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Old 02-20-2013, 09:56 PM   #1
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Unbashing bad authors

I have seen lots of posts in various threads where a commercially successful (though not necessarily critically acclaimed) author is bashed for bad writing. (Dan Brown and Stephanie Myers seem to be two of the most often-mentioned on AW in that regard.) It's perfectly normal for humans that the green-eyed monster in all of us occasionally breaks his chains and runs amuck (especially if your eyes are green to begin with—guilty as charged). Most of us would love to have the type of success that these authors have achieved, even if we weren't considered “good” writers. However, simply pointing out the ways in which we think these authors write horribly doesn't do anything towards telling us how to write well. You could avoid all their failings and follow the oft-touted rules (guidelines, actually) for writing, yet still produce a novel no one wants to read.

So I would like to turn the question around in hopes of pinpointing characteristics and techniques which these “bad” writers have used to make their works appeal to so many readers. So for those of you who have read a commercially successful writer you consider “bad,” I challenge you to find something about their writing ability which is good or outstanding you feel is the reason they have achieved success. There have to be specific things they have done which attract the masses; it can’t all be chalked up to a successful marketing campaign.

So what, in your opinion, have these folks done well? And I am not looking for sweeping generalizations about how “Dan Brown knows how to tell a good story.” I want to know what about their story-telling technique is good. Is it because he creates an interesting premise? Does he have a gift for building suspense and what specific method does he use to do it? Is it because he can be easily followed and understood? Logical, well developed action? Interesting presentation of the details?

What about other “bad” authors you have read. What have they done well, in your estimation? Is it that they construct good paragraphs with idea-containing sentences which seem to follow logical thought or flow in a natural order? Do they write good dialogue which feels like normal conversation for the setting? Are they adept in some way at conveying the emotions and feeling of their characters? If so, how do you think they are doing it? Do they create interesting characters and what are they doing to make them interesting.

There have to be some specific things each of these successful “bad” writers does which makes people buy their books. If we could distill from these, the things they do right, perhaps we could learn to incorporate those things into our own writing. I believe that would be more helpful to our own success than pointing out what they do wrong so we can avoid it. Don’t get me wrong, I love to hear how such and such an author is not as great a writer as the masses think they are, but it doesn’t help us understand what they did correctly so we, too, can utilize those things and have a shot at success. Come on, use those critical thinking skills to dissect their path to fame and fortune. Who has any ideas?
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Old 02-20-2013, 10:10 PM   #2
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I think a lot of people described as master storytellers tell a lot. They tell as much as, or more than, they show. Thus, 'show, don't tell' feels like bad commercial advice to me.

Dan Brown does a thing where he kinda flatters the audience's intelligence. When you finish a Brown book you feel (often wrongly) like you know something more about what he's talking about, whether it's code breaking or church history etc. You'll see the same sort of thing with Michael Crichton - pop science delivered very accessibly, which can be very satisfying in a fictional context.

Sometimes it can go too far for my tastes - the one Patricia Cornwell book I've read infodumps to a shocking extent, but it doesn't seem to have harmed her sales. This sort of thing is by no means restricted to 'bad writers' of course - Umberto Eco is a bit of a flatterer, too. You get to think, "aren't I clever for enjoying this?"

