This afternoon I drove four and a half hours to my parents’ house. After I finished serenading the tubs in my backseat with my excellent version of *NSync’s greatest hits, I popped in an audio book. It was a title by John Grisham. I haven’t read a Grisham novel in quite some time, and as I listened, I was struck by the difference in tone from what I usually read. (Also, I want someone to read my books to me. There’s something so unique about someone else’s interpretation of the words on the page.) For one thing, I realize that I have been reading a lot of Young Adult books, and the Adult books are going to sound different.
What really stood out to me, however, was the Grisham really takes time in his books to set things up. Lots of detail, lots of exposition. There are events happening at the same time, but he takes plenty of breaks to explain some aspect of the character’s personality, or some other important background detail. What happens in a minute in the courtroom may take ten minutes to read. I would consider John Grisham to be in that class of “old-school” writers who have been around forever, and I have to wonder how the modern writer compares.
I mentioned a few days ago that I’m participating in a contest called Pitch Madness, and that the slush readers have been tweeting out tips and tricks. This is similar to what I see many agents and editors do on Twitter. And, I’m going to be completely honest here, I find myself overwhelmed and confused at times.
A common bit of advice is to start the reader in the thick of the action. Not only that, make them care about the protagonist from the beginning. If you don’t do this in the first 250 words, you are probably going to get passed by. Give me action, make me care, and do it quickly, or I’m done. Don’t give me too much detail, but make sure I feel like I’m in the story. Don’t use too many descriptive words, but transport me to another time and/or place. Short, simple prose, none of this purpley junk.
Obviously, writers are able to do all of these things. Writers get signed/published regularly. But when I read many of my favorite books, they don’t necessarily follow those rules. “Well, they can get away with breaking the rules, they are already published!” But…if published authors break the rules, where did the rules come from?
I feel like the changing demands for writers are a reflection of our modern world. Everything is at our fingertips, quickly. No more waiting 20 minutes while we watch our Oregon Trail wagon trudge along. Now Billy, Sally, and Bob can die of dysentery, we can ford the river, hunt some game, and make our destination in five minutes. Game over, we win, move on.
Not only do we want things more immediately, we want more of everything. More graphic violence. More graphic language. More graphic sex. Otherwise it’s not edgy enough, not commercial enough, will not sell.
And it makes me kind of sad. So much pressure has been put on writers to entertain and provide exactly what we want and quickly, and in some cases I believe it does a disservice to readers. To their imaginations. To their ability to focus. And maybe that’s because they are seriously lacking in imagination and focus and patience. It’s all a cycle.
I don’t know what the point of this entry is, and I’m not entirely sure it makes sense. It’s late. Do you think that writing has changed in drastic ways? Certainly it must change as time changes, but is there a point where we begin to lose the depth and creativity that makes writing so challenging and reading so rewarding? And can we ever go back to the way things were?
I love this so much!!
I love this so much. I understand this is what we have to do to become recognized but I hate what society has evolved into, to require it.
It’s definitely a changing landscape, and hard to keep up at times. But we can do it! 🙂
I like a story to build up to the inciting event and so does my agent. I think what they mean is to have the story “in-action” meaning don’t let your characters sit around doing nothing, but don’t drop us in the middle of a car crash et al. I say do what feels right, but don’t bog down your prose. Details are good and must be interesting. I like the Plot Whisper. Google her – I use her way. My inciting events happen a quarter of the way into the story. Hope that helps.
I can already tell I am going to spend A LOT of time on the Plot Whisperer site. Very helpful, thank you!
I think the trick is that balancing act between having enough action at the beginning to hook a reader but not so much that they’re confused and overwhelmed. Like any balancing act, it takes practice to perfect, and there will always be slip-ups. Sometimes I just let myself get off-balance by over-analyzing and second guessing when I really just need to take a step back. Thanks for the feedback!
There are still writers out there who are good at taking their time (Brandon Sanderson is who pops into my head) But you’re right, there is so much pressure to have that flashy book that gives people those immediate needs. I know a girl who picked a pen name, wrote as much smut as she could in two weeks, stuck a cover on it, and made the bestseller list the day it released. She then told me I had to do the same if I really wanted to succeed. Excuse me? No thanks, I’d rather write something I’m proud of then make money off of something I just threw together. I think I’ll be happier in the end, and her money will be all spent. Anyway, sorry to rant, just brings up a lot of emotions thinking about it. Great post! Everything made perfect sense 🙂
Haha! Glad it made sense. Your comment didn’t sound like a rant to me. It does get frustrating sometimes seeing some of the junk that does get sold, but, like you, in the end I would rather have a product I am proud of than something I did solely for the sake of being published. If I couldn’t show it to my mom, I probably don’t want it on the shelves 😉