Is Marketability More Important Than the Story?

Two weeks ago I participated in Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford’s “agent for a day” contest. I contributed the query letter I used for THE COPYCAT KILLER, my fifth completed manuscript that became my debut novel THE PREY. The contest was simple: read fifty query letters and request only five. Amidst the fifty were three published novels, mine plus two in production.

If you’re interested in the contest, you can go to Nathan’s site, my blog to read my reaction to the rejections of my query, or Murder She Writes where I reflected a bit more. I don’t want this blog to be about the contest, but since it’s Sunday and you might have some reading time, it is interesting to review the contest, especially Nathan’s post on the results and his subsequent post on concepts.

One of the comments on my blog has bugged me since I read it. Both Nathan and I had blogged that ultimately, selling was all about the writing–not whether the query letter followed all the “rules” or whether the premise wasn’t “unique.” (Seriously, it’s all been done before–and long before printing presses were invented.)

But Adam said:

A lot of people like to say this but it just isn’t as true as we’d like it to be. Marketability is more important than writing. I got a slew feedback from agents and editors that was of the “great book, very well written but I don’t know how to sell this,” variety.

On the other side of that coin, a good friend of mine has had several books published at a major house and he readily admits they aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. He had no trouble selling them though because they fit a certain market. Those books are so bad that we routinely mock them in conversation and he loves it…he also loves paying the bills with the money they make.

In short, if it’ll sell, the writing need only be mediocre. Sad but true.

I’m not picking on Adam–I don’t know him from, well, Adam . . . and he didn’t leave his email. His comment is certainly valid and based on his experience. Yet it annoyed me. Immensely.

What successful published author is going to go around and mock his readers? Because, ultimately, that’s exactly what he’s doing. It’s not that the books are “so bad,” it’s that people are willing to pay money for these allegedly “bad books.” To me, this is the epitome of elitism: “The masses don’t know what’s good” or “they’re ignorant.” 

“The masses” make the world go ’round. Commercial fiction sells because it’s entertaining. Authors with a mass fan base give their readers what they want, which is the emotional or physical feeling the reader gets from reading that author’s stories. The story is only the vehicle; readers want the feeling of the story.

Is it the puzzle of the mystery, or the feeling of being intelligent or observant we have while trying to solve the mystery with the protagonist? Is it the sex in a romance or the emotional warmth of knowing two people who love each other will live happily ever after? Is it the stakes in a thriller, or the physical reaction to a fast-paced dangerous situation? 

If a novelist is churning out books that “aren’t worth the paper they are written on” then they’re not going to sell en masse. They apparently “fit a certain market.” Obviously, a market that craves bad books.

Oh, to make a living writing bad books. That would be easy. /sarcasm.

I’m not so naive to think that every book published by a major house is outstanding and worthy of awards and NYT status. And honestly, I’m sure all of us have read a NYT bestselling book and thought, hmm, why? And then there’s the books we love that never seem to go anywhere, and we think, for the love of God, why isn’t this a #1 NYT bestseller? Is everyone an idiot?

The first time I had that “Why isn’t this a NYT bestselling author” was when I read PSYCHOPATH by Dr. Keith Ablow. You might think the name sounds familiar–he did write a #1 NYT bestselling book called INSIDE THE MIND OF SCOTT PETERSON. It was a good book. Rather simple and direct, but illuminating. But Dr. Ablow published six thrillers with St. Martins and never hit a list. They are among the best books of the genre, and he’s not writing them anymore. Probably because he’s making plenty of money in the NF world. The books are very dark and edgy, the protagonist–Dr. Frank Clevenger, a forensic psychiatrist like his creator–is certainly flawed, but they’re captivating stories.

What if we shouldn’t say, “It’s all about the writing;” and instead say, “It’s all about the story?”

Are you more willing to forgive an author who writes simply but tells a terrific story, or an author who writes beautifully but the story is mediocre?

This leads me to Adam’s key point:

In short, if it’ll sell, the writing need only be mediocre. Sad but true.


I’d like to know what “mediocre” means. Because if something is selling like hotcakes, I doubt it’s mediocre. There’s SOMETHING about the book that resonates with readers. And if it truly is mediocre, maybe the author is selling based on past performance–we all know this happens to some authors. They get burned out and start writing retreads. But I think I speak for most authors when I say we are always trying to write a better book than the one that came before. For me, this is my greatest struggle. I have been late turning in my last two books because of a great fear that my writing is subpar. You’d think that after writing eleven books that number twelve would be a breeze. Not! If anything, it’s harder than all the books that came before. (Okay, that’s not quite true. Number eleven, FATAL SECRETS, was the hardest book I ever wrote. It gave me fits. I wondered if my readers would allow me a dud. If my career was over. I just found out it got a top pick in RT Book Reviews. Which goes to show that authors absolutely can NOT judge their own writing.)

I think, perhaps, that Adam and his published friend have a love-hate affair with commercial fiction. Because, let’s face it, the money is primarily in commercial fiction. Read: stories for the masses. These are stories that resonate with readers because they tackle universal themes; they may be adequately written or beautiful written, but they are 1) accessible to the average reader and 2) they tell a universal story well.

Telling a story well doesn’t necessarily mean the writing is exceptional.

