The Wattpad Book from Another World

The Ambassadors account maintains a list of writing advice books, and sometimes I scroll through to see how times have changed on the site. This chapter caught my eye because it’s a point we’ve discussed on the forum before; the comments are especially revealing.

This post was from seven years ago. Do you think this is still a conversation that could happen on Wattpad today? Or have standards changed? How would you have responded to the paragraph offered for critique?

I know that if one of us were doing the same exercise on the forum here (I considered posting the same paragraph as one I needed help workshopping), none of us would outright say “I think you have an award-winning short story right here”—it’s not as if this paragraph alone earned the award. But I do think that we would give this author a bit more grace, perhaps pointing out that while there’s nothing wrong with having an entire first paragraph dedicated to smell, it isn’t quite a necessity either. Maybe we’d suggest a synonym for “liniment,” or point out that this isn’t a style suited for Wattpad.

I’ll also note, in case this last point comes up, that the original context of this discussion was not strictly for online writing, even if the comments all came from Wattpad. So the “jury” was voting based on whether they could see this book in a bookstore somewhere, based on this first paragraph alone. I’m also assuming they were a slightly older, more experienced audience than the average on Wattpad.

Some of the comments I found particularly interesting:

I would read on. I mean, if I can survive endless description about Katniss getting primped for interviews and the food she’s eating… And the last few sentences wanted to make me read on, you know?

I don’t think that I would keep reading, but I still can’t say that the writing was utterly shit, I mean, the first few sentences were good and I was getting slightly hooked on it. But as the description of smell and whatever went on I lost interest and it really is a shame because all the writer would have had to do was to shorten down the description and focused on the characters of the book instead to win me over.

Honestly, I couldn’t finish reading the whole paragraph before I got bored and skipped ahead. That being said, I don’t think it’s a matter of good vs. bad writing, but an expectation from today’s readers that story will drive forward like a non-stop action movie. We are getting used to having our entertainment in blogs and tweets, the quicker and shorter the better, and anything that doesn’t immediately get to the point is taking too long. 1973 was 40 years ago; most of us weren’t even born yet. Just a thought.

Honestly? I wouldn’t read on. To me, it sounded a bit like a teenager trying to use big words, and I see a lot of this on Wattpad. To be Frank, I absolutely hate when people do that. I got bored halfway through and skimmed through the rest.

I wouldn’t read on. The repetition of smells and the word odor or reference to dogs and cooking made my eyes roll back into my head. I have no clue what the book is about or what the relevance of the paragraph even was.

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It doesn’t sound like a story I’d be interested in, but if the blurb had lured me in, I’d keep reading. I hate it when books start with description instead of premise, internal struggle and all that good stuff, but most of the books of the past start with these annoying, description filled chapters that eventually turn into an interesting story further down the road, so I’d give it a chance.

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I wouldn’t read this specific story. I love sci-fi, but for some reason, sci-fi is particularly prone to verbose stories. It’s like it became a refuge for all those who look down their noses at gripping stories. Or the unemployed philosophy majors forced to work in retail. I can just feel the superiority dripping from the word ‘compounded’ there, lol.

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Here’s a PDF of the story, if anyone’s interested:

I’ve seen the movie, but I hadn’t read the short story. It does move proportionally quickly into character, the alien, and all that.

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I would read on because a lot of sci-fi works begin in this heavy-handed sort of way. I love this kind of sci-fi. I mean, think about how description heavy Ray Bradbury’s works are, or the opening paragraph of The War of the Worlds which is largely narrative summary without one character voice.

Wattpad is pretty notorious for liking one style of story. Same goes for most of the other sites as well. Short, clear-cut fiction that doesn’t take a lot of effort to read, and doesn’t waste time setting tone, environment, etc. Readers who aren’t used to this style of fiction, particularly older sci-fi, might not like it. And that’s okay, but it in no way means that its bad writing. I mean, these comments are purely opinion based: 'The repetition of smells…makes my eyes roll back into my head." That means nothing as to whether or not the story is good, that’s just someones lame opinion.

Also keep in mind that many authors (especially the ones who wrote old classics) don’t give a sh*t about their readers, they write for the purpose of craft themselves. Sometimes good writing isn’t determined by how many people like a book. Heart of Darkness is considered to be a masterpiece. I don’t know many people who enjoyed reading it, and the few who said they did were pretentious f!cks.

Yes, standards have changed, but that doesn’t mean authors aren’t allowed to write the way they want to anymore, even if it means they want to write incredibly dense sci-fi that doesn’t follow “Save the Cat” or the “rules” for hooking a reader into an opening paragraph. Maybe they won’t be published in the modern industry or successful, but at least they’ll produce some meaningful, craft-based prose that serves the genre well. And these sort of works do tend to find a home, maybe at an indie press or through self-pub.

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Why do you think I kept going, “I’m not a romance writer!” Lmao I want to write the long boring thing and make it entertaining for myself–and I have part of that done via a big old textbook all in haphazard chunks that needs a ton of work.

