How Sunk Cost Keeps You Reading (and Writing) Bad Books


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For a lot of jobs, once you reach a certain point, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to stop. Whatever you’ve already invested demands that you keep going, or else you’ll probably end up taking some kind of loss.

This is known as sunk cost. And unfortunately, it doesn’t just apply to work. It applies to your reading list, too. It easily can keep bad books in your hands.

What basically happens is, you pick up a book, get a little way into it, and realize that it’s just not lighting any fireworks for you. But whatever the issue might be (e.g., poorly developed characters), you look at how many pages you’ve finished or the amount of time you’ve already committed, and you think that you’ll somehow be in the hole if you don’t keep going until the last page.

Or, let me rephrase–sunk cost just keeps you reading bad books.

Of course, sunk cost applies to writers as they create, too. You might feel so invested in a concept, for example, that you keep trying to finish it no matter how many truly unfixable flaws the book has. This issue can get worse over time, because the book can get wrapped up in your entire identity and self-concept as a writer–if you don’t finish, you think, then you’re not serious enough or have to let go of something meaningful for you.

3 horrible consequences of sunk cost in reading and writing

It’s bad enough that sunk cost related to reading robs you of your immediate joy. But an equally insufferable problem is that, because you commit your time to the bad book, you’re locked out of other good ones. And that’s an incredible disservice to the writers who really deserve to be discovered and enjoyed.

This issue has been around practically since books first became mainstream. But I think it’s gotten worse with the growth of self-publishing. Don’t misunderstand here–I think self-publishing can be a beautiful thing and put power back in the hands of writers where it belongs. But because it is so easy, there also are plenty of people putting out content that’s mediocre at best. So readers have more opportunities and options, but the noise is louder, and it can be harder to figure out which writers are worth a risk.

On the writer side, if you can’t let go of a bad concept that you’ve transferred onto your sense of skill or who you are, then you might never move forward to ideas that honestly are better and have more potential of bringing income and fame. You can deliver an inaccurate representation of what your best is, and as a result, struggle to be taken seriously.

How readers and writers both work against the problem

If you’re a reader, then combat sunk cost with three basic strategies:

  • Read reviews–lots of them. No matter what you’ve been hearing about the book through the grapevine overall, get a balance of the 5 and 1 star ratings. This will help you feel like it’s OK to go against the grain of the popular opinion if needed.
  • Scan the table of contents to make sure that the entire book truly covers what you need or are interested in, or scan a few pages or paragraphs from different spots within the text to get a basic sense of the writer’s voice and delivery.
  • Set a test boundary you can apply consistently to any text. For example, if you’re not sucked into the book in x pages or minutes, then you’ll put it back on the shelf.

And if you’re a writer, lean on these tips to improve your manuscripts:

  • Use beta readers through your entire writing process. There always will be outlier opinions, sure, but feedback can help eliminate most of the issues that disappoint readers long before your final copy is available, and you often can apply what you learn to your next book.
  • Advertise transparently. It’s tempting to try to pigeonhole your work into a neat box you know buyers respond to, but if you are absolutely clear what the book is for or about, readers are more likely to feel confident in the selection. Bait and switches don’t earn you any long-term loyalty or referrals.
  • Throw quantity out the window. This means that a book takes however long it takes to get right, and that you don’t try to quantify success by how many titles you’re cranking out. Being prolific is not necessarily synonymous with being a truly great storyteller.
  • Hone your elevator pitch. Regardless of whether you like to outline everything down to the paragraph or fly by the seat of your pants, if you can’t pinpoint the key message of your book in one to three sentences, then you’re just not ready to write it. Period. And remember, the pitch is a summary. It is NOT a wistful or idealistic expression of your intent for the text (e.g., “I want readers to feel”; “I want to create a book that…”).

