Dec 302013

Writer Joe Konrath just came out with his list of 2014 predictions for the book publishing and writing industry:

J A Konrath predicts

This one in particular caught my eye: 6 (a) wherein he calls for a indie publishing version of KIRKUS REVIEWS to publish independent reviews of self-published books. If such gained traction, it could really help independent authors by “certifying” their books as of high quality.

But what would this mean?

I’ve been pondering the issue of quality for a long time. First, because I wish to be seen by my readers as a writer of high quality fiction. Second, because as a reader I’m all too frequently appalled by what other readers consider “high quality.”

That applies to both traditionally published and self-published books.

However, the issue is most acute for self-published books. Being traditionally published is not the guarantee of quality as some want you to believe, but, usually, it’s a guarantee of at least minimal professionalism.

But do readers want even that?

If there’s any advice to writers that is a constant among all the advice-givers, it’s “Write great stories. Give the readers high quality novels and stories.”

Amazon and other retailers allow readers to post reviews, and books with high scores generally sell better than books with low scores.

Yet, that begs the question of just what is quality?

To me, it’s quite obvious what readers (and writers) mean by the word “quality” can vary greatly.

So, in a vain attempt to clarify the conversation, here’re my Levels of Quality.

1. Genre

If you don’t like romance novels, don’t give them one star reviews.

That should seem obvious, but I’ve seen negative reviews by readers who say they don’t like that particular type of book. Then why did they read it? Why do they feel they have the right to review it?

As a writer, I do want as many people as possible to buy my books, but not those who don’t like horror thrillers or contemporary fantasy, or whatever genre label you want to use.

The only exception here is if a publisher/author is deceptive about the type of book.

If the description and cover indicate a novel is a cozy mystery, it shouldn’t have a Philip Marlowe-type private detective and lots of fights and a grim, noir mood and atmosphere.

2. Type of novel

This is similar to the above, but more difficult to describe. Some books are just odd, hard to categorize.

You can put a genre label on them, but they may still not fit in.

There’s a book for sale called Unicorn Western. I get the impression it’s weird and humorous. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know my opinion of it, but a fantasy western is not typical of either genre.

From all I hear, Charles Bukowski writes stories about wretched alcoholics. I don’t read them. But people willing to experience such stories say they’re good. I don’t care.

3. Sex, violence, and naughty words

My novel Virgin Blood gets bad reviews because some readers don’t like some of the content. It’s NOT ‘cozy.’ Abuse. Characters who can’t complete a sentence without using a curse word. Fighting. The threat of even greater violence.

I believe putting characters through Hell makes the final Heaven all the sweeter, but some readers get too upset.

Some people don’t like gloom and doom. Yet authors believe novels with happy endings are fairy tales, and all worthwhile novels should depress readers by pointing out the meaninglessness and futility of life.

4. Credibility

This is a huge topic. In the past few years, as I’ve read a lot of thriller writers, I’ve noticed something interesting: many fake or skip over facts.

James Patterson is a huge offender. If you think he’s the wealthiest writer in the world because Alex Cross is a great police officer — please don’t try to write such thrillers. The appeal of Alex Cross is Nana Mama, Damon, Jannie, Little Alex, and his string of ladyfriends. NOT his prowess as a detective.

If readers wanted realistic police work, Michael Slade would be wealthy.

You can find long web articles detailing the errors in Dan Brown’s books.

I think I’ll do a whole blog post on this, as it’s important. And so many authors get away with skating over or around troublesome facts, and succeed despite (or because?) of it.

5. Great plots

I believe a large part of writing success is producing novels which — as a whole — satisfy in unique, interesting ways.

Keep tension high throughout. Deliver surprises and satisfying endings.

Most readers prefer “Happy Endings,” but they shouldn’t come cheaply.

The 20th century fantasy giant success was of course Lord of the Rings. It’s a rich reading experience in many ways but, I believe, its endings are what make it a classic.

Frodo, Sam, and Gollum at the Crack of Doom (ruined by the movie — Grrr!)

The Scouring of the Shire (deleted from the movie — GRRRRRR!)

And how all the ring bearers eventually have to leave Middle Earth.

Yes, the good guys defeated Sauron, but not in any simplistic way.

Included in this is complexity.

Several months ago I read a couple of successful indie books, one of which had been #1 on Amazon.

Both had very simple, straight ahead stories. One thing after another after another.

Most traditional bestsellers have subplots and plot layers.

6. Characterization

This one is also so loaded by subjective opinions and perceptions as to be nearly useless.

Most writers and writing books — and the entire Hollywood movie industry today — advocates character arcs. That is, having characters change in emotionally wrenching ways from the beginning to the end of the novel.

