How to woo your readers (why your passionate belief about the art of writing is wrong)

how to be a successful writer

I’ve been working with authors for a long time; as both book editor, book designer and sometimes even publisher. I’ve helped thousands of them try to improve their book enough to sell – either to an agent, or to self-publish and actually be successful.

During all that time I’ve met a lot of authors whose books will fail. They’ll fail because there is no market for what they are selling. They’ve written something nobody wants. And that’s fine, sometimes you’ve got to get that one out: the one you’re really passionate about.

But then, I counsel, once you’ve done your best, put it away and write another with more popular appeal. Write a story that people enjoy, that they’ll talk about with their friends. A book that matters to them. Most authors don’t appreciate this practical, businesslike approach to writing.

I always feel like I’m on the defensive, like I’m the one who has to defend my crazy ideas from charges that I’m “selling out” or “writing crap just to make money.” Here’s a comment I got today:

Write books people like; that’s great if you want to write popular fiction or pulp fiction or write for Donald Trump’s campaign. Novels can be a treasure and in themselves; not written to sell or to cheapen to appeal to the common denominator. 

As I started to reply to that comment, I realized I had a lot to say – and strangely, a new appreciation and insight on the subject that I’ve only picked up recently, reading Story Grid by Shawn Coyne (co-authored by Steven Pressfield.)

I understand where John is coming from. It’s mostly the artistic, literary approach to novel writing that’s become the passionate ideology of millions of would-be writers. Here’s the problem with it:

1) Being afraid of pleasing people. 

There are billions of people in the world. Why don’t you want to write a novel that people enjoy? Why would you deliberately choose to avoid something that a lot of people are going to like, and write something that only a few people are going to like? (I’m not suggesting you please everybody – but you’ve got to intend to please somebody.)

2) Trying to sell it anyway.

If you’ve written for no market, how in the world could you possibly expect your novel to do well, make any money, or even get published these days? Publishers are businesses producing products for consumers. 20 years ago, those consumers would all buy whatever the literati recommended, so they could prove how clever they are. People are becoming more honest.

In Story Grid, there’s a whole bunch of great quotes on what writing actually involves, and why most writers can’t sell manuscripts to agents or publishers. It’s not because the work is too brilliant. It’s because it doesn’t properly fulfill reader expectations, because it doesn’t hit all the essential scenes of a particular genre. It’s disappointing. A let down.

It isn’t artistic purity that forces you to transcend genre expectations; it’s laziness and fear. You want to write a book, great. Do whatever you want. You want to write a book, and get someone to buy it? Better. But many authors seem to want to write books without giving a damn whether anybody appreciates them. Ask yourself:

Who are you writing for – yourself? Why? Isn’t that a little self-centered? Again, that’s fine. Writing can be amazing therapy. Write your book. Exorcise your demons. Heal thyself. But if you want to be a career author you need to write books that people like to read. This is “selling out” to the “lowest common denominator” (if by that you mean, figuring out who will actually read your book, and caring enough about them to make sure they are satisfied with it, rather than disappointed.)

The really interesting thing about Story Grid (truly, this fascinates me to no end) is that Shawn Coyne is Steven Pressfield’s editor. Steven Pressfield, meanwhile, is the reason most authors think they can just do the work, and that considering the market is “selling out.” Steven calls people who consider the market “hacks” in The War of Art.

In 2016, however, Steven published “Nobody wants to read your shit, why that is and what you can do about it…” so it seems he’s becoming more aware to the pragmatics of writing books that matter to other people.

steven-pressfield_nobody-wants-to-read-your-shit_1024x1024

But most writers love the War of Art because it tells them to keep writing what they enjoy, even if they’re scared or have doubts or can’t sell… just keep creating! So you get all these authors who have finished their book, and now they’re trying to get published, or find an agent, and they need an amazing editor like Shawn who’s going to straight up tell them, “This book doesn’t work. It isn’t good enough. You didn’t plot it well. It’s unsatisfying. It doesn’t deliver on the promise of the genre.”

And you’ll pay your editor thousands of dollars to tell you those things, and because you’re paying them so much money, you might listen to them. And if you make all the changes and structure your novel right it’ll be so much better and you will have a much greater chance at success.

But it would have been so much easier if you’d have just figured out who you were writing for first, did research on what things people reading that genre like and appreciate (what Shawn calls “Essential Scenes” – like the hero at the whims of the bad guy scene in thrillers).