As a reader, you have more books at your disposal than you ever could finish in a lifetime. But life is too short to spend it committed to bad ones. Don’t let sunk cost make the experience of reading suck. And if you’re a writer, work hard to make sure that readers are sticking with you because you’ve done something exceptional, not because they feel like it’s too late to turn back. The easier it is for you to toss ho-hum or unworkable ideas in the trash, the more you’ll create work that’s truly awe-inspiring.

2 Reasons I Can’t Stand Netflix’s ‘Bridgerton’

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A few weeks ago, like so many others who are trying to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, I turned to Netflix. And because I have an affinity for period books and films (minus the uncomfortable stupidity of corsets, of course), I thought Netflix’s Bridgerton would be a good choice.

Did I binge watch it?


Did I enjoy it?

Not so much.

I realize that, in this opinion, I’m perhaps an outlier. In an article for Bloomberg, for example, Martin Ivens gushed over the series for its escapism, dramatic impact, rich costuming, diverse casting. It proved, Ivens wrote, that “as long as audiences are entertained, they will welcome innovation, too.”

But I am hardly alone. And the first reason I feel annoyance at the show is simply that it takes such license with Julia Quinn’s books.

I am not opposed entirely to the idea of creative shifts in productions. I did lots of theater and I understand that artistic interpretation has value. And there are lots of examples where an interpretation actually benefitted the original in terms of helping it seem relevant and resonate with audiences. I get that showing current relevancy ensures that any art doesn’t die.

But when that interpretation entirely changes core elements of a work, I question it. Quality of the acting aside, as one reviewer on IMDB put it:

As a writer, I wouldn’t expect a producer to take one of my books from page to film without a tweak here or there. But I would want them to respect the work I put my heart and soul into enough to at least maintain characterizations and portray the bulk of my world as I had envisioned it. Because if the goal is escapism, juxtaposing issues from this world on top of the fictitious one that’s meant to be different, even with the positive intent of showing us how we might make our world better, bursts the bubble. Instead of being transported in our minds to an entirely new place, we stay chained to the realities of where we are and are forced to swallow them. We never truly get free.

Adaptation does not mean that you entirely throw away the original creativity or vision just because you want to explore or stress cultural points. Don’t destroy something because you’re so egotistical that you think your message about “current issues” supersedes the author’s.

So in this sense, Bridgerton is a failure.

*deep breath*

The second reason I ended up cringing is the script.

Anyone who has read any modern romance novels understands that the genre has all kinds of linguistical and plot-based tropes. “Creamy white thigh”, for example. “Strong line of his jaw” and “heaving bosom” are two other favorites that I good-naturedly laugh at.

But I can guarantee that, while a period romance might gush about touch and describe the feeling or action of it in all manner of ways, it’s a rarity for a character to come right out and say something so blunt like “You can touch yourself” (a much-quoted line from the duke). Half the fun of a “trashy” romance is the poetic way they convey a concept without being blunt, the way they find a way to say what everybody aches for them to say without actually using “improper” or “impolite” phrasing. This isn’t to say characters wouldn’t talk face to face about things like sex as their passions get hotter. But if they really wanted to capture the flavor of the period’s language, then they’d just use a ton more eloquence. They might say something like “You can caress the soft diamond, that most intimate place…” for example.

And this to me is the glaring irritation that blinds me. So many times when I was watching, I could not get past the feeling as though all the flowers of 1800s language had wilted, replaced with lazy modern expression. Sure, you can find lots of analogy. But the dialogue didn’t cut as it might have, and the romance didn’t sizzle at it might have, and characters didn’t seem as individual as they might have, because the way those analogies were put to the screen had such little rhythm or specific connotation.

Let’s take an example.

Here’s a quote from the series:

“Why must our only options be to squawk and settle or to never leave the nest? What if I want to fly?”

Here’s how I personally would rewrite it:

“The whole damn family demands in all its infernal propriety that we must either resign ourselves to fight and command a new position like predestined peacocks, or to stay in the familiar stuffiness of last season’s worn-down nest. What if all I want to do is to escape to the air and soar above all that?”

