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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Want to be a Successful Author? 10 Things English Majors Have to Unlearn

—maybe with some help from BookCountry.com?

One of my favorite moments in film happens in Star Trek IV, when the Enterprise crew find themselves back the 20th century. Kirk refers to “the complete works of Jacqueline Susann, the novels of Harold Robbins,” and Spock replies, “Ah... The giants!”

Funny bit. But the thing is—they were giants. Not great writers, but great storytellers. They provided the stories people of their era were eager to read—the same way Jane Austen, the Brontës, and Dickens did.

WH-A-A-A-T!!? I can hear the English majors screaming now—“You dare to compare Susann and Robbins with great literary writers?”

Well, yeah. Because Austen, the Brontës, and Dickens didn’t set out to be “great literary writers.” They set out to make money writing books—just like Susann and Robbins.

Hey, I’m an English major myself (technically Art History, but I spent enough time studying literature to qualify.) I could compare and contrast the use of nature imagery in the Romantic poets before I’d ever read a Harlequin romance.

But looking back, I realize I should have given the Harlequins more notice. Studying classic literature gives you a false idea of what most people read. It also teaches a cerebral rather than visceral approach to writing—plus it gives us a pretty distorted idea of the typical author’s life.

Here are some things I learned in academia that worked against me in the real publishing world.

1) Genres? We don’t need no stinking genres! I’ve spent most of my writing life “trampling across every accepted boundary of fiction category with joyful abandon,” as my UK editor once put it. Which made my work almost impossible to sell.

The truth:  Most successful writers get in through the genre door. Even a lot of literary ones. Kurt Vonnegut wrote SciFi; Margaret Atwood writes women’s fiction; Dennis Lehane writes mysteries. Very few purely literary novels sell—and most of those are by authors who have published scores of exquisitely crafted short fiction pieces in prestigious journals.

We need to choose a genre and write as creatively as possible within its boundaries. Otherwise, no matter how brilliant we are, we can stay unread forever. Even self-publishers have to categorize themselves or get lost in the amazon.com jungle.

2) It’s all about the theme.

The truth: Nope. It’s about the story. Turns out theme is something you kind of sneak in, just for yourself. If you want future English majors to ferret out your themes a hundred years from now, you have to actually sell the book now. And, outside of a classroom, most people don’t give a damn about themes. I know. Sigh.

3) People will be impressed by your vast knowledge of literature.

The truth: Um, not really. That quote from Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko may impress your former Restoration Lit. professor, but after she dies, there will be zero people who care. 

4) Use topic sentences; never use fragments; semicolons are our friends.

The truth: Strict adherence to the kind of grammar that’s required for English papers and the PMLA comes across as stilted and boring in fiction. And a little hostile.

5) Because writers like Gertrude Stein, Joyce, and Kerouac did cleverclevercleverthings with punctuation and syntax, you can imitate them, and people will think you’re clever too.

The truth: Hard to read is hard to sell. 

Gertrude Stein gave great parties (and her wife baked killer brownies) which fueled her fame more than her books. Joyce’s books were reputed to be, ahem, dirty (never underestimate the power of banning books to get people to buy them.) And Kerouac tantalized the Mad Men era with tales of the non-conformist life they were starved for. I’m not saying these writers aren’t great, but experimental writers usually need other factors beyond their actual writing to get them into the public eye. 

6) Beautiful prose=successful writing.

The truth: Henry James has a lot to answer for. When was the last time you picked up a book to read on the plane because of the long, detailed descriptions and tangential philosophic musings?

7) You can’t go wrong if you follow the masters. Prologues, omniscient POV, weather report openings—literature is full of stuff publishers tell you not to do. If Dickens or Faulkner did it, how can it be wrong?

The truth:

  • Readers’ requirements change with the times. The Victorians had long winter nights and rainy days to fill. Wealthy flappers had servants and no jobs. Mid-twentieth centurians had only three TV networks. Even twenty years ago, there was no Internet. Fierce competition changes the rules. 
  • What’s clever the first time can become clichéd. Good stuff gets repeated. A lot.  I’ll never forget taking a person to his first production of Hamlet. “Why do they call Shakespeare great?” sez he. “That play was just one cliché after another!”
  • Some things are tough to do well. Why sabotage yourself by inviting comparison with the greats?
  • They’re famous; you’re not. After a publisher has a bunch of money invested in your “brand” maybe you’ll get to break the rules, too.
8) Just be honest and authentic and “tell your truth,” and you’ll be a success.

