Posted tagged ‘successful author syndrome’

in which I speak of Nancy Drew moments

July 5, 2011

In a recent long weekend involving hundreds of miles of road travel (yet another distraction from my writing time) I had the occasion to listen to Sue Grafton’s novel Q is for Quarry. I’ve listened to many of her alphabet novels through the years; they’re a reliable story for listening to. The plots are compelling and the characterization, while sometimes over baked, is engaging.

So I’m a bit uncomfortable writing this post since I want to make some complaints about the novel. Normally, when I find problems with novels and post about them here, I don’t identify which I’m talking about. It doesn’t seem charitable in our business to be finding fault with each other. I think my complaint in this case, however, is with the editor not with the writer.

I’ve mentioned before the unfortunate phenomenon of Nancy Drew moments, in which a writer interrupts the narrative to give an inventory of what a particular character is wearing. I generally consider this to be more noise than signal; it’s hardly ever important to know what a character is wearing. (I usually promptly forget how the person was described and get on with the story.) Yet this novel is full of these interruptions. Just about every single time a character is presented, Grafton gave a run down of their clothes. In a couple of cases, these were helpful as part of character development: the vain character, the slob character. But most of the time it just read like a sudden halt in the plot. A needless sudden halt in the plot. A jarring, needless, sudden halt in the plot.

There were also countless incidents of elegant variations throughout the novel. Granted, these alphabet novels are narrated in first person, and perhaps Grafton wants her protagonist to be verbose in some cases, but it all sounded clumsy and affected. The protagonist “availed myself of the facilities” (went to the bathroom) and other such overwritten statements that didn’t seem like necessary euphemisms or enlightening character quirks. I was cringing nearly every mile as I listened to the story on my road trip.

But as I said above, I think my complaint is with the editor rather than the writer. I’ve discussed before what I call the “successful author syndrome” in which an editor doesn’t want to mess with the writing of a commercially successful author (or can’t be bothered to put in the effort?). But surely any writer serious about the craft would welcome at least the suggestions of an editor serious about that craft. I imagine if I submitted a novel written like this an editor would spill red ink all over it. I would want my editor to spill red ink all over it.

I continue to be baffled by what I see so commonly in successful fiction. Grafton, I’m sure, can write better than this, but is she being pushed to?

By any other name

April 9, 2009

What’s in a name? Plenty if you have a bestseller. And while I don’t begrudge any successful author a minute or a penny of his or her success, I wonder if they could do it without their name.

Nobel laureate Doris Lessing (before she won the Nobel but after she had established herself as a writer of consequence) wrote two novels that she attempted to sell under the pseudonym Jane Somers. She was rejected by her own British publisher, though later another British publisher and an American one did accept Jane Somers’ submissions.  Lessing said that she did this specifically to illustrate the difficulty new authors have getting published. Later, her Nobel acceptance speech discussed the inequality of opportunity, among other things.

I don’t make this point to lament the hard fight unknown writers have. The best will rise to the top, at least most of the time, with practice and persistence. And it could be argued that even under a pseudonym, Lessing’s writing was the best. I’m not sure that’s the case with every successful writer.

I’m mentioned on this humble blog once or twice that I think there is something called the “successful author syndrome.” Some authors, it seems, can rely on the name and reputation rather than the quality of their writing. Virtuoso works that first get them published and to the attention of the public are later traded for hack work, tossed out in their sleep. I suspect that some agents and editors are so fearful of toying with success that they let this shoddy writing pass as long as the name stays the same.

I wonder how many successful writers would dare to try what Lessing did.

Character or Caricature

May 5, 2008

Given that characters in a novel don’t really exist, I think they should still feel as though they do. It’s that whole “willing suspension of disbelief” thing we bring to reading fiction. We know it didn’t really happen, but we’re willing to set that aside so we can immerse ourselves in the story more fully.

In the real world, even the people we have the most glancing contact with have complete and full lives, just as detailed and enriched as our own, and we know that they do, even if we don’t pause to consider it. (I once read an analogy that said each person’s life is a complete book, and the best we can get to know are a few pages.)

I think characters portrayed in fiction need to have a similar feel about them. They should be presented so that they seem to have full lives outside of the needs of the story they are in. (This is where the willing suspension of disbelief comes in.) If a character is to seem credible — in the context of the story, of course — then they need to seem like they are greater than the scope of the story. This can be done through hints or oblique references that really have nothing to do with advancing the plot. Even just a few well chosen words could do the job.

