I knew this was not going to go well for me as soon as I saw the headline.
When I saw a link to an article by Angela Scott entitled, “Think readers care about fancy prose? Well, think again,” I knew it was only going to make me feel frustrated and sad. And I was right.
I don’t really want to pick on Ms. Scott too much here — she’s hardly the first blogger I’ve seen voicing that opinion, and she’s certainly not going to be the last, but this was such a perfect example of this kind of thinking that I wanted to dissect exactly what problems I have with it.
Here’s the thing about writing — readers don’t appreciate fancy words and intelligently written prose. It’s true. It is. For the most part readers don’t even care about GOOD writing (does a certain shiny vampire come to mind? Just saying). You can slave away trying to perfect the most amazing sentence, paragraph, or novel, but I’m telling you right now, most likely, no one will even notice.
[...] You may hate [Stephenie Meyer's] writing. You may dis her and whatnot, but guess who’s laughing her way to the bank, folks — the lady who wrote “Green leaves were swaying in the wind, greenly.” Why? Because readers are interested in a good story. And whether you liked the shiny vampire or not, she told a humdinger of a tale and several million people loved it.
Okay, first off, I don’t feel like I even need to point out that popular success, or financial success, makes for a poor yardstick of quality. Yes, millions of people loved Twilight. Millions of people also think that Olive Garden is a good Italian restaurant. And? Is appealing to the lowest common denominator really something to aspire to?
Secondly, trying to use Stephenie Meyer as proof that people “don’t even notice” bad writing is just flat-out wrong. I know a lot of people who liked the Twilight series, and honestly, all of them are a little bit embarrassed by that. They did notice. They can tell. All of them say, “I really liked the story, even though the writing’s not very good …. ”
Stop and consider — do you really want someone saying that about your writing? Even your fans?
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to ignore your commas or toss aside rules of grammar and adverb usage (I hate adverbs). But what I am saying is this, don’t get so caught up in the form and style of writing that you forget to tell a great story.
The thing is, this is such a false dichotomy. Trying to ask, “which is important, good prose or a good story?” is equivalent to saying, “what does a car need — gasoline or motor oil?” It needs both, and while it may not move at all without the gas, it will just as surely grind to a halt eventually without the oil.
Similarly, a book needs to have good writing and a good story in order to really work.
What do I mean by “good writing?” Well, first, let’s look at what Ms. Scott seems to mean by it. She seems to be talking about “fancy words” and comma placement.
This frustrates me just as much as people who write off proper ettiquette as just being about “which fork to use.” It’s a strange form of reverse-elitism, and at the risk of playing armchair psychologist for a moment — it always seems to me to come from a sense of defensiveness and fear. Fear of not knowing every single little rule, fear of being caught out on some small transgression. So the people who have that reaction protect themselves from this fear by dismissing commas and forks as unimportant, as the concern of fussy intellectuals.
And by doing that, they miss the entire point. Good ettiquette isn’t about knowing which fork to use — it’s about making sure the people around you are happy and comfortable and feel respected. Good writing isn’t about avoiding split infinitives and dangling modifiers — it’s about making your reader’s experience of the story as smooth as possible.
Your story is your gasoline — it’s the motive power that drives your book, propels the reader forward. And your prose style is your motor oil, slickly and fluidly keeping everything moving without friction, without hesitation. Good prose removes unclear sentences and awkward phrasing — anything that might make a reader stop and think, “Huh? What are you talking about?” Because in that moment, you have jarred them out of your all-important story.
The number one thing writers want and care about most: the story. [...] I have yet to hear a writer commend the actual writing — “The story was so-so, but the word usage was superb!”
Ain’t gonna happen. If a reader does say this, then they’re just plain weird.
Actually? Yeah, I do say that. That doesn’t mean it’s a recommendation, just that I’m talking about what I liked about a book. Similarly, I’m not going to recommend a book that has a great story, and only so-so writing. But if being able to notice that a piece of writing can have lovely prose and no story to speak of really makes me “just plain weird,” well, then, I guess I can live with that.
But I honestly don’t think I’m that unusual. (Well — in that respect, anyway.) People do care about word usage. I have had many, many friends over the years who are avid readers speak to me enthusiastically about the poetic quality of the prose of their favorite writers — Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, John Crowley, Francesca Lia Block, Tanith Lee, Kathe Koja. There are readers out there who notice quality and seek it out, and if they are a minority, they’re a sizeable one.