Twilight gets picked on a lot, and I think its success is about a lot of different things. Zeitgeist is one - I think the unconscious anxieties and desires of the novel match up really well to the historical context - and also it would seem to echo really well the confusing adolescent feelings about love and sex that the readership were dealing with. (Not having been a young girl myself, I can't really relate.)
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Old 02-20-2013, 10:12 PM   #3
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Originally Posted by jdm View Post
I have seen lots of posts in various threads where a commercially successful (though not necessarily critically acclaimed) author is bashed for bad writing. (Dan Brown and Stephanie Myers seem to be two of the most often-mentioned on AW in that regard.) It's perfectly normal for humans that the green-eyed monster in all of us occasionally breaks his chains and runs amuck (especially if your eyes are green to begin with—guilty as charged). Most of us would love to have the type of success that these authors have achieved, even if we weren't considered “good” writers. However, simply pointing out the ways in which we think these authors write horribly doesn't do anything towards telling us how to write well. You could avoid all their failings and follow the oft-touted rules (guidelines, actually) for writing, yet still produce a novel no one wants to read.
ok, i disagree thoroughly. One, I am not green-eyed. If I was, I'd bash folks like King as well. That's a very common reductionalist pile, but it is in fact a pile. That said, I think you can learn VOLUMES from bad prose. I consider Bridges of Madison County, Fireflies, and Atlanta Nights some of my absolute most useful books I own in terms of writing to study. So, let's not go putting words in others mouths, shall we? And as a final note, you could indeed follow "all rules" and produce something so sterile nobody reads it. I am not aware of anyone who suggested following the rules promised a lucrative contract, nor am I aware of a reason I should simply roll over for Brown or Meyers based solely on sales numbers. Brown writes horrible, eye-bleeding sentences. He makes up for it in pacing, producing very popular popciorn novels. there is no sin in that, but if it is legitimate to wax poetic at his pacing abilities, I don't see why it is somehow unfair to comment on his sentence construction.



So I would like to turn the question around in hopes of pinpointing characteristics and techniques which these “bad” writers have used to make their works appeal to so many readers. So for those of you who have read a commercially successful writer you consider “bad,” I challenge you to find something about their writing ability which is good or outstanding you feel is the reason they have achieved success. There have to be specific things they have done which attract the masses; it can’t all be chalked up to a successful marketing campaign. nobody that I'm aware of suggested marketing....if they did, it was done rarely. Books, even bad ones, succeed if they fill a niche or need. Twilight really hit home with girls who could insert themselves into the generic shell of Bella and wanted a bit of escapist romance. DVC moves along at a breakneck pace, and is a perfect beach read.

So what, in your opinion, have these folks done well? And I am not looking for sweeping generalizations about how “Dan Brown knows how to tell a good story.” I want to know what about their story-telling technique is good. Is it because he creates an interesting premise? no, DVC was pretty firmly debunked and most of his stuff is fairly derivative Does he have a gift for building suspense and what specific method does he use to do it? i think he does.... Is it because he can be easily followed and understood? yes... Logical, well developed action? less so Interesting presentation of the details? not to me

What about other “bad” authors you have read. What have they done well, in your estimation? Frank Waller, Bridges of Madison County. It resonated with women too. But Waller had a bad habit of saying one thing plain but effectively to open a paragraph, then saying it again, and again, like a kid circling the hole in the middle of the frozen pond, and getting more and more purple each time he did. It diminished his impact, and some of his stuff was so over-written it hurt to read (check out the blurb on the back of the book sometime). But it clearly resonated with people who wanted an "impossible love" story. Is it that they construct good paragraphs with idea-containing sentences which seem to follow logical thought or flow in a natural order? not in the case above Do they write good dialogue which feels like normal conversation for the setting? no Are they adept in some way at conveying the emotions and feeling of their characters? perhaps this one worked well If so, how do you think they are doing it? Do they create interesting characters and what are they doing to make them interesting.

There have to be some specific things each of these successful “bad” writers does which makes people buy their books.absolutely. If we could distill from these, the things they do right, perhaps we could learn to incorporate those things into our own writing.perhaps. But to go to your first paragraph, if we can see what they are doing badly, that could also help us recognize sins and weaknesses in others so we're better able to recognize them in ourselves. That's why I find your first paragraph to be completely erroneous....well, that and the apparent inability to consider it from any angle outside "it must be teh haterz." Nope, I resent their writing...not their success with it. DVC could be infinitely better if Brown could use his pacing with King's ability to draw characters and menace. But it isn't. To say it is "wrong" to address the elephant in the room seems silly. I believe that would be more helpful to our own success than pointing out what they do wrong so we can avoid it. i disagree. BOTH are helpful. Don’t get me wrong, I love to hear how such and such an author is not as great a writer as the masses think they are, but it doesn’t help us understand what they did correctly so we, too, can utilize those things and have a shot at success. Come on, use those critical thinking skills to dissect their path to fame and fortune. Who has any ideas?
help any? if I sound hostile, well, after five graphs of you explaining how I must feel FOR me, I'm kinda getting there. But maybe you honestly never considered things that way, and if so I truly hope the answers are helpful to you.
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Old 02-20-2013, 10:16 PM   #4
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So what, in your opinion, have these folks done well?
Two reasons:

