Hemingway said that writers are all apprentices in a craft where no-one is a master.
I've been reading a lot about how to make your writing really shine, unputdownable, compelling – and I've been coming across a lot of persuasive arguments along the lines of: increase the stakes for your protagonist (I got this from Writing the Breakout Novel), and putting conflict on every page.
But @BubbleCow, that clever bovine, got me thinking with his post about 7 books every writer should read, and, combined with a quick look at the decade's best-selling fiction books in the UK, I realised that these 'how to write' books and tips are missing something.
I know I'm going to break some hearts here, but the Da Vinci Code, Twilight and the Harry Potter books are not particularly well-written – I've read them all - Dan Brown's writing is cliché-ridden and clunky; I frequently laughed out loud at some of Meyer's phrasing and story-elements, and Ms Rowling is a keen lover of the adverbial speech-tag, and adverbs in general, with an awful lot of 'telling' going on – cardinal sins in most 'how-to' books.
But these people are doing something right – lots of people love their work – and you could split the income of anyone of these writers between me and my blog-readership and we'd still have more money than we would know what to do with it for the rest of our lives.
So what's the secret?
It comes down to three essential things, and if you do these things supremely well, then you can get away with a whole multitude of other sins. These magic ingredients are story, romance and milieu.
We've all read those books where we've become so gripped by the story, that we've been gobbling up the pages just to find out what happens. I've been there, and when you're in that moment you don't care how it's written, you just want to know the outcome.
The idea that 'story trumps all' hit home whilst reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (another massive bestseller now made into a film) – it starts off with an unclear prologue, then a whole chapter of backstory told in flashback, then chapter 2 begins with another massive info dump – three sections in and the main story hasn't started - and I'm thinking as I'm reading, how did this get past an editor?
If the story is strong enough, readers don't care if it's front-story, back-story, exposition, flash-back, prologue, past tense, present tense, or told rather than shown – if the story is gripping, no one gives a monkeys how it's delivered.
Stories that capture the essence of romance sell by the bucket-load – this explains why books like the Twilight series have done so well. I've tried hard to understand why these books have swept the board in sales when there are clearly so many better written vampire stories out there – and it's down to romance - and what could be more compelling than forbidden love? Romance sells, pure and simple – so I'm off to buy some 'how to write romance' books.
This is the final element that I think if you do very well you can get away with anything. If your writing has the power to transport the reader completely to your story-world, making them forget their troubles and stresses in the real-world, then you're on to a winner. One writer is supreme at this – Tolkien – and his books will continue to make money for ever more. It's not just fantasy, historical and sci-fi books that can do this, stories set in the contemporary world can equally transport the reader into their story-world. I found this with Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, Faulks's Birdsong had a similar effect on me.
So, I'm going to work harder to make sure I've got a little more of these things in my writing.