How Do You Know

If you’re really good?  Like knowing if he really loves you… it’s not immediately obvious.

This grizzly (what, you think I’m not?  Just mess with my kids.  Okay.  I’m more of a dragon) Old Writer wishes for this one dramatic scene, she could come down from the mountain, carrying tablets, but she can’t afford an ipad, so you’ll have to make do.

Look…  I’ll tell you a story – like I ever do anything else? – I grew up thinking of myself as not particularly attractive.  I knew for a fact most guys of my acquaintance had rather chew off their ankle than spend an afternoon talking to me.

It never occurred to me this had nothing to do with my looks, but to conversational gambits that started with, “So, what do you think the chances are that the Napoleonic invasions and the bureaucratic state they ushered in across Europe are the proximate cause of WWI carnage?”

And then I (finally) got pregnant and had the world’s second worst pregnancy (I don’t know everyone’s pregnancy stories.  One might be worse) still resulting in a live child.  Part of this involved being bed ridden for six months.  It not only made me gain sixty pounds, but the hormonal and other effects destroyed my metabolism.

The first time I went out in public felt weird.  Not because I felt self-conscious, but because something was different.  It took me about an hour to realize strange men were no longer turning around to stare at me.  Yes, they’d done that before.  They’d done it while I thought I was an ugly duckling.

What does that mean?  You can’t tell from inside.  You can’t tell how you look, you can’t tell how you feel, and you most certainly can’t tell how you write.

Look, if you have a few spare kroner, buy For Us The Living, by Robert A. Heinlein.  Then read Patterson’s biography of Heinlein.  Not only didn’t Robert realize that novel was a dud, but he kept trying to publish it for the next ten years or so, even while he was writing the juveniles, which means he HAD figured out what a novel was.

Another story – my first created world, in which I wrote EIGHT novels, I couldn’t give away for love or money.  I was then – my children (G) – as you are now, or rather more naive, if you consider I started writing this at 14 and submitting at 22.

When it got rejected (Mostly with standard rejections, though an editor I would later go on to work for told me she hated the characters, the setting and the writing style – which… never mind.) I assumed it was because my technique wasn’t up to snuff, and I went and worked at it some more.  I read how to books.  I read other books and analyzed them.  I took the Writers’ magazine course and half of the Writers Digest (I got published halfway through that.)  I tried first person.  I tried third person.  I tried a cast of thousands, I…

I never considered the books weren’t selling because they were WEIRD.

See, at fourteen, I created this world as an answer to The Left Hand Of Darkness.  I’m sorry, that book has world building issues.  (It’s a good book, nonetheless – magnanimous of me, isn’t it? – even if its narrative style is very much a prisoner of the seventies.)  From MY perspective (what other perspective would I work with, honeys?) she got humans wrong.  Yes, even hermaphrodite humans.  From what I read humans settled, formed clans and families because females needed protection when pregnant.  If everyone could get pregnant…  Well…  It’s hard to tell, since the only hermaphrodite species we know are lower orders.  However I think there is at least as much likelihood that it would become a fiercely independent every-individual’s hand against everyone else’s as a mother-loving, clannish society where children were communally raised and therefore no one was tied down to child rearing.  (What is it with “feminism” and not wanting to be “tied down” to child rearing, anyway?  Shouldn’t that be “masculinism”?  Love them and leave them?)

Anyway…  I created my world as a response.  Yeah, it’s a world of fierce individualists.  It also has an ick factor a mile wide (well, unless you make up a pronoun, and I’m not that crazy, you end up using “he” – at least you do if you’re not writing the clannish, feminist thingy.)  AND it has a counter-politically-correct factor wider than that (look, I THOUGHT SF was about open minds.  I hadn’t realized a lot of the efforts of NYC publishing were towards creating consensus reality, including consensus imagined reality.  I WAS YOUNG.)  AND to top it all off and put a cherry on it, it went the way my stories do.  Busy creating the world, I forgot WHY I was doing it, and got into all the fun details, including geneological tables going back 3k years, and dynastic wars and… yeah.  (Scratches nose.)  If I were smart, I wouldn’t (apparently) have pushed that baby carriage.  Twice.

Eventually it dawned on me that it MIGHT be the world.  (What, it had only been sixteen years since I created the world!) I wrote the Pseudo-Cretan fantasy, which did have internal issues (including my being stuck in cast of thousands) and though I didn’t sell it, I got tons of interest from agents, AND it won a contest.  And then I wrote the first version of Darkship Thieves.  And then things got weird.

