The One Thing No Writer Ever Wants to Hear

By | May 16, 2016
Miyagi Michio, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When I published my first novel The Prophecy (under the name Lucy Varna), I was so thrilled. I'd finally written a book, and it was good!

Then I wrote another novel, and another. By the time I completed the manuscript for my fourth novel, I realized something crucial: The Prophecy sucked.

Not the story, no. The story was solid. The characters were well-developed, or as well as I knew how to develop them back then, but the mechanics? Eh. Grammar, sentence construction, and small details (like when to and not to capitalize "dad") all needed work. So I went back to the drawing board and re-edited The Prophecy and its sequel (Light's Bane), and released second editions of those novels to readers with brand new covers.

While I know those second editions will never match the quality of later novels, I'm satisfied with the re-edits. I understand quite clearly, after writing steadily and passing more than a dozen novels in front of editors and readers, that the writing needed work or readers would never stick with the Daughters of the People Series.

If someone had told me that when I first started writing, I would've been heartbroken. Having someone say your writing sucks is the last thing any writer wants to hear, no matter how true it might be.

And that particular criticism never gets easier. Nonetheless, it's something we need to hear, particularly when we want to make a career out of writing and publishing fiction.

Frankly, it's ridiculously easy for a less-than-stellar author to make scads of money if they're positioned well in the market. I will not mention names, but I encounter these all the time. I encounter poorly written novels every time I search Amazon and GoodReads for a new book to read. I encounter them when I volunteer as a judge for writing contests. And I encounter them when perusing the fiction aisles in bookstores.

Bad writing isn't a distinction reserved for self-published authors. It's a persistent and growing problem in trad publishing. Both are a crying shame.

I want to make a distinction here between truly bad writing (unintentionally poor grammar, for example), voice and style, and subjective tastes. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling, for example, is largely considered exceptional among its devoted readers, but not so great by critics. (Stuff the critics. I love Harry Potter.) Similarly, Stephen King is widely regarded as a great writer, but he's not one I can read anymore. (Scary!)

Very few would point to those authors and accuse them of not having mastered the mechanics and craft of writing. Rowling and King devoted years of their lives to becoming better writers, to honing their voices, and to understanding how to tell a story. What about you?

Why Am I Not Selling?

Here's a frequent lament among authors on the writing fora I frequent: "My cover is great, my blurb is awesome, I've chosen the right categories and keywords, but I'm not selling. I just spent [insert dollar amount here] on ads, but nobody is buying my book, and the few that do buy it aren't moving on to the next book in the series. What marketing technique am I missing?"

A lot of times, the answer is staring these authors right in the face and they can't even recognize it. It's not their marketing at all. It's their writing. Sometimes it doesn't just need work. Sometimes it flat out sucks.

Hey, I've been there, too! As with overcoming an addiction, the only way we can sell more books is by understanding the root of our problem: We haven't produced a book with solid grammar, carefully crafted stories, and characters readers care about.

Next time, we have to do better. I took that advice straight from Russell Blake, who always strives to improve with every new book he publishes. I'm willing to bet nearly every other financially (and otherwise) successful author has exactly the same mindset.

A Not So Easy Fix

The very first thing writers with a your writing sucks problem need to do is analyze. Analyze your writing and compare it to a grammar textbook or the OWL at Purdue. Look for the following flaws in particular:

  • Ambiguous pronouns
  • Misuse/overuse of participle and gerund phrases
  • Floating dialogue (i.e. there's no clear speaker, thanks in large part to poor paragraph construction)
  • Inconsistent verb tenses

Yup, those are the four most common "mechanics" problems I encounter, and they all lead directly to a narrative that's difficult to understand. There's a reason why Jefferson Smith put Clarity at the top of the list when he compiled "51 things that break reader immersion." A lack of clarity is a huge flaw in most modern novels regardless of genre.

Why would anyone continue reading a story they can't understand?

Chances are good they won't. Around 63% don't. Isn't it in our best interests as career-minded writers to up the number of readers we engage by aiming to produce clear prose?

We do that by learning, practicing, and analyzing. Sit down with a grammar textbook and learn the fundamentals of grammar. Sit down at your desk (or wherever you write) and keep hammering out words. Sit down with a copy of your manuscript and find ways to make the writing stronger, clearer, and easier to understand. The not so easy fix? Learn, practice, analyze. It takes time and effort. Then again, only the incredibly foolish enter writing for short-term gain.

What If Your Writing Doesn't Suck?

Now, there's a huge difference between a book that's poorly written and a well-written book that happens to have negative reviews. If you notice a recurring theme in reviews of your book, you've likely got a problem, depending on how many people mention it (and in what depth). For example, I occasionally get reviews noting that my characters are poorly developed. I write it off as utter hogwash. Why? Because I know from experience, from honest self-evaluation, and from feedback left by impartial reviewers and editors that I do characters well. 

But there's another truth of which I am absolutely convinced: Every book has a reader, but not every reader will enjoy every book. Negative reviews are part and parcel of being a published writer. Learn how to tell when they indicate a serious problem and when they need to be ignored.

What if your writing doesn't suck and you're still not selling? In that case, you may not be meeting readers' expectations. That's a bit off topic so I won't go into it here, but I can highly recommend Chris Fox' Write to Market: Deliver a Book that Sells, a handy, dandy book about researching and understanding what readers want in their fiction. Chris shares his frustrations and accidental successes, then goes on to describe how he adjusted his mindset and produced a book that sold by writing something both he and readers love.

I have the not-meeting-expectations problem, too, and I also have books that sell like hotcakes. Like Chris, I'm learning how to bridge the gap between my own personal writing style and what readers really want to read.

Chin Up, Buckaroos

What's the difference between a published author and an unpublished one? The published author persevered. That's it, the entire secret behind becoming a published author. Those writers never stopped trying. They never stopped learning. They never allowed criticism, like your writing sucks, to drag them down. They never quit.

If you want to be successful as a writer, regardless of what success entails, the only thing you have to do is never give up. It's certainly not as easy as it sounds, but it's far better than the alternative.

What one thing are you doing every week to overcome any your writing sucks style criticism? Comment below and let me know!

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