There is a lot of opinion on two simple questions:
- What is good and successful fiction?
- What makes you a writer?
Skip where wanted
Skip the part immediately below and any part you like. This piece is written with that option in mind: highlighting the elements that are relevant with headings, bullet-points and text in bold.
Detesting the myth of the “real writer” / refusing to comply
I detest many opinions that ties “writership” into one specific direction or domain: “You are only a [real] writer when […].”
As a writer, I refuse to comply to those “rules” set by others. One main reason is self-preservation. My work is a deliberately chosen niche of a niche of a niche in a niche-genre called: Science Fiction. My stories will only sell in specific niche-markets, but probably not even there.
Another reason is the taste of exclusion that goes with it: “only we decide whether you can be part of our precious group”. And to that I simply say: “fuck you and fuck your bullshit” with more and more ease as I grow older.
Why I write
The reason why I continue to write is, because I think what I do is useful for myself. I write what I want to read. What I cannot find in the mainstreams of my sub-genres. I write what I feel is missing in the genre I love to read. I love to construct the stories I produce, the characters I create and the topics I explore. And that is what draws me back to writing over and over again.
The quality of my work
The quality of my work is irrelevant for the process of my writing. I can produce complete bullshit and have incredible fun and satisfaction while doing it.
The relative quality of my work only becomes relevant to me when I want to achieve a certain response from a certain group of people. To get published in certain magazines. To win a price in certain contests. To get certain feedback from certain people. To evoke specific emotions in specific parts of my stories.
The relative quality of my work only becomes relevant when I link it to a very specific purpose: to be one of the best in my own field and my own genre. When I want you to read my work and say: “Damn! That story really hit me.”
Going public with my work shifted in the past year from “whatever” to “I should” involving as a consequence many rewrites and considering online magazines paying for the work they publish; joining the Dutch SF / Fantasy writing contest again and involving endless shifts of endless editing sessions to kill most of my more lazy and crappy writing in order to deliver something good.
“Am I a real writer?” or: opting out of that bullshit game
“Am I a real writer?”
Who decides that? People around me? The people considered “influential”? (Note that many of them are part of an incrowd that is very selective and very prone to exclude many people from the “favors” they can provide.)
When and where does this (self)judgement of me and my work stop? How does the opinion of someone else really defines me or my identity as a writer in this whole game? Why is it relevant? Who do I need to please and how long will they be satisfied? What if I change my game?
I found that getting caught in the mind-game of “real writership” and “real success equals” is really a very destructive starting point for me and my enjoyment in my work. And I think the best thing I did for myself when I started writing again a year ago is to opt out of that bullshit game.
Another view to writing
This is where I come from and from where I choose to write the things below. All in all I like to break this absolute claim that give other people the power to define if you are “worthy” as something in some way or another.
Instead I claim this: Write. Have fun. Do whatever. Take it easy. Don’t let other people decide what you should or should not be or do. (They are probably assholes.)
Summarizing: it is all incredibly relative
The main topics
- The toll of a destructive attitude — Negativity, bringing other people down, refusing to work together, unrealistic goals, refusing to work. When you want to write, write. When you want to be published, make sure you write what is roughly expected by the ones who might be able to publish you. When you are refused, find out why and solve the problem in your own current and future work. A destructive attitude sticks with the things that are wrong. It does not seek solutions. It stands still and does not strive to go anywhere better.
- The golden rule of success — Master your craft and find your audience. Each genre and each target audience has different expectations from what “a good body of work” is. Understand them. Find out where you want to be in this. Comply. Make it happen.
- The real writer — To be “a writer” is subjective as hell. Do you write and produce complete stories? Awesome! Do you have fun/enjoyment/satisfaction in doing so? Awesome! But are you a real writer? The “real” writer is something completely subjective. For one reader, the “real writer” simply writes about what she or he likes to read the most in a way that is engaging and fun. For another the “real writer” masters language, style and story-telling in high degrees. Another will claim that the only “real writer” is the one doing this full time for a living or the one who sells a certain amount of books. For a publisher, a “real writer” can be the writer who is willing to work together and make changes were it is thought to be fit. It is all completely arbitrary.
