24 April 2013 by Published in: Uncategorized 64 comments

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and the topic turned to writing, as it usually does with this friend, as he’s also an author.

We began discussing my work (because it’s always all about me, all the time, in my world, dammit) and he made several comments. First was that he didn’t like several of my books because they didn’t have character arcs. Which gave me pause – I was, like, “So what? Who says there has to be a character arc for a book to be good?”

And then he gave me this long dissertation about how the most popular stories of all time had character arcs, where the main character undergoes a radical change during the story, basically realizing how wrong he/she’s been about something, and becomes a better person for it.

He became enraged when I said, “Sounds like every bad movie ever made, and all Disney flicks, good or bad. A tired formula that’s overused and as predictable as a politician lying.”

You see, he’d learned about character arcs in school and reading books on how to write well, thus any novel that didn’t follow this pat formula had to be deficient.

Which is idiocy. A good book is one that entertains me, and is well written. Period. I don’t need some hackneyed morality play every time I turn on my kindle. I don’t need some thinly-disguised archetype that the author is trying to pass off as original thought. I don’t need a paint-by-numbers novel where we have the usual crap espoused by lit majors and their professors shoehorned into a new premise. In short, I don’t need a novel to follow a set formula to be “good.”

Most readers are probably like me. Fairly bright (although you wouldn’t know it to read some of my reviews, but don’t get me started) and somewhat world-weary and jaded. They buy my stuff, when they do, because they like a tale well told. They don’t require that every book be one wherein the avaricious businessman learns about the true value of love by the time the denouement comes creaking to the fore, nor that the hero vanquishes his adversaries in a bare-chested climactic struggle and we all learn something important about ourselves. I know I’ve driven some readers nuts because I kill off favorite characters with ease, and could give two shits about what’s considered good form for novels. I write stories I would want to read, and I tend to groan out loud whenever they veer too far towards the expected. Witness JET, which is deliberately overblown and a tad cartoonish. I’ve gotten flack because it isn’t “realistic” enough, which is fine. I didn’t want it to be realistic. I wanted it to be breakneck paced and entertaining, and life usually ain’t. So much for realism. I’ll take fiction any day in this case.

All of which was heresy to my friend, who has invested years in learning how to write a “good” book – character arcs, beats, etc.

None of which matters if you’re doing it right. (It’s also one of the reasons I had a conceptual problem as I started reading scripts with an eye toward screenwriting – they basically all follow the same form: identify the protag within the first few pages and articulate the “theme” of the story so the dim can reflect back on it later and have a contrived “a ha” moment, establish an essential struggle or challenge he/she must overcome while highlighting his/her weakness (he’s a workaholic with no time for his wife or kid, she’s going through a mid-life crisis, whatever), and then populate the film with beats where the little morality tale plays out with absolute predictability and the bad guy gets his comeuppance by the end. It’s as absurd as Tom Cruise throwing his gun away at the end of Reacher to go mano a mano with his evil nemesis – my reaction is invariably, wait, people still write this crap? And an audience consumes it? Really?)

Another thing my buddy was absolutely certain about was adverbs. They are to be eschewed. Used rarely, if at all. Again, because that’s what he was taught or read in Stephen King’s book. I won’t get into it too much here, but that’s a stupid rule. It’s like saying commas are bad, and should be avoided. Or adjectives are bad, etc. How about, OVERUSE of adverbs as a lazy TELLING vs. showing device in DIALOGUE TAGS, is bad, and leave it at that reasonable guidance? Hrmph…

Needless to say, we don’t agree on much. Then again, I sell quite a few books. He doesn’t.

Which you can tell bugs him no end. Because he’s the one with all the learning. He likes to use words like anodyne and solipsist in everyday conversation, if that’s any clue. Mainly to show that the hundred grand of college he smoked weed through gave him something besides a mass of student loans to reflect upon while working his assistant manager position at Coffee Barn.

Except all he really did was memorize a bunch of dogma, without questioning it, and then become intolerant of any approach other than the one he’d adopted.

Which is, well, dumb.

I don’t really have a point here. Just thought I’d share what my week has been like, and why I don’t spend a lot of time in the company of fellow scribes. I prefer to read great authors to prod me into upping my literary ante, not memorializing story structures that are as tiresome as the Bee Gees on permanent repeat or rules that make no sense. Note that I’m not saying that rules aren’t important guidelines we need to know – just that rules are there to spur us to better and more effective writing, not to use as a filter through which the world, and all work, must be viewed.

Having said that, I’ll confess I’m a pedant, and it drives me batty to read stuff where the author clearly doesn’t know the basics of grammar or spelling. But that’s a whole ‘nother rant…



  1. Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 6:36 pm

    Well said – I’ve had people wax lyrical about my fast paced, action packed series, only to see others complain it’s “not realistic” because the hero doesn’t die. Beats the hell out of me how I’d ever get past chapter 3 if that were advice I actually listened to.

    He says, glumly.

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 7:16 pm

      That’s why I invite my critics and detractors to bite me.

      Always said with love, of course.

  2. Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 7:13 pm

    Don’t hold back Russell. Tell us how you really feel. Come out of your shell.