One indie author, Russell Blake, flat-out says character arcs aren’t necessary. And his books are successful.

Any list of the most well-known characters in the history of literature would support this: Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Conan, Hercule Poirot, James Bond, and others change little or none. Tarzan learns he’s an English lord. Conan crowns himself king. They little question what they do.

On the other hand, I personally prefer to get caught up in a character’s arc, when it’s well-done. The Frodo who reaches the Crack of Doom is not the same Frodo who left the Shire months before.

According to literature professors, ALL genre fiction has poor characterization. It’s obvious.

Many characters have a subjective appeal — or not. Some characters resonate more with not because of the author’s skill, but because we identify with them. Or relate to their experiences and thoughts.

Sometimes we encounter characters we don’t believe in, though. And that is a technical issue.

Or maybe not. I believe some readers just plain don’t like certain kinds of characters, no matter how well they’re presented on the page. The author’s skill makes them even more unpleasant to the reader.

Adultery is a sin, so Emma Bovary is an evil sinner, and Gustav Flaubert therefore a terrible writer.

One writing sin is to have a character change direction without justification. A bad person suddenly regrets their former evil ways and helps the hero. This can work. Human beings do change their minds. But not easily.

Still, I’m sure they’re many readers who accept this at face value when they read such stories.

7. Scene structure

This may be the core of what I think of as minimally professional writing.

Stories are told as a series of scenes.

A lot of bestsellers have negative reviews criticizing their writing, but, I have found, they tell their stories with scenes.

Give readers scenes they enjoy, and they’ll forgive a lot of other technical weaknesses.

8. Prose style

Unfortunately, this is the area many new writers place the most attention on. It’s probably the least important.

Read reviews of the Twilight series by Stephanie Myers and the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy by E.L. James.

A lot of them focus on the stylistic flaws of those writers. Yet such flaws do not stop other readers from loving the stories.

Not coincidentally, they all write well in terms of scenes.

John Grisham and Tom Clancy are known as “simple” prose stylists. They rarely use metaphors or anything but ordinary, simple language. Obviously, they still succeed.

I’d say John Grisham and Tom Clancy are “good” stylists in that they not only don’t attempt anything fancy, they also eliminate any friction. They don’t get in their story’s way. You read one of their books, you get into the story. You don’t think about the words, good or bad. If you don’t like the story, that’s life. But nothing stands in the way of readers who do like their stuff.

Dean Koontz is possibly the best stylist of the top traditionally published authors.

Stephen King appears to be a “simple” stylist, but is far from it. He presents his stories in great, vivid detail. And is usually quite engaging. Around 1990 I started disliking a lot of his books (not all, and I haven’t read them all either), but page by page he’s almost always entertaining. In the 1970s and 1980s he couldn’t be beat because his novels combined terrific stories with vivid, friendly but powerful prose.

So, to return to Joe Konrath’s prediction, just how could his suggestion be implemented?

I for one doubt it could be done on a mass-quantity basis.

Just how many readers exist who could objectively evaluate novels for the above characteristics? Who could separate their personal opinions and preferences from author intent and accomplishment?

I’ve mentioned philosophical differences? What about religious and political issues? Can you see literary merit in a novel although its slant on religion and/or politics differs from your own? Many people cannot.

When the Kindle first came to public awareness thanks to the success of John Locke and Amanda Hocking. I checked them out. At that time, had I been a traditional publishing first reader, I would have sent them both form rejection notices.

The one John Locke book I read wasn’t even half well-written. It was not well-organized. It had no credibility. It put the hero Donovan Creed into a clever trap, but otherwise had little to recommend it.

Amanda Hocking was a little better. She told a nearly coherent story, and had some twists. Her prose was very vague and mushy except when the main character was fighting zombies and describing clothes. Some things didn’t make sense. She underplayed some of the dramatic possibilities.

But she showed promise, and may now be much better than that. I don’t know. I don’t see her mentioned much anymore.

The two successful indie books I read a few months ago were both much better books than the above. One did have credibility issues. As I mentioned above, both were quite simple, but many readers seem to like this straight emotional punch to the gut.

I believe indie publishing is evolving, and indie writers will need to publish more complex stories, of at least the quality of traditional bestsellers. Though I hope they’re more credible than James Patterson.

Mark Coker reports longer works sell better on Smashwords, on average, than shorter works. He even specifically mentioned the topselling romance was 120,000 words. That’s twice the length of a category Harlequin.

You can’t make novels longer by stuffing them with useless words like you do in college with term papers. You need to create more conflict, more interesting events.

More complicated plots, subplots, and plot layers.

And to keep them reading through that many words, you must keep the quality high.

Whatever the readers want.

That’s high quality.