Anyway, the point is, the first one of those first books WAS PUBLISHABLE as far as quality goes.  It was however sort of like a dead albatross, from the marketable point of view.  I thought my problem was technique, when in fact my problem was (as usual) having fallen under my own influence and thinking more kinds of forbidden thoughts than I can mention.  (I mean, the books didn’t even have sex in them, which would be the only excuse that NYC would GET for writing them.)

So, you kids (get off my lawn!) today, breaking in with your newfangled indie publishing can stop feeling like ya’ll are the lone ranger because you don’t know if what you’re writing is good.  No one EVER knows if what they write is good.  You write what you want to write and what fits your internal biases of how a story should go.  And you’ll be stubbornly blind to your peculiar biases.  (Like, not figuring out that in books about an hermaphrodite species people expect sex.  Or that New York editors would balk at a fiercely individualistic and independent society in which every individual had a womb.)
There are – of course – writers’ groups.  There’s only one problem with writers’ groups.  Most of them aren’t writers’ groups.  Most of them are … critiquers’ groups.  What I mean by this is that 90% of the writers’ workshops out there have devolved from groups of writers banding together to improve their writing to groups of people who have learned “rules” with which they can beat hopefuls away from even trying to write and incidentally make themselves feel better.  For instance, the ban on adjectives and adverbs?  (Gleefully broken by Rowling and others.)  It’s a feature of minimalism.  If you aspire to write in a minimalist style, heed the ban.  If not…  Well… write what works.

And what works?  How the heck do I know?  I could have told you, once upon a time, what would have worked for the traditional market.  I could tell you because there were well-known editorial biases.  Now…

Even Kris Rusch and Dean Smith are no longer teaching the Oregon Professional Writers Workshop.  (And they did it for years and were good at it.)  Why?  Because no one knows where to aim to hit the jackpot.  No, not even old pros.

But how do you know you’re not going to embarrass yourself?  You don’t.  It’s a risk you’ll have to take.  The disadvantage of the collapse of consensus taste – among many advantages, like not having stuff forced down your throat – is that there is no consensus taste.  What is too unreasonable for me, too new agey, too seventies, to mother-hugging-Earthy is someone else’s “just right” and “Plausible.”  And there are enough readers out there for those.

I don’t like For Us The Living, and I find Pratchett’s Rincewind books well-nigh-unreadable.  There are people who love both.

Put it out.  Put it all out.  Then, if you choose, take conclusions from what sells best.  Grammar and punctuation and formatting should be obeyed – or at least given broad nods to.  (Formatting can get odd across multiple platforms.)  So copyediting should be attended to.  Copyediting isn’t – or shouldn’t be – very expensive.  Get that done.

The rest…  If you aspire to be a bestseller, read the things that are selling well.  Study how they do it.  If you aspire to be literary, study how your idols do it.  

To your own self, be true.  And stop trying to judge your writing.  You can’t.  Amanda Hocking hoped to make a couple hundred dollars to go see the Muppets, live.  Instead, her books made her money hand over fist.  My older son has a story out – Bite One Get One Free – which he’d shelved after its being rejected for a vampire antho (possibly because it’s science fiction.)  It has now sold over 1500 copies.  A short story.  With no publicity.

You can’t tell.  Write it the best you know and put it all out.  Let the readers sort them out.

90 thoughts on “How Do You Know

  1. Well Wen Spencer got _A Brother’s Price_ past the “watch-dogs”. She wrote that one as a counter to the “if women ruled, things would be perfect” idea. [Wink]

          1. Publisher is Roc, according to Amazon lookup. (That’s not the cover I recall, though. *makes bwah faces at the cover*)

    1. I rather liked that book. It was so “hi, let’s take all this stuff and PUT IT ON ITS EAR and SPIN IT!”

      I need to check and see if there are sequels.

      1. Beth, there isn’t any sequels and the last I heard Wen was fighting a possible sequel (in her own mind). Oh, I enjoyed it as well. [Smile]

        1. No sequels! Curses. *hopes the book wins, assuming “book wins” = “gets written”*

          (Thank you for the data!)

  2. So, what do you think the chances are that the Napoleonic invasions and the bureaucratic state they ushered in across Europe are the proximate cause of WWI carnage?

    Excuse me, but wasn’t it Thomas Paine, lacking common sense, who after a short career of positive malcontentism in the Americas moved on to France where he descended into true insanity with Robespierre and company thereby necessitating someone like Napoleon and the bureaucracy he installed…

    Or maybe you should just blame German George.

      1. I really did not have a clue. Both my Grandfather and Daddy took history undergraduate degrees (American, English respectively). A favorite dinner table game was ‘name a date’ and then we would go around the world.

