What writers can learn from Barry Eisler

It’s inspiring when a successful author goes out of his way to help others in the craft of writing. Barry Eisler is one of those good guys.

Though he’d probably rather be known as one baaad dude.

He’s a one-time CIA operative, a judo black belt and an intellectual property attorney, who’s also a bestselling writer of political thrillers in a seven-book series featuring a freelance assassin, the latest one titled The Detachment.

Eisler speaks regularly at writers conferences and offers a treasure trove of resources for writers on his own website. He’s also famous for turning down a $500K advance from his publisher to go with Amazon. This fellow thinks for himself.

I saw him in action at the Grub Street Muse & the Marketplace conference in Boston last month where he spoke at length on how to write better and get published. Eisler’s a charismatic and flamboyant public speaker – charming, funny, articulate. He literally leapt around the room, flinging aside drapes and throwing open all the windows to the frigid air.

“People shut the windows and close the curtains when they want to sleep,” Eisler said, sounding like the exasperated parent of a recalcitrant child.

The message was clear: Wake up!

On learning the craft of writing

There is always craft behind the art, Eisler said. “And craft must be learned if you want to be an artist.”

He thinks one of the best ways to improve your craft is to read like a writer.

“Read first for pleasure, then reread to see why it works so well,” Eisler said. “Discern if something’s good or bad and why. If it’s good, what works so well? If it’s bad, figure out how you would fix it.”

For example, Eisler says, “An opening sentence that just describes the setting is just a still life.”  The opening he describes as “the most masterful” he’s ever come across is from the historical thriller The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett:

“The last camel collapsed at noon.”

In those few words, Eisler says, Follett hints at a dramatic backstory of desperation and high stakes. He immediately makes us want to know the who, what and where of his story. The line gives us necessary information but also raises implicit questions. Camels are able to trudge through the desert for miles without water, so what went wrong? Why has the last one gone down? Who’s the narrator? We sense peril. We’re hooked and hungry to know more.

The difference between art and craft

Eisler believes that the art and craft of writing are on a continuum. The art is what’s unique to you, it’s the work that never would have been written if not by you. But craft is technique. Creating characters, narrative story telling, and plot structure can be learned with diligent practice. From his website, here are some of Eisler’s basic points on craft, followed by my own editorial observations:

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Barry Eisler’s Rules of Craft

Show don’t tell

BE: And don’t interpret! Authors shouldn’t explain how their characters are feeling, as in: “Say that again,” Jim said angrily. Better to write: “Jim’s eyes narrowed and his ears seemed almost to flatten against the sides of his head. “‘Say that again’, he said.” This approach lets readers come to their own conclusions, connect their own dots, which is inherently more satisfying.

AR: I see this happening whenever writers rely on an omniscient narrator who analyzes the character’s motivation to rationalize a not-so-hidden agenda. It’s like hijacking the book in a way that destroys our ability to identify with or resonate to the story. Be sure to avoid the promiscuous use of adverbs — a sure-fire method of reducing this problem.

Point of view

BE: Don’t shift your point of view uncontrollably. A sentence like “High heels be damned, she ran down the street towards number Twenty-Eight” begins with a first-person narrator (it’s the girl who damns the high heels) and then shifts to third (it’s an omniscient narrator who describes her running down the street), which can jar and disorient the reader. Be aware of expectations you’re creating and don’t violate them without a very good reason.

AR: Uncontrollable shifts in point of view can also result in so many perspectives that the reader can’t keep track of who’s talking or what’s going on. My advice is no more than two and with no predictable rotation. Three is risky but possible if it doesn’t become formulaic, like 1-2-3, 1-2-3, over and over.

Details

BE: Every small event, object, character has to advance the story. These details can be a few words of dialogue, a series of moments, small or large physical movement, or just plain objects. Not necessarily in a straight line but “with artfully constructed zigzags that create an inside sense of the characters thoughts and feelings without telling or explaining what they are but instead showing us, painting the actual landscape of their hidden emotions.” And if it doesn’t ultimately count, leave it out.

AR: I’ve found that most writers catch on quickly to this crucial technique, since it’s an opportunity to get into the head of your characters and see the world around them as influenced by the underlying mood and theme you’ve created. Also listen to what everyone is saying, handle the objects, smell the air, savor the tastes.

Engage all the senses

BE: “Don’t just write visually. You want people to feel as well as see. What are the sounds, smells, temperature. Don’t describe the rain, describe how it feels.”

