The Red Pen of Doom

Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

As is my custom, and habit, and my Bobby Brown prerogative, I’m going to go with the first page — as printed.

You know, printed with ink at these places we used to call “stores of books,” where you handed the nice folks who live there paper decorated with dead presidents and they let you walk out with ALL KINDS OF YUMMY WORDS.

So if you read the first page of this thing on a Kindle or iPad or Atari 2600, your page 1 will doubtless look different and such. Please give my regards to the Complaint Department.

After a line edit of Page 1, we’ll talk about our general literary impressions — about how metaphors are like similes, only different; about how my hatred of semi-colons runs deeper than my loathing of A-Rod; and how somebody wrote a mainstream and incredibly successful novel about sexy nonsense without putting any sort of sexy nonsense whatsoever on page 1.


Does the title and cover matter? Nah. Only if you want to sell 40 bazillion books.


I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.  (This may be a world record. Bam, in the first sentence, she breaks a cardinal rule of fiction writing: don’t tell readers what the hero or heroine looks like by having them stare into a mirror, gaze upon their reflection in a pond or, I don’t know, whip out their driver’s license and say, “Huh, five-foot-ten, a hundred and twenty pounds, red hair, green eyes and a few freckles. Howbout that?” Ugh. This is not exactly “Call me Ishmael.”) Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. (Unless the heroine’s hair is crucial to the plot — unless she starts out with unruly hair in Act 1, switches to a bob in Act 2 and shows how much she’s grown and changed by rocking a purple Mohawk in Act 3, the hair, it is Boring, and a Distraction. Also, nobody refers to friends and such by their full name. If she’s your bestie, you say “Katherine.”) I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. (Enough already with the hair. Seriously. The only two words with any kind of real conflict and potential are “final exams,” and unless she flunks those, and therefore gets kicked out of university and has to live under a bridge in a cardboard box, it does not matter for the story.) Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. (More about the hair? MORE? Not necessary, not interesting and not entertaining, unless her hair is secretly a sentient being, organizing a plot to take over the world, one follicle at a time. I’m guessing Bruce Willis, being immune from such attacks, will get recruited to foil this plot in DIE HARD 17: THE HAIR DYES HARDEST.) I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. (Back to the staring-at-the-mirror trick, which has to go. Find another way to describe the heroine and make the reader care about what the heroine looks like in the first place. I don’t know, a conflict, a situation, a hook.) My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable. (Now we’re beating the Dead  Hair Horse on its way to the glue factory.)

Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never heard of, for the student newspaper. (Awkward. First reference is Katherine Kavanaugh and now she’s Kate — just call her Kate both times. Also, how many student newspapers score interviews with “mega-industrial tycoons” … who you’ve never heard of? If they’re really mega, then you have heard of them. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and so forth. If you haven’t heard of them, they aren’t mega at all. Edited text follows in red.) Kate is my roommate and she’s chosen today, of all days, to succumb to the flu. That means I’m stuck interviewing some industrial tycoon for the student newspaper. So I have been volunteered. (Redundant.) I have final exams to cram for, (already said that) one essay to finish, and I’m supposed to be working this afternoon, but no – today I have to drive a hundred and sixty-five miles to downtown Seattle in order to meet the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. As an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university, his time is extraordinarily precious – much more precious than mine – but he has granted Kate an interview. A real coup, she tells me.

Damn her extracurricular activities. (The last sentences were brought to you by the letter E: enigmatic, exceptional entrepreneur, extraordinarily, extracurricular. There are other modifiers that start with the letter E: extraneous, excruciating and ejector seat. I am looking for the handle, because it’s time to pull it.)

Kate is huddled on the couch in the living room.

“Ana, I’m sorry. It took me nine months to get this interview. It will take another six to reschedule, and we’ll both have graduated by then. As the editor, I can’t blow this off. Please,” Kate begs me in her rasping, sorethroat (compound modifier) voice. How does she do it? Even ill

(end of page 1)

Notes from the Red Pen of Doom

Are you kidding me? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

I thought THE FOUNTAINHEAD was a bad Page 1 (here’s my post about that debacle), but Ayn Rand is flipping Shakespeare compared to FIFTY SHADES OF AWFUL.

Page 1 of this turkey consumed barrels and barrels of red ink, even though all my red ink is digital and such. Had to change my way of editing to handle this thing, because usually, anything edited gets turned red, but if I did that to this first page, 90 percent of this thing would be red, and it would be all Confusing and such.

So this is a mess, and not a hot mess.

God bless anybody who sells a ton of books or movie tickets. I adore books and movies, and the more people read books, and see good movies, the better. HOWEVER: the first page of a book is a lot like the trailer for a movie. You start out with your best stuff, and it’s a rock-solid guarantee that the writing doesn’t get magically better ten pages or 100 pages later.