- The professional attitude — “To write” is something different from “writing with a professional attitude”. Writing is something you can do alone and on your terms only. The professional attitude assumes others will also play an important role in your writing process. It assumes you are willing to work with- and under the terms and conditions of other people, strangers even: to make your work better or easier to sell or publish to a specific market.
- The audience — Who do you write for? Do you understand what they expect to find in your work? And do you comply to those expectations? If so, you are most likely to receive positive feedback and rewards from that audience.
- Your self-awareness — Are you aware of where you stand in all of this? Do you like it? Can you deal with the things you still need to improve? If so: happiness, joy, fun!
- Talent, mastery and craft — Writing is a craft. Like any craft there are indicators that show talent, skill and mastery and the lack of either or any. Depending on your audience, mastery, talent and skill can be incredibly relevant or not relevant at all.
- Meeting the needs — Your writing is successful when it meets the needs of the ones you write for. Even if that audience is 1 person.
- Balance in ambition, willingness and result — If your (hidden) ambition is to reach 1 000, 10 000 or 100 000 readers but your willingness to work is close to zero, you are in big trouble. Ambition and willingness to work do not match up. They are not balanced. The responses from your audience (no readers, not enough enthusiasm from your readers) will be frustrating and disappointing. Writing itself can become frustrating and dissappoiting.
- Successful writers are not necessarily “good” writers — Go to the supermarket. Look in the magazine / book department. Buy any random book displayed. You are now probably holding what can be considered a “bestseller”. Meaning that the sales numbers of that one title are between 10 000 and 100 000 copies. Harlequin is one of those produces of successful work with their romances for “women”. Is it a “good” book? Probably not. Does it sell? Probably: yes. Did a lot of people read that same book you are holding? Probably: yes.
- The big beef of publishers: #1 — Around 90% of all work sent to publishers is unpublishable. Around 1% shows potential. Around 80% of all these writers sending in their work think that they are entitled to become published. 100% of them are wrong. A publisher is not entitled to anything in this case.
- The big beef of publishers: #2 — Only a handful of authors are willing to work. To edit. To rewrite. Most people sending in their work believe that anyone who asks them to change anything is either wrong or asking too much effort for what the publishing contract is worth. They resist the editor and refuse to adapt to the ideas of someone else.
- Sales numbers do not reflect quality or success — Success is relative. Personal success is relative as well. Depending on your personal awareness and your target audience 200 enthusiastic readers can already be a huge success. For others, 200 000 is only a beginning.
- You are a writer because you say so. Not all people will agree — The definition of “what is a writer” varies per individual and per field of interest. When you write one story per year and one novel in your entire life, you can be considered a writer by one group and “not even trying” by another. Both are right from their own relative values.
- It depends on where you want to be — “Being a writer” is relative. One group has one definition. Another has another. Both are “right” and “wrong” at the same time. Who is “right” for you depends on where you want to be. You want to sell 200 000 copies of your work? Consider yourself a bestseller author? Then 200 readers is nothing and “you are not a real writer yet”. Neither will, probably, anyone else who does not reach those levels. You seek for publication wit a specific imprint / publisher? Then “being published there” is your measurement of “being a writer” and anyone not published there “is not a real writer” for you.
- Rules are bullshit, unless they apply to your specific target audience — All “10 rules to write successful fiction” are relative. “Do not/never […]” might be the holy grail in one line of fiction while the application of that same: “Do not/never […]” will kill any possible chance of success in another.
