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A Literary Dichotomy: Simple Words, Not Simple Stories

There are those who write as a cerebral exercise, and then there are those authors who make money. Here’s an axiom that you should apply to all facets of life. People don’t like getting talked down to. 

Simple words don’t have to be conveyed simply. Words are the prism through which we deliver stories that explode in a starburst of color and emotion in our readers’ minds.

I once tested with an IQ of 153. I went to law school and didn’t find it that hard. I graduated summa cum laude. Yet I don’t have to tell people how smart I am because I’m not. Smart people don’t make the mistakes that I’ve made.

Every story has a theme, and every story delivers a part of the author to the reader. Whether it’s philosophy, religion, leadership, governance, or—my personal favorite—how much I detest bureaucrats, my ideas about the world always find their way into my books, but subtly so. Will readers know the seeds that I’ve planted? Maybe. Maybe not. 

Are you using a thesaurus to make yourself sound more intelligent? I recommend you don’t. Use the words you know to tell the story you are compelled to tell, but do it in a way that leaves the readers thinking. Making them think doesn’t require fifty-cent words and a dictionary. 

Look at it another way. If readers don’t read your story, have you accomplished what you set out to do? One study suggested the largest population of book buyers reads at the eighth-grade level. If you’re writing fancier than that, then you are losing your appeal to the greatest number of readers. How many people actually read The Silmarillion? If you have, kudos! Did you enjoy it?

I write books that people can read quickly. But I hide Easter eggs within the story and share my thoughts on what a better world looks like, no matter whether I’m writing about Earth or somewhere else. Subtle but impactful. I’ve sold over a million books written at, according to AutoCrit, a 6.3 grade level. I was shooting for eighth grade. My average is 1.3 syllables per word. Like I said, my books read fast. 

I don’t need to bend the reader’s mind, but I do want them thinking after they’ve finished. Every one of my characters acts with a purpose that makes sense to them. There’s no wanton violence for action’s sake. Everything is purpose driven and built upon relatable characters. We’re all one bad event away from turning into a villain. What would push any of us over the edge? 

Simple words. Complex subjects. Complex characters whose actions speak louder than their intentions. One step away from ignominy. 

Don’t get caught up in the debate between literary fiction and everyone else. Remember, no one likes to be talked down to. Write books that people want to read, and if you want to make money in this business, write for the greatest population of book buyers. You don’t have to surrender any of your ideals. Your challenge is to use the right words to convey the emotions in a way that best resonates with the most readers. 

Picture of Craig Martelle

Craig Martelle

High school Valedictorian enlists in the Marine Corps under a guaranteed tank contract. An inauspicious start that was quickly superseded by excelling in language study. Contract waived, a year at the Defense Language Institute to learn Russian and off to keep my ears on the big red machine during the Soviet years. Back to DLI for advanced Russian after reenlisting. Deploying. Then getting selected to get a commission. Earned a four-year degree in two years by majoring in Russian Language. It was a cop out, but I wanted to get back to the fleet. One summa cum laude graduation later, that’s where I found myself. My first gig as a second lieutenant was on a general staff. I did well enough that I stayed at that level or higher for the rest of my career, while getting some choice side gigs – UAE, Bahrain, Korea, Russia, and Ukraine. Major Martelle. I retired from the Marines after a couple years at the embassy in Moscow working arms control. The locals called me The German, because of my accent in Russian. That worked for me. It kept me off the radar. Just until it didn’t. Expelled after two years for activities inconsistent with my diplomatic status, I went to Ukraine. Can’t let twenty years of Russian language go to waste. More arms control. More diplomatic stuff. Then 9/11 and off to war. That was enough deployment for me. Then came retirement. Department of Homeland Security was a phenomenally miserable gig. I quit that job quickly enough and went to law school. A second summa cum laude later and I was working for a high-end consulting firm performing business diagnostics, business law, and leadership coaching. More deployments. For the money they paid me, I was good with that. Just until I wasn’t. Then I started writing. You’ll find Easter eggs from my career hidden within all my books. Enjoy the stories.

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