A Few Thoughts on Two Current Trends

Genre writers posting their yearly income or the amount of their advances: This strikes me as a kind of bizarre thing to do. I certainly don’t object to anyone doing so–it’s their comfort level with how much they choose to reveal–but it’s not something you really see in most professions, and not much outside of SF/F, where it seems to have become kind of the trendy thing. But, the amount of your advance really tells me nothing about the quality of your book. Some of the crappiest novels I’ve ever read got huge advances.

This is why I say it doesn’t matter to me personally whether someone posts this info or not–it sure doesn’t influence me one way or the other if you got $50k over, say, $10k. Again–it may mean this is what the market will bear, but it does not necessarily tell me anything about the book’s quality. Nor does it really mean anything in terms of “transparency”. It’s just dollars (or Euros or whatever). If you want to be transparent on your blog, tell me more about how or why you write. Tell me more about what inspires you and what evokes passion within you. Tell me about those moments when you were transported by the writing, when it was epiphanal. Or do what Jay Lake does and talk about the craft and process of writing. A dollars post puts me to sleep. You also have to think of why employees don’t usually share their salaries with each other or what tactical or strategic advantage you give up by being so precise. Tobias Buckell has done a great survey or two on advances, and I totally think this kind of aggregate survey is valuable. But otherwise, and I really don’t mean this with anything other than a kind of bemused puzzlement, I’m not quite sure why you’d want to go around with a virtual sandwich board proclaiming, “I’m worth $10k.” Or, “I’m worth $50k.” It’s not making publishers pay writers more. It’s just…numbers. At least one World Fantasy Award-winning novel, and probably more, was the one that got a tiny advance and sold so crappily it cost the author in question their publishing contract with a major house.

Worshipping at the altar of transparent or invisible prose: Purple prose is underrated, and by this I mean that a lot of what’s described as “purple” is just dense or layered, sometimes or even often in a pleasing way, or a way that explains exactly why we sometimes read a novel rather than, say, a menu or an airline magazine or the side of a cereal box, or because that approach is intrinsic to the success of the story. And yet lately I’ve seen a kind of bombardment of advice saying to write transparent or invisible prose while denigrating other ways of writing fiction. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of prose, any more than there is anything wrong with a more layered approach. But there is something wrong with your prose if it’s transparent or invisible because you don’t actually have anything resembling a style at all. Go read an Elmore Leonard novel or a Ken Bruen novel. Sparse yet with a definite point of view and voice and tone. That’s an “invisible” style worthy of the name. Simply writing featureless prose, being unable to do the basic blocking necessary to set a scene, having no ability to work more than sight and hearing into your work on any regular basis, and thinking that having your characters basically move from empty room to empty room in a brisk fashion constitutes plot…well, that’s bad writing, not an invisible style. I think about this because it’s all too possible for a beginning writer to mistake simplicity for mastery. If fiction is going to continue to mean anything in this world, it needs to give up this jejune fight, usually initiated by acolytes of transparent prose, that puts two approaches in opposition artificially. The problem with championing one approach over the other as a writer is that you are limiting your range of options. Voice is something intrinsic to a writer and his or her world view. Style is something maleable that, in any writer worth his or her salt, should be fluid in the sense of being more or less invisible, more or less “purple,” depending on the needs of the story or novel. To rob yourself of that flexibility is to limit the kinds of stories you can tell.

24 comments on “A Few Thoughts on Two Current Trends

  1. You know, it never occurred to me that the folks I’ve seen involved in the recent money-disclosure trend might be trying to tell readers anything about the quality of their books. I figured it was more like what Scalzi said: that “silence about money hurts writers, who are typically in the dark about what other writers make, and about what is reasonable for them to expect for their work.”

    In my experience employees usually don’t share their salaries with one another because there’s a clause in their contract forbidding them to. It’s in management’s best interest in a salary negotiation if they know what each employee’s making and none of the employees know anyone’s salary but their own. Sure, keeping your salary secret gives you a tactical advantage over your co-workers. It’s also in management’s best interest to keep you thinking it’s you against your co-workers rather than all of you against management.