- Whatever you do is perfect and completely justified, when you do if from awareness — If you write crappy fiction and believe you are the most awesome [whatever] writer, there is a discrepancy between your work (“A”) and your perception of your work: (“B”). If you write crappy fiction (“A”) and are aware of that (“B”) your work and your perception are in line. You are what you claim to be. And this makes you completely justified as a writer. To say: “I am a writer of crappy fiction” and be able to back that up with crappy fiction is a 100% match between “A” and “B”.
1: Points of view
Let’s start with the most important part of this issue: points of view.
- The writer — The creator of the bulk of the content.
- The reader — Anyone who is not the writer and reads the work of the writer
- Friends and family — People close to the writer.
- Anyone else — People you do not know, hardly know, maybe only met somewhere some time.
- People sharing your beliefs / enthusiasm — Which can be anyone anywhere
- People not giving a shit about what moves you — Can be anyone anywhere
- People being revolted about/ opposed against what moves you — Can be anyone anywhere again.
- People with an open mind
- People with specific and strict beliefs
- The editor — Anyone who is assigned to read stories with a specific purpose in mind and who is one of the people to decide if that story is fit for publishing.
- The publisher — Anyone who publishes work and to whom works of art are closely bound to economical factors / Return on Investment.
2: An idea of the playfield
Liking it versus buying it
The publisher can like your story, but might choose not publish it for economical reasons. Your story is not good enough, requires too much effort to edit and polish it and/or might not fit the projected taste of his/her audience.
That last bit means that what you wrote will probably not be appreciated by the readers he/she considers to be the target audience. Meaning that publishing your work will possibly inflict a negative response from the majority of readers (say more than 60%) and damage the brand.
Damaging the brand/imprint: inconsistency in choice
Depending on the publisher, this damage can be anything.
The so-called “imprint” of a publisher is a specific brand in which specific bodies of work are published. The buyers of these books have a specific set of expectations they follow when buying more of that same publisher or visiting their site (generating views and visits and exposure of the brand itself). When that imprint, that brand, becomes inconsistent and unreliable in its choices and offer: the imprint becomes damaged, the buyer loses faith in the brand and sales will eventually drop as a result.
The pre-conceived ideas / taste of readers
Readers are people. People have pre-conceived ideas and expectations which range from anything to anything. Your work and your voice will usually not change that, regardless of whatever you try.
Hated it, liked it, loved it
There will always be people who really rather not read you at all (as you bore them to death or you trigger the wrong switches). There will be people who like your work and there will be people who wonder why you were not sharing your writings earlier as your work is: “super awesome”.
In short: “bad” and “good” work is relative to the taste and the expectations of your readers towards the works they read and they want to read. this relative taste applies to you and your reading-preferences as well.
3: An idea of your target audience, part 1
Marketing has tried for decades to get a better grip and understanding on the macro-dynamics of personal taste.
Selling and the biggest common denominator
When you have a product and you want to sell that product, you need to find the biggest common denominator that triggers your potential audience to make the effort to reach out for you and at least sample the product you are trying to sell.
1: Imaginary world revolving around adults
Take “Barbie” as an example. The target audience is “girls” of a specific age-range of say: 8 years old to 12 years old. These “girls” like to play with imaginary situations that involve elements from the grown up world. With the world of Barbie you can imagine plays that revolve around a mature woman with a mature body: Barbie. And the play involves other mature elements, like: houses, cars, a boyfriend (Ken).
While the world of Barbie involves new elements and slight changes anywhere (including the introduction of movies and television series, placing Barbie in an age roughly between 16 and 19) they do not stray much from the basis of the fantasy world and it’s relatively undefined specifications. (What job does Barbie has? How can she afford the thins she owns? Where are her parents? Where are her genitals?) Changing that would probably kill a big part of the potential market.
2: Cuteness in useful objects
Take “Hello Kitty” as another example. The target audience is almost exactly the same. “Girls”, age 6 to 12. The fantasy world around “Hello Kitty” is entirely different. It revolves mostly around objects you can use: pencils, back-packs, wallets, watches. The main factor is cuteness.
