Back when I was on the conference circuit giving speech after speech about how to get published, I'd always preach that the most important thing a writer can do is, "Don't write shit."
It's 2019, and I may be ready to take back those words.
On axiom that I haven't considered taking back (yet) is that I never do anything that doesn't work on me.
That's worth explaining.
More than a decade ago, in the early noughties (so nice to finally have a word for the 2000s), I used to attend a lot of conferences, conventions, and book fairs, and every author seemed to be armed with an endless cache of bookmarks. Naturally, these bookmarks had info about the book they were selling; cover art, description, a blurb or two, links to the author's website.
Some were self-printed and looked cheap. Some were slick and professionally done; either the author shelled out some bucks, or the publisher did.
In any case, these giveaways had a time cost and a monetary cost, and a lot of authors used them to promote. The freebie tables were full of them. They served as a conversation starter and ice-breaker when meeting potential fans, and maybe some readers took them home and used them to remember which books they wanted to buy.
Maybe. But I doubt it.
I say this because I've been the recipient of hundreds of bookmarks, pressed into my hands by eager authors, and they never made me buy a book. I never even used a bookmark in my life; I dog-ear paperbacks and use the jacket flap for hardcovers to mark my page. So when I got a bookmark, it went into the garbage.
As the years went on, I began confronting authors about bookmarks. Partly because I was a know-it-all prick in my younger days, but partly because I was genuinely interested in human nature and helping other writers.
Whenever someone handed me a bookmark, I'd ask, "Have you ever bought a book because someone gave you a bookmark?"
Some authors told me they did. But at least half of them would go wide-eyed with self-realization, and I got the chance to witness their moment of "Why the hell am I doing this if it doesn't work on me?"
Bookmarks don't work on me, so I don't give them away.
I don't click on Facebook ads, so I don't buy Facebook ads.
I've never gone out of my way to go to a booksigning, so I no longer do booksignings.
And so on. I'm not saying that these things don't ever work for other authors. But if it doesn't work on me, I don't do it.
The converse is also true. We all need to pay a lot more attention to why we buy books. How did you hear about it? How many steps between your awareness and the point of sale? What were the factors that lead to you buying? And so on. Someday soon I'll do a more detailed post about how we convince ourselves to buy stuff.
But today I want to talk about writing shit.
It seems like a no-brainer, right? If you own a restaurant, your food can't suck. There are other things that contribute to a restaurant's success; location, decor, pricing, service, cleanliness, menu, etc., but the one thing a restaurant needs to do is serve decent food.
At least, it makes sense to believe that.
It also makes sense to believe that your book has to be good. We all work hard on our writing, and I've never met a writer who doesn't care what readers think. We want to entertain and impress. We want to make lifelong fans.
And that starts with a good book.
Or so I used to believe.
I had a very popular post ten years ago debunking the so-called Tsunami of Crap. TLDR: there are billions of books to read, a few more million shitty ones won't destroy reading as a pass-time.
I still believe this. But I've begun to refine it.
Going back to the restaurant analogy, I am blessed to live in an area where good eateries abound. I have favorites, depending on the food type. Every so often, I have a mediocre meal or experience at a place I normally enjoy, and I usually give the joint a second chance. If I have two bad meals, I don't ever go back.
But I'm beginning to believe that this doesn't translate to readers and books.
People are creatures of habit. I just went to jury duty, and while waiting to be called I sat at a table off to the side. A woman joined me, and we spent three hours on our respective Chromebooks, then left for the lunch break. When I returned, I purposely changed tables, moving one to the right, because I know that people always return to the seat they had earlier and I like to consciously break that evolutionary quirk of human nature.
The woman who sat with me earlier sat with me again. Not because I'm a thrilling table-partner--we didn't really talk. But she saw me as her reference point, and sat in what she thought was her old seat, not even knowing she was one table--about twenty feet--over to the right. Another juror approached us and mentioned we'd moved over a table because he came back and was irritated his old table had been taken.
Interesting, ain't it?
We are creatures of routine and habit. We gravitate toward the familiar, because it is safe.
So now I'm going to tie all of these disparate points together.
My wife, Maria, reads a lot more than I do. She loves thrillers, and goes through 3-5 per week, getting most of them on Kindle Unlimited. If an author she likes isn't free on KU, she will spend up to $6.99 for the ebook. But never more than that. She has favorite authors whose ebooks are released by publishers for more than seven bucks, and she won't read them until they are on sale.
She's been doing this for years, like clockwork.
Not coincidentally, she is my audience. Both literally--I write books intended to please her--and figuratively, because Maria represents my average reader.
So while I normally tailor my efforts to things that work on me, like never giving away bookmarks, I've taken to tailoring book-related stuff to things that work on my wife.
And I've noticed an interesting habit of hers.
When Maria is reading a mystery series, she keeps reading it.
