19 October 2012 by Published in: Uncategorized 58 comments

Some of the biggest selling books in recent memory are not only popular, but also break a host of hallowed rules that many authors believe to be sacrosanct. Probably because they took a lit course in school, or read a book on writing, and were offered a host of these commandments that differentiate supposedly good writing from bad. You can always tell a budding author by the reviews they leave – when they start in on story arc, or showing instead of telling, or how bothered they are by adverbs, you know what you have – either a failed author, or worse, an aspiring one who believes that the counsel he/she received in the course of their study of craft is dogma, not loose suggestion. They know, KNOW, I say, what good writing is, because they were taught what it was, and insist on using all that wisdom to demonstrate their superiority.

The only problem is, many of the best-selling books of our time are poorly written, according to that dogma. Which means that if the authors had chosen to believe that they had to follow the rules, then the books would have been written differently, which would have made the books much different, and likely would have joined the millions of other “good” ones that fail to sell squat.

Because most readers could give a shit about the rules. They just want a good story, told in a compelling manner. They aren’t particularly interested in the two years of questionable advice authors might have gotten in college, or the five books on writing they’ve read. In other words, most readers either don’t know, or don’t care, about most of the rules.

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NEWS: A brilliant new book review for JET by Kate’s Reads and The Kindle Book Review! Nice!

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That rankles certain personality types, I know. Because they are sure they understand what is good and what isn’t.

Put simply, as popular literature is concerned, what is popular is what is good, at least in crass commercial terms. Great literature that fails to find an audience over time is just slush pile. Nothing more. It’s a failed attempt to find readers. It happens. Sometimes those damned readers have their own ideas about what they like, and they might not have spent the time becoming an expert on craft like the authors have.

Now, I’m not saying that we as authors should toss the rule book aside. Many grammatical and punctuation rules are sound; based on clarity, efficiency and coherence. But writers have a lot of odd notions that dictate terms to them, to their detriment. Many supposedly-hallowed rules for good writing are simply preferences, or guidelines, to be applied or discarded on a case-by-case basis.

What are some of these rules?

Probably the most oft-heard differentiator of good writing from bad writing is, “Show, don’t tell.” Well, I’m here to tell you that rule is for asshats. Or rather it can be. Like everything in life, there are exceptions.

Want some examples? How about Fifty Shades of Gray, or Harry Potter, for starters? How about Twilight? Ever heard of those? You might have. One author is making a million bucks a week right now, and the other two are billion dollar franchises. Guess what? They violate the show/tell rule right and left. Almost from the get go, there’s lots of telling and very little showing. Far too little for the rules. Not nearly enough to be “good” books.

And yet people love them. And buy ‘em in droves. And they sell. A ton. They are successes. Whether or not I would personally read one has far more to do with my taste and interest than it does with whether they are “good” or not. They are successes in a business where the overwhelming number of “good” books fail miserably. The Da Vinci Code is another that is rather pedestrian, prosaic¬† and heavy on telling. Characters come into the action and do monologues that feel as wooden as a dime store Indian to explain to the slow readers what’s going on. Tell tell tell. Bad bad book.

Except it’s one of the most successful books ever. They all are. And they all are “not good” according to many who purport to “know.” This notion is based, BTW, on Hemingway’s philosophy of eliminating most of the story, including exposition, so that the reader can be imparted the essence of it with hints the careful storyteller drops. A fine ideal, but one which isn’t practical in many cases. Showing is exhausting – not for me, but for readers. It’s also often inefficient. I respect Hemingway (and Orwell, who also was big on the idea of showing, not telling) but the truth is it’s a guideline, nothing more. When you see it used to criticize in reviews, it’s usually an unsuccessful author trying to assert superiority by showing off how much dogma he’s memorized (successful authors generally don’t have the time or interest in leaving negative reviews full of blather about showing vs. telling, adverb use, character arcs and the rest). As an example of the inefficiency of showing vs. telling, consider this: “His ass hurt.” Or, “Simon shifted on the seat, trying to get comfortable, the flare-up wreaking havoc on his piles again.” Sometimes “To be or not to be” is more efficient than showing us why it is important to question one’s essence. Good writing is generally efficient, entertaining writing.

Another rule that I hear all the time is regarding the use of adverbs. Many authors believe that adverbs are to be eschewed – that they are a sign of poor writing. This stems from the opinions of a few influential authors, most notably Stephen King (in my generation), who in his tome, “On Writing,” voices the opinion that adverbs are bad. Specifically, he dislikes them in dialogue tags. So what do most writers believe? Adverbs are bad. Just as a rule. Don’t want to be a bad writer, now do you?

Look. Adverbs are words or phrases that modify verbs. I understand that they can be overused in dialogue tags. But adverbs convey useful information, and to eliminate them to the extent possible, as some do, makes about as much sense as a designer declaring she won’t use a primary color (that last bit was plagiarized – brilliant, though, isn’t it?).

