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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