The Urge To Please


Quentin Rowan, the plagiarist author of Assassin of Secrets, apologizes and explains himself via email (posted online with permission) to one of the writers who blurbed his book. Rowan’s words continue through successive comments, so keep scrolling down.

Here are some excerpts:

But the minute I got an agent and started showing it to people who suggested changes, I began to distrust the quality of whatever real work I’d done on it. So I started ripping off passages from spy novels in my collection that fit. Somehow public scrutiny has always been the pressure point for me. Once I feel I’m doing the work for someone else’s eyes, I begin stealing, because I want to impress.

I just didn’t feel capable of writing the kinds of scenes and situations that were asked of me in the time allotted and rather than saying I couldn’t do it, or wasn’t capable, I started stealing again. I didn’t want to be seen as anything other than a writing machine, I guess. Some call it “people pleasing.” Anyway, the more I did it, the deeper into denial I went, until it felt as if I had two brains at war with each other.

I would say it was fear. Plain and simple. Fear that my own spy novel wouldn’t be good enough. That I just didn’t know enough about neat gadgets and missiles and satellites or government agencies to do it right.

There have been a lot of people talking about Rowan’s arrogance and contempt, about how sure he must have been that everyone but him was too stupid to realize what he was doing. If we can believe what he’s saying now (and I’ll tell you straight up front: I do believe him) it’s clear that he plagiarized out of insecurity, not arrogance.

And why do I believe him? Because I’ve felt all those same feelings. All of them. Just because I never turned to his self-sabotaging “solution” of stealing text from writers I admire doesn’t mean I haven’t endured all of these doubts.

The trick, though, is to keep in mind the one most important thing: You must fail on your own terms. You can’t cheat the process because of a deadline, or because a certain genre/tone is in style now. You can’t keep doing the same things all the time because that’s been successful in the past.

And even more importantly for someone like Rowan, you have to shrug off your early praise and criticism. Rowan had all this self-imposed pressure on him to amaze everyone who read his work, and where did it come from? He won a poetry award at 19, when he wasn’t mature enough to deal with it. The “Best of the Year” notice changed his self-image (he doesn’t put it in those terms, exactly, but it’s right there in his email) into a writer who had to impress people, and he didn’t believe he could live up to that self-image.

Now, I’m not going to go into Imposter Syndrome with regard to writing. Everyone covers that and if you follow writers at all you’re probably sick of hearing about it. I suffer from it, too, like everyone. So I’m going to skip the analysis and jump right to my own personal solutions to it, which comes in two parts.

First: write for a specific set of three people. When you’re writing a book imagine three people as your audience. Don’t tell them, don’t talk about it with them, nothing. You don’t even have to know them. Maybe one is your oldest pal. Maybe another is a writer you admire but never interact with. Maybe the third is an interesting genre critic, or your book-crazy hairdresser, or your snobby aunt.

The point is, you don’t want to write for an amorphous, undefined audience consisting of everyone in the world. You can’t amaze or astonish everyone and you shouldn’t try.

Second: You should dare to fail on your own terms.

Let’s talk about Game of Cages here. My editor hated the ending. That scene in the food bank? Written as one long sentence? She thought it was too dark, too down, and she wanted something more heroic in its place.

And I’m sure she was right. I refused to cut that bit and I’m utterly certain that it hurt sales. Thing is: that scene was right for those books. It was cruel as hell, anti-heroic, and deliberately tragic. I’ve been thinking of those Twenty Palaces books as action tragedies–full of the sort of thrilling violence that leaves you feeling sad at the end. To me, cutting that scene would have been cheating the whole concept of the series; the end of Child of Fire is pretty much a promise that this scene will be there.

So everyone, including my agent (no-god bless her for everything she’s had to put up with from me) explained that the scene would hurt sales. In response, I explained my own deepest fear: what if I change the scene to make it more heroic, and the book fails anyway? I wouldn’t even be failing with my own book.

I’ve seen a few responses to my end of the Twenty Palaces series that suggests I’ve “learned a lesson” about what makes a book good or bad, and that’s really not the case. I’ve certainly learned what makes a book popular, but good?

No. I believe the Twenty Palaces books were successful. I said so in that post. Commercially, no. Artistically? Well, of course I would like to go back and fix things, but not the things that would sell more copies. Artistically, I think the books work. I love them. And I don’t care if somebody on Goodreads gives them all one-star reviews. That doesn’t matter to me.

I am ready to fail in the market place. I am ready to never win any award, ever, within the genre community (frankly, I don’t expect to win any awards for the work I do and I don’t care–someone else would appreciate it more). I am ready to be laughed at and shrugged off and called boring. It’s true that I’m working on something that I hope will be successful in a commercial way–I have bills, after all–but I’m never going to write the farmboy-who’s-secretly-a-prince story just because that’s what people like.

A soldier goes into battle knowing he might die, but he goes anyway. Yes, he takes every precaution, but that is the risk he takes. If he can do that, I can take the meager chance of a bunch of one-star reviews on Goodreads, or even a complete lack of interest from publishers.

And now my son is up and wanting to get on the computer, so I’m closing out. See you all on the far side.

via GalleyCat

20 thoughts on “The Urge To Please

  1. FWIW, my problems with Game of Cages was the beginning, not the end. I never really had a good handle on who was with which faction, who was trying to do what, or who was driving the plot. So it was hard to anticipate events or get emotionally involved.

