Sunday, January 29, 2006

Goals

Most people have goals, and writers are no exception.

Some writers aspire to find an agent, or land a book deal, or hit the NYT list, or win awards, or gain critical praise, or sell a gazillion copies, or several of the above.

Here's a goal that most writers forget:

Entertain your readers.

Strangely, that's the most important goal of all. If your work can give people pleasure, many of the other things mentioned above will fall into place.

I find it interesting that many writers seem disdainful of those who achieve the above goals. It's easy to pick apart the flaws of The DaVinci Code, or to criticize the last several of Patricia Cornwell's books. (Boy, is it easy.)

But the fact is, someone obviously enjoyed them, because they sold like crazy. Dan Brown and Patricia Cornwell are entertaining millions of readers.

So why the sour grapes?

I believe that every writer thinks that their way is the best way. I believe that every writer believes they have the answers, and the only reason they haven't reached their goals yet is because things have happened beyond their control. And I believe when writers see other writers becoming successful, winning awards, gaining fame, it pisses them off, because they feel they are better writers and more deserving.

Of course, this doesn't apply only to writers. This is human nature.

Instead of concentrating on all of that, writers need to focus on the one thing that they do have control over: Entertaining their readers.

Looking objectively at the situation, I'd have to say that Dan Brown entertains a lot more people than whoever won the Nobel, Booker, and Pulitzer combined. Perhaps Brown, with his cardboard stereotypical characters, contrived escapes, cliched structure, and formulaic endings, is who writers need to hold up as the ideal.

Because no matter what else you can say about Dan Brown's books, he's entertained a lot of people.

My advice: Be entertaining.

You might not win any awards. You might get crummy reviews. The literati will despise you, your peers will vilify you, and many folks will dedicate themselves to knocking you down.

But trust me---an email from Jane Average in Oregon who named her cat after your main character means more than any of the above accolades I've mentioned. Because that is a goal you did reach. You entertained somebody.

Write the best book you possibly can, then dedicate yourself to getting people to read it.

And maybe, if you're lucky, you can be as despised as Dan Brown.

35 comments:

Daniel Hatadi said...

Stirring up the art vs. entertainment pot again? Should be fun.

I think there's room in the world for all styles of art: the Dan Browns and the Booker winners, but there's nothing better than doing both. Michael Connelly comes to mind, and for that matter, an old bloke called Raymond Chandler.

Did I make the first comment? Is that possible on a JAKonrath blog? :)

Jude Hardin said...

Hey, what happened to Deux Ex Machina--A Great Way To End A Book?

I was looking forward to that one.

R.J. Baker said...

I read the DaVinci code and I did think it was an entertaining read.

Patricia Cornwell's last three books however were neither readable nor entertaining. I think Cornwell's last few books have lost all flavor of entertainment.

Check Amazon and the 200+ horible reviews she's gotten for Predator. Most reviews are from long standing fans. If she pays no attention to her fan base I think she is heading for the abyss. I have reaad every book of hers since her first and after the first few she has been in slow decline.

So, I agree with the goal of entertaining though not so much with your second choice for illustration.

JA Konrath said...

Jude--

I'm going to wait until the last minute to explain Deux es machina, or more to the point, I'm going to wait for God to come down from heaven at the right moment to explain it.

RJ--I'm a Cornwell fan, and her last three have been bad. But two of the 50 bestselling books last year were Cornwell books. People keep buying her.

Is this habit, like with Moxie and Verners? Is it that people keep giving her second chances?

I dunno. But I'd be happy to take 200+ Amazon pans for 2 million+ sales.

December Quinn said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
December Quinn said...

Totally agree. Entertaining people is priority. Figuring out how to express yourself in a way that entertains but still says what you want to say...

That's the craft of writing.

Mark Terry said...

I've enjoyed all of Dan Brown's books. If he's got a problem, it's that his major plot twists in every single book involves a trusted person being the bad guy.

Jeffery Deaver does something similar, with there almost always being an inside man.

A lot of the bitching about Dan Brown is characterization, but any writer of thrillers has to balance pace with characterization. Characterization and flashbacks, etc., slows down the pace.

There's not much more worthless and annoying double-edged comment than, "I loved the pace and plot, but I wanted more characterization." Yeah? What do you suggest? What would that do to the pace and plot you liked so much?