I recently read an email where someone had in their signature attributed to a best selling author (and I can’t remember who–but this is not my quote) “It’s hard to write a book that’s easy to read.” That sums up commercial fiction. I’ve never been offended when readers tell me my books are “easy” or “a quick read.” People are busy; I want to satisfy their human need to be entertained. And most of the time, we don’t want to work to be entertained.

I don’t want my readers to pull out a dictionary and look up words. I don’t want them to be confused or have to re-read sentences that are beautifully, but archaically, structured. For me, it’s not about the words, they’re almost the necessary evil of a story well-told. Because in the best of commercial fiction, the words themselves almost disappear.

But there are people out there who think that anything “easy” is therefore “inferior” or “bad.” Books that are fun and accessible are thus “mediocre writing.”

And sometimes that’s true. But ultimately, it’s about the STORY.

There was a brouhaha a few months ago about Stephen King saying that Stephanie Meyer was a poor writer. But he acknowledged that she was a good storyteller writing for a specific audience. I’m sure some people focused on the “she’s not a very good writer” part of the story and missed the “people are attracted to the stories” part. He commented that Dean Koontz could “write like hell” and sometimes is “just awful.” King has been self-critical of many of his own books and I, a diehard King fan, never made it through a couple of them. But King is all about the story–and most of the time, he tells it better than anyone.

Publishers want to make money. It’s business. This is something I tell myself every time I go into negotiations. It’s not personal, it’s business. Publishers want to make a profit, and publishing itself has a low-profit margin. So yes, marketability is important. Crucial. Publishers need to know where the book fits into the realm of sales. That’s why they love genre so much. It’s a romance! It’s a mystery! It’s a fantasy! They know the audience, they know how to design the cover to appeal to that audience (well, we hope they do–sometimes they, too get it wrong), and they know how to sell-in to the buyers. They’ll say, “This debut author will appeal to fans of Janet Evanovich” or in my case, my publisher put, “Julie Garwood meets Thomas Harris.” Sales needs to sell the book, and thus marketability–the value the book has to a defined readership–IS important.

But is it MORE important than the story?

I doubt it. The story has to resonate in some way for readers to pick up the next book and the next book. The story has to deliver on the story promise.

If it’s a romance, it has to have a happily ever after.

If it’s a mystery, the crime has to be solved.

If it’s horror, it has to be scary.

If it’s comedy, it has to be funny.

Marketability is important otherwise publishers don’t know where to plug in the book. Fair? No. Reality? Generally. It’s much harder as a female author to sell as a straight thriller writer than to sell as a romantic suspense writer, which is why many women choose to adopt gender-neutral names if they’re not writing romance.

It kind of sucks, really, but it’s not so much the publishers as the readers.

When I worked in the California State Legislature, it was common knowledge that if you were going to have a major tax policy or economy statement, you had a man present it. If you were going to have a major education initiative or statement, a woman had better be the speaker. This was based on extensive polling that showed that voters had a more positive impression of an economic plan if it was “male” and a more positive impression of an education plan if it was “female.”

I suppose one could argue that the industry is continuing the bias by feeding the bias. But when it comes down to it, it’s not the industry as much as deep-seated values that are neither right nor wrong. So politicians, and publishers, and every other successful enterprise will look at who the consumer is and target their idea or product to that “type” of person.

So yes, marketability is important. But if you don’t have a good story–however it is told–you have nothing to market.

44 thoughts on “Is Marketability More Important Than the Story?

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    I was fascinated to read some of the comments to your query letter on Nathan’s blog, not least because of how rude they were – a point Nathan made when he posted the results. The anonymity of the internet has a lot to answer for …

    And what did ‘Olga’ say that it was removed by the moderator?

    In answer to your overall query, I’ve read good stories that were horrifically badly told, and beautiful pieces of writing that didn’t seem to tell much of a story at all, so it’s all out there.

    For me, you read for the story rather than the writing. If you can consciously hear the writer’s voice speaking to you, it’s intrusive. It’s like watching a play and being aware that these are lines being spoken by an actor, rather than believing utterly in the character on the stage.

  2. toni mcgee causey

    Well, if we were to use Adam’s logic and extrapolate it out, all badly written novels with a marketable idea in them would sell. And all well-written novels whose marketability wasn’t clearly defined would not sell.

    You have to have a compelling story, competently enough told to not interfere with that story in order for it to sell. It sounds like Adam’s argument started with the fallacy that a "well written" novel was the same thing as a "compelling story" — when what that can often mean is, "beautiful language, but no compelling reason to move forward with the story," which ultimately leads to, "who cares?"

  3. Louise Ure

    What a great post. I’m going to refer to it shamelessly when I teach a query letter seminar this summer.

    And simple writing can be beautiful writing!

  4. Allison Brennan

    Zoe, I love your play analogy! I’m going to have to remember that one. And give you credit, of course 🙂

    Some of the comments were rude, but I have a pretty thick skin. I read my amazon reviews. ‘Nuff said.

