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March 27, 2008


John M.

Aldous Huxley said it best: "Fiction is the fruit of sustained effort."


I posted in comments yesterday about a small startup press that I'd submitted my novel to. Today I withdrew it, telling the editor that I'd rather he builds a reputation with great (not just decent) works by both established and unknown authors.

What I didn't say here is that I'm assistant editor of the whole operation(Shroud Magazine and small press), so I'm in a position to help him pick those great stories... and for myself, to see what works and what doesn't.


At the risk of setting off another attack by Paul, let me say that I have not changed my mind since he has taken such violent exception to my point about writing for success.
I would argue that turning out a novel that fits a perceived demand handicaps the author so severely that it is unlikely he will be doing his best work.
I think also that for myself a preoccupation with reaching bestseller status is bound to make for an unsatisfactory career. It will surely kill whatever drives me to write in the first place.

David J. Montgomery

I think that attempting to write a book in hopes of satisfying a particular market urge is a risky idea. How do you know what the market is? And will the market still be the same once the book is written and published two years from now?

I think people are better off writing a book they feel passionately about, and doing it as well as they possibly can.

That's not to say you should be ignorant of the market... But you can't be dominated by it either. It's a difficult balance.


I.J., I don't think anyone would argue with that--including Guyot.

Steven T.

Well, I think you're part right. If it really just about writing a great book, a successful career would be relatively easy.

For most writers who make it big, it is about writing a long string of great books. I might have gained a bit of a readership with my first five books (esp. the last one) but if I don't follow up with five more, I probably will be little more than a footnote (oh! To be a footnote!).


"If it really just about writing a great book, a successful career would be relatively easy"

Steve, can you explain this? I don't think I'm understanding - it sounds like you're saying it's easy to write a great book.


If you think that was an "attack" and "violent exception" I envy you... you must have lived the most charmed and uneventful of lives.

And I'm not sure why your comment would risk "an attack" from me? Have I implied that I think one should write for the perceived marketplace?


It's funny, David, what I've found in the screenwriting world is how everyone seems to think the craft is really no big deal.

Folks outside the business rarely think they could direct a movie - because it's a foreign endeavor, something very specific that few people ever have first-hand knowledge of.

And the same with acting, to a lesser extent. Most people don't ever do any formal acting in their lives, so they see it as this foreign endeavor.

Same with cinematography, editing, costume design, etc. No one has ever done these things themselves.

But writing is a whole different story. See, everyone, EVERYONE has written a story at some point. Be it the "Summer Vacation" paper from grade school, or any of the dozens of essay assignments that we all are given throughout our academic lives.

It's not foreign - we've all done it. So, I believe people have this inherent idea that writing isn't a big deal. It's something they have experienced - on whatever level. So, when they see screenwriters making millions, or book authors traveling the country, they think, "Well, I could do that, too."

And so they do. Some, with no more education on the craft than that summer vacation paper thirty years ago. Others think an English degree makes them a writer. A lot of them think that. Others think reading qualifies them as we discussed.

I've never seen it with any other of the art professions. But with writing, it seems as the vast majority feels it's not a learned skill, or born-in talent, but rather something we can all do, but only certain ones choose to.

Elaine Flinn

"If it really just about writing a great book, a successful career would be relatively easy"

Surely, Steve - you jest.

David J. Montgomery

Yep, it's so true... I'll bet every person reading this who's a writer has had people tell them, "Oh, I'd like to write a book someday. I've got a lot of great ideas."

Now, of course, with the rise of self-publishing, vanity presses, subsidy presses, etc., those people can become "published" authors.

I think that phenomenon makes great writing all the more valuable, because it stands out so distinctly by comparison.

Elaine Flinn

"I'll bet every person reading this who's a writer has had people tell them, "Oh, I'd like to write a book someday. I've got a lot of great ideas."

And then they ask you to read theirs. :)

Doug Riddle

I agree with Paul about the fact that everyone thinks they can write, heck they taught you how to do it in elementary school, so how hard can it be.

What a lot of people seem to forget is that good writing is WORK. And it also one of those things that never really gets easier. Yes your skills get better, but your expectations get higher.

I am a big fan of the King and Morrell books, but if I could I would like to recommend two others:

George V. Higgins...On Writing:Advice for Those Who Write to Publish (Or Would Like To)...yes that is the actual title. It is a little hard to find, but a good book by someone who knew how to write.

Roy Peter Clark...Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer...This is not "novel writing" instruction, but writing instruction. Clark teaches journalism, but the book is about the mechanics of writing. I keep my copy next to my copy of Strunk & White.

David J. Montgomery

While we're mentioning writing books, I like Larry Block's instruction guides (although I haven't looked at them in years).

David J. Montgomery

In the original post, I talked about busting your ass, writing and writing and writing to make your work as good as you can.

An anecdote:

A couple months ago I was in Chicago attending the Love Is Murder writers conference. Sunday morning of the conference, 8:30am, I walk past the bar. Many of the authors in attendance had closed down the place the night before, up until the wee hours making merry. (I didn't last that long myself.)

So it's early the next morning, the place is closed, the lights are off and the tables are empty...all except for one. Sitting over in the corner by himself is William Kent Krueger. He's got a pen and a legal pad and he's writing.

That's a professional -- and that's why Kent has published 8 novels and they're all still in print.

Elaine Flinn

Great anecdote, David..and so true. Complacency is the No.1 killer.


Doug - I followed Clark's 50 Writing Tools as he was posting them on Poynter.org. He gives wonderful advice, no less valuable for its brevity. I've referred to them online a couple of times, but I really should invest in the book too. Thanks for the reminder.

