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What is Important?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by BWFoster78, Sep 25, 2015.

  1. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    I love a good theoretical debate on what “good” writing is, but when you get right down to it, my focus is on actionable suggestions for making me a successful indie writer. So my question is:

    What qualities are most important for a writer to develop in order to achieve commercial success?

    First of all, I'm not sure "qualities" is the right word. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's not, but at the moment, I'm at a loss as to what the right word should be. Feel free to supply a better one.

    Second, let me admit straight off that I do not know the answer to the posed question. I'm going to list a few of my thoughts in order to get the conversation rolling. Please don't take these as anything other than conjecture.

    1. Craft

    In the beginning of my exploration of writing as a career, I focused a lot on learning craft. I do not in any way regret that time spent learning. However, I'm not sure that craft above a certain level is all that important for selling books.

    It seems that really inferior craft will hold a book back, but I'm not sure that the effort and expense required to achieve really good (for all values of good) craft is worth it if you're seeking success from self publishing. I'm not nearly as familiar with what's required to do well with traditional publishing, but it seems to me that traditionally published works, in general, are superior from a craft perspective than most self published ones. It also seems to me, though, that the lack of superior craft in the independent books aren't harming sales as much as purists might want to think they would.

    If I were to go back in time to advise a younger me on how to most efficiently proceed forward, I'm not sure what I'd say. From my current perspective, each step in the path to where I am now seems absolutely necessary. So even though I value craft less now than I did at the beginning, I'm not sure I would advise my younger self to change that opinion.

    Bottom line: A minimum level of competence is required to keep readers turning pages, but that level is much lower than my personal taste requires.

    2. Focus on the reader

    If one wants to sell books, one simply must write books that a reader wants to read. It seems like there’s a lot of advice out there to write what you’re passionate about. Three issues: 1) if your passion is a really small niche, you’re probably not going to sell a lot of books just because the pool of buyers is too small and 2) just because you’re passionate about a subject, does not make your writing/story good and 3) just because you don’t have passion about a subject doesn’t mean the writing/story is going to be bad.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I have to constantly think, “How can I make this story interesting to the reader?”

    My contention is that I’m already interested in my story. Therefore, my words don’t have to do the work of creating interest. When a reader picks up my story, however, all they have are my words to create that interest.

    Back before I started this focus, I didn’t get anywhere hoping what I wrote would engage my reader. Since, it seems like things have gotten better.

    3. Story

    When evaluating a book I’ve just finished, my first criteria is, “Did I finish it?” If not, the likelihood that I’ll ever read that author again is slim. If so, the author’s craft skills were strong enough to keep me engaged. Best case scenario, that means I’d be open to reading that author again.

    Here’s the problem, though. With so many authors and books out there, merely being open to reading the author again isn’t good enough. That author needs me to search out his books. To join his mailing list. To become a fan.

    The only way any of that happens is if I loved the book, and the only way I love a book is if the combination of concept, characters, and conflict provoked an emotional response.

    It seems to me that a key to long term success is figuring out how to write stories that compel your readers to search out the rest of your library.

    4. Write a lot

    I think the chances of any one book making you gazillions of dollars is slim, but if you have enough books on the market, the combined sales can make you decent money. Additionally, each book you put out is another opportunity to find members of your core audience, especially since Amazon more heavily promotes new releases.


    Going forward with my attempt to make a go of it as a self published author, here’s my current focus:

    - Always keep improving my writing craft but don’t focus on it unless reader/sales feedback indicates that it is a problem.
    - Take reader feedback to heart. Who is my core reader? What do they want? How can I better serve them?
    - Put more time/money/effort into making my stories good than in making my writing good.
    - Stop writing freaking forum posts and get back to editing my novel!
    psychotick likes this.
  2. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    A really thick skin and a high level of persistence.
    BWFoster78 likes this.
  3. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I don't have an answer, being an amateur myself, but I found Writing 21st Century Fiction, by Donald Maas, and Writing the Breakout novel by the same author really helped to put some of these questions into perspective especially:
    What todays publisher is looking for (with examples)
    The death of the genre, and genre bending

    etc. I really suggest it as a great read, not about craft, but about making our work really stand out.
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I don't entirely disagree with the focus on the reader, but I don't place so much importance on it, for two reasons.