It reminds me of the wine business. I know a little about wine, and have friends that are wine makers, and they know how to make and judge a good wine. They spent years in school learning how. They have rules. They are rigid rules, about acidity, alcohol levels, residual sugar. And guess what? Most wine drinkers, including the experts in blind studies, like badly-made wines. They prefer those with too little acid and too much alcohol and sugar. My favorite example is Yellow Tail Shiraz Рthe most popular red wine in the world for a decade. Guess what? It has staggering amounts of residual sugar and hardly any acidity or tannin. It is universally  understood to be a bad wine, from a technical perspective.

It’s probably a good thing that the makers don’t care. Imagine if they had followed the rules and dropped the sugar levels to what “good” wines should be, and boosted the tannin and acid? They’d have a “good” wine like all the other good wines out there that aren’t selling.

I think one needs to know the rules, and then judiciously apply them, and chuck them if you feel the need. You’ll get some bad reviews, sure. Other authors, mainly, will critique your work and go on about insufficient character development, showing instead of telling, clunky dialogue tags, adverbs…

So what is the takeaway here? That your first job as an author is to craft a compelling story, well told. The well told part is up to your taste. Readers will ultimately decide whether you had a compelling story, well told. If they don’t want to buy it and read it, it probably isn’t. If they do, then you can laugh your way past all your haters that “know” your book isn’t “good.”

That’s not to say you shouldn’t know the rules. You should have The Elements of Style memorized, and take its counsel to heart. Rule number one: eliminate unnecessary words. I am not counseling ignorance. Rather, I’m saying that you should know all the rules, and then feel free to chuck as many of them as you feel like if it will make your story better told or more compelling. Not to an English professor. To readers. Because at the end of the day, readers decide what is good and what isn’t, voting with their wallets.

And speaking of voting with their wallets, a little horn tooting here. JET has been in the Amazon Top 500 paid for two solid weeks now, and JET II – Betrayal is closing in on it. Thank you to all the readers who have voted for JET – I can only hope that keeps up. If you feel inspired to give a book I describe as “Kill Bill meets Bourne” a whirl, you can get JET here. And on a final self-promotion, I’m happy to report that JET III – Vengeance should be ready for release by Nov. 1, mas o menos. I guess I better get busy on JET IV for X-mas, huh?

 

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Comments

  1. Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Does it come down to a question of popularity or critical acclaim? The critics seem to be the ones most concerned with the rules. The public stepping up and using hard-earned cash to buy good stories, as you say, don’t seem to give a damn.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 1:25 pm

      I think that critics often have a substantial academic/literary background, so they view themselves judges and juries, using their hallowed rules as the litmus test. Again, I don’t have anything against rules, per se, but I definitely dislike dogma, and the strident tone of many authors evaluating the work of others tends to have a lot of dogma baked into the cake. I tend to favor using the best tool to get the job done, regardless of what guidelines are in place.

      Reply
  2. Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Russel,

    Another terrifically astute commentary! I enjoyed it immensely. To borrow a phrase:

    Common Sense – It’s almost like a super power!

    Reply
  3. David A. Cuban
    Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Right you are!
    This reminds me of the phrase often attributed to Winston Churchill: “That is a rule up with which I will not put.” (in regards to the rules governing the use of prepositions.
    Yes, rules are important. But, (good) writers have the plasticity (creativity) required to bend those rules as far as they can go.
    There is a world of difference between breaking the golden rules and not knowing those rules in the first place.
    Before Picasso and Botero amazed us with their grotesque images, they trained in France painting like the classics.
    I think that it does not take us very long to know the difference between the two types of writers to which I’m referring here.
    Great blog!
    Many thanks.
    Dave

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 3:28 pm

      Thanks Dave. Glad it resonated with you.

      Reply
  4. Old Git
    Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 2:02 pm

    Bravo! Writing may well be the art of using smoke and mirrors without revealing the artifice. But, principally, the art of storytelling is not one that can be guaranteed by adhering to the sound-bites of the style police. In fact, the inverse applies in the main. A good writer has a few miles under his belt, has the imagination and a compulsion to get his story out and the balls to get his head down and graft like fury to achieve a good story – rather than acclaim as a writer. (Insert ‘her’ where appropriate, those who are OCD for PC)

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 3:27 pm

      Quite. As a brilliant wordsmith yourself, you probably understand better than most that the lines, as they exist, shift constantly, from the necessity of invention.

      Reply
  5. Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Thanks for confirming what I have suspected. My favorite review is the reader who said my book was “poorly wrote.”

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 3:26 pm

      There is no gatekeeper for reviews, and those with the least to add seem compelled to do so the most.

      Reply
    • Shankar N Kashyap  –  Sun 04th Nov 2012 at 8:17 am

      Snap!! I had the same comment about my book – “poorly wrote”!!