AR: And don’t forget tastes. Not just sweet, sour, salty, or bitter. Have you read any wine labels or gourmet menus lately? How about “earthy, fat, foxy, metallic, smoky, tart, velvety, and woody.” You can evoke flavors that go beyond the taste buds to create complex feelings about people and what they’re doing.

Keep writing

BE: Every day is best, but as much as you can, on a regular schedule. Eisler describes it as similar to learning a language, martial art, or musical instrument.

AR: I describe it as a spiritual practice, or better yet, an obsession. Sure it’s hard on your family and friends, but writing a book often takes over your life for a while as the top priority, pushing aside all else.

Read books on writing

BE: He mentions Stephen King On Writing, David Morrell’s Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, and Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing.

AR: I’d add “The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist” by Orhan Pamuk, and “The Situation and the Story” by Vivian Gornick.

Ask “what if?”

BE: Ask questions like “What if you cloned dinosaurs?” If the what-if question interests you enough, it’ll lead you to other questions, all of the who, what, where, when, why, how variety. “Follow those questions and you’ll start to find your story.”

AR: Or what if two lovers are on opposite sides of the American Civil War?

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Getting editorial guidance

Eisler says he got 50 rejections with his first book before finding an agent and getting published. Now he also recommends workshops, writers groups, anywhere you can get honest feedback from “someone who doesn’t owe you money.” And learn to discern the good from the bad suggestions.

Eisler was adamant about the value of working with a professional editor.

“Of course I need an editor,” Eisler said. “All writers need editors.”

How to get properly published

Eisler is one of the best-known authors to take on the traditional book industry, and is a strategic player in the complex and often devious game of book publishing today. In March of last year, Barry made big news by turning down a $500K advance from St. Martins/Macmillan to instead make a profit-sharing deal with Amazon. His decision was widely reported as a tipping point for a struggling book business flummoxed by the thriving self-publishing movement.

Eisler can get really steamed up on the subject of self-publishing, eBooks vs. paper, the future of traditional publishing, and what he sees as the true phenomenon and impact of Amazon.

At Grub Street in Boston, speaking at a session about Amazon and publishing Eisler said, “The Big 6 Legacy publishers are a cartel – OK, let’s call them a club – that pays royalties in lockstep, and reports them in byzantine statements.” Moreover, Eisler added, the consistent lack of competition resulted in no innovation in the past two or three decades.

What smart writers have learned

Here’s Eisler’s bottom line on getting published, from his website’s section called For Writers :

“All writers think of what they do as an art. Smart writers understand that writing is also a business. Really smart writers see themselves also as entrepreneurs.”

Writing the book is only the first step. “You are now running a company (albeit a sole proprietorship), and your company is responsible not only for creating the product, but also for marketing, branding, and selling it.”

He cites Joe Konrath as the first author to point out that normal book company royalties for e-books are especially unfair and inequitable when you consider that there’s virtually no cost for paper, no shipping charges, no warehousing. Authors, moreover, can make 70 – 100 percent if they publish themselves.

Paper and print books are becoming a niche market for people born before the advent of e-book readers like Kindle, the iPad, and the Nook.

“The question isn’t, will paper disappear? Did firearms eliminate the bow and arrow? No–some enthusiasts still hunt with a bow. Did the automobile eliminate the horse and buggy? No–I can still get a buggy ride around Central Park if I want.”

Publishing houses as we know them today are probably doomed. They’re still selling paper, an increasingly expensive commodity that requires millions of trees, huge warehouses, complex and expensive shipping, storage, returns.

Contrary to popular opinion, Eisler says, Amazon isn’t destroying book publishing. Amazon has made it possible for readers to find all books published by all publishers, a huge boon to backlist sales.

Amazon’s Kindle was the first eBook reader and proved that people would indeed buy and consume digital books. This act of breakthrough innovation could have emerged from traditional book publishing, but it didn’t. In fact it was opposed and resisted by them for years.

Amazon has initiated a broad variety of self-publishing programs for everything from grandma’s recipes to substantial books of quality literature by serious and often previously successful authors, thereby establishing a direct route from writer to reader without the need for gatekeepers or intermediaries.

You can read more on Eisler’s website, from an incendiary conversation with Joe Konrath in a 150 page pdf called Be the Monkey.

What about you?

Whether you agree with everything Eisler says or not, he’s provocative, smart, articulate and enjoying his own choices.

