It’s launched! Dear Editor, my new fiction writing advice column. Come send me your worries, your heartaches, your concerns (about your fiction, I mean). I will do my best to smooth your way.
And in celebration, I’m going to spend this week posting posts here about numbers. As in:
- 3 Ways to Enhance Your Plot
- 10 Ways to Explore Your Premise
- 7 Things Your Characters are Hiding From You
- 4 Things You Can Do to Thwart Them
- 1 Thing That’ll Bite You in the Ass Every Time
All the marketers say blog readers really love blog posts about numbers.
Let’s find out.
I believe that writers who have the sparkle suspect, but never know for certain, that they have it. In fact they’re more likely to have doubts about their work, for the simple reason that they experience glimpses of a perfection that no human pen can ever achieve.
This is fabulous material, folks. I love what you’re doing here.
Lady Glamis, please do not apologize for “babbling.” I’d be thrilled to see more of this from you.
Jeffrey, you’re hilarious. I know you’re working your butt off at your craft, and it shows in the stuff you send me.
Kathryn, I’m sorry about “glower.” It’s like “interpolate,” one of those weird, complex words writers used to be able to use with a liberal hand. Unfortunately, certain ones just got beat to death and have had to be retired, and even the ones that didn’t get beat to death became exceptional enough that they began drawing attention to themselves and also had to be retired. There’s a great deal of this kind of thing going on in the evolution of literature, reflecting in part the increasing invisibility of the writer—an improvement—and in part the simplification of the common reader’s vocabulary.
And Jane, you’re like a fountain of clarity. What a wonderful list of standards you have.
I’ve also received a couple of responses on Twitter:
Howard Freeman, @meadonmanhattan, offers the four qualities honest, succinct, funny, engaging, although he says he could live without succinct and funny so long as it’s honest and engaging.
While Debra Schubert, @dlschubert, says she just hopes there are periods at the ends of the sentences. Minimalist, indeed.
Now, one thing that’s come up is the possibility that great writing can be created through breaking all of our standards to smithereens. And, as Flannery O’Connor said, “You can do anything in fiction that you can get away with. Unfortunately, nobody’s ever gotten away with much.”
Jack Kerouac complained mightily in the Paris Review that his editor at Viking, the legendary Malcolm Cowley, insisted on putting commas into On the Road. Considering they spent an entire month on the manuscript—some of which was typed on sheets of paper taped together and some on other pieces of manuscript Kerouac had written in the San Francisco attic of Carolyn and Neal Cassady—I’m guessing there was more to it than wrangling over commas. Kerouac wanted to break the basic rules. Would he have succeeded? Well, he did produce a plethora of novels after On the Road, none of which I find as clear and compelling as the first one. I don’t know how much his editor had to do with how the others turned out, but considering that authors are commonly indulged, whether it’s a good idea or not, once they’ve made a name and a pile for their publisher, I’m going to guess On the Road got more editorial attention than the later works. I think it shows.
But the question is now: what’s the definition of bad writing? If you can break all the rules and still do well, can you follow all the rules and still produce CRAP?
How would you go about doing this, folks. . .if you were so inclined?
Somebody please tell me this doesn’t mean what I think it means:
Ursula James’s THE SOURCE, part fable, part spell-book, an inspirational work that contains prophecies of relationships, love, forgiveness, and healing from Mother Shipton, a 16th century Yorkshire prophetess and healer, as channeled by the author. . . sold to Tarcher publishing and Preface publishing, as reported this week by Publisher’s Marketplace under “NONFICTION: Advice/Relationships.”
The pen may be mightier than the sword, but is it mightier than apathy?
You guys. You’re like balm to the editorial soul.
So let’s take this one step further. If good writing is writing that will last, what specifically does that mean?
We know from our discussion of the PW best seller list that a talented writer like Stephen King can still be a blockbuster. We also know that a writer who produces flabby characterization, cliche action and description, and shallow motivation like Mary Higgins Clark can also be a blockbuster. There is no reliable relationship between money and quality.