      Reply
  6. Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 2:26 pm

    Dead on, as usual, Russell.

    And congrats on the great success of your Jet novels. Well deserved.

    Reply
  7. Mark
    Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 3:58 pm

    “I guess I better get busy on JET IV for X-mas, huh?”

    And on this topic, I know you write a staggering amount each day (6k?). Do you ever feel like if you gave your stories more time to bake, say double the time in the oven, that the story and characters would be more refined, and the story would have more lore, more depth? I myself write about 2k a day. I was doing 3k per day and noticed a severe dropoff point after the 2k word mark, where the creativity in me just plummeted off a cliff. Then again, I work really late in the day. Maybe that’s my problem.

    I am actively looking for ways to increase my productivity (I don’t have kids or a f/t job other than writing), and when I see Jet III coming, and then Jet IV in…gasp…DEC, I find myself craving that secret sauce.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 7:03 pm

      You know, I’ve taken all sorts of approaches, and this is the only one that works for me. I’ve stewed for two months on a book, and it was no better or worse than ones I’ve written in a few weeks. If you think of it in terms of hours, as opposed to time, then it makes more sense. I take between 150 and 200 hours to write a novel – first draft. Then I spend another 100 or so on rewrite, then maybe 100 on third and fourth draft polishes. So by the time I am done, I have 350 to 400 hours into it. Now, if you are writing couple hours a day, averaging 600 or so quality words per hour, that’s half a year’s worth of hours on a novel. If you only spend an hour a day writing, that’s a year. I don’t think additional time baking is required – I don’t write ‘em until the characters are fully formed in my head, so I can sort of race along once I sit down to write. Having said that, next year I’m going to write 4 novels, and that’s it. So I guess we’ll see if they turn out more richly drawn. My hunch is no, but I’m always optimistic and willing to be surprised.

      Reply
  8. Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 4:10 pm

    Dead on! Writer Kris Rusch has a similar article regarding the “rules” of good writing titled, “Perfection.”

    http://kriswrites.com/2012/06/27/the-business-rusch-perfection/

    My view: Everything must serve the story. Period.

    Thanks!

    Reply
  9. Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 5:43 pm

    I love this post! Thanks so much for it. I often hear the old Show don’t tell mantra (and yes, I’ve had an aspiring author rip me a new one on a short story over this by telling me about King’s old tome) and I’m sick of it. Both are important in story telling and depending on the personal style and voice of the writer, some will do more showing of the tale and others, more telling of the tale. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 7:05 pm

      I think King’s warning about using adverbs in dialogue tags is ok. Although I would say more, don’t overuse them. What I cannot get over are these self-righteous, self-appointed experts who judge all other work according to their own narrow set of dogmatic beliefs. I think that hurts creativity more than it helps it.

      Reply
    • Old Git  –  Fri 19th Oct 2012 at 8:52 pm

      Well, Victoria, the new ‘black’ is Show AND Tell, as per my article: http://www.writeintoprint.com/2012/09/self-editing-4-fiction-2-show-and-tell.html – I have even stolen half a paragraph of Russell’s to illustrate the mix.

      Russell, you’re bang on about adverbs, of course – a scene in a short I wrote about a dinner party includes a hippie guest with no social skills irritating an anorexic woman as she plays with her food:

      “You really should eat more,” Simona said helpfully. “It’ll do your spiritual aura no good. You’re even skinnier than last time.”

      Reply
      • Russell Blake  –  Sat 20th Oct 2012 at 11:01 am

        Adverbs are also generally thought of as ending in -ly, but really, not so much, he said with a weary shake of his head.

        Reply
  10. Doug
    Sat 20th Oct 2012 at 12:03 am

    Russell,

    You seriously need to write a book on how to write. You would make millions. I have garnered so much info from you. Thank you

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 20th Oct 2012 at 11:02 am

      I would write a book on virtually anything if I thought I could make millions. On the craft, probably not, and more’s the pity. But it would be nice.

      Reply
  11. yoon
    Sat 20th Oct 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Just dropped by to see what you’ve been doing because you’ve been antisocial on twitter, going to bed at 7pm, wouldn’t show me pics of Bird, etc. I have nothing to contribute on writing. Obviously. But I like that sentence, “His ass hurt.”

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 20th Oct 2012 at 1:29 pm

      I will show you pictures of the bird in my next blog. If not, I’m sure I’ll get a reminder.

      That would be in the JET III launches blog in about 10 days. I am going to get her a larger cage, as she seems irate about her current digs. I’ll probably need to take out a mortgage.

      My twitter anti-social behavior has more to do with losing my internet, hard disk, and old version of tweetdeck than anything else. The new version won’t do things I need it to do, and now that I’m using Hootsuite, neither will it. Phooey.

      Sometimes brevity is the soul of wit. Three words that convey a lifetime.

