Writing Advice

The Library Bar and Grill of Albuquerque, New Mexico

So you want somebody to use your book in a display like the one pictured above. You want to be known as the new (insert favorite wonderful author’s name here.) Of course, so far, nobody is buying what you’re writing, so there’s that. I mean, heck, somebody like James Patterson has hundreds of books for sale and you can’t manage to sell even one? That’s terrible, right? So, what do you do? You go looking for writing advice, natch. And, boy howdy (I’ve been reading Craig Johnson’s Longmire books) can you find it. Everything and anything is offered up for advice. Some successful writers even take time from creating new worlds to publish their own take on how to be a successful writer. Stephen King’s book, On Writing is a very good book. I’m not sure it’s ever helped me to write better, but I recommend it anyway because, you know, he’s a good writer. Which, of course, is the key to being a successful writer: you first have to be a good writer. Or do you?

Fifty Shades of Grey is, according to all the writing advice I’ve ever seen, horribly written. When I tried to read it, I had to agree. I don’t care how titillating it is, the writing is by turns opaque, laughable, and steadily terrible. The thing is a best seller, with sequels, and a movie. Terribly written say all the critics, but there it is. That’s a successful book from a successful writer. I think it works because the writer knows what people like to read, and how to produce that. No real secret. It was self-published initially, although I believe that someone other than the author produced the movie.

Mark Twain, in his autobiography, even the severely edited edition from the sixties, says that, when asked how to know if a book was good or not, he always said simply to “Publish it, and see if anyone buys it.”

It appears that, to be a successful writer, the only rule is to write something that lots of people want to read. Screw grammar, screw characterization, screw pacing, just put out something that people want to read. Except . . .

Even a turkey like Fifty Shades has things in the story happen in the right order, and at the right time. The reason Twain had Huck and Tom go through all that nonsense to break Jim out of his prison is simply that, at the beginning of that sequence, it wasn’t time to have him free, within the timing of the story. Know what was wrong with that last season of Game of Thrones? It was too fast! The battle of Winterfell alone should have taken two episodes, and think of the cliffhanger you could’ve put after the first part. Wowzers, huh? So, what, there are rules?

Well, let me use my favorite quote from a great visual artist: “You must know the rules like a professional in order to break them like an artist.” — Pablo PIcasso.

Yep, there are rules, and you have to know what they are. The author of Fifty Shades instinctively knew when to make things happen, so readers forgave the things that weren’t so well done. (I suspect that a tamer subject matter might have needed to be more grammatical, etc.) So, how do you get to be a great writer? It’s difficult.

First, you have to read. A lot. Preferably in the genre or at least general type of story you want to be known for.

Second, refer to the quote from Picasso above. No, your book doesn’t have to be grammatically correct, or use consistent subject/verb agreement, but you’d better pay attention to just when and why you are making it the way it is. And the timing of the story, I don’t think that’s negotiable. When PBS did an adaptation of Huckleberry Finn they used the academic’s favorite, “just get Jim out of there ’cause that’s what’s important here” ploy and the ending was flatter than a possum on a Kentucky centerline. Do not mess with the timing, or your story won’t work.

Outside of that, I think that it’s your story, and you should write it however you think it should be written. Have people read it before you proceed, but take their advice for what it’s worth, which could be a little, or it could be a lot. When you’re really ready with a good story, you’ll know that you are. And the writing advice? Like critique from your friends, take it for what it’s worth.