I have been known to question writing “rules.” (See how those quote marks sneaked in?) Sometimes I wonder why… Am I a knee-jerk rebel, one who thinks any piece of written schlock is good as long as it was written sincerely? Do I really think writers who follow rules and comb through their works-in-progress for transgressions are “sheeple,” churning out lifeless overworked prose?
I hope not, but…
One thing I’ve realized: I react negatively to words and phrases I see trotted out repeatedly and without question. Phrases like “Show, don’t tell,” “Kill your darlings,” and “Never use [insert word(s) here].”
Such writing rules are triggers for me.
Now I’ve admitted all that, here are some thoughts that won’t go away…
Why is it OK for established writers to flout the rules? And don’t say it’s because they do it well. If prologues and backstory are bad, they’re bad, no matter who writes them. Right?
Is “info-dump” simply a pejorative term for what is called “rich, detailed description” when it appears in a book by a big-name author published by the Big Five? (Maybe soon to be the Big Four?)
Does anyone really write a first draft that conforms to the three-act story structure? I’m convinced that structure in a work of fiction is discovered after completion, rather than deliberately created by the writer. Especially in a first draft.
Every main character must have a goal, and every scene must contribute to their efforts to reach that goal. No goal, no story. Really? What about characters who are just bumbling along through life? OK, those are found in “literary” novels. (Yes, I know many of these well-worn rules apply to genre fiction.)
Why do some poorly-written books get 5-star ratings and gushing reviews? Could it be that those readers skimmed the boring parts and are happy as long as the book ends with a startling twist or a heartwarming scene? (OK, let’s toss a few sour grapes into the mix.)
I can’t help but notice that many advice-to-writers posts illustrate their points—about creating hooks, or where the first pinch-point should be, or what kinds of conflict you really need—with examples from movies, not books. What does that tell you? Their advice is not directed to screenwriters, after all, but to those who write long-form fiction. Why can’t these folks come up with examples from novels or stories? Maybe they don’t read much? (This is not a rhetorical question; I really don’t know.)
All right, steam has been let off. That’s it for now. (And those colour-gradient backgrounds are fun!)
Does anyone else harbour niggling thoughts like these? Little thought-bugs you can’t swat away? Here’s your chance to share them with your fellow writers and readers!
I really must stop reading “advice to writers” posts.
The mother of all writing rules is “Show, don’t tell.” Showing good. Telling bad. Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t use adverbs. You know, those nasty words that end in “-ly.”
The writer wants to convey to the reader that a character is experiencing an emotion. Anger, say, or fear, or joy. She can’t say “X was angry,” because “was” is one of those forbidden words. She can’t have X saying something “angrily.” So what to do?
Okay, the writer thinks, I’ll just show what the character does. X clenched his fists. Y rolled her eyes. Z sighed.
No, no, little writer. You can’t do that. Fist-clenching, eye-rolling, and sighing are overused. And please don’t have eyes wandering around the room or crawling over anyone’s body (I actually agree with that one).
You know what–I just realized something.
Many of these advice posts are written by trad pub gatekeepers and people providing services to writers–editors, book coaches, and similar. These folks read a million submissions or manuscripts in need of help. They are exquisitely attuned to words and phrases. If they are sifting through a deluge of submissions by hopeful writers, they are looking for reasons to reject. An offering has to be sharply different to perk these people’s jaded sensibilities (but not too different, of course). If they are working through a manuscript for a client, they are scrutinizing every word.
So–if you’re hoping to snag an agent, get traditionally published, or win a contest, by all means make sure your offering is free of these offending elements. Read the posts, absorb the advice, and edit accordingly.
But if you are publishing your own work, and your critique partners and beta readers say it’s good, it probably is good, even if your characters sigh or roll eyes more than once in your entire book. It doesn’t hurt to be aware of your go-to phrases and make sure you’re not actually overusing them, but most ordinary readers aren’t instantly annoyed by things that annoy people who read for a living.
Think about it–reading dozens of first chapters or short stories one after the other over several hours is a slog, I’m sure. In such a reading situation, the reader is almost certainly going to notice words and phrases that pop up in all or most of the pieces they read. They jump like fleas into the consciousness of that reader, and are about as welcome. They are the equivalent of the ticking clock or dripping tap to the insomniac. At the end of the session, the battle-weary reader is going to make sarcastic comments, like “Well, this batch had a dozen eye-rolls, fifteen sighs, nine shrugs, and a plethora of pounding hearts. Those writers! Can’t they come up with anything original?”