      Reply
      • yoon  –  Sat 20th Oct 2012 at 9:17 pm

        I pooh pooh at such lame excuses for your antisocial behavior on twitter.

        Hootsuite, where you compose your tweet, there is a paperclip looking thing. Click on it. Upload the image. of Bird. Simple.

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Sat 20th Oct 2012 at 9:36 pm

          Oh, sure, for you techno-savvy cognoscenti, it is. But for me, not so much. So now I have to go take a picture of Bird? The last time I posted photos on the web I got 5 to 7, but beat it on a technicality. Hope this doesn’t go the same.

          Actually, I just got her a new cage today. The snarling pack of dogs wrecked the old one I constructed out of papier mache, dental floss and dreams. So perhaps a photo isn’t out of order by way of celebration.

          Reply
          • yoon  –  Sat 20th Oct 2012 at 10:13 pm

            I still don’t believe you are just a pretty face. You are a great pretender. You can just email me the pics if you think you might get in trouble. That way, the worst thing that could happen to you is just being blackmailed by me.

  12. Sat 20th Oct 2012 at 4:16 pm

    Russell… Thank you for this enlightening view of book writing. It encourages me to try to complete a couple of unfinished story writing attempts. I write book reviews that encourage readers to find interesting features in the authors’ books. It’s not about me but about the story in the books. Reviewing is a difficult task when approached as an art of writing to encourage reading. I’m proud of my reviews but writing my stories would be better.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 20th Oct 2012 at 6:58 pm

      Reviews are encouraged, but sadly, few authors whose work needs help have ever learned what they are doing wrong from a review. I don’t leave a review unless I can give it at least 3 stars, because it’s not my job to offer guidance to other authors by reviewing their work and pointing out the deficiencies. Mine have more than enough if I want to pick nits. Having said that, I appreciate all those who have taken the time to review my work. Even the f#ckwads. Fortunately, few as those are.

      Yes, your time would always be better spent writing than writing about writing. In my humble opinion.

      Reply
  13. Sun 21st Oct 2012 at 11:21 am

    Always appreciate your clarity of mind, Russell. I constantly ask myself the question:What is good writing? Interestingly, the answer changes as my experience grows. Presently, easily understood,which includes appropriate grammar and clearly written content, and a story worth the reader’s time are in the ring. Whatever rules that exemplifies, I guess are the ones I’m using. Rules are what fall out of good writing, not what create it.
    Great to hear your new series is doing so well.May it continue indeed.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 21st Oct 2012 at 12:45 pm

      Thanks Christina. Yes, a tale well told, and done so competently in a way that whisks the reader away, is what it’s all about.

      I’m very fortunate that my little stories are getting some attention now. Oct will be a big month. Hopefully that will continue as we head into the holidays. There are an awful lot of kindles out there that are, sadly, not filled with Russell Blake stories. I hope to change that, in my own small way.

      Reply
  14. Mon 22nd Oct 2012 at 1:10 am

    I just commented on a literary agents blog about this same topic…it went something like…

    I know I’m jumping into this conversation late, but rules about writing bother me. Obviously, we all know good writing when we see it, and hack writing when we discard it after a page or two, but I don’t think any of the great authors stuck to any rules religiously. Hemingway was thought of a short, basic, prose author, but he has passages that are 200+ words. Authors break rules, even their own rules, all the time. The standby will always be the story. Even poor authors can get buy with a great story. Many great writers have only one great story, and spend a lifetime afterwards penning poetic nothingness. And it’s hard to say a lot about a little, even if the prose dances off the pages. When F. Scott Fitzgerald had a subject matter of importance, his words married the plot-line in a intimate union. But when his stories were formulaic, even his masterful manipulation of the English language couldn’t give them life. It’s always about the story.

    Reply
  15. andy holloman
    Mon 22nd Oct 2012 at 12:01 pm

    big hi5 on this post,

    Reply
  16. Mon 22nd Oct 2012 at 3:06 pm

    Great post Russell!
    Whatever one writes will be hated by one reader and loved by another!
    Tollan Wade

    Reply
  17. Robert Jones
    Tue 23rd Oct 2012 at 4:54 pm

    Russel,

    I think for most people, too many rules can turn their writing into a jumble on nonsense. Or worse, freeze them with fear. That being said, I also think certain rules serve a purpose. Knowing how to break a rule because you know at least a little about craft can be helpful. I don’t know if its as helpful as having a strong narrative voice, or a natural flow with your words, however, and those things are learned by reading a lot and writing until the voice in your head is able to find its way to paper without stumbling over those pesky rules.

    A lot of the bad feelings about rules…the ones that make us feel less than adequate…come from the really technical grammar laws, in my opinion. And even Stephen King says you can safely use the grammar you have if you can at least make your sentences clear enough. He also breaks his adverb law quite profusely. And no author can show a hundred percent of the time.

    So where does all this leave us then?