The (real) truth: People don’t want to read about you. They want to read about themselves. “Authenticity” alone doesn’t sell books. Unless your work also tells a great story with universal appeal, nobody cares.

9) Writers’ lives are considered important and interesting. You spent all those class hours studying every detail of Emily Dickinson’s existence, every nuance of Scott and Zelda’s correspondence, and endlessly pondering why Virginia Woolf took that walk into the River Ouse. So you think maybe if you get published, people will be interested in your life too.

The truth: If you say you’re a writer, most people will 1) let their eyes go glazey, 2) ask the direction to the bathroom, or 3) tell you their life story and offer to go 50-50 with you on the book if you “just write down the words.”

10) Writers get to spend lots of time in exotic cafés, discussing life’s great questions and drinking interesting alcoholic beverages. (OK, I read way too much Hemingway and Fitzgerald at an impressionable age.)

The truth: Most writers are shy, boring people who work in hidey-holes wearing old sweats. Every day. Hardly anybody sends them to Paris.

But English majors need not despair. We now have help in unlearning all this stuff.

There’s a new kid on the block in the writersphere called Book Country. Penguin has just launched the site for genre writers ONLY. 

Yes. That Penguin. The company that was founded to bring great literature to the proletariat is now promoting proletariat lit.

The site helps you identify your genre and get your work critiqued. One of the founders is Colleen Lindsay , former agent and Twitter-goddess. I haven’t had much time to play around on the site, but it looks intriguing. I’m not sure how I feel about the fact they plan to also provide self-publishing services for a fee, but their genre-map is fascinating. Especially for people like me who need a little education in the whole genre thing.

There may be hope for us English majors yet.

So what about you, fellow scriveners? Did you major in English? Do you find it helped or hindered your writing career? Have you settled on a genre? Have you checked out BookCountry.com?

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Blogger Molly said...

I'm about to do a degree in linguistics, so hopefully I'll avoid all that literature stuff. I only write as a hobby, though I used to want to do it for a living - I don't think I'm good enough anymore.

I don't comment on this blog much but I read every post and they're always very interesting and informative; thanks for sharing your wisdom!

May 1, 2011 at 11:26 AM  
Blogger Molly said...

You're welcome, and thanks for the comment on mine!

May 1, 2011 at 11:41 AM  
Blogger February Grace said...

Wow. I don't have a degree but I still found this post to be remarkably depressing...*sigh* Good information to be sure, but not that I'm likely ready to hear yet or will be for a good long while.

I want people to read my stories- to recognize my voice- through my descriptive prose. I don't know how to write any other way, and I refuse, and I do mean refuse- to shorten everything down to chunks that could be just as easily disseminated over Twitter. To me that would be like insisting songs have to have two notes in them to be marketable (then again, today, I guess that's true too. Look at what's on the radio.)

But I have to write what I'd wish to read- not dumb it down for the pop music masses- and if that means I'm not marketable, then so be it! I won't write just to be published or 'publishable'. This is my art, and I take that deadly seriously and always will. Whatever that means for my work, it's who I am.

Another great post, Anne. Thank you for it.


May 1, 2011 at 11:56 AM  
Blogger fOIS In The City said...

In reverse order, I have saved it just now but have not "checked" it out (BookCountry/that is).

I have settled on a genre and a mixed bag with an umbrella with a clearly defined genre. The umbrella is Romance with a capital "R," becuase I love, love stories ...just nice love stories with a bit of humor or peppered with my latest spice.

Being an English major didn't help my writing any more than my double major in Psych. helped me understand my screwed up childhood. I don't think either of them hindered my "career" such as it is at the moment, but it did give me lots of great reading. reading, reading and reading. the good, the bad and the fugly of reading everything from Emily Dickenson to Nora Roberts. Love A Stone For Danny Fisher ... used to hide Harold Robins and others behind my bio. book.

Love, love your perspective and each Sunday I have a host of things to take away and ponder.

My bottom line with the "greats" of literature is that like ballet for awkward kids, it gives us balance, strength and contrast. I don't think I would have enjoyed a full diet of Harold as opposed to spending one glorious semester in high school English having a Victorian type teacher read us all of A Tale of Two Cities.

Speaking of writing for money only ... Anis Nin wrote erotica for money thinking she would be a great lit. genius...and she is only remembered for the erotica...while Henry Miller is still remembered for Tropic of Capricorn ... Hey, didn't you love God's Little Acre?