Jamie has given us a minimum requirement: “‘technically good’ writing – i.e., grammatically correct, proper punctuation.”
I will agree and add my minimum requirement: free of cliches. That means cliche exposition, in which we’re treated to the writer’s ideas, based upon what passes for “right thinking” in this culture at this moment in time, rather than the product of their senses and deeper understanding of their experience here in this mortal coil. It means cliche description, in which female protagonists are always sweet and girlish and male protagonists always tough and manly, all roses are perfumed, all sunsets are glorious, all hearts thrill, pound, and bleed. It also means cliche actions like “grab,” “flop,” stride,” “throb,” “glower,” and “tearing oneself from an embrace.” More than anything, though, it means cliche thinking, stories that guilelessly follow the lifestyle standards set by the advertising industry, telling us nothing new about humanity and, in fact, reinforcing two-dimensional stereotypes that marginalize the real, messy, contradictory, unattractive, insecure, puzzled humanity that lives inside every individual on this earth. Thinking that encourages prejudice against anything that varies from the status quo.
Thinking that pretends being human isn’t as unspeakably complicated as it really is.
What about the rest of you? What are your standards for good writing? You say, “Good writing is writing that lasts,” but since we can’t time-travel, we don’t know what that means for writing that’s being published today. Do you mean, “Writing my college literature professor would like?”
Or can you put it into more detailed terms?
(P.S. Lori, we live on the Redwood Coast. You know—where the housewives are loggers and the loggers are environmentalists and the environmentalists are freaking bonkers.)
When every author is a marketer, only marketers will be authors.
Here’s my question for you all to start you off philosophizing this week while I’m in San Jose: if no one notices bad writing is bad, is it still bad?
One of the things that’s been bugging me since about 1989 is the decline in the quality of what sells in this country. I know everyone always complains about their society going to the dogs as they get older (even the Ancient Greeks threw up their hands in horror when they thought about what the younger generation was doing to their culture. . .of course, considering modern Greece, they may have had a point). But it’s hard not to notice that in the 1960s you couldn’t have gotten on the best seller list without at least knowing one end of a sentence from the other.
I have been—I must say—deeply mollified to learn in the past year of the buy-out of American publishing companies by European corporations due to the deliberate devaluation of the dollar in the 1980s, as well as the 1979 Thor Tools vs. the IRS tax law that ushered in the era of the automatic destruction of backlists. At least these are facts. They explain something. They explain why publishing stopped, somewhere in the mid-’80s, being about a bunch of neurotic book-lovers like Harold Ross bumbling around New York City in a martini-induced haze and became about squeezing that last drop of blood out of the stone of every single solitary pathetic little published manuscript. They explain urban legends like books turning up on the New York Times best seller list before they’re even written. (Of course, nothing really explains the New York Times best seller list. . .)
Before I learned about these historical events in publishing, I was just one more baffled wordsmyth walking around for years and years demanding of complete strangers on the street, “How come Danielle Steel is a millionaire, and I can’t sell one stupid well-crafted, deeply-considered, carefully-polished poem?” (After 1994, this was actually a lie. I did sell one poem. To The Cream City Review for five bucks, and I still have that check framed, in a box up in the attic, along with the first dollar my husband ever made as a busker.)
It wasn’t just me, either. I knew other writers—amazing writers, dedicated writers, real talent, starving away on hot dogs and Miller and minimum-wage jobs. It never made any sense. Why, in this one industry, would consumers honestly prefer to spend their money on shlock rather than a job done right?
Now that I’m an independent editor, it’s gone from being a source of righteous anger to real grief. The writers I meet through this business, the extraordinary dreamers and crafters and grapplers with language, the thinkers and creators, the hope of literature as we know it. . .and their competition is not only published tripe, but the gazillions and gazillions of wannabes who see writing not as a particular art form special to that handful out there who find weird validation and spiritual sustenance in its pursuit, but as their rightful avenue to riches. The bottleneck. It’s like that scene at the end of The Day of the Locust when the herd of movie-goers stampedes and tramples the weak and innocent under their ruthless heels.
