Writing contemporary fiction? Don’t rewrite War and Peace.
by Anne R. Allen
I recently read on an agent’s blog, “Nobody’s looking for War and Peace.” And alas, I fear it’s true. I can’t remember the last time I said, “I want to get into a big 19th century novel.” (And there was a time when I loved them.)
Fiction is constantly evolving
Fiction writing has gone through vast changes since Tolstoy’s day.
In fact, it has changed a good deal in the last decade.
Amy Collins at The Book Designer reports the average NYT Bestseller is now half as long as it was in 2011.
And the brand new Smashwords survey shows bestselling romance novels have decreased by 20,000 words since 2012.
The fastest growing fiction form right now is the novella.
If you want to sell books in the 21st century, you need to write books for the 21st century reader.
Unfortunately, this fact makes some people very angry.
“If it was good enough for Leo Tolstoy or ______(insert classic author here.) It’s good enough for me! %*&! your rules!”
“I learned everything I need to know about popular fiction from reading Mickey Spillane and ______ (insert bestseller from days of yore.) I don’t need no stinkin’ writing classes.”
“That’s just your opinion! Besides, I’m not writing contemporary fiction. I’m writing classics!”
We get these comments every time we write a helpful craft post…in spite of the fact we always remind people that our tips are only guidelines to help you get successfully published, and not hard and fast rules.
But a lot of people get their panties in a twist when they find out that you have to learn how to write fiction..
They read books. Classics! So they ought to be able to write them without studying anything else.
Even wildly creative writers had to learn how to write
It’s true that there are no hard and fast rules for writing fiction.
But it’s also true that assuming you can write great novels just because you read them is like thinking you can play basketball like LeBron James because you watch a lot of Cavs games.
Writing clear, fresh, entertaining prose takes storytelling skills and precise use of language. Learning those skills takes study and practice.
Trying to write a novel without studying the craft of writing contemporary fiction is like trying to build a car with no knowledge of the internal combustion engine. You’re going to waste a lot of time and probably end up with something that doesn’t move very fast.
You need to learn the rules of writing contemporary fiction to break them.
I know the idea that rules for writing exist makes some people intensely angry.
The angriest comments are usually from retired people of my generation (yeah, I’m a Boomer) who are writing their own version of War and Peace, The Long Goodbye, or On the Road now that they’re done with the day job. When we tell them that reading habits have changed in the last century, they’re devastated.
Other angry comments come from recent English majors or MFAs who have discovered their super-expensive degrees and all those hours ferreting out nature symbolism in the Cavalier Poets did not provide automatic tickets to fame and fortune in the publishing industry
The angry Boomers are generally writing to impress their creative writing teachers from 1974, and they want all the snowflakes to get off their lawn so it can be 1974 again.
They think sending us furious messages will do the trick.
Unfortunately, our TARDIS is in the shop.
And as for the recent graduates, we agree that MFAs are generally overpriced, but we can’t make your education relevant to today’s book-buyer no matter how many pompous insults you tweet at us.
Reading the classics of world literature is a great way to educate yourself and learn how the power of words can expand the mind and increase our knowledge of the human condition. We can learn a huge amount from them. All writers need to read the masters.
But it’s not a good idea to imitate them when we write our own books–or assume that reading War and Peace will teach us everything there is to know about writing fiction.
8 Reasons Why a 21st Century Reader Won’t Buy Your Imitation of Tolstoy, Chandler, or Kerouac.
1) If classic authors did it, it’s probably a cliché now.
I’ll never forget taking a friend who had never seen a Shakespeare play to a stupendous production of Hamlet. When we left the theater, I was exhilarated.
“Wasn’t that fantastic?” I said.
“Not really,” he said. “Shakespeare used so many clichés!”
He was astounded to find out that when Shakespeare wrote stuff like “neither a lender nor a borrower be” and “to be or not to be,” he was inventing them for the first time.
On the other hand, just because Shakespeare used a phrase brilliantly, doesn’t mean you can.