        I ended up in a non-conventional group where I was ‘one of the boys.’ Momma wasn’t exactly pleased that I wanted to wear dungarees (her word) in the city. It wasn’t like I didn’t appreciate the idea of haute couture, but, like Peter Pan, if growing up meant it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree…

        Yeah, I never made it among the ‘normals.’ Once I realized what they were I didn’t want to go there anyway.

      2. If a presentable young lady had approached me with such a comment back in my teens I would have at least had an idea how to respond. Had she opened the conversation by expressing an opinion on Heinlein’s themes in Star Beast I probably would have been too convinced I had died and gone to Heaven to muster a coherent response.

        Keep in mind that studies show male IQs drop significantly in the presence of attractive females. I strongly suspect the effect is even more pronounced in teenage males.

        1. I married the first man who could make a decent counter-gambit AND call me on my wild exaggerations. Mind you, it took me four years to hunt him down and catch him, but I had to go back to Portugal and finish a degree and all. I BET you if we’d had the internet, we’d have married three years earlier.

  3. One possibility is to use the free dumps to road test your stories, possibly in combination with 99 cent sales to see if there is anybody willing to yield money for your efforts. Use a pseudonym – if the stories prove likeable (the more proper standard than good) you can always reveal your true identity; if they sink like unattractive metaphors you avoid blackening your name while you learn and improve.

  4. SF IS about open minds — and for most publishers these last twenty or thirty years it has been about closing them properly.

    1. Gee, you mean a bunch of guys who left high school three generations ago, and didn’t love books when they were there, have trouble accurately identifying what teen-to-twenty book lovers will want?

      1. If THAT were the problem! It’s not even teens to twenties. Take my generation (please). Too old for x, too young for boomers. For years they marketed to us as IF we were boomers. THEN they decided — just as our kids have grown enough we’re consuming mass quantities of books — that we’re too old to read. And they NEVER had any idea what WE wanted to read. (Nothing against targeting things to boomers, and I bet a lot of them got tired of the stories about heroic young war protesters too. But for me it was a double eye roll every time.)

        BUT the really important thing is that they don’t TRY to target. All other houses but baen try to “educate and form” the reader’s taste. I.e. give them what the PUBLISHERS think it’s good for them, whether the readers want it or not.

        1. Heroic young war protesters??? I vuz dere, Chollie. There weren’t no heroism involved, except in the fevered imaginations of the anti-warriors. The key to understanding that era depends on knowing two facts:
          1) most of that generation supported and participated in the war effort and most that didn’t were simply hoping to keep their own skins intact.
          2) for the first time in history a young man stood a better chance of getting laid by opposing a war than being in uniform. Add in that “protesting the war” was considered a legitimate excuse for cutting class (and missing an exam) while providing an opportunity to gather in a public square, smoke dope and pick up chicks and you get a pretty good idea of the quality of heroism displayed.

          1. Sounds like what my uncles said when I complained a bit about having freaking Vietnam shoved down my throat constantly.
            (Let’s just say their version matches yours more than the way I see it in books. Kind of like how the women know who work in male-dominated fields that take strength, skill and endurance have nothing to do with the teenage boys with boobs I keep reading in books.)

        2. Publishers are primarily in competition with one another for bragging rights at industry cocktail parties. Pandering to public taste gains you no suite cred.

          It isn’t what publishers think is good for us, it is what’s good for them and lets them preen in front of their peers.

        3. I.e. give them what the PUBLISHERS think it’s good for them, whether the readers want it or not.

          *thinks about the insert-bad-love-scene stuff she’s been complaining about for decades*

          I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep very well tonight– that’s scary.

      2. It came as quite a shock to me some twenty (30?) years ago when I opened the Sunday NY Times and found a High School classmate on the cover of the book section — for having written a SF novel!!! The guy had been editor of the (reasonably elite & prestigious) school’s literary magazine (where I participated, slightly: they were literary and I was merely a reader), and we had been in the same Creative Writing class; I had NEVER detected the slightest inter … lack of disdain for SF from him.

        That he might become a prestigious novelist was unsurprising, but an SF author? That was less believable than, oh, Tricky Dick Nixon’s hatchet man becoming an Evangelical Christian leader.

        No, I never bestirred myself to read the novel, and I don’t recall as I ever even read the review: I was just too gobsmacked at this guy’s getting attention such as the Times never gave a single one of the authors who built the frickin’ field.

  5. For the record? I loved Robert’s story, and I’m not much into the “vampire” thing. And I read a lot of things, including things that would make people go “really, *you* read that?!?”. But I digress. I agree with the statement of “write what you want, there are readers for it” because it is truth.

  6. snort. Thank you for answering my whiny comment, and with such verve. It’s good to remember everyone has blinders. I wonder, if I squint sideways, I’ll be able to see mine–or just those little flecks?

