I've always known that if I wanted to write a best-selling novel, rather than a critically acclaimed one, I would have two choices:
Now, however, there is something so rotten in the state of book-buying that the same applies even if you don't want to write a best-selling novel but just one that earns enough to stay in print for a reasonable amount of time and keep your publisher happy.
- Come up with a great commercial idea and write it in a stripped back, fast style, leaving out what I think are the lovely bits - the meaningful ideas or powerful description.
- Hope for the Unpredictable Fairy to bless my book.
Now frankly, this floored me. Not just because I fit into category 1, but because this is the kind of stuff I want to write. How can this have happened? Is it simply a case of being in the right place at the right time, or have I unconsciously altered my style to fit the market? I mean, I hate Dan Brown's writing style as much as the next writer, so it isn't as if I'm trying to chase his "magic."
I felt the need to delve further into my own writing style to find the answers:
- Pace - I'm bored by slow things. Sorry, but there you go. Give me a screwball comedy and I'm overjoyed, show me a Bela Tarr film and I'll be trying to kill you before the end of the first ten-minute camera shot.
- Description - This is something that exists to get in the way of dialogue. I'll accept that some description is important to anchor the characters in the scene or when describing action. But no more than that. I am aided in my mistrust for over-description by the fact that I am a man, which means I never notice anything!
- Brevity - Those who have met me will know that I talk. A lot. But writing has always provided me the ability to edit the verbal diarrhoea down to its barest essentials. I think there's a purity to that, trying to tell a story in as few words as possible and trusting the reader to fill in the gaps.
- High Concept - Ok, I will admit to being guilty here. I did choose a concept that I thought would sell before I started the book. But on the other hand, a lot of other people have chosen to write about zombies as well, so my book has to work harder to get noticed.
- Other media - I've said it before and I'll say it again, I learned much of what I know about writing from films and TV. While this initially hamstrung me in terms of constructing a novel, I think it now becomes a big advantage. Modern (i.e. young) readers are incredibly cross-media literate and they want books that reflect that.
Beyond this, I have to disagree that you can't include meaningful ideas in a fast-paced, stripped-back book. You just have to be prepared to wind those ideas much more tightly into the actions and motivations of your characters. Isn't that what story is all about? And as for description, sometimes the most powerful descriptions are the shortest. Let us never forget the enduring impact of "Jesus wept."