    One, I have to please myself first. This is both more important and more difficult than it sounds. It's important because I have to care. Writing can be formulaic (and successful), but that is not the path I want to walk. If someone else does, that's fine by me, as long as they don't care that I don't buy a second book from them. Pleasing myself first is difficult because I do not yet know what feels right, or if it feels wrong how I go about fixing it. I myself am a work in progress, creating a work in progress.

    The other reason is that I don't entirely trust the reader. First of all, there are many readers, with many different levels of sophistication and different ranges of expectation they bring to the book. Focusing on "the reader" means focusing on an abstraction I myself create (or which a publishing house, or marketing studies, create for me). Moreover, I'm not sure "the reader" knows what he wants before he reads it. That's why we, as readers, are sometimes surprised. We love it when an author comes along who doesn't meet our expectations but rather creates new ones. For all the criticisms I level at GRRM, he did this for me in the first ASoIaF novel. When I picked up the book I saw nothing but tired tropes, and he *still* made me read the whole thing. I didn't know I wanted to read that and couldn't have told you if you'd asked me. Focusing on me as I was prior to reading that book would not have led GRRM to write the book he did. He wrote for himself first.

    I suppose that somewhere around my fourth successful published novel (note I did not say my fourth novel ever), I might have enough of a sense of myself, my craft, and the market, to be more cognizant of trends or specific readerships. That's a long way off.

    Meanwhile, I'll go this far, since I'm in company with Ray Bradbury. I try never to underestimate the reader's intelligence. I try to take the reader as seriously and respectfully as I want the reader to take my writing.
    kennyc likes this.
  5. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver


    First of all, I think it is completely cool to walk whatever path you want to walk. Within the context of the subject of what would tend to lead to a self published author being commercially successful, however, not writing according to the readers notions of formula is generally thought to be less likely to lead to success. That's not my stance on the subject as much as it is the prevailing theory that I've inferred from a very unscientific survey of posts by self published writers who are making bank.

    Until many somebodies who have walked that path tell me, "Hey, readers are going for new stories that break all tropes!" I'm going to keep assuming that my ultimate commercial success is more likely to come by following formulas than it is to come from venturing off on my own.

    The advice most given when this subject comes up is: your best bet is to find the intersection between what people are reading and the stories that you want to tell.

    I don't know about you, but I could come up with a dozen ideas a day for stories. Probably more. All I have to do is let my mind drift for a while and Bang! there's another idea. I think the concept is: discard all the ideas that don't interest you and then pursue the one that is left that has the best chance of being commercially viable.

    I'm not sure this idea holds much merit. If you want to know what readers are reading, simply study the bestsellers in your genre. There's no mystery to it.

    I guess my thinking is this: what's more likely, long term, to lead to my financial well being - going to work every day or buying lotto tickets? Producing books that resemble the bestseller lists and that I know people want to read is likely to lead to sales. Those books may be less likely to break out into the stratosphere of GRRM, but they're also likely to provide that monthly paycheck. Going off on my own may give me "more" of a chance to break into GRRM's territory, but that chance is a lot like buying lotto tickets.

    I get that some people have no aspiration to the mid list. They want to be GRRM or nothing. There is nothing wrong with swinging for the fences. However, I don't think that's the answer to the question, "What's the best path to commercial success?"
  6. Helen

    Helen Inkling

    I think the ability to get writing work is up there.
  7. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    But isn't this the case: Every author is also "the reader."

    I would say, focus on what you would want to read. I am not arguing against shooting for commercial success, but I do find odd the notion that the author-as-reader is somehow an unusual "reader" not fitting into that amorphous class composed of "the readers" populating the public. I would bet good money that most authors themselves have sets of common, genre-specific tropes they like, particular types of story structure they enjoy reading. Perhaps rather than an either/or conundrum, authors who want commercial success should merely allow themselves to utilize these things instead of feeling pressed to write everything anew.

    Also, I think a distinction can be made between what you as author want to read and what you as author want to write. Sometimes there is a pressure to write "the new" or "the groundbreaking" novel, the magnum opus that will in time become not only a classic but also a model for a whole new subset in the fantasy genre. Well of course that desire may sound ridiculous or unrealistic at best; but my guess is that most authors at some time in their careers have wanted to write such a thing. But what do you want to read?

    I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with writing only for commercial success, if that's what you (generic you, meaning any of us) want to do.
  8. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    I think you're missing the point. The advice is to mirror the formulas and tropes used by the bestsellers in your genre. The goal is to make your book palatable to a large audience in order to give yourself the best chance of succeeding.