I’m listening to a mystery on my iPod right now. It is set on a small island, and the key characters are basically isolated from the world for the time being. For the purposes of the story, they are the world. Yet most of the characters seem to be more caricatures than real beings. They seem to have no existence to them than the role they are needed for in the plot. They don’t feel like real people; they don’t seem to have lives off the island. They have been crafted by the author to have no more life to them than is needed for the mystery to be advanced and then solved. When this happens, it no longer feels like a story to me but a construct. Its artificiality becomes apparent, and I lose my willingness to suspend my disbelief.

I don’t suppose this is wrong, but it doesn’t seem like good writing to me. It seems like lazy writing. The author whose novel I am listening to is quite successful, and I wonder if it is another example of the “successful author syndrome” I wrote about in an earlier post.

Successful author syndrome

January 23, 2008

Maybe I should stop listening to mysteries on audio.

I had the chance to listen to the audio book of another wildly successful mystery/thriller writer. Once again, I was disappointed with what I heard. (I made a report similar to this back at this post.)

The protagonist was incorrectly suspected of murder. Oh, and she was wealthy. Hugely wealthy. So what does this woman with means and power do when incorrectly suspected of murder? She goes on the run. Oh, and she was sexy. Hugely sexy. So sexy in fact that she is able to seduce one of the friends of her grown sons and get him to hide her.

The investigating cop is, of course, incompetent and holds a grudge against the protagonist for some unclear reason. Only the ultra wealthy and sexy protagonist can see all of the clues that prove her innocence. And despite many possible, equally likely explanations for the crime, the one the protagonist chooses to be true turns out to be the right one, but only because the perp is intimidated (by the wealthy, sexy, righteous protagonist) into admitting guilt. It was a very unsatisfying resolution.

Characters are introduced for no other reason than to insult them. They never come up again.

I think this is yet another example of what I’ve decided I’ll call “successful author syndrome.” (And which, it turns out, is a phenomenon observed and identically named by several others.) The author has a formula and a familiar stable of character types, so he just phones in his story and the editor takes it as it comes, knowing it will sell and be a big hit.


Where was the editor?

October 7, 2007

In the last few weeks I had the opportunity to listen to recorded versions of mysteries by two best-selling authors. Both are well into their series (more than a dozen novels each) so have established characters and, presumably, established readers. But more important to my point, both are untouchable in terms of their success. These two are big, big names in the mystery genre.

What is it about successful authors that causes everyone around them to swoon at their prose, even if it is not good? Even editors, it seems, don’t care to change a word of their writing.

The first author whose story I listened to has to be the queen of mixed metaphors. It seemed like every few minutes of the audio the narrator was mixing it up. I can understand this when a character does it since it might be the author’s intent to depict the character as someone sloppy with words. But when the omniscient narrator mixes metaphors, someone is just not trying.

The second author was worse in her way. When I taught college composition, many of my students would resort to big words and convoluted sentence structure, thinking that this was how good writing was done. (Generally, I’d ask them what they were trying to say, and they’d tell me in some straightforward way, which was always better than how they had first phrased it.) This second author wrote the way those college freshmen wrote. Unnecessarily large words, hackneyed phrases, slogans. It really sounded amateurish, yet this author has more than two dozen best sellers to her name.

This leads to my point. I think the editors just don’t want to mess with a proven success. Or, and perhaps this is even more to the point, they know that the author’s name will sell millions of copies, so why put any effort into editing the writing? Could it be that these authors are such prima donnas that they won’t tolerate any tinkering with their words?

Yet these kinds of grating word choices and sentences are, literally, freshman mistakes. I don’t know if an editor would want to work with an unknown writer who wrote in this way. If an unknown writer submitted a draft like these, it would come back covered in red ink. Or should.

And I don’t mean that these writers aren’t following the rules of grammar (which I consider a list of suggestions rather than dogmatic rules). They are just displaying careless, sloppy writing. I think they have been cranking out their stories so long (and so successfully) that they don’t do more than a first draft effort. I don’t know this to be true, of course, but it sure reads that way.

I read once that Norman Mailer submitted a short story to a mid-level magazine, and it was rejected. “What are you doing?” screamed everyone to the editor. “That was Norman Mailer!” And the editor responded, “But the writing was no good.”