You can't subdivide what was into the categories that are now ... there are no ex-patriots sipping wine in Paris ... they all live in bomb shelters in Montana and use pictures of people like us for target practice.

Have a great week and thanks once more :)

May 1, 2011 at 12:36 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

I majored in English. Read Henry James & Proust (yes, all of Proust), the Russians and the Brits but the way I learned to write in a way that people actually wanted to read was writing for the post-pulp era men's magazines. There were basically two subjects: combat & How To Get Laid with maybe an occasional male adventure thrown in. You know, the prot is sweating thru the jungle, chased by savages, comes face to face with a) a cannibal tribe b) a sabre-tooth tiger, a hungry one. He's desperate, he's unarmed, out of bullets (maybe he has a knife) but his life is at stake! And there is only one way to survive! Kill. Or be killed.

I was straight out of college, knew zip, but writing for those old-time savvy editors who wanted it exciting and fast were the best writing teachers ever. Joseph Heller (Catch-22) and Mario Puzo (The Godfather) and Larry Sanders (one bestseller after another starting with The Anderson Tapes) all started out the same way. Baptism by fire, but, boy, did you learn how to get into a story fast, how to get out, how to write a cliffhanger, how to create a character readers could identify with.

Bottom line: Anne is right. Listen to her. She knows what she's talking about.

May 1, 2011 at 1:01 PM  
Blogger Cynthia Lee said...

I was an English major. And your Things to Unlearn made me laugh out loud.

I loved my years in college (except for French literary theory) and I read a lot of great books that I thoroughly enjoyed. I still love the greats and I read and reread them from time to time. But I was happy when I was done and I could get back to reading sci-fi and fantasy, my first loves.

May 1, 2011 at 2:07 PM  
Anonymous Mark Williams said...

So tempting to shift half of this over to my blog, Anne, and explore this in detail, but people will begin to think there’s something going on between us, so I’ll restrict myself to responding here.

As a creative writing tutor I constantly struggle against poor souls with useless qualifications. I mean, seriously, what actual use is a degree in English Lit? Great to study, sure. But no-one ever uses that knowledge in real life.

And as you so delightfully explain, the one job where logic suggests it might actually have a role is in fact the least appropriate place to use those skills!

But of course you don’t have to have studied at that level to have had your creativity and writing senses dulled by bad teaching. Through junior and high school the process of teaching you how to write is pretty much guaranteed to teach you how not to write.

Sentence after sentence with scintillating similes, mind-boggling metaphors and awesome adjectives may get you top grades, but who wants to read them? More importantly, who would pay to read them?

The first thing I say to my students is, “whatever you learned at school about writing: forget it. Let’s start over.”

Finally, I have to ask. Star Trek IV? Seriously?

May 1, 2011 at 3:12 PM  
Blogger Mizmak said...

I also have a BA in Art History with nearly a second major in English Lit. Interesting. The main reason I left Eng.Lit. was because all that analysis was sucking all of the joy out of the texts. I discovered that I enjoyed a good story, whether classic or modern, in many genres, but that I did not enjoy over-thinking the author's intent one bit.

I've looked at the BookCountry (the genre map reminded me of Jasper Fforde's BookWorld map in his latest novel, "One of Our Thursdays Is Missing"). HarperCollins has something extremely similiar at Authonomy.com, and both sites seem to essentially be a way for the publishers to dispense with slush piles and first readers (yet another cost-cutting measure?).

May 1, 2011 at 3:40 PM  
Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm not an English Major, but the fragmented sentences bit was tough for me.

May 1, 2011 at 3:48 PM  
Blogger mgudlewski said...

It makes sense that your odds of success would increase when you're a big fish in a small pond vs being a small fish in a big pond. But you have to love the genre.

May 1, 2011 at 5:30 PM  
Blogger Anne Gallagher said...

I wasn't an English major, but I went to a progressive college and we wrote a LOT. (I recently found I have two copies of Strunk and White and the Harbrace College Handbook.)

You're right, I don't think college taught me anything about writing that I didn't learn on the blogs. (this whole blogging journey reminds me of college actually)

I have only recently begun reading literary fiction. I am a genre girl through and through, and a pretty particular one at that.

I really think the one major thing I have to unlearn is typing two spaces after the period at the end of a sentence. Thank God for Word search and replace.

Great post.

May 1, 2011 at 6:12 PM  
Blogger Erik said...

