Monday, 6 October 2014

Different Rules for Different Writers



Readers do not treat all writers the same. This may seem obvious but a reader does not approach the latest best-seller from a well-known author with the same mind-set as they would a writer who has no track record. This means well-known authors tend not to be held to the same standards as someone trying to get people to read novel number one.

Not that those standards are necessarily better or worse, they’re just not the same.

However, much of what we think of as good writing and good storytelling comes from the books we read. And most of these books are from the established authors we all know and admire.

But if they can write in a way that less experienced writers might not be able to get away with, is it worth using these authors as role models? And exactly what, if anything, can we learn from them?


As readers we don’t necessarily look for stories that are immediately clear and direct. We are willing to undergo some confusion or vagueness if we feel it’s headed somewhere worthwhile. With an established author, especially one whose work we’ve read before and enjoyed, we at least know they are capable of delivering. That doesn’t mean they will deliver (many a great writer has produced a dud) but a little assurance goes a long way. We are at least willing to risk it.

With a novice writer there is no such assurance. That doesn’t mean the story won’t end up being a great read, but you’re going in blind and hoping for the best. The risk is greater. Stick with it and you’ll see it all comes together in the end, the novice writer will claim, and for some this will be true. For most it will not.

Most readers won’t want to take the risk. Time is precious, and who wants to read 150 pages before realising what they’re reading is a big steaming pile of hooey?

This is where the basic dos and don’ts of writing come in. Show don’t tell, strong opening line, likeable characters, avoid cliches, avoid adverbs, a first chapter that engages quickly... these are the sorts of guidelines new writers are advised to follow.

None of these are essential to telling a good tale, but what they do do is provide a little assurance that the writer is in control of what they’re doing, and a little assurance goes a long way. If a reader feels they know what’s going on and they like where things are headed they’re more likely to keep reading.

Thing is though, that may not be what the writer wants. They might want the reader to be unclear on exactly what’s happening or what a character’s motivations are. The kind of books the writer likes might not spoonfeed the reader in the way the writer is expected to. 

Indeed, if you read books by bestselling authors with a large fan base you might find that they’re books can be very different from the received wisdom. Ponderous starts, tangential riffs that go nowhere, an age to get the plot going. And it’s not like people aren’t aware of these deficiencies. Critics will point them out, fans will blog about it and teachers will use them as examples of poor writing. And yet they will still sell in the millions.

This tends to be especially true for books written once the author has had a really big hit or two, or well into a long running series. If you look at their earlier books they will usually be much more likely to follow the kind of rules and guidelines aspiring writers are familiar with. So if they’re capable of writing like that, why don’t they keep doing it? Laziness? A deterioration of talent? Dementia?

The simple answer is because they don’t need to. The purpose of writing in that particular way is for the benefit of the reader not the story. It’s more enjoyable to write in the way you feel like writing rather than in a prescribed manner. Nobody jumps through hoops because they love hoop jumping. It may turn out that the story comes to you in a way that fits the traditional model, but it may not. And remoulding it isn’t always the most fun thing to do.

An established author has the luxury of not having to prove their credentials. If they’re big enough even people who have never read their books will be aware of those credentials. It may displease some readers to have to struggle through the first few chapters before figuring out what’s going on, but they’ll do it. And every time someone does that and finds the effort to have been worthwhile, then they’ll give that author even more latitude in future.

Of course, fail to live up to expectations and eventually you’ll run out of goodwill. But that can take years sometimes.

Getting to that point, though, has to be earned. It means sometimes having to be a little more analytical than you might want to be. A little less enigmatic, a little more precise.

And while you won’t be able to write like your literary heroes write straight away, it’s worth checking out their earlier work which might not be quite so self-indulgent. Of course if they’ve been around a long time the style of their earlier books might not be in vogue anymore, but at least you can be assured that even they had to the toe the line a little when they started out. And a little assurance goes a long way.

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14 comments:

dolorah said...

I like the notion that established authors suffer dementia during a long running series. Seems to fit. I'm reading 77 Shadow Street by Dean Koontz and I doubt I'll make it through this novel. I've been willing to wait for all the characters to come together to fight the monster, but at page 141, and a lot of unnecessary internalization from the monster about his origins and motives, and I'm done with the book. Guess Odd Thomas was his last best book.

mooderino said...

@Dolorah - it's quite common for years of success to spoil an author to the point where he just doesn't care anymore. Adulation warps you, apparently.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think some established authors grow bored and lazy, but they have to keep writing because it's expected. Another reason I want to quit before I hit that point.

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

Hm...I usually agree with everything you say, because, of course, genius flows the course together.

Maybe I'm just a renegade, but I personally give new writers more flexibility. There are too many authors, too many novels to waste a minute of my time to deal with an author/publisher that doesn't respect me enough to ensure every work is polished. I've given up on many a well-known author I even found paragraph after paragraph with typos sprinkled in there.

Don't insult me. I demand your best. I accept that the new author may not be as polished.

With that said, any novel with a muddled beginning gets deleted from my reader, and I won't be looking for new novels by that author.

Regards - Mac

mooderino said...

@Alex - Money tends to be a big incentive, so I've heard.

@Mac - there are people out there willing to give new authors a chance, but if things get rough most bail long before they would with a more well-known writer. Just the way of the world.

Jay Noel said...

You don't have to be a very good writer to "make it" in this business. Case in point: Stephanie Meyer. Even her fans know her prose and other literary skills are lacking. They don't care. They inhaled her books because she struck some kind of deep-rooted emotion many women and teens go through. Maybe that's her genius.

Lady Lilith said...

Although an established author does have some luxuries, they also have to keep up their good work.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

This was a thought-provoking post. I do like the idea that once you are an established writer, you are freer to write as you wish and not jump through hoops. But some of those hoops are pretty basic, and more than once I've been truly annoyed to pick up a book by an established author and found some really bad writing. In those cases, I felt like the editor no longer bothered to check before publishing on the assumption that the author wouldn't make any mistakes.

Patricia Lynne said...

You've spoken some big truths here. I've always wondered with big hit authors if part of the reason things change is because when they are new, like you said, they have to follow the rules, but also the publishing house does things to keep costs low. For example, something simple like page length. Look at JK Rowling's books and the page count increases drastically. Was it because she hit big so the publisher wasn't worried about saving money on page count? They knew people would buy the book no matter what the size? It just makes sense to me that a publisher would do things to minimize costs on a new author in order to get more profit once the book is available, but once that author has proven themselves as a seller, the worry isn't as big anymore.

mooderino said...

@Jay - what you have to say is generally more important than how you say it, although the gatekeepers have no idea what's going to connect with people so their focus is on the technical stuff because they feel they can at least gauge it somewhat.

@Lilith - up to a point. In some cases fans are so invested even lazy garbage sells well (for a while at least).

@Elizabeth - I guess it becomes harder and harder to tell a millionaire bestselling author they need to change stuff.

@Patricia - book length in general is a good indicator of how untouchable an author has gotten. The really big authors always seem to favour the massive tomes, and rarely is it necessary.

Murees Dupé said...

Excellent post.

Jay Noel said...

I agree. I think it's all about that first impression. Just look at the first Harry Potter book. Not one word was wasted. It was a tighter book in every sense. After it sold a bajillion copies, it's obvious the editors didn't do as much...um...editing.

Her next volumes were still spectacular, but they all needed some trimming and tightening up as well.

mooderino said...

@Murees - thanks.

@Jay - and yet didn't hurt her sales so who are we (or the editor) to say she's wrong? Basically I blame the children.

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