In this 5 On interview, author Dario Ciriello talks about breaking writing rules, what publishing other writers taught him about the business, and how little he as a writer cares about what other writers think.
Dario Ciriello is a professional author and editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing. His fiction includes Sutherland’s Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic; Black Easter, a supernatural suspense novel which pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island; and Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario’s short science fiction work.
Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. Drown the Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules is his second nonfiction work.
In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing, copyediting, and mentoring services to indie authors. His blog is at http://dariospeaks.wordpress.com.
5 On Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: Nabokov, Hemingway, Douglas Adams, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown. These are authors you’ve said broke one or more tried-and-true writing rules. What rule did each writer break?
And: What rule of writing do you think many new writers misconstrue? For example, I see writers getting irritated about, “Write what you know,” and responding with something like, “Whatever. Like I’m going to know what it’s like to be in a spaceship!” What I’ve always understood the rule to mean is, “Write what you can honestly speak to,” whether love, loss, or death—because not having known love, or loss, or death will likely make the writing ring false.
DARIO CIRIELLO: Let me say, first, that I’m neither an academic nor a critic, just a layman author. And when, in Drown the Cat, I mention these writers breaking rules, I qualify it with, “Some of these are good writers and others arguably mediocre.” Last of all, it’s been decades since I read some of these. All that said, here’s how I see it.
In Lolita, Nabokov took on a very edgy subject—pedophilia—and compounded his hubris by writing the novel from the point of view of the pedophile. And he pulled it off! It’s true that may not be breaking actual writing rules, but he certainly took huge risks. Some of his rejections were horrific.
But between taking on such taboo material, writing the boldest story, and his incredible stylistic chops, how could he not have been a success with readers?
Hemingway stripped the language down to its chassis and created his own style. I’d call that breaking the rules, wouldn’t you? In the process, he changed English prose forever, and not for the better, in my opinion. All I hear when I read him are the thuds of his repeated conjunctions. Still, the man could tell a story, and readers responded both to that and to his fresh, spare, style.
Douglas Adams—well, for one thing, he didn’t give a fig about genre or category. I’m thinking particularly about the first of his two fabulous Dirk Gently novels, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which is a mystery-whodunit detective novel featuring time travel, alien robotic monks, and ghosts, among much else. In today’s publishing climate, had he not had the huge success of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy under his belt, I’m not sure he’d have got the novel published; the marketing people would be whining about not being able to fit it into a category.
J.K. Rowling is interesting. One could legitimately call her prose mediocre—she’s wildly fond of adverbs (did you see what I did there?) and adverbial tags for a start, and her control of viewpoint slips here and there in the Harry Potter series. But she’s such a good storyteller that none of it matters, at least to the huge majority of ordinary readers. Which rather validates a lot of what I talk about in my book.
The rules Dan Brown breaks include the few I think should be inviolable. His writing is full of said-bookisms, clichés, and bright purple prose, the characters painfully one-dimensional.
As for what rules authors misconstrue, my go-to favourite is Show, Don’t Tell. There is, as John Crowley luminously put it to a class I was in, an entirely false dichotomy here, since all fiction is telling. Otherwise it would be called storyshowing.
The result of blindly following this particular “rule” without thinking it through is that writers drive themselves mad and bore the reader to death by trying to dramatize, in onstage action and dialogue, scenes that could be far more effectively and economically handled another way. Because they’ve had the tyrannical Show, Don’t Tell dictum pounded into their brain by so many writing books and blogs and fellow authors, they’re terrified to summarize anything in narrative, even things that don’t need to be dramatized. So you end up with wooden scenes which really have no goal other than to impart something…it’s like passive drama.
What nobody’s ever explained to the poor dears is that so much can be done using strong interiority, aka free indirect speech. If you narrate from deep in a character’s head and get really visceral with judgment and attitude, the material will feel just as shown as though it were onstage and dramatized in a scene—often more so.
Open with action is another minefield that many writers, especially young males, misunderstand. Every first reader and editor in the world has seen countless manuscripts that start with a fight or some wild action, and they’re awful. Open with character in movement and immediately set up questions would be a better adage, and even then it needs qualifying. The purpose of an opening is to keep the reader reading, and unless you give them something to care about and want to know more about, it’s all over before it begins.