    On the other hand, I am 100% with you on “transparent prose”.

  2. Divers Hands says:

    Bravo for that Mr. VanderMeer. I have actually received rejections from publishers and editors on the basis that my prose is too “purple”, “dense”, or “convoluted”. Hell, I had a creative writing instructor in college who told me outright that I had a “beautiful lilting style” to a story I had written and immediately followed that comment by pointing out to the class that such prose “did not work in modern story telling.”

    Unfortunately, we seem to be in the midst of a pandemic in which the majority seems to believe that either minimalist stylings or a journalistic approach are the only ways to write a popular short or novel. Which is fascinating, at least to me, in that most of my favorite works are ones in which the prose does something inventive or unique with how the story is told. Steve Aylett essentially rewrote the “Maltese Falcon” (albeit a strange hybrid of the story and the movie versions) for his “Atom”, but it took me reading it a second time to pick up on that detail because of how utterly taken by the movement of language in the book. In fact, I once gave a copy of your “Cities of Saints and Madman” to a girl I was dating. She was a photo major and she devoured the thing becuase she told me that “the wayhe describes colour in the city is so perfect that it made me re-examine the buildings I passed everyday.” I myself have been haunted by the image of the Flesh Cathedral in “Veniss Underground”, a place I can see so perfectly that I know I must have actually seen it physically somewhere in spite of its fictional existance.

    That is the power of dense or difficult or different prose. It forces us to reassess how we ourselves describe the world in which we live. And if you ever need to convince someone in a hurry, I suggest merely reading the opening paragraphs of Nabokov’s “Lolita” to the unbeliever, and watch how quickly the language of obsession is recognized by any who have ever lost a lover.

  3. Nick says:

    Gawd bless you for that, Jeff. Gawd bless you. This has restored my faith at a time when I allowed it to be knocked recently. Like some would-be horror films that suffer for being 15 certificates in the drive to put bums on seats, making of a work of fiction clear pane of glass prose so as not to get in the way of ‘accessibility’ – it is all about sales. Yes, I know also that this is the real world and that the sales of many of the ‘top of mind prose’ (not my phrase) bestsellers (and not all bestsellers are merely ‘top of mind’ prose’) supposedly enables more experimental authors in publishing houses – so the tale goes. There is even now it seems a drive among the chains to make of novels a certain length to accommodate those chains and their economies (this is something touched upon over at Deep Genre). This is art? Of course it is not about art. It’s about money. Something has got to give under such ongoing pressure and it is art. You are also told to wake up and smell the coffee.

    Who then are you writing for? As J.V. Jones said: ‘I write the books I want to read’. That is all you can do, whether it leads to publication or not. And if for you it is writing clear pane of glass prose, then fine, or ‘top of mind’ prose that serves the purpose of essentially a one-dimensional roller-coaster ride, fine too. I enjoy them as much as the next person and there is real skill in delivering such a work of fiction at its best. But there is an almost fascistic insistence on doing it now and it will give us the art (which in an age of relativism is becoming a dirty word) we deserve. It is something I have observed in North America and it is now prevalent in the UK, which in most drives to make money foremost clings to the coat-tails of the US in particular in the gearing of its concerns. Money is God, the mass media measures success by it. In an age of relativism ‘The Da Vinci Code’ is no less an achievement because of its dollar success than ‘Perdido Street Station’ or ‘The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke’ are as art and don’t you dare say otherwise for fear of offending someone…anyone, especially those who think ‘The Da Vinci Code is the best book they have ever read (it may well be), you might be damaging them psychologically. There is a venerable tradition in North American letters for the laconic and the direct. But not enough at present on both sides of the water seem to know the difference between the Emperor’s new clothes and the Hemingwayesque: ‘Sparse yet with a definite point of view and voice and tone. That’s an “invisible” style worthy of the name’, as you put it. Informed accurate consensual judgements can be made with fiction. Nor is it the preserve of any aloof clique.