  7. Even getting published is no assurance that it’s any good– I picked up a book that hit every note perfectly in the storyline, the title– Discount Armagedon with mentions of cryptids sounds like a whimsical/positive/non-GrimDark urban fantasy, my fave!– the location (sf/fantasy), and so on.

    Romance novel. One that makes my teeth itch and my fingers search for an editing pen. Really cool bits of lore put out with a heavy hand, but the author doesn’t seem to recognize that not everyone shares their rather huge biases about what is “normal” or even “physically possible.” After a couple of chapters of comparing it poorly to fan fic, I gave up.

    I know that it must appeal to someone. Probably a lot of someones, and it reads like someone did a lot of research and tried to build a book that would hit all the right notes.

    Which is all a really long way of saying that not only do you not know if you’re any good, some of the folks that read it may say it’s not any good– even if they love books and 90% of it should be right down their line!

    1. Romance is weird for us sf/f monkeys. A lot of my favorite romance writers have “paranormal” or “supernatural” or — heaven help us — futuristic novels. I can’t read them. The problem is that the story telling techniques are COMPLETELY backwards and upside down from fantasy or SF, and since they’re using MY tropes, that I grew up with… it’s like… finding mommy in the kitchen eating live snakes. The familiar and reassuring meets WTF at speed and book goes against the wall. It’s not that they’re bad. It’s that… well, their way is not our way.

      1. The funny thing is that I liked fantasies and scifi books that are romances before, this was just the first time I got a romance that was an urban fantasy….

        On further musing, I think I understand what you mean– I can identify tropes in fantasic fiction and, unless it’s a pet peeve, I don’t mind; I don’t love romance novels the same way, so their tropes don’t get the same pass.

        Bleh. You’d think a genera built around romantic interaction would be a bit less prone to World of Cardboard.
        (Although the mice were fun.)

      2. I’m blaming this snippet on you…

        I knew I was in trouble when I walked into the kitchen and found mommy eating snakes.

        I walked through the door, and there she was, sitting at the kitchen table with a mixing bowl full of snakes. She looked up at me, bit the head off a rattlesnake, chewed, and swallowed.

        “Is everything all right, dear?” she said.

        I licked my lips.

        “Sure. Just… wondered where Dad was.” I don’t know why I asked.

        She waved her hand, with the rattlesnake body in it, over her shoulder.

        “I think I saw him outside.”

        Which, since he had died five years ago, was not a good sign.

        I nodded, turned around, and left. I went up to my room, grabbed my backpack, stuffed some clothes in it, and looked around. Books, computer, a collection of miniatures… was there anything that I couldn’t live without? Ah! I grabbed my old copy of the Boy Scout Handbook out of the books, and tossed it into my backpack. Then I heaved it onto my back, and walked down the stairs and out.

        Yes, I know, we’re supposed to accept the changed ones, and understand their needs. But not when it was my own parents.

        1. Reminds me of a short story I have around here somewhere, called “Monster in My Closet” or something like that. Kid was scared of the Monster in the Closet, Dad kept telling him there was no such thing, until one night he heard it trying to get out of the closet. Dad came in and opened the door to prove it was not real and the monster killed him. Whereupon we find that the Monster is actually the kids dad, and other dad was kid’s first monster meal, after he changes.

        2. I grabbed my old copy of the Boy Scout Handbook out of the books…

          Me, I would have taken the Scouting handbooks that I, um, pre-inherited, from Daddy. Full of practical straightforward knowledge, with minimal tech, since they date to the 1940s. I do wish I had his various military survival manuals he collected. I loved these growing up. Spent more time in fantasy with them. Sigh. Happy memories. Thank you.

    2. I read Discount Armageddon as well, and know what you mean. It was more than a bit mechanistic. But the mice were fantastic 🙂

    3. Discount Armageddon is walking the fine Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance line (line, bah, it’s a blurry smear with a paint roller), but overall the tropes are more UF than PN. (Ah, tropes. I wrote a fantasy book that’s about a romance, sorta; I have deep fantasy tropes in the worldbuilding, so a romance-reader who doesn’t grok them… gets way confused. But the plot is romance/relationship! Talk about neither fish nor fowl…)

      I liked DA muchly. It’s the mice. It is seriously Anime Physics in a few places, but I like anime, too. 😉

          1. There is no more a single Anime Physics than there is a single SF/F paradigm. (Tell that to the trad publishers.)

            Sigh. Big Sigh. (Anime club is tonight…I am doing my best, out of respect, not to explode and go all entirely-uber-nerdy-fan-boy on you guys.)