    Right Toni! And this was the rant I mentioned the other day, LOL. Someone once told me that I was the only writer she knew who wrote how I spoke. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I remember working for a legislator who heavily edited my writing (I wrote op-eds and letters for him) and I said he wanted me to dumb it down. He said no, I want you to make it accessible. People are busy, if they’re going to read my letter and not toss it out with the junk mail, it has to be clear and to the point without legalese that makes my eyes glaze over. (he was also an attorney, LOL.) It reminds me of when I was writing constituent mail years later and my boss wanted me to train this new guy on how to write a constituent letter. First, I gave him mind to proofread primarily to give him the idea of how to structure the letters. (Proofread does NOT mean edit.) He re-wrote all my letters, added in the legislative counsel’s opinion, and qualified all my statements. (like if I said "This law would mean longer sentences for child predators" he’s re-write it to say, "This law would allow prosecutors to try child predators under special circumstances, resulting in possible longer prison sentences, if the accused committed the crime on a Tuesday, unless the Tuesday in question is the second Tuesday of the month, which would result in a shorter term because of a constitutional requirement that mandates . . . . "


    To quote Brett: Story. Story. Story. Go stories!

  5. NS Foster

    Hey there,
    Your post struck a few cords with me. For one thing, I was going to make your point about Meyer’s writing. I’ve heard that complaint from many more people than just King. I guess if she drags you along, though, you’ve got something. I personally haven’t read the Twilight books so I can’t venture a personal opinion. It was, however, certainly that way with The Da Vinci Code. My father hails that book as one of the paramount works of literature. I…well, I don’t. But it was meant for people like him, people who want a straight forward style and intriguing mystery to trundle them along through the text. I certainly didn’t mind the Code, but I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

    Perhaps that means I’m more prose than story. It wouldn’t surprise me; my favorite authors are poets trapped in novelist’s minds (although I hate poetry straight; go figure). It’s how I got through Heart of Darkness in school.

    Unfortunately, however, you’re very right about the gender biases. I write fantasy and when I do get something published, I plan on staying with the format I use on forums like this: NS. Trouble is, I’ve read fantasy from females where the world was so shiny and feminine it felt completely untrue, especially when they were writing about a male character. I don’t want someone else making the same judgment about my work. Is it true? Who knows. Is it fair to protect myself from that judgment? Absolutely. It’s just unfortunate that I have to acknowledge stereotypes to do it.

  6. Allison Brennan

    Louise, I think Nathan did a great service for writers. Kristin Nelson at Pub Rants often posts query letters from clients she recently signed (after she makes the sale) and explains what attracted her to the story and why she requested the manuscript. Also very illuminating. I’m just glad I don’t have to query anymore!

    NS, stereotypes exist because there is truth to them. It’s why writers, particularly screenwriters, play to stereotype especially for secondary characters. You don’t want to spend too much time dwelling on why, what and why that character is behaving that way. So you have the cynical cop or the wise mentor or the bitchy mother-in-law. It’s also why breaking stereotypes is fun for major characters, because we can play to the stereotype on the surface, and then blow it up. I wouldn’t feel bad for wanting to write under a pen name or gender-neutral name. It’s business. It’s marketing. And why make it harder than it already is? I’ve heard the science fiction and fantasy worlds are a lot harder (i.e. critical) on female writers than any other genre. And I do see this whole attitude changing a bit, but it’s a slow process. It is what it is.

  7. Allison Brennan

    Oh, I was going to add something about the Twilight books. My daughter, 13, has read the all twice. She asked me about the Stephen King comments because fans were all aghast on the message boards about it. I asked her what she thought. She said, "Well, she isn’t a great writer, but they’re great books." Story story story, as Brett said. (My daughter is a fantastic reader, and she tells me what she thinks about the writing and stories–and I often get a plot-point by plot-point analysis–there was one debut novel where she said, "Her writing isn’t very good, but I couldn’t put the book down.")

  8. Derek Nikitas

    Respectfully ,and for what it’s worth:

    I agree that story (well, plot, actually, if you’re going with the old distinction) is absolutely, by far, the most important element of a good book. Without plot, a book doesn’t get read, much less enjoyed.

    I also agree that it’s very difficult to write an easy-to-read book, and that easy-to-read books are prized much more highly by the general public than books with more self-consciously difficult writing. And I agree that the best ones should indeed be prized.

    And I agree that books written in a self-consciously difficult prose style (the style that Elmore Leonard says "sounds like writing") are probalby less marketable, and should still have a great plot if they’re going to succeed as great works of art.

    Still, I’m not fully convinced that ease -of-reading ougt to be the ultimate goal of any writer who wants to be read and enjoyed (plot quality aside for a moment). I understand that writing is a business, but writing is also still an art (I hope), and some practitioners are still interested in writing prose that doesn’t just become invisible, but transports and deepens and enlivens the story.

    I’m not talking difficulty for the sake of difficulty, but freshness of expression that is difficult merely by virtue of its being unique and "weird." A good metaphor or an unusual rhythm can add a whole new dimension that makes the story even more emotionally compelling for the reader than prose that hides itself.

    Absolutely, this kind of writing is tougher, but the difficulty is another level of entertainment for a respectable portion of readers. Figuring out a difficult sentence can afford the same pleasure as figuring out a good mystery.

    I’ve never bought the argument that compelling story and good writing are mutually exclusive because one distracts from the other. The human brain is complex enough to engage in at least two levels of pleasure at once, if not more. However, I do certainly buy the argument that most people would prefer not to put their brains through too many levels of experience at once–thus the popularity of easy-to-read books.

    I agree that good stories written in self-conscioius prose are less marketable, but I’d hate to see them disappear from the marketplace all together. Some of my favoirte writers (in terms of story foremost, and prose style second) are like this: James Ellory, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Dennis Lehane. These are artists and entertainers, and the two are not mutually exclusive.

