Thoughts on Writing Success

Jim Baen and Eric Flint, as well as other fiction writers and editors, have both made statements to the effect that every writer and publisher is competing for a reader’s “beer and movie money.” While not always literally true, their underlying point is all too accurate. A successful fiction writer has to leave his or her readers feeling that their time and funds were well-spent.

That’s obvious enough, but is there any single great and glorious formula for success in achieving that end? Not exactly, because there are as many types of successful writers as there are types of readers willing to pay for books. As a result, we have writers who range from those who produce what can most charitably described as “mindless entertainment” to those who write books that are so involuted and complex that often a single book is all that they ever publish.

Years ago, a well-known news magazine used to publish a chart on which the bestsellers were listed, along with a red or green arrow. The red arrow pointed down and the green one up, and the arrows represented the consensus of a span of reviewers. What I found interesting was that the vast majority of bestsellers almost invariably had red arrows after the title. While I tended to agreed with the arrows, beyond that my perceptions certainly didn’t agree with those of the reviewers in all cases.

These days, for whatever reason, I tend to agree with reviewers in the F&SF field even less than I did twenty years ago, and I usually didn’t agree all that often even then. That may brand me as a curmudgeon, and someone who was one even before I was old enough to claim that title by virtue of age, but I think the reason was simple enough. It had to do with the “suspension of disbelief.” I’ve never had that much trouble suspending my disbelief about plausible future high-tech gadgetry or even about magic — if the author is logical and consistent in describing and using such gadgetry and magic, but I’ve always had real problems when authors have characters and societies which act and react in ways contrary to basic human nature — and one of the historic problems with science fiction has been its excessive emphasis on the technical in ways often at odds with how societies work. Readers will easily and often point out that Dyson rings or the like need steering jets [or whatever], but will swallow far more easily economic, social, and political systems that could never work, usually because they’re at great variance with human nature.

In an overall sense, my writing reflects my views in this area and how I approach writing. In my opinion, this is as it should be, at least for me. As for editors, that’s another question, and one I’m not about to touch here.

All that said… books sell because the stories they tell and the way in which they’re told appeal to various types of readers. Some authors appeal primarily to readers whose make-up falls within clear preference lines. Others don’t. And there’s a temptation for newer writers to “aim” their works directly at a given type of reader.

To that, I say, “Don’t.” Especially if you’re new to writing professionally and if you want to have an identity and stay around for a while. I’m not saying there aren’t writers who aren’t good at targeting markets. There are. Some of them even are quite successful, but far fewer are successful than one might imagine. Why do I say this? Because any written work of any length reveals as much about the writer as do the story and the characters. If a writer’s style, structure, and views are consistently and widely at variance with the stories he or she is telling, sooner or later, in most cases, one of two things are likely to occur. Either the writer will burn out because he or she is fighting his or her nature, or the readers will drift away because of the dichotomy between the overt actions and characters and the conflicting subtexts.

And what of those few who can write “anything,” and do? More power to them, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be one of them. Not for a million years… or dollars, and I suspect those who read and like my work might understand why, and for those who don’t… it doesn’t matter.