Do I Have to Choose Between Being a Best-Selling or a Best-Writing Author?

The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon has sparked some interesting conversations about writing quality and how well an author needs to write in order to produce a best-seller. This is hardly a news-worthy debate. I remember the same questions when Bridges of Madison County was selling like crazy. I remember it again when The DaVinci Code was on the best-seller lists. I heard it again when Twilight-Mania overtook girls and women all around the world.

A few weeks ago, as I was reading Joanna Penn’s wonderful The Creative Penn blog, I saw this interesting post about deciding whether she wanted to be a best-selling or a best-writing author. In her post, Joanna talks about the difference between books that are lauded as literary masterpieces but don’t make waves with readers and therefore don’t sell well and the books that aren’t considered literature or even particularly well-written but sold millions of copies. She has a point. There are authors whose cerebral style makes their stories and their characters detached and inaccessible. More than anything, people want to feel connected to the stories they read and the characters who inhabit them. Joanna’s conclusion? She’d rather be a best-selling author.

Best-selling certainly sounds cool, especially since I’m writing this in the glow of some good Amazon news: Amazon set Her Dear & Loving Husband to free, and as of my last check, it was #5 on the historical fiction list, #12 for literary fiction, and #190 overall. If you have a Kindle, by all means, enjoy a free copy. I even took a screen shot because I was so excited. After all, writers write because we want our stories read, and being a best-selling author means a lot of people have read your story—or at least bought it—or downloaded it—or whatever. It means a lot of people, okay?

But what do I want to achieve as a writer? What do I really want to achieve? I have a more literary style than other writers, which can work for or against me, I know, but it’s who I am. It’s my uniqueness. My fingerprint. I’ve had it, apparently, since college when professors and other students would comment on my literary style. The truth is I’m a frustrated poet, and while I’m not wise enough to write poetry, I can use the elements of poetry I love to create my own style of prose. John Forster, Charles Dickens’ good friend, biographer, and beta reader (yes, they had beta readers in the 19th century, they just didn’t have the name), used to point out to Dickens his tendency to fall into blank verse during the more emotional moments of his stories. I have the same tendency, though I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It gives a certain flow to the prose.

Language matters to me. How words string together into sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters matters to me. I will spend a half hour on a single sentence trying it with the comma here, the comma there, the comma in another sentence, no commas anywhere ee cummings-style. And being a teacher who often reads out loud to my students, I’m keenly aware of the flow of words, and I want my writing to sound as good read aloud as it does in the reader’s mind. That’s not easy, and it takes a lot of fine-tuning. My main challenge writing poetry-inspired prose is to keep my characters and their stories accessible to my reader. It’s okay for the language to be pretty as long as the reader can follow along, and, more importantly, care about what’s happening.

When I had Her Dear & Loving Husband critiqued in 2010, the critiquer, a romance novelist, suggested I leave out the more literary flights of fancy. She wanted me to leave out “The hunt, the hunter, the hunted…” passage, and she thought the scene between James and his father, where the father’s unconditional love shines through, could go. She wasn’t sure about Geoffrey, but then again no one’s sure about Geoffrey. She wanted me to turn my English professor James into an alpha-male, and she wanted more explicit sex scenes. In other words, she wanted me to turn it into a traditional romance. She pointed out that romance readers expect their books to be a certain way, and since she’s the award-winning romance writer I have no doubt she’s right. I took a lot of her advice, but the literary passages stayed. The poetry stayed. James, his tender, loving nature, stayed. Geoffrey…well, you know Geoffrey. He wouldn’t go away even if I asked him to. I knew I was taking a chance by not adhering to conventions, but I had to write my book the way I had to write it. My style, for its strengths and weakneses, is mine, and I wouldn’t change it to conform to the expectations for a romance novel. I knew I might lose readers because of it, so I had to decide that that was okay with me. I didn’t feel right making changes I didn’t believe in because “this is the way these types of books are written.”

Whenever I skim my own book reviews at Amazon or BN and see the ones that say, “This wasn’t what I expected, and I was surprised by how much I liked it,” I smile. I know my style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I don’t mind. There are readers out there who do like it, and I’ve received the most lovely e-mails any author can hope for from people who get my stories, crazy-style and all.

In the end, did I decide I wanted to be a best-selling or a best-writing author?  I’d like to be both, please. I still think it’s possible to write a story that readers will enjoy while taking care with the style of the language. That’s what writing is, isn’t it?

Addendum: I’m trying not to be OCD about checking my Amazon stats, but I have to admit it’s a tough battle because it’s so much fun. I just peeked again, and Her Dear & Loving Husband is now #9 in literary fiction, #94 overall, and #4 in historical fiction. What’s number 3 in historical fiction? Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Those of you who know how much I love Dickens can guess what it means to me to see my book next to his on the best-seller list.

Addendum Part 2: Her Dear & Loving Husband is now number 1 on the free historical fiction list, number 1 on the free literary fiction list, and #28 overall. Thank you, thank you to the many people who have downloaded the book.  I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I enjoyed writing it.

9 thoughts on “Do I Have to Choose Between Being a Best-Selling or a Best-Writing Author?