Writing is about choices.

Bryon Quertermous said...

Yes, being entertaining should be the goal of any pop fiction author but Cornwell and Dan Brown probably aren't the best examples of this. Brown specifically has sold as many books as he has due more to literary peer pressure than entertainment value.

When you get to a certain level of success people feel the need to read the hot book just to see what everyone is talking about. That's the case with many bestsellers I fear. I agree with Daniel though, that the best goal should be to do both like Michael Connelly, or even Tess Gerritson who just earned her first Edgar nomination.

the green ray said...

That was beautiful, Joe. Thank you. And I loved The Da Vinci Code, before it was fashionable to put it down. I mean, I couldn't put it down.

Jude Hardin said...

Ever wonder why Steve Perry fronted an arena-packing rock act instead of a wannabe garage band?

Ever wonder why Dean Koontz writes mega-selling suspense novels instead of teaching school?

They entertain. They entertain, and they are masters of their friggin art.

Anyone who dismisses them as "mind-numbingly bad" has had the English department's (or Bob Dylan's) thumb up their ass too long.

Call me a Konrathite this time.

Barbara W. Klaser said...

I see "entertain your readers" as one of the most important goals. Goals should always be things we have control over, rather than treating life as a game of chance and then blaming others when it goes wrong.

BTW, count me as one who liked Da Vinci Code. If it hadn't been for others criticizing it, I wouldn't have been aware of the little inaccuracies--and I believe they were small and rather silly for people to make so much fuss over in a work of fiction. Yeah, he should've known what a fresco is, but I'm no art major, and frankly I didn't notice or care while reading it. I didn't find the characters all that cardboard, either--I've read a lot worse characterization, in bestselling novels. One aspect I liked a lot was that Dan Brown created terrific suspense and intrigue without somehow depressing me about the state of the world. There was no feeling of "people just suck and are hopeless" about it, which I find in too many suspense and mystery stories of the same scope these days. One gets weary of reading how the world is heading into the toilet and everyone's neighbor is a potential serial killer. Maybe all that is true, but we have the news for that. Or maybe I'm in a grumpy mood because of the rather too dark suspense story I'm reading right now, which I found so creepy I put it down to read blogs. While reading Da Vinci Code I DIDN'T PUT IT DOWN. It wasn't very deep, but it provided terrific escapism, and I think that was the author's intent, so he achieved his goal.

Mark said...

Well I found DVC entertaining as his other books. Part of the intrigue for me was looking behind the curtain to see if he took the work from Mr. Perdue. I think he clearly did. He put it into a format he used before though: short chapterlets and slow reveals. Leaping out of planes with a tarp kills the whole thing for me as does having the killer and sleeper match another previous work indentically down to the page and the wallpaper. I mean really.

Frey stole from a dead writer to give you some idea of his deviousness. See John Dolan for that nugget. This is one cuthroat business.

Millenia Black said...

Joe, I agree 100% here. The definition of success is a function of what a writer's ultimate goal is.

If it's to sell as many books as possible, the only person you need be concerned with his John Q. Reader. If your goal is to be critically acclaimed, that's a whole other objective altogether.

Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins are classic examples of entertainment value. I'm sure they've both individually outsold most critically praised "literature".

Rob Gregory Browne said...

The cardinal sin of writing is to be boring.

I've found that the best way to entertain your readers is to entertain yourself. Write the kind of book you love to read and chances are pretty good that others will respond.

Worked for me. So far, at least...

Oh, and at least I'll be on the SHELF next to Dan Brown. :)

Lynn Raye Harris said...

I'm coming down on the side of entertaining. I've spent enough time in the ivory tower of academia (as a grad student in Lit) to be heartily sick of snooty attitudes toward popular fiction.

I'm a romance writer. I know this is anathema to my academic side. Yet many romance writers do have advanced degrees in English and literature, among others, so claiming these novels are stupid pieces of crap written by frustrated housewives is a bit boring by now. (Not that anyone here as done so, but it's an old myth that still pops up more frequently than not.)