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 7:15 pm

      I’m working on assertiveness. But it’s hard. Nobody knows the cross I bear daily.

  3. Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 7:16 pm

    Russell: I’ll ride to hell with you on this point. It seems like every week there’s someone new saying you have to do “this” to be a good writer, or you have to do “that.” Bullshit is what I say. You don’t have to do anything but write a book that readers like. It’s like the garbage they’ve been spewing out for years about POV. Tell the damn story any way you want. It seems as if the only ones it bothers are agents, editors and other authors who think you’re breaking a sacred rule of writing, as if there was such a thing.

    In the old days, and I’m talking even before you and me, there were no rules and the writers did what they wanted. And a couple of them even managed to churn out a few good books—without rules! Imagine that.

    You keep writing those damn good books, but try to slow down a little, you’re making it hard for me to catch up with you. And btw, congratulations on your sales this week. You’re knocking ’em dead. Keep that up and you’ll soon be able to afford a few more goats.

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 7:19 pm

      Thanks, Giacomo. I’m slowing my pace now, but I feel like a slacker. However, the world has enough Russell Blake books for the moment – I don’t think I need to Vesuvius forth another dozen this year to maintain momentum. Thankfully.

      Yes, this week’s sales have been stellar, but in this business you’re only as good as today’s sales, which I’m keenly aware of. So back to work I go…

  4. Ann
    Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 7:17 pm

    Agreed. Such is life – being good at school doesn’t always mean being good at the subject you’re studying.

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 7:20 pm

      I think the best argument for that are economists. Nuff said.

  5. Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 7:23 pm

    I have a retired English Lit professor who is a steady reader of my newspaper, blogs and books. She always tells me how they break all the rules and that I cannot ever expect to be taken seriously as an author until I adhere to said rules. I nod my head in agreement and laugh all the way to the bank.

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 7:33 pm

      What’s funny is that some of the biggest selling authors of all time were considered hacks by critics and “serious” literary types throughout their careers.

      Ludlum was reviled by the literary community as beneath contempt.

      I rest my case. Living well is the best revenge.

      • Kyle  –  Wed 01st May 2013 at 6:50 pm

        Some of the biggest selling authors of all time were hacks.

        Just because something sells doesn’t mean the writing is particularly good.

        Look at pop music. It takes less skill to make than a lot of less successful acts, but it sells more by appealing to the lowest common denominator.

        • Russell Blake  –  Wed 01st May 2013 at 7:55 pm

          Well, perhaps terms like good or bad aren’t that useful anymore, given that good writing can hardly ever seem to get arrested, and the biggest sellers of the last decade have been marginally-written, at best. I would say that commercially-successful would be a more meaningful term. I mean, I get that New York is filled with fine folk who are well versed on what good writing is, but given their rate of picking commercial successes, I would say that’s not particularly relevant past a certain point if operating a commercial endeavor. And my little self-pubbing business is most definitely a commercial endeavor, thus I’m not focused on writing the next Lord of the Flies. Ludlum was reviled as a hack, but sold over 200 million books. I’ll take that all day long.

          I’m sure I fall into the hack side of the fence, but I aspire to someday be good. Hopefully my sales won’t crater.

          • MIchael Kingswood  –  Tue 07th May 2013 at 2:13 am

            “I would say that commercially-successful would be a more meaningful term.”

            I will go one further and say that commercially-successful is the ONLY thing that matters or has any meaning at all. Period.

            Well-written, literary value, Poorly written, whatever…as long as we’re talking beyond a certain minimal threshold (being able to spell and approximate a coherent sentence structure and grammar), it’s all in the eye of the beholder, and completely subjective. IMHO, the only objective measure is commercial success. Therefore, well-sold = well written and well told. By that measure, 50 Shades was, if not the best, close to the best book of 2012, and I will shout that from the rooftops because it’s true. Objectively.

            We don’t remember Shakespeare because he was some sublime genius. We remember him because he put lots of butts in seats and was commercially successful. Same with Dickens or any of the “masters” that are held up as though they are gods come down from Olympus. They may be great, but had they not had commercial success, we would have no clue who the hell they are now, because history remembers the victors best.

            And, after all, storytelling is a business, and always has been. Thus, business considerations must always come first, and rightly so.

            That said, I despise pompous woolgathering from people who’ve never actually done anything of use (spoken – middling academics, critics, hollow philosophers, politicians…the list goes on) so I may be straying a bit far in reaction to their silliness. But not too far, I think.

            Which is all just a round-about way of saying I concur with your thoughts here.


          • Christine Kling  –  Wed 08th May 2013 at 12:41 pm

            To Michael Kingswood below (who has no reply button at the end of his post) –
            If whether or not a thing is commercially successful is the only test of whether or not it is good, then you must think that McDonald’s food is high quality, and that the food in some little one of a kind restaurant is no good at all because it doesn’t sell much. Well sold = well cooked?
            Eye of the beholder works up to a point, but there are plenty of books out there that I would call wonderful that are not commercially successful.