What do you think about all this? Let us know, in comments below.

29 Responses to What writers can learn from Barry Eisler

  1. Bridget McKenna

    Wish I could have been there!

    Thanks for this article, Alan. I think Barry Eisler is one of the smartest guys out there educating writers on what’s going on in all aspects of publishing, and he’s a brilliant writer to boot. I’ve also been impressed with his generosity towards other writers as evidenced on the articles on his website. I’ve learned a lot from him over the eight years I’ve been reading his books and other writings.

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  3. Rosanne Dingli

    Yes – I wish I could partake of the buzz this entrepreneur creates with his presence. The most important sense I get from his notions and energy is that we can’t be Eisler. No one can. His art, as he says, is his art.

    By the same token, we cannot ALL go on to be as successful. The impression under which many writers labour today is one which modern parents give their children: “You can be anything you want to be if you try hard enough.” It’s nonsense. Many people work like trojans and gain only disappointment and frustration. There IS no foolproof formula, just as there is no adequate explanation why some fail where others go on to wow the world.

    This inability to define, formulate, or imitate inexplicable success is what allows the talking industry to develop – the public speeches, theories, and expressed opinions and hints are seen to be gold. Perhaps they are. I see sharing industry hints and strategies as a generous way for name authors to pay their way forward. They do run the hazard, however of giving the same encouragement ill-advised parents do when they offer their childen the “Anyone can be President, darling” line. Just as there is only one presidential place, the places for mega popular bestsellers, or household names authors, are not infinite, and Amazon itself shows us the reality of the strictures of those numbers.

    Provocative, smart and articulate, for sure. And I wish I could have been there. What I also wish is that he could elaborate one day, on the reality of the numbers in this industry, and how their empirical correlation with numbers of readers and so on bear a direct relationship with the probabilities of success.

  4. Alan Rinzler

    Rosanne,

    Writers and all other devoted folks in this business know how remote are the possibilities of success. But nevertheless, it’s like a calling — we keep writing, reading, and talking about it.

    Eisler sees common mistakes that can be avoided. He admires the great artists and tries to explain how they did it. He encourages learning those crafts and techniques that can in fact be acquired. He’s clear about the discipline, humility, and long-term effort necessary to do the best you can. He thinks it’s OK to be as helpful as possible, and so do I.

    Regarding the real numbers in the world of book writing and publishing: Not enough people in this country read or buy books, too many bad books are published both traditional and independent, 99 percent plus of those never sell enough, sink without a trace, and are consequently deleted, recycled, destroyed.

    Dauntless, those who must write and love to read sail on. I see from your website that you yourself are an independently published author and I congratulate you.

    Onward!

  5. Madison Woods

    I love listening to speakers like Eisler who can animate and awaken listeners. Having already found a measure of success helps considerably when venturing into self-publishing, too. I think I’ll take a mixed media approach. I’m getting short stories published in genre magazines, am working on a compilation of flash fiction with authors from around the world that’ll be self-published, but will begin pitching my novel to agents this fall. I’m definitely considering it a business venture and am trying to take a multi-prong approach without spreading myself too thin. Thanks for this post, I loved it!

  6. Jacob

    In response to the show don’t tell part of this post as well as to the previous post about details, what about a novel like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where the narrator consistently analyzes the characters motivations and feelings? It also relatively lacks concrete details. Why does this work?
    It seems like literature can exist on a spectrum from at least Kundera to McCarthy.
    As long as the internal world does not overly repeat the external world and vice versa, it doesn’t seem inevitable that a novel has to focus on concrete correlatives. It just might be easier to satisfy a reader that way, given that it easier to find common ground with our senses than with our mind.
    As you said, it can be tedious to read an analysis of a character’s motivation if their reasons for their decision/action are sufficiently apparent for the story to move on.
    To sum up, perhaps an alternative dictum is: don’t show and tell at the same time.
    Thoughts?

  7. Susan Gourley

    I think aspiring writers have more hope of success in the competitive market of self-publishing than ever before and it will only improve as more and more readers get all their material from digital services. It’s difficult not to agree with most of what Barry says if you’ve had dealings with the ‘cartel’ of the big six.

  8. Amanda

    I do like that Follet quote…. I also liked it when it was the title of an Elizabeth Peters mystery, “The Last Camel Died at Noon.” :P One sentence can certainly carry a wealth of drama or comedy depending upon your expectations of the author.