    If you have tastes that are similar to the tropes and formulas that the genre wants, that's fantastic. If not, an either/or dynamic is created.
  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    In order, it seems to me:

    1. Be a good story-teller;
    2. Write a story with broad appeal that lots of people want to read;
    3. Be competent at the technical aspects of commercial fiction writing; and
    4. Write the next book.
    kennyc and BWFoster78 like this.
  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar


    But, if your tastes run counter to the bestsellers, in fact if you find them distasteful, how are you going to muddle your way through 6 months or a year on the first draft. And then bear the onerous task of editing, revising, writing succeeding drafts?

    Also, isn't it the case that one cannot actually write well what one does not respect or admire on some level? It is far easier to write a parody of those works. I suspect that pulling off a reasonable approximation of what the bestsellers pull off could only be achieved a) if you actually do find them to your taste, even if this comes as a surprise, or b) you come to appreciate them after all during the process of recreating their successful features.

    In which case, your "if not" doesn't apply.
  11. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    I've recently discovered that in order to make money writing, working with the market and current trends is the way to do it. This is a popular concept in the Indie publishing world--one I've never really cared much for until I started ghostwriting a couple of months ago, well as preparing my manuscripts for publication. I agree with Brian's perspective of story/craft coming first, then catering to the needs of readers second. If money and audience is important, then writers need to take the market trends into consideration.

    I write fantasy just like everyone here. In the past, I've written some stories with romantic subplots, but didn't consider myself a romance writer. Guess what all the ghostwriting jobs I've gotten so far have been? Romance. Mostly erotic in nature, which I've had a bit of experience with and now it's what's bringing in the work. I've had to give in and write less of what's important to me. Yes, everything we write should be interesting to us. Otherwise, every word will drag and the entire experience will suck. But publishing is a business and in order to be successful, making decisions to write along with the market's trends is a wise move. Individual creativity can still be achieved by being flexible to what readers want, too.

    The needs of readers is what's most important to me at this point, second only to craft. If my audience wants shape shifters with romance and candles, that's what I'm going to give them.
    BWFoster78 likes this.
  12. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    First of all, I think you probably need to be more efficient in your writing process. Writing only a book a year is probably going to make success kind of difficult.

    Second, I think that, if you want to have a career as a writer, you have to treat it as a job, not as fun.

    I really don't know the answer to this question. My assumption is that you feel this is a no brainer, that one cannot write well what one does not respect or admire.

    I'm not sure that is the case. If your job is to write well and you know how to write well, does it matter what you're writing?

    You absolutely do, however, have to know who you are as an author. There has to be something about some popular genre that you like.
  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    @BWFoster: My general point, stated previously, is that most of us probably have tastes that align somewhat with the bestsellers, already. Not everything I read is on the bestseller lists; but over three decades of reading fantasy fiction, many of the novels I've enjoyed reading have also been bestsellers. Am I odd in this respect? I don't know. I still question the idea that authors of fantasy fiction are somehow not members of that class, "the reader" being targeted. Sure, some authors may have tastes quite unlike what appears on the bestseller lists; but then, they are probably going to be least interested in advice like the advice you've given. Your general observations #1-#4 in your opening post are very good observations, but I believe that in most cases they can serve as good guidelines without the need to sacrifice the personal goals we have for our writing. (Goals beyond merely making a living at writing.)
  14. MineOwnKing

    MineOwnKing Maester

    I think it's a healthy thing for consumers to privately understand what helps them to keep their sanity.

    Many people live hum drum lives.

    Those hard working pluggers, do not have the gift that makes all members here special, our gift to put words on paper.

    If you are writing romance on the side to pay the bills, then you are also doing a great service to those that love romance as their only escape from unhappiness.

    Erotica in moderation, is just as valid in maintaining mental health as reading a great literary work.

    I think you should be proud that you are able to do both.

    After all, as humans, are we not made up of all the things that make us click?

    I do not see why we cannot have a balance of writing both high brow literature and erotica if the opportunity is there to make money.

    Working hard, spending time with family, being a positive force in the community, are all important things but also become tedious if we are not able to relish life through joy, laughter and sensuality.

    We must be all things and enjoy all things to be complete.
    Garren Jacobsen likes this.
  15. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    I'm hopeful that "writing to my own tastes" is a good idea. That's really what I've done since I feel that my tastes are pretty in line with the market.

