Good is Subjective

The Lost Symbol is formulaic. Twilight is simplistic, both in plot and writing. Eragon is ridden with cliches. The Shack reads like it was self-published (oh, wait).

And yet every one of these books sold millions of copies.


For those of us who have devoted a significant portion of our lives to the written word, this can drive us nuts. It's unfair, we say. If people knew anything about quality literature, they wouldn't buy this cotton candy nonsense.

But that's just it. People don't know about quality literature. They don't know you're not supposed to start a novel with the weather. They don't know that the farm-boy-as-chosen-one plot is old. They don't know that adverbs are a Bad Thing.

But people know what they like. They know these books are thrilling, engrossing, uplifting. "But they're not!" we cry. "They don't even follow the rules!"

Okay, so here's the thing. I know this is going to be hard to hear, but... all those rules that agents and editors and critique partners keep telling us we should follow? None of them make a story good.

For those of us trying to break into the business, it's easy to convince ourselves that "good" is objective -- that all we have to do is figure out the rules and follow them. The rules increase our chances, but nothing in this business is a sure thing. Nothing.

So how do you break in? Well, not having broken in myself yet, I'm going to go with the stock answer: Write lots. Write well. Get lucky.

Usually in that order.


Davin Malasarn said...

I think the main function of the rules is to try and make books more interesting for the readers. Following these rules blindly doesn't always accomplish that. But, when you apply the rules in the hopes of making your story more entertaining or engaging, then they might be useful. Great post!

Natalie Whipple said...

Ah, yes, the catch-22. And unfortunately there is a lot more luck involved than we'd like. Following rules is like buying extra lottery tickets. Sure, you have better chances, but that in no way means you will win.

MattyDub said...

I disagree with your last bit; in fact, your whole post seems to disagree with the last bit. The order is more like: get lucky, write lots. Writing well (or "following the rules" as you call it) doesn't seem to have very much, if anything, to do with commercial success. However, if one is interested in writing well for its own sake (as I know you are, Adam), then following the rules can be very helpful. At least until you know them so well that you can break them.
I am one of those people who are frustrated when schlocky writing becomes popular. But it's obviously not the fault of the authors, and I am (or try to be) happy for their success. It's because of the audience. And this is where I disagree with the title of your post. "Popular" may be subjective, but I disagree that "good" is. Eragon is awful. I only read The Da Vinci Code so I could talk to people about it; I'm not sure that was a good reason, either. These books are objectively bad. "Elitist!" some may cry. "Snob!" Aye, may. But this seems like a clear case of Dunning-Kruger to me. People who don't know what they're talking about (e.g., don't read much, don't write) think that books are better than they are. People who actually have expertise (e.g., read a lot, write, or study language/reading/writing) can say that a bestseller is a piece of crap.
I'm not trying to troll - I'm not one of those guys (as you know, Adam - I say that for the benefit of your other readers). I sincerely believe that good is objective, and also that it is orthogonal to popular.

Anne Lang Bundy said...

My writing doesn't fit the contemporary mold at all. I was advised sometime back that in order to break the rules effectively, one has to first understand and appreciate why they exist.

For example, a musician who first understands the construction of music and knows the scales can better embelish the music in a personal way.

I didn't particularly want to hear this message. But as I've put this into practice, my writing has definitely improved. I follow some of the rules, but break a good many way better now.

Adam Heine said...

"The order is more like: get lucky, write lots."

Part of my point was that these commercial bestsellers are the exception. Writers tend to fall into two camps: (1) those who get bitter because we're following the "rules" and these million-sellers didn't or (2) those who decide the rules are unnecessary because the million-sellers didn't follow them. I think neither camp is a good place to be for someone trying to get published.

Most people who break into the industry will have followed the "rules". Everyone who breaks into the industry, and everyone who ends up selling millions, will also have gotten lucky. My formula at the end is, I think, the best way to improve ones' odds.

Matt wrote: "Aye, may."

See, quoting my own air pirate slang to me is exactly how I know you're not trolling :-)

Anna Scott Graham said...

A good friend left me with a popular novel that she just loved, none of those you mentioned.

I thought it quite entertaining until the end, which wrapped everything up far too neatly. I sighed, but otherwise it wasn't a total waste of my time.

She LOVED The Shack, but I said no, only because one of the main plot points isn't my bag.

You're the second one to offer its flaws, and yet, absolutely right; it seems to have sold plenty of copies.

I learned two things. My beloved friend doesn't have the most highbrow taste, and that yeah, easy, formulaic novels do appeal to the masses.

And I just keep writing. Keep writing, keep writing...

Adam Heine said...

Too right, Anna.

For me, I liked a lot of the ideas in THE SHACK, but the story itself and the writing just grated. So I like the ideas, but I can't say I like THE SHACK.

It didn't help that the book I'd read just before THE SHACK was THE SPARROW, which is an amazingly written book. I might've panned the writing of anything I read immediately afterwards :-)

Anica Lewis said...

My comfort in the world of bestsellers is the work of Stephen King. I'm not a huge horror fan, but the man is a good writer. A really. Good. Writer. Take it from a library employee, that's rare on our New York Times Bestseller shelf.

Basically, what I figure is that the masses value plot over style, story over craft, but even the buying masses are pretty thrilled to get both.

Brooke said...

Great post. Ponderable. And I love a good ponder. :)

Thanks to MattyDub for forcing me to learn two new things: 'Dunning-Kruger' effect (didn't know there was a term for that!) and 'orthogonal.'

Belle said...

This is a great post. I think my goal is to deliver both a great story and good writing; I get more uneasy about the quality of my writing than I do the quality of my story.

I personally have no problems with a bestseller that is pure escapism - when I read books like that, I'm in it for the story. Although sometimes the not-so-good writing gets in the way of the story, in which case I have to put it down unfinished, but at least I get to write it off as a good learning experience. My favorite kind of book is the one that combines both compelling story with wonderful writing. I think your formula sums things up well: write lots, write well and get lucky.