    I think it all boils down to personal opinion, so I’ll give you mine for what it’s worth. Everything we learn in the arts, both from teachers and what we learn by doing, all sort of goes into creating our own style. But what is personal style by a conglomeration of personal tastes…things we have read, viewed, experienced…and for whatever reason, moved us strongly enough to want to emulate some part of it.

    Likewise, if you learn certain rules that can be applied to making you better at what you do, or at least seem like good common sense, they too will find their way into who you are, or eventually who you will become.

    No one can teach you to write, draw, or paint. They can show you techniques that have been around a long while…and provided the teacher is good at what they do, or speak to you on a level you can understand, they can help to streamline you craft. But it takes a certain mentality, a great love, to work the hours it takes to write. I think if you love it, just keep doing it. Learn the rules, but allow yourself the time to absorb from them what you need and don’t try to learn ( or understand) everything at once.

    The important thing is to enjoy yourself. If you’re not, then like any bad relationship, you and your writing will part ways. Encouragement is pretty darn important too. But we have Russell’s blog for that :)

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 23rd Oct 2012 at 6:15 pm

      Indeed.

      I find that as I go back and re-edit books I released a year or so ago, I find I’ve grown a lot, and catch quite a few things I wince at and can’t wait to fix. Having said that, I also see that the voice – the storytelling, so to speak – isn’t diminished much by the old, horrendous version. In the end, writing fiction is storytelling, and whatever helps you connect with the reader and makes them feel something, engages them, is good. Anything else isn’t.

      Having said that, I don’t think that a certain trend of celebrating ignorance is a good idea, either. The rules are there. Ignoring them because they don’t server your purpose is different than being ignorant that they exist. One is growth of craft, the other is ignorance. I guess I’m pro-knowledge, anti-ignorance, and only so-so on rules, especially when treated as dogma by the faithful.

      In the end, how you tell your story can only benefit by mastering your craft. While there is such a thing as natural talent, hard work and perseverance will generally trump talent most times. I think great art comes from combining extraordinary talent with extraordinary application and effort. And part of that application, for writers, is learning the rules so you can decide which ones are stupid.

      Reply
  18. Wed 24th Oct 2012 at 10:48 am

    Russell,
    I look forward to a blog on the “future life” of your novels on Amazon KDP.
    I’ve watched your novels, my novels, and all of the most popular writer’s novels hit Amazon, go up, stay there, jump around a bit, and then slowly begin to fade into the darkness of lesser and lesser sales per day.
    It seems that most fiction on KDP has about a 3-6 month shelf life before it drops into the depths of lower sales.
    Questions:
    a. Do you believe there is a rythem to all this?
    b. What will happen to your past and current novels in 12 months, 24 months, 5 years time?
    c. Is there any way of bringing an eBook back to life?
    d. Will every novel finally hit the low depths where it will just disappear and never sell again?
    e. Could a writer expect any retirement pension from our eBooks without continiously writing until the grave?
    f. Do you/could we expect an income 20 -30 years from now from stories written last, and this year?

    This could be an interesting general discussion for all of our writing futures.

    Thanks for the great blog!
    T I WADE

    Reply
    • Robert Jones  –  Wed 24th Oct 2012 at 11:36 am

      TI,

      I would like to hear more about this myself. I know of one writer who simply changed his cover art after a year or so and it sparked some new interest.

      I’m thinking that as widely spread as e-readers have become, there are still a lot of people who haven’t made the leap, but new people are catching on all the time. So if a book is released to a certain group who have e-readers at the time, my question would be: How do you keep it in people’s faces? Or, get new readers to discover it more quickly?

      It would seem that letting marketing slide too long on older books is a mistake in this business. Or, as Russell has said, keep new stuff coming out at a fairly decent consistency. But for those who can’t do that, then there’s got to be something more that can be done. 3-6 months of shelf life seems pretty unacceptable to me.

      Reply
      • Russell Blake  –  Wed 24th Oct 2012 at 12:24 pm

        I really think it’s more about promos than anything. Market and promo the books in new ways, and you get new readers. There are MILLIONS of people with eraders who never heard of you. Or me. Or any of us. The question is how do you find a way to catch their attention and remain relevant as you acquire a larger and larger audience of readers from yesterday?

        Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 24th Oct 2012 at 12:20 pm

      Well, good questions all. I shall try to respond to them coherently. My initial instinct is that there are some assumptions baked into there that I don’t agree with – namely that the life expectancy of a novel on Amazon is 3-6 months. I have several that were released in Dec of last year that remain my biggest sellers. King of Swords. Fatal Exchange, my first novel, still sees surges from quarter to quarter. So I think it depends upon the book.

      A) Sure. Of course there’s a rhythm. One of the factors is seasonality, which indie authors don’t have a good grasp on. Sales typically slow over the summer. Always have. They pick back up in Nov or so, and go strong for about 4 to 5 months. I also think that we are leaves on Amazon’s river, so any changes they make to the algorithms that impact visibility immediately impact our bottom line.

