Tag Archives: writing well

A Fashionable Way to Write a Best-Seller

Today we welcome guest blogger Dr. John Yeoman, who tutors creative writers in the UK and offers hands-on instruction in writing. His take on the creative writing process is definitely right up our alley, and if you enjoy this post, we’d love to hear from you in the comments section. We figure some of our US-based readers might not be familiar with terms like “tosh” or know where Stratford is (we recommend watching more BBC America), but we do feel it’s safe to assume you can connect the dots without editorial interference–a few days of BBC America will sort you out, mate. Many thanks to John for his post tackling a sadly pertinent question…


Why are so many best-selling novels unreadable?

I don’t mean the Booker award winners that wing predictably from bookshop to landfill in the time it takes a reader to cry ‘Bosh!’. I mean the novels that top The New York Times best-seller lists for months on end. Reassured, we buy them. We plod through their first clumsy chapters. And we cry ‘Bosh!’.

Must we conclude there are ‘good’ novels and best-selling novels but they are rarely the same? Or, more rationally, that a ‘good’ novel is simply one that many people enjoy, whether it’s bosh or not? That’s dangerous.

We’d first have to define a ‘good’ novel and no two readers would agree on a definition. But here’s mine. It’s a story that we’d willingly read twice. At a stroke, there go most of the Amazon chart toppers. Few will be remembered fifty years from now and fewer will be read.

Ironically, that fate will be shared even by those novels that satisfy my definition of ‘good’. Hulbert Footner was a best-seller circa 1910 with his Madame Storey tales. In the 1920s, S S van Dine made millions from his Philo Vance detective novels. Who reads them now? Only scholars. Yet all these stories are ‘good’. I’ve re-read them several times.

Why have they died? Fashions change.

It’s heartbreaking to conclude that success in novel writing has little to do with the intrinsic quality of a work and everything to do with fashion. Most of Edgar Wallace’s stories – with the arguable exception of the Four Just Men series – are unreadably bad. His badness was notorious in his own day. He was badder even than Dan Brown and critics wondered, then as now, how anyone could buy such tosh.

Yet, of course, they did – in their millions. Crowds follow fashion.

What can authors learn from this?

Simply, we must stop trying to perfect our craft skills. A basic competence is good enough. Instead, we should hone our expertise in spotting trends that might emerge two years hence – the average time it takes to write a print book and get it in the book shops. (An ebook novella might require just three months, of course.)

First, we must study trend gurus like Gerald Celente. Even if their forecasts are unoriginal (prophets who want to stay in business take no risks), they may help us to define the issues that will still resonate come publication day.

Second, we should craft a novel around three of those issues. (Why three? One may fade away, one may have become a cliché, but one might still contain a whiff of freshness. With our eyes fixed firmly on Google Trends, we should plan to make major scene cuts up until the very last moment.)

Third, and this is a provocative suggestion, we should model our protagonist upon a global celebrity who – given his or her reputation or occupation – is likely to die a scandalous death within two years. The moment we hear of that person’s demise, we can rush out our novel. Bestsellerdom is guaranteed within a week! (A book can be printed, publicised and distributed overnight, if publishers really want to do it.)

Of course, this gambit is ghoulish. It is unthinkable for publishers of integrity, all three of them. The rest will love it.

We won’t have to work so hard on our next novel. Our name will be famous. It will be as fashionable as that of Umberto Eco. We can publish our laundry list (or The Prague Cemetery), and millions will buy it and acclaim its every cryptic word.

This three-step process works.

Proof? It’s the very sequence that Shakespeare followed in 1609.

Chewing nutmeg one night (the way Nostradamus got his visions), he said: “Methinks, there is happening at this moment a great shipwreck on the Islands of the Bahamas and within a year it will be the gossip of every alehouse in England. Ergo, now is a good time to write The Tempest.”

News of the Bahamian shipwreck came to England around 1610. Indeed, it was the gossip of the land. And Shakespeare by then had written his play. What global celebrity had he cast as its protagonist? Why, himself! At the end of the play, you will recall, Prospero drowns his book. After the debut of The Tempest in 1611, Shakespeare did the same. He stopped writing. He retired to Stratford, a very wealthy man.

Clearly, Shakespeare used the three-step process. It works. Why don’t they teach it on creative writing programs?

Dr. John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. His hands-on course in story writing for profit can be found at: http://www.writers-village.org/academy

Top Five Mistakes Writers Make

freelance-writing-advice-3Writers make lots of mistakes. That’s why the first version of what you write is called a “first draft”. The very name implies you’re going to go back and do some things over–preferably BETTER than the first time.