            Yes, looking cool etc. is part of it. It is a visual art. In Japan animation is used to tell all types of stories. There are rules, and the rules vary with overall genera and type of story. I could go at length about the comparative nuances of the various worlds, and I am far from the most extreme fan I know, but please take my word for this.

            1. Anime club?! So jealous!
              There isn’t one unified set of cartoon physics, either– or Hollywood Physics, for something even easier to point to. Doesn’t keep them from being a useful shorthand, though.
              I enjoy anime, as well… the one move that embodies “anime physics” in my mind is the backwards-standing-flip where they land in a crouch. Inu Yasha, Ghost in the Shell, Magical Meow Meow Taruto, EVERYTHING I’ve seen from CLAMP– it shows up at some point.

              1. Plunging further down the bunny trail, if not into the rabbit hole itself:

                CLAMP is eye candy of a particular kind, not to everyone’s tastes, though I really liked Yuko’s kimonos in XXXholic.

                The moves in Ghost in the Shell reflect swimming – moving through water – in my mind. Something set by the swimming scene in the first movie (either version).

        1. What I mean by “Anime Physics” (especially in conjunction with Discount Armageddon) is: “bouncing around on rooftops is cool, and perfectly normal in an anime world; also, people may stand on the tops of telephone poles and pose dramatically now and then.” See: Sailor Moon, Ah! My Goddess!, Birdy, Tenchi Muyo (any version), Card Captor Sakura (NOT THE DUB! BURN THE DUB WITH ACID!), Bleach, Puella Magi Madoka Magica…

          Make everyone in Discount Armageddon look like the better kind of anime (or near-anime; Gargoyles, Avatar: the Last Airbender (there is no live action; the live action is a lie), or Avatar: The Legend of Korra all count), and presto! No problem! 🙂

          1. Card Captor Sakura (NOT THE DUB! BURN THE DUB WITH ACID!)

            I have heard from The Daughter that the version of Card Captor Sakura was heavily re-edited and re-written for the American TV release, so that it little resembles the original Japanese series. She does not recommend it

            1. I got one of the movies and forgot to switch it to Japanese/Subtitled instead of Dubbed. Sakura’s best female friend, who is a sweet girl (with a probable crush on Sakura) with a gentle voice… Was this, Snide and Sneering Mean Girl in the dub. I’ve heard that instead of designing all Sakura’s Magical Girl costumes, in the dubbed version, she “finds the designs in magazines.”


              (The Ranma 1/2 dubs seemed pretty decent, though, and the Tenchi Muyo OAV dubs were also not bad — aside from the complete inability to translate “Washu-chan” into English and get the nuance.)

              1. I will, on the advice of The Daughter and your description (arg! It sounds criminal.), avoid Card Captor’s dub at all costs. As a dyslexic I often watch dubs, because The Daughter gets tired of my still pausing or backing up so I can read. (Even worse read AND watch.)

                Many Anime fans believe that the best dub ever achieved was for the American release of Fruits Basket.

  8. I figured that things might have promise when a voracious non-fic reader friend read two of my stories and said, “I don’t like science fiction but I love your characters! Got any more?” It was a good sign.

  9. Now your series that you describe as unmarketable sounds good to me. Of course I despise so much of what the traditional publishers consider publishable that I’m probably not a good judge. But if like you say it is just WIERD, but technically sound maybe you should publish it indie and let the rest of us decide if there is a market for it. (Of course the fact that I would like to see more nonpolitically correct works in print has NOTHING to do with my advice)

  10. I seriously needed this post – thanks. The way publishing is in flux – it’s fascinating to watch, but for those of us who haven’t been published, the idea of giving up the blessing of the gatekeepers to indicate some kind of quality, to show we’ve achieved a standard, well, it’s hard. Particularly when outfits like SFWA are still pretty hostile to self-pubbing; and I’ve got author acquaintances who mention self-pubbing with THAT look down the nose. I’d like to say status doesn’t matter, and it’s not at the top of my list, but it’s there.

    But with the publishing industry in such a mess right now (and it’s only going to get worse with the DOJ investigation, as Kris Rusch points out), it sounds like everyone, new and established, should avoid legacy publishing, at least until things shake out (if then).

    As for knowing if you’re any good – as you say, you can never know, even if blessed by the gatekeepers. But there are ways of knowing you can satisfy a readership. I started out writing fanfic; that’s how I got my confidence up in the first place. And I have to put in a good word for critique groups – not small face-to-face groups, but ginormous on-line groups – as a good way to see if you can attract and retain an audience (plus I learn from critiquing others). Huge groups mean a better chance of finding people who are attracted to your book (and vice versa); plus it’s pretty neat when someone from another genre says, I don’t like fantasy, but I like this.