It is irrelevant who the individual “girl” is. What is relevant are macro-factors like “social taboo” and “generic elements” that come into play for “girls” as a group at large.
3: Taboos and Return on Investment
Note that “girls” is not an absolute given. Nor is the age range. Boys can love and like Hello Kirry and Barbie as much as girls do, but are less likely to demand and buy Barbie and so are the “forgotten” target. They simply do not buy enough to justify the investments of marketing and advertising.
One important additional factor in this “being forgotten” is the general social taboos around “boys playing with girl-stuff” in most of the market places Mattel targets its products. Secondary: “boys” as a macro-group within the target markets tend to care more about other things than play-pretend the Barbie world. Investing in marketing “Barbie for boys” is seen as a losing game. The Return on Investment will probably be negative.
From the point of taboo: the situation in which neither Barbie nor Ken used to have nipples nor actual representations of sexual organs has mainly to do with the taboos and the sexual morale of this time-period: related to the minds of the parents of those children.
4: An idea of your target audience, part 2
I limit myself to these four questions:
- Who do you write for?
- What do you want to write about?
- Who are you yourself?
- What size of audience would you like to reach?
Who do you write for?
This usually has multiple levels.
- The one standing next to you — this can be you yourself, your best friend, your partner, your family, an imaginary person that is the representative of your most ideal group of readers.
- The known audience — These are people you know somehow. Via your social whereabouts, via internet, via responses they gave to your previous work.
- The imaginary audience — This is a group of mostly unknown people you think will like your story. Depending on your personal ambitions and awareness this audience
- A publisher — This is a specific group of people with a specific taste and view on writing and written stuff and the audience they publish for. Your work needs to be stimulating for that audience: so that more books under their imprint will be sold in the future.
- A jury of a contest — Same as the publisher, but without the need to sell that work. Where a publisher might personally love your work, but will refuse it due to the market it is catering, the jury of a contest can steer mainly on taste. “I liked it / I did not like it”.
I write for my partner. She is my main audience. It is why I switched from Dutch to English. Her feedback is an important factor in what I will focus on when I correct my work.
My imaginary audience consists of people like me. Who like certain sub-cultural manifestations (Science Fiction) and who are “the forgotten audience”: people who do not fit the social, cultural and motivating templates of the main characters in 95% of all stories I read.
My writing is very specific in its main topics (revolving around (1) several aspects of love and the rejection and (2) the deconstruction of social and cultural constructs we see as “normal” in our society) focusing on a very specific and imaginary group of people that I would like to have as personal friends.
Your audience is probably completely different than mine. It helps to know what they are, to define the topics in your work to focus on.
What do you want to write about?
There are several options and combinations possible. to give you an idea:
- Personal stuff — Things that move you, that you agree or disagree with. Political standpoints or the complete idiocy of having them. Things that happened to you. Things that touch you deep inside. Things you get carried away with. Whatever.
- Popular stuff — Things other people like. Things other people respond positive to when you mention it, talk about, write about.
- Controversial stuff — Things that will shock certain people. That deliberately challenges certain beliefs and certain structures.
- Forgotten stuff — The things which are denied, forgotten, erased, evaded, not talked about.
- Deep stuff — Brainy things. things that make people think, might move them.
- Shallow stuff — Things that are fun, not go too deep, not make people think to much. Easy listening, known elements, nothing shocking beyond the occasional rush to keep things exiting.
- Fan-fiction — Things other people already wrote about and you want to add to. Either taking the entire existing set of elements, or creating your own version. and/or variation.
Then there are the specific elements.
- Action and excitement — The rush. Running, shooting, falling, hiding, fighting. Main elements? Not at all?
- Sex / erotica — From explicit to implicated. On-screen and behind the scenes. As a main element or something on the side
- The role of the main character — Hero? Anti-hero? Winner, loser, none of both? Influential? Non-consequential?
- Pace — Fast? Slow? Somewhere in between? Alternating?