Some writers get a bit lost in that first draft, and it really shows in the copy. When an experienced editor is reading this stuff, it’s glaring and makes us less inclined to work with you again. Why? Because when you don’t catch silly mistakes or give that first draft only a cursory review before hitting “send”, we can see the lack of care given to the piece. There are five basic ways writers go wrong–there are plenty of others, but these are some of the most commonly repeated mistakes–which are also warning signs to an experienced editor that you’re probably phoning it in and not the right person for the gig unless you can take direction well:

5.  Repeated errors in the same areas. Do you abuse the apostrophe? Shame on you for making something possessive when it should be plural. A single case of this makes an editor’s eyes roll back until only the whites are showing. Repeated instances of the same error are a dead giveaway that you just don’t pay much attention after the first draft OR you’re legitimately ignorant of how the apostrophe is used. Either way, it means bad things for you. Continue reading Top Five Mistakes Writers Make

Stupid Words and Phrases You Should Never Use

freelance-writing-advice-3Drew Kerr’s article, Three Words Every PR Pro Should Ban at Ragan.com got my wheels turning. I didn’t even need to read the whole thing to know there was a screed coming.

There are words that add color to your writing, there are words you can’t live without, and there are words that violate the cardinal rule of good writing. In the Gospel According to Strunk and White, the all-time number one commandment is this:

“Omit needless words.”

So why do writers INSIST on using “additionally” or “furthermore” in their work? Why in the name of the great gods of the IBM Selectric do people bother writing “The sale is going to be held on Saturday” when “The sale begins Saturday” will do quite nicely, thank you?

Drew Kerr advises PR-heads to stop using the word “thrilled” in their press releases. I have to agree, as it seems to imply some kind of twisted sexual gratification–when you’re talking about breaking ground for a new condo or electing a new president for the Elk’s Club, that just doesn’t sound right. Ditto for Kerr’s other advice, which is to stop using the word “excited” in the same context.

Continue reading Stupid Words and Phrases You Should Never Use

Clean, Well Lighted Sentences

Janis Bell takes more than three decades of teaching experience and distills it all down into a single, helpful volume I would personally love to buy for every writer in the world. When do you use “you’re” as opposed to “your”? It’s just one example, and seems obvious to some, (and it should seem obvious to more) but these writing hangups occur with annoying frequency, especially in cover letters and queries.

It wouldn’t shock any regular FZ reader to learn that I routinely delete cover letters that contain abuses of the apostrophe, but for new writers this may seem a tad excessive. You won’t have to worry about YOUR letters getting the axe if you follow the simple, clear instructions in Janis Bell’s great book.

Clear, Well-Lighted Sentences is a must-own for any beginning writer. How do you make the name “Charles” possesive? Bell spells it out. Do possessive pronouns have apostrophes? Find out. Yes, this is what many would call “the boring stuff”, but if you want to know WHY it gives me the screaming fits to see a storefront sign which reads “Closed Sunday’s”, get yourself a copy of Clear, Well-Lighted Sentences and learn how to improve your writing in ways you never even imagined.

Confessions of an Editor: I Hate Your Needless Words

Years ago when I first learned my trade, I remember wondering why my writing mentors railed so hard against passive voice writing. We’re all guilty of it, most people don’t see anything wrong with it, and passive voice is one of the dead giveaways to an editor that you aren’t quite the kick-ass writer you think you are. Your cover letter might be exciting, your query compelling, but once you include those needless words and break the number one Strunk and White commandment, you are DOOMED.

Unfortunately, getting rid of passive voice is not the whole answer. Your writing needs help if you still use garbage words and phrases. What do I consider a garbage word or phrase? Read on:

“The new Remington Rifle can often be used to hunt small animals, but its real purpose is to shoot down big game.” 

Tell me, just WHAT is the purpose of using the word “often” in that sentence? Never mind the rest of the errors for a moment, concentrate on that phrase “can often be used”. This is too much fat and not enough meat.

Try this on for size:

“Some use the new Remington Rifle to hunt small animals, but its real purpose is to shoot down big game.” 

Why does this sentence read better? Because it gets to the point and obeys Strunk and White by OMITTING NEEDLESS WORDS.  Now look at the rest of this sentence. “…but its real purpose is to shoot down big game.” Continue reading Confessions of an Editor: I Hate Your Needless Words