1. Dan Brown lifted an iconoclastic theory from Michael Baigent's book, 'Holy (something), Holy (something)" and used it as the premise for a potboiler suspense novel built entirely from worn-out pulp-fiction cliches. The theory of the line of Merovingian kings leading from Christ to the present day, guarded by a secret society, is intriguing, no doubt about it.

2. Random House decided, for whatever reason, to promote the hell out of the book. Everywhere you turned, there were stacks and crates of it, which gave the impression that everyone was reading it. Which, eventually, became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even I bought a copy, to my everlasting shame and disappointment.
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Old 02-20-2013, 10:17 PM   #5
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I have seen lots of posts in various threads where a commercially successful (though not necessarily critically acclaimed) author is bashed for bad writing.
Pointing prose infelicities or reasons a book or author does not appeal to a specific individual does not equate to "bashing."

In other words, I object to the implication that bashing anyone is OK on AW.

Because it isn't.
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Old 02-20-2013, 10:20 PM   #6
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I almost fell over laughing when someone on a different board posted that they'd bought Da Vinci Code to see why 'everyone' was buying it. Uh. Well. Even now I wonder if they'd have understood why I was laughing.

Sometimes, books like the Harry Potter series, Da Vinci Code, Twilight, etc, reach that tipping point where people are buying them for social reasons, not literary ones.

But let's face it, you can't write 'word of mouth' or peer pressure into your book. It happens or, more likely, it doesn't.
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Old 02-20-2013, 10:23 PM   #7
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I think Hunger Games stinks on ice, utterly devoid of character development, protagonist action, or worldbuilding coherence or sense. I also found it more predictable than a Tom and Jerry cartoon. But I do have to say that the author ended every damn paragraph in a cliff-hanger. You can't stop reading even if you want to (and believe me, I wanted to). So that's what I took away from that book. Keep the reader desperate for more.
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Old 02-20-2013, 10:29 PM   #8
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Hunger Games didn't have that effect on me. If I hadn't been reading it for a reading group, I wouldn't have continued. But obviously it had that effect on a lot of readers; I remember the huge fuss over Mockinjay's release even reached my small corner of the internet.

Making readers care about characters then putting them in peril should be a good way to keep readers reading.
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Old 02-20-2013, 10:31 PM   #9
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I think much of it has to do with storytelling (as opposed to crafting prose), and a real willingness to "go for it," and continue raising the stakes.

I haven't read Twilight, I have read Dan Brown. He's entertaining. Did I remember his sentences after I finished the books, have to stop and reread them for their beauty the way I did reading Colum McCann? No. But they were a fun ride.

I have seen Stephen King bashed plenty over the years. Personally, I think he's brilliant, in both storytelling and craft. His writing isn't "literary," but his ability to capture and portray the everyman is beautiful.

Yes, I think there's an element of right place right time, publisher support for whatever reason, but I don't think that's all or even most of it.
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Old 02-20-2013, 10:50 PM   #10
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I used to be in the camp of "reading good books is more helpful than reading bad books," until I tried and failed to get through 50 Shades of Grey. I'll try to keep it to what worked for so many people, but seeing the things that turned me off has helped me a lot. Seeing what works is still useful, though.