Look, one of my favorite sci-fi children’s stories I remember reading no later than the age of 12 had a giant slug as a pet that both said Poot and was named Poot. The owner helped it replicate by pulling on both ends until it split in two…and then there was two Poots

That (which was unpalatable) and the idea that humans are warlike because they have a broken gene for being telepathically linked (so we’re lonely and Aggressive, that Sad-Mad from Home) are what I remember from that story…

It’s so hazy that I might be mashing two books together, but I doubt it.

It’s been about 30 years and bizarre pets and that humans have lost what made them work as a functional group has NEVER left me.

So, sure, scents for a whole chapter, forget paragraph. It’s been like that for most of my childhood.

Now, what’s boring is books of Garfield comics. I used to check those out, too. Lol

—edit for the direct critique:

If you want more people to focus on the stinky alien, it’s got to come first in the paragraph. All the scents make it hard to focus on what is important when you have the attention span of a flea. If there is a way to cut down on repeated words, without changing your content, please do. Otherwise, this is normally spaced out between 3 pages of action. Remember, what you hilight is what people will figure is important to the continuity of the whole story. If it’s not important to the whole story, only then think about tossing it.

Otherwise, give me 3 more pages of this. I can hang.

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Yanno, I think I’ve seen this movie too, but it had a different name. But anywho, now I can add this book to my Goodreads challenge list. W00t! ٩(˘◡˘)۶

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I have… Thoughts.

But I’m doing home work rn so I’ll tell you later.

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Frankly, I can never understand the argument against writing stories in a gripping way. Like, what do you gain from not doing it? Huh? Do you think there is some grand conspiracy against you to trick you into what… being successful? Staying with the spirit of times? Keeping up with evolving entertainment needs? How insidious of them!

I think King’s Misery, and before that, Maugham’s wonderful ‘Source of Inspiration’ short story answers this question succinctly.

When a writer separates books into good books and books that sell (their own or all books), they are incomplete. If a Writer is capable of writing gripping books, why wouldn’t they? If I could write a popular book, I sure would!!!

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Who says this isn’t gripping, even if not in the “hi I’m a main character let me tell you how awesome I am” sense? Sure, the majority opinion has shifted over time, but if there weren’t sizable contingents of people who still preferred this style, there wouldn’t have been enough interest to make Dune into a movie or to reprint IT in its thousand-page glory. As Rowan said, there is a “higher purpose” to books that don’t fit the mold—and that’s still assuming nobody derives any pleasure from reading these books, which is clearly false.

If we look at recent NYTimes best-selling books, we find that most of the novels are a bit closer to “Who Goes There?” than the utopian Save The Cat ideal. I tracked down an excerpt of one: Intimacies ‹ Literary Hub.

Now, I’ll admit I haven’t read Kitamura’s Intimacies beyond this little passage. Clearly a lot of people have. I could probably find this at my local Barnes and Noble or on someone’s book club list without trying too hard. The “spirit of the times” isn’t strictly a shift away from long descriptive paragraphs or the word “liniment”: it’s can be conventional first-person narration at one point and suddenly something breaking stylistic conventions; a NYTimes review describes how “[in] this interpersonal thriller, Dutch methods of urban trash removal are rendered in greater detail than our heroine’s nearly absent back story. Character motivation and development are less important here than the systems within which those characters live.” I certainly couldn’t get this from the linked excerpt, and there’s likely a reason why they chose to select a more conventional passage.

You may not think the excerpt linked is personally gripping; I liked it, but not enough to go track down a copy of the novel. But who are we to say that this book was the author being defiant, extending a middle finger to voices of reason and writing norms? Who are we to say that this isn’t emblematic of the “spirit of the times”? The function of literature—the needs literature must address—has changed over time, undoubtedly, but there’s more to it than entertainment. I certainly don’t think one can dismiss anyone writing something we don’t find personally engaging right off the bat as having a stick up their butt. We aren’t Harold Bloom.

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It’s part of why I find that people have done lost their minds when they follow too closely to suggestions. You’re not going to get both if you’re formulaic and stick to the genre script (that’s both the inviting and the uninviting). Transcending novels are novel. It’s not a surprise that the book definition and newness definition were conceived within a century of each other.

Then the problem comes that people want you to repeat that same thing in every book, making it trite.

Sure, go for sources.
Sure, go for genre.
Sure, go for your audience.
Sure, write something everyone will hate just to be contrary.

But somewhere out there is the next generation of niche writing that is going to take off, that everyone is going to bang into a formula, and you’re not going to be the one who starts the cascade if you only follow one aspect.

But then, I’ve never really given a damn about that, either.

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It’s not the height that few get to. It’s the gravel bed in the stream of novels that never polish, really.