Yet another English major here. Read the classics and ended up writing like them which got me nowhere. It was only when I started reading DFW, Pynchon, and Robbins that I realized what my own voice was. Now I need to rethink the whole writing mainstream literary vs. genre fiction like you mentioned. My first novel was a psychological thriller, but the one I'm working on now I can't seem to squeeze into Book Country's genre map. My feeling is to write the story how it's meant to be written, and if it's good enough it will find it's way. If that doesn't work, I'll give erotica a try.

May 1, 2011 at 7:38 PM  
Blogger Julie Musil said...

I love this! Makes me better about NOT being an english major :D

May 1, 2011 at 9:00 PM  
OpenID nataliefaybooks said...

lol, this was really funny. I would just add one more "true" to the topic "9) Writers’ lives are considered important and interesting." -> people will 4) tell you that they also super want to write a book. (in the sense that they think that writing is some sort of hobby for you, because obviously it can't be a profession)

p.s: Thanks for commenting on my blog. I really appreciated it :)

May 1, 2011 at 9:28 PM  
Anonymous Hardwurkindaddy said...

So does being a writer require you to have a "major" in something? I am currently sporting and AOS (Associates of Occupational Studies) and have exactly three semesters of college under my belt. Does that mean my work will not be taken seriously because I don't have paper to back it up? Now on one hand your blog entry makes me feel hopeful that I might be able to get through to some real publishers with my tales. On the other hand I see every poster has "Major" paper of some sort. Am I crazy to think I might be able to float in this river?

May 1, 2011 at 11:09 PM  
Blogger Liz Fichera said...

I found myself nodding throughout this post. Yeah to #10!

May 2, 2011 at 6:02 AM  
Blogger M J Francis said...

Great post, Anne, and true in so many ways.

Yes, I have a first BA(Hons) in English Language and Literature. I was already writing, and published, before I did the course (as a mature student, starting when I was 22). It was fascinating, got me reading more (because I was never much of a reader, believe it or not), and opened my eyes to many aspects of writing I hadn't consciously thought about. It also led me to writing some very experimental stories, which probably nobody is interested in reading.

But I've always known that a book has to be marketable, that there are guidelines for genres, and to be successful a writer really needs to pick one. I think there's always room for experimentation, however, otherwise we won't see a further evolution. Writers write first, then other people spot trends, and that's how genres or literary movements are defined (and some are still contested now).

May 2, 2011 at 6:07 AM  
Blogger Churadogs said...

My useless degree was an MA in Painting/Drawing, heavy minor in Art History and English Lit. But insofar as "writing," I've always considered all the "classics" I read were like learning the alphabet and/or vocabulary (same for painting; studying the old masters is like learning the vocabulary of painting). Once you've got a thorough grounding in what's been done, you can then use that as a tool for your own voice/vision. The trick, of course, is being able to find your own voice/vision. But if you're not familiar with the vocabulary, you might spend lots of time writing a book only to have an editor ask, 'Uh, very nice, but Hamlet's already been done," and you reply, "Hamlet? What's that?"

May 2, 2011 at 6:32 AM  
Blogger Clarissa Draper said...

I love your truths. I agree. Sometimes we can write great works of literary fiction that no one will read or buy but then get down to actually making money with normal fiction so we have more time to write literary. It's a vicious cycle.

May 2, 2011 at 8:28 AM  
Blogger Taylor Ramage said...

I'm an English Writing major and I agree with everything said in your post. I think most school these days have a nice mixture between classical lit classes and modern/contemporary lit classes. My required courses were an even balance of both. I think that any type of English major should make sure they understand the classics and contemporary stories even if some of those classes aren't required.

May 2, 2011 at 9:12 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

You hit the nail on the head again Ann. I like what you say about readers wanting to read about themselves and relate to the story. I really thought I knew how to write a story when I graduated. It's a completely different ball game. The academic posterity isn't the only vector of legacy anymore. Very good post. I re-tweeted it already

May 2, 2011 at 10:13 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Molly—Thanks for the comment. I think linguistics might be a very good major for a writer.

Bru—Don’t be depressed by this. Actually, it means you don’t have to worry you don’t have a degree. And it might mean you’re a poet. Poets don’t make any money, but they make our lives richer.

Fois—I love your analogy with ballet. Studying classic literature is like studying classic dance. It enriches our life and teaches balance.

Ruth—Love your comments, because you’re talking from the experience of working as a professional writer as well as editor. Thanks for affirming my observations.

Cynthia—Oh the Deconstructionists! They are enough to make anybody give up reading altogether. I think we all need a balance between literary and light reading.