My client (and a dedicated literary powerhouse) Kathryn has said she’s afraid I hold the bar to good writing so high her fingers will be bloody by the time she pulls herself over it.
Do I ask too much of good writing these days? Am I fighting a losing battle here?
If the number of us who recognize bad writing as bad dwindles increasingly every year, as the calm acceptance of what sells in the check-out lines at Target and Wal-Mart grows, does that mean literature itself is not falling into a slump out of which it can be pulled, but that it’s actually evolving into a form no more related to the so-called “good” writing of the twentieth century than salamanders are related to sticky-toed geckos?
What’s the truth of our situation, people? What is good writing these days?
If you haven’t seen it yet, please feel free to visit:
An Advice Column for Fiction Writers
Yes, I’m going to start an advice column for you. It will be similar to the old Future Topics feature I used to have on this blog, except I won’t be able to write complete, fleshed-out essays on each question. It’ll be like Miss Lonelyhearts, only about writing. I will give you some ideas below:
Dear A. Victoria Mixon, Editor: I am halfway through my novel and just discovered my protagonist is a transsexual. This is going to make it very difficult to explain his mother, who has already bought his trousseau. What do I do? Signed, Startled in Seattle
Dear Editor: When you say, “Show, Don’t Tell,” do you mean, “Everywhere she looked she saw evidence of the total, irresponsible destruction of her selfless love for that stupid bastard, and as she pondered deep in her heart whether or not to leave him and forge a new life with better love with a better moral character, she realized she would never stop wondering where he hid the steak knives”? Or something else? Signed, P.O’d in Pittsburgh
Dear Ms. Mixon: Whenever I try to write dialog, it comes out sounding like a third-grader wrote it. How do I fix this? Or, conversely, how do I find a fourth-grader to write it for me? Signed, Stymed in St. Paul
I hope to unveil the Advice Column on May 1st, oh, frabulous day. But I need questions for the first one now.
So please send them in! Be the first to see your question—and its answer—on the new column!
(Also, there used to be a discussion of neti pots on this post, which is why you will see references to them in the comments. But they are no longer an issue. Thanks for asking.)
Have you guys been following what’s going on with the London Book Fair?
A volcano that erupted in Iceland has whited-out British airspace, making it almost impossible for folks to get to the Book Fair from elsewhere in the world. Not only that. But it’s also making it impossible for the ones who made it to get home again.
Publisher’s Marketplace today quotes White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, upon being asked if the US would follow the example of the UK’s Royal Navy and try to bring citizens home by boat, as saying, “We’ve got some big ships, but that would be a pretty big ship.” The US Embassy estimates 40,000 Americans are stranded in London.
Here’s a tip while you’re waiting for release, guys—don’t go in any tea shops and ask for an “English muffin.” They’re pretty testy about that over there. (Instead, I highly recommend whiling away your time engaging Brits in conversation about Stonehenge so you can tell them, “We’ve got one of those, you know,” and show them Carhenge. I once sent a postcard of it to my friends in Wiltshire, and they kept it on their fridge for years.)
Publishers Weekly (PW) has released its list of 2009 best sellers compiled from information submitted to them by publishers. It would behoove you to check it out.
In particular, take a good, hard look at the author names in the top thirty hardback fiction sellers:
Dan Brown. John Grisham. Kathryn Stockett. James Patterson. Nicholas Sparks. John Grisham. Janet Evanovich. Stephenie Meyer. Stephen King. Michael Crichton. Patricia Cornwell. Sue Grafton. Patricia Cornwell. Alyson Noel. James Patterson. Clive Cussler with Dirk Cussler. Pat Conroy. James Patterson. David Baldacci. James Patterson. Vince Flynn. James Patterson. Nora Roberts. Dean Koontz. Charlaine Harris. Danielle Steel. David Baldacci. Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. Clive Cussler. Mary Higgins Clark.
Look at them again:
- Dan Brown—long-time MEGAFAMOUS (puzzle thrillers, series protagonist, first 3 books mediocre sellers).
- John Grisham—long-time MEGAFAMOUS, 2 times on this list (political thrillers, politician-turned author, first book $5k advance).