A Genre is a label that tells the reader/audience what to expect. Genres simply manage audience expectation. – Story Grid

In the old days, the author went into his cave, retreated from civilization, and wrote a book. Then he came back and gave it to an agent, and a publisher. They edited the SHIT out of it. Not only all the typos, redundancies, clumsy sentences, etc – but also the organization. They made it better. They made it salable. A great editor was a proper genius, and knew more about what makes a story work than any living author.

For more on this relationship, you should read my post:

The creative war between writers and editors (and how to call a ceasefire)

Authors have the ideas, but they don’t usually plot or plan in the mechanical sense that editors are used to. Editors take good ideas and make them amazing books. But it doesn’t actually work like that anymore: publishing houses no longer pick up books that “kind of work, but need fixing.” They’ll sign books and mostly just let them run, confident that they’ll sell based on the author’s fame. I’ve heard from several bestselling authors recently that they got a publishing deal because they wanted their book to be edited, to be fixed and improved – but instead the editor just stamped it “good enough” and it went to print.

That’s why Shawn says authors need to be their own editors. Even if you plan on hiring an editor later, you still need to figure out the demands of your genre, and make sure you tick all the right boxes. Learning how to self-edit to make sure your story resonates with people is not selling out. You are making your story better, and that will result in more success. And not to the “lowest common denominator only.”

Maybe you’re writing a dark and tragic literary YA novel about cancer – do you want it to be a flop, or a smashing success? There is already a collective of readers who are eager to enjoy and appreciate your book, but only if you take the time to find out who they are and make sure it satisfies them.

Every writer wants to be read. And the best way to learn whether your Story is reaching people is to tally the number of them willing to part with their hard-earned cash to experience your work. -StoryGrid

The only way to write a Story that works is to know exactly what Genre(s) you are exploring and deliver exactly what is required from those Genres. -StoryGrid

You must know what your reader is expecting before you can possibly satisfy her. And yes, if you are writing a Story, you must think of your audience. A Story means nothing if it is not experienced. -StoryGrid

Perhaps that’s an impossible task: authors and editors are different kinds of people. They are exceedingly different skills and thought processes. I accept that some authors will never be able to self-edit effectively. On the other hand, I think most authors are reasonably intelligent, so they could probably learn to self-edit if they wanted to. The problem is, they don’t want to.

To me that seems like a guy only caring about his own satisfaction. He is writing to get off. He doesn’t care about the receiver of his efforts. He just wants it to feel good to him, but he’s too self-centered to ask, “What do you like?” When he’s done, she’ll probably never call him again, and he’ll have to seduce another reader he can screw. Until they all start talking about what an asshole he is, and then he won’t be able to get anyone to read his book.

Maybe that’s fine for Alpha Male, Lion Hunting, Whiskey hunting Manly Men like Hemingway. You may think you can get away with it too. And sure, it’s possible. It happens sometimes. If you are committed to old school publishing and willing to die trying, just keep writing your book the way you think it should be and piss and spit on the opinions of your market – because what do they know, goddamnit.

Personally, I don’t see anything artistically devious about knowing who you’re writing for: knowing the rules of genre convention, plotting and novel structure makes it easy for me to publish a lot of books, quickly, that satisfy readers. Will they become the next Hunger Games? Maybe not – but the potential is there, because I’m comfortable writing popular fiction. If you’re writing literary fiction with no market, and hope to become the next Jonathan Franzen, you should be aware of the fact that Jonathan and most literary novelists are still using form and structure, and the expectations of literary fiction to write bestsellers that make their particular audience happy. In other words, they know exactly what they are doing, and literary fiction isn’t all that different from popular fiction: you have to know the rules of your game.

An author who isn’t willing to learn the rules of the game is like a guy showing up to Yankee stadium in the middle of a baseball match, wearing underwear and carrying a giant rubber ducky, who screams that everybody is playing baseball wrong and he is going to FIX it. And that’s exactly what most authors are doing right now (you’ll recognize them when they say their book “defies genre” or “can’t fit into any category”).

Nobody else is going to edit your book for you. Even if you have an editor or pay for a great one, they’ll be able to take it so much further if you do the work and learn some of this stuff yourself first. Everyone else will do their job but won’t be committed to making your story amazing. That has to come from you. You have to know your audience and your genre to pull it off. Buy a few 2.99 ebooks, download the free plotting maps and grids, make sure your novel delivers – and rewrite the stuff that doesn’t work!