  1. Thank you so much, Mercedes. You’re right…marketing can bring attention to a book and make people want to buy it (in the case of Shades of Grey, 10 million people), but the marketing says nothing about how the book is written. I’ve been writing for about fifteen years now, and in all that time of rejection letters and close calls with publishers that ended up going nowhere, I kept on writing because I hoped that people would like my stories if they had a chance to read them. Your kind words help me feel like I did the right thing, as close as I was to giving up sometimes. Thank you.

    My Brother’s Battle…now that’s a blast from the past! The truth is, I was never happy with the way the publisher put that book together, so I’m going to be republishing it through Copperfield Press later this year. When it’s out I’ll send you a copy so you can see what it’s supposed to look like. Meanwhile, enjoy!

  2. I believe there are some valid points made by previous comments. I believe marketing is huge in making someone a bestseller, but not a best writer. The whole Shades of Grey wasn’t on the top seller list until it was mentioned on the Today show. Heck, look at all those Oprah books. However to find a rare treasure, you have to dig deep sometimes, and only then are you rewarded with a reading experience that possibly changes you, has you thinking about it long after you read it, and then praying the author has something else out there for you to read! You are that author for me. I have read both books in the series and can’t wait for the third. When readers read one of your books, you can tell that you have passion for the history and research that went into the making of the story. As another poster said, you put the whole vampire story into another category, thank goodness you didn’t take that person’s advice! Thank you for staying true to yourself and your writing, I think we’re all better off for it. There is enough of that other stuff out there. I truly think that one day, we’ll see your all your books on the tops of lists. I think that you must be some kind of awesome teacher and those students are very lucky. I think I would have enjoyed history stories and learning so much more from a person like you.

    P.S. Just picked up a copy of My Brother’s Battle…can’t wait to begin!

  3. Wow, Tina, blessings on you for your lovely comment. Thank you for saying that you especially enjoyed the passages that the romance novelist suggested I leave out. Honestly, those are my favorite passages, too, and that’s why I was so stubborn about leaving them. They were right for this story. I have been genuinely blessed with the responses I’ve received from readers, and I want you to know how much I appreciate you.

  4. I read your first book because it was free on iTunes. I didn’t expect much and just crossed my fingers that it wasn’t another typical “romance” novel. It didn’t want another Shades of Grey or Twilght. When I started reading and realized there were vampires involved I almost put it down. The reason why I didn’t is because I felt the writing was so much stronger than the aforementioned books. There seemed to be something more to it that encouraged me to continue and see where the book would go. All the criticisms the romance novelist gave you were the exact reasons why I continued to read.

    After reading the first book I immediatly searched for the second book and purchased it and can I just say it is even better than the first. Never did I think I would say a romance/vampire book would get me thinking about such deep topics as past historical atrocities and human natures need to contain/control what is different. To take something viewed as trivial as vampires and set them in a totally realistic setting was brilliant on your part. No glittering bodies or prepubescent love triangles. I was amazed at how quickly I came to view one of the main characters, James not as a vampire but a person with an extreme difference. Which is something only a gifted writer can do; in my opinion, in this over saturated vampire literary world.

    I am one reader that hopes you can receive all the success you deserve without having to sacrifice your creativity and integrity as a writer. I will shout your praises to all who will listen and wait eagerly for the third book.

    Best of luck!

  5. When I was in grad school my grammar class professor said that the more language mistakes we overlook and accept–either because people don’t know the rules or don’t care–the more those mistakes will become a permanent part of the language. My friends make fun of me because even my texts have capital letters and endmarks, but like you I’m not happy with the changes I’m seeing in my beloved English language and it’s my little way of fighting back. Thank you for stopping by!

  6. Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply, Cristian. I agree with you…I don’t think you can choose. Style is as style does, or is that stupid is as stupid does, but my point stands. We write the way we write, and all we can do is hope that readers will like the way we write and the stories we tell. There is a lot of subconscious involved in writing, to the point where even I don’t fully understand where it comes from. I feel like as long as I’m writing what’s in my heart to write, it’s all good. Thanks again.

  7. What an amazing post. Unfortunately, I find that marketing is the key to getting something out there, that in all fact isn’t worth the paper it was printed on. There is a development in the publishing world that rather than correct mistakes, proof, edit, and proof again, many companies are finding shortcuts. We are all at risk of this trend, for the language that we have come to treasure and love is slowly being poisoned.

  8. I don’t think you can choose. It’s like that short story by Vonnegut, forgot its name. The one with two painters who had different styles, and one day they try to paint in the style of each other. It didn’t work out, even though one was a great painter, loved by critics, and the other one was a modest artist with great commercial success.

    I found that story to be a great analogy for writers as well. Most people would like to think that writers like G.G. Marquez, J.M. Coetzee, or other great, award winning writers could write like, for instance, Dan Brown. I don’t think they could write. Yes, it’s a much simpler style, but they would fail.

    And, besides, I think that a writer’s voice/style is not something you deliberately choose. Well, not entirely. If most writers, at first, choose to imitate other writers, when they gain their own voice and start writing like themselves, the subconscious has a role in it as well.

    What we write and how we write has a lot to do with who we are than we’d like to believe.

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