Having read through many of the posts - including the ubiquitous Dan Brown comments - it seems that many of us struggle with the concept of what works by focusing on what others appear to do wrong. I would like to present a different possible approach. Instead of focusing on what other writers have done wrong, look at what they have done right.
I recall a Harvad Literature professor who gave an interview on JK Rowling and her success with Harry Potter. He said her writing was terrible and that it wouldn't last. I was fascinated because he also maintained that Joyce's Ulysses was great literature. I disagreed, not becasue I am better educated or have more experience (I am not and I don't), but because I found Ulysses incredibly dry and I love reading the Harry Potter books because they are fun. Atlas Shrugged is a best seller in spite of Rand spending 72 pages - 72! - saying the same thing over and over and over - and as if that weren't enough, she does the same thing AGAIN later on in the story.
Granted, SF/F readers and writer's are different, but many principles are the same. Some books that we don't like sell. We can say the writing is bad or give whatever reason we want, but that does not change the fact that someone - a LOT of someone's - bought those bad books for a reason. Underneath all that bad writing there must be something good and we should try to isolate that good and use it to our advantage.
I read The Scarlet Pimpernel and it was awful. I mean really bad - the movie was a wonderful adaption - but the book was a stinker. Yet that story has endured. It was the story that survived such a terrible telling. The principle of a good story pulled that one through and I think a good story will save most problems, not all, but most.
Just because we dislike the writing of a successful writer doesn't make their writing bad. Maybe we are simply not seeing the principles they have used effectively.
I don't want to come across as particularly antagonistic here, but I think the "it's all marketing" argument is pretty weak. In some cases (Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, etc.) marketing has certainly taken over and turned the books into something more than average, and irrelevant of quality. Paraphrasing someone from the Dan Brown post - they sell to people who don't buy books.
But those exceptional cases aside, there are plenty of poorly written books that do very well, and that don't receive big marketing pushes. In fact for marketing to even get heavily involved then the book has to have achieved considerable success on its own (as I believe was the case with the Harry Potter books, though I stand to be corrected).
Basically, what I'm trying to say is that even the books I hate are books that have been published. So they have to have done something right that I haven't, because I'm not published yet.
Then you are not marketing your writing properly to agents and publishers. Or you are not writing appropriately for your chosen market.
Marketing is not just Selling to the Masses. It's everything from choosing which product to develop and how to finding the right conduit all the way to finally getting it into the hands of someone who didn't know they wanted it in the first place.
Itís not just marketing. All of the artistic fields have segments that concentrate heavily on entertainment at the cost of the art. I think it bothers a lot of us because we are concentrating heavily on the art of writing, but I donít think the public at large really cares much as to how well a book is written. Not saying that well written books arenít entertaining, they are, but sometimes readers just want to be entertained. It happens in popular music and movies too.
[This message has been edited by Neoindra (edited June 20, 2006).]
Yes, we spend a lot of time here advising novices on how to make their writing "more publishable". We celebrate those who are making their first professional sales. We talk about the marketplace and encourage writers to write for readers, not just for themselves.
But merely getting published is a very low bar. Anyone can do it. You don't even have to commit horrible crimes, though that does help.
I assume that people on this board are looking for more than advice about how to scam a few dollars out of an overly self-indulgent public. I assume that you're looking for ways to really communicate your unique vision to others, to really touch their hearts, to create something beautiful.
Does anyone think that a best-selling work couldn't possibly be hack-written trash? Why do you think there is even such a thing as "hack writing"? Because it pays, of course. No, you can't just write crap and sell it, you have to write the crap that someone is willing to buy, but if you're willing to do that, it's easy enough.
Look, I'm not taking names to find out who here is either so incompetent that they really couldn't get published or so mercenary that they think selling a lot of books is the sole reason for being a writer. But maybe more of us should at least try to act like we're serious about the art.
I think Harry Potter is an excelent example of what sells a book BECAUSE the person who did that interview is right -- JK Rowling is not a good writer. What she is is a good storyteller. Actually, a great one.