Doug Riddle

The Clark book was just release in paper not long ago, 13 books at the store, 10 on Amazon.

David, are you sure Mr. Krueger left...or just outlasted everyone else..;)


I'll second Roy Peter Clark's book. It's the "new" Strunk & White. :) And it's all about the writing craft. Good stuff. Another one that deals in depth with putting words together effectively is Gary Provost's MAKE YOUR WORDS WORK. It's the best book of its kind. But it's older, so I'm not sure if it's still in print.

Doug Riddle

David, I agree about the Block books. Elizabeth George also has a good book on writing.

My one requirement for a book on fiction writing, not a tech book like Clark's, is that the person writing the book is a published author of fiction, and to have had sucess.

Doug Riddle

So what makes a great book a great book?

We have all read books that were called "great books" that showed great technical use of the language, but the story was lacking, or had a great story, but the prose was clumbsy. And of course some that had both story and skill, and some that had neither.

Haven't we all read a book that people raved about being great and wondered what the hell were they thinking? Or one we loved and it seemed to be ignored?

So is a book being a great book a personal judgement? Is that all it is?

If so, then isn't writing a "great book" is as much luck as skill or story. Catching that agent or editor on the right day and clicking. Which would also explain why so many "great books" get rejected by agents and editors numerous times, before becoming "great books."

So what can a writer do to write a great book, other then write as good a book as they can and hope to get lucky? And isn't that what all writers are doing, the guys who write the great books and the crap books?

Steven T.

I stand by what I said. We all know of people who have written great books but haven't achieved success (I'm only thinking of financial reward, not other types of success). Take for instance Laura Lippman who, unless I'm mistaken broke into the NY Times bestseller's list last year with her tenth book. Now, I know that's not the only measure of success, but... her success didn't come because she finally wrote a great book. It came after a string of great books.

David says (to oversimplify): success = writing one great book.

I say: success = writing a half dozen great books or more (+ luck, hard work on the promo side, the backing of your PR department, et al).

Relatively speaking, I think success is harder than writing one great book. Writing that great book puts you on the path, but it hardly gets you there - after you've written the first great book, you've still got a long way to go for financial and critical reward.

I hope that clears up my meaning, but I may very well have dug the hole deeper.

David Montgomery

I'm not sure how luck figures into this. Either a book is great or it's not. Granted, that's too some degree subjective. But how is luck involved?

Steven T.

Or maybe I should have said that writing a great book is difficult. Parlaying that one great book into financial success is more difficult. Success usually takes a string of great books.

David Montgomery

I don't think I indicated that writing one great book would give an author lasting success. But if I did, then let me clear that up. Because I don't believe that.

Success is an ongoing process. In order to keep a career going, writers have to keep producing, book after book. Very few authors can maintain career momentum based on one book. (Although certainly many have tried.)

The point is that the way to give yourself the best chance at success is to write a great book. It's not to have great marketing or a great hook or a great blog. All of those things might help. But first and foremost, you must have a great book.

(As always, we can all think of exceptions to this rule... But do you really want to try be the one who overcomes the odds and achieves success with a so-so book, just because author XYZ did it?)

David Montgomery

"Or maybe I should have said that writing a great book is difficult. Parlaying that one great book into financial success is more difficult."

Do you think you'd have a better chance if you tried it with a lousy book?

Steven T.

"how is luck involved?"

Well, again, just looking at the money and sales side of things, not the "nobody bought it, but it's still a success" side, I can easily see luck playing a role. Bad luck - your publisher decides to publish your book the same day as the final Harry Potter book is coming out.

On the opposite side, there is a certain amount of serendipity - Bill Clinton holds up your novel and says it's great. The next day it's flying off the shelves. Some movie star picks up your book in an airport and calls you up about the movie option. That kind of thing.

There may be ways to create those situations, but I haven't figured it out. I call it luck but I'd be happy to figure out how to reproduce it...get it down to a science.

In my case, my last book was better by far than my first four. It came out in mass market pb. Very little critical attention. Pretty much completely out of my hands; has nothing to do with the quality of the book. Of course, on some level, it's not luck - decisions were made, etc. Still, from where I sit, it just looks like bad luck.

David Montgomery

You misunderstood, Steven. I wasn't questioning whether or not luck was involved in a book or an author's success.

I was questioning Doug's statement that "writing a 'great book' is as much luck as skill or story."

I don't believe that's true. The book's reception might be attributable to luck. But not its quality.

Steven T.

"The point is that the way to give yourself the best chance at success is to write a great book."

No argument. The writing is what IS in the writer's hands. Also, while it is not always clear, my guess is that more great books dominate the bestseller's lists than so-so books.

David Montgomery

"It came out in mass market pb. Very little critical attention. Pretty much completely out of my hands; has nothing to do with the quality of the book."

I don't want to hijack my own thread... But it's very tough for PBOs to get major reviews. I think I'm one of the few critics who writes about them on a regular basis, and even with me, it's rare. The book really has to have some "It Factor" associated with it in order to get much attention.

Doug Riddle

What I meant by luck is as an important a part as skill or story to a "great book", is that if you are not lucky enough to have your book pick up and promoted, then it is still a mss. and not a book.

David J. Montgomery

Golfer Gary Player is alleged to have said, "The harder I work, the luckier I get." Very apt to this conversation, I think.

Elaine Flinn

"The harder I work, the luckier I get."

Amen. :)

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David J. Montgomery is a writer and critic specializing in books and publishing. He is an emeritus columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and The Daily Beast, and has also written for USA Today, the Washington Post, and other fine publications. A former professor of History, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and two daughters.

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