Do I wish more people picked up Faulkner and took the time to read and decode him? Yeah, I do. I've been rewarded by the experience, though I bitched all the way through some novels. Thomas Mann? Oh snore, snore--until the end, in which it all comes together and is so fabulous it takes my breath away. Ann Patchett? Amazing writer, simply amazing. I could go on and on, though let's not forget Hem, who didn't write dense prose, did entertain readers, and is considered a literary lion.

I wish people had the patience to get through dense literary novels. I think they're missing something by not doing so, but I understand the desire to be entertained, especially when life can be so hectic and leisure time limited. Daniel mentioned Chandler. My God, that man's descriptions are fabulous! And he entertained. Can it get any better?

Alas, for me, I couldn't get through The DaVinci Code. Yeah, my snooty English major side came out, and I fully admit that. He may be entertaining and he may have written a great story, but I couldn't get past the clunky prose. It was SO unbelievably bad that I spent more time deconstructing sentences than actually paying attention to the story. I realize not everyone feels the same as I do. If they did, he wouldn't be a phenomenon.

There's room on the shelf for him, just like there's room for James Joyce. I don't have to like DB, or agree he's entertaining, but he obviously managed it with a majority of folks. And let's face it, sometimes literary novels get so caught up in their own importance that they bore to tears.

I'd rather not be bored or boring. If that means I get dismissed by the hard-core literati, so be it. While they spend the next two decades cogitating on the human condition, toiling away at their craft and obfuscating everything to be more literary, I hope to write and sell entertaining novels that keep people coming back for more. Entertainment and literature don't have to be separate animals. Good writing and popular fiction aren't polar opposites either.

Justin R. Buchbinder said...

AMEN, JA!

It's about time someone with a big book deal said this. It's time for writers to get their head out of their patoots.

Recently I was chastised for having a "limited vocabulary". The funny part is my lexicon is in fact rather extensive, I just know that a strong metaphor goes a lot farther than a word that would take the prize in Scrabble.

It's about entertainment. Reading is meant to be enjoyable.

If you're too busy trying to find a soapbox to stand on and berate traditional writers, your own literary horse will never leave the gate.

Get over it. Write something. Have fun doing it. Sell your soul to the common devil.

And then, once your a national bestseller... then you can write a Finnegan's Wake and get yourself a college course position.

Josie said...

Great post and now I know why I'm always reading your blog when I should be working.

M. G. Tarquini said...

The cardinal sin of writing is to be boring.

Bravo, Mr. Browne!

So... entertainment and meaningful content are mutually exclusive? Opera is entertaining, so are car chases. Both entertain large groups of people. Many people in either group are members of the other group.

I divide books into three categories:

1) the ones I read and forget.
2) the ones I read and forget to finish.
3) the ones I read over and over

Up to the writer to decide which category s/he wants his/her work to fall into. Entertaining is the top of each of those categories, even number 2, though failure to finish and not even noticing I didn't indicates just how forgettable the book was.

PJ Parrish said...

Joe sez: I'm a Cornwell fan, and her last three have been bad. But two of the 50 bestselling books last year were Cornwell books. People keep buying her. Is this habit, like with Moxie and Verners? Is it that people keep giving her second chances?

I'd say heck yeah it's habit. A bad one for the legion of writers NOT on the NYTimes list.

Two dynamics at work here that I can see: The dominance of chains and over-publishing.

First, the chains are geared toward packaging the mega-authors whose publishers can afford the co-op money to promote them. It is a symbiotic relationship. DaVinci Code is a huge success not because it got word of mouth but because its publisher got behind it big time in promotion -- and KEPT AT IT. The publisher BRANDED the book. Of course, when it pissed off the Catholics, that didn't hurt.

Second, there is something M.J. Rose calls "buyer's fatigue." The average person goes into a B&N looking for a good read, is assaulted by the thousands of books, and leaves with nothing -- OR WITH THE SAME OLD SAME OLD i.e. Cornwell, Patterson, Nora Roberts et al. (This is no judgement of the quality on my part). Shoot, I feel the same fatigue when I go into a big bookstore...

I was at a luncheon book event yesterday in St. Pete. The sweet lady sitting next to me told me she reads THREE MYSTERIES A WEEK.
I asked who were faves were. You got it: Cornwell and Patterson. She could name no others.

I asked the waiter to please remove my knife...before I either plunged it into her chest or used it to slit my own wrists.