    The writers I listed aren’t at risk of losing an audience, but maybe the next generation of their ilk are at risk, so I’d prefer to do my part to champion the up-and-comers–through recommendations, etc.–over writers that aren’t really at any risk because they, aside from being good storytellers, conform to the "blockbuster" model of working for all readers of all types. Again, nothing wrong with that, but they need much less help and support.

    Don’t get me wrong: story is paramount, and I love a good story with invisible writing (Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, etc.), but mass popularity isn’t always the only measure of success. Sometimes a devoted cult following of fans who respect and devour fantastic story AND "difficult" writing can be just as much, if not more, rewarding to some readers.

    Unfortunately, it seems to be quite true that new writers with modest cult followings won’t have the support of the mainstream publishing industry for much longer (while the non-mainstream publishing industry gradually disappears all together). If nothing else, I’m not sure that’s a trend to be celebrated. I’m not in denial–I know this is the reality, but I’d perfer to accept it grudgingly, rather than to celebrate it.

    Yes, there’s some obvious self-interest in my argument, but isn’t there always?

  9. Allison Brennan

    Hi Derek:

    Thanks for weighing in! And I don’t think that I was saying that good stories and good writing are mutually exclusive. I think my primary point (hmm, maybe that’s my problem–I couldn’t get my point across?) was that just because a story is "easy" doesn’t mean that it’s "bad." There are many successful commercial-literary writers–those you mentioned, plus some of Dean Koontz, Jodi Picoult, etc. — but the story is still the driving force, and their writing style is an added benefit and, perhaps, the reason they are successful (not successful in spite of their style.) There is room for all writing styles. But people lead very busy lives. They’re often working two jobs, they have kids that need to go from this sport to that class, they struggle during the day and want to relax with a good story at night. After working all day, entertainment comes before art.

    My oldest daughter is not a big reader. My 13 year old is. My oldest struggled to read Romeo and Juliet, Great Expectations, and other literary classics that were "commercial" in their day. If she’d been given something more contemporary and accessible, she would have been far more willing to pick it up. She loved the RL Stine teen series because she could see the story unfold. Not high literature, but certainly entertaining. And they got her to read. My 13 year old reads meaty books, loves historical fiction, doesn’t think 800 pages is too long for a book. She cares about the writing as well as the story–but she’ll still read a good story even if the writing is "common."

    I don’t know that we really disagree so much as looking at books differently. 🙂

  10. toni mcgee causey

    Derek, just speaking for myself, (but I think this is what most of us are saying)–I agree with you — good writing and commercial marketability are not mutually exclusive. It was my take on Allison’s post that Adam and his ilk were making the inverse argument–that commercial appeal need not (and indeed, rarely did) include "good" writing, however that is defined.

  11. Keith Cronin

    I agree that the masses determine the market, but I think it’s okay to occasionally be disappointed by what a low bar the masses set. To clarify, I’m no literary snob; I write mainstream fiction with no delusions of ever being considered a "serious" novelist. But it’s disheartening to see a basic lack of craft in highly successful books.

    I recently read a NYT best-seller that had tense errors in the very first chapter – for most authors, the most painstakingly edited and revised chapter of the entire book. This same book went on to follow an extremely hackneyed plot (a sort of Freaky Friday switching-places sort of thing) and even ended with something very much akin to the dreaded "it was all a dream" finale. And it’s a best-freaking-seller.

    To add insult to injury, I recently read that the author has sold a new book, which sounds like it follows an almost identical life-switching-fantasy plot.

    Between this author’s sloppy writing and lazy plotting, it’s hard not to be disheartened. There are still great books being written, and I’m not just talking about "serious" or "literary" books. But with all the emphasis agents and editors put on new writers submitting the absolute best work they can, it’s hard to stomach seeing what the public is actually willing to buy.

  12. John Dishon

    You can’t separate the writing from the story; that just doesn’t make sense. Without words, you have no story. The following sentence is why, I feel, commercial fiction isn’t taken seriously, and perhaps, doesn’t deserve to be:

    "For me, it’s not about the words, they’re almost the necessary evil of a story well-told."

    It’s the words, that is the ones you use (diction) and the way they are organized (syntax) and the organization of all that that determines if a story is well-told or not.

    And no one is saying that writing need be complicated or ornate to be good. Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact is a good example of commercial fiction with good writing. There’s nothing fancy in there at all, and the plot is neither unique or compelling (a man getting revenge after being framed for an assassination he didn’t commit) but it’s the best thriller I’ve read in a long time. It was an easy read, but he used the right words at the right time.

    "Telling a story well doesn’t necessarily mean the writing is exceptional."

    Yes it does. However, "exceptional" doesn’t mean necessarily mean big words or complicated sentence structure, or anything else. Exceptional means the right words, in the right order, at the right time. If you don’t do that, you’re not telling the story well.

    And, I feel, writers agreeing with the above quotes and following their wisdom is the reason why commercial fiction has the stereotype of mediocre fiction, and it’s the reason that stereotype is largely justified.

  13. Pari

    This is such a wonderful post, Allison. Thank you.

    I did read Twilight, and though I probably won’t read another — it was enjoyable and kept me interested.