The first page, and the first chapter, get polished and polished until they are a shiny diamond made of words.

Maybe you could argue this book is the one exception to that rule.

From the reviews of this book, though, that’s not the case. Here’s a review of the novel in the London Review of Books.

So why did something like this sell like hotcakes?

I believe, deep in my soul, that packaging matters more than the product. Not because that’s how things should be. It’s just reality.

The title of a book — or a movie, or a TV show — can save your bacon or kill you dead.

What else can sell or sink you? Images. That’s why the cover of a book or punk rock album is so important. It’s why we remember the movie poster for JAWS. When we’re thinking about what to spend our monies on in Barnes and Noble, and  what to see on Friday night at those giant buildings where popcorn costs $9 a bucket, covers and posters and titles are where we start. Images are more visceral and powerful than words. I am not making that up. THERE IS SCIENCE AND SUCH.

Also, quality itself doesn’t sell. You need something else, a different hook. (Related posts: You can pitch ANYTHING except quality and Quirks and legs matter more than talent and perfection)

If you gave this a more typical title for the genre, and a more typical book cover, you’d probably end up with a title like A BUSINESS AFFAIR and some kind of Ryan Gosling clone wearing a suit on the cover with the heroine nearby, messing with her pony tail while she wears the highest of high heels and a business suit with a skirt that is just this side of immodest. Or the cover would feature a blindfold and a pair of handcuffs.

If you really want to go traditional, it’d be Fabio wearing a suit while he holds a blindfold and a pair of handcuffs.

(Related posts: Romance novelists are a secret, epic army of man boosters and Why every man should read a romance — and every woman a thriller and The best Fabio romance cover OF ALL TIME)

And if you put that different title and cover on this very same book, it wouldn’t sell 40 bazillion copies and get turned into a movie. It’d be just another book in a genre that isn’t exactly new and wanting for titles.

I bet you anything the unusual title and cover is why FIFTY SHADES OF GREY went viral and became a smashing success.

True story: guess what the author of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO wanted as a title for his novel? Go ahead. Guess.


Originally, Stieg the Larsson wanted to title his novel MEN WHO HATE WOMEN. Think would sell more than five copies to his mom?

I am not making this up: Larsson wanted to go with MEN WHO HATE WOMEN.

Raise your hand if you think that title would have set the world on fire and led to hit movies starring James Bond.

The title and cover — the packaging — are 90 percent of the battle. The packaging matters more than the product.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is an interesting, literary title. The cover photo of a grey tie is also atypical of the genre and really stands out. The combined effect gives the book a literary veneer.

Some people might feel embarrassed getting on Flight 435 to Frankfurt and pulling out a paperback titled A BUSINESS AFFAIR with Fabio holding a blindfold and handcuffs on the cover. And you can bet the male audience for such books is hard to find with a microscope.

Give the same novel a different title and cover — and the gloss of lit-rah-sure — and that makes it OK for people to read what they might otherwise never get caught dead: romance and erotica.

This reminds me of the early Eric van Lustbader novels, like THE NINJA, which were hot sellers because they slipped in page after page of shockingly naughty scenes to readers — mostly men — who simply expected ninjas fighting with swords and such. It was like a James Bond movie where they didn’t fade out when 007 kissed the girl, but switched from a nice safe PG movie to something unsafe and dangerous and wild. I can tell you 14-year-old boys around the globe had their minds blown. You can print this kind of stuff without getting arrested? I can buy it at the store and they don’t ask for my driver’s license, because I don’t have one yet? NO WAY.


Back to  FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and why the first page, aside from the awkward messiness of it all, is just not interesting. You could hire a team of authors to rewrite the same plot points and they would throw up their hands and say forget it, we can’t do magical things with wet unruly hair and cramming for finals week, because there’s nothing truly at stake here.

It is beyond boring to read about some college student kvetch about her hair and her schedule. Try having a job and a kid and a commute, then talk to me.

There’s no conflict, no reason to care about the heroine. Is she fighting for any cause greater than herself? Are there public stakes at all? No. Private stakes that we can divine? No. Maybe if her boyfriend just dumped her, hey, now we have somewhere to go. A catalyst, a hook. But we’ve got nothing to work with here.

The heroine seems shallow and self-centered. I have no feelings about her, Kate or this Mr. Grey, because there’s nothing on the page to make me care, and no foreshadowing that anything more exciting or interesting might happen on page 2, page 22 or page 222.

I don’t mind entertaining trash, no matter the genre. In fact, better that a book or movie embraces its entertaining trashiness than beats me on the head with the Cudgel of Prententious Nonsense, which is never any fun at all.