She will audibly complain, at midnight in bed while finishing a novel on her Kindle, about how shitty the book she just finished was...
...and then she immediately gets the next book by that author. If it isn't for sale yet, she'll preorder it.
Like me, she'll give a restaurant two tries before walking away forever. One bad meal is a fluke. Two bad meals means we'll never go back. But with books, her capacity to endure and even devour bad writing is eye-opening.
Maria doesn't abandon authors.
Maybe she keeps hoping they'll go back to writing the way they use to write, when they first hooked her.
Maybe she reads so much that she forgets who wrote what and when she sees a familiar name she reads it because she forgot the last few experiences were bad.
Maybe it's just easier to ride with the devil you know than the one you don't.
Actually, I'll ask her.
Joe: Hey babe, why do you continue to read an author if their last book was bad?
Maria: Because I like their characters.
Joe: What would make you stop reading an author?
Maria: Too expensive. Multiple bad books.
Joe: How many bad books before you quit an author?
Maria: I dunno. Four.
Joe: Have you ever actually quit an author?
Maria: No. Wait, yes. One. He became too expensive. And he changed genres.
Joe: You read about five book a week?
Joe: How many are sub-par?
Joe: And you keep reading those authors anyway?
Maria: Yes. I forgive them. They had a few crummy books, but I hold out hope the next one will be better.
My takeaway: My wife has read thousands of books, and the sole author she abandoned was because he dropped out of Kindle Unlimited. She kept reading him even when he switched to a genre she didn't enjoy, and kept reading him even though his quality went down. Ultimately though, price was the ultimate reason she left him.
According to her numbers, 2/5 of the books she reads are below average, and she STILL READS THOSE AUTHORS!
Mind officially blown.
In most cases, it takes me 2 to 3 months to write a 80k word novel. About 1/3 of that time is rewriting/polishing/fixing/tinkering/making it better.
But I'm beginning to think I'm wasting a full 1/3 of my writing time.
My first drafts are pretty good. They're lean, and fast, and the character arcs and plot rarely need tweaking. The rewrite polish is mostly spent on housekeeping stuff; adding color, exploding certain scenes, adding more drama to the climax, salting in a few more jokes, changing word choices, putting in a few more clues or callbacks.
And sometimes a book is short, say around 60k words, I'll spend time expanding some scenes or adding a few to beef it up to 70k+, because I want to give good value to the readers who still pay for my stuff rather than read it via KU.
So I spend a full 1/3 of my time as a writer trying to make a grade B book into a grade A book.
I think I'm wasting my time.
Why write longer? Why write better? What's the benefit?
Readers will forgive me if I phone-in a book. Or four. Especially with a series. As long as my first 12 are solid, I could probably make the next 6 mediocre, or even shitty, and most of my fanbase will stick with me.
Now, I'm not talking about releasing a book with errors in it; plot problems, story problems, typos, formatting probs, and so on, even though Maria forgives authors for those indiscretions, and according to here they happen in about half the ebooks she reads.
I'm talking about releasing a book that would average 3.7 stars from readers, whereas if I spent an extra month on it, I could average 4.2.
Seems like a gigantic waste of time. And speaking of...
I just spent an ENTIRE YEAR writing a novel. Not SHOT GIRL, which took three months (1/3 of which was spent polishing it). I'm talking about a book that hasn't come out yet.
I'll blog more about this epic 180k word novel in a future blog post, because it challenged me more than anything I've ever written, and I refused to settle for anything less than a perfect translation of the story I saw in my head.
But now that I've finished that giant novel, I'm wondering if I wasted an entire year. Rather than torturing myself to try to get something perfect, I could have done four novels that were great. Or six novels that were pretty good. Or eight novels that were mediocre. Or ten novels that were shit.
And if I'd done ten novels that were shit, that likely would have made me the most money out of all the options above.
I can't explain how big of a mindjob that is to me. It is so counter-intuitive to everything I've learned as a writer, and everything I've learned about self-promotion.
Better isn't actually better.
More is better.
Faster is better.
Flash beats substance.
Loyalty trumps all.
Because we no longer need gatekeepers, were are the guardians of our own quality. And the reader I count as representative of my core audience is pretty much telling me that I don't have to try so hard, because she'll repeatedly forgive me.
This almost always bears out with Big Name Authors. Authors who have been around for twenty years and always appear on the bestseller lists. Some of them--not all, but some--get terrible reviews by readers on the latest books. Comments about "phoning it in" and "cashing a check" and "not the series I loved ten years ago."
Yet the books keep selling. A three star average doesn't stop a bestseller.
So does that mean McDonald's wins? Quantity over quality? Mediocrity over excellence? Cheap and fast over a richer experience? Are we such creatures of habit that we'll stick with a writer in decline just because we had happy memories of a book of theirs they wrote in 2003?
Well, hell, I think so. Much as I hate it.