    I’d agree — "Story, story, story!!!!" to a point. But there are writers who hook me with their voice and if you asked me what the story was about I might not be able to tell you. I’m thinking of Ulysses right now — I read it when fairly young and just loved the lucsiousness (sp?) of the words and how they flowed . . . it was like reading a long poem.

    One of the problems I had in writing the first book in my new series was that Darnda tells her stories much more simply than Sasha does. I felt like the writing wasn’t as "interesting," but if the book gets published I bet it’ll sell better because it’s more accessible somehow. I’m finding that the standalone has the same "story" emphasis too.

    Maybe I’m just maturing as an author?

  14. JT Ellison

    Allison, I’m glad you talked about this today. I read through a lot of Nathan’s blog and the results were fascinating.

    Here’s the deal. Life isn’t fair. Good books get passed by and bad books get attention. But who are we to judge what’s good or bad? We can’t look down on books and authors with mass-market appeal. If they’re selling through their 1 million first print run and going back to subsequent printings in the first month, are getting all the attention in the promotion cycle, you think that maybe, just maybe, there might be something to that? The mass generalizations about NYT bestsellers being crap are getting old. They appeal to the reader. They don’t talk down to the reader. If you think we’re all writing at an 8th grade level, and there’s a book that’s written at a 12th grade level, which book do you think will succeed?

    More importantly, WHY IS THAT BAD??? What is wrong with writing to your market? Is it a sin to want to entertain people? I’ve just never understood the mentality. Why are writers who succeed at writing to their market treated with such derision? Putting down Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyers and James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell gets you where? This trend toward literary elitism is ridiculous, and shortsighted. You never know what’s going to strike a chord with a reader, and the houses are in the market to try to strike a chord with their readers.

    I talk with unpublished writers who are bitter and angry that they’re getting rejected, but when you look a little deeper, there’s a reason. Agents and editors are pretty smart. They do know what sells. There’s the most basic of formula for the genres, like you said, but outside of that, it’s all fair game. THAT’S how we get away with it’s all been done before.

    Story, characters, setting, pace, voice, subject matter – it ALL matters. I write books that I hope will entertain, that can be read in a single setting, and layer in some subtle meat for the readers who want to chew on some more in-depth ideas. And I enjoy reading all the authors I mentioned above. Patterson was a big influence on me, so was Cornwell. The DaVinci Code captured my imagination so utterly and completely that I re-read it right away. It wasn’t the writing, it was the ideas, the concepts. But the writing isn’t bad.

    When I want to spend hours THINKING about a book, I read John Connolly. When I want to be reminded of how to write a great thriller, I read John Sandford. When I want to escape, I read Meyers and Rowling. Each book, each style has it’s place in the market. We need to stop the sour grapes and celebrate the fact that people are READING and BUYING BOOKS!

    (Abashedly climbing off my soapbox… you obviously struck a chord with ME.)

  15. Tammy R Lynn

    Allison, you’re my new hero! I couldn’t have said it better.

    JT – you’re absolutely spot-on!

    During my life as a bookseller – one who is not overly "literary" (GASP!!!) – I saw it all. Men who read romance for better insight into what a woman wants. The court reporter who only read "trashy" romance because she saw and heard such horrible things at work every day. The lady who would only read books that had been on the NYT list. The high-brow and the low-brow. Tall and short. Wealthy and poor. Literate and illiterate. Free and incarcerated. We all need something different from a book.

    When I closed my bookstore last fall, I donated a large majority of the remaining books to a local program that provides job and life skills to women who will soon be parolled from the state prison. I practically stocked their entire library with fiction and non-fiction of all genres. Most of these women are not overly educated, but many of them have the drive to better themselves and make a better life after parole. During the pack & move process of the donation, one of the ladies asked me if reading fiction would help her with her everyday writing and speaking skills. I explained that, yes, when you read a lot, you will realize when you’re about to say something that doesn’t sound right. She asked me to suggest a book for her to start with. I suggested "A Day Late and a Dollar Short" by Terry McMillain. She loved it and continues to read. Had I given her "Ulyses", she would have never picked up another book.

    Sometimes literary gets in the way of the story. I’m all about the story. And the voice. Dean Koontz may take two pages to describe a room, but I’ll inhale every word because I love his voice. I couldn’t get past chapter 2 of DaVinci, but then I had recently finished "Sign of the Cross" by Chris Kuzneski, which I read in two sittings only because my eyeballs went on strike at about 3 a.m. and I had to sleep.

    Stephenie Meyer? Were there words in those books? The story came alive in my head, so I didn’t notice whether the writing was "good" or "bad" – I just devoured the books. <pun intended!>

    I love Jane Austin’s way with the English language. Her words are beautiful and I can read them over and over. I equally love Janet Evanovich. Her books take no reflection – just hang on for a fun ride.

    Then again, I also loved "The Death of Vishnu" by Manil Suri. Go figure.

    Let’s face it folks, books are like food. Some days we want pizza, some days we want steak.

  16. Mary-Frances

    I really appreciated reading this post. There are writers I read and love even though I know they are not considered "great" writers. Still, I love their storytelling ability and the characters they create. I’ve read NYT best-selling authors and couldn’t connect with their writing at all. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all subjective–you just have to enjoy and appreciate the writers you like no matter what anyone else may think. I agree with you, it’s about all a good story.

  17. Allison Brennan

    To Keith and John:

    I apologize for some of my word choices. Yes, I intentionally said that "words were a necessary evil" but I meant it to illustrate that the feelings, images and thoughts the words convey for the reader comprise the story, and it’s the story itself that is the primary reason people choose to read.