And what do you suppose that editor or book doctor is going to write about in their blog?
I’ll finish with something from one of the advice-givers in response to a cranky comment on one such post: “The only truly universal writing advice is ‘If it works, it works.’” Capitulation?
Well, maybe I won’t quit reading posts with advice to writers. I wouldn’t want my Audrey the Contrarian persona to run out of things to fulminate about.
Here’s the old contrarian again, revving up to question yet another piece of Advice to Writers.
This time it’s “Avoid dialogue tags.” If you must use them, stick to “said” and (maybe) “asked.” Often, Elmore Leonard is cited as endorsing this practice. Leonard wrote Westerns, gritty crime fiction, and thrillers. His prose style was crafted for those genres, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best style for all writing. And I’ve read that his essay, “Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing,” may have been somewhat tongue in cheek.
Using only “said” and “asked” is recommended because these words are non-distinctive and do not call attention to themselves, because that would distract the reader.
As with so many of these dictums (well, it should be “dicta,” but let’s not be pedantic), there’s a good deal of wiggle room. First of all, dialogue tags are needed when a conversation between two (and especially more than two) characters goes on for more than a few lines. How many readers have had to scrutinize a page of dialogue, labelling sentences as “he” and “she,” or “Bob” and “Tom” to figure out exactly who said what, because the writer omitted dialogue tags altogether? Talk about being distracted from the story!
Writers are also advised to use strong verbs for actions. “Sprinted,” for example, is preferred to a weak, wimpy word like “ran” to describe what a character does. Dialogue tags are verbs and speaking is an action, so why is it good when a character sprints or ambles, but bad when they bellow or shriek?
And no, I don’t advocate words such as “smiled” or “laughed” as dialogue tags. I agree they’re not appropriate because they do not describe ways of articulating words. But many strong verbs do just that.
“Bellowed,” “shrieked,” “muttered,” and “murmured” can show how a character utters something, when “said” would be too bland. Like spices, these words are most effective sprinkled sparingly throughout a piece of writing, but they’re no less valuable than other strong verbs. (Come to that, strong verbs can be overdone. I’ve read books stuffed with so many picturesque verbs that I’ve almost lost track of the story while bedazzled by the author’s verbal gymnastics.)
In both dialogue and action, sometimes you need a memorable, splashy verb, and sometimes a plain and common one. Recognizing these situations is part of learning how to write well.
Words are a writer’s tools. Learning to write is all about selecting the most effective words and combining them artfully. I will always question advice that puts certain words or classes of words into a verbal jail with “Do Not Use” on the door.
(Hops off soapbox.)
Does anyone else think this “rule” is a contradiction? Do you mostly stick to “said” or avoid dialogue tags altogether, or do you sometimes slip in another word of utterance?
Writers are constantly advised to identify their reader demographic so they can direct their promotional efforts accurately.
What is a demographic, anyway? It’s a group defined by factors such as age, sex, ethnicity, education, geographic location, and interests.
For a writer, it’s the people who have bought your books and enjoyed them, with the assumption that they have other characteristics (age, sex, etc.) in common. But can you find out enough about the individuals who have ordered your book online or bought it in a bookstore to discern a demographic? Some (but not all) readers may leave a positive review at a site where you can track them down and find those details. Stalking, anyone?
Even an author who sells books in person at an event (not likely now!) can form only a limited idea of their “market.” Age and sex, that’s about all you can discern visually. And what if your buyers are both old and young, men and women? Is an author supposed to interview them as part of the sales transaction, to winkle out their occupations and interests? Salespeople in bookstores certainly never do that.
Or maybe you write books specifically intended to be bought, read, and enjoyed by a defined group — men aged between 30 and 59 who like golf, for example. How do you know if you succeed? What if people outside that group like your books more than the ones inside it? That golf-loving dude may be the ideal reader you imagined while writing, but what if young women who hate golf like your book? Is that failure on your part? Should you tailor your next book for the golf-hating young woman market?
Even if you manage to collect demographic information about some of your readers, I’m certain you won’t have complete details about every one of them. How does incomplete or inaccurate information help your marketing efforts?