Mark—We’ve got to stop meeting like this. If you’re teaching creative writing, I can imagine this hits close to home. Bad teaching can cause so much harm. But anything that gets students to read great literature is a good thing. We just need to separate it from the business of writing. (Yes, I thought a reference to Star Trek was slyly apropos. Star Trek is certainly as important to mid-20th century culture as Jacqueline Susann. I’d say much more so. It created mythic archetypes that form as well as comment on our culture.)

May 2, 2011 at 10:45 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Mizmak—I did exactly the same thing. I realized I was more interested in literature as an artist, and I didn’t enjoy the role of critic. So I switched to Art History, where I had no talent whatsoever (unlike you.) Very insightful about BookCountry and Authonomy—we’re weeding out our own slushpiles, so they don’t have to.

Alex—Learning. To. Write. Fragments. Is. Hard.

Monica—Some of those ponds are pretty big. But I agree. You’ve got to find one you actually like.

Anne—I think you’re lucky having a genre you love. I agree the blogosphere is the best place to learn the business of publishing.

Erik—I spent a long time trying to be Tom Robbins. Do love his stuff. I noticed the “map” doesn’t include women’s fiction, so I don’t know if all my stuff fits, either.

Julie—You’re agented and didn’t major in English. Seems to prove my point,

Natalie—Great addition! “I’d write a book, too, if I didn’t have such a busy life.” Is my favorite.

Hardwurk—I’m saying the opposite. An English major doesn’t help in the least. Some of the most successful writers don’t have college degrees.

Liz—Yeah, I was really looking forward to those Paris cafés!

M.J—Very good point. We need to be as creative as possible within the genres, or we’ll just be one more copy cat. I think that happens when a genre saturates, like vampire fiction. You have to be super-creative to do anything with it now.

May 2, 2011 at 10:50 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Chura—You make a good point. We do need to study the great artists who have created our literature and our culture. But we need to do a little backtracking when we decide to do it ourselves.

Clarissa—Maybe it’s like actors who do McDonald’s commercials so they can afford to perform Shakespeare.

Taylor—There are contemporary writers who are very literary—and some of them even make real money (like Jonathan Franzen.) I think the important thing is to remember that what’s considered “good” by the publishing business isn’t necessarily what is appreciated by academia.

Ben—Thanks for the RT! I think you’re right. In fact, I have a feeling that that pop-culture characters like Mr. Spock will be remembered long after people have stopped caring about Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom. (Uh-oh. Sorry Mark. I’ll probably get clobbered for that.)

May 2, 2011 at 11:02 AM  
Blogger Janice Hardy said...

Great post! #9 cracked me up, but it's really true. Writers do lead pretty boring lives. (at least most of us do) I guess that's why we make up more interesting lives to play with?

May 2, 2011 at 12:28 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Rabbit is still remembered I find and weirdly xeroxed in modern culture. He was the first hormone-driven slacker. But yeah, those are a dime a dozen and Spock is the fuckin' man.

May 2, 2011 at 1:08 PM  
Blogger Simon Kewin said...

Great, practical advice Anne, as ever.

Not that sure about sticking to rigid genre boundaries, though. I take your point, but Atwood, for example, has certainly written SF, whether or not she can bring herself to admit it. Or, to take another example, Dark Fantasy / Romance crossovers have clearly been fairly successful of late ...

I'm sure you're right that you have a better chance of success if you stick to genre-boundaries, but that does sound like a recipe for a lot of uninteresting writing to me ...

May 2, 2011 at 1:17 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Janice--Yeah, I guess we decide at some point to stop doing interesting stuff and write interesting stuff instead.

Ben--Spock is a dude who abides.

Simon--Atwood does indeed write SF/Fantasy. But she started out writing women's stories--so that was the way she got published in the first place.

And CORRECTION: I didn't mean to say we should STAY within rigid boundaries. Cross-overs are big sellers and they make great reading. But we need to choose one genre to start with and work from there. Which of course, I've never managed to do.

May 2, 2011 at 1:41 PM  
Blogger amber said...

Thanks for this! I always did really well in my composition classes, but it was never the way I wanted to write. I could deliver all the structure, devices, prose, but it felt forced. It made me wonder if the writing I enjoyed was *gasp* bad writing.

Its always nice to have a little reassurance.

May 2, 2011 at 1:47 PM  
Blogger Anthony V. Toscano said...

"When was the last time you picked up a book to read on the plane because of the long, detailed descriptions and tangential philosophic musings?"