  6. Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 8:12 pm

    Next time you’re hanging out with your friend you need to slap him across the face with your most recent royalty check.

    And there’s often enough “character growth” in real life. Sometimes you just want to read about a hot chick that always gets the guy and obliterates every loser that crosses her path.

    Jet rules!

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 8:23 pm

      I’ve found that there’s no point in trying to teach anything to someone who already knows everything. Waste of time. Although pimp slapping him with my panky ring isn’t a bad idea.

      Character growth is vastly overrated.

    • C. Gockel  –  Mon 13th May 2013 at 8:57 pm

      ” there’s often enough “character growth” in real life.”

      Yeah, this. I particularly hate movies that preach to me about dysfunction (cheating, drugs, dysfunctional family dynamics). I have a perfectly good dysfunctional family all my own that’s given me enough mental fodder for three life times. I’d rather LEARN from characters I can admire or just escape for a while.

  7. Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 8:30 pm

    Good blog. I hate the overuse of rules. It’s interesting how some people, who don’t put forth the effort to write their own books, know all the rigid rules for those of us who do write.

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 8:37 pm

      Perhaps the greatest disservice to screenwriting is the “must read” book, Save the Cat. Basically, it tells you how your script MUST follow the formula, which ignores that 95% of all films lose money, and follow the formula. Rather, the logic goes that since 5% do really, really well, and those follow the formula, that’s what one should do, ignoring the 95% that die at the box office precisely because they’re unwatchable formulaic bullshit.

      Not that I’ve thought about this or anything.

      • Giacomo Giammatteo  –  Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 8:54 pm

        Don’t stop at screenwriting. I haven’t done the math, but probably 99% of books lose money, and I’m just talking about the ones that “followed” the sacred rules and were selected by agents and editors. None of them have figured out yet that there are no rules. That books, movies, music, art, will resonate with people– or it won’t–and all the rules in the world can’t help them.

        • Russell Blake  –  Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 9:35 pm

          The problem as far as I can tell is that the people that decide whether a movie gets made are largely talentless wonks who march in lockstep to only produce “safe” choices that conform to what’s sold before, which results in anything that doesn’t follow the formula being a longshot to sell. I can spend a month writing a screenplay that has very low chances of being sold, or I can write a novel that will sell 20K copies in its first year of release, minimum, in a form that I enjoy – the novel. I’m not sure I want to invest a ton of time into creating a screenplay for JET that will wind up being hacked apart to conform to the formula studios require in order to make the movie. If someone was saying, hey, we’ll give you seven figures for the JET screenplay, then hell yes, I’d be all over it. But as it is, it would be speculative, and I prefer to spend my time on what I enjoy, especially if there’s no guarantee that the commercial screenplay would ever get made or make me a dime.

          That’s where I am this month. It might completely change next month.

  8. Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 10:20 pm

    Rules? Christ, I still struggle with “i before e except after c,” and I love fucking adverbs! Folks still seem to like my stories.

  9. yoon
    Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 11:01 pm

    What’s all those people’s problem with adverbs anyway? Snobs.

    “I’m glad you like adverbs — I adore them; they are the only qualifications I really much respect.”
    ? Henry James

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 24th Apr 2013 at 11:15 pm


    • Sharazade  –  Fri 26th Apr 2013 at 2:51 am

      Their problem is that they don’t know what adverbs are. They’ve fixated on one type of adverb (adverbs of manner), and even then, only those one-word ones that end with -ly. Probably because those are the only ones they can locate in a sentence by scanning? I don’t know.

      The example I like to use is Thoreau’s

      I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately (…).

      If you removed the adverbs/adverbials, you’d have

      I went.

      Which is more concise, granted. But I think it lacks a certain something that the original had.

      I think trying to pick apart an English sentence by analyzing individual words by what part of speech you think they are (esp. if based on some outmoded 8-part system you got in high school) is not going to make you a better writer. Nor is letting MS Word’s grammar checker tell you what it thinks are passive sentences, and then removing those because you heard a rumor online that the passive was “bad.”

      There’s definitely a place for grammar and analysis of one’s own writing. Many writers can fall into a sort of rut and wind up writing a lot of sentences with the same basic pattern, for instance. I’d say lack of sentence variety, in fact, more than anything else says to me “inexperienced writer.”

      Well, that and removing adverbs. Or “adverbs.”

      • Russell Blake  –  Fri 26th Apr 2013 at 11:40 am

        Hear, hear.

        Well articulated. That’s what I wanted to say. Only you did so far more eloquently and convincingly. How’s that for gushing adverbially?

        • Sharazade  –  Fri 26th Apr 2013 at 4:54 pm

          If I could teach the world one thing, it would not be to sing in perfect harmony–it would be that prepositional phrases are adverbs. Well, mostly. Some are adjectives. The majority, though, are adverbial. So if you feel your novel is the poorer for having some adverbs of manner ending in -ly, it doesn’t mean you can’t express how something is done. You could just use a phrase instead. You could take out “quickly” and put in “at breakneck speed,” if that made you happier. You could take out “peevishly” and use “with some irritation.” Whatever floats your boat.