I have to admit, this piece of advice, which I see often, mystifies and annoys me. The only way I know a specific person has bought, read, and liked one of my books is if they tell me, either in person, in a comment on my blog, or in a review. Even then, it’s not always possible to discern an individual behind an avatar or internet persona. Rightly or wrongly, I have only the vaguest idea of my reader demographic. (Hey — some of you folks reading this post are part of it!)
Yes, I know social media is somehow supposed to be the answer. But I just read a piece of advice saying authors should direct their social media efforts to their target market, which assumes we already know what it is.
At that point, I sat down and wrote this rant.
Maybe I’m missing something obvious. Has anyone identified their reader demographic in a useful way? Does anyone have a target market, apart from “children,” “teens,” or “adults?” How do you obtain the necessary data about your readers?
If you want to join my reader demographic, you may be interested in my latest book. It’s available at the pre-order price for only a few more days. And it’s now also available as a paperback.
Available at a special pre-order price of $0.99 USD (or equivalent) from these Amazon outlets USUKCAAUDE
Any writer who follows blogs has seen advice that certain words “stop” your reader: adverbs, “weak” words, “filter words.” Dialogue tags other than “said.” The word “that.” The word “was.” Writers carry out search and delete missions in their documents, hunting down these toxic words. No one wants to take a chance of alienating a reader.
As some of you know, I am a self-declared rule quibbler. Not that I’m a fan of bad writing, but when I read these sermons from the blog, I wonder what evidence supports their declarations. Has anyone carried out a scientific study of reading and how readers actually process written fiction?
Book sales may be taken as an indicator of effective writing, but as most of us know, buying a book does not necessarily equal reading it or enjoying it. Maybe sales are more an indicator of effective marketing than of brilliant writing.
There are peer-reviewed academic journals on the subject: Reading Research Quarterly, for example, and the Journal of Research in Reading. From my admittedly cursory look at the sorts of articles that appear in them, the main focus of the research they publish is how people learn to read and comprehend written language, and not so much what constitutes compelling fiction.
Is there a way to quantify good writing? Do certain words bore or otherwise alienate readers? How might such a study look?
Here’s my idea and thought process: test subjects are given two different texts of a piece of writing long enough to require a reader’s attention for more than a few minutes. A couple of thousand words, perhaps Chapter 1 of a novel. One version follows all the rules about words not to use. The other breaks them. Both texts have the same storyline, but different vocabularies.
After reading, test subjects would be asked which version of each piece would incline them to read further. But wait — would a single test subject see both samples or only one? By the time they read the second, they will have an idea of the plot, so there would be a spoiler effect. So maybe we have two stories, i.e., four different texts. Each subject gets a text from each story, one that follows the rules and one that does not. Because the stories are different, the “I’ve seen this already” effect is avoided.
But surely it would be necessary to minimize differences in reader preference? The test subjects would have to be matched with their preferred types of fiction. If a subject reacts unfavourably to the genre of the text rather than the words used, the test wouldn’t be valid. Okay, the researcher would have to interview potential subjects so the members of the subject pool would be similar to one another, in how much time they devote to reading, types of fiction preferred, etc.
Carefully devised follow-up questions would be needed to elicit and quantify the effect of specific words on individual reading experiences. Formulating questions for studies is a field of study in itself.
My conclusion: devising, carrying out, and writing up credible experiments is not a simple matter.
The closest I got to an actual study of the kind I’ve envisioned is a paper published in 1988, entitled The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure: Needs and Gratifications. It describes five different studies on different aspects of the reading experience. The two that seemed most relevant to my question examined reading speed and readers’ rankings of texts for preference, merit and difficulty. There was even a study of readers’ physiological reactions to reading different texts. Even a cursory look at this paper shows how complex and elaborate a scientific study of reading can be.
The works from which texts were obtained for testing are varied, including fiction and nonfiction, literary fiction, classics, and genre fiction. Authors include Jane Austen, Saul Bellow, Louis L’Amour, Ayn Rand, Graham Greene, Hunter S. Thompson, James Michener, Ian Fleming, Essie Summers, Arthur Hailey, Joseph Conrad, Agatha Christie, and W. Somerset Maugham. The most recent publication date is 1975.