A good story will surpass mediocre writing (not BAD writing, but definitely mediocre writing). Excellent writing will not help a mediocre story, unless you're a literature professor.
Her writing has gotten a lot better. I've read all the Harry Potter books three times. Two weeks ago, I picked up Half-Blood Prince and was riveted the whole way through. Last week, I started Chamber of Secrets, and I haven't had the will to finish quite yet.
It may have to do with certain payoffs (Dumbledore finally telling the Dursleys what's what), but I think it's mostly better pacing and more interesting prose.
And fewer POV errors. When Lockhart wagged his finger "annoyingly," I could only conclude that it was the narrator who was annoyed. I didn't notice anything like that in Half-Blood Prince.
This is just another attempt to get me to read Dan Brown. I really liked Life of Pi by the way. I'm listening to it again. It turns out one draw back of audiobooks is you can't flip back to see what happened. It may be a particular weakness of this story on audiobook that the motion of time is fiddled with in the story, with very interesting results.
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Anyway, I agree with Christine. It's about the storytelling. Most readers hardly notice bad writing, except to feel a little discomfort at something they can't quite place, if that. I didn't notice until I started writing.
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I found many great works of literature impenetrable---Joyce, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, basically anything before 1920, and a few scattered examples moving forward in time. But I sampled them when I was young and inexperienced. I might do better with them now.
I thought the first Harry Potter pretty good, but haven't been inspired (yet) to read what came after. Again, maybe someday...
As for books and movies---I've seen at least three adaptations of "The Prisoner of Zenda," two of them pretty good, but none of them were as good as I found the book to be.
I've also read SF stories, that I thought were absolutely awful, that went out and won awards in the field.
So things like that, or great sales, or a writer's track record, or whatever...they're of significance, but they're not necessarily a judge of what you or I would call "good." It's to everybody's own tastes.
Robert N's post reminds me of something I wanted to posted a while back and never got around to doing -- I'm lazy. Apologies for the slight digression via anecdote:
20 years ago, when I was in high school [yikes!], one of our required reading books was Fahrenheit 451. I attempted to read it twice, then gave up because I didn't care, and finally, out of necessity, settled on the Cliff Notes version for my book report. I recall thinking that it was a crappy book. (Bizarrely, I loved Of Mice and Men, also required reading that year.)
Boy, was I wrong about Fahrenheit 451. A month ago I read it and loved it and now heartily recommend it as "required reading." I get it now, of course, because I'm older, my tastes have changed, and because I have a sincere desire to learn more about the craft of writing. Because I have a more informed view of the world around me, I understood the scenarios and subtext in Ray's book. But as teenager, I could not have cared less -- despite that even then I was writing fiction -- because I didn't have a wide enough world view; because I was inexperienced; because... well, a lot of things.
That said, I find Victorian-era stories thoroughly enjoyable these days. I love the writing style as it was back then, and while I enjoy modern fiction every bit as much as the Victorian works, I am often saddened by the abundance of modern works that are arguably simpler in form. Times change, cultures evolve, and therefore so does prose and style. I don't really mind, but my only irrational fear is that in the not-too-distant future, we'll see prose and dialogue in novels written as such:
"btw george i was j/k b4."
"thats alright d00d" he said "b/c i pwned joo @ teh m4ll.!!..!"
Anyway, what's good writing/good fiction for me now wasn't 20 years ago. I wonder how much more my tastes will change. For instance, I haven't read a Conan the Barbarian book since I was thirteen... I used to love those. Now they don't appeal.
The example of Atlas Shrugged is intriguing, because it is a horribly written, preachy book, but it clearly appealed to a large number of people besides the fringe groups who follow Rand's own ideology.
I think the primary reason it has such appeal is that it filled a gap in rather bland market of the 1950's. While the literary crowd was generally being obscure, depressing, bohemian, or some combination of the three, here was a book that had genuine heroics by the likes of businessmen (and women!) and engineers.