    To Keith: I’m surprised about the tense changes in a book. What happened to editing? I don’t write a perfect first draft, second draft, . . . final draft, but they’re pretty tight. Still, my editor finds problems with tense on occasion and fixes it. The copyeditor finds grammar problems–often things I switched in revisions and didn’t clean up well. And when I read the final proofs, I still find errors–many that I didn’t have in my copy (but after line edits and copy edits sometimes errors are inserts.) I read my page proofs out loud because I catch things I don’t while reading. And I’ve caught spelling errors that I’ve made or the copyeditor made–that we both missed the first XX times around. Mistakes happen. But numerous mistakes are (IMO) a problem with both the author and the editor and the production team. Someone should have caught them.

    To John: When I said "exceptional" I suppose I was thinking the rare, great authors of our time. Not necessarily big words and complex thoughts, but the original turn of phrase or new description that has you in awe because you can completely see what the author intended. I’m thinking of the brilliant writers out there that come along once in a blue moon, those that are truly great. In Stephen King’s book ON WRITING he said that bad writers can’t learn to be good writers, and good writers can’t be great writers that are only a handful in each generation, but mediocre writers can learn to be good writers. That is what I’m always striving for, and what most of us writing commercial fiction strive for.

  18. Allison Brennan

    Thanks JT, very well said!!! It’s what I learned in government: people are busy. They are not generally stupid. You don’t talk down to them, you talk with them. You relate to aspects of their life. You personalize it. When talking about child predators, you put it in perspective–such as what is at risk. Why it’s important TO THEM. Writing fiction is the same. Why should they read my book over someone else’s? I want my readers to know that I’ll satisfy their need to be entertained. I had an email from a lady who picked up one of my books and told her husband to fix his own dinner because she wasn’t cooking that night, she had to finish my book. I love her 🙂

  19. Allison Brennan

    Oh, I just thought about this . . . I don’t remember who said it above, but I don’t consider story the same as plot. I suppose that could be a blog topic all on its own!

  20. Allison Brennan

    Tammy, I’m sorry you closed your bookstore. 🙁 . . . I share your opinions, BTW, and read Chris Kuzneski’s book as an ARC and while those kind of international puzzle thrillers aren’t usually my cuppa, I was glued. (Yes, I’m one of the few people on the planet that hasn’t read The DaVinci Code. I also haven’t read Twilight or Harry Potter or any James Patterson books that didn’t have Alex Cross–who I think is a great character, BTW.)

    Okay, now I’m going off-line to work on revisions. I’ll check in tonight. Be kind to each other.

  21. JT Ellison

    <…people are busy. They are not generally stupid. You don’t talk down to them, you talk with them. You relate to aspects of their life. You personalize it.>

    Amen, sister.

  22. Elisabeth Naughton

    Very insightful post, Allison. And, might I ad, well-written and easy to read. 😉 Thank you for that!

    I keep going back to the line in Adam’s comment, "Those books are so bad that we routinely mock them in conversation and he loves it…he also loves paying the bills with the money they make." and I just can’t seem to get past it. When you look at the statistics for how many writers in this country are actually self-sufficient from their writing alone, it’s pretty dismal. I don’t understand how 1) an author could publicly (or even privately) mock his readers and expect to continue to sell, and 2) in good faith put his name on a book he doesn’t stand behind. Even if you are a #1 NYT bestselling author writing this way, eventually readers will realize you do not love what you are doing. And they WILL respond. Publishing is a constant struggle – those who are on top today may not be tomorrow unless they’re constantly striving, like you said, to make each book better than the last.

    As for writing books that are easy to read? When someone tells me they enjoyed one of my books and that it was a fast read, I’m happy. My books come from me. I’ve been told on more than one occasion that reading them is like listening to me talk, and since I don’t speak words you have to look up in a dictionary or formulate glowing prose in my head to use in everyday conversation, that’s a pretty nice compliment. And you know what? I can’t think of a single person I know who doesn’t speak in this "mediocre" way, so I’m completely happy writing to the masses.

  23. Derek Nikitas

    Thanks for the response (many postings ago), Allison, Toni, JT, etc. I hope you didn’t get the sense–though I fear you did–that I was disagreeing with you about a good story (well, plot) being the most fundamental aspect of fiction, and that many of the greats have "invisible" writing. I absolutely agree with that and applaud anyone who gets on the bestseller list by telling a good tale (I don’t so much applaud those on the bestseller list who got there by being celebrities in some other capacity).

    Dan Brown is a great case: I’m not interested so much in his writing (okay, it’s bad writing to a degree that it’s just as distracting as self-consciously ornate language, because of descriptive inaccuracies and piles and piles of cliches). BUT, I read all of TDC with thirst and admiration because it’s really a great plot. For that, he gets away with the bad writing, and prove that plot is the most essential. Although I WOULD like it even more if he were a better prose stylist–not necessarily more ornate, just less clumsy and imprecise.

    Rather than disagreeing with you, I was adding to your argument, trying to make the quiet parts a little louder.

