Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 31: The Most Important Thing Brandon Learned In The Last Year

Here’s the second part of our three-part “what we learned this year” series. This time around Brandon tells us the most important thing he learned this year. Summed up? Gimmicks cannot compensate for bad writing.

So… what’s a gimmick? We begin with hooks and pitches, but gimmicks can include things like photo-realistic cover art, internet grass-roots campaigns, and factoids like “the author is only 17 years old.” Story elements like cool magic systems, uniquely alien aliens, and diamond-hard science can all be gimmicks. They’re good to have, certainly, and they can work to sell the book, but real staying power (read: earning out your advance, and getting royalty checks for years to come) comes from good writing, page after page.

Brandon confesses to some gimmick use himself, but fortunately we (and many of his readers) believe that his writing is strong enough that we don’t begrudge him the gimmick one bit.

This week’s episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you again by the opportunity you have to sponsor Writing Excuses.

Writing Prompt:  An author comes up with a wacky, crazy gimmick for a book… and then it happens to the author in real life.


23 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 31: The Most Important Thing Brandon Learned In The Last Year”

  1. Yea! I love getting podcasts before I have to go to work.
    I also look forward to hearing what Brandon learned.

    And from the writing prompt, it seems someone has been watching Bedtime Stories…

  2. So what does “writing,” as Brandon uses it, encompass? Is he talking about the prose or the story the prose is trying to convey?

    I ask because I think that killer prose (whether that’s tight, surprising, poetic–whatever your definition is) is probably itself a “gimmick.” I’m not suggesting we write sloppily. I’m just saying that smooth and clear prose is probably in most (NOT all) cases more of a minimum requirement, or what some quality folks call a “dissatisfier.” In other words, it’s something you expect to be a given. But it’s not really the end itself. The end is a rousing, poignant, exciting, povokative reader experience. And that’s driven more by the story elements than the word choice.

    Now there are sometimes when the effect of the prose–the metaphor, cadence, sound, word choice, etc.–does delight. I bought BLOODY JACK because of the narrator’s voice. But I don’t think I would have stuck with the book just for the voice. I needed a story to go along with it.

    Here are some links on this quality model: http://goliath.ecnext.com/coms2/gi_0199-7723069/Satisfiers-dissatisfiers-criticals-and-neutrals.html AND http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kano_model

    I dunno. I’d be interested in hearing what “writing” as the crew used it means.

  3. Man, I harp on this topic to just about everyone I know. The biggest problem that I see is that there are too many people that stay on the axes. (I’m an engineer. x-y plot, x-axis = writing ability, y-axis=coolness of story — gimmick) The thing is, I’ll read a book that is well written and doesn’t really deliver story-wise, but usually put down those books that I’ve been told have cool ideas but are just horribly written. We need more good writers that have the gimmicks so that people will really ENJOY reading and thus keep us away from the mediocrity that so many authors try to feed us. Great topic, guys.

  4. Thanks for the podcast.

    In the end, though, I think the answer is always simple yet complicated. Write well: but how does one do it and what makes a piece good writing?

    Clarity and engaging/realistic characters come to my mind–probably because they are the two aspects I can’t quite pull off. I’m sure the list goes on. :P

  5. Another great podcast. Thank you, gentlemen! I really appreciate how much work you put into these, and how freely you share your experience.

    Just need to get my book finished and polished to the point where it could be considered ‘good writing’, and then throw in a couple of gimmicks to get it noticed.

    To add to what Jin said, I would consider good writing to include a strong plotline, well-rounded characters, and powerful prose that does not draw attention to itself while immersing the reader in the story.

  6. Why won’t this play on my mp3 player? It plays on my PC just fine, but if I transfer it to my mp3 player–nothing. That’s never happened to me here before. Anyone else experiencing this or is it just me?

  7. Sorry for double commenting.

    I also wanted to say that this podcast gave me a lot to think about. I think I often rely to heavily on my “cool different twist of an idea” and expect that to carry the story. I would like to think I also write well, but whether Brandon intended to or not, this really made me question *how* heavily I rely on my gimmicks.

    So, thanks.

  8. When do individual elements of good writing become gimmicks? I’d say that it happens when they stick out. When a fantastic plot-twist sits amid bad prose in a ho-hum setting with cardboard characters we look at it and say “gimmick.” But when a fantastic plot-twists appears amid great prose in an intriguing setting with engaging characters we look at it and say “this was a fantastic book.”

  9. Many ideas have been posted as to what constitutes good writing, and though I’ve never posted here before, I thought I might want to get my two cents in.
    Good writing, I think, boils down to imagination. If the text is such that the reader can truly imagine themselves inside the story being presented, then it is good writing. The few books I have read that I would consider to have bad writing were those where I just couldn’t imagine the story in my own head. Someone was telling me the story, and I couldn’t put myself inside it. In the end, it was just text on a page. So I agree that gimmicks can be good, because they can get the reader to wonder what it would be like to have this ultracool magic system or this strange alien civilization in real life, but the author must use the power of his own imagination to make them feel like the reader belongs there.

    Just my two cents.

  10. Thanks for the pod cast, it was wonderful as always.

    I will have to think on this whole gimmick thing. I haven’t really thought about it before but I have noticed it in other books I have read. Or commercials for TV, sometimes it seems they spend more time and money just to make a eye appealing comical then they spend on the entire movie. If you have a really good gimmick at the beginning (or a commercial) then don’t fulfill that promise by writing well and playing on all parts of your story all you get is disappointment.