You write in the first chapter of your recently released writing guide, Drown the Cat, “I’m a genre writer. Although I make every reasonable effort to write well and polish both story and prose over several revisions, my primary goal is to entertain the reader. I don’t give a damn what the literary establishment thinks, or, for that matter, my more rule-obsessed peers: my goal is to deliver a story that hooks the reader and keeps them turning pages, leaving them with a feeling of having been on a great ride when they finish the book. That’s all that counts. And anyone who believes that exposition and adverbs and an occasionally redundant word are going to kill a book needs a reality check. Write to your readers, not other writers.”
I agree that readers want a good story. However, aren’t trimming exposition and eliminating unnecessary words and finding an inventive way to convey (for example) “nervously” part of the work of someone who identifies as a writer?
Before I became a writer, I had a successful twenty-five year career as a decorative (“faux”) painter and colourist. What I learned was that once you’ve mastered the technicalities of craft, it’s not that hard to do a perfect job. What’s harder is to do an appropriate job, one that’s precisely calibrated to your audience and to the material you’re working with.
To your specific points, I’d say it’s not either-or. Many adverbs are vague and do weaken prose, but they exist for a reason. Consider the phrase, “She mostly agreed with him”; this might appear as internal dialogue in a character’s head, and what it means is very clear—that she was in general but not complete agreement. The adverb “mostly” conveys the meaning with economy and minimum fuss, and any attempt to eliminate it will likely involve a good deal more wordage and burden our prose: or we could go down the really silly path of replacing mostly with pretty much on the grounds that you eliminate the –ly adverb (insert eye roll here).
But more generally, the problem is that everyone wants black-and-white rules and absolutes. It’s a laziness, they don’t want to think. With exposition, for instance, two sentences of boring or poorly-timed exposition can stop a reader dead; but good exposition, delivered at precisely the right moment in strong, compelling character voice, slathered with judgment and attitude, can hold a reader spellbound for pages.
We also shouldn’t forget that so much of this is passing fashion, and that the internet-echo-chamber thingy polarizes and amplifies everything. Take for instance the current obsession over the innocent conjunction, “that” (e.g., “I think that it might be time.”). I’m endlessly amazed that the same people who militate so strongly against this word appear entirely deaf to things like Hemingway’s repeated, thudding “and.” Yes, “that” is sometimes redundant but—like the serial comma—never does harm and is often useful for style, rhythm, flow, emphasis, and specificity.
Finally, a book needs at some point to be finished. If it’s important to the author to obsessively buff every verb and metaphor in their novel until it’s a unique, flawless gem, all well and good. Take Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The language is breathtakingly beautiful, and you just want to re-read and savour and enjoy every sentence. But, my God! does it get boring. I know one professor of creative writing who—like me—couldn’t even get through the first book, though he wanted to. It’s not just about the language.
Again, it’s about story and most of all, it’s about the reader. They’re the ones paying the money, and the vast majority want a good story written acceptably well—that’s why J.K. Rowling has sold over half a billion copies of her work, adverbs and all. That’s not to say we shouldn’t put our best foot forward and strive with integrity for good craft, but let’s not lose sight of why we write. Above all, let’s give the tired literary vs. genre debate a decent burial.
In Drown the Cat, you compare a book to a painting: “Painters are typically left to work undisturbed, and the finished product is the way they see it.”
Agree. And painters can sell their work on the sidewalk without being stigmatized, but self-publish a book and in some circles you’re still considered a hack.
That said, it’s not fair to contrast writers and painters at one end of the creative spectrum without addressing something at the other end that I think about, sometimes: How do you feel about revising a story years after it’s been released to the public? A painter, for example, won’t (as far as I know) tweak a shadow or lighten the blush on a cheek ten years after completing a painting in between sales from one party to another, but a writer can sneak in and rework a paragraph after a decade and re-release the book. Would you consider that change to a paragraph a just revision, or would you call it cheating, messing with the integrity of the original product?
You’re right, there’s still—despite repeated successes and breakout—a huge stigma attached to self-publishing, or indie publishing, as it’s now more euphemistically termed.
I’m generally with you on not revising or tweaking past work—I don’t do it, though the temptation sometimes arises. But honestly, why do we even need to judge these things in the first place? I don’t buy into the wider question of needing to be right and to hold hard positions. The entire thrust of my book Drown the Cat is to make writers question and think through everything for themselves rather than sell them my opinions or beliefs or process. I don’t adopt belief systems and ideologies of any sort for a reason: because as soon as you do, you stop seeing reality. And that’s what a lot of the writing rules that get endlessly parroted in crit groups and on the web and in writing workshops are: belief systems and dogma.
What was the trickiest part of writing a memoir when you were working on Aegean Dream? Were there memoirs you’d read before you began that helped you shape your own?