A sad fact of this business is that there are fewer publishers, fewer bookstores, fewer readers -- yet more fiction being put out there. There's less patience to bring an author along and help them build an audience. Now if you don't make it in three books...well, have you thought about a using a pseudonym, bunkie?

rkcooke said...

Not to pick nits, but Dan Brown isn't more popular than Pulitzer Prize winners (much less all of them put together!).

"To Kill a Mockingbird" has sold 10 million copies (winner of the Pulitzer in 1961).

"DaVinci" (which I enjoyed) has sold around 7.5 million.

Now, that doesn't mean DaVinci won't pass it fairly soon, but I guarantee that in 50 years "Mockingbird" will be ahead once more.

JA Konrath said...

DaVinci Code is up to 40 million worldwide, and the paperback isn't out yet (it has a first printing of 5 million)

http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=610195

In my arguement, I meant that DC sold more than those three awards winners did in a given year. But, if you added up all of those winners form all the years, I'd still put my money on all four of Brown's books, or the Harry Potter series, as higher sales.

Stacey Cochran said...

For what it's worth, in my case, there ain't any bitterness or sour grapes.

There's just this enormous void that is the past twelve years of my life trying to get published without success.

I sent out thirty-six queries just a week ago. I'll send out another 54 this weekend.

I've been going at this rate for about five years steady with no luck. I've sent out between 2,000-3,000 queries.

My goal is to have twenty novels completed by age 40, and over 10,000 queries written and mailed.

I'd like to have 40 novels written by age 50 and have at least 15,000 queries written and mailed.

If I live to be 60, my goal is to have 60 novels written and over 20,000 queries written and mailed.

20 novels and 5,000 queries per decade is doable. That's my goal.

R.J. Baker said...

Joe, I am or have been a huge Patrica Cornwell fan. I have bought every book Hardcover as it came out - not discounted. If an unknown author submitted a book of the quality of her last three books, I sincerely doubt, one that any would ever see print, and two, that they would sell.

As a fan I have felt cheated those last three books, but I so enjoyed and looked forward to her new books, I hoped and prayed that she would return to her earlier quality, think the last book was just a bad fluke.

If you check out the Amazon reviews the majority of her hardcore fans are pissed beyond belief. Most wanting to give her less than one star, they want to give her zero stars.

So, I think as a bestselling writer you have a couple book grace period, but if you put out crap, your days are numbered on the best seller lists.

She didn't release her recent book early for reviews. Why do you think she did that?

P.S. Last check on NeilsenBook Scan PC's Predator had sold 300,000+ units as of 1/6/06 far below expectations and I think a little shy of her multimillion $ advance. Most of these a sales likely library multiple copies and former fans holding out all hope.

Peter L. Winkler said...

That Dan Brown has sold many copies of his book cannot be denied. Was every person who purchased a copy entertained? We don't have any way of knowing.

Once a book sells a certain number of copies, its sales become a recommendation of their own and the whole thing, abetted by advertising and publicity, becomes a self-perpetuating phenomenon. There are many people who bought the book because they heard how many people previously bought the book.

They assumed that the book's sales figures meant it was a good read, but did they think so once they cracked the covers? Has anyone asked these readers?

Look at the bestseller lists of even a few years ago. Most of the books on it similar to Brown's are gone and forgotten. Why? If they entertained then, why not now?

Bestsellers are like event movies.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

If the majority of the people who purchased Dan Brown's book weren't satisfied....that word would have made news way before it got to a movie and trade paperback!

There's a saying: you can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time. but you can't fool all of the people all of the time!

In the last few days, you're two for two Joe...entertaining the reader is the key!

Jude Hardin said...

Rob:

In a former life, I was a professional drummer. My band played five nights a week, every week. We played some cool rock stuff like Led Zepplin, Eric Clapton and Tom Petty; some jazz standards like "Killer Joe" and "Spiritual"; some cheesy stuff like Janet Jackson and Kenny G.

Guess what brought the most number of people out on the dance floor?

You got it.

To make a living doing what you love to do, you have to make some compromises sometimes. If you want to make a living, you have to please the masses.

I want to make a living writing novels.