    To be honest, though, the advice out there is not "write to your own tastes and hope." It's "figure out exactly what is selling and replicate that as closely as possible."

    I'm not sure, however, that advice is as easy to follow in a genre like epic fantasy. It doesn't seem like there is one formula that is dominant, so maybe we have a bit more leeway. I'm hopeful of that.

    Note that a lot of self publishers really making bank write in Romance. I think that, in those subgenres, following a particular formula is much more important.

    Again, though, I'm doing a lot of speculating. I have no actual experience. As I gain experience and learn real world lessons, I'll share with the group my takeaways :)
    FifthView likes this.
  16. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Funny that you say that. For some time I've been toying with a theory of modern economics that includes the notion that simple increase in population size leads to more viability for various fringe or subculture niches. Pretty simple idea. Basically, if 1% of a population likes X and will buy it, then in a population of 1000 people, you are only going to sell 10 of product X, and let's say at $5.oo each that's only $50. But in a population of 300,000,000, that's 3 million sold so it's $15mil. So basically, niche markets can become increasingly profitable over time, even if not every oddball niche will. (My example is a gross oversimplification, just to get the idea across.)

    I've seen the sudden explosion of m/m romance fiction, also m/m fantasy romance fiction, and my current WIP is in that genre. I've only been reading in that genre for the last few years. Although there are some excellent novels in the genre, there's still a lot of mutability in formulae and a lot of bases that haven't been covered. I'm shooting for a more typical epic fantasy that happens to include a central m/m romance and a f/f romance.

    But for me, the decision to write it came first because I've really been enjoying reading m/m fantasy romances, and I've been frustrated that there aren't many that I would call epic fantasy. I have however been curious to find out if this means there's a huge opening there, to fill that gap in the niche.
  17. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I would add "read" to the list in your conclusion. Every successful author in the world gives the advice to new authors to read read read read read and read some more. Read everything, even if it is not a genre you normally like. When you find something you like, study it. What exactly did that author do to draw you in… what word choices did they use? How did they frame their sentences? How did they create that emotional pull… then use that same stuff in your books. Soon it will become your own.
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  18. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    This quote is a bit problematic for me, in regards to your question. I mean, I get the theory… but if you are pushing out book after book of mediocre quality because you were so focussed on writing them quickly instead of properly, than you will lose your audience. Your readers won't come back, basically because the book did not meet the standards of other, better books, and they will move on… You will end up with all your readers basically avoiding your new books because they will say "The last one was pretty crappy and I couldn't get in to it."

    On the other hand, if you printed fewer books, but took the time to really create something of quality than you will develop a following, who will then tell their friends to tell their friends etc etc etc…. "The Martian" for example.

    I would look at the competition. Buy and read the books of the successful Indy authors in your genre. Compare your work to theirs. Is your work equal to theirs in quality? IF yes, then great. IF no, then keep revising and revising and revising until it is, or you will never be able to compete.
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  19. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    ^^ I disagree. Just because a book is drafted fast doesn't mean it's crap, especially when there's however many rounds of edits left for the author to do. One thing I don't understand is that in every other craft except for writing, people are encouraged to practice, practice, practice. When you do something again and again enough times, you get better and faster at it. This isn't any different for writers. It's inaccurate to assume that those who write fast create crap. Writers work with editors and other people to improve the quality of their product as well. I think this idea that books shouldn't be written fast or else they're horrible stems from a lack of understanding about writing in general. The more you do it, the better you get at it. Just like with anything else. It'd be nice if all of us writers respected the individual creative journeys of our peers and realized that everyone writes at different speeds with various skill levels, and that doesn't mean they're bad or good.

    And regarding comparison to other authors, art is subjective. How can we possibly compare our work to that of others who have been in the game longer, or maybe their craft isn't so great but they're still selling? What makes those books sell? Spending years on a manuscript doesn't guarantee its success.
    PaulineMRoss likes this.
  20. Scribe Lord

    Scribe Lord Minstrel

    While I agree you should study your genre, I know quite a few writers who would never release anything if they followed this advice. They might keep revising indefinitely. A book's 'quality' is hugely subjective. I know people who can't wrap their heads around how The Martian got so much hype because they think the writing is trash. Each writer has their own style. At some point they're going to have to start pumping out works or they're definitely never going to make any money by writing.

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