I’ve read very few memoirs. But since the tragi-comic true story related in Aegean Dream had all the characteristics of a novel, right down to scheming antagonists, unrequited love, and exotic locales, I wrote it like a first-person novel, with strong viewpoint and a lot of judgment. When I write, I don’t write for categories or a specific audience, and honestly don’t concern myself with genre expectations or the way other authors work. Whether fiction or nonfiction, I simply write my truth, tell my story, as honestly as I can.
As to the trickiest part, that was the emotional component, the reliving in great detail of a ruinous, painful year, albeit there was a lot of joy and wonder, there, too. I wrote the first draft of the book in the first three months after our return from Greece, and the wounds were still raw. Anger and frustration at what had happened to us and the way things had turned out were primary drivers, and of course there was some catharsis. The fact that the book did very well indeed in the year following publication, and is still selling a little six years later, went a long way to healing the scars.
You began as a science fiction writer and moved on to thrillers. What attracts you to these genres, both as a writer and as a reader?
I’ve loved science fiction, with all its heady possibilities and its potential for dizzying wonder, since I was a child. Today, science fiction is everywhere, and permeates everything. It’s no longer confined within the boundaries of genre, and science-fictional ideas have even permeated mainstream literary work. Curiously, the genre itself, though, has suffered in the process. Overall, the general quality of writing in the field has improved enormously, but it seems to me that the magic has largely gone from the field. The reasons for this—at least in my opinion—are many, and would require an interview all to themselves; many top authors and editors insist the genre is healthier than ever. But you no longer have to define yourself as a science fiction author to incorporate science-fictional ideas into your work.
I’ve also always liked thrillers, or at least a subset of them, which I label “intelligent” thrillers. By that, I mean fast-paced, exciting stories which nonetheless incorporate truths about the human condition and in which the author’s prose and character work are of a high standard. John Le Carré and Stephen King, especially in the latter’s more psychological work, fall into that category for me. I like story and drive and energeia in a novel as a reader. As an author, nothing makes me happier than hearing that my novel kept a reader up late because they had to keep turning pages. I mean, that’s power, right?
More seriously, as an author, I love to explore ideas that interest me in depth at the thematic level rather than just have three hundred pages of empty action. You can have both, and incorporate elements of the fantastic to boot. And if you can take your reader on a wild ride along the way…well, what’s not to like?
5 on Publishing
Aegean Dream was represented by an agent for a time, but when it didn’t sell, you self-published. Did the inability to find a publisher affect how you went forward with your second book, or did you simply decide after having experienced self-publishing with Aegean Dream that you enjoyed the process?
Excellent question. I published my second book, the novel Sutherland’s Rules, in 2013, two years after Aegean Dream. By then, I’d learned enough about the publishing industry in its historic form to know that I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. And I’m not just talking about the majors, either.
Enjoy may be too strong a word—indie is a damned hard road to take—but at least you eliminate most of the variables and have infinitely more control. Luck is still a big factor, and nobody controls that. But as an indie I’m not at the mercy of anyone’s whims, whether first readers, agents, editors, cover designers, the internal politics of a publishing house, or the narrow vision of non-creatives in a publisher’s marketing department. And it doesn’t take me a year or eighteen months to get a book into print once it’s done.
That said, indie isn’t for everyone. It’s a very personal choice, and probably an equal die roll either way. I know several authors who crave the validation of a trad pub deal, and that’s fine. Some people get lucky with their agent, their editor, and their publisher. But I’ll remain indie, and enjoy the freedom that gives me.
When you began your publishing imprint, Panverse, you were interested in publishing writers who might have difficulty publishing elsewhere. What did publishing other writers teach you about the publishing business overall? Did it confirm or disprove any beliefs about traditional publishing that you might have adopted during the Aegean Dream experience?
Undoubtedly. It confirmed for me that traditional publishing, from agents on up, pass on far too many good authors and fine novels. Industry professionals are prone to forget that what readers want isn’t necessarily aligned with what the publishing industry sees as good fiction. And with the ongoing squeeze of the mid-list and the dwindling support—I’m talking marketing and promotion, but even copy editing—for the vast majority of new authors the traditional publishers do sign up, it’s gotten much worse since.
As an example, my first foray into indie, in 2009, was the annual publication of a series of science fiction novellas (Panverse One, Two, and Three). Among the stories featured in Panverse Three (2011) was Ken Liu’s searing work, The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary.
Liu was just starting to sell at the time, but this unique and provocative novella was clearly considered too risky for every pro market out there: he wasn’t yet a huge name, and though the science fiction magazines tend to be very open to newcomers, novella slots are few, and editors like to give them to big name authors.
