Is Writing a Meritocracy?

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
I read some interesting comments to the Jim Hines Gospel of Publishing blog post, linked by A.E. Lowan. Among them were comments from NYT Best-selling author Rachel Caine, who I think is a good writer. They make a point I've made before, though she says it better (and I do have one quibble, after the quote):

Don said writing is a meritocracy, but I actually don’t agree with that – monster bestsellers often aren’t the best artistic or technically written works. They are the books that appeal to some hidden zeitgeist nobody else managed to touch, that’s all. I’d say honestly that a lot of runaway hits (NOT all) were written at what he would consider a “coach class” level … yet they’ve got a hell of a lot more folding money than any of us will ever see. Writing is crazy that way. You can’t call it a meritocracy. It’s much more chaotic than that. AND THAT’S GOOD. That means we’ve all got a shot at it....

...
I tend to think as authors we would like to equate craft directly to success, because craft is controllable and measurable. Success is a wild and uncontrollable lottery. They *can* go together, but often the best craftspeople don’t draw a major audience. Craft does not have to equal storytelling, either. Storytelling is a pure, visceral sensation for the reader that can carry them right past any deficiencies in the craft of the writing. And often, storytelling is what tips it over into a whole different sales category.


I think she's right, as much as writers who are starting out don't often consider this to be good news. My one quibble is this - I think if you're talking about mid-level success, the kind of success that is realistic for most authors, technical merit and craft are important factors in elevating you above the mass of works that are below that. But going from that to out-of-the-park success, I think all bets are off and being a better writer, in a technical sense, isn't predictive.
 
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BWFoster78

Myth Weaver
I haven't been posting much in the Writing Questions forum recently, but I couldn't resist the question in the title of this post :)

I think that mega-success is almost pure luck. For the most part, you need some type of skill to be in a position to catch that luck - kinda like decent craft is the purchase price of the lottery ticket. Not sure even that caveat is needed in all cases, though. 50 Shades, by all accounts, was horribly written. (My wife, who does not read like a writer on any level, even commented on just how poorly it was written.) I think that Harry Potter and Twilight were well written, but I don't think that either series was so much better than competitors that it justified the difference in success level.

I think, however, that achieving some level of success absent luck is absolutely a meritocracy, though not a pure one. I don't think you can say, "This book is 5% better than this book and will thus make 5% more money." I do think that, on average, better writers will have a better chance for success than their peers. I really think that better writers who have a sense for marketing will have a hugely better chance for success than their peers.

Defining "better" is a bit of a rub, though. The quote differentiates Craft and storytelling. When discussing learning to write, it makes some sense to separate the two. When discussing "better," I don't think it does. A good writer needs Craft in order to communicate Story and needs Story to draw true fans. If you can't communicate Story, what good does it do to be good at Story? If you don't have a good Story, what good is being able to tell it do?
 

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
I agree with 99% of what you've said, though I do think that on par story-telling trumps craft, and mediocre craft with excellent story-telling skills will trump excellent craft with a mediocre ability to tell a story. In other words, if you're just competent at craft and great at story-telling you're going to do better than someone who is the reverse of that.
 

BWFoster78

Myth Weaver
I agree with 99% of what you've said, though I do think that on par story-telling trumps craft, and mediocre craft with excellent story-telling skills will trump excellent craft with a mediocre ability to tell a story. In other words, if you're just competent at craft and great at story-telling you're going to do better than someone who is the reverse of that.

I actually don't disagree with that.

I started my journey with craft since it's simply easier to learn. Since I reached a point where I felt I was competent (not excellent) with craft, I've really been working hard at the story part. It's a lot more nebulous - not as many rules that you can even use as guidelines and hard even to define. I think, though, that I'm starting to pick it up.

EDIT: I do think, though, that there is a market for works that are purely craft driven. Take scifi adventure. I think that, if you write fast-paced, tension-filled stories, you can sell them all day long even if there's not much to the storytelling aspect. (Depending, of course, on your definition of the nebulously-defined word, "storytelling.")
 
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CupofJoe

Myth Weaver
I think being lucky or if you prefer being in the right place at the right time has an affect on how successful you are.
Sometimes it is as straightforward as your contacts [or your contacts' contacts] - getting the right people to see your stuff.
Other times its hitting on that unexpected mix that people didn't know they wanted.
If you can't get your work to the right audience at the right time, then success will be limited if it is there at all.
That said, the old joke still goes... How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You gotta practice, really really practice...
 
The problem with the idea of writing being a meritocracy is this: who decides what defines merit? It's the same problem I keep blathering about, about trying to define a book as "good" or "bad." Mug's game.

As a writer, you have goals, and either you meet them or you don't. If you want to make lots of money, write books that lots of people want to read, and flog the hell out of them until you get some traction. If you want critical acclaim, write books that critics will like. If you want both, well, good luck, because I have no idea how to achieve that.
 