Two things, I think make 50 Shades successful: the internal voice of the narrator and the subject matter. Her italicized thoughts are similar to how people talk--okay, maybe not how people talk but something about them connects (for the first 20 or so of them--I thought they were overdone and not necessary most of the time). As for the subject matter, sex always sells, especially when it's a taboo subject that's actually pretty widespread--the size of the book's audience and the number of BDSM enthusiasts are correlated to be sure (just as the number of conspiracy enthusiasts and no-longer-practicing Christians is, I think, correlated to Da Vinci Code's success). Those who remember Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty trilogy about 15 years ago (or the older Story of O) understand the 50 Shades popularity well. Incidentally, none of the 50 Shades fans I've talked to have read Sleeping Beauty, and I wonder if that means something in explaining 50 Shades' popularity--the topic is new but appealing for many of its readers.
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Old 02-20-2013, 11:24 PM   #11
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I used to be in the camp of "reading good books is more helpful than reading bad books," until I tried and failed to get through 50 Shades of Grey. I'll try to keep it to what worked for so many people, but seeing the things that turned me off has helped me a lot. Seeing what works is still useful, though.

Two things, I think make 50 Shades successful: the internal voice of the narrator and the subject matter. Her italicized thoughts are similar to how people talk--okay, maybe not how people talk but something about them connects (for the first 20 or so of them--I thought they were overdone and not necessary most of the time). As for the subject matter, sex always sells, especially when it's a taboo subject that's actually pretty widespread--the size of the book's audience and the number of BDSM enthusiasts are correlated to be sure (just as the number of conspiracy enthusiasts and no-longer-practicing Christians is, I think, correlated to Da Vinci Code's success). Those who remember Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty trilogy about 15 years ago (or the older Story of O) understand the 50 Shades popularity well. Incidentally, none of the 50 Shades fans I've talked to have read Sleeping Beauty, and I wonder if that means something in explaining 50 Shades' popularity--the topic is new but appealing for many of its readers.
I think you're onto something. People I know who have read this book like to read romance and chick-lit for the most part. The genre sells.

Twilight, I think, just catered to a teeny bopper audience that needed some new angst for their generation.

I don't necessarily think of these things as literary successes, though, I see them as pop culture trends. Like fashion.
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Old 02-20-2013, 11:31 PM   #12
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2. Random House decided, for whatever reason, to promote the hell out of the book. Everywhere you turned, there were stacks and crates of it, which gave the impression that everyone was reading it. Which, eventually, became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even I bought a copy, to my everlasting shame and disappointment.
This is such an underrated part of what makes a bestseller: marketing.

Once you reach critical mass, the thing sustains itself. People bought 50 Shades because they thought everyone else was buying 50 Shades. Same with every other mega-bestseller of the past decade. We are imitative creatures. We do what we see others doing, no matter how we rationalize it to ourselves ("I just want to see how stupid everyone else is for reading this crap," etc.)
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Old 02-20-2013, 11:34 PM   #13
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This is such an underrated part of what makes a bestseller: marketing.

Once you reach critical mass, the thing sustains itself. People bought 50 Shades because they thought everyone else was buying 50 Shades. Same with every other mega-bestseller of the past decade. We are imitative creatures. We do what we see others doing, no matter how we rationalize it to ourselves ("I just want to see how stupid everyone else is for reading this crap," etc.)
It's worth pointing out that in its first incarnation Fifty Shades had no marketing at all. It was only when RH picked the book up that any marketing, advertising etc was done. The book was a viral hit already.

It's dangerous to assume that hits can be created by marketing. In my experience they can't. You have to have some momentum to work with.
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Old 02-20-2013, 11:41 PM   #14
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Stephanie Meyers? I wouldn't call it green eyed monster syndrome. Meyers' books are grammatically atrocious, the plot dragged and dragged and dragged (actually, there was no plot at all), and character were one dimensional fish. The entire series is laughable. So it's easy to understand why other writers would trash it. They're not envious of Meyers, they're angry that such a poorly written book has achieved so much success, whereas their own work, which they've slaved over to make it the best it could possibly be, might not ever reach the same attention or success.

But you know what? Don't blame the writer. Blame the reader. They're the one eating this stuff up. Also, never criticize the writer. Criticize the work. As much as I detest Twilight, I couldn't be more happy for Meyers. Good for her. She achieved what most of us only dream of. And while we laugh at her books, she's laughing all the way to the bank.
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Old 02-20-2013, 11:47 PM   #15
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Blaming the reader seems like a bad approach to take. Misses the point of why readers read.
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Old 02-20-2013, 11:47 PM   #16
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As a writer, we can grab a reader by the endocrines. And we can grab that reader by the cerebral cortex.

