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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Joshua Fields Millburn is the worst fiction writer on the planet

Have you heard of minimalism? It's a"new" movement to describe an old behavior of limiting the amount of "stuff" you have in order to lead a more focused life. One of my favorite blogs is The Minimalists which is a blog that is written by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. You can read the story of how they gave up their corporate jobs and most of their material possessions at their blog and in their non-fiction books. I find their inspirational books of essays to be impactful and packed with solid advice for living to the fullest. They've been a solid influence on me to get in shape, get organized and I even went to see them speak when they came to Boston. It was amazing. Joshua and Ryan have moved on to bigger and better things than being corporate drones and Joshua spends his time writing fiction. Unfortunately, Millburn is the worst fiction writer on the planet.

 If you read Amazon reviews you'll see a slew of five star reviews for JFM's books. He also teaches writing classes for $397 for an 8 week online session. On his blog he says:

At 30 I wasn't a published author. I had a stack of rejection letters from agents and publishers to prove it. But now, at 31, I have published four #1 bestselling books on my own and co-founded my own publishing community—Asymmetrical Press—where we help writers and other creative types circumvent the old guard. Over time, I slowly became an expert in the publishing world.
When Millburn releases a new work of fiction I'm always one of the first in line to get it. Not because I'm anxious to read it but because I need a new reminder of why I don't quit my corporate job and write. His fiction is awful. Some of what he does could be fixed by a good editor but some of it is just plain unworkable. Let's review some of what's wrong with his fiction. Full disclosure, I have never written a novel so he's a step ahead of me, but I've read a book on writing a novel so you can be assured that my critique is well informed by the best advice that Writer's Digest publications have to offer. So let's discuss JFM's novel length release As a Decade Fades.

He breaks the Les Edgerton rules of having a compelling beginning. Here is his first sentence:

Things could've been worse, but not much worse.
The chapter goes on to describe how the main character, Jody Grafton finds out that someone, yet to be introduced, is pregnant. Stories should always start with disasters but  just finding out someone is pregnant isn't always the next to worst thing I can imagine happening to someone. Oh yeah, unless you're a young guy with no job, no health insurance and who wants to live like a minimalist. That's a nightmare because the amount of stuff you have to pack around if you have a baby in this society is unreal. So I guess we do have what could be called a disaster but it's pretty narrow cast to a specific group of people. Universal fiction this will not be.

He uses long words. Normally this isn't a problem. I'm a huge fan of David Foster Wallace who is the king of obscure vocabulary so being a huge word nerd isn't a fatal flaw in itself. What makes Millburn's prose so awful is that he misuses the words. In a scene where Jody meets with one of his friends Michael, Millburn describes a conversation between Michael and Jody:
Michael's servile interlocutor lightened the mood, momentarily freeing Jody from his memories.
 Now I had to go back a few sentences to see who else was in this conversation, an interlocutor is a person who takes part in a conversation. Since in this sentence Jody and Michael are already both accounted for who is the interlocutor who is freeing Jody? There is no third person in this conversation and this sentence makes no sense. This is something an editor would have caught and killed immediately. Millburn has a few other gigantic vocabulary issues, for example describing a laundromat in the city as an "intramural space". One of my favorite lines is a reference to "pan-seared opulence". Is the goodness of the opulence sealed in shake and bake style?  Lesson to you, would be writer, if you're going to use two dollar words make sure you've got a three dollar dictionary at hand so that you're sure what they mean before they land on your page.

He forgets what he said one page to the next. On page 41, Jody is in Michael's apartment thinking about the neighborhood (which is probably the most boring thing a character could do).He thinks:
Nobody here has air conditioning. All iPhones but no A/ C.
This sentence is even written in italics in the novel for emphasis of some kind. However, in the same apartment four pages and four hours or so later:
Jody could hear the droning of a small window A/ C unit beyond the door to the sleeping roommate’s bedroom.
Wait what? Did the roommate go out and buy an air conditioner in the couple of hours between the navel gazing that Jody was engaged in a few hours earlier and now?  I mean this chapter is a giant jerk off of the main character sitting around and thinking but I guess that all of his deep thinking is flawed because he can't even wrap his head around whether or not there is an air conditioner running in the next room or not?