BWFoster78

Myth Weaver
The problem with the idea of writing being a meritocracy is this: who decides what defines merit? It's the same problem I keep blathering about, about trying to define a book as "good" or "bad." Mug's game.

My understanding of the context of the question is:

Do the "best" books go on to become the most commercially acceptable ones? Is success a result of "merit" (the "best" books succeed) or by some other factor?

In this case, the buying public are the ones who define "best" with their votes in the form of dollars.

EDIT: The concept isn't to try to determine what is "best." It's to determine whether or not hard work leads to success or if we, as writers, are pretty much left to fate if we want to succeed.
 
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T.Allen.Smith

Staff
Moderator
There are too many variables in an author's success to break down and be able to accurately discover some secret to success. Those reader whims and tastes change from year to year, fad to fad.

I think most writers accept that story trumps all, but that craft will help. In my opinion, the reason we discuss craft and, by extension writing well, is because we CAN breakdown elements of craft. We can understand technique & learn from the application of different methods.

The longer I write a lot & read a lot though, the more convinced I become that storytelling skill is not the same. I'm not sure that people can learn to be better storytellers. Now, I'm not talking about story structures, character archetypes, or anything of this nature. That to me, is still craft. I'm talking about the simple ability to tell an enthralling tale that captivates the imagination, an innate understanding of how to relay story concepts and character emotion effectively. I believe the telling of a story is a communication skill separate from any understanding of technique. It's more akin to a performance. It's the ability of that guy or girl you know that's the life of the party. The one that gathers a crowd in the kitchen when describing the funny events of last weekend's adventures. They capture attention, and so does good storytelling in written form.

As far as success is concerned, well you'll have to define what success entails for yourself. It could be a thousand readers. Maybe it's hitting the NY Times best seller list. Or, perhaps it's simply being able to make a living by writing alone. That's for each of us to decide.

That being said, we've all noticed the popularity of YA books in the adult market. There have been lots of runaway successes in that grouping as of late. I think the main factor there, common in most of these, is ease of reading. People that read a ton aren't really affected by this. It's the people who are occasional readers, those that latch onto fads. Those readers account for these massive blockbusters. These folks don't want to work when they read. They want escapism. They want ease. They want a great story that entertains. Providing that, at the right time, takes a bit of luck I think. Sure, you can follow behind the work that begins a fad but that's nothing more than imitation. Yes, you can have monetary success doing so, but the big ones...those whose names get pandered about (recent examples: Rowling, Meyer, Collins, Martin) are at the front end. They started something, or at least popularized the type.
 

BWFoster78

Myth Weaver
T.Allen,

I laughed when I read this:

The longer I write a lot & read a lot though, the more convinced I become that storytelling skill is not the same. I'm not sure that people can learn to be better storytellers. Now, I'm not talking about story structures, character archetypes, or anything of this nature. That to me, is still craft. I'm talking about the simple ability to tell an enthralling tale that captivates the imagination, an innate understanding of how to relay story concepts and character emotion effectively. I believe the telling of a story is a communication skill separate from any understanding of technique.

This is the exact opposite of the way I feel.

The more analytical reading I do and the more I write, the more understanding I gain of storytelling. And not just the aspects that border on technique. I feel that it absolutely can be learned.
 

T.Allen.Smith

Staff
Moderator
The more analytical reading I do and the more I write, the more understanding I gain of storytelling. And not just the aspects that border on technique. I feel that it absolutely can be learned.

Lots of people would agree with you. I can only speak from my own experience. I've read a lot of excerpts in crit groups that range from first-timers to those with years of practice, and while I've noticed dramatic improvements in writing techniques and understanding of craft, I have yet to discover anyone whose gone from an inability to tell an engrossing story to someone that can.

Just to be clear, I'm not talking about principles like "showing vs telling". I'm talking about the imagination and wit required to conjure a good story that captivates.
 

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
I think storytelling can be learned, but is best learned by the ability to turn off the hypercritical writer that looks at so many of the technical aspects we concentrate on in forums and to instead read more like a reader, taking a more organic approach to the novel.
 

Malik

Auror
I think if you're talking about mid-level success, the kind of success that is realistic for most authors, technical merit and craft are important factors in elevating you above the mass of works that are below that. But going from that to out-of-the-park success, I think all bets are off and being a better writer, in a technical sense, isn't predictive.

This.

You can write technical crap and still hit a nerve with the populace. People are stupid and getting stupider; the bar for good writing is dropping. I deal, daily, with college graduates who can't construct a single coherent sentence and who I'm sure wouldn't recognize a well-crafted sentence from a bad one. (I read an article recently suggesting that people should be able to sue their colleges and get some of their money back. Think about it: every syllabus clearly states "At the end of this course, the student will be able to . . . ." The plaintiff rests.)

On top of that, self-publishing apparently leads people who have zero writing ability and no training to think that writing a book is a road analogous to becoming YouTube famous. I'm not talking about books I don't care for. I'm talking about bad writing.