          Oh, and if the genie allows an amendment, it would be to stop teaching people that adverbs modify “verbs … and sometimes adjectives.” Because that makes no sense. Something that modifies an adjective is obviously not an adverb, because adjectives are not verbs! I don’t know why I even have to say that. So if a shade of green is “curiously light,” then “curiously” is not an adverb … see … and thus should be spared from one’s King-inspired witch hunt.

          I’d write a book on this, but who’d buy it? 😉

          • Russell Blake  –  Fri 26th Apr 2013 at 5:32 pm

            I would. But nobody would care I did. Such is the nature of being a pedant…

  10. Thu 25th Apr 2013 at 7:35 am

    “I’ve gotten flack because it isn’t ‘realistic’ enough, which is fine. I didn’t want it to be realistic. I wanted it to be breakneck paced and entertaining, and life usually ain’t. So much for realism. I’ll take fiction any day in this case.”

    You must have the same people reviewing your books that review mine. You’re still writing FICTION too, right?

    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 25th Apr 2013 at 10:04 am

      Well, I understand on some of my work if folks expect an eerie “is this really fiction” feeling, because that’s what I shoot for. But on JET, for instance, I announce up front, in the product description as well as the intro to the book, that it’s an over-the-top romp that is deliberately overblown, for effect. When they say things like “it’s not realistic enough” what they mean is “I wish you’d written it the way I wanted you to, not the way you did.” Which is fine, but it’s also sort of daft to read a book about dogs, advertised as a dog book, and then go, “I wish it hadn’t been all about dogs. I would have liked it except for the dogs.”

  11. Thu 25th Apr 2013 at 10:27 am

    I agree. If I could put a recording of myself SCREAMING a disclaimer inside of my Amazon product descriptions, I would. For example, for The Seventh Seal I have a disclaimer that says “WARNING This novel is intended for mature audiences only. It contains graphic SEX and VIOLENCE. Please do NOT purchase The Seventh Seal if you are a religious person and find violence committed by members of the Catholic church offensive. However, if you want to suspend reality with a fast-paced, post-apocalyptic, dark fantasy thriller, please continue…” and yet I continue to get 1-star reviews from upset Catholics, people complaining that the story wasn’t “realistic”, or folks offended by profanity. I trust my ideal readers will see through the stupidity of such reviews. What bugs me is that these kinds of reviews carry the same weight as the thoughtful, intelligent ones. Damn freedom of speech…

  12. Thu 25th Apr 2013 at 12:38 pm

    When I was at UCLA, studying screenwriting and independent producing, one of the books they recommended to us was William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade.’

    The main thing I took away from that book is what he said, and I Tweet this all the friggin’ time because, like most of you, I despise know-it-all douchebags bitching about books and movies when they themselves have never written a book or made a movie. I’ve made a movie. It’s friggin hard work. Took us a year. And it was only a 30-minute short.

    Anyway, Goldman says:
    There are only 2 rules –
    1. Nobody knows anything;
    2. If it works, it’s RIGHT.

    As for your JET screenplay, Russell, start a Kickstarter campaign to raise $5 million. You put in a tiny bit of your own money, you’re the Executive Producer, you spend a couple years of your life on the project, but you make the movie you want to see. With nary a single character arc in sight!

    Zach Braff is doing this exact thing for his next film. And there was some other really successful movie that began this way. Can’t remember the name… Just think, movie buffs using Kickstarter to fund feature films. I think I just heard some butt cheeks clenching out in the 2-1-3 and 8-1-8.

    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 25th Apr 2013 at 3:22 pm

      My problem is twofold. One, I don’t have any desire to make a movie, which not only involves writing a script that’s decent, but funding it, raising matching capital, lining up pro talent to act in it, finding a director that’s not phoning it in, etc. etc. etc. Two, I never wanted to be Quentin Tarantino, which is what I’d have to be to have the film in any way live up to the book. Which means having your hands on every aspect of it, from writing the story to the final cut. I have tremendous respect for guys like him who have the vision to do it right, but that guy isn’t me. I enjoy writing novels. That’s what I do. I don’t want to spend two years of my life being a guy I don’t have a burning passion to be. That’s the plain truth. I didn’t start writing to get rich, and I don’t write now to get rich. I do it because I love it, I think it matters, and because everyone needs a passion in their life to keep them out of the bars or from swallowing a gun or just waking up one day and being redundant and meaningless. If I wanted to make movies, I wouldn’t be in Mexico, sitting on a beach, writing stories and hopefully entertaining a few people.

      That’s for someone else to do. And Quentin. If you’re reading this? Call. We need to talk, babe.

      • Ryan Schneider  –  Thu 25th Apr 2013 at 4:47 pm

        Yeah… that’s the thing about filmmaking. It’s rigorous. The ultimate collaborative art form, involving hundreds and sometimes thousands of people.

        Maybe this will help:

        • Russell Blake  –  Thu 25th Apr 2013 at 6:28 pm

          He really has gotten swept up with the whole Twitter thing, huh?

  13. Thu 25th Apr 2013 at 5:07 pm

    “Except all he really did was memorize a bunch of dogma, without questioning it, and then become intolerant of any approach other than the one he’d adopted.”