      B) Well, Fatal Exchange is now almost 18 months old. I will be doing a promo for it in a few weeks I expect to kick some life back into it, and I just finished re-editing it so it’s a cleaner and better read. You may have to change your assumptions about longevity if it gets into the top 200 again then. Which it might. As an aside, Steven Konkoly has his Black Flagged and The Jakarta Pandemic that are selling briskly 18 months and 12 months into it, so again, another example where the assumption is proved false. Darcie Chan’s The Mill River Recluse just hit the top 40 again, almost, what, 24 months into it? Melissa Foster’s Chasing Amanda just landed in the top 100, and it’s at least a year old. So I think marketing is a much bigger deal than you think.

      C) See above. Marketing. Promotions. Price specials. Sales. This is retail, not a union, and there’s no such thing as tenure. You are only as good as your last sale, and without constant marketing, your product fades to invisibility.

      D) I don’t agree with this assumption. Look at Life of Pi. On the charts again, and what, 8 years old? Marketing, and of course, a movie deal, which doesn’t hurt.

      E) If you want a retirement pension (which most companies have phased out because it’s unrealistic to support) get another gig. Writing is all about continuing to generate new product. And the best advertisement for your backlist is your new book. Readers will discover that, and then go through your backlist if they like your work. So you need to plan on writing till you die, or you’ll fade into obscurity. There are plenty of great books out there. If no more were ever published, there would be far more great and good ones than any human could read in their lifetime. The world doesn’t need more books. So having said that, it’s about making what you have hot, now, today. Tomorrow is another battle.

      F) Depends upon how good the story is, and how you continue to market it. Plain and simple, most books suck. Maybe 10% don’t, which is being generous. If you have books that are in that top 10%, then maybe if you can find a way to be relevant 20 years from now, readers will be interested in reading your work. Lawrence Block has a massive backlist, and he sells well, and yet continues to publish a new novel every so often. As does every author in the world who is selling. Because this isn’t a legacy business. You eat what you killed today, not what you killed 20 years ago. That’s just the way it is.

      Hope that offers a decent idea of my views. I think we have to plan on remaining vital and relevant. Fortunately, I don’t view writing as anything but an enjoyable challenge, so I’m looking forward to writing 30 years from now. Or really, doing anything 30 years from now.

      Reply
      • T I WADE  –  Thu 25th Oct 2012 at 8:14 am

        Thank you. Great words. I think you are on the button.

        You state marketing often in your answers. OK, we are all writing 4-6,000 words a day on our next novel. What marketing can we do in-between writing?

        You discussed KDP Select a few months ago. Since I left KDP Select 45 days ago my sales have decreased by half on Amazon. On the new sites (B & N) sales gave me 10 percent back, so by leaving KDP and freebie days, sales dropped from 50 per day to 25-30.
        I did notice through after my fifth final KDP Select freebie over 180 days gave me zero extra sales, my sales actualy decreased for the 14 days after the 48 hour freebie.

        Is social media the way? We know advertising doesn’t work, so what are “other ways of marketing?”

        Congrats on your latest novels; great reviews and great sales.

        Just keep writing!

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Thu 25th Oct 2012 at 9:40 am

          I try to devote at least two hours a day to marketing. Doing interviews. Writing guest blogs. Participating in chat groups and message boards. Twitter. Facebook. Checking at Goodreads (not nearly enough). Writing reviews when I finish a book (way too rarely). Advertising here and there just to keep the presence in. And yes, on a few titles, doing KDP Select. Most of mine are out now. But I want to be in the program with some of the titles, just to be there and maintain that visibility.

          It’s a lot of work. If it wasn’t, everyone would do it.

          Reply
  19. Robert Jones
    Wed 24th Oct 2012 at 7:43 pm

    I’ll agree with all that. Published, e-author, or just for fun, I’ll be writing until they have to crazy-glue my fingers to my keyboard and wipe off the excess drool.

    Reply
  20. Thu 25th Oct 2012 at 4:44 pm

    With the onslaught of reality entertainment and the Internet, I am just grateful people are reading and writing. As a first time author, soon to release my memoirs “A Woman of Interest” I’m sure to have broken many rules. More importantly, I have an even greater respect for the many authors and their books I house in my home.

    Reply
  21. Robert Jones
    Mon 29th Oct 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Hi Russell (and fellow readers),

    I thought I would take the opportunity to , since we were on the subject of praising bad writing, to share a critique I received over the weekend that was anything by praise.

    The story was a little horror story I was challenged to write on the fly…a bit of pant sing to see the wonders it would bring me. Usually, I’m a planner. And since I’m in the midst of planning a larger novel, I decided to take the challenge. It involved both a genre I had not written anything in since I was a kid, plus an opportunity to allow my instincts to guide me and see what happened. This came about, I should mention, due to an eerie dream I had that my challenger said I should attempt to write up.

