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Revealed!! The Shocking Secret Famous Authors Don’t Want You To Know!!

November 3, 2014
If you're doing this, you might never become a famous author. (image via wikimedia)

If you’re doing this, you might never become a famous author. (image via wikimedia)

Famous authors give the same advice to struggling authors over and over again.  Don’t use adverbs.  Skip boring parts.  Write every day, no matter what.  Read as much as you can, even if you aren’t writing.

For all my adult life, I’ve followed the advice of famous authors, but I’ve never become successful.  It’s been frustrating.  But last week, famous author James Ellroy (in an interview found here) may have unintentionally revealed the true secret of being a successful author:

“I don’t read many novels because I write them and I want them to be perfect. And I can’t tolerate imperfection when I read fiction, and how often do you see perfection?”

Ummm….

What?

All my life I’ve been told that if you’re going to be a successful writer, then you have to never stop reading.  Maybe that advice has been wrong. Maybe the secret of being a successful author is that they DON’T read books.  I feel like I’ve been lied to. Maybe the famous authors lie to all of us amateur authors.  Maybe the famous authors don’t want the competition.  Maybe famous authors figured out for themselves that the key to being a great author is NOT reading other authors’ novels, and they think the rest of us should have to figure this out for ourselves.

It makes sense. If all of us struggling writers stopped reading most novels, then the famous authors would go broke.  Famous authors need us reading their novels, so of course they would tell us that we have to read in order to improve our writing.  It’s in their best interest to keep us reading.  It’s in their best interest to keep us down!

The more I think about it, the more I think it could be a conspiracy.    A few years ago, Stephen King wrote a glowingly positive review of a novel called The Passage, and I was pretty certain Stephen King hadn’t really read the book.  I know I shouldn’t accuse Stephen King of lying about books that he’s read (I don’t want to get sued), but I’m just saying it’s a possibility.

Maybe Stephen King lies about all of the books he’s read.  Maybe Stephen King has never (or hardly ever) read any of the books he’s claimed to have read.   I don’t see how he can read so many books when he’s so busy writing his own. Maybe no authors really read the books they claim to have read.   Maybe it’s their secret to success that they don’t want to share.

I’m grateful to James Ellroy for helping me to figure this out, but this also ticks me off.  I feel like I’ve wasted so much time reading novels when I should have been writing.  All of those imperfections from the novels I’ve read have been branded into my own writing style.  It might take decades to eradicate those bad habits, and I’m not sure that I have decades left.  That ticks me off too!

I’m glad I don’t have to read novels anymore.  I’m kind of tired of reading novels.  It’s football season, and I’ve fallen behind on my movies and television series, and I may never have time to catch up on all of them.  It’s tough to write books, blogs, and tweets while reading novels, watching football, and working a full time job while taking care of a family.  Something has to give.  Maybe I’ll stop reading novels for a while and still continue writing, and maybe I won’t feel like I’m missing anything.  After all, I notice imperfections in novels that I’m reading too, and I’d sure hate to have those imperfections continue to find their way into my own writing.

Now that I know that reading novels can be harmful to my writing, I’m going to ignore other advice that famous authors give.  I’m going to use a lot of adverbs, especially the word “very.”  I’m going to intentionally add boring parts.  I’m going to write only when I feel like it and I’m NOT going to write every day.  And I’m probably not going to read many novels anymore.

At least, if I ever become a famous author, that’s what I’ll say that I’m doing.

*****

What do you think?  Is James Ellroy telling the truth when he says he doesn’t read novels?  What writing advice do you think is complete hogwash?  Would you stop reading novels if you truly believed it would improve your writing?  Are famous authors trying to keep us amateur writers down by giving us bad advice?

*****

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34 Comments
  1. I think you shouldn’t be reading fiction while you are writing fiction. That can only lead to contamination of the prose style that is uniquely yours. Or at least yours for that piece.