    Perhaps all great authors are doomed to be martyrs to the Pharisees of the religion of writing.

    Had a moderately successful author complain to me about my mirror scene, one of the classic tropes (okay, cliches). “Don’t do that!” he screamed (okay, merely spoke with emphasis – hey I’m embellishing). Then I pointed out some of his cliches, and other great mirror scenes real bestselling authors have used.

    Bottom line: if your readers like it and it sells, it’s good writing. Do you think Mcdonalds would sell a hamburger if a food critic made the decision? And I can eat me some burgers, sometimes with fava beans and a fine Chianti.

    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 25th Apr 2013 at 6:30 pm

      Yup. I hear they sell a lot of em, too.

      I think I will just use the James Patterson argument from now on when in these debates: James Patterson is a billionaire. So shut your pie hole.

  14. Thu 25th Apr 2013 at 7:18 pm

    I would have commented sooner, but I read the damn blog twice and that meant two trips to pee from laughing, and several minutes looking up the big words – most of which I will never use.

    The only thing that matters is the story. Tell a good story in an interesting manner and people will read it. In an action adventure, the only thing the character has to learn is how to stay alive. .

    It may sound silly, but I try not to think too hard about the big character picture. My guys show up, get shot at, shoot back, get blown up, chase down bad egg, kill said bad egg, find some love or at least decent sex in the process, and move on to the next job/assignment/war etc.

    The story isn’t a lifetime – it’s a snapshot of a short period. Lessons are for after the battle, not during, and not all endings are happy.

    Great blog.

    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 25th Apr 2013 at 8:06 pm

      Story is everything. Formulas are fine, if they work, but I believe that jaded palates need something different to keep them interested. I don’t write for morons, and I don’t expect everyone to like my work. My readers tend to be a smart bunch, and I don’t believe that you can just take the standard, expected formula (MC has issues he/she is working through, is challenged with life or death situation, must struggle to prevail and learns important lessons in the process) and regurgitate it over and over and please my crowd. If I thought I could, believe me I would, but I’m constantly trying to figure out a better way to devise intriguing twists. Are my characters generally in peril? Sure. But they don’t all have a character arc. And I frigging hate thinly-veiled morality lessons that Hollywood seems to feel must go into every movie (wow, love IS the most important thing!). With books, I’m a tough reader, because I’m constantly analyzing what the author did or tried to do, and I’m extremely sensitive to craft-related issues like echoes, plot holes, cliches, etc. It’s a rare book that transports me enough to lose myself in the pages and be able to turn off my radar. I think the best authors achieve that, and that should be the ideal. Damned few actually can do it, and I believe those are the ones that will have long and lucrative careers at this.

      I never thought I could get rich writing books. I know you can, but it was just never a concern for me. I’m naturally highly-competitive, so when I set out to do something I don’t do it by halves, but I also realize that my genre isn’t going to see me selling five million books a year unless I get very, very, very lucky. So my business plan was designed to leverage what I determined was my differentiator – I could write a LOT of high-quality books in a short period of time, and build up a twenty year backlist in two years or so. Apparently that approach has found some purchase, for which I’m grateful. But I refuse to write books where I feel like I’m pandering, and I’d rather shelve a book than release something I can’t be proud of – I’d rather stick it in a drawer, as I did all my early work, and forget it, and learn from my mistakes and go write something good.

      And good for me ain’t going to be formulaic, beyond common elements that are necessary for my genre’s readership. In action adventure, you’re right, the primary goal of the MC is to avoid death, and maybe kick ass and take names. What you do with the MC beyond that is what makes it interesting.

  15. Fri 26th Apr 2013 at 10:40 am


    This is the best blog post on writing that I’ve read in years! I’m just so glad that someone with far more credibility and sales than me is making the same points I try to make to unpublished “authors” on a seemingly regular basis.

    In the future, I’m just going to point them to this post and save myself the effort. You’ve verbalized and explained things that I’ve felt but couldn’t really wrap my arms around, and you’ve done it in such a perfect, Russell-Blake way.

    I owe you a beer when our paths cross.


    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 26th Apr 2013 at 11:41 am

      I’ve been know to knock one back now and again, so you never know…

  16. Fri 26th Apr 2013 at 11:22 am

    Well all things said are of value except what Billy says
    Moorcock in one of his books kills off his main character in the first chapter.. See that has to be wrong cause you still have 400 pages to read.
    My editor gives me hell because some of my characters apparently don’t speak using proper grammar. I argue the point that that is how the character is supposed to sound like.
    In my life , in conversation , I think I can remember very few people who spoke perfect grammatical english.
    It is your story , good or bad, if the public buys it and enjoys it , you have done your job.
    Rules are made to be broken and the most creative will break them well.

    Thanks for your insights


    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 26th Apr 2013 at 11:48 am

      Some rules are good ones. Strunk and White, “Omit needless words.” Should be tattooed on every budding writer’s hands, although much else in that little tome is complete bullshit, even though it’s revered like a sacred text. Other rules are more arbitrary, and should just be plain ignored.