    When you hold such an opinion you are often directed to small press publishing and even self-publishing as if you are the unclean because of such hubristic aspirations, as if those realms are! A pretentious snob and an elitist. Which directive and attitude merely consolidates the parlous state of things.

    It is not about being wilfully obscure, it is acknowledging that text, fiction is not life, it is like life, but it is not; it is a world unto itself and that world is multi-dimensional, or layered, as you say. Very often it is crucial for words or phrases to draw attention to themselves to enhance meaning – and most importantly, the story – not get in the way of it.

    Once again, Gawd bless you, Jeff.

  4. Larry says:

    A hearty Amen! to what you wrote, especially about the prose. It’s become harder and harder for me to find truly enjoyable writing these days and the stories that stick with me most are those that use prose as one more tool or weapon to make that story come alive. I shudder to think what the modern reading public would have made of a García Márquez if he hadn’t been hailed already as being a great writer, because it’s his prose (which is even more flowing and layered in Spanish than in any of the English translations I’ve read) that makes his stories so powerful. If it weren’t for how he constructed his passages in the novella No One Writes to the Colonel, that last, memorable line would have meant much, much less. But yet it seems many want a pre-fab, mass-extruded product approach to writing. Blech.

  5. Cheryl says:


    Sadly the world is all too full of people who love “championing one approach over the other.”

  6. I may not be a writer but as a reader this is true as well. It’s why I cast as wide a net possible when I read, because I want to be possessed of an appreciation for different styles instead of being confined to just one. It’s why a Ken Bruen, Pete Dexter, Richard Matheson or a James Sallis sits on the shelf next to a Catherine Valente, Gene Wolfe, James Crumley, Robert Ward and you too Jeff. You should be able to appreciate I Am Legend just as much as Worm Ourboros.

  7. Timblynod says:

    So true. I remember somewhere very early in childhood I was seduced to the written word, but it wasn’t the newspaper that did it. It was, I think, upon reading Jack Vance that first sent me reeling in euphoria–all those colors and images put together so compellingly–they seemed to shimmer and bounce off each other in the most amazing way.

    Ah, fond memories.

  8. Jeff I agree with your comments. Paricularly the second point. James Joyce said “kill your purple prose”. But his prose is in fact way more purple than just about anyone’s. I think people misunderstand this and think that the idea is to make your stuff bland.

    I call heavily stylised prose Asiatic, and like it a lot.

  9. David:

    Like I said, I don’t feel strongly about the first issue. I mostly think it’s irrelevant, except it’s naive to think that some writers aren’t just pumping their egos by posting the info (also relatively harmless). Making beginning writers aware of the range you should expect from a first book from a major publisher is of course valuable…except most of them have agents who know the same information. I don’t see the posting of advances really changing anything. Nor, given the state of publishing today, is it necessarily true that large publishers are screwing writers out of anything. The numbers for what’s considered a successful trade paperback for a midlist writer are pretty low, for example. I do think, too, though, that we already worship money too much and we need to remember, even as we scrabble for as much money as we can get, why we’re doing all of this in the first place.


  10. I just started reading Laird Barron’s The Imago Sequence yesterday, so your words about “purple prose” hit me right between the eyes. I’m sure many would so label his work. And yet, I’m finding it so enjoyably dense, like the best fudge, that I’m savoring every word and often rereading paragraphs just to taste them again.

    In fact, isn’t dense prose something of a defining characteristic of New Weird writing? Offhand, I can’t think of any New Weird novel or story I’ve read that was written in a transparent style.

  11. Ah, the best post on money I have seen yet. Thanks, Jeff!

    “Like I said, I don’t feel strongly about the first issue. I mostly think it’s irrelevant, except it’s naive to think that some writers aren’t just pumping their egos by posting the info (also relatively harmless).”

