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Monday, January 18, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Many years ago, when I was in college, I was totally immersed in a novel when a friend dropped by for a visit. He had to knock on the dorm room door three times and then call out my name before he broke through the spell the novel had cast over me. Apologizing for taking so long to answer, I explained that I had been completely immersed in the book. "You know how it is when a book draws you in so thoroughly you don't see the words any more, just the events described with the words," I said.

My friend looked at me quizzically and said, "I don't know what you're talking about."

Despite being a voracious reader, my friend had never totally escaped into a book before. I was stunned, having assumed this kind of thing always happened while reading good novels.

I remembered this story while thinking about what makes some books take off and sell well while other, better written, books languish on the shelves. Why is it that long-time master wordsmiths with publishing credits a mile long will be outsold by first time novelists who barely qualify as apprentice wordsmiths?

Before going any further, let me be the first to admit that there are people who love books for the exquisite craftsmanship of the author. They savor every sentence, thrilled by the way the author uses exactly the right words. They love how these lovely sentences build beautiful paragraphs, chapters and entire novels. Finishing the novel, they bask in admiration of the author who composed such a perfect work.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course. I appreciate a well written novel as much as most people, perhaps even more than most. But I will put aside the best written book ever published if I cannot totally immerse myself in the story. If the words don't disappear, the best wordsmith ever born will fail to capture my attention. And this, I think, is part of the problem people have with novelists who hit the big time with their first sale. Not only have these upstarts not "paid their dues," they also hit it big with a book that doesn't meet those people's minimum writing standards.

Here's the not-so-big secret I've discovered about novels; the words are there to convey the story. If the words can do that without getting in the way of the story, they've done their job. Perhaps other words may have done the job a bit better, but the words used are entirely serviceable. Put another way, if I can immerse myself in a story without the words jarring me out of that immersion, I'm a happy reader.

There are people who forget, or at least tend to discount, this not-so-big secret. They select each and every word with delicate care, as if putting together a jigsaw puzzle; each word having an exact place with no other word able to replace it. But while the words fit together beautifully, the story is an afterthought. It drags, isn't really a story or it's predictable. Essentially, the reader is immersed in words rather than the story.

Let me pick an example from the early 1900s, 1912 to be exact. In my experience, most bookstores -- including used bookstores -- will have some books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs was one of those writers who never "paid his dues." He sold his very first novel, A Princess of Mars (initially published under the title Under the Moons of Mars) and never looked back. We're two years shy of the 100th anniversary of the publication of that book and I can still find it on bookstore shelves. Burroughs would probably have been surprised if anyone told him his works would still be print a century after they were written. Many contemporary authors of his, true wordsmiths as discussed above, would have been appalled had they been told the same thing. Burroughs' works sold and continue to sell because the words don't get in the way of the story. They draw the reader in until he actually sees the deserts of Barsoom roamed by John Carter or the jungles of Africa ruled by Tarzan.

There's a reason apprentices start with simple, straight-forward tasks. They have to learn the skills necessary to produce something of use and value before they can begin learning how to produce art.

Until a writer has sold a story or two, it's a safe bet the writer is an apprentice wordsmith. His task is to learn to use words to tell a solid story without embellishments. He must learn to write stories in which people can immerse themselves. He must learn to write so his words don't get in the way of his stories. Once he's mastered that, assuming his stories are entertaining, he'll be on his way.
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