What Sells?

Written By: Bill Quick - Nov• 04•11

Quick, Get Me A Flashlight | According To Hoyt

Doesn’t matter anyway. Literary value is a will o’ the wisp and has been used for centuries by those-who-know-better to tell the masses what ’orrible little people they are and what ’orrible ’horrible taste they have. (Shakespeare. All that blood. Ghosts. Inaccurate history. Rotted the mind like cheap candy. A favorite of truculent apprentices and low brows. Why, he had the violence happen right htere on the stage, while all the well bred people knew the way to do it was to have a messenger come and announce it. In the more fraught plays, messengers crossed back and forth on the stage, but it was good taste. Everyone knew that. As a literature major I’ve had to read those plays. They’re very illuminating of the human condition. Like Tolstoi.)

What literary value is not is a predictor of sales, unless you are talking ONLY sales to a small subset of status-insecure people who want to show how intelligent they are. Now, there are any number of those and there are scam– er… authors who make a living off them, but I am not an artist – I work for a living – and I’d rather sell stuff people genuinely enjoy.

The question is… what is that?

And that is the question all writers who are actually serious wrestle with constantly. If you claim you’re not interested in selling – which actually means you’re not interested in having folks read what you write – then you’re probably a liar. If not, the obvious question is, why are you writing in the first place?

Oh, sure, I understand that the internet now gives everybody a platform to blather anything you like, and people don’t need to pay a red cent to read it, so, technically, you have no need to sell your work. If that’s you – if that’s what makes you content – then stop reading this now, because what I have to say will be of no interest to you. Nor will your literary exibitionism have much interest for me, given that I hew to Samuel Johnson’s admonition: “”No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

I’ve spent well on to 40 years trying to figure out what sells. There don’t seem to be any guarantees, and certainly trying to figure out what will bring the Stephen King/Harry Potter/Tom Clancy lightning down on your head is probably a mug’s game.

That said, a good story seems to be a necessity. By that, I mean a plot that makes sense and has a logical, interesting progress to a satisfying ending. Happy endings – that is, where the hero triumphs over the fascinating problems you have littered his path with – seem to work better than tragedies. Everyman characters rising to the occasion are always popular. People want to identify with heroes, although you need to keep your villains reasonably sympathetic as well. Pure black only works with anarchists and hipster fashions.

Oddly enough, it takes many would-be writers a long time to figure out even these basics. I blame the plethora of creative writing courses that populate the modern academic curriculum, wherein wannabes are instructed that lapidary prose and endless character dissection are the ne plus ultra of good writing.

Story? Plot? Attractive, likable characters struggling and triumphing over near-insurmountable odds? How passe. No, even worse than passe. Reprehensible. To be avoided if you value the purity of your art.

Let me tell you this: If you call your writing your art, you are probably going to be able to number your readers without using all of your digits. You want to be rich and famous? Learn what average people like to read, and then do your damndest to give it to them.

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One Comment

  1. Drang says:

    If you claim you’re not interested in selling – which actually means you’re not interested in having folks read what you write – then you’re probably a liar.
    “Hi, Uncle Bob, this is Astrid, I have a class project, and I need to ask: Why did you write Stranger In A Strange Land?”
    “Hi, Astrid. I wrote it for the money, of course.”
    “Thanks, Uncle Bob. Mommy and Daddy say hi!”

    Then, of course, Poul and Karen had to get Heinlein to call the teacher and explain to her why Astrid didn’t deserve a failing grade.