    The results were interesting. I completed a rough draft with little characterization and more plot heavy than anything else. However, by the end of that draft, I thought of some interesting characterization all stuff, and a way to tie my main character into the tale in an important way. This would also be a way to upgrade from a short story to a short novel, if I planned it correctly, and give myself room to explore the story– and character– on various levels.

    I was surprised at how much I was able to blow out and play around with on attempting the second draft with at least a little planning in mind. But I was told to bring it to a Halloween party for a reading…which gave me about two and a half days to blast through the draft. I told the folks there it was pretty blown out and overwritten in some areas, pretty rough in other spots.

    The basic critiques I received went from stating the obvious, that it was a bit long winded in parts, to the fact that only Stephen King could get away with such lengths of characterization, and that he always brought it to a grand conclusion when he went off to explain his characters in depth of 800 pages or so. After about 60 pages, we read no further. My fellow writers, friends, and cohorts patience was clearly at an end.

    Lessons, don’t show a work in progress to people no matter what they say. Rough drafts are crap until they are not. Don’t expect either fellow writers, or people who believe they are knowledgable about such things because they read a lot to be as considerate to you as they would expect you to be to them (if the shoe were on the other foot),because they won’t be.

    And most importantly, in a world of e-books, where anyone can be published at the press of a button, learn those blasted rules. Or at least have a fair handle on the basics of craft. Practice a while. Do not be overly anxious. Early works, and even early drafts, usually need some work. And there are more places you can get help today than ever before, so this is not meant as discouragement, but rather as a nudge to go that extra mile. Finding those what’s missing in your work can be as exilliarating as anything else you do in your writer…because it can make you better.

    If professional writers, or even someone who has been around as many creative people as I have, and know most of these rules by heart, can get their ass handed to them by supposedly trusted friends…you can too by the faceless public who you expect to pay for you work.

    Knowledge is power. Seek it. Then give yourself a little time to digest it, perfect it. Most overnight successes only appear that way to those who don’t get to see all the years of work and learning that went into their work before it went public. Are there exceptions? Yes, but those are the fortunate few who sat on the needle in the haystack without having to look. Or maybe they were just born with a greater aptitude for such things. The rest of us have to work for it.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 29th Oct 2012 at 3:02 pm

      Well, first off, it could well be the draft was crap. Alternatively, it could be that the opinions of other writers who are members of critique groups only expose you to the opinions of authors, not readers – I’ve noticed that the reviews of my work for authors tends to be far harsher than from 90% of readers – because they know all these rules, or they want to show how erudite they are, or they simply expect far more. Dunno. Probably all three.

      That being said, I’ve found that it takes me three drafts to get a novel where I want it, and then the editor has a crack at it, and then the proofreader. So by the time it hits the public eye, I’ve done effectively five drafts, and had three sets of eyes on it – and I am extremely critical of my own work.

      We agree that rushing stuff to print is a bad idea. Nobody wins. At best, the work isn’t as good as it could have been with some additional refinement, and you mar the reading experience for potential fans. At worst, you put out junk, and lose a reader for life.

      Readers are won and lost one at a time. It’s important to remember that. Each reader will read your entire book, word by word, then decide whether they like it or not. What kills me are the countless books I’ve read where it is obvious by the 40% or so mark that even the writer didn’t bother to actually read his own draft carefully. What does that say about your view of your readers, if even you can’t be bothered to read your own work in its entirety? Because you were just too busy? Why should anyone read it, if you don’t bother?

      The obvious answer is that few will.

      I’ve learned, after almost 20 novels under my belt, that there are no shortcuts. You have to do the work. And a big part of the work is ensuring that your product is as good as you can get it. Anything less is a recipe for disaster.

      We also agree that showing drafts to anyone but a trusted friend or editor is a bad idea. I almost never do it, because it’s demoralizing, and I know by second and third draft I’m going to have cut at least 10% of the book, and found countless errors, inconsistencies, echoes, and areas that need to be fleshed out. So there’s no point. I know in my gut when a book is done, and I don’t show it until then. Period. A good rule, for me, at least.

      It’s also a reason why contests like Nano are both good, and bad. On the good side, they force undisciplined writers to apply themselves and get a book done. On the negative side, they don’t encourage second and third drafts due to the time constraints.

      I’ve found it takes me between 150 and 200 hours to write a 100K novel. It then takes around another 100-to-150 hours to get a decent second draft done, and then a further 100 or so to get a third draft done. So that’s around 400 or so hours for a novel, not counting editing time, or proofing.

      That’s a lot of hours. And I’ve had considerable practice. It escapes me how anyone can believe they can invest a fraction of that time and turn out anything worth reading. To me, it’s deluded in the extreme.

      But what do I know?