    • Many artists are artists just because. They do not create to achieve fame or fortune, it is a compulsion that drives them. I am lucky enough to have a job I enjoy and am able to do my art for the pure pleasure that I get from it. When that is the case, which is unfortunately all too uncommon, it becomes easier to answer this question!
      Art is there to enjoy so you may read when you want. To grow out of the literary world that you wish to reside in requires a certain level of knowledge about it, but I have found that the more art I do, the less I wish to see others creations and my desire to wallow in my own creations and world becomes my own obsession.
      If no one else wishes to share in my world, that is fine by me. I am blissful either way.

  2. This is fun. If I were to change things up I’d go with the stop reading but continue to tell everyone I read a lot Stephen King option…but I’ll probably just keep on reading myself into eternal obscurity.

  3. aspirationsofflight permalink

    I think there is both much that can be learned and many bad habits that can be picked up from reading a lot. I think seeing those imperfections in novels can also be a great way to learn what NOT to do. . . but it can also leave bad impressions on your writing. I wonder if it’s an issue of being conscious about what can affect your writing.

    If you’re sick of reading novels, you shouldn’t force yourself into it just because you’re told to! You definitely should catch up on TV and all that.

  4. The “never, ever use adverbs” one is nonsense (and NO ONE, not even Stephen King himself, follows that “rule”), so I see no reason why some of the rest couldn’t be as well.

    I did once see “advice” from an established author that looked like deliberate sabotage: ‘When writing fantasy fiction, don’t worry about being internally consistent. If you say that the hero only gets three wishes, go ahead and give him a fourth and a fifth later if you find that it’s necessary. Readers don’t care about internal consistency.’

    You have to feed your brain somehow, and if you’re a writer, some of that has to be in the form of reading. Much of the BAD fiction I’ve seen (stuff that’s bad due to something other than proofreading issues — that’s another bucket of worms entirely) appears to be the result of the author wanting to write fiction but not wanting to read fiction — ever. Movies and television tell stories differently from short stories and novels, and watching a lot of screen fiction won’t teach you how to pace and plot and describe using the written word. (I also find it quite hypocritical for someone to write novels when they don’t like to read them. Ever heard the saying, “Don’t trust a skinny cook”?)

  5. In my book it’s not “NEVER use adverbs”. It’s keep adverbs to a minimum. That way they have more effect. And be careful what kind of adverbs you use.

    Admittedly I write journalism, not novels, but as a rule, you can use two or three adverbs in 1000 words without boring readers to death.

  6. aspirationsofflight permalink

    In addition, I think everyone’s writing process is different and takes various elements. As long as you’re pushing yourself, do what works for you.

  7. I think that he’s telling the truth, but I don’t think that’s typical of most writers. Maybe some don’t have time to read voraciously, but it makes sense they’d say to read a lot, since someone has to buy their books, as you said.

  8. Please don’t use very! This was a fun post, I quite enjoyed it. I think writers should read, and read often, but maybe outside of the genre in which they write. Mix it up, throw in some new genres, just not ones about sparkly vampires.

  9. Reblogged this on RaccoonSparkle and commented:
    Well, THIS is interesting! I am definitely not perfect, nor am I even ready to write my own novels, but it’s true that I find myself overly-critiqueing authors’ work. It’s distracting, and I sometimes sense it’s a waste of my time. What do you think!?

  10. I hereby decree NaNoNoReMo*!

    (*National No Novel Reading Month)

    Quick, somebody with a Twitter account leap into action.

    • If enough of us use the hashtag #NaNoNoReMo at the same time, maybe we can make it trend.

    • Isn’t NaNoWriMo synonymous with NaNoNoReMo? Who the heck has time to write a freakin’ novel in a month, AND read a novel? In fact, what am I doing looking at hilarious blogs instead of writing?!! I’ve got 1650 words to bang out today. Ciao.

  11. Reblogged this on Words and other such dilemmas and commented:
    You have to wonder…

  12. I think there is no sure, marked with glowing paint dotted with neon signs road to success in any field. I believe it is a different path for everyone out there. I guess for the most part it is a matter of luck, talent, good marketing, tons of hard work and being in the right place at the right time.
    Yesterday, I opened a book of James Patterson and landed on a page with an opening sentence which contained three adverbs in one breath and I thought: Oh! they say… never mind.