- Kathryn Stockett (1960s retro-historical fiction with severe racial tension).
- James Patterson—long-time pretty darn famous, 5 times on this list (murder thrillers, ad salesman-turned-author, described by Stephen King as “a terrible writer.”)
- Nicholas Sparks—pretty darn famous (Christian romance).
- Janet Evanovich—pretty darn famous (bounty hunter thrillers, series protagonist).
- Stephenie Meyer—pretty darn famous (young adult paranormal romance, series protagonist, poor writing).
- Stephen King—long-time MEGAFAMOUS (horror/suspense thrillers, great writing).
- Michael Chrichton—long-time MEGAFAMOUS (technothrillers).
- Patricia Cornwell—pretty darn famous, 2 times on this list (crime thrillers, series protagonist).
- Sue Grafton—pretty darn famous (murder mysteries, series protagonist, decent writing).
- Alyson Noel—famous enough (young adult paranormal romance, series protagonist).
- Clive Cussler—pretty darn famous, 2 times on this list (technothrillers).
- Pat Conroy—long-time MEGAFAMOUS (psychological melodrama).
- David Baldacci—pretty darn famous, 2 times on this list (political thrillers).
- Vince Flynn—pretty famous (political thrillers, series protagonist).
- Nora Roberts—pretty darn famous (romance, over 100 novels written, founding member of Romance Writers of America).
- Dean Koontz—long-time MEGAFAMOUS (horror/suspense thrillers).
- Charlaine Harris—famous enough (paranormal mysteries, series protagonists).
- Danielle Steel—long-time MEGAFAMOUS (romance among rich folks).
- Robert Jordan (with Brandon Sanderson, because Jordan died)—famous enough (fantasy, series).
- Mary Higgins Clark—long-time MEGAFAMOUS (murder & romance among rich folks, poor writing).
Look at them in the context of top mass market paperback sellers:
John Grisham. James Patterson. James Patterson. Nora Roberts. Janet Evanovich. James Patterson. Patricia Cornwell. David Baldacci. David Baldacci. Debbie Macomber. Debbie Macomber. Iris Johansen. James Patterson. Patricia Cornwell. James Patterson. Dean Koontz. Charlaine Harris. Nicholas Sparks. Janet Evanovich. Catherine Coulter. Mary Higgins Clark. Charlaine Harris. Janet Evanovich. James Rollins. Iris Johansen.
Only four new names out of twenty-five, and all the rest straight off the hardback best sellers list (yes, twenty-one repeats!).
- Debbie Macomber—famous enough, 2 times on this list (romance).
- Iris Johansen—famous enough, 2 times on this list (crime, series protagonists).
- Catherine Coulter—been around forever (political thrillers, series protagonists).
- James Rollins—pretty darn famous (technothrillers, series protagonists).
What does this tell us, folks?
First and foremost, it tells us that the top 44 1/2 million books sold in the U.S. in 2009 were all written by the same tiny handful of twenty-six people. (Notice John Grisham, Stephen King, Vince Flynn, and Mary Higgins Clark all decline to report their sales. According to where they stand in the list, they can safely be assumed to account for another 4 million on an extremely conservative estimate, bringing that up to 48 1/2 million).
You read it right: that’s 26 writers responsible for the vast, vast bulk of what sells in this country, barely two dozen human beings, all of whom have been on this list many, many times before throughout careers spanning decades, the majority of them already established best sellers long before the publishing industry turned into the Mr. Hyde it so recently turned into.
Only one lonely little writer who has, apparently, never appeared on this list before. ONE.
Are these the luminaries of our era? The brilliant writers we all long to be? The greats who will go down in the American canon?
Well, at least one of them is heck of good when he wants to be: that’s Stephen King. I read The Shining when it came out back in the Cretaceous Period and thought, Wow, this guy’s a real writer!