Ms. Scott quotes Laura Miller, from an August 2011 article in The Writer:
“You probably don’t go to the movies to see the lighting and photography, and most readers don’t come to books in search of a breathtaking sentence.”
I may not go to the movies just for the lighting and photography, but I sure as hell remember the lighting and photography, if it’s any good. I remember Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog for its amazing black-and-white photography; I remember James Cameron movies for their epic scale; I remember Kubrick’s films for their perfect compositions. All of these things elevate the story.
The same thing goes for breathtaking sentences. Writers like Shirley Jackson or Edgar Allen Poe could spin a good yarn, sure, but they wouldn’t be nearly so fondly remembered if they couldn’t turn one hell of a good phrase.
Most of the time, though, you don’t notice a writer’s prose style, the same way you don’t necessarily notice the photography in a film. In both cases, those things are doing their job — getting the hell out of the way and letting you think you’re having a seamless experience. When the prose is bad, or when a film’s shots are poorly chosen or badly edited — you notice. Believe me, you do. You may not be consciously aware of it in either case, but you will notice that something is wrong with this, that something is not working the way it should. And that’s not a reaction I think you want your readers to be having.
I’m not an eloquent writer. I may have one sentence, two if I’m lucky, that someone might say, “Hey, that’s good stuff. I’d better underline that.” But for the most part, my writing is at par. Nothing fancy. Nothing to earn a MFA degree with, and I’m okay with that.
This is the part that makes me saddest of all. Because I honestly believe that Angela Scott is selling herself short. As long as she keeps doing that, she’ll be right. As Richard Bach said, “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” So long as Ms. Scott has firmly made up her mind what she’s not capable of, then she genuinely won’t be.
I work really hard to keep my readers engaged and desiring to read the next chapter, and the next one, and the next one. [...] Of course, my true goal is to write a fantastic story that is written well. I’m constantly trying to make sure my writing doesn’t make me look like an idiot—improve, improve, improve. But, without a great story, who will care that I “show” more than I “tell” or that I found a way to eliminate all to-be verbs from my writing (wouldn’t that be awesome)?
Who will care? Your readers will care. Showing instead of telling, eliminating weak verbs — these aren’t things you do because they’re “correct,” to earn some kind of abstract style points — these are techniques that improve the immediacy and vitality of your story, that make reading your prose an immersive experience. Your readers will care, because so long as you’re not using techniques like this, no matter how much they may love your story — they will feel like you’re keeping them at a distance from it.
Again, your readers might not consciously notice anything is wrong, but if you don’t put any care and effort into your prose — and you don’t have to stress over it too much as you’re first getting the story down on the page, that’s what revision is for — they will notice that something is lacking, and that can make all the difference between a book that they really enjoyed even though it was kind of awful, and a book they’re going to press into the hands of all their friends saying, “you have to read this.”
If you really want to improve your writing — and I’m not just addressing Ms. Scott here, but anyone who might be reading this — then you have to let go of whatever you think your limitations are. They’re not real, they’re just a story you told yourself. I submit to you that you actually have no idea what your limits are, that you have yet to begin to push at the boundaries of your capabilities.
You live in a world full of eloquence. It’s honestly not that hard to reach out and pull some of it inside yourself, learn the trick of it. Read some poetry for a change. Or listen to your favorite songs, listen to the sound and the rhythms of them, listen to what the language does and why it’s memorable. Pull your favorite books down from the shelves and do the same thing, read them out loud, everything out loud until you find the meter and discover what makes them work, until your feet learn the steps of the dance; copy the best sentences down by hand over and over again, try re-arranging the words in them, see if they still work, figure out why not if they don’t.
Memorize the best monologues from your favorite movies. Recite them under your breath while you’re shopping for groceries. Let the world think you’re a little mad, if need be. Forget everything you’re not supposed to be capable of and then — surprise yourself.
Mur Lafferty writes about some “Live Strong”-type bracelets that she had made that bear a motto that she thinks is important for writers to keep in mind: “Fighting Idea Addiction.” As she explains:
It was an unsubtle nod to the problems novice writers (including myself) of having so many awesome ideas, you are afraid of your admittedly amateur mind not doing them justice. With that I remind you of several of my rules:
- Ideas are cheap: The more ideas you have, the more ideas will come. I once did an idea-a-day blog, brainstorming every day to give people ideas because I was tired of people hoarding them like diamonds. They’re not precious gems; they’re seeds. Alone, they’re nothing except for bagel toppings, but plant them and nurture them and you’ve got something awesome. I mean, how many incredibly popular (note I didn’t say “good”) stories have come from “young woman – likely powerful in her own right – falls for vampire hundreds of years older than her?” Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sookie Stackhouse stories, and Sunshine (which is the best of them all, and highly recommended) all leap to mind. The idea was not the key to these stories, the execution was.