  9. Lena

    Superb! Totally loved his rules of craft. Truly an inspiration. Thanks for this awesome post.

  10. keith long

    What is ethical? I am about to offer my non fiction book to literary agents to pitch to publishers. I have to write to dozens of agents because I can’t wait 6 to 8 weeks to hear if one literary agent will respond or not. So if I get 4 agents expressing an interest, how do I select one. How do I find out which agent has access to the publishers that offer the most advance for a non fiction book? Do I have to be locked into one agent and forsake all others?

    Thanks

  11. Melanie Walsh

    Great article, Alan. Eisler is an inspiration for all authors; he’s the real deal.

    Regards
    Mel

  12. Alan Rinzler

    Jacob,
     
    The Unbearable Lightness of Being uses a first person narrative voice that provides continuing tangential analysis and commentary, while at the same time creating memorable characters in a story that’s dramatic almost in spite of itself. But Milan Kundera’s end of the spectrum from show to tell is sparsely populated and I don’t recommend emulating him or his book as a role model. Concrete sensations and actions in specific places still seems to me the best way to tell the deepest and most complicated story, and is actually harder, not easier, than interpreting everything for the reader.

  13. Alan Rinzler

    Keith,
     
    It’s OK to submit to more than one agent at a time, but to be ethical, you must let each of them know you’re doing that. Some may say “never mind, exclusive only”,  but others will understand. If you’re so fortunate as to get more than one agent, fall back on what I hope was your original research to find the best possible agents for your book in order of preference. The criteria is whom have they represented before that you admire or has written something related to what you’ve written, and is quick to respond. Then have a substantial meeting or phone call to see which of the candidates seems the most savvy, personable, professional and enthusiastic.

  14. Morris Workman

    Thanks so much for sharing this. Every day, I receive so many come-ons and temptations from organizations trying to sell me the latest publishing “expert” coming to my area. Not only did you validate Eisler as a speaker worth hearing, you also shared some of his nuggets. I very much enjoyed this trip past the hors d’oeuvres table, which has whet my appetite for more.

  15. Michael A. Robson

    What an Epic Blog post. This site just keeps getting better and better. And Eisler is a really cool guy. I read his ‘Monkey’ PDF about the Publishing Industry in the Digital Age. Fantastic.

  16. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    Regular publishing with trade or educational publishers does not always equate to a happy, or at the least, a satisfying accomplishment. I can speak from experience. That’s why I’ve now taken control of my publishing endeavors and have jumped on board the digital “train” to the inevitable future of digital publishing. I now have 24 titles on my Kindle bookshelf list: fiction, self-help and juvenile. And Amazon sells my books in Europe as well as America. I also have 12 screenplays on option with Amazonstudios.com because Amazon has branched into film and has a deal going with Warner Bros. They are taking the clout away from the gatekeepers in New York as well as in Hollywood. I have even placed two of my wife’s long short stories on the Kindle reader. We writers are no longer restricted or subject to the dictates of the New York trade publishers and their minions, the literary agents, as to what is required in word length or genre or whatever. We are free at last to publish what we write. But, of course, we are responsible for content. And all writers need an editor to help them get their manuscripts polished to a professional level. The amateur is in a hurry to get his/her stuff out there. But the real professional gets his/her work edited and into a state of perfection, or at least tries, before publishing. I do freelance editing myself, but I wouldn’t publish anything of mine until my private editor reads it, and we work on it together to get the novel/nonfiction book into proper reading shape. My editor is a real nitpicker; and that’s what you want, even though it’s annoying to have every little mistake pointed out to you. It’s the necessary ritual needed to be a real professional writer. Good luck everybody, and get edited, before you publish. Don’t let the gatekeepers tell you that you’re not good enough or that your novel isn’t long enough for a certain genre. Let the public dictate if what you produce doesn’t “hack” it in the literary marketplace of the future, which is already here, thank God!

  17. Harry

    Great article, and it’s wonderful to get help like this from two such brilliant men, but this constant barrage of propoganda from so many people about authors making between 70 and 100 percent with ebooks just isn’t the truth.
    Example.
    As an Australian my fiction is more interesting to Australian readers. When someone in Australia buys my self published ebook from Amazon, they will pay me 35%.
    This is a blatant ripoff, and is just one example of the many ways people are being led down the garden path by Amazon and those who promote it as the shining saviour of authors.