    In my opinion, if your characters are flat you don’t stand a chance. I much rather read a boring plot line with no twists but good characters then a exciting new plot with cardboard people.

    Thanks again. It’s allot easier to clean house and work when I have a podcast to listen to!

  11. Lots of questions here about what is “good writing” and I wanted to say something beyond tight prose, good characters, and engaging plotline, all of which are simply another way of saying “good writing”. For me, the best litmus test for the quality of your writing is to send a sample to ten people; if they get a critique back to you quickly and are interested in reading more and ask for the next segment without solicitation, that is good writing. If it takes them three weeks and four email reminders to return your document with a few scribbles and a weak, “Sure, that was cool,” then that is bad writing. You cannot judge your own writing.

    Of course you will think that your characters are interesting and that your world is fantastic, they are your children, and no parent in the world admits out loud that his or her children are below average and get bad grades because they’re just not that smart. You need someone else to tell you if your work is just not interesting, idealy you need several someones. If you send it out and you don’t hear a peep, start taking a critical eye to your project and break out the hammer and the wrench, because things need to change.

  12. So what Brandon’s really saying is that gimmicks are ONLY gimmicks when authors expect them to do all their work for them. Otherwise, they’re just another part of telling a good story.

    Also, Brandon called the special effects in the original Star Wars movies a gimmick… and I really disagree with that. I’d rather say that the special effects in the NEW movies is the gimmick. This is really a beef I have with most movies nowadays that rely heavily on CGI- and that’s the fact that it- for the most part- doesn’t look real. The special effects in the original movies were still based on real objects- real sets, real puppets, real models that could really be interacted with, really moved, really blew up. The point where they become remarkable is the way they were done- but again, that was just what was needed to make the story as great as it was/is- a believable setting.

  13. Thanks for this podcast. Once again, it seems to have come at just the right moment.

    I’ve been struggling this past week with my confidence because I have a hard time thinking of “great” ideas. This is one reason why I’m not much of a short story writer; I simply can’t come up with ideas fast enough.

    But what I realized from this podcast is that I’ve often confused “great” with “gimmick,” and as you guys pointed out, the two are not synonymous. It might seem rather strange to bring up R.A. Salvatore in this context, but the guy sells a lot — and his old stuff seems to sell as well as his new stuff — and there’s nothing gimmicky about it (except, perhaps, for Drizzt being a dark elf). He’s no GRRM, to be sure, but he consistently writes solid stories, page after page, novel after novel.

    Any way, the podcast restored my self-confidence. How can I ever thank you all?

    Best regards.

  14. Some of the things BS brought up aren’t gimmicks, but tools. True, even good tools don’t make up for bad writing, but we should call them by their proper name rather than something as condescending as ‘gimmicks’. A gimmick is something that has nothing to do with the story or writing (cover art, sales pitch, etc.).

  15. You guys are so great. And my writing is really improving since I started following the podcast every week. Sometimes you make me think about things I would never dream of. I used to think that writing was only sit and type. now I know there’s much more to it. thanks a lot! Say hi to Brazil when you have time (and Brandon, would you please speak slower? Sometimes you talk so fast it’s hard to understand – my english is not that good!!!)

  16. @A. Wheeler: Actually, once a writer has written enough, and gotten enough critique, and done enough re-writing that writer CAN tell when their writing is good.

    This principle holds true with all creative endeavors. As we get better, we become better judges of our own work. But yes, early on it is difficult to tell what you’re doing well from what you’re doing poorly.

  17. Long-time listener, first-time commenter.
    I was letting gimmicky overnight success novels with bad prose discourage me—especially when critics give them perfect marks; it’s good to be reminded they really do fade with time. Thanks, guys.

  18. Love listening to your podcasts. Lots of great things to ponder for my own stories. I will contend with one thing you said: that GRRM has no gimmicky pitch for the Song of Ice and Fire series. Sure he does, his gimmick is, “I will kill off everyone you think is safe, except for the paraplegic kid and the troll-ugly dwarf.”

    Now I haven’t read any of his other stories yet so I hear this may just apply in general to his other works as well. But it for sure shocked me to my core more than once.

  19. There’s also the problem that pulp becomes fixed in the public’s imaginations to the point where it eclipses decent writing where no gimmick is present – I’ve only recently restarted writing what I truly love because of constantly having conversations like this:
    “so, there’s this elf-”
    “wait, you have elves?” [reader is next seen vanishing over the horizon]
    …which hurts so badly, because I despise the pop-culture things as much as the fleeing reader does, but without defining myself in relation to other authors and giving a false impression of conformity in negative (“I’m like Salvatore, only with a grasp of literary form and biology!”), introducing any gimmicks present as more important than what I’m writing about (“look, their raiding sucess is based on domesticated terrorbirds!”), or outright pretending I’m doing something else (a friend said recently he didn’t realise Melnibonéans *were* elves as a teenager because the word wasn’t said) no-one is going to come near my best and most lovingly-written stuff with a bargepole.

    Note also that whilst there were two female examples in the gimmick-blockbuster list, K.J. Bishop didn’t spring to mind as an example of fantasy books with staying power, despite ‘The Etched City’ being made of solid awesome…possibly an unnoticed bias there, but likely that unfortunately the luck element of literary success applies to extremely well-written books too.

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