- You are allowed to suck: If you don’t write your “best” ideas now, what are you going to write in order to get better? If you were an artist, would you try to paint the best thing you could, or would you focus on “happy little trees” until you felt you were good enough for your ideas? Allow yourself to suck, even when writing your great ideas. More will always come and make you feel like your “great” idea now was simplistic.
If you don’t allow yourself to accept that ideas are worth the paper you write them on, and don’t allow yourself to suck while executing them, then you will never progress as a writer. Stop idea addiction.
– Stop Idea Addiction : I Should Be Writing
I had a real shock of recognition reading this, and I guess I didn’t really know that other writers felt this way sometimes, too. I can think of a couple of ideas for novels that I thought of years ago that I didn’t tackle for that very reason.
I’d add another reason to her list — you’ve got to follow your passion. Those ideas I just mentioned? They’re still good ideas, and if I wrote them now, then yes, they might end up being stylistically more polished than they would have if I’d written them years ago. But I’m not as in love with those ideas as I was at the time, and maybe if I’d written them when those ideas were still fresh and new in my head, then that level of love and enthusiasm would have made the stories sing in a way they wouldn’t, now. Don’t hold onto your ideas until they dry up.
I love short stories. I always have. I love the finesse and power of a piece of fiction that can get into your head, create a mood and a setting, deliver memorable characters and events, and finish with a flourish, all within the space of a few thousand words. I’m more inclined, at any given moment, to be reading a collection of short stories rather than a novel, and I can easily name any number of favorite shorts: A Cask of Amontillado, A Rose for Emily, The October Game . . . .
I’ve grown up knowing that you need to write novels to be successful, that you can’t make a living writing short stories. But just like all the other facts about writing I’ve grown up internalizing, that seems to be starting to change.
Lindsay Buroker writes:
As we’ve discussed before, there are no rules about minimum word count when it comes to ebooks. You can publish a 150,000-word novel or you can publish a 5,000-word short story, and anything above, below, and in between is up for grabs too. You can put together a collection of short pieces or you can sell a single adventure. Are novellas allowed? You bet.
You can do anything you want, but it’s worth being aware of what sells best. As it turns out, readers seem to be less interested in short-story collections and more interested in single-story ebooks, regardless (to some extent) of length. In other words, short stories can outsell bundled works.
It seems odd, since a collection may be much longer and give the reader far more value, but my collections are always at the bottom when the sales totals come in at the end of the month. I’ve heard other indie authors report similar findings.
[....] You may feel that 99 cents is very fair for a 6,000-word story, or your shorter works may be longer. If this is the case, you may do better turning individual short stories into ebooks rather than bundling them for readers, especially if you can do your own cover art or have it done cheaply.
– E-book Endeavors » Blog Archive » Short Stories vs. Short Story Collections–Which Sell Better?
Like Lindsay, I’m not sure I personally feel comfortable trying to sell a short story for 99 cents. What I have been thinking about doing is grouping together pairs of thematically-similar stories and selling those as 99-cent downloads. I even have a name for them already — “Double-Shot Editions.” What do you think? Drop me a line or leave a comment below.
The Internet is full of advice to writers about agents — how to find the right agent, what to say in a query letter to get an agent, how to lock yourself in an agent’s office and cry and refuse to leave until they agree to represent you. (Well, this isn’t strictly true — according to a survey done by Google, no more than eight percent of all web pages contain advice to writers about agents. Maybe nine percent.)
But what about advice to agents about writers? Surely there are a few tips and cautions about dealing with sensitive artists who can be somewhat emotionally volatile? (Wait, no, come back. I didn’t mean you. Of course I didn’t mean you. I’m sorry. Have a tissue.)
Betsy Lerner August, a guest poster at Betsy Lerner’s site (Thanks for the correction, Averil!) addresses the other side of the equation:
3) Never say you ‘haven’t finished reading the manuscript yet.’ First, because it’s a lie. You haven’t started. And second, what we hear is, “I abandoned your novel without the slightest hesitation, because it defines ‘putdownable.’ I can’t remember a story that affected me less.”