In literary fiction, businessmen, engineers, etc. are almost always portrayed poorly -- and this was even more true in the 1950's. Either they're a caricature of Evil or they're some poor ignorant schmuck who lacks the enlightenment of the creative class. In Atlas Shrugged, however, they're the heros, and they're the heros because they do their jobs better than anyone else. I think simply by portraying the characters in that way, Rand filled a niche market that happened to be most of the population, who were so starved for this sort of fictional validation that they overlooked numerous flaws.
When I get really down on my writing, I like to go buy the stinkiest, worst written, worst plotted, most cliched novel I can find. (Check the romance section for some real winners). And then I tell myself I can at least do better than that.
But maybe I should hunt through those books to find out why they sold anyway! And after all, however bad any book is, if it's on the shelf, it's finished (at least as far as the publisher is concerned) so the writer didn't throw it in a box and walk away from it.
I wish my stuff was in boxes. I have two of those old 3 1/2" floppy disks with stories on them. Now I have no hope of getting them back, because I was too "frugal" to print everything out. (Well, there can't be THAT many stories on them. I think they had limited storage space to start with.)
I also have at least one very ancient 5" floppy disk (is that right? It's one of those that is about as big as a 45rpm single...but not quite as old), and it has things that I'm sure I'd like to read again, for the laughs. (Actually, by now it probably just has spider webs and a few hazardous sticky spots.)
I also have just given away a fair bit of information about my age. Anyone wanna guess my weight and fortune?
The reason that there are so many wretched romances is that the standards aren't very high in that market, and they don't need to be. Not in order to make sells. You walk into a regular store, and romance takes up half the shelves. There's such a large audience for it that the publishers have decided that the way to get the money is by quantity rather than quality. It's too bad, really, but in my opinion, you can learn as much about literature from romances as you could about TV shows from soap operas. Close to nothing.
Posts: 329 | Registered: Mar 2005
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When I see a horrible book, I do think, boy, the bar is low. However, the main thing people want is the story. If the story's good enough, some at least will tolerate sucky writing. However, good writing will make it even better.
I dislike John Barnes's style of writing. I wouldn't call it beautiful. He also describes sex, not in emotional terms, but in terms of body parts, using the official latinate names. Sometimes I feel like I'm reading a medical text! But I really love his stories. Earth Made of Glass is very high on my list, despite stylistic problems.
Of course, much of what we talk about here isn't style so much as structure, and bad structure can annoy the heck out of a reader.
I do buy that, Mr. Writing Person, especially with Harlequin. However, the little romance that I've read--and it has been little--usually wasn't sexed up at all. In fact, it took forever for the characters to hold hands. Big moment there, let me tell ya.
The writing still sucked. I think beyond the romance aspect of romance, the audience is looking for drama which is even more mishandled. The audience is so big though, that the market had to spread to sell barely average material, and since the audience has only read crap, they're unaware of what bread tastes like. So they aren't going to complain about poorly written stuff because that brand of story is what they're after, and nothing more.
Novice, I lost a lot of stories and fragments and the second draft of a novel that way. Darn floppy disks.
As for romance, there are some good ones, too, I think. Some of the historicals take you to interesting places and throw in a lot of detail (some of those writers spent a lot of time at the library), and I'm not ashamed to say I think Laura Kinsale's characters are interesting and appealing.
Romance novels aren't porn for women, though. Erotica is.
No, a lot of it is basically porn for women. If a woman is addicted to romance novels, it can have basically the same effect on her long-term romantic relationships that male oriented porn will have on a man's long-term romantic relationships. The particulars differ because men and women are just that different.
Most men wouldn't even recognize what women like about romance novels, just as most women have almost no idea what men see in porn. And romance novels that have serious artistic merit are as rare as porn that can make the same claim.
On the other hand, it is easier to make and sell porn that has no artistic value than it is to produce and sell romance novels that have no redeeming value. So porn is definitely a greater social danger, it will quickly saturate and destroy a civilization unless it is fought vigorously (and at many levesls). Bad romance novels are no more dangerous to civilization as a whole than any other bad literature.