One thing I found interesting was that some of the books are labelled “trash” by the study’s author. The test subjects showed a preference for this “trash” as pleasure reading material, but at the same time they assigned higher ranks for merit to “elite” works that were harder to read. The final page of the paper shows extracts from three of the works, along with the ratings they were assigned.
Despite labelling certain books as “trash,” the study does not analyze the writing, only the test subjects’ responses to it. While the studies documented in this paper don’t answer my question, they are examples of the kind of effort needed to obtain solid data on reading, and by extension, on writing.
The paper does contain some great academic terms. One that jumped out at me is ludic reading, which means “reading for pleasure.” Books can be called “ludic vehicles.” So, fellow writers, that’s what we’re trying to do: turn our books into ludic vehicles to transport readers into realms of the imagination.
My final thought (for now): Read this blog post, which contains a short piece of fiction that deliberately breaks all kinds of writing rules. I couldn’t stop reading, which suggests the words an author uses aren’t as important as the way she or he arranges them (and a few other factors too, of course).
Is anyone aware of any scientific studies on the effectiveness of specific words on recreational reading? Is there any objective science to back up the “rules” for writers? Or is it just a matter of, “Well, everyone knows…”?
Writing and editing have been compared to cooking. Here’s another analogy (from my contrarian side).
Two approaches to diet: forbid yourself all foods high in calories, carbohydrates, and/or fat, OR eat a variety of foods (including ones you like), limiting those highest in fats and carbs.
Which one are you most likely to adopt as a way of life?
Two approaches to writing: follow all the rules and make sure you don’t use forbidden words, OR use whatever goddamn words you like, as long as they bring your story to life in the reader’s mind.
Which one will you regard with zest and enthusiasm?
Eating a variety of healthy, palate-pleasing foods from the entire range of available edibles is a better approach than restrictive regimes that label certain foods as forbidden. Of course, it helps to learn something about nutrition, and what “moderate” really means.
We writers have the entire panoply of words available to us. Words are the writer’s tools. Learning to write is learning how to use them well, all of them. Some words — cliches, maybe? — are analogous to processed foods. Flat, boring prose may be likened to vegetables boiled into a khaki-coloured mush. Well-chosen words skillfully assembled are like magical combinations of juice and crunch and richly blended flavours. A dialogue tag other than “said,” or the occasional adverb, are like touches of spice or a few hot peppers.
I’m not a fan of advice that labels certain words as weak words, crutch words, or filter words. The implication is that if you avoid those words or replace them with other, better, words, your writing will be good. But it’s not really about using some words and avoiding others. Writers must develop the ability to embody their imaginings in words that engage, delight, intrigue, or appall readers and keep them reading to the end.
If it was simply a matter of avoiding adjectives and not using “was,” writing would be a snap. It isn’t.
In writing, as in diet, it’s all about good choices and optimal combinations. Experimentation, mistakes and failures, adjustments, and fresh attempts are part of the process. Too much focus on rules can result in paralysis. Ignorance and total disregard of good writing practices can result in bloated or crippled prose.
When the writer embarks on a journey of creation, the rules should be in the luggage and the editor in the back seat. When the writer’s inspiration and intention have been given shape in the form of words, they may be unpacked and summoned to do their parts.
After nearly 10 years of writing blog posts, reading blog posts, and commenting on blog posts, I have a pretty good idea of what I like in a blog post: an interesting (to me) topic, well-written, and relatively short. Good comments by other bloggers are a definite bonus. They can elevate a post from statement to conversation.
What are good comments? Ones that add something to what the blogger said, even by arguing disagreeing a bit. Remember what we’re always being told about our fiction writing — conflict adds interest. No one likes vitriolic troll-spew, but when every single comment is blandly positive (Great post! Thanks for this! Got to bookmark!), or there are no comments at all, the reading experience falls flat.
For example, a while ago, I read a reblogged post advising writers to use “sensitivity readers.” I knew from elsewhere that this topic is controversial; some writers see it as bordering on self-censorship. Several bloggers “liked” the post, but no one had anything to say about it. I’ve seen this happen often enough to wonder. Did all these readers just think, “Oh, okay,” and move on to the next thing? (And did I put in my 2 cents’ worth? No, actually. Being in the Far West of the world, I’m often among the last bloggers to read a post, and there’s not much point in formulating a comment only the original poster will see.)
