize this. I am an avid science fiction and fantasy reader. I absolutely agree with your position of recognizing the fact that readers read to get away from life, not to be entertained by beautiful metaphors or spectacularly thought out sayings. I am writing a novel with a group of four people and we actually touched to that point right at the beginning of our story. And almost 1000 pages in and we still discuss this at every Monday noon meeting. What you said is some of the best stuff I have read that isn’t my latest or favorite novel.