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.

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9 thoughts on “Want to sell books? Get good at writing.”

  1. I would like to read your coherent and well-reasoned argument for judging one style/class of writing as qualitatively better than others. All you’ve shown with this piece is that you are able to intuit the works that will win F/SF awards, which is nothing remarkable, since I expect that the award givers are people with similar values and tastes as yourself.

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      1. I don’t wish to make that point, as I don’t believe it to be true.

        Think about this post from the perspective of a novice writer who comes here looking for ways to make his writing better. He is presented first with the idea that there are good and bad books, and let’s say for the sake of argument he’s already mostly bought in on this idea. The actionable advice you give is to make sure no words are “wasted.”

        How is a novice writer supposed to know what constitutes waste? You can spot it when you see it, but that doesn’t help our novice. The closest you get to demonstrating waste in an actionable way is Kurt Vonnegut’s quote, but the terminology used there–“reveal character” and “advance action”–could use a lot of unpacking.and exploration.

        Judging from the quality of your insights and writing, I doubt that you’re writing these blog posts in order to argue with individuals who disagree with you about fundamentals of writing that the mere existence of the Amazon public slushpile refutes: there’s a lot of writing out there, and clearly some of it is better than others.

        Now take the next step and unpack these ideas into a working, cohesive model for improving one’s writing that is novice-accessible. Just my two cents.

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      2. OK, I understand your request better now.

        I’d be happy to do that, but it’s a much bigger task than I can achieve in a blog post. I use the Vonnegut quote here because it’s among the first things I do with writing students. It cuts to the heart of the matter. I don’t believe it necessarily takes a lot of learning to write well. But it takes some, and more than I can tackle in a blog format.

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  2. Hi Damien,

    That Vonnegut quote (“Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”) seems to advocate a strictly utilitarian approach to writing. I agreed with it when I first read your article yesterday, but the more I think about it, the harder I’m finding it to square with my own reading tastes with the Vonnegut philosophy.

    Most of the stuff I like is gloriously maximalist (this is true of both genred books (China Mieville, Sam Delany, Michael Cisco, etc.) and the “literary” fic I enjoy (David Foster Wallace, Pynchon, Toni Morrison, Jennifer Egan etc) – writers who often go off on humorous tangents, or revel in long adjectival asides whose only real purpose is tone, etc, and which don’t really achieve what KV is advocating.

    I was wondering how you would reconcile Vonnegut’s apparent calls for utilitarian, objective-based, functional prose, with genre fiction’s proclivity for big, dense, maximalist, stand-back-and-admire-the-view stuff?

    Maybe I’m taking the Vonnegut too literally. Or maybe you’d argue that most genre writing is too bloated. Not sure.

    Interesting article though. :)

    Tom.

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    1. Any maxim can certainly be applied too strictly. Vonnegut’s helps new writers a lot, because it helps them see that every sentence serves a purpose. And that the heart of that purpose is the story. As you get more expert and skilled though, story itself becomes a limitation to rail against. I’d argue all the writers you list are railing against story in one way or another (I’ve read all but Egan, who is on my list). But you can’t really rail against story until you’ve gone some way towards learning how story operates in prose fiction. Also, those writers pay some price for moving away from story. It attracts readers like us, but loses a bigger audience of readers who really are hungry for story. My concern is for writers who really *want* to be storytellers, but struggle to learn the basics that will help them do that.

      Hmm…does that answer your question?

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  3. Yes! Many thanks for the swift reply.

    I guess I have a tendency to read something like that Vonnegut quote, and then assume he meant is as some kind of absolute maxim, rather than a way-in to thinking about such things.

    I should note that I don’t write fiction myself, just my review/reading diary blog, but I’m nonetheless interested in the processes, as I’m sure knowing such things will make me a better critic.

    I like your description that writers who opt for more maximalist, divergent prose could be paying ‘some price’ in terms or potential audience. I’m sure you’re right, but it’s kinda a shame.

    Tom.

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  4. Continuously humbled by your posts. :) I’ve been researching the genre in which I’m writing by reading a ton of it and making my own judgments about the quality of writing as I go (which I hope aren’t too subjective but have a steadier foundation the more I read fiction as well as books on how to write fiction). It has, however, been a year since I read a good craft book–much too long. You’ve inspired me to pick a couple up I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Thank you.

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