In the first version (in my opinion), all you get is a very basic presentation of the two choices. There’s an acknowledgement that those choices might not be suitable.

But in the rewrite, you get the character’s deeper opinion and judgment of the family. The image of the peacock, which is known as a territorial bird, gives clearer picture, and “predestined” says something about whether people had a right to assert themselves. “Familiar stuffiness” suggests that there’s drudgery and monotony in sticking with the setting and life you’re used to, and that there’s something that makes society think that that’s OK and struggle to break away from it. “Infernal propriety” shows that the family sticks to the rules for the sake of appearance and reputation, but also that the character doesn’t agree that they should. And “escape” and “soar” show some desperation to get away, not just a questioning of whether one should. So now we are painting a much more nuanced, full picture of the world the character is in and what they think of it.

Does including those nuances mean that the characters sometimes have to use more words? Yep. But I would argue that the increase in verbosity is worth the added flavor and the ability to better see who is on the page and where/how they live and think.

So to summarize,

  1. Dismantling and interpreting someone else’s work are two different things. You don’t have to stick to the original to the letter, but there shouldn’t be a question of what the original is like overall, and the new world should let us really be free from the real one.
  2. How you say something is just as important as the base concept. Don’t be lazy. Offer the nuance, even if it takes a little more carefully distributed ink.

Now to scroll through my Netflix options and find something else…

Should You Outline or Just Fly By the Seat of Your Pants When Writing?

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Pop quiz: Is improvising or outlining better when writing?

Initially, I fell into the winging it camp. That approach allowed me to write freely with very little constraint whenever I had the opportunity. I’m still very much a proponent of writing anywhere, anytime. And philosophically, there’s something incredibly beautiful in allowing the story to have that kind of control. I like the idea that the story can become what it should be, rather than what I initially wanted.

But I’ve also come to see the practicality of outlining. With a clear roadmap, it can be very easy to flesh out scenes or sections of content. The writing can happen incredibly fast as a result. So outlining is a logistical positive.

So right now, I’m falling somewhere in the middle. For my current work in progress, for instance, I outlined the plot, chapter by chapter. But the meat of the scenes, all the descriptions and dialogue, I left to spontaneity. I knew where I needed to go, but I allowed myself the freedom to take any path in that direction. And that felt perfect.

I also still believe that you don’t have to work chronologically, even if you have an outline. In fact, some of the best authors assert that it’s almost impossible to introduce a book you haven’t written yet. They recommend leaving the intro chapters for last or planning to rewrite them, so that they make more sense after the rest of the book is in place.

I’m pretty sure that this evolution has happened for me largely because I’m simply getting older with more responsibilities and goals in my lap. Those changes have meant I need to put some safeguards in place to get things to happen. But I’ve also done a ton of writing oriented to business. That’s helped me to view my career as a writer with much more of a CEO mindset. And if you consider a novel, article or anything else you are writing as an assigned project, then it’s pretty hard to imagine any boss allowing you to have zero structure for the work. A good leader is going to step back and not micromanage it, but they’re still going to want to know what your game plan is. So in that sense, as your own boss, it makes a lot of sense to give yourself a basic framework that offers both flexibility and accountability for the goal you have.

So although you absolutely can adjust the balance to fit your circumstances and preferences, my advice is to outline and improvise, rather than to go completely in one direction or the other. You’ll have a greater guarantee of getting a decent amount of pages out consistently without losing the creative spark that comes from reduced constraint.


Where New Writers Should Write for Free (and Where They Shouldn’t)

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Like so many other artists, writers have operated under the belief that they might need to work for free for a while to establish some credibility and earn bylines. But is this still the case? Should you, in fact, put words on the page without being compensated?

Bylines do still count. But what they really do is show new editors that previous editors have liked your writing, which can go a long way in convincing the new editors to look at you seriously. And these days, anyone can publish anything anywhere. So lots of editors simply want to know whether you can communicate something of interest to their readers while following their specific editorial tone and guidelines. And because clips from other publications or that you’ve self-published can be drastically different from what they’d like to see, they often put much more weight on whether you can hook them in a query and submit a well-constructed draft of the actual piece you’re proposing.