Some posts lend themselves better than others to discussion-type comments. If someone is announcing a new book or sharing a milestone of some sort, no discussion is needed. On the other hand, posts offering advice to writers, or strongly worded screeds taking a particular position on an issue, are vastly improved by comments.
I’m not advocating flat condemnations or being argumentative for the sake of it, but sometimes I wish people wouldn’t appear to swallow all advice with a bland affirmation. If you have reservations or questions about advice given or opinions expressed in a post, articulate them! If you’re a published writer with any measure of success, you have a ground from which to comment and question.
Perhaps bloggers are reluctant to differ with or question opinions in a post because they fear being labelled as negative. In the culture of “positivity,” an apparently negative attitude is perceived as a major flaw. I agree that whiny, bitter screeds full of self-pity, or personal attacks are never acceptable, but a bit of civilized discussion can add dimension and interest to a post.
We’ve all heard this piece of advice: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” I suggest modifying it to: “If you don’t agree with something, turn your disagreement into an opportunity to discuss.”
So, fellow bloggers, what do you think? How do you feel about a bit of civilized quibbling? Feel free to disagree!
A sudden painting project means at least one more retread for the blog. I saw a post about Elmore Leonard’s writing rules recently, which brought to mind this post from February 2012. No grumpiness warning needed.
Recently [in 2012] CBC Radio issued a challenge to its followers to write sentences breaking Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. I suspect the assumption was that the results would be examples of really bad writing, and therefore chuckleworthy.
Setting the challenge aside here, I wonder if that assumption is justified. Surely it depends on what kind of thing a writer is writing. Rules that apply to gritty, hard-boiled urban fiction may be totally wrong for romance, or fantasy, or Literature with a capital “L.” There may be a few fundamental rules that apply to all writing, but I’m not sure that Elmore Leonard’s list qualifies.
I have to admit, this topic of Rules of Writing is one that I find hard to leave alone. It’s like salted nuts, or maybe like a burr, because I find such rules irritating. Never mind whose rules they are; as soon as I perceive that someone is pontificating to writers (even other writers), I go into combat mode, or at least argument mode. A year ago the Guardian newspaper published writing rules by a large number of writers. Some are quirky, or just funny. From Canada’s own Margaret Atwood: take two [italics mine] pencils with you on planes, in case one breaks and you can’t sharpen it because no one can take a knife on a plane any more. (But are those little stick-it-in-and-twist pencil sharpeners confiscated by security, I wonder?) See what I mean about arguing?
So what about Mr. Leonard’s rules? I agree with a few of them, such as the one about avoiding adverbs (words that end in “ly,” including “suddenly”) — and not just to modify “said.” Ditto exclamation points and dialect. Also, I would add, italics.
But I think some of the rules are too restrictive. Yes, it’s best to carry dialogue with “said,” but sometimes you need another word, as when a character doesn’t just say something, but splutters, groans, sighs or mutters. Words like these add texture and juiciness. They should be used sparingly, like spices, but not banished from a writer’s vocabulary.
Come to think of it, Mr. L. uses “never” way too many times in his rules.
Weather and description. Mr. L. says never to start a book with weather and to avoid descriptions of people, places or things. I think it’s a matter of degree. Having your character stand there like a dummy while you give a verbal snapshot of their clothing, hair and accessories doesn’t work. But readers want to know something about your main characters, including what they look like. The trick is to create vivid images of them by slipping details into sections of action or dialogue, so people don’t even recognize the descriptive bits as such.
As for weather and places, these can be opportunities for “beautiful writing,” the kind that gives the writer a frisson when he or she reads it over at the end of a writing session. The trouble is that readers don’t always share those frissons and often skip over those sections to find out what happens next. Sad but true, at least for plot-driven books. Writers of the literary type may get away with beautiful writing, because they attract readers who enjoy that sort of thing.
Rule #10 is one of those sneaky lines that gets remembered and quoted; it’s also guaranteed to induce anxiety in the insecure writer (and just about all of us are insecure at some point). “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” So what parts are those? Here is my quick top-of-brain list of what to look for in your never-ending revision sessions: 1. Long paragraphs that contain extended descriptions or backstory, even though the writing is beautiful. Consider cuts or moves. 2. Extended sections of dialogue with no action, especially those where the speakers are not identified. 3. Long action sequences of the sort where all hell breaks loose for several pages. They may be crammed with verbs, but when they go on and on, the little movie-maker in the reader’s brain gets tired and wants a break. Have your characters go for a drink and talk about the weather.