Go read StoryGrid. I also recommend Plot Perfect and Story Engineering. And if you’re still having trouble, I wrote a little guide to creatively producing work that matters.

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me
  • Thanks for writing this! It was a very interesting read. Here are my thoughts on the subject:

    Honestly I feel like this article is a little bit all over the place. There’s some very good advice, like being your own editor and making sure what you create is worth reading and will fulfill people. Then there’s stuff I can’t possibly agree with, like the idea that success = money and nothing more, or that chasing the market and pandering to people is the same thing as “writing a story that people enjoy.” It backslides from a hard line, trying to play both sides but not succeeding.

    There is a hard line, of course, and it’s something every author needs to know about themselves. How they personally define success. When enough is enough. Where “selling out” begins and ends.

    You mention that getting someone to buy a book you write is better than writing a book. I totally disagree. Validation doesn’t come from people buying what you make, it comes from the fact that you’ve done what you were put on this Earth to do. It’s scratching the itch that is planted there just so you’ll go write (or perform, or do accounting, or whatever your passion is). Life is short. Crazy short. If you’re not spending your time scratching (or first finding) that itch, you’re seriously missing out.

    Is it nice to sell things you make? Sure. Having food to eat is a very joyful thing indeed. When you write for the SAKE of the final sale, though, you’re by definition selling out. (The definition is “to betray one’s cause or associates especially for personal gain.” The associate’s here are other writers, and the cause is that itch.)

    Certainly nothing wrong with editing to make the best book you can, and one that will really hit home with the folks you hope (key here being “hope”) will read it. But if that’s 10 folks or 20 million, it doesn’t matter. You trust that the book will be read by the person (or people) who are supposed to read it. If you do, life gets great. If you chase the 20 million with fluff and generic hero-defeats-villain-because-people-like-that then you’ll never tell the stories that are deep in your own heart, because those stories might NOT be cookie cutters that people will eat up. But those stories are the brilliant truths that, if you get out, will signal a life well lived.

    To wrap up, I’ll answer a few of the questions scattered throughout the article:

    “Maybe you’re writing a dark and tragic literary YA novel about cancer – do you want it to be a flop, or a smashing success?”

    Many people define success in non-monetary terms, so even a commercial flop can be quite a success. Heck, just look at the effect Tomorrowland had on you, and how it changed you. That thing was an enormous flop. Yet if it had been The Hunger Games you yourself might not have gotten what you needed.

    If your YA cancer novel gets a young adult through a very, very difficult time in their life, how is that not a smashing success? And if you change it to be more mass-market friendly, and that same young adult gets nothing out of it now and suffers alone, how is that not the biggest flop possible?

    “Why would you deliberately choose to avoid something that a lot of
    people are going to like, and write something that only a few people are
    going to like?”

    Because you know that the few people are the people the story planted inside you is FOR. It may not be for the masses, and that’s good. You write the stories you’re supposed to write, not empty nothings that millions will eat like junk food. We have enough junk food on the market; we lack depth and originality. Why? Because so many authors release books for marketing purposes and to try to make money. Not to tell stories that change people.

    Can it be both? Yes and no. Yes it can happen, but no because it can’t be equal. There has to be a driving force; no car can have two drivers, or you’d crash. The driving force can be making money/sales/getting readers/building a brand, or the driving force can be scratching the itch. It has to be only one of the two, with the other riding shotgun or in the backseat.

    • Beautifully said!

    • Thanks for your comments; I agree with most of what you said, and I understand that people have different definitions of success. Getting a traditional publishing deal feels like a success – even though it doesn’t actually pay much, and doesn’t mean anybody will buy the book.

      Writing a book and publishing can feel like a success. It makes you proud and happy. That said, I think we should agree that success works on a sliding scale, and has cultural associations, just like the word “Rich.”

      My rich may not be your rich; but if I say “He’s rich” I don’t mean he’s happy and loved by his family. Likewise if I say “he’s a really successful author”, what are you going to assume? That he published happily? No, “successful” has to mean he’s sold more books, to more people than other “unsuccessful” authors. Otherwise, what are we talking about? Success has no meaning.