- Rewards — Are there any for the characters? What do they look like? How are they given shape?
Who are you?
- Prolificness — Do you write a lot? Or not? Is the writing process easy or hard? Is one story per month a lot, or a minimum?
- Consistence — Do you write each week, each day? On fixed times of the day? Or is that completely arbitrary? Do you have gaps in your writing?
- Time — How much time to write do you have? A lot? Not so much? Sparingly?
- Dedication to quality — How dedicated are you to deliver quality? How many times do you edit your work? Are you satisfied when it is readable or when it is really working on all levels and can stand tough criticism?
- Your main drive — What drives you to write? What topics? What type of stories? What gives you fun? What not?
“Who are you” is a very important question to answer. It is easy to sway with trends, but where are you? What colors do you want to use? What style? What approach? To whom do you want to be measured? Who do you want to please and pleasure?
What works for you? What does not? What can you drop as bullshit advice? What would be useful to follow and apply?
What size of audience do you want to reach?
- Anything goes — When anything goes, posting on your personal blog already does the job. You can be found and can be read.
- Some size — You will reach an audience of some size easiest with publications already having some audience. Depending on your own wants, needs and other elements you might go for anything that accepts you or for some kind of publication with certain standards (increasing the possibility of rejection).
- Large size — You need some understanding of the audience and some understanding of the factors that help you reach a bigger group of people.
5: The professional attitude
Writing about this before, I decided to choose the word “professional attitude” to distinguish two classes of writers.
What this envelops (according to me)
- The willingness to listen — To critique, to feedback. To other people
- The willingness to change — The story, the direction of a story, based on feedback, based on the target audience
- Understanding of the market — What you like is not always what your potential market likes. So sometimes you have to adapt your work. Remove things you rather keep, add things you would not have chosen to add.
- The willingness to edit and revise until it is done — To improve the story. To revise scenes that are not there yet. To get it right. To make it work. To make it fit. Where “done” is when other people say: “now it is good / good enough / perfect / awesome.”
- The willingness to let other people work on your work — In some cases it is beneficial to have others edit your work. This can lead to a disaster or to improvement.
- The willingness to let go — Sometimes things do not work out as you want. A publisher does not want to publish your work. People did not get your story. People did not love your ideas. Editors fucked up your work and maimed your work beyond awful. Instead of fighting the world, let go. Learn. Do it better, do it with different people or do it in a different place.
What this does not envelop (according to me)
- Headstrong responses / unwillingness / resistance — Sure it is good to have your opinion, but if that turns into unwillingness to anything, you simply block the process.
- Always wanting to be right about anything — When you hand over your work to others, they will have their opinions. From their points of view. When you hand your work over to others, it is to get published. This involves and includes sacrifices from your side. Learn from them instead of protecting your work against all possible influences.
- Unwillingness to work and/or cooperate — “Why would I change this story/make this effort?” “Who are you anyway?” This unwillingness stops you from growing and learning. It is not a safe place to be, but one that often leads to endless rejection because you refuse to adapt to the wants and needs of others.
6: Wrapping it up
What defines you as a writer is you yourself. “Good” and “bad” and sales factors are only very relative measures that mean a lot in one group and are completely meaningless in another.
One standard is just one standard
For that same reason you can not measure quality or success using the standards of one direction for all others as well. Specific bodies of work will never reach sales or downloads over 5000 copies while others easily hit that target the first day their work goes online.
Being published is a relative success
The success related to “being published” is relative to where and what audience. Big houses might refuse you for other reasons than quality (“well written, but not fit for our audience”). Your work might fit only a specific group of people and only be appreciated within that very group and be a delight as you are one of the few who actually cares about them.
Anything that sells has a subjective quality
You can bitch about McDonalds. That the food is not food at all (as I do). But it sells. So it has a specific quality. The fact that I do not like it, does not diminishes that quality or the sales of the “food” they sell. Nor will it stop people from buying it.
