Don’t #AskELJames, Don’t Tell

Before I begin my thoughts on #AskELJames, let me tell you a “secret”.

Back in 2010, the first agent who read the first early draft of “Vampire Syndrome” chucked my manuscript aside after reading just the first two sentences, and expressed an opinion similar to this:

AskELJames Read Tweet
/rant ˅

Even better, I had paid $50 for the ‘privilege’ of attending her workshop, in which I was promised she would read the first two pages of our manuscripts. My experience cost me $25 for each sentence she read. I myself am of the opinion that if you charge $50 per person admission, you had better damn well read the first two pages from all the attendees. Pay me $50 in cash, and I’ll read two pages of anything, and give you my opinion of it. Dinosaur porn, forklift service manuals, Justin Bieber fanzines; no problem, bring ’em to me. 😉

/rantover ˄

This agent’s workshop ended up being worth far more than $50, for me. Not for her unfinished critique of my work, but for the hard-won advice she gave us about the publishing industry. Specifically, the advice she gave us regarding advances for those authors who were prospects to sign on for Big Five (New York) publishing houses. When my ‘time’ came two years later, and my manuscript was in the hands of New York editors, I knew better than to take two of the deals that were offered to me, and that agent’s advice two years earlier was a contributing factor in my decisions.

Also, when someone thinks you’re “illiterate”, you have nowhere to go but up. Even E.L. James can’t say she ever paid $50 just to get that sort of opinion of her work, so I have her beat there. 😈

Some authors like Anne Rice see “jealousy over James’ success” as being the driving force behind the #AskELJames storm. As in, other authors are jealous of her, just because the Fifty Shades trilogy has made her wealthy.

Let me dispel a few of these notions. I turned down a significant advance from a New York house, and signed with PDMI Publishing (an independent traditional publisher) for no advance a few months later. I was in the position where I could have altered a fundamental precept of my work, for the purposes of financial gain. I chose not to, and instead went with a smaller publisher who respects the integrity of my original creative vision.

And, as much as we’d all love to have the money, would most of us really want to trade places with E.L. James, especially right now? I wouldn’t. Her success has come with a whole freighter ship full of baggage. James’ work, the ‘quality’ thereof, and its subject manner, have long been subject to an unprecedented barrage of harsh criticism in all forms of media, not just this latest frightfest on Twitter.

I didn’t join in the #AskELJames trashfest, because there are things I admire about her. James’ success came from fans connecting with her work in a genuine, non-hype-driven manner. She had sold over 100,000 books on her own as an indie author, which to me is much more impressive than her subsequent sales, which had the benefit of widespread Big Five distribution and an even wider-spread media hype machine.

And, whatever opinions one may hold about her writing and the quality thereof, she is a fellow author. We need to support other authors, not tear them down. The #AskELJames Tweet I posted above reminds me in the most personal fashion that any author is, or can be, subjected to this same merciless bullying.  Even the most beloved of authors can be sucked into the trolls’ quicksand trap.

J.K. Rowling vs. Westboro @Twitter

Rowling vs. Political Trolls @Twitter

(Update June 2020: And, sadly, even “the most beloved of authors” can jump their own Twitter shark with time…)

The real driving issue here, which I haven’t seen anyone else discussing, is not a simple “jealousy” of James’ success. It’s the perception that a work of “inferior quality” has become successful, at the expense of unknown “better-quality” works. What no authors seem to be willing to admit is that they are upset that the public is buying James’ books instead of “better” works, and virtually all of the authors who Tweet-bashed her believe their own work to be “better” than James’. So what we really have here, when you dig down to the core of the matter, is that these authors are upset that the public is buying James’ work instead of “better” works, including, but not limited to, these authors’ own works.

One of the “old” rules of publishing is that authors have to put in years of their time refining the quality of their craft, subjecting their writing to the “sharpening tools” of critique groups, beta readers, etc. Then, after all that, an E.L. James comes along and knocks over their apple cart by directly connecting with her readers and bypassing all the old-school “dues” authors assume everyone has to pay, to be a “success”. The logic behind the mass of knee-jerk reactions thus becomes all too apparent.