In this context, my basic philosophy is that any writing you do for free needs to promote you, rather than others. And the point of the writing is to allow others to see that you are active, involved and educated, to build credibility and visibility first with readers. For example, you can write articles on LinkedIn, Medium or other free platforms. Even social media posts and blogs can serve to demonstrate your ability to analyze, find sources or command a topic. But you always have complete control over this writing. No one else gets to profit from it. And once you have a following, it’s something you can mention in any query letter/submission, even if you don’t submit specific clips.

Now, to be successful and become visible to readers so that you can mention your following instead of or in addition to sending clips, you absolutely have to be strategic. That means writing about trending topics, understanding SEO and page ranking tools, carefully selecting the right hashtags, backlinking, and asking others to share your work on purpose. You can’t just hit publish and hope eyeballs will connect with your words. You have to take proactive steps to ensure that they do. Remember, if writing is your business, then you’re the CEO, and you have to make sure customers come through the door. There’s very little reason you can’t learn and execute the technicalities of content marketing.

All this said, if someone asks you, say, to write some free product descriptions, sure, maybe you can put that on a resume. But it’s not going to do much to have others know who you are. And that’s what you really want to be working for if you aren’t compensated.

So recognize the value of public sway in addition to the value of a work history that shows you’ve connected with others. If you’re not going at least to improve your reach, reputation and influence with the free work, then you need to insist that a client cough up real money for your effort.

Why Classifying Books According to Genre Needs to Die

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If you go to agent or publisher websites, a common call is for writers to create something entirely fresh, something that doesn’t fit the usual molds. But even with those statements, I’m not entirely convinced that the publishing world or general public has abandoned genre classifications as much as agencies and houses would have people believe.

For starters, bookstores, websites and libraries still label books based on traditional genres to make it easier for people to find what they are looking for. And if you query as an author through tools like QueryTracker or other online forms, the tool almost always require you to smoosh your book into a category. Agents and publishers also want to know what genre you’re working with and show that you understand how your book fits that target niche or compares to previously published works. They expect a summary for that in query letters and proposals, and most of them are very clear on the site which genres they do or do not work with.

I absolutely understand the need for a system of organization. But what if, for example, I have a mystery set in an earlier period, something a la Enola Holmes? Is that a mystery or a historical? What if I have a love story set in outer space? Is that science fiction or romance? Or what about books that challenge social conceptions or time? The recently released “Bridgerton” on Netflix, for example, is based on Julia Quinn’s novels, but since it is an intentionally contemporary spin on the 1800s era, is it too inaccurate to be a regency anymore?

Some books do fit very neatly into categories. But many do not. They are like sporks in a utensil drawer, simultaneously belonging and not belonging for their “oddity”. And as a writer, I see the current mode of labeling as being truly problematic. If my book does bend genres, it can be very difficult to present it according to the tools and expectations agents, publishers and book stores all have. It even can be hard to determine whether certain agents or houses would want to accept a query, which then can create additional work for authors who submit a preliminary inquiry before formally introducing the manuscript.

But perhaps even more concerning than presentation or organization is the conflicting message of creativity and adherence to group. Writers who are continually forced to slap labels on their work for the sake of the label might mentally limit themselves regarding what their books can be. They might start to think of themselves as this type of writer or that, when in fact a good writer isn’t a “type” of anything–they can write whatever they da-n well please.

We perhaps could solve the issue simply by creating tools that allow writers and others to select an “Uncategorized” or “Genre-Bending” classification. Explaining the mashup with references rather than a label, such as X Book + Y Book, could work in queries, store placement and promotional materials. But such a shift requires people to let go of the knee-jerk desire to mentally classify to a high degree. The freedom we could gain, however, could be truly transformative in terms of what ends up on the page.