    It doesn’t mean I’m up to pro standards, but it at least shows me I’m communicating and entertaining to a degree.

    1. Laurie, remember that status cymbals change with time and markets. Yesterday’s vanity press is today’s indie pub is tomorrow’s pioneer of publishing. Revolution is only treason in the third person, so of course those invested in the present model will sneer at indie publication. Same way 50s pop impresarios sneered at Rock’n’Roll.

      1. Thanks, RES (I know I’m not the only one here who’s going through this). It will be interesting to see how the signals of quality change.

    2. I second the fanfic thing. Honestly. Because I’m the world’s least media-attuned person, I wrote Austen fanfic. Even though it is generally supportive and nice, I could test techniques and seeing if I could make them like a character, or hate one. Also, I could see how many comments a story attracted. It’s a writing degree in itself.

      1. Yes! If I wrote a cliffhanger chapter ending, and received large numbers of comments calling me evil, I knew I had succeeded. ^_^

          1. That’s why you write fanfic under a pseudonym, so you can deny all culpability, if necessary. 😛

  11. Sarah, you and I are too much alike for words. I was a nerdgirl all through school and into college. I once had a guy come on to me in a classroom at uni – until he found out I was a physics major (he thought I was in nursing). He jumped backward and literally knocked over 3 desks trying to get away from me.

    And yeah, I have a hard time with my books. “Are they good? Are they awful? Why isn’t this one selling better? Is it my fault? Should I not have done this?” I dunno. The only thing I can do is to write what I like and what the characters do and say (because they WILL make me, lol). And if people like it, fine. If not, I’m thankful for my husband’s jobs.

    1. Sherlock Holmes … John Carter … John Clayton, Lord Greystoke … Tell Sackett … Harry Potter … among the world’s most memorable of characters, by (often) mediocre authors. It is nice to be good, but it is more important to be liked. This rule applies in many professions, but in none so much as litera … book selling.

      Book sales (and influence) are related to quality only coincidentally. Beyond a certain technical minimum — spelling and grammar competent, mostly — there really is no objective standard of quality literature that can be employed to predict commercial success. In spite of the pretensions of those with a vested interest in claiming such a standard exists, it really doesn’t. Popular taste prefers McDonalds to “better” hamburgers, by which I mean: determine what your target market is and write to that taste.

      Is it your goal to impress critics or to sell lots of books? Going indie means you no longer have to please a gatekeeper before you can please the public.

      There is NOTHING WRONG with emulating Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susann if all you want to do is sell books. Besides, in time critics may come around and decide what you’ve done is art. Somewhere out there is a book reprinting scathing reviews of books that are now recognized classics.

      1. Yes, you are correct. And beginning authors have no choice anyway – not unless you’re willing to accept these outrageous contracts.

        I just have some sort-of-snotty friends and acquaintances (like award winning, Campbell nominee, Hugo nominee (actually, the Hugo nominee isn’t a snot, so she doesn’t count)). I was really looking forward to (maybe) getting published FORREALS to get a bit more cred with them – I’ve had to put up with quite a bit over the years.

        But it doesn’t matter anymore. Legacy publishing is closed, and will be for years.

        1. Legacy publishers: the modern equivalent of Vaudeville proclaiming itself the “Legitimate Theatre” while movies ate their Lunch, Dinner, Breakfast, High Tea and mid-morning Milk & Cookies.

          “I’d love to place a book with a traditional publisher but I can’t afford the lost sales. All the readership these days are using Kindles, Nooks, and I-Pads, although I guess there are a few dinosaurs still chewing dead trees.”

      2. You can add Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, Conan the Barbarian and quite a few others to that list. A memorable character people want to spend time with trumps almost everything else (once you have that minimum standard of the fundamentals). A memorable character with good writing – you’ll be remembered for a long, long time.

        It’s worth remembering that the real quality of a classic is that it stays popular and outlasts a variety of fads. That’s why NOTHING written in the last 50 years or so qualifies. It hasn’t been around long enough.

        (For my money, Pratchett and Heinlein will be in the list of classics in the future. Most of today’s “literary” fiction won’t. Similarly, the film soundtrack composers like John Williams and the guys who do the musicals like Lloyd-Webber will be the musical classics from the 20th century, not the establishment composers)

        1. Interesting you should mention Dracula. When The Daughter read the original by Stoker she was profoundly saddened. She loved his creation, the character is memorable, but the story telling plodding.

      3. Mediocre writers? Depends on how you judge quality in writers, if you judge it by how a few highbrow professors regard their works, maybe they are mediocre. But if you judge it by how many people buy and enjoy their books, then I would say you just listed some of the favorite characters of some of the best authors of the last century.