Last time I read while a passenger on a plane. And most times I read a book while lying in bed, lounging on the couch or swimming in the bathtub. Truth is that for every book there is an interested reader. I like some genre work, too. Much so-called genre work is quite beautiful in terms of its prose, them, and yes, philosophical musings (think P.D. James). Your point about "selling" is, of course, well-taken. I was an English Lit major, and I'm glad I was. Dennis Lehane's work is fun, but I wouldn't choose one of his books for a journey to a deserted island.

May 2, 2011 at 1:58 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

amber--Every minute we spent in those English comp classes taught us something. It's just that we can't apply the lessons directly to fiction writing without unlearning a few things.

Anthony--P.D.James is the perfect example of a literary writer who "came in through the genre door." Maybe a better example than Lehane, although he's considered a literary mystery writer.

And of course I'm talking about writers who are able make a career of writing--not people writing for admiring friends and family. There's a place for that kind of writing too, and it shouldn't be discouraged. But it's also not fair to teach kids they're going to make a living writing that way.

It may be that we will all be writing for tiny niche audiences soon, as stables of writers composing in the "James Patterson" or "Nora Roberts" franchises produce the only books that get national recognition.

May 2, 2011 at 2:47 PM  
OpenID ninabadzin.com said...

Ha!! Loved this!

May 2, 2011 at 6:45 PM  
Blogger Donna OShaughnessy said...

Wowza. What a fantastic post. I had to re-read in order to grasp all the great info. Now if I could only remember it. Wish I had read it before entering my last two short story contests. Oh well, I'll use it for the next ones, and the ones after that !

May 3, 2011 at 9:27 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Thanks, Nina!

Donna--I should have made it clear I'm talking about writing salable novels here. When it comes to short fiction, it's a whole different ball game. Very, very literary short stories do get published--all the time. Short fiction is where experimenting with style and syntax is rewarded. Anybody who wants to be a literary writer should be working on short fiction first. Get some serious cred in some good journals, and then you might just make it as the next Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, or Pat Conroy. It does happen.

May 4, 2011 at 10:48 AM  
Blogger Emily Cross said...

Brilliant post as always Anne and thank you so much for the link - checking it out now :)

May 4, 2011 at 3:20 PM  
Anonymous Amanda Hoving said...

HA! Great list. Yes, I did major in English, and am sitting in my hidey-hole wearing old sweats as I type.

May 5, 2011 at 8:50 AM  
Blogger Veronika Walker said...

Noooooo!!!!! You must needs break every one of these rules to be a writer!


Now that my English-majored-muse has had its scream...you're absolutely right. I especially struggle with the punctuation/syntax rule, following the "masters," and inserting themes into my fiction. It's incredibly tempting, and hard to not do intentionally. I've had to learn to just follow the characters' lives and let them take care of the theme, dialogue, and formatting. They're usually pretty good at it.

May 5, 2011 at 9:47 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Emily--Thanks. BookCountry does look interesting. Asking writers to wade through our own slush pile.

Amanda--I'm in sweats, too. Hoping nobody comes to the door.

Veronika--There's no way I can fight off my themes. I just try to keep them subtle and out of the way. Your advice is perfect "Let the characters take care of it. They're usually pretty good at it."

May 5, 2011 at 10:41 AM  
Blogger Lynda R Young said...

This post is brilliant. I loved it. I can so relate too. There was so much I had to unlearn when I started writing. In the early days I started reading all the classics too and soon realised they weren't helping me ;)

May 5, 2011 at 3:38 PM  
Anonymous Jessie Kwak said...

Re: #3, I actually impressed some young college students the other day at work by correctly identifying the author of "A Modest Proposal" for them. I think it earned me a few extra dollars on the tip.

See, mom, I'm finally using that English major!

May 6, 2011 at 10:06 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Lynda--I adore reading and re-reading the classics, but I let them influence my work too much.

Jessie--LOL "Would you like some Jonathan Swift with that?"

May 6, 2011 at 10:31 AM  
Blogger See Elle Oh said...

I agree with most of your list, except for #8. If authenticity (or, OK, feigned authenticity in some cases...which I know is an oxymoron) didn't sell books, how would Memoir have gotten so huge? Why would would authors like David Sedaris, Bill Bryson, Elizabeth Gilbert and Augusten Burroughs be so so popular? They draw on their own lives and inevitably tell truths about the lives of others in doing so.

Readers want to read about people like them doing/experiencing things, yes. Conversely, they also want to read about characters completely unlike them, because it lets them be legal voyeurs, gawkers/zoo-goers without the guilt, and think about "what if".