    The center of my argument is: please let’s not bury that small minority of challenging writers who write well-told but "difficult" stories for a small minority readership that wants that sort of thing (for the same reason that mystery readers, say, want a challenge). Again, I’m not saying any of you argued for the forgetting. I’m justing saying there are some readers, the polar opposite of this Adam character apparently, who are "market snobs" who want all but the most blockbuster stuff to go away. I think that’d do great damage to the diversity our culture, but maybe I’m wrong.

    Yes, one can argue that the market is king and the market will out, but I think there’s a real risk that the market is in danger of forgetting certain niches that sell modestly but have a lot to offer. I argue, for my own selfish purposes, that I personally have an obligation to support the niches I like so that they don’t go away, the same way so many of us feel rightly obligated to support our independent bookstores even as "the market" tries to destroy them. I’m not saying anybody else has an obligation to do anything of the sort. We’re only obliged to buy what we enjoy.

    What happens when the independents go down under the foot of easy-access blockbuster stores: diversity and selection disappear.

    Now you’ve also got me wondering, Allison, about that plot/story distinction (I was the one who brought it up). I like the distinctions, which for me go as follows:

    STORY is what happens. PLOT is how the author selectively chooses how to order what happens, when to reveal what and reverse what, what to emphasize, how to develop levels of irony, how to pattern and when to repeat, how to set up and pay off, how to keep the reader suspended, etc.

    I would argue that coming up with a passable STORY is fairly easy and usually not worth much commendation (this is the old "stories are a dime a dozen" routine). But PLOT is the killer, the absolute hardest part about writing, the best "aspect" of a novel when it’s done right , and the part that’s way more worthy of praise and fandom than any other aspect of fiction, when its precarious plates are all set in exactly the right balance. I’m still struggling with that, and expect to be for my whole writing life.

  24. JT Ellison

    Derek – my comments weren’t directed at you at all… I don’t disagree. I think every writer who sells any book in this market should get the respect they’re due, regardless of marketability.

  25. toni mcgee causey

    Excellent points, Derek. I like your distinctions between PLOT and STORY. And sadly, I think you’re 100% correct about how much smaller our circle of choices will be if independent bookstores go out of business; they do such an amazing job of bringing new voices to readers.

  26. Kathy Holmes

    I did read in a "how to" book that you only need to write as well as the market demands. And that changes all the time. So it may be a matter of degree. You have to have certain writing skills to be in the running and after that it’s really about the market.

  27. Allison Brennan

    Thanks Derek for the clarification. Since I don’t plot, I don’t see "plot" as being the key to a good story. A good story is the plot + characters + pacing + writing + voice . . . maybe it’s just semantics. Hmm, Toni, you said something once . . . I’ll probably get it wrong, but wasn’t it character + conflict = story? Something like that . . . .

    BTW, I love a good indie store, but I wish more of them would carry my books . . . I’m in very few, sadly.

    Kathy, interesting . . . I had never considered that.

  28. Derek Nikitas

    You’re quite right, Allison. It probalby is just sematics (this is often the case in my own creative writing classes–what words mean what). But, just to play devil’s advocate one more time, I would argue that you do indeed plot, even if you don’t plan the plotting ahead of the writing. Stephen King argues in On Writing that he doens’t plot, but, again, I would argue he really means he doesn’t plot out the whole story ahead of time.

    Even if one doens’t plan, plot happens organically. In fact, it has to happen, because story is inert without it. Any time you decide to hold on to a piece of backstory for a later revelation, you’re plotting. Any time you decide to pull the rug out from under your potagonist, you’re plotting. Any time you decide to commit a part of the story to a quick expositional summary instead of a full scene, you’re plotting. Any time you decide to withhold an answer to a reader’s burning question…

  29. Mark Terry

    I was recently on a plane with a bunch of people I knew (chaperoning a high school trip) and one of the chaperones was reading the latest Janet Evanovich. I made a comment as I was standing in the aisle chatting, that Janet wrote the perfect disposable literature. The woman and one of the band directors laughed and then the attendant needed to move me back to my seat to deliver drinks.

    I felt a little bad later because I wondered if she took that as an insult. I wasn’t, actually, insulting Janet Evanovich at all. What Janet Evanovich does–entertain and successfully–is extremely difficult to do. Yes not only do I not go back and re-read Stephanie Plum novels, I’d be a little hard-pressed to tell you what the plot details of any of her books are beyond: Stephanie bumbles her way through a murder investigation and there’s a lot of humor and sexual tension with Joe and Ranger. She’ll also destroy a car. And probably pick up a stoner or cross-dresser friend from high school (or both).

    But damn, she does it so well. And that’s extremely difficult to do.

  30. Dana King

    It’s not just story vs. writing; it’s timing as well. My agent declined to represent the novel I wrote last year. She said the story was good, and writing was excellent, but no ne was bying organized crime stories.

    I don’t have an agent now. Not just because of that, but it was a big factor.

    By the way, I love the new format. Much easier to read.

  31. Craven

    I took part in Nathan’s Agent for a Day contest. Yours was the only published book I missed. Adam was wrong, your query was beautifully written and you were on my final list of eight. I agonized over the decision for the better part of a day. If I were really an agent the decision would have been easy- I would have asked for a full on the spot. However, Nathan limited us to five requests for more material. The limit of five, an unrealistic limitation, had me agonizing over a few queries and was the only reason I passed on yours. There was no doubt you could write very well, but the book premise sounded too close to other books I had read.

