No time to read?
It’s an odd phenomenon. Everyone is writing novels. It almost seems as if more people are writing them than reading them. Certainly that is the impression you get if you take a quick look at Twitter.
The problem is that having written them these new writers expect other people to read them. And they are bitterly disappointed when readers either don’t buy them or don’t enjoy them.
So why are so many people exposing themselves to almost inevitable disappointment?
In any other artistic endeavour aspiring wannabes generally feel they might need a bit of training – art school perhaps, or dance classes, or at the very least some singing or acting lessons; but with writing, of course, if you know how to hold a pen or navigate a keyboard, anyone can do it. Rustle up a story line, string 60,000+ words together and de da! you’ve written a novel!
And it’s so easy to publish now. You no longer have to wait months for an agent or publisher to deign to read your submission, your alluring approach letter, your agonisingly brief synopsis, your oh so manicured first three chapters, let alone wait another eternity for the remote possibility that they might condescend to see the rest. No, nowadays as soon as the last word is written you can hop onto KDP and by the next day your masterpiece is up on Amazon and ready to sell.
In the old days it was almost unheard of for a writer to get their first book published (most successful authors have several rejected manuscripts languishing in a bottom drawer somewhere). Now, (because they do it themselves,) it is the norm. And that’s fine, readers have a choice, they can sort out for themselves what they want to read and what to avoid. They can read the first few chapters before buying so they know what they are letting themselves in for.
But it does mean that many of the hopeful writers of those un-crafted, unpolished, sadly unstructured novels are going to be disappointed.
So what’s the solution? Well, not everyone can take an MA in Creative Writing, not everyone has access to good local writing courses. But there are lots of books about writing around. And of course, the biggest learning tool of them all, there are lots of excellent novels around too.
Reading is the key. And not just reading, analysing too, why a certain character comes alive on the page, why a particular scene seems so powerful, why you can’t stop turning the pages.
In the kind of market we have now it is even more important than ever to write a really good book. There is simply too much competition for anything less. So my advice to new writers is to read (and preferably in a range of genres and styles), to practice, hone your craft and not to publish until you are absolutely sure that you have created a well structured, readable, engaging, well edited novel that potential readers simply won’t be able to put down.
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If that is so, can you explain the ridiculous success of “50 shades of grey” ? And so many other books written by horny middleaged women that are sky rocketing on the charts? I read, I write, I edit. Yet, for the world of me I don’t understand how these people make it in commercial publishing. Yes, I understand they are mainly a business and are only after selling books…but shouldn’t they be concerned about the material they’re sending out to the world as well? We grew up with Classics such as “Pride and Prejudice, Gatsby, Alice in Wonderland” all written by wonderful writers with incredible prose, modern day masterpieces like “Harry potter” will always be unforgettable, yet now 13year old girls are reading about a woman who agrees to be a sex slave to some hunk with money? Really?
Yes, I agree, it does sometimes seem like a travesty that poorly written, salacious novels often seem to do so well. But, if it’s any consolation, they are generally one trick wonders, fuelled by media hype, and for most of us it is important to try to build a dedicated following rather than be a flash in the pan! Also, in my view, if lots of people want to read that type of novel that’s fine, let them, it doesn’t mean that there are any less readers for other types of books. That is one of the nice things about writing, it isn’t a competition, there are limitless numbers of readers out there so there is room for all sorts of writers. I am also a bit of a believer in the idea that reading anything is better than not reading at all. At least it instils the habit of reading. Plenty of readers, young and old, may enjoy a bit of light fluff (even it is daft and over sexed) occasionally, but that doesn’t mean that’s all they read. It’s a funny old world and everyone has different tastes, and on the whole I think that is a good thing, especially for writers, it means we have a better chance of finding an audience for the type of books we write.
I really appreciate your advice and I’m watching and learning as always. The problem for me, is that there are so many books I’m yearning to read, so I find it so hard to re-read a book, no matter how much I love it. Discipline – again!
Yes, that is a problem! As Alain de Botton points out we are inundated with books and other cultural (and not so cultural!) stimulation nowadays, whereas in the past there would only have been the bible + a couple of classics available so people got to know them really well. I suppose the technique is to choose one or two that really work for you and use those for analysis, and just allow yourself to relax and enjoy the others!
One point I think is interesting is not just reading novels (where on the whole I tend to be racing through to get to the end) – but re-reading them. I remember once going to a talk by the author Marcia Willett, who had got her first book published effortlessly (you could sense the envy from us wannabe authors in the room) – someone asked if she’d got ‘rejected novels in bottom drawers/been on any writing courses etc) and Marcia said no, but that what she had always done was to re-read novels that she really loved, because the second (and subsequent) times she could see more how they were constructed/how dialogue was handled/how the author reeled you in, etc. I thought that was really interesting, and I’ve become (even more) of a re-reader as a result.
Absolutely, it’s almost impossible to analyse a good novel on the first read. However hard you try you get too involved with the characters and their story. So a second (third or fourth), more attentive read, is the answer.
Wonderful advice! I’d noticed this trend too and your post really addresses the negatives without denying the exisiting positives of self-publishing. I wish more new writers would take the time to know themselves–and their flaws–before inviting the whole world in. It would save them a lot of wasted effort and even some shame down the road. I know I’d pay to have back the couple of stories I’ve published, just to fix them one more time.
Thanks, yes, it’s so important for so many reasons to get writing as good as it can be before publishing. The other problem is that if new writers are discouraged by a poor response to their first efforts it might put them off completely, when with time they might have developed into great storytellers.
You’re so right too. I have the problem of disengaging in much of the poetry I read. Most of my reading pertain to neuroscience and psychology or I read philosophy. Oddly enough I then vent with poetry…
I will have to switch it up a bit. Thank you for taking the time to write this.
This is great advice and something that has helped my writing. I have learned so much from reading really good novels and I feel better about myself when I read really bad novels, actually I stop reading them if they are really bad. Thanks for the post.
Absolutely, that’s a good point. You can learn from good and bad novels!