      A similar argument: I can say he’s a “Great” writer, and I mean his writing is really good. There has to be some kind of general consensus about what “good” writing looks like, and the majority of readers have to agree. Not all of them; some will hate it. But maybe more than 50% think the writing is really great. Otherwise, my statement is false. Just because I liked something doesn’t mean it’s actually great writing, if my appreciation of literature is screwed up.

      Every author I know wants to sell more books. They want more people to read their books. Most of them are afraid of giving the book away for free because they feel they deserve to get paid for their effort. If they publish a book, they may say things like “Oh well, I’m successful even if it doesn’t sell,” but they secretly look up “how to sell more books” and “book marketing” online because without the public acclaim that comes with a bestseller, the insecurity that the book they’ve written just isn’t any good comes back to them. A lot of those writers email me and want me to help them market the book: and I can’t, because they’ve written a book that won’t sell. This is what my article is about.

      Are you allowed to write books you care about that won’t sell? Absolutely! But then throwing money at the wall, thinking you just need it to “take off” and then people will “get it” is a costly mistake. And a lot of writers don’t get why their books aren’t successful. They think they just need more marketing and promotion, but that’s almost never the case.

      Can you write an amazingly well written book that nobody wants? Sure. Does that count as a “success”? Let’s say I’m the best painter in the world, but I don’t share my works. Nobody can see them. Am I successful? Why, because I’ve developed my skillset? No, success has tangible benefits: fame and fortune. The word has the same meaning in just about every sphere of human accomplishment. Should we bend the definition for writers just because there are so many writers publishing books that don’t sell, and we want to pat them on the shoulder and say “You get a gold start just for trying!”

      You said the different between 10 folks and 20 million folks doesn’t matter.

      To me, it matters greatly. If you have a story to tell, and you’re going to write it down and publish it, and spend a year of your life working on it, plus probably a good chunk of money… in what universe is it OK for you to waste that much effort and money to please 10 people. How is that a responsible use of your time and money? Maybe if you’re young and single. Go for it. But all that time and money, you could have been building something that earns revenue. If you don’t, you have an extremely expensive and lonely hobby.

      • “My rich may not be your rich; but if I say “He’s rich” I don’t mean he’s “happy and loved by his family.”

        And there in lies the difference in opinion, because that, to me, IS rich. To be happy and loved by one’s family can’t even REMOTELY compared to having a stocked bank account. I have a lonely friend that is excessively wealthy (almost unreasonably so). His life isn’t anywhere near as joyful and RICH as mine is. He has money, but he is not rich. His life is not rich. His soul is not fulfilled. He wanders from experience to experience, material thing to thing, and there’s nothing there. How is that rich? He keeps chasing, hoping the next empty “success” will be the one that fills the void.

        “The only way I can help authors be more successful is to tell them to stop writing books nobody wants to read.”

        I disagree. I think you can help authors be more successful by helping them change their definition of success. You can help them see there’s so, so much more to this life than sales (or FB likes, or Twitter followers, etc). Infinitely more. Is there a lot of money in that? No, probably not. People don’t want to change, because it’s very hard. So again, you might change 10 people instead of speaking to 20 million. My point is merely that that isn’t the ONLY way you can help authors be successful. There are plenty of other options. Which you choose is, of course, up to you.

        And that’s what I spend my time on, personally. Breaking the “only ways” of life. Trying to remind people that the “normal” way, or the way most people choose, that isn’t the “only” way. There are countless ways. When we feel forced into an “only way,” and think there are no other options, life kind of sucks compared to the joy of endless possibilities that really exist. 🙂

        “in what universe is it OK for you to waste that much effort and money to please 10 people.”

        In a Universe I’d certainly like to live in. Because you changed the lives of those 10 people. It’s a shame that in today’s world that means little to nothing compared to the chase of money. It isn’t a waste to change the lives of 10 people, any more or less than it’s a waste to change the lives of 20 million or 3. Because you’re changing lives.

        It’s obviously a different perspective. The chase of money is one that you are not alone in holding, clearly. There are no shortage of blogs and books on the pursuit of capitalism. Yet I’ve never found a person (and I have looked) that has sat on their death bed and said “Gosh, I wish I had made another $1000. That would have really made my life fulfilling. Then I REALLY would have had a successful life.”

        Until I find that person, I can’t jump on the bandwagon of changing my art (of which writing is a form) just to pursue sales. I won’t have regrets when that last day arrives.

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