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I so agree! It shouldn’t have to be a choice between a book being gripping and a book having literary merit. It can and should be both! ( ˆ◡ˆ)۶ ٩(˘◡˘ )

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There’s a good quote from one of Roethke’s books, in the foreword:

But the most important thing Roethke ever said to me was after class when another student was very critical of some eccentric thing I had done, and Ted admonished him, “You want to be very careful when you criticize something like that, because it may be the hallmark of an emerging style.” He knew that our eccentricities are part of our true voice.

Roethke had his quirks, but it behooves us all to not be so dismissive of books’ eccentricities.

There’s a gravel bed for novels of any style, but I do think we (speaking of this forum and Wattpad collectively) are more inclined to give certain styles the benefit of the doubt. We aren’t reading them as inherently subversive. Kitamura’s novel doesn’t strike me as subversive in the greater context of modern literary fiction; it’s only an oddity if your only point of comparison is what people are writing on Wattpad. There’s a plethora of recent novels that all do something a bit outside the norm, but these deviations are normalized, and consequently you can’t quite dismiss them all as being contrary. If everyone has something special they’re doing, then being special is no longer special, and that’s OK in my view.

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In all honesty, the novelty in most people is that it’s all new to them. It’s the wonder of watching a kid at Disneyland for the first time.

The character I’m not used to writing is either going to bring life to my work because it forced me to stretch beyond myself or it’s going to fall flat because I know not what I do. It’s a crap shoot. We learn formulas and do research, hoping to prevent the latter. It doesn’t always work.

But for the outsider looking in? They’ve read 40 characters just like it, and yours isn’t the best one. Or it’s the first one and their own hangups make it knee-jerk repulsive. Whatever.

It’s still not quite that, with Domi’s angle. It’s being an “Over-pretentious kneecap”, to quote The Last Unicorn.

Ideally, a purple prose writer will have a depth of emotion to their writing to balance out the analytical. Just like I wish some of these wp books used some critical thinking: and I’m not talking about immediately jumping on every “dumb things people do” and spouting morality from every pore, but hell, a few chapters in on this show that someone has thought about consequences before diving in and still being stupid.

But not everyone finds that easy to balance, and gatekeeping that happens from time to time.

That’s all.

The part where I lose interest is the going round in circles. If I have to explain what I’m seeing too much, I’m done. Usually by that point, people aren’t hearing each other anyway.

But the biggest kicker is that people come at it from where they are invested. We all do that. For example, I have a strong steak of wanting to break a character down to their core by the events in their story. It’s something that pops up often (not always), and I do it lightly to “why is this character still sane?!” We decide to have a split over doing that? That’s probably where I’ll get passionate about it: because it’s finally stepping on “my thing”.

But back to sci-fi and Over-pretentiousness: it’s common to hear readers go “but I only read REAL sci-fi”, and other b.s. like that. Someone said that to Anne McCaffrey on a flight and she was hesitant to tell him who she was because most her books are real scifi, with some fantasy elements, but medium-weight, some even for children. She’s not prone to heavy worldbuilding without action in most her work.

So the pressure isn’t just from those that write it. The whole science fiction community is a pack of Star Wars vs Star Trek fans. I’ve ran forums for stuff like that. You wouldn’t believe the amount of fighting that goes on.

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But an even better approach is searching for what you find laudable in the thing you normally rail against, the merits of a genre that isn’t yours.

I didn’t just stumble into romances because “it’s easy to write”, especially not problematic subgenres, stuff I wouldn’t even touch 5 years ago.

There’s something freeing about being away from what I love…and tedious. Not going to lie about that.

But I think a lot of younger authors are unaware of how many scifi writers started off with smut stories to sell to magazines like Playboy. The very thing that romance writers get dumped on for is what scifi has hidden in the closet for decades.

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We are readers. And as readers, we are all-powerful were success is concerned. On Wattpad, in publishing industry, all the way to the top best-sellers. Readers make books happen.

We are writers. It’s up to us to be honest about what we want.

Basically, I can’t buy the argument of ‘I too would have written a gripping story if I didn’t prefer not to.’ I think a person capable of writing a gripping story always would. Being a writer and not wanting to do so, makes no sense to me. I get trying and failing at it. I don’t get not trying.

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Even buying it, it’s piss-poor growth to not actively do it. Not even a long story, do a short story, just for yourself. Understand what you wrote, etc.

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I started off description heavy. So did my husband. It’s pretty natural to us.

I like where I’m getting at now: concise, slightly amusing, offbeat. It will be a good thing to bring back into heavy description.

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I’d rather write a book that I cared about deeply than write something just to sell, or something that could be ‘popular.’ I guess I’m more of a Sunday writer…I don’t really care about being successful, I just do this because I have this story in my tired little sci-fi heart and I have to get it out somehow. I don’t think a writer’s skill or the quality of their work should be judged by their ability to write something popular or something that sells…I mean look at 50 Shades. That book sucks. I wouldn’t write smut like that even if it did make me millions of dollars.

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