[....] 8 ) There is a good way and a bad way to use social media. The good way is to sing my praises. The bad way is anything else. I don’t want to know you’re on vacation in Nantucket. I don’t go on vacation. I don’t go to Nantucket. I write in a garage with an extension cord running in through the window. And think before you tweet that you just finished the best manuscript you’ve read in five years. Think about every one of your clients hoping you’ll lock your babies in an overheated car.
9) Hate with us. When I slam the door and flop onto my bed shouting “I hate him,” because my editor queried my use of semicolons, don’t explain his perspective. This isn’t about grammar, I’m trying to make you choose between us; there is only one correct answer.
– Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone « Betsy Lerner.
I was looking at my author page on Goodreads the other day, and blinked at it in surprise — there was a book listed on it that hadn’t been there before. The title was familiar to me, though — Bloodfetish had been the name of a magazine I’d sold a story to years ago. One of my first professional sales, in fact — a piece of vampire erotica entitled, “Oathbound.”
But I was pretty sure that the magazine had never actually seen print. Had it, like the vampires contained in its pages, finally risen from the grave? Diana Trees writes:
Bloodfetish is a collection of works that I commissioned some 10 years ago, with the help of my good friend, Alice Dark. She and I have collaborated over the years on many projects, though most of those projects involved poetry.
Bloodfetish was an idea of mine, and she was game to work with me to find young authors who wanted to be published. We paid for the work that they did, commissioned an artist to illustrate the stories, then … well … It all just fell by the wayside.
It wasn’t that we didn’t want to put the work out. Rather, it was that life got in the way of our attempts to publish the zine.
It’s been on my computer ever since.
Then, a few days ago, I got a call from Alice. She saw my poems and short stories on Smashwords, and asked me about the site. When she found out how easy it was to publish a work, Alice was pissed. (She’s not known as Dark Alice for nothing.)
She wanted to know “Why the fuck I hadn’t put Bloodfetish” online with all of the other work. “Just get the fucking work out there.”
The conversation went on longer than that, but the gist of it is that she just wanted the stories to see the light of day, instead of being caught up as magnetized bits on my hard drive.
So Bloodfetish is online. Read and enjoy. And since Alice demanded that the story be put on her Smashwords site, you’ll likely be hearing more from her.
via Diana Trees: Bloodfetish – Erotic Stories & Poetry.
Ironically enough, I’d already been following @DianaTrees on Twitter, without ever having made the connection — I knew the name was familiar, but I couldn’t think why. What a great surprise! I’m happy that these stories finally get to see the light of day — or, perhaps I should say, the dark of night. I’ve already purchased a copy and I can’t wait to read it.
Now, I’ll admit, I’m as big an advocate of the self-publishing revolution as the next guy. And a little hyperbole in support of The Cause doesn’t really phase me — I tend to just smile at the writer’s enthusiasm and move on.
But this particular little gem made my mouth drop open in disbelief. In a review of a new book about self-publishing:
Stephen King’s advice to writers has always been to stop reading books about writing and to just begin writing. Excellent advice when authors were still discovered by big publishing houses and social media possibilities were just ideas. Not so today. There’s competition. There’s…one hundred and one excuses for not finishing that novel, or if you’ve finished, not working to get it out there.
The strength of this guide is that all of the authors are experienced writers, who have worked within a community of other indie writers and shared that experience. Perhaps most important, is that they’ve learned to work the social media route through their own trial and error, and they’ve become saavy enough to know how to give advice and take others step by step through what is necessary to succeed. [....]
And I can’t help but think that if Stephen King had read this book, he wouldn’t have had to spend so many years waiting to be discovered, but would have just gone out there and made it happen. His advice still stands though, and the authors must agree. So stop reading about writing already, and just WRITE!
No-Nonsense Guide To Self-Publishing Offers No More Excuses for Indie Authors – Chicago Culture & Events | Examiner.com.
…. Yeah. That poor Stephen King. If he’d had all the social media advantages we have today, if he’d been able to just go out there and make it happen — man, maybe he really coulda been somebody.
When I first heard about the anthology Machine of Death last year, my first reaction was, “Oh, man, I wish I’d known about this in time to submit something for it.” I loved the premise:
The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words DROWNED or CANCER or OLD AGE or CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN. It let people know how they were going to die.