Myself, I’m confident I made the right choice in refining my writing craft. I paid the old-school dues with the goal of improving my writing, not necessarily to be a “success”. I prioritize quality over the chase of the dollar.
(Update June 2020: Even though I’ve since left the publishing world, which had become a dumpster fire even before the 2020 pandemic, at least if someone stumbles across a print copy of “Vampire Syndrome” in a thrift shop somewhere and tracks me down, at least I can admit I’m the author of it, without having to put a bag over my head. So, even though it failed to connect with the public and I quit publishing, I still prefer this eventual outcome to being E.L. James, who will be forever known as “the rich woman who wrote total garbage”… )

The successes of James, and Stephenie Meyer before her, prove that THE STORY is what connects with the public, not the perceived quality of writing. In today’s post-apple-cart publishing world, what many call “quality writing” may actually hamper your potential for success. Factors such as excess use of descriptions and fifty-cent phrases to “better” your work can act as barriers which will keep busy, time-deprived readers from enjoying your work. Let’s face it, many people are now reading books on their phones. Not to say you have to “dumb down” your work, but you can have quality, good pacing and reasonable brevity in your writing, when you make this your goal. The main point my Vampire Syndrome Saga makes is that wisdom can be expressed perfectly in simple terms, without falling into the common traps of over-analyzing, over-thinking and over-writing.

We can all benefit from following the Golden Rule. “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.” The ‘simplest’ of wisdoms are often the most profound.


  1. Reblogged this on THE WRITING WORLD FOR TWINS.

  2. I really appreciate your insights about comparing ourselves to other writers. I like to believe I am better at writing than a large number of authors whose work I read. I say I like to believe it, but I have to qualify that by acknowledging how much more successful they are than I am. There has to be a reason. So I spend far more time in the books I read looking for the good things that engage me, interest me, make me want to try that in my own writing… I find the approach to be so much more profitable in the long run than looking for things to critique. I don’t search for what doesn’t work, what seems awkward or wrong-headed. Those things are not useful to me. I read with a critical eye, not to downgrade or find error in the other author’s work, but to bring out the jewels of insight, rare qualities, and gemstones of wisdom that made the writing worth doing in the first place. Partly that has to be the writing teacher in me. I looked at too many student papers over too many years to believe I can stamp out the bad parts more effectively than I can encourage the good parts to grow.

  3. Excellent post, Daven!

    I’m currently in an e-loop discussion with some of my writer’s group on this very subject and actually brought up your very point! I’ve said this many time before, QUALITY DOESN’T MATTER. Readers just have to connect with SOMETHING in the work.

    Also on the loop is a lot of discussion about women abuse and “the rape culture.” When I first heard about 50 Shades subject matter, I though, gee, sounds like bullying to me—why would anyone want to be subjected to that kind of behavior?

    Of course, there is also the discussion about the quality of books being published, re” poor writing. It’s nice to bitch and moan about that, but we all know, it’ll be what it’ll be. If some publisher finds a story that is poorly written and a potentially skyrocketing sales value, they’re gonna publish it no matter what, in today’s market, and do it as quickly as possible.

    There’s so much more to be said here.:-] Great post, great perspective! And I feel you made the right choice!

    • The real Devil’s Advocate argument here: If E.L. James had put in the time to refine her writing skills and produce the “best possible” version of the Fifty Shades story, would it have connected with readers as much as the existing version did?
      Many people found it enjoyable in an “Ed Wood/Showgirls” camp kind of way they wouldn’t with, say, Anne Rice’s A.N. Roquelaure-pseudonym Beauty Trilogy (whose sales are a small fraction of James’), or Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (the undiluted character in Emily Bronte’s novel, not so much the 1939 classic film) . 😈

      • One may well argue that what she had already put forth was *her* best effort….

      • James wrote it as DIY fan fiction, just for her own personal enjoyment. If she’d known how huge it would end up being, she probably would have labored over it, and worked to perfect her writing, for years.

      • Oh, so it wasn’t really poured over at all! I see! Didn’t know that! Well, one can only imagine….

  4. Actually, if you read the tweets on the #AskELJames, you would see the biggest problem people have with James’ 50 Shades of Grey trilogy is that it promotes abusive and unhealthy relationships and is not at all an accurate portrayal of BDSM–meaning she did not do her homework on BDSM before publishing this.

    • In all fairness, James originally wrote that story at Twilight fan fiction for her own personal enjoyment, with no expectation on her part that it would become as huge as it did. If she’d known it was going to be that big, she would have been much more diligent and careful in her research and writing (BUT, would that version have become a huge success? 😈 )

  5. […] Perhaps my goal should have been to be technically “worse” than “Twilight”, not “better”, but that’s another story. James’ story, to be exact. 😈 Don’t #AskELJames , Don’t Tell […]

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