        Now I’m not saying you should judge an author strictly by their sales, because promotion and other factors make a big difference. Take Louis L’amour for example, Bantam was having trouble getting decent westerns, several authors had promised (and been paid advances) for a certian number of books a year, and all were failing to deliver. L’amour wrote a couple that slotted in as replacements for books other authors didn’t deliver on time. So they signed him up to write X number (can’t remember the exact number off the top of my head) of books per year. Not only did he provide them with X but he provided them with more than X every year. And he sold, so Bantam pushed him, and pushed hard, they kept ALL of his books in print ALL of the time, and made bookstores order huge quantities of his books to get a discount, and required them to stock Louis L’amour if they wanted to stock any other of Bantams books. He was already popular enough that customers were asking for him, and booksellers wanted to stock him and the other Bantam books, so they bowed to Bantam and carried large numbers of his books. When entire bookcases are filled with one author, that author is going to sell better, unless they are terrible. Are there other authors out there that are as good or better, but just don’t sell that good? Yes, but even after being dead for twenty years L’amour sells more books annually than a lot of authors on the bestseller list, I would say that fact alone puts him out of the mediocre class, no matter how many advantages Bantam gave him.

        1. Mediocre in this context is not meant as a pejorative. They simply fall into the category I would term “storytellers” more than “authors.” Their writing is generally competent — subjects and verbs agree — but rarely much above that. You aren’t inclined to go through one of their books highlighting memorable phrases. The more prolific of them are somewhat prone to formulaic writing (for example, has L’Amour ever written an adult male lead character who wasn’t broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped?)

          And they can turn out some truly cringe-worthy phrases. Burroughs’ descriptions of African natives??? I’ve defended his writing against charges of racism but it is easy to understand why those charges arise. But ERB knew how to take a story to the nth degree of tension and then switch to another character and bring that subplot to a boil and NOBODY hung a cliff any better.

          And as these “mediocre” writers will remain in print long after the critically-hailed (when was the last time you saw Erskine Caldwell or Edna Ferber offered at the bookstore?) writers are remaindered by History, maybe writing “good” isn’t all it’s cracked up as?

            1. Nothing against them — I used to be one — but having read probably 98% of L’Amours output I dare say that, given the description of the lead male in any ten of his tales it would be difficult to identify the specific character or story.

              ‘Tain’t a criticism, but a body jus’ cain’t he’p noticin’, is all ah’m sayin’.

              Shouldn’t you be writing salable material instead of bandying words with the like of me?

              1. Yeah, but since this is my week to play fairy blogmother, I was going through various links and weighing them.

                And see, this is where going indie and having a blog bites. You guys — some of you 😛 — have been known to send me emails going “What are you doing online? Is the revision on A Few Good Men delivered?” And “When do I get kitteh dragons” and “Will hold my breath till I get kitteh dragons” and “I found your address and I’m at your front door with a machine gun. I’d BEST get some kitteh dragons.” (Okay, more likely to be an eighteen wheeler and a black cat than a machine gun, but…)

                  1. Beth, there are no “kitteh dragons”. There will never be “kitteh dragons”.

                    Now “dragon kittehs” are another matter. [Very Big Dragon Grin]

              1. calumnies and lies. You should have got it from ALL my books. I’ve been punished for this preference, though. I had to deliver sons-of-massive-shoulders.

                1. My wife feels your pain. First words out of the OB’s mouth after delivering our first son? “We’re gonna call this one Bubba” Then, my wife says, he dropped a bowling ball on her belly.

                  1. and then the bowling ball looked straight at me and smiled (something the nurses said was impossible… only they saw it.) I’ve been wrapped around his little finger for almost 21 years now.

                2. I have yet to have the pleasure of reading all of your published books, and with your prolific output I suspect I would have to outlive you to correctly make such a claim, and that is not an idea I wish to contemplate at this time.

          1. Thanks, I needed that (granted, I prefer transparent prose to prose that is aware of itself. And, granted, no one is ever going to read anything of mine and think, “My, what a well-turned phrase.”)

            I do remember many Conan Doyle phrases, from “I see you have been in Afghanistan …” to “the curious incident of the dog in the night time …” and Sherlock Holmes is the number one most recognized and loved character in fiction.

          2. (for example, has L’Amour ever written an adult male lead character who wasn’t broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped?)