And not just because Maria feels that way. I realize I do the same thing. I just ordered the new Thomas Harris novel, even though the reviews have been bad, and even though I didn't enjoy his last two books. But I loved his first three, so I'll continue to buy him.
And, newsflash, the new Thomas Harris is every bit as jawdropping as the reviewers are saying.
But will I buy his next one? Yep.
I've been to 42 states, and the best hamburger in the country is at The Assembly, which, gratefully, is close to my house. I'm a burger connoisseur. I've eaten them everywhere.
I've been to The Assembly four times this year.
But we've gotten fast food burgers at least twenty times.
Fast and cheap and mediocre beats teriffic.
Have you ever stuck with a TV series even though it dropped in quality?
Sure you have. We all do.
Everything I know says I need to stop spending so much time rewriting. And I also think I spend too much time in the planning stages of writing; working on outlines, making sure I have enough twists, cleverly seeding in clues for the big "a-ha!" moment.
I am wasting my time trying to turn "good enough" into "great." Which, ultimately, is a subjective, arbitrary notion, because I've struggled to make books as perfect as I can make them and there are those that still don't like what I've done. I get one star reviews, same as every other author.
Which begs the question; if I get one star for something I worked my ass off on, it's not like that reader could give me less than one star if I didn't work as hard on it, so why am I bothering?
So... should I just write shit?
There are books I've picked up, self-pubbed and legacy-pubbed, and I can't even get through the first few pages without cringing because the writing is bad.
And I mean objectively bad. I mean being able to take a red pen and point out why the sentence doesn't work and why the paragraph isn't needed and why the story doesn't actually start until page 15.
But many of these authors outsell me.
There's also a good chance that I'm wrong. What I consider "objectively bad" is really subjective, because I'm a huge pile of neuroses and riddled with envy. If something is that popular, it can't be bad.
I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I published a book less than a grade C. I'd feel lousy. I love writing, and I wouldn't want to release something I wasn't proud of.
But I could live with Bs. I was fine with getting Bs in school. Why put in all that extra work to turn a B into an A when I won't lose readers for a B?
This moment really hit home for me two years ago, when I rewrote my first three novels. I blogged about it.
In a nutshell, I created a character named Phineas Troutt when I was in my early twenties, and wrote three novels with him as the protagonist. They didn't sell to publishers. Years later, I used Phin as a supporting character in my Jack Daniels books, which did sell.
All of my other early rejected books found their way onto KDP, and some of them have earned a lot of fans and a lot of money. So I thought I could release my first three novels with minimal work and make a quick buck.
It didn't work out like I'd planned.
When I began to polish them, I realized how shitty they were. I was young and didn't know what I was doing. So I rewrote all three, and because it was Experienced Joe fighting with Newbie Joe over what could stay and what needed to be fixed, it took me longer to rewrite them than it would have taken to write three books from scratch.
I'm proud of the rewritten books. I think they are among my best work.
But they didn't sell as well as my Jack Daniels books.
My time would have been better served writing Jack Daniels instead.
I am 100% convinced that I could have self-pubbed my original novels with minor changes and made the same amount of money as I've currently made on those books. The reviews would be justifiably bad, but it would have benefited my career because I'd have new six books out instead of three, and the three new JD books I would have written would have sold more copies, and the three old Phin books I didn't rewrite would still make a few bucks and my fans would forgive me.
What does this mean for writers?
Do we write books that are good enough and then move along, or do we hold onto those books until we can make them better? If all signs point to readers being forgiving and sticking with authors, shouldn't we be listening?
I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to test my hypothesis.
SHOT GIRL took three months. Lots of research, lots of planning, a good deal of polishing.
CHASER is my next Jack Daniels book.
I'm going to start writing it on July 1 and see how quickly I can finish, and I'm not going to follow my normal routine of taking a month to make it better. I'll get it proofed and get that sucker out there and see how it compares in sales and reviews to my other books.
This isn't unusual for me. I wrote SHAKEN in nine days. Amazon published it without a single change.
I think I need to get out of my own way, stop letting perfect be the enemy of good, and see what happens.
Let me take a moment here to bring up a salient point; I'm an established writer with a fanbase and over 70 books that have sold over three million copies worldwide and have tens of thousands of positive reviews.
I like to think that I've written some good, even great, books. My numbers bear this out. Longtime fans will stick with me if I write something so-so.
But what if the first book of mine that a reader discovers is so-so? Will they go on to read more of my work? Or does it end right there?
I have no idea. And I'm not sure how to test this idea, other than write a mediocre stand-alone under a pen name and see how it does.
That seems... counterproductive.
Which probably means I won't be able to release something I'm not happy with under my own name. My ego won't allow it, even though my brain says it's the smart move.
What do you guys think? Spend a lot of time to make something a little better? Or stop wasting time trying to turn a good book into a great book and hope your fans are as forgiving as my wife?