  18. Matt Roberts

    Fantastic read – many great take-homes here. Stuff like this really motivates me so thanks for sharing.

  19. Alan Rinzler

    Harry

    You’re right. My contact at Amazon’s executive customer relations confirms that books they sell in Australia have a royalty rate of 35 percent. For most of the world, however, including the UK, USA, and Europe, the rate is 70 percent.

    35 percent is still a lot more than traditional publishers offer anyone these days. The authors I know who have chosen Amazon are generally quite happy with their payment plans.

    For more on Amazon’s payment options, check out this link: https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/help?ie=UTF8&topicId=200634500

  20. Francine Toder

    I just stumbled on Alan’s articles and blogs quite by accident and learned more from Alan and Barry in one-read than I did from the courses in the Stanford creative writing program that I took last year.I am a mostly-retired clinical psychologist and writer – just finished my third non-fiction book and need to decide on a route to getting it published. My first two were published in the 80s and 90s when the publishing business was less about selling books and more about good content, art and creativity. I appreciate the perspective of the previous posts on the craft of writing and about self-publishing. 35% is still better than the 10% I remember receiving years ago from New York publishers. I would still love a traditional publishing house to take on my new book but don’t know how to get their attention without an agent. The few agents I’ve had a response from suggested that I take on a “celebrity co-author” even though the book is finished and I have credibility as an expert and a track record. Any thoughts about how I might proceed? Alan, the help you provide is invaluable. Thanks.

  21. Alan Rinzler

    Francine,

    Don’t take advice from any agent who hasn’t already taken you on whole-heartedly. That recommendation to take on a celebrity co-author, moreover, isn’t a good idea, since if you’re an expert with a track record in your field, there’s no reason for it, nor would anyone with integrity consider such a groundless request.

    Stick to your guns. If you can’t get a good agent, try a smaller or University press that doesn’t require an agent. And remember, self-publishing is an honorable alternative these days. Check it out!

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  23. Karleen Koen

    Alan, thanks for this. I just took the time to read Be the Monkey. What interesting, challenging, and exciting times we authors are in. I just left my agency of almost 30 years because of my dissatisfaction with both it and “legacy” publishing and what it seems to be doing–or not doing–to my career as a writer.

    I’m quite excited by this new world out there…..I’m an old dog ready to learn new tricks……..Thanks, again, Karleen Koen

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  25. Adrienne LaCava

    I learned more in this post than a handful of workshops. Thank you!

  26. Adam Dudley

    I think it’s all sound advice from a guy that you want to model if you’re a writer. His points about endeavoring to master the craft of writing resonate with me deeply, especially after reading Robert McKee’s Story. That made me realize that there are always principles to learn, which will make you a better artist.

  27. I.J.Vern

    Hi.

    Great article.

    The part I agree most on is the business and entrepreneur issues. Many writers see, refer to, and talk about their books as their “babies”. Which in my opinion is a wrong attitude and also tends towards an unprofessional one. After all, most people would not sell their children, right?

    Books are products, they are no more and no less than any product. And writers are not a superior cast over other professionals. But when someone refers to his/her product as a “baby”, it sounds like considering his/her product and him/herself as superior. Many professionals in their fields dedicate their life, time, put their heart, spirit, etc. in their products. Writers are not different.

    That attitude is also an impediment to success.

  28. Kell Brigan

    No one, anywhere, in the not-exactly-burgeoning self “publishing” industry (<200 copies average sales per "writer" is not exactly success, guys) has ever, anywhere, solved the slush problem. Amazon and Goodreads reviews are fake. The only bloggers who review selfies are corrupt. There is no mechanism anywhere to get the 99% of absolute crap out of the mix. Readers will not waste time wading through endless bullshit to try to find something worth reading. Any time a selfie uploads a file to Amazon, they add to the shit pile, and another wave of readers gives up on ever reading anything by anyone they didn't already read fifteen years ago. Selfies are killing opportunity for new writers; they should be universally condemned.

  29. Alan Rinzler

    Kell,

    The success rate in self-publishing is no worse than in traditional publishing, where more than 95% books sell fewer than 500 copies. Self publishing is an opportunity for new writers to have their work released and read rather than waiting for years while being ignored and rejected.

    If one reader enjoys a self-published book and tells another about it, the ball begins rolling, just like in traditional publishing. So I don’t share your condemnation of self-published writers, since they’re exactly the new writers who benefit from this opportunity for independent initiative and control.

    Alan

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