Pornography is not easily defined. Oh, someone might think they can spot porn, but can they really do so? A magazine about hot rods could be considered porn by some people--and probably is. No, really... one person's technical manual is another's porn. I strongly disagree with Survivor's assertation that porn can destroy a civilization. There is simply no scientific evidence of that being true. Of course exploitative, violent pornography is extremely dire. But repression is far more dangerous than openness -- even if said openness may be considered vulgar and profane by the majority -- and there is, oh! I don't know, at least 2000 years of evidence of that being a fact.
To borrow from the late Bill Hicks:
The U.S. Supreme Court has defined pornography as anything that has no artistic merit and causes sexual thoughts.
Well, that's nearly every television commercial. ** EDIT: For the record, I'm neither pro- nor anti-porn. I simply see it as a non issue when there are so many more important things to consider, such as the government consistently infringing on personal freedom of choice, telling us what's good for us and what isn't. Anyone who tells you what to think is essentially practicing fascism. Think about that for a while and pornography will plummet to the bottom of your priortized list of things to worry about.
[This message has been edited by HSO (edited June 24, 2006).]
I've actually heard that it's surprisingly easy to write a romance novel. I've read a few articles by pulp writers who say that they follow a very basic process, inserting names and places, and tell a new version of the same story over and over.
It makes sense. If a guy looks as pictures of naked women, he doesn't care if they're sitting on a chair or on the floor. If a woman reads a trashy romance novel, she doesn't care if the man with the rippling muscles and throbbing love bulge is in a white t-shirt or a leather vest.
Actually, I do care. But then, I read very few romance novels these days.
(The following comments are not about mainstream or genre romances. They are about Harlequin and similar romance novels.)
Porn for women. In the sense that they can be highly addicting and play off of women's basic needs in a relationship, yes, that's an accurate description.
Another similarity is that the female character, though necessarily believable so the reader can identify with her, isn't nearly as important as the male character... the "hero". Because -- just like those women in porn mags -- the man in a romance novel is never just a man. He's an idealized version. And it should be noted that good looks and some experience with sex is only a small portion of what makes for a good romance hero. If you make a list of the qualities the male character has you'll find: confidence, a sense of humor, an adventurous spirit without getting stupid (or if he does make a stupid mistake have it be something understandable and/or endearing), intelligence (see previous) and -- most importantly -- a complete fascination with the woman he'll end up with by the end of the story.
I've always felt sorry for teens who have been saturated in this stuff. Expecting most men to be like the heros in a trashy romance is like expecting most women to be just like porn queens... very disappointing.
That's about where it ends, though. So, if there's any formula for a romance, it's this: exploit a woman's need to be loved and adored.
A bunch of story files that I wrote on an old one-lunged word processor are apparently inaccessible to me these days via computer---but I was still into "print out one copy to submit and another as the 'carbon,'" so I could still read them---if I dare to.
I read about two hundred Harlequin Romances back in the early eighties while researching the writing of one. I found practically all of them adequately written---better than I could do myself, as I found out when I did write one...
I'll strike the comments about porn destroying civilization from the record, since it isn't pertinent to the conversation. However, it does have a significant impact on a man's ability to be satisfied within a long term relationship. Depending on the man and his available relationships (and the type of porn), this impact could be seen as positive (increasing the stability and longevity of the relationship, leaving "moralistic" considerations aside).
My point was simply that "pulp" romance novels can have a similar impact on women and their relationships with men. And that, however effortless it is to churn out cheap romance novels, it's far easier to turn out pictures of naked women. This has held true at least since the advent of cave painting, and it isn't going to change anytime soon.