Dean Koontz makes a living writing novels, so I respect him for that. I could criticize his prose as being a bit stiff, even pretentious sometimes, but I would never say that it "stinks" or is "mind-numbingly bad," even if I thought so. I would never have that level of disrespect for a man who has produced, like it or not, such a stout body of work.

In another former life, I went to college and got myself an English degree. I was brainwashed by well-meaning but misguided faculty into thinking anything hugely popular must automatically suck. My dream was to write the Great American Novel.

Then, one day, I grew up.

Good writing isn't necessarily about perfectly-constructed sentences or sulky disillusioned protagonists or metaphors and symbolism on some grand scale.

Good music isn't necessarily about fancy chops or how fast you play or how many scales you know.

Both are about da dump, da dump, da dump, da DA da dump, da dump, da dump...

Both are about the groove, the groove that can move the most number of people.

I didn't mean to imply that you're books aren't entertaining. I've never read them, so I wouldn't know.

what I did imply is that certain segments of Academia (been there, done that, bought the t-shirt and the pot of bag) do their students a disservice by teaching that anything that is popular must, by nature, be drivel.

If Dean Koontz writes drivel, then I want to write drivel.

I want to make a living writing novels.

If that makes me a moron, then I happy I is one.

Rob Roberge said...

Jude wrote:

"To make a living doing what you love to do, you have to make some compromises sometimes. If you want to make a living, you have to please the masses."

And all i said was you can please the masses without compromising quality. I stand by that... Ellroy does it. Plenty of bands do it without playing shit they don't like or respect...Fitzgerald did it. Beattie, Carver, Lee K Abbot...plenty of good writers...

i make a living and I never have written a word i don't stand by (except, maybe on blogs where i shoot off...sorry about the moron thing, but you came after me personally, and not about any argment i made :)

if you think you have to compromise whatever vision you give a shit about to make it as a writer, well, that's just sad...i'm all for people making a living with novels...i think that's great...but if you compromise yourself to do it, you're not a writer, you're a tailor, and what's the fucking point?

and just to clarify ...i NEVER said Koontz wrote drivel BECAUSE he was popular...i said he wrote drivel because he writes drivel. (any book that concerns itself with such chilish notions as 'good' and 'evil' is a little too moronically sandbox in its world view for me to take seriously)...There's plenty of great work that reaches a wide audience. as for respect or disrespect...that's silly...he's a writer...who writes poorly. what's to repect? that he's done A LOT of bad writing? c'mon

it's kind of funny...all claims of art, the 'literti' and academia have come from people who aren't in it (and don't seem to know very much about it)...to my knowledge, no one here who teaches ever said that all popular work is bad...

if you had a professor who said that, he or she was wrong...but it's not at all a common attitude of those who teach writing (been at it for a while...don't see the attitude you're talking about much...it's there, yeah, but it's not that common)

Also, i think writing should be entertaining...it's the first job of any writer (and no one has claimed otherwise, on either side of this)...i just, seemingly, have higher standards for what IS entertaining than some people.

i can live with that.

But, it's a big world. i never said people couldn't love themselves silly with all the Dean Koontz's of the world. enjoy all the wedding bands and crapfests y'all want :)

R

JA Konrath said...

"I never have written a word i don't stand by."

I've never met a writer who doesn't stand by their words.

No one believes themself to be a talentless hack. Everyone tries their best.

The nice thing is, there's room for everybody.

I once bought a POD book at a convention because I felt bad for the author. The book was so amazingly bad, I've used it in class as an example of how not to write.

But by convention's end, that awful author had sold out of his book. One man's trash is another man's treasure.

I doubt the writing staff of TJ Hooker got together during their Monday meeting and said, "Okay, let's try to write something even stupider than we did last week."

You said: "but if you compromise yourself to do it, you're not a writer, you're a tailor, and what's the fucking point"

Ouch to all the tailors. I guess they're wasting their lives.

I learned years ago that writers aren't the highest memebers of the food chain. They're the lowest. The world needs tailors--they clothe us, and clothing is essential to life.

Writers aren't needed. You can't eat art. It doesn't shelter you or give you love.

And folks so wrapped up in themselves (me included) who feel that their words can make a difference are slightly narcissitic at best, raging megalomaniacs at worst.