Several years ago I read a lot of spirited discussions on a LinkedIn writers’ group which no longer exists. I suspect it self-immolated. Here’s a post from early 2013. Grumpiness warning!
Since joining LinkedIn’s Fiction Writers’ Guild last year, I’ve wasted — er, spent a lot of hours reading and occasionally commenting on several discussions. They are all about fiction writing and increasingly about self-published fiction. Inevitably, the topic of editing comes up. Someone opines that of course a self-published work must be substandard if the author has skipped the all-important step of having their work “professionally edited.” In the throes of one of these debates, someone said, “A writer who edits him- or herself has a fool for a client,” echoing a similar opinion about people who represent themselves in a court of law.
I found this statement quite provocative and felt a Rant coming on. Several weeks have passed and now I can offer a few temperate observations.
First of all, I will say that a writer who has contracted with a “traditional” publisher to publish their work has no choice in the matter of being edited. Since the publisher is investing their time and treasure in the work, it is entirely logical that they should shape the product in whatever way they believe is necessary. I’ll say no more about this. This screed is entirely about self-published works.
“Editing” is not a monolithic process. There is structural or developmental editing, in which the editor suggests getting rid of characters or giving specific characters more important roles. Entire scenes or chapters may be cut, or new ones written. The entire novel may be rewritten. This is huge and fundamental stuff. To me it makes sense that structural editing happen[s] early in the writing process. A writer who is having trouble making their story come to life as envisioned may well need a structural edit.
Line and copy editing happen in the final stage of a manuscript’s life, to deal with things such as typos, grammatical problems and continuity.
Freelance editors with connections in the traditional publishing industry may be worth paying for, but I suspect they are in a position to command high prices and be selective as to which writers they take on — just like agents.
So who is a “professional editor?” Anybody. There is no accrediting body or degree-granting authority for editors. Like writers, they create their reputations by pursuing their craft. Success comes in the form of recognition by readers, writers and peers. And as with writers, just because someone calls themselves an editor doesn’t mean they are any good at it. Writers who want to hire an editor to help them structure their work or provide the professional polish are advised to use a process similar to that of hiring a contractor to do renovations on their house — request references and ask to see samples of their work. Someone suggested getting test pieces edited and going with the one you like best, but given some of the opinions expressed on LinkedIn, my suspicious self wondered if the opposite approach wouldn’t be better. We writers are a self-castigating bunch.
Here I’m getting into Rant territory again. Perhaps because the current abundance of self-published fiction includes quite a lot of naive, or unpolished, or — to be quite frank — “bad” writing, some people have decided that all self-published writers are childish, self-indulgent seekers of adulation, brainlessly inflicting half-baked textual travesties on the overburdened reading public. They need to be whipped into shape by Editors.
Like all sweeping condemnations, this bugs me. Which is why I’m writing this.
Back to that “fool for a client” remark. I disagree with that 100%. I think anyone who wants to call themselves a writer should also know how to edit. It’s part of the package.
Another thing to keep in mind is that independent, self-published authors are just that — independent. Unlike editors who work for publishing houses, they are not obliged to create a marketable “product” that will show a return on investment in a limited time. The self-published writer decides how much of their time and treasure they are going to invest in their work, and what constitutes success. Options for editing include critique groups, beta readers and endless rewriting.
In the end, what is the worst consequence of publishing a flawed, unpopular or obscure piece of writing? If it’s an e-book, it will cost the reader no more than a few dollars (less than $5 in many cases) and however much time they are prepared to spend reading until they decide a book isn’t for them. That happens all the time with traditionally published books — even so-called “best-sellers” — bought for considerably more money. And at least an unwanted ebook can be disposed of with the push of a button. It won’t be cluttering up anyone’s shelf or taking up space in the landfill.