Beth, I'm inclined to disagree with you there. Being one of the unfortunate teens way back when who bought into the whole romance novel thing, and having read quite a few, they are not hard to write. The problem with that industry is that they don't expect anything but a surface characterization and a plot that has basic developement. And canned characterization and plot at that. You can take all the qualities that Keeley mentioned for your romantic hero, cut and paste him into any type of costume you want, whether it be pirate, indian, business exec or playboy on the beach. You do the same for your heroine and then follow high school english class structure for your storyline and you've got a novel.
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I don't think the issue is whether they're publishable, it's whether it'd be any good.
On the subject, what would it take to have a good romance story? I'm sure they exist, and I'd honestly love to read one. Trouble is, I don't want to waste my time going through all the shelves of rotten apples to find a well-done novel from that genre. And I can't ask anybody which story is good because I can't trust the opinions of those who make a habit of reading those type of books. <sigh>
Here we get into the realm of examining the distinction between ability and motivation. For the record, I can write publishable romance, I just don't want to write romance novels.
Just like I could post pictures of naked women on the internet, but I don't want to post pictures of naked women on the internet. I'm sure the same applies to most of us, even those who claim to not have a problem with it.
Anyway, my (secondary) point was that posting pictures of naked women on the internet is easier than writing romance novels. It had nothing to do with whether romance novels are all that easy to write. They just happen to be frighteningly easy to write, that's all.
I should have mentioned that, while the actual writing of my pathetic attempt at a Harlequin Romance was easy---one week, fifty thousand words, complete---the end product wound up not-so-good. (I was never able to adapt the system to science fiction novels, alas.)
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I don't know if a man would be as devastated that his wife were reading romance novels as a woman tends to be on learning her husband is addicted to porn. My mother says she was addicted to romance novels shortly before her divorce. I couldn't confirm or deny that because I was too busy doing all the shopping and cooking for the family [/wry codependency reference].
There used to be this girl at my high school who was quite insistent that she would be a famous writer someday and would make good on the years of maligning endured by the romance novel industry by giving them credit for teaching her to write. So I find this whole discussion particularly bizarre.
What is considered a romance novel? Well, I haven't actually read any except for Jane Austen's. I take that back, I read the novelization of "Romancing the Stone."
I actually have this complex meta-emotional theory about feelings, sensations, and impressions that explains the difference between crap and bread. But I don't really feel like going into it right now.
For those people who know how to write romance novels the way the readers and publishers want them to be written, it may very well be easy to do. However, there is a certain tone or feel to them, that can be very difficult to produce. Romance novels are not as easy to write as they may appear to be.
And for those of you who are cynical about romance novels, I submit that the very cynicism you feel toward them may hinder your ability to produce the necessary "tone or feel" no matter how well you may be able to imitate every other aspect.
quote:And that, however effortless it is to churn out cheap romance novels, it's far easier to turn out pictures of naked women.
I just want to point out that I didn't say it was effortless. I said, no matter how effortless it may (or may not) be, dirty pictures are easier. If you don't have a camera (or lack access to naked women), turning out dirty pictures isn't totally free of effort either, eh?
So what I actually said was that writing romance novels is harder than drawing good looking naked women. And guess what? We all agree. Beth, just read my posts before you start to argue about how wrong I am. Not that I never say anything that can be argued, but it's a waste of time to get huffy about something I didn't say.
As for romance novels being frighteningly easy to write, I should clarify that this is from someone who wants to write something other than romance novels, but finds his writing full of angsty romantic complications all the time. It's embarrassing, but there you have it.
One side effect from trying my hand at a Harlequin Romance novel...I found that, more often after that, I had a woman as a lead character. Maybe that's why I've failed to be published---the "write what you know" theory puts me behind the eight ball as far as women and romance goes.
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My husband and I have had a really good debate over this general topic just the other day because it is my firmly held belief that at the heart of any good novel is an equally good romance. Itís just part of the human condition. Well written stories put the reader in the eyes of the MC and letís face it we all want to be loved. Thatís why so many stories that start off as non romance will often involve romantic entanglements by the time they are done. BTW after going through every novel he could think of and me listing off the romance in it that adds depth to the plot he finally agreed with me.
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