The problem with the machine is that nobody really knew how it worked, which wouldn’t actually have been that much of a problem if the machine worked as well as we wished it would. But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark, and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. OLD AGE, it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death — you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does.
– Machine of Death » About
A few weeks ago, I found out there was going to be a second volume, and therefore I had a second shot at it. Great! I made a note to myself, placed it prominently in my workspace, and a little over a week ago, I asked myself, “say, when’s the deadline on that, anyway? Oh — Friday, July 15th?” Urrrk.
So since I’d never actually read the first volume, I grabbed a copy and quickly read it. It was really, really good — I wish I’d had time to relax and enjoy reading it instead of mainlining the damn thing. While I was reading, I started brainstorming ideas, and came up with one I really liked when I was about a third of the way through it. I read on, desperately hoping that there wasn’t already a story too similar to the idea I’d had, that I wouldn’t have to abandon it and come up with something else.
Finished the book Wednesday night — well, 1:00 AM Thursday morning, really — and stayed up late the next two nights running, managing to slam out 4,000 words on Thursday night and 4,300 words on Friday. The deadline was set for midnight on Friday, and I finished writing at about 10:49. I knew I’d gone over the word count — they wanted subs to be under 7,500 words, so that left me a little over an hour to go back and trim the fat out of it.
I nearly lost track of time. I ended up setting an alarm for 11:55 to make sure I didn’t miss it — that would have been enormously disappointing. In the end, I formatted the submission e-mail and fired it off with literally thirty seconds left before the deadline.
My heart was literally racing. It was tremendous fun, but hopefully I’ll go a little easier on myself the next time I try something like this. Otherwise, there might just be a little slip of paper waiting for me that says, HEART ATTACK FROM WRITING DEADLINE.
…. NETFLIX, YOU ARE DRUNK:
Seriously, that’s an actual screenshot I took. I admit I’ve never actually seen “The Curse of Frankenstein,” but somehow I feel pretty sure that’s not the actual plot.
Okay, quick rant mode here, because I’ve been seeing this one with even greater frequency than normal lately, or at least it seems that way –
I’m willing to forgive a lot of typos. In casual online discourse, I mean, like in email or texts. Not in fiction, of course. Whether in print or on the Web or in an e-book, you should try to eliminate as many typos from your finished, polished writing as humanly possible. But if you’re dashing off a quick Facebook post? Sure, I can overlook it if you’re typing faster than you’re thinking, and managed to slip up and type “their” when you meant “there.” I mean, I’ll judge you, still, but I won’t completely write you off.
Except. There is one type of mistake that will make me think you’re an absolute moron.
Using “your” when you mean “you’re.” (Or “their” when you mean “they’re,” although I don’t see that one as often.)
I’m just — how do you even do that? They’re not only two different words, they’re two entirely different kinds of words. That just tells me that you don’t really even understand what a contraction is, you don’t really get how words are constructed, you just have some vague idea from learning by rote what sounds get plugged into a sentence. It tells me that you’re perfectly comfortable dashing off a sentence that doesn’t have a goddamn verb in it and you won’t even notice.
So when you show me how poor your understanding of language is, I start to wonder how well constructed your thoughts can possibly be.
Okay, rant over. We now return you to your regularly-scheduled programming.
Author Bob Mayer talks to Indie eBooks about the new publishing company he’s starting, Who Dares Wins, and about his experiences with traditional publishing vs. self-publishing:
What I’m seeing is a lot of authors doing both. Pushing forward with their traditional publishers and bringing out their backlist on their own. It’s a win-win situation. I was told flat out by an editor at Random House that they can barely promote their front-list never mind their backlist. But authors can promote their backlist. Random House gave me backs the rights to my Area 51 series, and it’s really gaining traction, especially with the release of Super8 this month. I can also cross-promote it with my Atlantis series, which I had written under a different pen name.
[...] I really like the fact that I control more of my fate now. What’s also interesting is that I get steady paychecks. Every month we get a check from Amazon, Apple, LSI, etc. Each day, if I want, I know exactly how many sales I have and how much revenue is being generated. That’s the polar opposite of traditional publishing.
[...] It’s a risk, but the big thing is I have such a big backlist, that we still haven’t published everything I have the rights to. I’m currently going through the last 6 of my Area 51 books and making sure they’re ready to be published, updating things a bit.
For a new writer, my biggest piece of advice would be to look to the long haul and build up your list. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
– Indie eBooks: Bob Mayer talks to Indie eBooks about the modern publishing world.
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