The same goes for literature and written stories. Any story that sells and is read by many has some sort of quality. What that quality is, is relative to the narrative and the people who read it. Do that specific thing as good as possible and you — as the producer of that content — can become a master in your field.
Failure in the eyes of others is a relative thing
Your work might completely fail in the eyes of many critics and undeservedly be torn down to pieces: while your story and your work has everything that it can offer within your genre.
When people complain that your work is not gourmet-chef quality awesomeness, or too experimental for their taste, keep in mind that their experience of your work is always personal.
Understand your expectations towards your audience
Your audience is out there. Whether that audience lives up to your expectations depends on your own awareness of where and how your work caters their expectations. Understanding this can put you in several places. Happy when all things meet and fit. Frustrated when your perception of your work does not meet that of the ones you target to.
There are no absolute “things to do”
As a (“successful”) writer you do not HAVE to. Anything. You do not HAVE to be published. Or popular. Or best-selling.
The main thing to ask yourself is this: do I and my audience agree on the things I produce? Can I do something to improve that situation? Make it even better?
Should you follow popular streams?
In my case it would have been wise a long time ago to switch to Fantasy. To focus my writing on magic and whatever. To get published, To reach a broader audience. To even get published maybe by a (Dutch) publisher.
At this time, that genre should be Young Adult. Or Urban Fantasy.
The thing is, I never gave a shit about Fantasy. I do not care about Young Adult. Fantasy bores me to death when I read it. Fantasy made me intensely sad and unhappy to write it. Young Adult? No fucking clue how to write 16 year old characters. And so I continue to produce stories in a genre that has no real commercial future. Because I like that genre. Because that is my home.
And you? it is up to you. If you like to, if it fits: awesome. If it does not: do not fear. Just do not expect a lot of earning from your work soon if and when you want to sell your work.
Are you happy?
Are you happy with what you produce? When you look back at your own work, at your own process, can you feel moments of satisfaction? Are you going where you want to go? Do you see a glorious future happiness in what you do?
Do you came back to writing each time? Regardless of what?
Do you come back to writing regardless of what? Even when years have passed? Is it something that is there as a longing? A craving?
If not: what is missing? How can you change this?
Things to avoid
- Blame others — For whatever frustration you feel about whatever related to your work. Take action instead. Stop try to please people who do not like you or your work. Find whatever it is that represents you and your work. Match things better
- Make your opinions into absolute truisms — It is OK to give people advice. To share your opinions. But avoid making it into the one single truth about whatever.
- Start an endless war / try to convince people — When you feel people are wrong about whatever, turn that “whatever” into something you learn and grow from. Use your energy to push your own work forward into even better regions.
Things to do
- Listen — Listen to your critics.
- Learn — Learn from the feedback you receive, the successes you gain, the things that do not work out.
- Move — Move. Move to the places that help you. Avoid the places that are hostile to you.
- Produce — Write. Create. Make things happen.
- Find your own place — Do what YOU like. Follow your path. Find where you belong.
- Find your own audience — You can not please all and everyone. The crowd that loves French fries is not necessarily the crows that loves experimental food, but might and will contain a small group of people who will appreciate your work as well.
- Find your own peace — Whatever it is that drives you, if you think you are a writer and when you indeed write, you are.
- Understand that it is all relative — If your measure for success is 100 000 readers and you achieve that, you are successful. If your measure of success is that your peers love what you do and that audience is 5 people, your success is equally in value as “reaching 100 000 readers”. If someone tells you “you are only successful when you reach 100 000 readers”, that person is probably wrong.
- Understand that nobody can tell you what YOUR measure of success should be — Do what you want. Find pleasure in the work. Produce.
- Decide where you want to change — Not all change fits you. Some things will make you miserable, even if the projected rewards might be “big”. Decide where you want to go and what direction will make you happy. Stick to that. Accept what you might not reach as a result and how big that loss really is to you.
The end of this blog post.