    Couldn’t agree more on the ego pumping or the relatively harmless. Also, I’m rarely surprised by who chooses to be coy and who chooses to be, erm, not so coy. But again, if they write good books, I’ll buy them… and I rarely meet someone in the genre in person who isn’t a decent person, so I don’t form too much of an opinion based on blogs. (nor, I suspect, do you, just in case it sounds like I’m implying you would!)

    I honestly think that internet/blog interaction is a thing that authors (well, anyone, but authors are in the business of selling to their audience) can really screw up big time. I recently read an author who posted some technical comments regarding spam, and in response to advice on the topic (which I, as a very, very experienced technical analyst can vouch for being good advice) commented something like “do you think the world would be a better place if I wrote less fiction and spent more time mopping up spam?” I rarely let authors’ politics, attitudes or beards get in the way of my purchases, but coupled with some other exceedingly arrogant and downright rude comments to well-meaning commenters on the blog, I resolved never to send said author my money by purchasing his books when there are always a thousand others to choose from.

    Of course, it’s all a game we play, n’ I can be the world’s worst internet asshole! *g*

  12. n’ I realise I contradict myself slightly there, but the penultimate paragraph is talking about an extreme!

  13. Terry–yes, I’d say that’s true about New Weird to an extent, but I also think some readers’ definition of “purple” may have expanded in the last few years to include an intolerance for perfectly balanced description that isn’t “out there” at all.

  14. Money’s interesting, though, isn’t it? Sort of, anyway. Everyone I know talks about money all the time. Isn’t it just a form of group-bonding social chatter, like talking about kitchens or sport?

    I got an advance of over $27 million for Thunderer, but I’m much too modest to brag about it.

  15. Coming from another creative endeavor (Graphic Design) I can tell you that having some salary surveys have helped bring equality of pay into that realm. Certainly, some designers are better than others, but typically designer at “top shops” earn significantly less (because they have the honor of working for the best). Well, when I was in “Art” School, my professors drummed the thoughts of “Design is Art” out of our heads. Design is a business. Still, most designers don’t talk about what they make, and consider it gauche because we’re all “artists.” BS, if I was an artist I would be doing photography, but I’ve come to embrace the two luxuries I know and enjoy (eating and sleeping indoors), so I do design. When “How Magazine” and Aquent (formerly MacTemps) started publishing salary ranges and job descriptions, it changed the whole industry, mostly to the betterment of the designers. There are still many unfair practices out there in the market. Talking honestly about money, in my opinion, is a good thing.

    The contrary to this is if you’re talking about money in a less than honest, pissing contest kind of way, I don’t care about it. That part is a stupid, cocktail-party game. One which usually ends we me coming up with the most clever variant of “seems cheap to sell one’s soul for such a paltry sum.”

  16. $27 million??!!! Can I be your accountant, Felix?


  17. Steve:
    If I thought there were only positives to writers revealing their “salaries,” I’d be all for it. I’m just not convinced.

  18. Andrew C says:

    I think it’s kind of pretentious to reveal your salary, in my opinion. As for purple prose, I agree that style is very important and it has to engage you. Although, of course, I worry that my writing is too transparent or journalistic, though I think I DO have a style.

  19. Daniel B says:

    Agree 100 percent on the purple prose. I think the bias against it seeps in from the belief that denser, less “accessible” writing is less commercial…and to a lot of experts, commercial writing is the only writing.

    I must say though, for those who ARE interested in commercial writing, if the salary disclosure blogging has given aspiring writers a better understanding of what they can expect if they quit their day job, it’s done some good. And, rather than being pretentious, I think most are done in a fairly selfless spirit of demystifying an aspect of the craft that’s not often discussed, at least not in concrete terms. As long as they’re honest in both the numbers and the time/work/luck it took to achieve them (and I haven’t read any that I thought weren’t) what’s the harm in having access to more information?