  13. mrsladynofohio permalink

    My grandmother’s cousin was a published author who hadn’t made any commercial success, but was noteworthy in the literary world. He didn’t read novels. He said he read poetry. He had a family and worked too. There are only so many hours in the day. If you are already aware of the structure of a novel why read it. Although, if you have been hired to review a novel, I think that is another thing entirely. You have to read it. I agree with your comment about famous authors need someone to read their books so they would say that that you need to be an avid reader. I think you need to write more than read if you want to be a writer.

  14. Freddie Mercury said the same about making his music: “Why would I go to other people’s shows, darling?”

  15. There’s probably no universal truth, but when I was giving feedback in a writing course I encountered a few students who said they didn’t read much, some of whom said it was because they were worried it would ‘influence’ their style. The problem was, those students often came to me with stories they thought were groundbreaking and new and original… and when I read them they felt exactly the same as other books I’d read or films I’d seen, and they used a lot of clichés and tired formulas, and the style didn’t feel unique.

    It seemed to me they were relying on the small number of other things in the same genre that they HAD read or seen, and then were using those (perhaps subconsciously) to situate and inspire their own writing.

    It meant not only was their writing not that interesting, they also had no idea how cliché a lot of their content was. I don’t think budding writers should force themselves to read huge numbers of books if they don’t want to, but I think limiting your reading is not going to benefit your writing. How do you know how your book compares to others, and what makes it similar or different from them, if you haven’t read other books?

  16. I don’t trust writers who aren’t big readers.

  17. It makes sense to say that if you’re reading less, you’re writing more. BUT many reasons exist to see what successful writers are doing. Either way, I don’t think I’d personally be able to ever stop reading novels. The adventures they take me on are just too difficult to resist. Support a writer and read. Nothing wrong with that.

  18. Reblogged this on paradzikcafe and commented:
    Great advice!

  19. Reblogged this on Coffee and Bookaholics and commented:
    Surely something to think about..

  20. Looking for secrets of writing or for secrets of anything is generally frustrating. Writing is frustrating enough. I found that when I was writing my books (I’m not writing one presently) that sometimes I would need to avoid reading Camus and Bashevis Singer and other fine writers because my writing wouldn’t measure up. In fact, it still doesn’t. But you need to immerse yourself in good literature and fine art in order to have something to aim for.

  21. I love writing, though I am not a good writer, but I am not a good reader too, I read blogs, short articles, watch movies not episodes and read magazines, I go quick more than reading a full novel or complete book, I would rather read many reviews may as many as the book pages but feel bored so quickly when I just think of reading a book! I am not lying believe me, I write for a microservices platform clients and they always like my writings ” of course in Arabic” it is technical writing, except some few times when I was asked to write prose. I consider writing in my native language is a fairly mastered talent and skill. So for me James Ellroy might be telling the truth about not being a bookworm! Any way I like the way your write and the subjects you choose to write about. It was so nice to stumble upon such blog 🙂

  22. Is there some kind of checklist so I’d know I was being boring?

  23. It was interesting to “read” and the “comments” they were richer than the post itself, I enjoyed every word, Thanks to all of you who commented on this post. I always seen “Writing ” as a way to express one’s self, so no matter how creative or not creative it is, you always should have something to write about, reading a lot of books or less books will only give you idea about other styles and techniques of fine art works. So at the end you need to find your OWN very unique way!

  24. Reblogged this on Johnson's Post and commented:
    the idea of contamination, in my opinion is completely farce, because we are quite bombarded with popular culture every day whether we are reading or not. It is simply impossible to write without the influence of others. This is a very interesting idea, but I feel it is just for those who prefer not to read but write in order to make them feel better. Imperfection is perfection and habits you describe are the type features we pick up in literary criticism classes each week.

  25. the idea of contamination, in my opinion is completely farce, because we are quite bombarded with popular culture every day whether we are reading or not. It is simply impossible to write without the influence of others. This is a very interesting idea, but I feel it is just for those who prefer not to read but write in order to make them feel better. Imperfection is perfection and habits you describe are the type features we pick up in literary criticism classes each week.

  26. Read when you feel like it and write when you feel like it. There is no secret formula, unless having fun counts. Making money at writing is just luck.

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