But here was a core science fiction work about the horrors perpetrated on Chinese prisoners by Japanese forces in the camp known as Unit 731 during the 1930s and 1940s, edgy stuff that raised huge questions, like, “Who owns history?” And with its externally-narrated documentary approach and cool examination of the rhetoric of denialism, Liu was breaking a raft-load of rules and taking enormous risks.
As an unknown paying a tiny fraction of pro rates, I was well aware that any good story landing in my slush pile had been rejected everywhere else. But I can tell a diamond from a piece of coal, and besides, this was a story that had to be told.
I published it, and the novella was nominated for the Nebula award that year (it didn’t win, but another of Liu’s stories, The Paper Menagerie, did). The previous year, another Panverse novella which had been rejected everywhere, Alan Smale’s A Clash of Eagles, won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and has since been developed into a successful trilogy which has garnered starred reviews.
What was the greatest challenge for you as an independent press when it came to publishing the work of others, and was it the same challenge that led you to stop accepting submissions?
Mostly the sheer workload. It just became overwhelming. I was first reader, editor, and copy editor, which meant a full pass through each novel three or four times; I worked with graphic designers and authors on cover art and layout; I did all the formatting for each platform, both print and digital; I tried to get each novel noticed and reviewed, not easy when you’re an unknown and competing against 300-400 other books published every single day; and on top of that, I had a part-time day job. Plus my own writing got put on hold. In the end I decided my health, sanity, and married status had to come first. I’m proud that I quit when I did and didn’t let things go sideways, as too many small presses do. I never (thanks to my wife’s accounting skills) got behind on royalties; I returned all rights to my authors, and I’m still friends with all of them.
Still, in that eighteen months or so, I single-handedly published four books by other authors. It was a valiant effort, but I see now that without a team and at least a few hundred thousand dollars behind you, launching a small press with the aim of publishing novels by new authors is a fool’s errand.
Do you think thrillers have better sales potential than other fiction genres in the self-publishing marketplace?
No, I don’t. Actually, what has the best sales potential of all is nonfiction.
In fiction, whatever the latest hot subgenre in Romance happens to be is probably where the best sales potential lies. A few years ago it was paranormal romance, and that’s still hot. Romance has an addictive quality—and I mean no slight by that—for its readers. And look, it’s just fun. I enjoy the occasional romance myself, especially romantic suspense or thrillers.
Truthfully, I don’t concern myself at all with sales potential or marketability in my fiction. I write what I want to write, and I believe that’s what the sincere writer should do. The brutal truth is that the chance of anyone making anything approaching a living as an author is so very, very small; no matter how good or hardworking you are, there is, as in all the arts, a not insignificant amount of luck involved.
And knowing that, and accepting it, is very liberating for me, because it frees me to write the books I want to write and tell the stories I believe need to be told. As the great musician and composer Branford Marsalis put it, “I don’t care who likes it or buys it. Because if you use that criterion, Mozart would never have written don Giovanni, Charlie Parker would never have played anything but swing music. There comes a point at which you have to stand up and say, this is what I have to do.”
What’s the most valuable lesson you learned, having published others and having self-published, about approaching blogs, podcasts, review publications, etc.—both good (at least try this!) and bad (never, ever do this! = embarrassing, newbie mistake)?
I’d say that, as in any other field, you have to start at the bottom and build your resumé. You need to produce good work, put in your time, network, build a readership, become known and trusted.
I don’t really have any advice for brand new authors approaching bloggers and the like, because I’m not very good at marketing cold calls; plus, I understand just what a deluge of queries and requests to review, etc., everyone in the business gets. Most of the bloggers and podcasters do it for the love, and the brutal truth is that ninety-point-something percent of first books are going to be at least substandard, if not downright awful. And professional reviewers have trouble just staying abreast of what “name” writers are publishing. There are just so many books published each year—perhaps a third of a million a year just from trad publishing, and more from indies—that nobody can get close to keeping up.
The best I can offer is to suggest approaching people with both respect and humility. Don’t attach novels, excerpts, brags, or anything: keep it brief and polite and show that you respect their time and professionalism.
I also believe there’s an intangible aura of quiet assurance that only comes with time and experience. After five books of my own and some moderate success, most people I approach now actually reply to my emails or queries—five years ago nobody did. I think that’s the single most important thing: you have to put in your time.
Thank you, Dario.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the post-Roe v. Wade novel The Age of the Child, called a novel “for right now” and “scathing social commentary.” She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.