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.