      I think the goal is to write in an efficient, evocative manner that creates the mood and tells the story as you, the author, want, and to do it as clearly as possible, so that there’s no ambiguity, no, “What the hell was he trying to say there?”

      Beyond that, rules that are merely arbitrary preferences of a writer or pundit that don’t serve one of those essential purposes are pointless. As with everything, one must use one’s head in these matters, and be skeptical of all guidance, testing it with the litmus of, “Does it improve the story or the telling thereof?”

  17. Traci
    Fri 26th Apr 2013 at 1:44 pm

    I get dinged for my shallow, cartoon-like character, which means that at least they “got it” even if they didn’t like it. 🙂

  18. Fri 26th Apr 2013 at 3:28 pm

    Absolutely love this article. Thank you for saying it and for saying it so well!

  19. Sat 27th Apr 2013 at 9:08 am

    The conformists are never remembered. I say write/create however the hell you want and those that like it will find you. Or you could stalk them. Either way, you’ll find each other.

  20. Sat 27th Apr 2013 at 5:21 pm

    If there is one single thing that the rise of e-publishing has shown the world, it is that publishers, editors and writers have for FAR TOO LONG fallen under the belief that “good writing” had to be done one way. Readers have shown them – in insanely huge numbers – that they don’t give a crap about “good writing.” They want good stories. Period.

  21. Sat 27th Apr 2013 at 6:38 pm

    I’ve read four of your novels, and I have to say that even though they are not the genres I write (horror or fantasy, although some stuff that happens is pretty horrific), they’ve been extremely educational. They are lean, mean, and move extremely fast. Actually, there was so much happening that I didn’t really notice the character arcs, or lack thereof.. I found them entertaining and memorable, and after the first one I read (Night of the Assassin), I came back and bought three more. So you must have done something right, haha

    I think you’ve really hit on something with this blog. I tend to be a planner, although I never really sat down and figured out a theme or any character arcs. The characters evolve as the story progresses, and the theme, if there is one, is up to the reader. Fantasy especially could probably benefit from a more stripped down approach, as some of them are so dense that it can be hard to slog through them (I blame Tolkien)

    Keep up the good work. Oh and if there was a Jet movie, I’d watch it. Great series.

    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 28th Apr 2013 at 2:05 am

      Thanks, Andrew. Glad you like the work.

      Hell, if there was a JET movie, I’d be in the front row!

  22. Sat 27th Apr 2013 at 8:07 pm

    Well….that was an enjoyable read. =)

  23. Sun 28th Apr 2013 at 1:17 am

    Too funny. I write and I’ve read On Writing by SK. I remember the adverb thingy. I know nothing about grammar. Check out my poetry if you want to see what I mean.
    Love your books. Jet keeps me up all night!! Hah, what else can you do when you live in PV and don’t fish!

  24. Sun 28th Apr 2013 at 12:40 pm

    I’ve never read about about how to write a book. I’ve read a book on how to sell a Gazillion Books, which I enjoyed. To me, the loop of writing, getting feedback from readers and then writing some more, is instructive. Listening to other authors – not so much. I think the same holds for music, I’m sure a real musician would have told Jimi Hendrix not to play his guitar upside down… W4$

  25. Mon 29th Apr 2013 at 10:07 am

    I’ve got to disagree with almost everything you’ve said here. When writers say that a book should have a character arc it’s no more a formula than saying that a book needs a beginning, middle and end is a formula. And where did you get the idea that a character arc is synonymous with a “morality play”? All it means is that the events that take place in your story are important enough in that character’s life that at the end of the story, she is not the same person as she was at the start. Why would you choose to tell a story that is a section of that person’s life during which nothing changed? That would be boring and much more like the reality that we all know is not fiction. If you write characters who are able to watch and commit violence and mayhem and be unaffected by it, then I, as a reader, am not interested. If your characters don’t grow and change by experiencing what they do in your stories, then I am not interested.

    I wouldn’t say that the rules of writing good fiction are all that different from what is true in real life. Fiction should be “The Lie that Tells the Truth,” as John Dufresne says in an excellent book on writing. In real life death matters. I have sat next to three loved ones when they died. It changed me. I still write thrillers, and I still try to make them page turners, but nobody in my books walks away unchanged.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 29th Apr 2013 at 11:10 am

      So, you prefer a formula where the character walks away from the exchange changed. That’s your prerogative. It also happens to be what’s espoused by many teachers and pundits and books, and is how about 98% of films and fiction books are written, because, well, golly, it’s just got to be that the character changes in some important way by the events. After all, that’s the “right” way to write a story, and many certainly wouldn’t be interested in anything that’s not written in the accepted, “right” way.

      Except, what about characters that don’t change? You know, the ones that aren’t the formulaic constructs that adhere to your preferred model?

