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🌲 On the Difficulty of Being Pithy
Bylines vs clever pitches, and remembering to share ideas that are difficult to sum up.
There are two main ways to attract readers: a good reputation or a good pitch.
The latter method revolves around the elevator pitch — a captivating idea that immediately grabs attention. It’s gotta be short enough that a busy executive couldn’t cut you off before you finish baiting your hook. A popular example is Gideon the Ninth, which is often described as “lesbian necromancers in space.” I didn’t personally ever manage to get very far into it, and my husband in particular was very frustrated by the ending, but it’s very popular with booksellers. Good ideas attract more attention — and sell more books — than good execution ever does.
I liken it to the value of Andy Matuschak’s oft-shared advice about how evergreen note titles should be an abstraction of the note itself. Not all notes are evergreen notes! Not all notes lend themselves well to being claim statements like the ones that dominate my personal riff off of a zettelkasten. Sometimes the note really does need a boring name like “health log” or “raiders” because the contents are too broad to pithily summarize. But when I’m just idly skimming my knowledge base, notes like “a leader can be too effective at collecting taxes” or “sharks might be responsible for sea serpent myths” are a lot more likely to catch my attention.
Similarly, I think most people intuitively understand that interesting, informative subject lines are more likely to be read than something like “Edition 15, Blue.” But as I’ve started using the Substack app more, I’ve noticed that a lot of substacks (mine included) have really unclear titles. I think it’s really unfortunate that Substack usually just shows the title & byline of a publication and not the pithy descriptions. ParentData by Emily Oster is a heck of a lot more informative than something like Scott Alexander’s Astral Codex Ten, although personally I enjoy the latter more.
Along those lines, I probably ought to consider changing the name of the Obsidian Iceberg, but the best idea I’ve got so far is Uncommon Sensemaking and that feels pretty pretentious. Seeing What Sticks? The Anthropology of Efficiency? Why couldn’t I have been one of those people who writes in a niche where you can get away with names like Practical Engineering or Raising Good Humans?
Unfortunately, not all writers have the luxury of selling their stories purely based on an amazing high concept. This brings us to the second method: selling a story using your byline. This can be a challenge, as most writers are midlisters poorly positioned for getting their names out there. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar does not need to worry about what to call his newsletter.
Think about people who buy media by folks like Brandon Sanderson, Quentin Tarantino, or Sid Meier. They aren’t necessarily doing it because a particular premise sounded intriguing. It's because they trust the creator — or, as is the case with folks like James Patterson & K. A. Applegate, like the brand that creator has built.
For instance, I first picked up Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice because I was interested in books with premises similar to Anne McCaffrey’s Brainship novels. Then when I bought The Raven Tower, it was purely because I thought Ann Leckie was a good author — the premise sounded weird, honestly, but Leckie has won a ton of awards and Ancillary Justice is one of the few books that I genuinely think deserved them. Most people don’t immediately think a second-person novel from the point of view of a giant rock is going to be up their alley, although I’ll concede that I’m more likely than most to read a book from the perspective of a god that is a literal rock…
But it’s not just famous or award-winning folks who can get by on reputation. I buy certain books because of the author's background. Ada Palmer and George R. R. Martin are historians. John Scalzi I found out about because of his involvement with SFWA. Miles Cameron, has a background in historical reenactment, and his books are the better for it — but I wouldn’t have picked them up on the basis of the high concept alone. I’m all but burnt out on “fantasy story in a medieval world starring a mercenary captain.” Yawn, been done, no matter how many dragons or how much magic you add. No, the selling point for me was the realism the author’s personal experiences brought to the book — it was recommended to me by a historian. It’s one of the few books I’ve ever written a longform review of — here’s my review of The Traitor Son Cycle if you’re not familiar with it.
Many of my writings don't aim for prestigious awards or fit the typical mold of what's featured in speculative fiction magazines. It took me a long time to internalize this, because as with folks who have dreamed of being authors, I admire these magazines. It wasn’t until I signed up to be a slush reader for the pro-rate SFF magazine Diabolical Plots that I really got it thru my head that these magazines optimize for gripping high concepts — which is a big reason for blinded slush piles, and why the authors are rarely household names.
It’s hard to come up with bunches of pithy high concept ideas, particularly for short fiction. It’s especially hard to do it often enough to make a living at it.
Publications like Daily Science Fiction mastered the art of delivering concise stories, mostly under 500 words, that are perfect for daily consumption. Those stories all come from different authors, and there’s no consistency between them, but with short fiction it matters a lot less. It’s not usually the byline that hooks the reader — it’s the title. Stuff like “Dear Joriah Kingsbane, It’s Me, Eviscerix the Sword of Destiny” by Alexei Collier. Such a good read.
But just as some books translate better to movies and others to TV series, not every story is designed for a certain award or platform — or financial reward. Many of my favorite short stories are part of anthologies, which are basically marketing materials for their authors that serve as gateways to wider universes, enticing readers to explore related novels. Themed anthologies, unlike the magazines and newsletters, typically rely on the reputations of the authors to sell copies. And unfortunately, a lot of popular authors seem kind of bad at writing that kind of story, so the anthologies rarely do well.
Given all that, in the interests of finding more good stuff to read, I ask for your help connecting me, a reader, with more authors worth reading — let your recommendation be the reputational component, and let me know if it’s got good writing or a particularly captivating idea as its underlying premise. I usually avoid economics blogs and podcasts, but I read everything Matt Levine writes, because he’s just so good at writing economics humor… but that’s honestly a terrible way to describe what makes him so great.
He just is — trust me!
Who else is out there doing a bang-up job of writing awesome content? Who is sharing something so important that it doesn’t really matter how good their prose skills are? You can probably assume I already know about the really famous people whose reputations precede them ;) But if you find yourself struggling to explain what makes a particular person’s writing great — if it’s a bit too complex and broad and nuanced to really pare down into a sentence or two — those are the folks I want to hear about.