Some of the successful stories mentioned do the first one, and that is good enough for many readers. But the really cool thing is we can learn from those highlighted stories and strive to grab our readers in both places.
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Old 02-20-2013, 11:48 PM   #17
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Writers don't necessarily criticise poor writing skills because they are envious of commercial success. It can be that. But not necessarily.

As far as why these works enjoy commercial success is for the same reason the hoi polloi prefer to watch Top Gun and The Terminator films as opposed to Richard III.

The Great Unwashed are not looking for the answers to life in their entertainment after a long day at work. They are looking for... entertainment.

That's what these writers do. They entertain. And perhaps they inform, too... on some level... without boring the brains out of their readers. And has already been mentioned, at the same time they manage to flatter the (generally average) intelligence of their target market.

And before a mod jumps on me again for expressing this opinion, I am aware and I accept that is all it is - my opinion.

However, one must be able to tell the difference between a mud hut and the Taj Mahal. There are objective standards a writer must be able to apply. Dan Brown, Jackie Collins et al simply cannot be put in the same ball park as literary heavyweights such as Bulgakov, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, F. Scott Fitzgerald - to name a few.

Perhaps these commercially successful writers have studied this issue and understood the machinations of the whole picture before setting to work on their intended markets?

In my observations most of these writers are quite well read themselves.


.
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Old 02-20-2013, 11:48 PM   #18
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Originally Posted by leahzero View Post
This is such an underrated part of what makes a bestseller: marketing.

Once you reach critical mass, the thing sustains itself. People bought 50 Shades because they thought everyone else was buying 50 Shades. Same with every other mega-bestseller of the past decade. We are imitative creatures. We do what we see others doing, no matter how we rationalize it to ourselves ("I just want to see how stupid everyone else is for reading this crap," etc.)
Except that isn't the way it works; 50 Shades was off the charts in terms of popularity when it was still fanfic.

What works is word of mouth; a reader tells another reader, whether it's on the review page of the NYT, a shelf-talker from a bookstore employee, a blog, a rec from a trusted freind . . . what sells a book is a suggestion along the lines of "I liked this book, you might too."

Publishers do put more visible to the public marketing behind titles that they think will sell widely; that's only logical. Thus you'll see some fairly spiffy and public marketing behind say, The Night Circus, a first novel.

That extra marketing juice was because marketing, editorial, and sales all thought "This book will have a lot of appeal for a lot of readers; we need to make sure people hear the title, and see the cover."

Marketing doesn't make the book; the book makes the marketing.
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Old 02-20-2013, 11:50 PM   #19
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Really? "Ur just jellus!" Really?

I have never particularly understood the knee-jerk response that seems to inspire the attidude that someone who dislikes something or someone is "just jealous," but putting it in this context is new.
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Old 02-20-2013, 11:51 PM   #20
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Originally Posted by Torgo View Post
Blaming the reader seems like a bad approach to take. Misses the point of why readers read.
I loathe Henry James' books.

But I know a lot of people love, respect and admire James. I'm not going to resent their pleasure.

Not every one finds Lord of the Rings to their taste, or Robert Parker; I look both tremendously, but I'm OK with those who simply would rather read something they enjoy. I'm not a huge fan of David Weber's books, but I know a lot of people who love them and can't wait for the next one.

I'm not even going to give readers who love Orson Scott Card's books a hard time; they're just not to my taste.
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Old 02-20-2013, 11:54 PM   #21
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Personally, I like Dan Brown's books. Every one I've read has kept me glued to the page from the first page to the last.

Twilight had me from beginning to end. The vivid descriptions pulled me into the story and I sympathized with Bella. The reason I stopped 1/3 of the way through the second one had nothing to do with grammar or sentence structure - it's just that the urge to slap Bella was so strong I couldn't stand to read any more.

Sure, they're not literary masterpieces, but few books are. I certainly don't aspire to literary greatness. I only want people to enjoy reading my books.