      Your preference as to what you’re interested in or not interested in merely underscores a bias much like my friend’s, which is fine – a preference for the stereotypical fiction character who survives the trial by fire and learns something important by the end of the story and is changed by looking into the abyss. That’s basically every Bruckheimer film ever written. It’s the model espoused in Save the Cat for screenplays. It is THE stereotypical approach to fiction writing touted in countless how to books. It is a stereotype precisely because it’s favored by so many authors and writers – because it’s the easiest way to tell a story, and the most familiar to the reader, primarily because it’s the most common way of writing a protag. Some might call it vapid and sophomoric. Others might call it the only way to write a character that matters. Obviously, opinions differ.

      Fortunately, you’ll find literally millions of books that are written in the way you prefer, with the expected character arc. Many are interchangeable, and are the same old morality plays revamped – the basic story types (the quest, the tragedy, etc.) dressed up with a vampire slayer or a slave woman or a man who’s lost everything. Common recurring themes that are reassuringly familiar and recur throughout the ages.

      As to why I would choose to write a story where the character doesn’t change, it’s simple: because it interests me and entertains the reader.

      It’s interesting because you underscore my point. There are authors who are just sure what is a good way to write a book, and a bad one – not grammatically, but in terms of how the character and plot are structured. They “know” that there has to be a character arc or the story’s not one “the reader” will be interested in reading. How they know what all, or most, readers, will respond well to, is unknown. It’s by declaration. And to my ears, it’s a wee bit strident. As to aphorisms like “Fiction should be the lie that tells the truth,” how about putting that correctly: “Some people who have written books on writing prefer that fiction be the lie that tells the truth.” Because that’s a preference – one you agree with, obviously. But it is not some essential truth, and a character arc is nothing more than your idea of what a story well told requires. I don’t even necessarily disagree, I just dislike the dogmatic, dictatorial stance of those who “know” how “real” or “good” stories “must be told” or “readers” won’t be interested. You might not be interested. But I can assure you, plenty of other, perhaps more jaded or sophisticated readers, will be. They are every single day. Because there is no one sort of reader, thus no one sort of way of storytelling that’s the “proper” one.

      You don’t have to agree with me. In fact, I suspect many won’t. That’s fine. It’s what makes a market, as they say. You write yours however you like, and I will write mine how I like, and the market will sort out which it prefers. So far, I’m doing okay, so I’m not going to be changing my evil ways any time soon.

  26. Mon 29th Apr 2013 at 12:10 pm

    Here, I do agree with some of what you are saying. There certainly are lots of different stories and lots of different readers. And many readers like to read a wide variety of sorts of books.

    But when you call the plot structure of story that has existed in story across different cultures and throughout human mythology a “stereotypical fiction character, ” I have to think you don’t understand the concept.

    If you are saying that every character who changes is a stereotypical character, then you mean that Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs and Lizbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Lincoln Rhyme in the Bone Collector are stereotypical, and I don’t see how anybody who understands the meaning of the word could use that term to describe those characters. Those characters spring to life on the page and long after I’ve finished reading those books I remember them.

    But you are right that there are lots of different readers and some people like to read for pure suspenseful plot and one thrilling scene after another. They don’t want the books to be about characters who spring to life as real people who experience those events because that would require them to get emotionally involved, and that’s not what they read for. There’s nothing wrong with writing or reading those kinds of books, but to claim THAT is the non-stereotypical method of writing is quite the leap of logic.

    The character, on the other hand, who “takes a lickin’ but keeps on tickin'” the character who cannot be killed, the guy who goes through fight after fight and always wins but never stops to question anything he does, is a HUGE stereotype. We’ve seen him in comic books and video games and lots of pulp novels. Sure, they sell. But let’s not claim that they are the only original, non-stereotypical characters out there.

    You say that folks just make this claim about character arcs in fiction being what readers want by “declaration.” Actually, the claim is made by studying the history of stories and which stories have lasted and been retold and reread through the ages. I can see that you are dead set against anything that is related to study or writing books or academia, but we can gain some insight by examining history.

    In the end it comes down to personal taste, so I won’t claim it’s the “right” way for writers or readers. You don’t have to agree with me either. But according to my personal taste, I will say it’s the only way to write a good story.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 29th Apr 2013 at 12:41 pm

      What you are repeating is a series of arguments for why you find your preference compelling.

      It’s rather like arguing that chocolate is the best flavor – been popular for eons, is filled with rich cocoa goodness, can’t imagine life without it, etc.

      It also seems as though you can’t conceive of a character who springs to life and is fully formed who doesn’t experience a character arc. That’s amazing to me, as most people don’t, and it can take years for serious change I’d describe as a character arc to occur. And yet countless tomes have an arc taking place across a few days or a week, because the author felt that would make the character more “real.” Um, not so much, usually. Just makes them formulaic.

      I have given up arguing with my friend, because it’s impossible to change the mind of someone who already knows everything. So I don’t try. Suffice it to say that I despise stories that have stereotypical character arcs – not all of them, mind you, but the vast majority of them, as they’re not particularly skillfully done. Just as you chose a straw man (indestructible he man character) that’s easy to revile, I tend to look at plots that amount to, “MC starts story off as X, finishes as Y, having learned important lesson along the way” as being lazy pap. Now we could argue all day that’s not the case, and I could find countless examples where it is in fact the case, only to have those dismissed as atypical. I just know that I start groaning when the MC undergoes his predictable metamorphosis about forty pages before the denouement. You don’t. That’s fine.