So why–say the classics fans–if those expressions are brilliant, can’t we use them? Don’t these whippersnappers today appreciate Shakespeare?
Actually, things become clichés because they are appreciated. People love them. And repeat them. A lot.
The first romance author who thought of introducing the heroine sitting at her dressing table assessing her looks in the mirror was using a clever device to let the reader know what the heroine looked like while using a single POV.
But when the 20,000th author does it, she’s not being clever. She’s being lazy.
And she’ll make her readers tired.
Ditto other clichéd openers like dark and stormy nights, alarm clocks or dead men walking. Once brilliant—now done to death.
Readers want something fresh.
2) Publishing changes with technological innovation just like other industries.
I was thrilled when a friend gave me a gift of the first season of the old TV show Route 66 on DVD. That On the Road-inspired drama was an iconic part of my preteen years. I wanted to grow up to be Todd and Buzz.
But when I sat down to watch the first episode, from 1960, the stilted dialogue, sexism, and clunky tech got in the way of my enjoyment of the drama. I saw why Route 66 had been brilliant for its time, but I don’t think I’ve watched more than a few episodes.
Ditto old books I once loved. Back in the 1970s and 80s, I devoured literary works like John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman and John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. I also loved a big “beach book” wallow like Judith Kranz’s Scruples and Shirley Conran’s Lace.
But I ran across an old copy of Scruples recently and couldn’t imagine how I got through all that verbiage. My editor’s hat sprouted as I wanted to cut, cut, cut.
And although John Fowles is still recognized as a great literary author, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is #2,108,841 on Amazon at this writing. His “author intrusion” style doesn’t seem to entice readers the way it did in 1970. And The Sot-Weed Factor only has two reviews. A publisher in 2017 isn’t likely to take a chance on an imitation of something from 50 years ago that isn’t selling now.
As Jane Friedman wrote on her blog last month, “Today, our problem is not finding more great things to read. It’s finding time to read the great many wonderful things that are published.”
3) A book written to pass the time on long Russian winter nights won’t fit into most 21st century lives.
The very thing that made Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky so popular in their day is what makes them a slog now. They were written to fill an empty, boring time.
The original readers loved those long passages that took them to far flung cities and exotic climes. It was the only way to escape what Masha in The Three Sisters calls a life “dull as a desert.”
Now the Internet can take you to any place on earth. Most people have too much to do rather than too little.
Yes, some people do still read long literary novels. But as Mark O’Connell wrote in the Millions (with tongue in cheek), it can be a case of Stockholm Syndrome–“whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love.” He said, “In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness.” (By kindness, he means scenes of conflict and interaction.)
Most contemporary readers like shorter novels where stuff happens more than once every 100 pages.
There are some exceptions, of course. Guys with two “R’s” between their first and last names get to write very long novels and everybody buys them anyway. When brings us to the next point….
4) Some things are tough to do well. A master craftsman can carry off things that newbies can’t.
Yes, George R. R. Martin writes long novels. So did J. R. R. Tolkien. They also used prologues. Michael Cunningham likes prologues too. So does Dennis Lehane.
And they’re not having any trouble selling books.
But when newbies write prologues, they usually use them for info-dumps and lazy writing. This is why agents hate prologues.
When you’re as skilled as Martin, Cunningham and Lehane you’ll get to use them too.
That applies to many clichéd and overdone openers as well. A master writer can make a tired trope fresh again. A newbie writer probably can’t.
And yes, Martin can write big fat books, but agents and reviewers are going to tell you that a 150 thousand word novel is a no-no.
When you have the following Martin does, you can write fat books too.
5) Classic authors didn’t set out to write classics; they wrote to sell.
The only reason you’ve heard of Tolstoy or Dickens is that they sold a lot of books. They wrote what their contemporaries wanted to read. If Dickens had written for Shakespeare’s audience, he would have faded into obscurity. If Kerouac had written for 19th century Russian aristocrats, I’m pretty sure none of us would have heard of him.