  2. That’s a bitter pill to swallow (talking about Quentin Rowan), but I really just can’t feel sorry for him. As for your novels? I loved them. Every one, every bit. But I think I’m in that small niche that just love those gritty, almost depressing stories. They just hit me right in the gut, and somehow Ray struggled through it all yet still stayed true to himself (especially near the end of Circle of Enemies. That’s a real Hero. I just wish more readers like me would have found your books on the self.

  3. I’m glad they worked for you and I hope future books will do the same.

    As for Rowan, I don’t want to mitigate the awfulness of what he did, but I do have sympathy for him. He had a lot of feelings he couldn’t control and wasn’t ready for, and it’s ruined him.

  4. Duncan Eagleson

    Yeah, you need to have the courage to fail or succeed on your own terms.

    If that plot, meme, trope, or what have you, that’s wildly popular in the market _doesn’t_ grab your heart by the short hairs and insist you write it, why bother? For commercial success? That doesn’t seem likely to work. Other writers may bitch that Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown are actually lousy writers, and they may be right, but my guess would be that Brown, Meyer, and others like them capture readers exactly because the author is genuinely passionate about the story they’re telling, and that passion communicates, overcoming any lack of literary sophistication. In terms of commercial success, I think that’s more important than following popular formulas.

    Obviously, passion and belief in what you’re doing by itself is no guarantee of commercial success, but I suspect that the lack of it pretty much guarantees you’ll never break out large the way Meyer or Brown did. Assuming I ever actually sell any of my novels, if I’m going to settle for being on the low end of the bracket, or get tossed out of the game entirely, I’d prefer it was because my own ideas didn’t appeal to enough readers, rather than because I did a pale imitation of someone else’s idea. If we don’t care passionately about what we’re writing, how can we expect the readers to care?

    As China Mieville said, “Our job is not to do what readers like. Our job is to make readers like what we do.”

  5. I really like this post–I feel like it’s very insightful. I’m glad that you stuck to your guns and refused to change the scene. Ray is pretty damn heroic as it is. He is (or, was) mostly just an ordinary guy going up against things vastly more powerful than himself, and he never decides to stop fighting and find a nice basement to hole up in because someone more qualified will come along and clean this up, right? No Genovese Syndrome for Ray. That’s impressive in itself.

    But, like an ordinary person forced into a job he’s had no training for, he misses his cues. He makes mistakes. He gets boxed into a room by a horde of mesmerized townspeople who want to rip him limb from limb, and he panics because hot damn I would panic too. The times that Ray doesn’t keep a clear head during a stressful situation are some of my favorites. There was a bit in the first book (I think) when someone was shooting at him and Ray thought his leg had been blown off, because he’d heard that sometimes wounds like that don’t start hurting immediately.

    If someone were shooting at me, I’d probably be so hopped up on adrenalin that I’d have the same reaction. Sometimes, books set you up to expect the hero to keep a cool head and pull a magnificent solution out of his ass. Those can be fun to read. The Twenty Palaces series are not those type of books though, and the contrast makes them all the more glorious.

  6. The illustrator for my series just sent me this link. I’m so glad that she did.

    I have been writing the Haanta Series for two years. I kept the series online only until last year when publishers began taking interest. I sent out the first 5 books in the series to agents and publishers: got back 2 agents and 5 publishers. The two agents were telling me to change many things, one was my writing style. They claimed that no one wanted to read Austenesque/Tolkienesque fantasy anymore. I begged to differ considering all I do is read classical novels. Publishers wanted me to dumb down my language claiming (and an editor to a major publisher really said this to me) “readers just aren’t that smart.” My retort was that readers are a smart as the books you give them to read and I did not sign with them.

    I ended up signing with a small press who has published 5 books in the series so far and even though I didn’t get the major publicity the large press was willing to put forth, I couldn’t be happier with my choice: I have my own editor, my own artist, and I get to keep my rights. I learned that it is indeed better to go your own way. Sure, I had to work to get reviews, but the story is the way I wanted it to be.

    Thank you for sharing this post!

  7. Klaus Weidner

    I think the food bank sequence was one of the strongest and most memorable scenes in the book, thank you for keeping that intact. Yes, it’s a downer, but it’s an important reminder of just how powerful and inhuman the opposition is, and it humanizes Ray that he keeps hoping for a better outcome while knowing it’s not likely. A feel-good ending would have been a cop-out, and I think I’d have been much less likely to recommend the book or get the sequel.

  8. Thomas Pulk

    Great Post.

    Sorry this reply is a little late but just caught back up with my blogs. I wanted to let you know that I understand and respect the direction you took the 20p books in. I love the feel of your books and hope that in the future I can continue this series.

    The extraordinarily dangerous aspect of magic in the world and the lack of Ray’s abilities is what makes these novels so unique. As you had stated in Circle of Enemies the 20p members kill almost indiscriminately not from an evil standpoint, but because the magic they protect against tends to kill bystanders almost continuously.

    All the characters we’ve seen with magic tend to regard death as inconsequential or necessary because the ones that hesitate are almost certainly killed (as Anna alludes to Ray). Its that amazingly potent lethality that makes Ray’s struggle and defiance so heroic and I can’t see how toning it down in any of the books could have helped the overall world building that you’ve accomplished.

    Loyal Fan,


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