      Reply
      • Robert Jones  –  Mon 29th Oct 2012 at 4:23 pm

        Agreed, on all those points.

        My little Nano project was mostly in first draft, and therefore far from being publishable, much less being very good in present condition.

        I wish they hadn’t encouraged me to bring it, because now I’m feeling more discouraged than anything else.

        I figured we would read through it all and I would get some pointers on overall plot…which I though was at least a reasonably interesting story idea. But since neither happened, I’m drifting today in a fool’s limbo, wondering why I broke my own rules.

        The best I got out of it was that it needed to be chopped down and some better structure added (which I knew going in) if that piece ever wishes to see the light of day.

        I was toying with the idea of using some shorter pieces in between longer novels once I got going. Not sure if that would seem jarring to readers or not.

        Getting back to what one of my writing mentors said, which is pretty apt here…it doesn’t matter how cool you basic plot is, or where it ends up in the end if people never get there. You have to get the words right.

        And don’t encourage your writing friends to see their unfinished work if you plan on being less than encouraging . It’s always just the basic material early on as you attempt to “Get every thought out and on paper quickly,” says the basics rules of first drafts. I prefer to think of it as a rough sketch at that point.

        So much for pantsing in my book.

        Reply
  22. Robert Jones
    Mon 29th Oct 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Sorry about the typos. I’m writing in a hurry because big bag hurricane Sandy is beginning to blow and my lights are blinking off and on already.

    Could be a rough couple of days!

    Reply
    • Cindy Zimmermann  –  Mon 29th Oct 2012 at 4:58 pm

      Be safe! I’m learning a lot from these comments. You all seem quite more experienced than me, so I will read in awe!

      Reply
      • Robert Jones  –  Tue 30th Oct 2012 at 3:01 pm

        Thanks for the well-wishes. We had no power from about 5:30 last night, but got back up and running around 1:00 this afternoon. Pretty high winds and lots of fire alarms heard blowing from the local station. Pretty messy around here today.

        Reply
  23. Tue 30th Oct 2012 at 10:26 am

    Well told.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 30th Oct 2012 at 11:35 am

      Thanks.

      I’ve gotten quite a few e-mails from authors on the adverb thing. Specifically asking what constitutes overuse on dialogue tags.

      My rule of thumb is that this is one of the places where showing can be useful. If you can demonstrate something through the characters’ dialogue, or their behavior, then the adverbs become less necessary to impart important information. As an example, if the character scowls or frowns, we know he’s unhappy or angry. We don’t need to add, “he said bitterly.” But having said that, adverbs and adverbials DO impart important info – when something happened, how it happened, why it happened, etc. So this is one of the places showing vs. telling comes into play. Having read your fine work it’s obvious you already know all this, so consider these comments to be for others, not directed at you.

      Another observation is that critics can suck it. As an example, this review of a little known author named Robert Ludlum, where the vastly superior literary critic imparts his views on the rules, and Ludlum’s breaking of them constantly, says it all, and requires no elaboration (poor Ludlum – I hope becoming one of the bestselling authors of all time was adequate compensation for annoying one of the gatekeepers):

      Mr. [Robert] Ludlum has other peculiarities. For example, he hates the “he said” locution. Characters in The Borne Ultimatum seldom ‘say” anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper (Mr. Ludlum is great on whispers), intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable tautology: ”I repeat,’ repeated Alex.”

      The book may sell in the billions, but it’s still junk.

      –Newgate Callender, New York Times Book Review

      Reply
      • Gae-Lynn Woods  –  Tue 30th Oct 2012 at 1:14 pm

        Amen, Brother Russell. I’ll buy that junk, and love it, every time.

        Reply
  24. Wed 31st Oct 2012 at 9:33 am

    Well played! I thoroughly agree – once a writer stops worrying so much about “the rules” and simply edits his / her work so that it reads in a more compelling manner, the better it will be for the readers. And they’re the ones forking out the cash!

    On a side note – I never noticed the prolific use of adverbs in dialogue tags throughout the Harry Potter books until I read a post slamming JK about it. Even now, once you get into the story it doesn’t matter in the slightest.

    You might also remember a little book called Casino Royale – Ian Fleming skips between points of view within the same paragraph with almost gleeful vigour. And that didn’t stop the book defining an entire generation of thriller literature and film making.

    Nick

    Reply
  25. Sun 04th Nov 2012 at 8:20 am

    Brilliant Blog and kudos to all the comments so far!! I wish more people would read this. It makes so much sense in writing. Someone clverer than me once said that rules were meant to be broken!!
    Can I re-blog it please?
    Shankar

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 04th Nov 2012 at 10:01 am

      Sure, with attribution, if you would. With my compliments.

      Reply
  26. Thu 11th Apr 2013 at 8:08 am

    Barkeep, get me a glass of whatever Blake is drinking. Make it a double. Pronto, por favor.

    Reply

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