HOWEVER: Entertaining trash better be GOOD trash, and not forget the entertaining part. This page 1 is an epic fail on both counts.



This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

About Guy Bergstrom

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot.

67 comments on “The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

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  7. Shirley
    December 20, 2014

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  18. Talia Hardy
    April 5, 2014

    I sat and read and thought ‘He, He, He,’ but for all the right reasons. Whereas if I had read the first page of Black’s bucket of slime I’d have thought ‘He, He, he.’ for much the same reasons as you have noted. It is also a reminder to me to never be drawn in that kind of opening when I write, unless of course I want to write chick-lit. Which of course I don’t. Thanks Guy.


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  33. Shannon (Giraffe Days)
    July 27, 2013

    So true, the writing in this book is REALLY bad, especially that first page – this brought back all the memories! Love your edits, much smoother. I have to say, that while there isn’t any conflict, there is a great deal of (cheesy) anticipation. I mean, it’s a romance cliche, but as soon as you get those keywords and learn – as is thrust at us on the first page – that she’s a young, innocent and ignorant girl about to go meet a tycoon, you know exactly what’s coming.

    Yeah Men Who Hate Women is the original Swedish title but wouldn’t have gone down so well in English, but I actually love it, because it’s exactly what the book’s about. Doesn’t have a great ring to it like “The girl…” titles do, though. Oh and wow, I had no idea Eric van Lustbader’s ninja books were like that! Might have been more interested in reading them if I had! 😉


    • Guy Bergstrom
      July 27, 2013

      Did you read the entire book? Whoah.

      I know enough about romance novels to be dangerous, but that’s another story.

      Thanks for commenting — I like how your brain works.


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  37. Elise Logan
    November 18, 2012

    You know I wanted you to do this. I’m so, so glad you did. It is Epic.

    I hate these books with a passion that burns like a thousand dying suns. I hate the writing, I hate the characters, I hate the picture it paints of what BDSM is “like.” The ONLY thing I like about these books are the covers. You totally nailed that.


  38. Johann Thorsson
    October 25, 2012

    I took a look at a copy of Fifty Shades at the store yesterday, just to see if that was REALLY the actual first page. Turns out it is, and you are right to gut it like a fish.

    Also… in Scandinavia (I live in Iceland) Larsons’s book WAS sold (and is still in stores) as Men Who Hate Women… and it sold well.


    • Guy
      October 25, 2012

      Iceland! Had a lot of fun in your country. Beautiful.

      Cannot believe Larsson wanted that title. Crazy.


    • jobrazil
      November 1, 2012

      In Brazil the title was something like that: Men who did not love women: Os homens que não amavam as mulheres. Slightly better but not as interesting as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

      The third one was even stranger: the queen of the air castle: A rainha do castelo de ar. Go figure.


  39. I love this post, not only because you’re right about nearly all you’ve reasonably ranted about but because you say KVETCH.


  40. Laura W,
    October 24, 2012

    This first page just makes the protag sound like a b*tch. First her hair isn’t completely and utterly perfect. You are a woman. We all have bad hair days. Freaking deal with it. Then she’s whining about all her stuff to do. Then she’s being extremely mean about her roommate! Why the heck should the roommate APOLOGIZE for her success? For spending more time on her career and job interview than the main character, who is, after all, only her roommate? Protag is already looking clingy and weird and jealous…of the potential relationship of her roommate to a person/corporation she’s never met.


    • Guy
      October 24, 2012

      Agreed. If this were one of those mysteries / thrillers where the first chapter shows the victim before the Twisted Genius Serial Killer stalks and kills her in some twisted genius way, the audience would think, “Yeah, she was kinda whiny anyway.”


  41. Willa
    October 24, 2012

    The only reason this book went viral in the first place is because the author exploited the fanbase she gathered in the Twilight fanfiction realm. It was terrible as fanfiction, and it is embarrassing in print. The only explanation I have for the success of this rubbish is the deal she obviously made with the devil. I only say that because I don’t have it in me to believe America’s population is this stupid. Just say it isn’t so. . .

    Liked by 1 person

  42. antoniaromera
    October 24, 2012

    Thanks for the post and for the link to London Review of Books, Guy! I though to be the one thinking that is a comedy trilogy. LOL

    I loved the post.


  43. Charron's Chatter
    October 24, 2012

    astute critique. (I–of course–am still brushing my unruly mop of hair, but felt compelled to comment.) I agree 100%.


  44. The Attorney At Large
    October 24, 2012

    Aw, hugs from PDX. Glad you took one for the team. (You and Andrew O’Hagen — when I read his review, I tore it out and mailed it to a romance author friend.)


