In recent months, I’ve developed a passion for writers’ events – small gatherings where novelists and potential novelists gather to compare notes and talk about their approach to the written word. The events tend to have dual themes: dealing with the nuance of putting pen to paper successfully (be it in marketing, editing, structure, or dialogue), and the presence of talented and acclaimed authors. Those authors who are present tell you their thoughts, processes, and struggles, including the harsh realities of their experience writing, and what they’ve learned on the way to selling a whole lot of books.
I’ve found that listening to writers has impacted heavily on how I read. Certainly, it’s impacted how I read these particular authors’ books, as I have a small sense of where they’re coming from, but it’s also influenced how I see fictional texts in general, from what to read between the lines, to how I shop for books.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. For the writer, characters often run far deeper than a story might suggest.
For a long time, I was confused why J.K. Rowling kept adding little details to the Harry Potter books over the years. From confirming or denying fan theories to assigning sexualities and exploring motivations, Rowling’s clarifications of what was originally written in her award-winning novels have been regular and varied. Recently it clicked for me, when a series of authors told me they’ve already thought about all these unwritten characteristics of their own characters.
They’ve connected with their characters in a way that runs far deeper than the words that actually make it in the final version of book. They’ve envisaged sitting down for a coffee together, they’ve played out scenes in their heads, examined the hidden reasons the characters behave in certain ways, and thought about their belief systems. This works wonderfully when it is passed on subtly to the reader. Whether it’s in surmising a nationality that’s never actually been given, placing a character in a social class, or relating a fictional being to someone you know, the tenuous mental links that come into play because of character development can be what elevates a book. It’s scarcely surprising, then, that authors insist in defining their characters so carefully.
2. A lot of authors don’t like their first books.
In fact, it seems to be a firmly established theme. No doubt we’d all like to think we get progressively better at what we do, but equally, there’s certainly an argument to be made for the very best stories being written by people who’ve been storing them up for a lifetime before putting pen to paper (I can see a logical case for a bookish equivalent to ‘second album syndrome’).
For self-published authors, this dislike of first books seems to come down in a large part to editing. The ability to spot something you’ve written that doesn’t quite deliver your precise meaning in the way you intended is an acquired one, and it takes a great editor to interpret words that never left the mind in inky form. For others, it’s about clarity of point: getting across what you intended, only what you intended, and doing so unambiguously and eloquently. It’s not universal, of course, but there is a definite theme: most writers believe they’re at their best second, third, or fourth time around.
3. Reading is escapism. Writing is a slog.
The greatest challenges in life, it’s often said, come in making something exceptionally difficult look easy. Writing seems to fall into that category: the best books flow beautifully, taking you on such a journey you barely even notice the way the prose is constructed. Producing that effect is utterly painstaking, with authors agonising over vocabulary, feel, dialogue, flow, punctuation and hundreds of other little elements of the written word, the things the rest of us gloss over whenever we’re penning an email. Dozens of hours staring at a short chapter is not just a thing, it’s bordering on a normal thing for authors.
4. A lot of editing is adding in the obvious.
One of the biggest challenges of writing is relaying the story that’s in the author’s head to the mind of the reader. In a sense, we face the same challenges when we speak every day. The advantage in speech, though, is the chance to read the body language of the listener, clarify, correct, adapt, and personalise the way you explain something. Usually, there’s an inbuilt feedback mechanism.
In writing you get a single shot, and delivering that message correctly is an art that often leaves out the obvious. We had it explained as follows: we might have something sat perfectly in our memory. We can picture, for example, the abandoned, ruined house that stars in that creepy story we love to tell. We know its every feature, its dingy location, its perilous feel and its freaky atmosphere. And then we write the words, “abandoned house” and wonder why the reader doesn’t really get a sense of it. A novel with a fantastic editor will give you the details you need to be seeing something like the same picture the author intended in the first place.
5. The paper vs. Kindle debate is still going in author circles.
As an owner of both a Kindle and a substantial library of books, I’ve often been amazed by the passion the Kindle debate ignites online. It multiplies in intensity when authors are involved. Of course, most opt to make their masterpieces electronically available (it’s a source of income, ultimately), but most of those in conventional writing contracts take issue with Amazon’s device. Apart from the obvious (almost all authors love holding the physical manifestation of their work), the reasons often relate to local bookshops. Those bookshops are core supporters of up-and-coming authors, hosting book launches, showcasing local talent and acting as a source of advertising. Authors know Amazon are slowly but surely killing those bookshops. While they need to sell their novels, some feel like the turkey guzzling away before Christmas.
6. Marketing is (at least) as important as the content of a book itself.
Sure, there are plenty of word-of-mouth bestselling novels, but the authors are exceptionally lucky, as well as talented. Plenty of smaller authors with smaller publishing deals report having a lot of trouble getting any kind of media recognition, getting stocked in bookshops, or simply working their way in front of the reader. Advertising might be a depressing reality of modern life, but before you buy your next book, is it worth considering whether you’ve been taken in by a glossy cover, the marketing blurb, or the placement in the bookshop? Authors differ a little on this one. Publishers, not so much.
7. Writers probably read more than you.
In fact, many writers are bordering on obsessed with curling up with a book, and most report reading substantially more than they write. A couple of writers explained that areas of their sentence structure and parts of their life experience relate to (or are influenced heavily by) something else they’ve read, and loved. It turns out ‘favourite books from a writer’s perspective’ is a common subject amongst authors, and while there seems to be a healthy respect in the community for anyone who’s managed to finish their tome, several of the writers I spoke to talked about how little passages of other books had caught their imagination vividly. In quite a few cases, this contributed in an abstract sense to their own writing, which means that when you read a novel and see echoes of another writer, you could well be bang on the money.
8. Most fiction novels include real-life elements.
This probably seems obvious, but it’s the way that these elements are introduced that most interested me. Some authors lift characters straight from the people of their hometown, renaming them and setting them in scenarios that progress their plot, copying mannerisms and speaking styles along the way. Others walk the environments that fill their stories, carefully extracting the little details they hope will give a sense of place to the plot. One admitted to their spouse being a core character, blended, somewhat perversely, with someone else they knew. So in effect, as well as your novel, you’re taking a little bit of the author home with you.
Of course, for any big novel there are certain to be readers that have visited the places featured, though knowing the people reflected seems less likely (perhaps that’s for the best!). When it comes to place, inaccuracies in feel can quickly cause problems in the suspension of disbelief. Which is a nice excuse for a research trip, right?
9. …So most authors hate writing sex scenes.
There are exceptions to this, of course, but not many. If you want to give away a lot about your intimate life, one way to do so is to pen a steamy scene, which most authors feel is all but guaranteed to say more than they intended. That’s not necessarily so, of course (we haven’t bought this up with a certain E.L. James), but you can see the thought process with the above in mind!
10. There are a few easy ways to help your favourite author.
For various reasons, ranging from publishing contracts to pride, authors won’t often tell you the easy ways to financially help them even through their own social media (at least not explicitly). For those a little way short of The New York Times bestseller list, however, there is lots you can do for your favourite author. This includes buying their book, tweeting your thoughts, reviewing online, or simply hitting the star button that reflects your opinion on a book review site.