    The whole "high art" and "worthy writing" thing is a crock. It usually speaks of disappointment and misplaced ego. Even if a genre isn’t your cup of tea, the people published in that genre are at the top of their field.

  32. Allison Brennan

    Thanks Craven! BTW, I wasn’t offended by any rejections. I have a pretty thick skin.

    Dana, timing IS important. But the most important thing is having an agent believe in you, and believe that you can write a book that can sell, even if "no one’s buying it" right now. Because that’s how trends start–someone has to buy something that no one else is buying, and it does well.

    Rob, brief but perfect.

  33. Laurel


    I am so tired of being embarrassed over liking one book or hating another. (Can’t stand Catcher in the Rye. All I got out of that was self-absorbed rich kid. I already know money can’t buy happiness.)

    Pat Conroy does a great job of both storytelling and wordsmithing. I re-read passages in his books just for the descriptions. Anne Rice, too. It can be done but it isn’t absolutely necessary. Stephenie Meyer, not so much. But I re-read her books for the story. About the only combination that won’t work for me is fantastic writing and descriptions but not enough story. If the two most beautiful people in the world meet on the most ethereal tropical paradise of an island and just sit on the beach all day I don’t really care. If there is a new species of shark that can stand up on its back fins and chase them around the island while they wait for the plane to come pick them up in two weeks, I might keep reading.

    I thought there was some sour grapes going on in the AFAD contest, too. Being convinced you’ve written a great book that you can’t seem to sell is bound to make you bitter at the "lesser works" topping the best seller lists.

    You go, girl.

  34. Bugsy

    Phil McGraw had a guest on his show yesterday who is an aspiring composer for the piano. Phil had an expert eval the fellow’s music and he pointed out that the man had really awesome keyboard technique, but there was something missing that I could not identify. It was the MELODY. There was no bloody melody. Your comments reminded me of that. Melody is to music as story is to writing. Very interesting insight. Thanks to interesting people like you I never have to worry about the delusion that I know everything because I seem to learn something new and interesting every single day.

  35. Kira

    For me, it’s not about the words, they’re almost the necessary evil of a story well-told. Because in the best of commercial fiction, the words themselves almost disappear.

    When I read that, I said YES really loud in my head. Sounds silly, but that’s how it happened. 🙂 I’m a grad student, and I used to spend a lot of time defending my love of so-called "commercial fiction." Now I spend a comprable amount of time defending my unabashed love of commercial fiction and what it can do. Literary fiction can be great, but a lot of times the pay off in literary fiction is also that moment when something strikes so true and clear that "the words disappear."

    I think one of the big differences you hit on between the two is the way a story arc has certain required features in a lot of commercial fiction. But to say that one kind of writing is doing something more important than the other seems stupid…and even dangerous! To say that what is the case (people read commercial fiction and get something out of it) is not actually the case (no they don’t because it isn’t "literary") is generally a problem.


  36. KahyF

    I participated in Nathan’s agent for a day. I didn’t request yours, but I wanted to. I thought we weren’t supposed to request things which were not similar to other stuff. Your query didn’t describe the same story as the movie _Copycat_, but it was similar. My first thought on reading your query was that the title would need to be changed because it was too similar to the movie, and my second thought was I wanted to read your novel.

    Although I would never make a good agent, I think there were two things that made it hard for me to choose. If I were an agent, I would ask for the first 5 pages to be included in the query email so that would help me on the questionable ones. And I would probably request a lot of partials – with the idea that I would pass on a lot of them.

    But this does remind me that I need to go find your book and buy it. Last time I was in the bookstore, I kept thinking there was something else I wanted to do…

    Great post. And so many of the comments are great, too.

  37. Adam

    For what it’s worth, I mostly agree with you. My comment was largely as a devil’s advocate.

    Primarily, my issue is that too many people equate success with worth or quality. It doesn’t matter that Twilight sold a gazillion copies, it’s a poorly written book and a terrible story (yes, I read it). It did, however, tap into a great wealth of something that readers haven’t been getting elsewhere. We ought not praise it, we ought to be examining what that ‘something’ is so that we as writers can not only mine the raw material but refine it into something more beautiful.

    And just so I’m clear, I don’t think that ‘something’ has anything to do with the details of the story, i.e., vampires, werewolves, etc.

    Good post. I agree that Story is everything for both a writer and his/her audience. Unfortunately, it’s not everything to a publisher, which is to be expected, they are in the business to make money, not to produce art.

  38. Simon

    I think some people are missing the point about what can distinguish popular fiction and that of a more literary bent.
    A lot of people seem to be citing the main difference as one being concerned with story, whilst the other is concerned more with the quality of language. This is not fundementally true.
    What I look for in a book is intelligence, and that doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in big words or grand metaphors. It’s primarily a question of ideas, and often the cleverest way of expressing these ideas can be with the simplest style. (The most popular genre tropes can still be explored with a freshness of ideas.)
    I think what surprises (and appalls) readers with a more literary background who dip into the ‘popular’ market, is not the simplicity of the language, but rather the simplicity of the ideas.
    This week I began reading an international best selling thriller (primarily for research) and couldn’t believe how shallow it was. The opening chapter was littered with ridiculous contrivances and unexplained co-incidences, and the most blatantly expositional dialogue. It read like it was written for twelve year olds.
    When books like that can sell 7 million copies, I can sympathise when people find it depressing. But I try and accept it. The main stream is not the place to look for artistic merit.

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