It's the job of the writer to make his/her own truth/experience accessible and palatable to an audience. However, shooting explicitly for universality often fails because you run the risk of watered-down characters and situations. You run the risk of pandering to, or worse, patronizing your readers. A successful writer, in any genre, will inevitably touch on something universal, because most of existence is pretty universal, and definitely the most basic of human needs/desires are.

I'm not saying a book should read like a diary entry or a couch session with a therapist. Or that there aren't instances where a writer gets too carried away with telling his own truth, thereby alienating readers who can't relate beyond a certain level. I'm just saying that readers do want some level of authenticity and pin-pointable truth.

May 6, 2011 at 10:42 AM  
Anonymous Frank Chadwick said...

I wasn't an English major (or MFA)so I found this heartening rather than distressing. I don't think a lot of enduring literature set out to be enduring; I suspect (as do you) the authors set out to sell something. The Bard is full of murders, hot babes, slapstick, spooky ghosts, sword fights, and dirty jokes.

The cultural divide between genre and literary fiction is nothing new, of course. A little while ago I was reading a Dorothy L. Sayers novel written in the 20's (so now over 80 years old) in which a character opines that the only books which seem to get published are, "Bad stories written in good English, and good stories written in bad English."

May 6, 2011 at 10:42 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

See Elle Oh--I adore all those writers. David Sedaris is one of my idols. They are perfect examples of how to write fantastic memoir (well, Sedaris is half way between memoir and stand-up comedy.) They never navel-gaze. What I'm talking about is the opposite kind of writing: mommy-look-at-me journaling and word-for-word transcription of pointless conversation. Typical pitfalls for newbie writers.

Authenticity is essential to good writing, but when presented without story, it's just as boring as fake-poetic posturing.

Frank--Oh, good. I did mean this to be encouraging. I've been reading and re-reading Dorothy Sayers since my teens. She is the perfect example of the academic, literary person who wrote brilliantly within an unpretentious genre. Her books are "classic literature" to me. I love that quote. And everything she said about advertising is even truer now.

May 6, 2011 at 11:39 AM  
Anonymous Paul Dillon said...

After reading about genre in your post, I just went over and signed up at Book Country to look at their genre map. It appears that I’ve wrote a contemporary romance novel. Armed with that knowledge, I can start to focus my efforts.

May 6, 2011 at 12:11 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Paul--Good deal. Contemp romance is a perennial, recession-proof seller. And romances by men sometimes do very well (like the Bridges of Madison County) But you may have to call yourself Paulina DeLeon, or something like that.

May 6, 2011 at 2:10 PM  
Anonymous Paul Dillon said...

Paulina DeLeon - I like that! I'd better check if the dotcom is available :)

May 6, 2011 at 5:37 PM  
Anonymous ess.kay said...

Entertaining, surprising, and refreshing! Thanks for the tips-- I will definitely keep this in mind for now on :)

May 7, 2011 at 8:06 AM  
Blogger Jan Markley said...

Tons of good points in this post! Thanks. Love the 'we don't need no stinking genres' all writers need to know where their work fits into the market even if they are writing literary fiction. I'm currently reading Middlemarch by George Eliot. Great story once you get used to the omniscient narrator and sentences that resemble paragraphs! And you're right, most people wouldn't take it on a plane to read. Reading and writing trends change and you have to be aware of where your writing fits into the market.

May 7, 2011 at 11:19 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...


Jan--Actually, I think I did take Middlemarch on a plane once--but I was already part of the way through. It's pretty compelling once you're into the story. George Eliot, like Dickens, was writing to entertain the masses, not impress a tiny elite. But I'm with you on omniscient narrators. I have to keep re-reading the same sentence to figure out who the author is talking about now.

May 8, 2011 at 9:34 AM  
OpenID elisamichelle said...

Well this is depressing, haha. I'm getting an English major and am in my second semester, but from the sounds of this, the next four years of college are going to be worthless.

Does that mean I should just quit now and call it a day, get a more useful major? Sorry, it's a great post about writing and I absorbed every word. It's just discouraging to hear how pointless an English major is.

May 9, 2011 at 4:43 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Elisa--Don't despair. I didn't say an English major is worthless. Far from it. No time spent with great art is worthless. It opens your mind and hones your skills with language, so you'll be better at whatever you choose to do afterward.

There's no college course that can really prepare you to be a writer--and 99% of writers don't make any money anyway--but exercising your brain is the most important preparation for any path you take in life.