We're not curing cancer. We're not saving people from hurricanes. We're not feeding the poor. We're not catching criminals.

We're writing words on paper, and if we're exceptionally lucky, we're getting paid for it.

Jude Hardin said...

"I just, seemingly, have higher standards for what IS entertaining than some people."

There's that academic attitude, rearing it's ugly literary head.

None of my professors actually said, "everything popular is crap." It's the attitude.

I'm not talking about compromising myself, or my artistic vision.

I believe in both.

But, to make a living as a writer, you have to sell books. To sell books, you have to target an audience. To target an audience, you have to be willing to give them what they want.

Koontz gives them what they want.

Does that make him a literary whore? I don't think so. I think it makes him a pretty smart cookie. If he can sneak in a little artistic vision here and there, so much the better.

If you wanna eat, you gotta play the Kenny G sometimes. If you want to play for a hobby, or if you want to think of yourself as an "artiste," play whatever the fuck you want to play.

Don't expect the dance floor to be full, though.

Rob Roberge said...

Jude wrote:

"To make a living doing what you love to do, you have to make some compromises sometimes. "

then Jude wrote:

"I'm not talking about compromising myself, or my artistic vision."

uh, ok.

i think i'll stop arguing now, if you're going do it with yourself :)

R

Jude Hardin said...

Okay. R's agenda is clear now (very trendy to sign your name "R," by the way. Congratulations on that): Make as many people as possible seem stupid so he, somehow, can look smart. Dismiss a bestselling author's prose as "mind-numbingly bad" so his can somehow look better.

This is a typical academic (or political) move. Talk about gimmicks.

By skirting the issue, by taking my comments out of context and making it seem as though I've contradicted myself, he thinks he has magically won the argument.

Hold on there, Bob-a-Louie. It ain't over yet.

By compromise, I mean compromising focus (toward a specific audience), not integrity or vision. If I write in one of the crime genres, I'm expected to write within that genre's conventions. If I go at it any old way I choose (and lose focus), my targeted audience might be lost as well. If I give them what they expect (while maintaining my original voice and my artistic vision), I might gain mass readership and therefore attain my goal of writing novels for a living.

Is that so hard to understand, R?

I can play "Black Cat" by Janet Jackson (whose fans are my target audience) and get a bunch of people on the floor, but it's still me providing the groove.

Jason Boog said...

I'm a struggling writer too, trying to balance a day job and writing projects.

I know my stuff appeals to a certain kind of people, and I'm working hard to find them. Hacks and artists need to eat, and it's hard to balance.

I've been thinking about readers a lot, and I just published an interview with erotica writer M.J. Rose. She tooks a crazy route to find her readers, but once she found them, pow!

Cheers,
Jason Boog

Blue Collar Bob said...

I couldn't put down The Da Vinci Code -- fast enough. I made it to the 37th word, then sent the book to the floor, where it lingers beside a dirty sock and a torn Trojan wrapper.

But, being a poor person like myself, Dan Brown's bank account sends quivers through my knees. He got a big fat wallet.

But why can't I just can't plow past word #37? It raises a philosophical mood in this nearly-middle-aged, tuck-loading-for-a-living man. Left testicle dangling swollenly, I wonder to myself: Can't something be entertaining and well-written?

The answer is, obviously: NO.

And speaking of Kenny G, he's not the only successful musician out there, is he? I mean, there's Yanni and Zamfir of the pan flute, and John Tesh, so don't limit yourself. Millions of people love those guys. I love them. I listened to John Tesh on my way to work today. He prevented me from whipping out my MP-40 and putting 30 plugs of hot lead in my boss's back. But if I listened to Kenny G, oh, I doubt the day would have gone so smoothly.


- Bob

cliffball said...

I recently had someone post a comment telling me I sucked as a writer, and this person gave a detailed point by point description on why I sucked. This was all based on one of my short stories that I had posted on Associated Content. I am a relative newbie when it comes to being published, but, if you don't like my work based on one little short story, then that's your opinion, you're welcome to think that way. So, in short, I'm already hated like Dan Brown and I only have two novels! lol

Rita Carbon said...

Joe,
Is it possible to entertain yourself as a writer by having a goal of entertaining your reader? Then writing will not be a hard work, but a pure entertainment.

How can we achieve such joy?