So I’m inclined to believe him when he says James Patterson is a “terrible writer” who produces “dopey thrillers.” This opinion was echoed by Patrick Anderson of The Washington Post, who apparently called Patterson’s work “the absolute pits, the lowest common denominator of cynical, scuzzy, assembly-line writing.” Does lowest common denominator assembly-line writing sell? Patterson’s got five books on the top thirty hardback fiction list, more than twice as many as his next competitor. So, yeah, it looks like it sells.
I’ve read virtually none of the rest of these authors, except a tiny bit of Stephenie Meyer, whose Twilight series is being critiqued chapter-by-chapter by the Twilight Snarker; Sue Grafton, whom I analyzed when I began studying mystery structure; and one novel by Mary Higgins Clark, which made me pound my forehead on the floor until I saw stars. So I can’t comment on the quality of most of the writing, only assume that if an assembly-line-writing ad salesman can climb to the top of the publishing money machine then quality is not exactly the deciding factor in who wins this particular game.
What else does this list tell us?
Well, American readers really like series protagonists. They like reading about the same character over and over and over and over again. Does this character change and grow throughout the series? Not really. Otherwise they’d lose their ability to placate their legions of hypnotized readers. They’d have to age, make choices, settle down into lifestyles, eventually get old and start dealing with health issues. . .and it’d no longer be the same old story happening repeatedly forever.
Also, American readers REALLY like thrillers. Technothrillers, political thrillers, horror/suspense thrillers, puzzle thrillers, murder mystery and crime thrillers, even bounty hunter thrillers. Anything that makes your hair stand on end. Not only must it be the same old character and the same old story, but it must be the same old freaky story.
Give us a series of novels—not even well-written ones—about the same character going through the same kinds of thrillers over and over and over again, and we’ll mortgage the farm for ya. You bet.
If you can’t do that, then give us a series of novels—ditto—about the same character over an over and over again, only paranormal.
Or novels—ditto—about rich people getting laid.
Or ditto about ANYBODY getting laid. If they’re teens, pretend they’re not getting laid, they’re just having lunch off each other’s necks. (Hickies to die for.)
But even if you can do all that, you still have to make sure that before you try to give us anything you are already so FAMOUS we know not only your name, but where you’re from, where you live now, what you look like, and how to join your fan club.
And if you can’t do that. . .well, I’m sorry. I just hope you’re Kathryn Stockett.
My grandfather was a West Texas cowboy. When he was ten years old in 1902, he rode his pony alongside his parents’ wagon for three weeks from Abilene to Fort Davis. He’d made the trip once before, as a tiny child, when his mother traveled to Fort Davis to return her niece, whom she’d adopted for three years after her sister died in childbirth. This time, on his pony, he pointed out the line of mountains in the distance and told his parents he knew they’d turn left there. He remembered.
He was the youngest of six, and that pony and saddle had been given to him by his adult brothers, already a couple of cowpokes (and, coincidentally, the men my own son is named after). My grandfather loved that pony. When it was struck by lightning and killed only a few weeks after they arrived in Fort Davis, it caused him such intense pain it could still bring tears to his eyes to write about it seventy years later.
My grandfather wrote his memoirs in the 1970s, in his final years before he died at the age of 86. He worked on a typewriter with dirty keys, pounding so hard he punched the o’s through the paper. Now whenever I see graphics of typewriting with the circles of the d’s and p’s greyed in and crescents of extreme dark along the edges of the o’s (nobody ever shows them completely punched through), I always think of him. A West Texas cowboy crouched over a typewriter on a formica table in his 1940s kitchen, out in the dusty fields of the California San Joaquin Valley, his bushy eyebrows bristling and a cigar between his teeth. He said he became a cowpoke as a young man because he didn’t care what he did as long as he got to ride a horse. He used to play the old cowboy songs on his harmonica for us when I was little.
He also said, in his old age, that he’d read both Louie L’Amour and Zane Grey, and one of them knew exactly what he was talking about, and the other was an idiot.
Unfortunately, when my aunt relayed this opinion to me thirty years ago, I immediately forgot which was which.
Read the full essay on The Art & Craft of Fiction.
Hot dog, is it pretty.
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited his second novel, Memory of Water and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with her to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his work-in-progress Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with her to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling her liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.