May 9, 2011 at 9:18 AM  
Blogger Dorothy L. Abrams said...

An English major and english teacher here! I have long since overcome the taboo of sentence fragments. This article is very helpful in validating my approach to writing. What hasn't worked is selecting a genre. Book Country may just be the thing. I have variously referred to my work as historical fantasy and family saga. That has not caught any agent eyes. I have appreciated Colleen Lindsay's blogging for a couple years.

May 10, 2011 at 10:46 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Dorothy--I hope Book Country helps. Don't you just love Colleen?

May 10, 2011 at 3:44 PM  
Blogger Meghan Ward said...

I DID major in English and I have to separate the writer in me from the editor in me (well, and the composition editor from the memoir/fiction editor in me) to allow sentences to begin with "but" and "and," etc. I have no idea who Susann and Robbins are, but when I was an English major at UCLA, I had a professor assign us to read a novel that was bestselling at the time of Hawthorne (whose books didn't sell well at all) to show us the difference between what people were really reading at the time and what we think they read at the time. I wish I could remember the name of the book. Anyway, it was a fun read, but considered trash by the other professors in the English dept who were not happy that we'd been assigned to read the whole thing.

A note about beautiful prose - someone from my MFA program is an AMAZING writer and writes incredibly beautiful prose, and I had to really struggle to finish reading her book when it came out. It was so impenetrable and abstruse (how are them words for an English major!)

May 13, 2011 at 11:08 AM  
Blogger Vincent said...

I just discovered your blog and have found it very interesting and helpful. Thank you.
I didn't study English at Uni. I studies History, Commerce and languages. At school I only got good marks in English because I was good at creative writing, reading comprehension and listening comprehension. I could never remember all the grammar stuff. I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between a past participle and whatever the other ones are to save my life. I just knew how to write weird and interesting stories. I also used to get in trouble for reading in class and have my books confiscated.
I have several genres which I go through phases working on different manuscripts. That is probably why I have not quite finished anything yet. Although losing a whole computer’s worth of data a few years ago did not help especially as I’d been throwing away the hand written originals as I typed the stuff in. The ones that I have been working on the most at the moment would fall under Noir, Weird Fiction, Supernatural Thriller (although it might be Paranormal Romance instead) and Contemporary Fantasy. I also have tons of Traditional Fantasy, High Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Noir, Space opera, Soft SF and Military SF on the back burner.
I looked at Book Country and felt better when I discovered that I’m not the only one who writes in several genres or works on different manuscripts concurrently. Not sure about the whole thing. I would need to read the terms and conditions carefully. Only problem is I hardly ever write from the start to end. I hop around then kind of write the connection parts so people would just get frustrated reading any contributions I made.

June 14, 2011 at 4:35 AM  
Blogger Vincent said...

by the way thanks for saying:

"No time spent with great art is worthless. It opens your mind and hones your skills with language, so you'll be better at whatever you choose to do afterward."

in response to Elisa's comments. Unfortunately it seems popular in some places to make disparaging comments about Arts degrees.

June 14, 2011 at 4:41 AM  
Blogger Jane Chung said...

As a prospective college student, I have a question for you, Anne!

What major would you choose if you went back to college now?

January 21, 2015 at 4:38 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Jane--Good question. I majored in Art History for no reason except that it fascinated me, but it wasn't a bad choice, because the benefit of an Ivy League liberal arts degree is to get general knowledge of culture (and learn how to think.)

If you go to a liberal arts college, you need to get your job training in summer internship programs or short training classes. I'm not telling students not to major in English, or Comp. Lit, or Art or French or whatever: just realize that when you put on your "professional writer" hat, you have to stop thinking like an academic.

For somebody not interested in a liberal arts degree--which are wonderful, but expensive, I'd advise somebody who wants to be a writer to take a lot of business courses. Because writing for a living is a business.

January 21, 2015 at 4:54 PM  
Blogger Jane said...

Wow, thank you for such a hearty response.
If you wouldn't mind-- would you take a look at an essay I wrote?

January 22, 2015 at 1:27 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Jane--Ruth and I have a strict policy of not reading any unpublished work. This is because 1) we have nearly 4000 subscribers, but only 24 hour days. :-) 2) there might be copyright issues in the future. 3) Editing is hard work and editors deserve to be paid. We are both professional editors, and would have to charge at least $30 an hour.

But I'm sure you must know some teachers or other educated adults who would be willing to help you with your essay. Best of luck!

January 22, 2015 at 1:37 PM  

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