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Sunday
Jan182015

The Biggest Mistake Aspiring Writers Can Make

 

Ready to teach my first solo creative writing class, on a lovely day in Stanton Park!

A photo posted by @hannahsternberg88 on Aug 24, 2014 at 1:44pm PDT

 

I’ve heard it a lot in writing circles. I’ve heard it in classes, and online critique groups, in blog posts and major magazine articles.

 

“How am I supposed to be successful when the only stuff that’s selling well is crap like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey?”

 

“Editors are only acquiring stupid books that have vampires/apocalyses/BDSM in them. No one’s interested in really good books.”

 

“Readers have really lowered their standards. No one’s buying challenging, unique books anymore.”

 

“I’m never going to compete against the people who publish a dozen shlocky romance novels a year and get a million downloads of them.”

 

Harboring that attitude is the worst mistake an aspiring writer can make. Even if you have great potential and drive, a bucketful of talent and a few good connections, I genuinely believe that this attitude can stunt a writer’s success.

 

Here’s why:

 

1) It looks really bad. It doesn’t matter how much your complaints about the publishing industry and our reading culture at large are based in truth; whining about the public’s inability to appreciate your work makes it look like you have a bad case of sour grapes. Don’t forget that the “idiot editors” who acquire that kind of stuff are also the ones who are going to be looking at your work later, and the readers who “brainlessly consume” it are the ones you’re later going to have to convince to pick up your book. Rule one of marketing is don’t insult your audience. Before you point to the famous authors who make the same claims you do, remember that they already have a platform -- a background of successful books and experience in the book world on which to base their observations. Though I would say that even after you’ve achieved literary success, you should refrain from bashing what you consider to be inferior works, and the people who read them. It’s just not nice, and it can alienate the people who already like you. Don’t assume your readers (or potential readers) are a class apart from the ones who pick up the latest blockbuster trashy novel. That’s because…

 

2) When you insult the readers of trashy novels, you insult ALL readers. Everyone reads guilty pleasure books. Everyone. Not everyone reads them exclusively, but we all have something trashy that we pick up occasionally when we need a mental vacation. Maybe it’s the latest romantic fantasy. Or maybe it’s a lurid celebrity memoir. Maybe it’s a novelization of a movie or TV franchise you like. Everyone has their escape. That’s why so many unapologetically escapist works of fiction become immensely popular. Every other kind of fiction has a niche. But everyone needs an escape. So when you imply that the people who read those works are stupid or lacking taste, you’re insulting virtually every reader, everywhere. There’s a valuable lesson in that, that you will miss if you’re too busy focusing on what you don’t like about the books we all read:

 

3) When you fixate on what’s dumb or bad about popular books, you miss out on what’s good in them. Sometimes the books that capture the popular imagination are poorly written, or somewhat unoriginal, or riddled with plot holes. But underneath all those flaws is something that spoke to millions of people. Instead of complaining about it, figure out what that something is. It’s not a gimmick -- Twilight wasn’t popular because of vampires, it was what made vampires surge in popularity again. These books are popular because they managed to touch on a hope, fear, dream, longing, or fantasy shared by millions of people. They didn’t pander; they connected. Understanding how these books connected with people won’t just make you a better writer; it could make you a better person. And when it comes to writing stories that connect with people in a deep and personal way, those two can be intimately entwined.

 

4) When you have a jerky attitude toward readers, it shows in your writing. Ultimately, this attitude leads a lot of people to put ego above craft. This attitude doesn’t just damage your public image or your ability to analyze popular fiction; it really starts to erode your writing itself. That’s because, when you think this way, you’re focusing more on your self-perception than you are on writing the best book you can write. I’ve seen people who have become very embittered by this attitude go in two different ways:

 

They decide to try to write a “bad” novel just to cash in. The problem with this is, if you’re working from the attitude that hugely popular books are comprehensively terrible and the people who read them are stupid, you won’t be able to imitate what made the blockbuster works so appealing. (See #3.) You just wind up with a book that is both bad and unsuccessful, that drips with condescension from every page. Condescending to your audience is a fatal flaw for writers.

 

They decide to scorn popular trends entirely, and write “just for the people smart enough to get me.” Not everyone needs immense popular success; that’s fine! And not everyone wants to write a mainstream book; that’s fine too. But you should choose this path based on your passion for your work; not as an act of defeat, or because you’ve given up on popular readers. Otherwise, you wind up writing a book just to thumb your nose at popular readers, and that’s another instance of putting ego above craft. You’re also missing out on #3 -- drawing important lessons on craft and connection from popular fiction; and #2 -- remembering that the readers of popular fiction are all readers, including your readers. If you decide to write only for the people who “get you,” instead of seeking connection and common ground with your readers, eventually you’ll wind up writing for an audience of one: yourself.


The merry-go-round of submission and rejection can be a brutally discouraging process for writers. It’s easy to think to yourself, after the umpteenth rejection letter, “Why is crap like [insert popular work here] selling, and not my stuff?” That’s natural; I’ve thought the same thing. But you have to resist the temptation to let that thought turn into a philosophy. Instead of asking the question rhetorically, ask it for real -- find out why those other books are selling, and what’s good about them. Take a cold hard look at your own work and ask yourself if you’re working hard enough to really connect with readers. It’s a sad fact of the writing world that not everyone who is good will be successful. But if you truly are one of those good, unsuccessful writers, why make your plight even worse with a bad attitude? It’s about more than your writing; it’s about how you choose to live your life.

 

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