  20. Like anything else, money revelations are a personal thing, yeah. After hearing Scalzi proclaim to the winds that he makes $164K a year writing, you know… It felt like a new-writer nicety to tell young writers that after 12 years of writing and subbing fiction, I was getting a 10K book advance.

    I do think that, as young writers, our expectations are really, really high. All you ever hear about in the media are the great bazillion dollar deals (which are usually crap books, coincidentally). Sure, we’ve all read the “averages,” but when never expect that to be *us* or our *friends.*

    Hearing somebody’s personal account, for me, is a lot more powerful than averages. Especially, again, after Scalzi’s triumphant proclaimation.

    Again: totally personal decision, but that was the rational behind my disclosure, in any case.

    As an aside, my employer fires people for disclosing their income, which is the only reason I haven’t stated in a non-LJ locked post how much I make a year at my writing day job. Again, my personal choice to share or not, like any other personal detail, but it’s also useful for other copywriters to hear what other copywriters charge, too. And it means more to me, as a reader, when it comes from a personality I “Know” than when it’s just la la averages. I’ve sort of built my blog on sharing personal experiences in the hopes that they’ll help others who go through the same stuff, tho, so it sorta goes with the theme of the blog.

    Is it always a good thing to disclose? Probably not. Like anything else, you look at what you’re saying and who you’re saying it to and weigh what the ramifications will be. Then you make the decision based on that. For me, the pros of what I wanted to do outweighed the cons (in the case of publically disclosing my work income, however, the pros DO NOT outweigh the cons, thus it remains a misty-hazy number somewhere between “less than what I made in Chicago” and “more than subsistence level.”

  21. Kameron:

    I honestly wasn’t talking about you personally, just so you know. I just think that because blog memes spread so fast, no one has really thought out, or can see, the total effect, either way (and ultimately I might change my position, after the dust settles, so to speak). Me, I like knowing other people’s incomes and them not knowing mine. :) But, as I said before, I don’t feel strongly about this one way or the other. I’ve enjoyed reading the comments on the initial post. Although, again, any writer with an agent doesn’t actually need this information–that’s what they have the agent for, and also why Tobias Buckell does his surveys.


  22. JS says:

    Kameron: I’m kind of surprised people see Scalzi’s blog post as “triumphant.” I mean, we’re all aware that John Scalzi is one of the most successful authors of science fiction currently writing, right? He’s a best seller. He’s an absolute exception. All sorts of readers buy and enjoy his books. And he’s still making less than your average corporate lawyer (with a few years’ experience), or plastic surgeon, or upper-level manager, or anyone on Wall Street. The fact that his income is significant doesn’t surprise me – I *knew* he was extraordinarily successful. But there are lots and lots of professions whose most successful practitioners make a lot more than $160k. It’s actually kind of sobering to realize that, even hitting the writing jackpot as Scalzi has, the top fraction of a percent of published authors, he’s not making enough to retire on – he’s making enough to keep writing. How can we begrudge our top authors their success when that’s what most writers are aspiring to?

  23. Never said I begrudged Scalzi (why on earth would I begrudge Scalzi? He works his ass off, and has been doing so for years, as have many writers who make a whole lot less). Just saying that after seeing that way out there point on the graph, it made realize (in the wake of my own deal) that all we tend to see, publicly, are the folks who’ve signed the huge advances, who are raking in the most money.

    It had a bearing on my decision to post about the numbers of my own deal (a first deal, and I’m ten years younger than Scalzi, which also had a bearing on my numbers. In 10 years I could very well be making $164K a year writing, especially if I still have a corp writing day job). I felt it would benefit my readers, at least, to know the kind of first deal that I got with the experience I’ve got. Helps with expectations. Again, we all *say* we *know* that we’re not *expecting* to get a 6-figure first book advance, but we do all secretly *hope* for it right out of the gate.

    I think I’ll get there. Just not… yeah, right out of the gate. All of us start small. It’s worth keeping in mind while you trudge along.

  24. Timblynod says:

    Kameron: I prefer the word *plod* along. It’s very ploddy sounding.

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