I only notice bad writing when it pulls me out of the story. 50 Shades did that - especially the emails, reproduced headers and all. I was distracted by the writing enough that I didn't feel connected to the characters.
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Old 02-21-2013, 12:15 AM   #22
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Really? "Ur just jellus!" Really?

I have never particularly understood the knee-jerk response that seems to inspire the attidude that someone who dislikes something or someone is "just jealous," but putting it in this context is new.
"You're just jealous" is an attempt to discredit the validity of the other person's opinion via character assassination.

The person saying "you're jealous" doesn't want to examine the possibility that their opinion may not have merit. They feel threatened, so they decide that the best defence is a good offence and attack the other person.
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Old 02-21-2013, 12:17 AM   #23
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help any? if I sound hostile, well, after five graphs of you explaining how I must feel FOR me, I'm kinda getting there. But maybe you honestly never considered things that way, and if so I truly hope the answers are helpful to you.
I am perplexed. Of the five paragraphs I wrote, in only the first one did I mention anything about feelings other than make some generalizations about human nature and writers in general. I made no reference to you specifically. If you honestly have never had feelings of jealously at any time in your life or had the desire to be commercially successful in your writing, it is your prerogative to exclude yourself from humanity and these statements if you wish. But I don’t see how my opinion puts words in your mouth. Envy running amuck could simply be feeling overly irritated by what someone else has that you don’t. It doesn’t have to entail verbally bashing someone because you feel unhappy about their success.

The other four paragraphs asked only for ideas about what people thought these other writers did correctly in their writing, with an eye towards being detailed. I asked for positive examples of what people thought was done well, with my own examples (not my own opinions) tossed in to stimulate the discussion.

So to that end, no, your answers were not very helpful. Most of the opinion you stated consisted of what the authors had done wrong, not what you believed they did right. When you did respond with a positive, it was not very detailed. My questions regarding Dan Brown were rhetorical in nature, and I was not expecting anyone to answer each on an individual basis.

Dangerousbill: I appreciate your thoughts, but the second example wasn’t about what the writer did well but what his publisher did well. Do you have a second example, maybe?

Buffysquirrel: You make a good point. Success feeds on itself. But the success still had to get to a criticality at which it then exploded and was driven more by society than by merit. Do you have an author’s book in mind who you are not impressed with but can pick out a reason for its success in terms of how it was presented or written?

Kitty Pryde: Thanks. That is exactly the kind of answer I was looking for. You pinpointed a reason. Now I can go look at the book (my daughter has it) and see how she did it.

Medievalist: I have seen posts referring to how horrible a well-known writer is which do not give any real clue what the poster finds objectionable about them. It is one thing to state you don’t like a certain writer because their prose is too choppy or their stylistic choices aren’t your taste, but simply painting them with the broad brush of bad writing seems like a form of bashing to me. I don’t say you approve it and neither do I, but it is done here. Or is it that this practice is ok if it is said about someone who is not a member here, but not if they are? I don’t think you or I would like to see someone read another’s work in SYW and them have them make a post on here about how that person is a horrible writer because their prose is too choppy. Or to have someone post and say “I’ve read some of MacAllister’s stuff and she is terrible. Her style is too dreary.” (Just an example--not anything suggesting I know anything about your writing) I think the respect should be extended to even those who are successful, whether they are on AW or not. I certainly have to respect their success at doing something right.

The thread was intended to foster some positive discussion. If this topic is stated in such a way that it is going to offend AW members or you, then please delete it if you feel you must.
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Old 02-21-2013, 12:21 AM   #24
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Personally, I like Dan Brown's books. Every one I've read has kept me glued to the page from the first page to the last.
Da Vinci Code was enjoyable, more so because of the discussions I had about the idea of a married Jesus with other people. To me, a good book isn't just good writing, it can be a good idea too or just a fun read. But if the writing's bad enough, no amount of good idea or fun is going to save it. The Judas Strain (can't remember the author) was probably a better book and similar in many ways, but since it didn't have the same discussion potential I don't remember it as well.
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Old 02-21-2013, 12:22 AM   #25
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Wow. A lot was posted while I was composing my second post. Didn't mean to not thank everyone by not responding to their's.
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