            I can think of at least one who was narrow shouldered and narrow-hipped, and a couple that were young (mid to late teens) that were described simply as gangly or rawboned, but that is out over 200 books so I take your point. He did however make some short and some tall 😉

            As far as ERB, yes he is racist by todays standards, but standards change over time, he wrote the simple truth as he believed it, and I doubt he would have seen himself as racist. But if your going to complain about formulaic male leads I think ERB has to take the cake.
            With the exception of Tan Hadron (who was Barsoomian not even human) I can’t recall a male lead who wasn’t tall, broadshouldered, white, dark haired, and superhumanly strong.

            1. I believe I mentioned having defended ERB against accusations of racism? Contrast his descriptions of the Waziri (the tribe which chose Tarzan as chieftan) with other tribes.

              I think what we’re seeing is a period trope in which outward appearance indicates inner character. IF that actually was a trope, many charges of racism would fail

                1. Sigh – I have learned better than to read mail in front of the Daughtorial unit. Her comment:

                  Actually, to be more accurate–I’ve also read lots of Victorian lit, but my reading also hits a good deal of older things–it’s called by psychologists ‘Beauty Equals Goodness,’ and it is, to use TV Trope’s jargon, older than dirt. It was perhaps more thoughtfully present in Victorian times because of the pseudoscience of physiognomy, which claimed that science proved that there were such things as, for example, ‘criminal faces.’ This made it easier to use and raised readers’ expectations of the villains looking, well, villainous & the heroes looking heroic. (Three guesses where those adjectives came from.)

          3. Oh, and I PREFER storytellers to authors. They tell better stories!

            One of my favorite nonfiction books was ‘written’ by an illiterate old hunting guide. He sat down with an ‘author’ and told him the stories of his life while being tape recorded (he used to write magazine articles the same way, tell it to a tape recorder then send the tape into the magazine) the ‘author’ then typed out what he said word for word. The book reads like you are sitting in your living room drinking coffee and listening to the ‘writer’.

            1. If I don’t care about the story or about the characters I don’t care how well written a work is. If I care about story or character I will forgive plodding writing. Of course, if the writing is truly leaden I have a much harder time caring about story or character.

              1. I agree, and that is why the above authors were so successful (partially, we’ll ignore the publishers influence for now) they wrote good enough so the writing did not detract from the story, then they simply told a good story.

  12. I am willing to be the only one who reads and loves my novel – once it meets MY standards. If I’m in a tiny group of one, so be it.
    Those standards are informed by massive quantities of ‘all of the above’ – at least now, with self-publishing, there is a chance, however small, that there may be others who fit in that group, like what I write, and hope I will write more of it. And buy some of it. Before, there may have been NO chance to make it past the gatekeepers. I’m actually happy I didn’t have to go the traditional route – as I wrote, I kept composing query letters for agents that would somehow sneak in past their prejudices. I want it all in there. I want layered, and sub-texted, and referential. At the same time, I want it not to have a single word not exquisitely necessary.
    I can do this – and it feels so damn GOOD.
    I can’t wait to find out. Viva el mundo nuevo.

    1. I want it all in there. I want layered, and sub-texted, and referential. At the same time, I want it not to have a single word not exquisitely necessary.

      As a reader I like hearing this. You got a great attitude and aim high. Go for it.

  13. It never occurred to me this had nothing to do with my looks, but to conversational gambits that started with, “So, what do you think the chances are that the Napoleonic invasions and the bureaucratic state they ushered in across Europe are the proximate cause of WWI carnage?”

    Wow, and I thought it was only me who turned people off this way…

    Actually I’ve heard that story many times. My wife has her own version. Getting into SF&F Fandom changed her view of the world.

    As to what will sell – whatever the reader wants to read. The only problem is that no one, including the reader, knows what this is, until they’ve read it.

  14. After reading your last paragraph, I have to ask: Have you taken your own poisonmedicine and put anything from your anti-left hand universe out as indi?

    1. No, but only for ONE reason — it’s either in five and a quarter diskettes, which might or might not be readable and which we don’t have a machine that can read or in paper. The paper is harder, because we passed it around among our friends in Charlotte… 25 years ago. I don’t even know if some of it is extant. First I’m putting up the EASY stuff. Once I run out of that (I have about a tenth out) I’ll move on to the rest… the stuff that will take depth blasting.

      1. FYI I still have a computer with a 5-1/4″ disk drive — two of them, in fact.

        They haven’t been booted for a while, but the possibility does exist should you wish to try it.

        1. we supposedly have one too — my first computer, Joaquim. Now, whether there’s still anyone in there or it’s become Mycroft of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress… I don’t know.

  15. Thank you, Sarah. These are good thoughts. I’ve just had my manuscript transit its second slush pile, and am determined to start the indie process; but it is terrifying. To soothe my fears, I will invest in an editor such as Create Space has.

    I am planning a re-read of Darkship Thieves right before Renegades comes out. Can’t wait!

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