I mean for all intensive purposes when an Author doesn't know, there not supposed to abruptly change you're "Point of View" and etc. than it effects me as a Reader and I loose interest.

If that sentence read fine to you and you think you should self-publish, you are killing the craft.

The flip side of this is, there are books for the Kardashians constituency. People who are either uneducated or too apathetic to recognize good writing occasionally buy books, primarily because other people are reading the same books and they want to maintain a sense of cultural relevancy. However, these are people who maybe buy one book a year, if that. This is a market so small you can't even aim at it.

You're not going to get away with writing poorly and make a living as a writer. Writing a piece of crap that becomes a massive commercial success is possible; we've seen it. But this is not only like winning the lottery. As a buddy of mine puts it, we're talking about odds on the order of playing Russian Roulette and surviving because the gun jammed on a winning lottery ticket that fell out of the sky.
 
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T.Allen.Smith

Staff
Moderator
I mean for all intensive purposes when an Author doesn't know, there not supposed to abruptly change you're "Point of View" and etc. than it effects me as a Reader and I loose interest.

If that sentence read fine to you and you think you should self-publish, you are killing the craft.
Now that made me chuckle!
 

Svrtnsse

Staff
Article Team
Would you say that "craft is science, story is art" sums it up? I guess TAS would agree, but BWF not?

I think it's about what level you're talking about. I think/hope that through practice and hard work you can probably reach an acceptable (even good) level of story, but to get that extra notch towards truly excellent story there's something else needed; talent, intuition, luck maybe?

As far as practice and hard work goes. I think it definitely contributes to your success. If nothing else, it ought to increase your chances of being lucky, even if ever so slightly.
 

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
Getting to stupid people, I'm not sure I would jump to that conclusion. I know lots of very smart people who are excellent writers and readers who loved the Twilight books, for example, and the writing proficiency there is mediocre. Meyer succeeded as a story teller, however.
 

T.Allen.Smith

Staff
Moderator
Getting to stupid people, I'm not sure I would jump to that conclusion. I know lots of very smart people who are excellent writers and readers who loved the Twilight books, for example, and the writing proficiency there is mediocre. Meyer succeeded as a story teller, however.

Agreed. I don't think that falls on intelligence. I know very educated, successful people that liked those books as well. I myself liked the stories well enough.

I think it comes down to what readers enjoy & what they're looking for in their reading. In this particular case it was a story people liked that was easy to read.
 

Telcontar

Staff
Moderator
Joe Konrath is fond of saying that writing is a lottery. Or maybe it's that the bestseller status is a lottery. Obviously, he's got a very distinct bias (being perhaps the poster-child for the anti-traditional publication movement) but I'd agree with him on that.

Ben also brings up a very good point in that "merit" is in itself a completely subjective thing. I know a lot of people who say that craft, or "how good of a writer you are," is not entirely subjective. I think that is only true for a very stark and basic level. Once you are able to form coherent sentences, the rest is all subjective. Steerpike and Malik spoke of technical merit, and again I'll call that a fairly basic level of proficiency with writing. Errors in basic grammar usually aren't a stylistic choice, after all. But once you get beyond making those errors, we cannot truly say that somebody is an objectively bad writer if they (for instance) happen to like using adverbs. It simply runs counter to the prevailing style.

As far as audiences go... I too know a lot of very smart people who enjoy what I consider to be terrible books. My favorite one for this example is 50 Shades of Gray. A number of my friends liked that book, including several who (to borrow a phrase from Simon Tam) make me look like an idiot child. And that's fine - I don't think anyone should have to feel bad for enjoying something that doesn't harm anyone else. I don't believe in the concept of "guilty pleasures." The number of variables in the human experience - and in the things that speak to it powerfully - is infinite.
 

BWFoster78

Myth Weaver
Just to be clear, I'm not talking about principles like "showing vs telling". I'm talking about the imagination and wit required to conjure a good story that captivates.

T.Allen,

Part of the problem, as with any discussion, is one of definition. Were we to agree on a definition of storytelling that we both could live with, however, I'm pretty sure we would still disagree on this subject.

There are, however, two separate questions that I see raised by your statement:

1. Is Storytelling ability an innate skill that only some possess?
2. Assuming the first to be true, if someone does have some level of Storytelling ability, can that ability be improved with learning?

Regarding Question 1: I just don't know. Are there people in the world who will just never grasp the fundamental concepts? I'd have to say, "Yes." Do there exist people in this world who are just innately gifted as Storytellers? Again, I'd have to say, "Yes." Instead of looking at the outliers, however, what about the average aspiring author? To what degree is Storytelling Nature vs Nurture? Beats the crap outta me.

Regarding Question 2: Unless I'm deluding myself, I have to say, "Yes." All I can really speak to is my own experience, which leads me to believe that the skill can be honed. I have a so much better understanding of how to shape a good story now than when I started.
 
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