The Irascible Indie is back! She’s emerged from her dark and dusty corner (coughing and sneezing), insisting she must opine on that perpetual bugbear: MARKETING
I’ve just reread four blog posts from 2015, written by my grumpy alter ego, the Irascible Indie. They are mild rants about various aspects of being a self-published (aka “indie”) author. I was actually quite impressed with how well-written readable they are. Anyone who’s interested can find them here:
And now, here are the Irascible One’s views on marketing…
Not a day passes without at least one blog post popping into my reader about marketing — lists of tips and tricks, how-to articles, and stern warnings that failure to market means failure as an author. Marketing is the bitter pill you must swallow after the thrill of pressing the “publish” button.
Okay, I admit it. I have a skeptical attitude toward marketing. As soon as I see certain words — SEO, clickthroughs, keywords, analytics — I get that uh-oh feeling. After reading multiple posts about picking the right keywords and other magic formulas to romance “the algorithms,” I’m left with the feeling that the authors of those posts live in a different universe. Their screenshots (which are hard on my eyeballs) do not resemble anything I see when I try to follow their instructions.
Reading about marketing makes me feel like a kid forced to wear a scratchy woollen sweater — you know, the kind that drives you crazy and makes you want to scream and stomp your feet. It’s itchy! I hate it!
Not good enough? Okay, let’s take a look at my reasons and figure out if there’s anything to them besides a contrarian attitude.
Reason #1I hate advertising. I’ve perfected techniques to ignore ads, both in real life and online. I don’t want to inflict ads on anyone but enemies. Besides, ads cost money. Why should I pay someone to say “Buy my book!” for me?
Reason #2 I don’t want to be responsible for anyone’s personal info, especially now. Look how Google and Facebook messed up with that. I’m not going there. And I don’t want to send emails that are disguised “Buy my book!” pleas to people who trusted me with their addresses.
Reason #3 What could I possibly say in a newsletter that I’m not saying right here in my blog? I’d rather spend my time writing stories, novels, and blog posts than trying to manufacture stuff for which someone would be happy to exchange their email address. And too many newsletters are offered via annoying popups. (A popup, by the way, pretty much guarantees that I’ll never sign up for a newsletter.)
Reason #4 Advertising is expensive, and not always effective. We authors (wannabees, aspiring, self-published, and indie) are a huge market for legitimate and bogus services alike. Even with a budget and plan for advertising, you need to sift through all the options, recognize the scams as such, and figure out how to leverage use the legitimate ones optimally. Unless you get it right, your ROI is likely to be poor. (See, I can throw jargon around too!) Don’t get sucked into believing that liberal applications of cash will do the trick.
Reason #5 Getting reviews to improve sales is a tricky business. For one thing, it’s too easy to offend the Mighty ‘Zon. You can’t buy reviews (not that I would), you can’t exchange books for reviews, you can’t do review swaps with other authors, reviews have to include disclaimers, etc. Even an honest mistake can result in reviews being pulled, reviewers losing their privileges, authors losing their Amazon accounts — forever. And then there’s the torturous process of finding reviewers. In my random visits to book bloggers’ Review Policy pages, I inevitably see variations on the “No longer accepting books for review” theme. Natural, organic reviews from real readers are the best, but they can be few and far between, and an author has no direct control over that process.
Reason #6 Marketing isn’t simple. That’s why trad publishers used to have staff for it. For this indie author, there are too many options, too much advice, too many services with cutesy names and acronyms. It’s all a blur, and the prospect of figuring out what might work is dizzying. I’d rather be writing, or reading. (Hell, I’d rather be cleaning the bathroom.) The answer, of course, is to select one or two of the least daunting strategies, take small steps, and refuse to be overwhelmed by the flood of advice. And keep an eye on your expectations.
There’s an idea floating around that authors who don’t embrace marketing aren’t as hard-working and “savvy” as they should be. They don’t treat their writing as a business, so they deserve to fail. I resist these labels. I’ve happily put my energy into writing, editing, book descriptions, formatting, cover design, and presenting information about my books on my blog and elsewhere. Patience is my middle name (well, not really, but you know what I mean). I’ve whittled my expectations into elegantly slender shapes. If that’s not enough, so be it.
And yes, having said all this, I know enough not to whine about my sales!
Thank you, Irascible Indie, for your views on marketing. Now, back to your dusty niche, leaving me with a nice target to wear on my blog. I’ll relay any comments to you, including those that try to change your mind (such as it is). Bring ’em on!