  45. juliabarrett
    October 24, 2012

    I’m sick as a dang dog with pneumonia and you have me ROTFLMAO! Yes, marketing marketing marketing! Cuz like… I’d really run to buy a book entitled Men Who Hate Women.
    Fifty Shades? I wanted to beat the annoying heroine to death with a meat tenderizer in addition to everyone associated with quite possibly the worst book (series) ever to sell a bazillion copies. It’s like some horrible joke gone wrong.
    Clifford the Big Red Dog makes for far more entertaining reading. In fact, I’ll take Where’s Waldo and I think Waldo should be drawn and quartered.
    See here: Fifty Shades of Ignorance –
    After the manicurist in question finished all three books, she told me she felt like a complete idiot. She said – “What was I thinking?” And she went on to read a nonfic book about the discovery of Australia, saying – “I had to get the taste of Fifty Shades out of my brain.”


    • Guy
      October 24, 2012

      What you say is chock full of Truthiness and wisdom.


  46. Liesel Hill
    October 24, 2012

    Awesome! Thank you for tearing this book apart and telling the truth about the writing and story! I steadfastly REFUSE to read this one, having heard lots about it and read some excerpts, and people act like I’m a racist or something. This post had me LOL-ing for 10 full minutes! Thanks! 😀


  47. Gil8ert
    October 24, 2012

    Dude, second to last paragraph “I don’t entertaining trash, no matter the genre” – Sort it!! 😛


    • Guy
      October 24, 2012

      Sorted. That entire sentence was rubbish.


  48. Mark Andrew Edwards
    October 24, 2012

    My wife, who deeply and passionately hated the Twilight books, read this book cover to cover in a day and a half. That just doesn’t happen to her. So I picked it up and looked at it from my lofty perch of aspiring writer and critique group organizer and….yeah. All your comments on page one hit the mark. If I was an editor or agent and this was in my slush pile, I’d toss it.

    The problem is, the people who are buying and devouring this book aren’t editors or writers, for the most part. They’re normal schlubs. They’ve heard about how naughty it is or how it’s a Twilight fan fiction piece or whatever and they start to read it. But they’re not editors or agents who go through ten, twenty manuscripts a day. They bought/checked out this book, they’re going to give it a chance and read the first couple chapters. And they get hooked. Because they like the main character. Because she’s not as pathetic as Bella Swan. Because the rich guy has drama and pain and they want to fix him.

    Yeah, the first page is important. To editors. All that stuff that’s missing: stakes, conflict, character development…that all shows up. Not on page one, but it’s there in the book. That, and the hot sex scenes, is what is selling this book.

    It’s not well written, neither were most of Mickey Spillane’s books. But I sure wouldn’t mind his or her sales figures. Character, drama, hooks (the sex and bondage, in this case) matter more than good writing. Sad, but true.


  49. Seumas Gallacher
    October 24, 2012

    Exceptionally erudite elucidation of energetic egress of enema..summed 50SOG, expertly, elegantly, entirely..God, I hate alliteration, don’t you .. great post, that person…:):) now I’ve gotta follow your blog, right ? ;):)..


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  52. Guy – you hit the nail on the head. I’ve not read the book and don’t plan to. Thanks for the amusing hash-up — it made my day!


    • Guy
      October 24, 2012

      My pleasure. Thanks for commenting.


  53. Kilian Metcalf
    October 24, 2012

    I have bought three books because I loved the covers. Didn’t finish any of them.

    Farmers & Mercenaries:
    Mysteries of Married Women:
    Her Last Fling:

    Great covers, though.


    • Guy
      October 24, 2012

      All true. Great covers will seduce and betray you.


  54. Jon Rieley-Goddard
    October 24, 2012

    Was grumping about my flat-line, brain-dead novel to my wife the other night. She looked at me and said, “Well, your characters could always have sex.”

    Maybe I’m really not looking for feedback after all. I mean, I love my characters and all, but that would be just cheap.;

    Seems that all her friends are reading *Fifty Shades of*. And here is what I like about her. She is not.

    An aside re: beating a dead horse on the way to the glue factory.

    Wish I had written that.


  55. Gwen Hernandez
    October 24, 2012

    I honestly think these books did so well because of the curiosity factor. The author started with a huge following from her fan fiction–which this book basically is–and it spiraled. Now people buy it just to see what the fuss is about. And apparently, eventually, the characters/emotion suck readers in so they want to finish the series.

    I’ll never know.


    • Guy
      October 24, 2012

      The book is nothing new or special. It’s an old genre made respectable with a mainstream cover and title.


  56. AA
    October 24, 2012

    Actually that’s what Larsson DID title his book… But it was lost in translation.


    • Guy
      October 24, 2012

      Too bad, isn’t it? Wish he could have lived to see all this success.


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