There Is No Good

Everyone* knows there’s no magic formula for writing a book that’s destined to become a bestseller. (Did you notice I didn’t write “there’s no magic formula for writing a bestseller“? I did that on purpose. Pause for a moment to think about why I did that.) But that doesn’t stop you from trying to find such a formula – or at least discover a few tricks that can improve your chances of such success.

So you reverse-engineer the bestsellers. You study the themes, the characters, the pacing, the writing style. You examine the publishing processes, the marketing tricks. You take everything apart and look for pieces that might fit your novel. You puzzle and ponder until you’re cross-eyed and confused and in the meanwhile, neglect the one thing that has the best chance of setting you apart from the crowd: finding and developing your unique writing voice. (How? By writing. A lot.)

But let’s say you’ve done that. You’ve refined your voice and improved your craft and as a result, you’ve written a good book.

I’m going to have to stop you right here. Because I know what’s coming next. You’re about to compare your novel with a best seller. You’re going to employ some common writer’s (il)logic and whine, “If [insert name of current bestseller here] can sell a ton of books, mine ought to sell even more. Because my novel is actually good.”

I have some news for you: There is no good.

The word is meaningless in this conversation. Here’s why:

1) Good is relative. What you call “good” I might call “bad.” Neither of us would be wrong except according to the other.

2) Good is not a quantifiable measure of anything. (See above.) Therefore, there is no direct correlation between “good” and “sales.”

So what makes a novel a best seller if it’s not how “good” it is?

Connection.

I’m not talking about the “it’s who you know” or “how many you know” kinds of connection, though admittedly, those continue to play a role whether you’re self-publishing or pursuing traditional publishing. As a bonus, here’s the entirety of my post on that topic: Networking and social media are good for you.

I’m talking about the connection a book makes with its readers.

A book doesn’t have to be good (or well-written or brilliant or whatever other phrase you like to overuse) to connect with readers. It just has to make them feel something they want to feel. Hope. Or excitement. Or wonder. Or surprise. Or fear. Or comfort. Or even dismay.

An intriguing plot can do that. So can a clever twist on a tired, old plot. Or, for that matter, a tired, old plot.

Compelling characters – whether superhero or everyman, do-gooder or do-badder – can do it, too.

Sometimes beautiful prose does it. Often, plain and simple does it.

Connection sells books. Readers call many of the books they connect with “good,” but let’s not forget all those “bad” books readers happily devour, too. (We call them guilty pleasures to minimize embarrassment.)

There are other factors, of course. Like simple curiosity 0r our strange cultural fear of being left out. Book buyers are happy lemmings.

The bottom line, though, is this: if a book connects with enough people, it will sell a lot of copies.

I opened this post with a claim that there is no magic formula. We’re at the end of the post and that’s still true. There’s no easy way to craft connection, nor would I encourage you to attempt it.

Every story has the potential to connect with a lot of people or a few. But if a novel doesn’t connect with one person in particular (I’m talking about you, the writer), chances are far greater for the latter than the former. So the simple lesson here is this: Write a novel that makes you feel something you want to feel. Then pray lots of other people want to feel that, too.

So what about writing well? Is that still important?

Well, that’s kind of up to you, isn’t it. I’ll take a wild guess though.

Yes.

 

*By “Everyone” I mean all writers who are smart enough to know that people who guarantee they can make you into a bestselling author are just trying to take your money. 

4 thoughts on “There Is No Good

  1. You’re good, Stephen. Except of course to those who think you’re bad. Shame on ‘em. Seriously, though, we can’t guarantee anything – even connection – in our efforts to produce a quality novel. So totally agree if we don’t feel passionate about what we’ve created, who will? Words must touch.

  2. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I recently decided I want to do it for a living. A few months ago, I had an amazing dream and I was one of the characters. When I woke up I was confused and angry because I needed to get back. I was attached to the other characters, I even loved some of them. Crazy, I know.
    Anyway, I wrote everything down. The characters grew. I decided to add a few things and now I have two entire novels of more than 100,000 pages each. I love these books and to me there almost non fiction.
    I haven’t tried to publish them yet. Two things are holding me back- and one is your fault. You said I need to find my voice. I know my voice but my voice is basically a girl from the south (USA). The rest of the country, and even the world, might not get that. I’m afraid that my authentic style will not be relate-able.
    Secondly, I’m stressed about ‘keeping it simple’ (which I love). Should I do that or try writing impossible phrases that are quoted in literary magazines?
    I want my books to be out there for everyone to enjoy, so I’m choosing the “Published” path, but I don’t want to be a laughing the laughing stock to professionals. Advice?

    1. I think you can answer your second question with your first. If you’re a girl from the south, write like a girl from the south. Your voice is shaped by who you are and what you’ve read and all the writing you’ve done. If you don’t naturally write “impossible phrases that are quoted in literary magazines,” by all means don’t try. Some of the best writing is elegant because of its simplicity, not because of ten-dollar words.

      Relax. Write like you think. And trust that your book will find the right audience.

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