Want to sell books? Get good at writing.

One of my very favourite novels hit the Top 100 bestsellers on Amazon Kindle tonight. I looked at the Amazon page for The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and found my own review of the book glaring up at me!

‘By far my favourite book of of the year … There isn’t a wasted word, poorly considered paragraph or a single chapter in this high-concept fairytale that doesn’t deliver some new enchantment’ Damien Walter, Guardian

I knew Golem was going to be a big hit about three chapters in to my first reading of the book. I reviewed it initially for SFX magazine and then picked it as one of my titles to look out for in 2014 in my regular column for The Guardian.  How could I be so certain after just three chapters? I’ll get to that in about a paragraph.

Golem was obviously not going to be an overnight hit. It was a debut novel, in a market where sales are driven by the name recognition of a “brand” authors. It wasn’t within any clearly defined, popular genre. No epic fantasy, SAS adventure or techno-thriller action here. And Wecker was largely unknown, unlike some debuts that pop out from authors who have 30,000 twitter followers or something of the kind. Nonetheless, I had absolutely zero doubts that this book was going to gather tremendous word of mouth and end up on all kinds of bestseller lists. And it has done just that, hitting the New York Times bestseller lists and picking up a whole bunch of award nominations including a Nebula along the way.

(As this post seems to be largely me boasting about my precognitive author talent spotting abilities, I may as well point out I’ve called the World Fantasy Award two years running with Osama and Alif the Unseen and I will be stunned if Golem is not on this year’s shortlist, and rather suprised if it doesn’t win.)

OK so two paragraphs later, how could I be so certain Golem was going to be a hit?

Because Helene Wecker can really write.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you that writing and story can be separated. This idea gets touted a lot in genre fiction, and in sci-fi and fantasy writing in particular. Obviously people want to believe it. Good writing is hard, it takes practice, and it takes time to get on the page. It’s a craft. Genre fiction is often put out in a rush, to short deadlines. It gets pushed toward the a production line model. The product is touted for it’s huge imagination. The blurb will tell you there are dragons and zeppelins and robot armies and all the rest. The cover is often amazing. But then you open the cover and the writing just isn’t there to back up the promises. Because the writing and the story are one and the same thing.

“Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” States Kurt Vonnegut’s 4th rule of writing. You may say you don’t agree. But pick up any of the thousands of genre novels published every year and see just how few of the sentences on a given page achieve this, in fact rather basic, measure of accomplishment. Then pick up any writer who succeeds in charming an audience in novel after novel, and I guarantee you’ll find at least 90% of their sentences do one of the above.

Writing as good as Helene Wecker’s is in fact pretty rare. There are a lot of ambitious prose stylists out there. But far fewer writers who can restrain the same level of linguistic skill and apply it to telling a really good story. So when you find writers who both have that talent and that restraint, you can bet money on the fact that their work will find readers. And if its readers you want for your work, I suggest working first and foremost on the quality of your writing above anything else.