      One of my favorite books this year, a brilliantly written novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, is a perfect example of a novel where the character doesn’t change, nor does the world around him, but rather, what makes it interesting is how at odds his inner dialogue and the external reality touted as the truth are. There’s no character arc. And yet it’s a brilliant book. Likewise, Infinite Jest meanders with no character arc, and ends abruptly, literally mid thought. Also a brilliant novel. I could go on. What those two books have in common are that they are masterpieces, are completely unpredictable, and eschew formulaic approaches to the MC. You probably wouldn’t like them.

      I’m not going to be able to change your view. I like a good character arc as much as the next guy, but I take great pains to avoid that formulaic contrivance, to the extent I can, as I find it too facile and familiar for my taste. That’s not meant as an insult – we just have different tastes. As an example, my El Rey character is wildly popular, and is an assassin who displays not a shred of remorse, and no discernible character arc across five books. I’ve deliberately eschewed any, although there might have been a trace of one in the final installment to date. The point is, I don’t feel bound by some notion of what’s correct when I’m writing, or what’s preferable. My only duty is to the story, and by telling it well, to the reader. And believe it or not, not all stories are soul-searching journeys of transformation, nor should they be. I think it’s the desire to try to make them all fit into that, er, stereotype, that is dogmatic and makes for boring, predictable storytelling. It’s like asking “Where does the MC save the kitties? All good stories have to have kitties being saved!” Mmm, not so much. Maybe the ones that you like best have that, but not all have to have it.

      Plenty of my novels have character arcs, too. Geronimo Breach is probably the most dramatic and unexpected exercise in creating a wholly unexpected character I’ve tried, and it works. But I don’t feel bound by some dogma that says I must have a character arc to tell a story. “ALL GOOD STORIES MUST HAVE CHARACTER ARCS!!! HOW CAN YOU HAVE YOUR PUDDING IF YOU DON’T HAVE YOUR CHARACTER ARC?!?” I don’t require some melodramatic stylistic device to tell a story well, and I don’t require that my character change in some profound way if that’s not central to the story – and sometimes it isn’t. I think being rigid in your belief harms you, rather than helps you, with storytelling, an eliminates an important quality that I prefer to keep: the unexpected and spontaneous. Hard to surprise the reader if he knows that like your last dozen, the next one’s going to end with everyone having learned a little something about life along the way. Maybe you don’t think so. Again, that’s fine. Write as you see fit, and readers will decide whether you’re on the right track or not.

      We will have to disagree on this.

  27. Tue 30th Apr 2013 at 2:56 pm

    Looks like I’ve come into this a little late, but I’m forced to join in and agree with the general consensus. I’ve just completed co-authoring a book with a chef, who I’ll call Tony (because that’s his name, I guess). It’s called ‘Food and Shelter’ but I’ve just taken it off Amazon due to certain disagreements. I can be stubborn that way.

    Tony’s a marvel in the kitchen – he never cooks to recipe – but hopeless at the keyboard, although I learned a lot about the kitchen while co-authoring this book and I eventually came to understand the parallel lives of the chef and the writer.

    A chef’s magic is his ingredients, how he can substitute one for another, then break with convention by changing it all around again without once referring to the recipe. And then just at the death complete the beauty by adding another element never previously thought of. Well words are the writer’s sorcery, our dark arts and our sleight of hand. They’re our enchantment and our temptation. Sometimes both the chef and the writer overindulges himself and it gets out of hand, but that’s how we like it, it’s how we’ve ghosted some of our best creations.

    I just wanted to say that.

  28. Wed 01st May 2013 at 8:22 am

    Thanks for the coaching, I am now ready to stand up to my editor, who deserves a far better writer than myself.

  29. Robert Torres
    Wed 01st May 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Great post! Good points on writing. I haven’t read anything of yours,..now I will.

  30. Wed 08th May 2013 at 10:06 am

    I think the point of knowing the rules of drama is not to follow them slavishly, but to know when to break them for maximum effect.

  31. James
    Thu 16th May 2013 at 5:00 pm

    You guys sound like such great friends, Russell!

  32. Fri 17th May 2013 at 5:59 am

    Spot on, Russell!

    Five years ago I was scratching around for ways to raise a little extra cash after the twins were born. I started my own company selling software programming courses and built a few websites, but nothing came of it. One night, I was in bed reading a paperback published by a bestselling author and after twenty pages it put it aside in disgust. I wanted action, tension, a page-turning, gripping thriller. Instead, I got a not very stimulating introduction followed by 15 pages on how he had so many kids and some of them were ill. The next morning, some of them were still ill…

    I realised that if I was looking for something fast-paced with intrigue and action all the way, then perhaps other readers were, too. That’s why I write the way I do, and I won’t apologise for it. I’ll never get a publishing deal, but I recently made the switch from software developer to full time author because people enjoy this kind of book, and it’s also why I love your work.

    I recently promised myself one afternoon a week for some kindle time, but I’m having two this week because I can’t wait to finish The Geronimo Breach.


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