The previously mentioned issues could probably be fixed by a publication and editing process, assuming this novel had something worth saving. However he breaks the first commandment of fiction writing, don't bore your reader to death. This book is riddled with passages, characters and events that are brain numbing pointless drivel. If you took out everything that doesn't impact the story you wouldn't have a thing left. One chapter starts out with Jody riding a bus to meet Michael, on the bus he meets a girl named Shelly and has a conversation with her from page 25 to page 32. It ends with Shelly getting off the bus and giving Jody her phone number. On page 48 Jody has a dream about Shelly, in a spectacular string of overblown prose the dream ends like this:
She represented everything beautiful about life, a life without a past. And now she was leaving him. Or perhaps she was saving him. He wasn't sure which.
 Upon awakening, Jody decides to give Shelly a call, but the number is disconnected, Shelly has given Jody a wrong number. If you don't want to smash your Kindle after this resolution of the relationship between Jody and Shelly you aren't human. In the same chapter Millburn spends a paragraph describing the piles of belongings of a roommate that had moved out, and it's all boring stuff:
All his stuff was scattered chaotically into makeshift piles in one corner of the livingroom (sic): some musical recording equipment, DVDs, CDs, clothes, a pair of shoes, a single flip-flop, a partially deflated basketball, and garbage bags filled with God-knows-what else.
What did that paragraph tell you about the characters or the setting? Oh, that it happened sometime between 1998 and 2018. It's not even poetic, rhythmic or shocking. There's another paragraph where the characters walk to the laundromat and the people on the street who are described in a similar fashion "paid them no attention". So why are they there Millburn? At the laundry, a character  is described in detail down to the haircut, the skinny jeans and the color of his shirt. Then it is stated "He was clearly not from around here; he somehow fit in even less than Jody did." Leaving alone the limp use of the semicolon, if your description doesn't indicate why the character doesn't belong, leave it out. If it does explain, you don't need the summary. This book is chock full of redundant phrasing, flat prose that doesn't belong and characters and places that don't add anything to the story.

Next time you're wondering whether or not you have what it takes to become a professional writer, just remember that As a Decade Fades is in (self published) print and you'll feel much better about whatever you are producing. Thanks for stopping by and tell me who the worst writer in the world is in the comments.


  1. Wow...scathing! lol And those 5 star reviews could have been done by his family and friends.

    1. Possibly. I hope they just have a different opinion but who knows. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I do wonder why you kept reading. I give at most a third of a book which either bores or angers and then delete it from my Kindle forever.

    1. It's because I like his non-fiction so much that I desperately want to find something salvageable in his stories. I keep rolling snake eyes though.

  3. Roland,

    Thanks for this. It is encouragement I needed to realize why I haven't quit my job and tried to hawk some sort of online classes. When I write a book, will you be one of my editors?

  4. I really enjoyed this review from a book I've never heard of. Thanks for the heads up, because I did catch the guy's ad about his writing class. To be clear, I'd ever spend money like that unless I was super-rich, and the teacher was John Grisham or Stephen King. The line, "She represented everything beautiful about life, a life without a past. And now she was leaving him. Or perhaps she was saving him. He wasn't sure which.", made me laugh harder than I should have. She then gives him a wrong number, and it's a huge F U to the reader. This sounds like it was written by the guy that made that movie "The Room". Tommy what's-his-face.

    1. It was a nightmare. Thanks for the sympathy.

  5. Joshua Fields MillburnDecember 14, 2015 at 12:29 AM

    Roland, Fuck You!!!! Let's see you write a novel. Shit is hard work!!!!!

    1. Love it! You are a better blogger I'll give you that!


Hey I appreciate you leaving your thoughts behind! Be well my friend.