The concept of “literary fiction” is fairly new. It’s a construct of academia. Most people who write it are college professors. They need that day job because literary fiction doesn’t pay the bills. If you write purely for an academic audience, you’re not going to sell a lot of books, because it’s a small demographic.
Of course some contemporary fiction deemed “literary” sells very well, but it’s generally written with a broader audience in mind.
Contemporary literary writers like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Franzen, etc. aren’t imitating authors from another era or trying to impress professors. They’re writing stunning contemporary fiction that the market wants.
6) Long descriptions aren’t necessary in the age of movies, TV and Google.
In the Victorian era, many people never traveled outside of their small towns. They’d never seen an elephant, or the Rocky Mountains, or a spooky old castle.
There were no airplanes or even color photographs—and a writer knew many of his readers probably didn’t have a clue what those things looked like.
Everything that was new to the reader needed long, detailed descriptions.
But in the age of instant media, descriptive passages are mostly for the authors (and our inner poets), not the readers. Everybody has an idea what an elephant, mountain, or castle looks like and if they don’t, they can Google it.
Again, there are exceptions. I realize that SciFi and Fantasy require more description, since Google maps doesn’t have street views of alternate universes or cities in the Delta Quadrant.
But imitating Henry James or Thomas Hardy by writing pages and pages of description is not likely to get you a lot of readers.
Am I saying that James and Hardy weren’t great writers? Or am I too stupid to have read them? Nope. (Although I do admit I never finished The Golden Bowl. 🙂 )
It means that readers have changed. Time’s winged chariot has hurried on.
For a great short piece on what contemporary writers need to know about writing descriptions, see Janice Hardy’s post at Fiction University: Three Things to Consider when Writing Descriptions.
7) Famous writers who already have a huge following can get away with stuff a newbie can’t.
I used to read every new book Vonnegut came out with, no matter what reviews said. Ditto Margaret Atwood. Would I buy an unknown writer’s book with the same enthusiasm?
Of course not. Nobody’s going to take your word for it that you’re brilliant. They need some proof. If they open your book and see a clichéd opener, do you think they’re going to say:
“Well this sux, but I’m going to buy it anyway because it might get better. This is a brand new author with no track record, so he must be a genius.”
Probably not? Yeah, they’re more likely to pick up something by an author they know, even if that author has done something unusual.
That means established authors can get away with a lot of stuff you can’t.
The famous author has built trust in readers that they’re going to be rewarded with a great story or brilliant prose.
You haven’t done that. Yet.
8) Tolstoy, Chandler and Kerouac weren’t competing with Netflix. Or your smartphone. Or cats riding Roombas.
Even a lot of contemporary writers like Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich, Stephen King, and James Patterson started their careers before the electronic age. They only had to compete with newspapers and radio and three TV channels. If somebody was waiting for a train or plane or sitting in a doctor’s office, they were stuck with reading or staring at the wall.
Now everybody has a movie in their pocket and we have a 24/7 news cycle that dominates everybody’s conversation.
Also, pretty much every book ever written is now available for immediate download. No waiting.
James Patterson knows this, which is why his new short fiction for electronic devices is so popular. His “Bookshots” are under 150 pages and available for any device. (One of the reasons why he sells more than the other five top selling authors combined.)
The 21st century has brought us good things and bad. You may hate it and think everybody who uses tech is a brain-dead “snowflake,” but you can’t turn back the clock.
Especially by shooting the messenger. We’re trying to help here.
Nobody says you have to write for publication. There are lots of happy amateurs out there. Or maybe you can write for the voracious readers on Tralfamadore.
But if you want to sell books to 21st century earthlings, you have to write the books 21st century earthlings are buying.
That isn’t going to be War and Peace. (Although, as someone is likely to remind me, taking one scene from War and Peace and turning it into a Broadway musical can get 12 Tony nominations. 🙂 )
Old Dogs Need to learn New Tricks
Even this one.
I’ve been invited to write for a new phone app called Radish, which provides serialized novels in the form of short, cliff-hanger chapters of 2000 words or less. The first three are free.
I’m now rewriting my comic mystery Sherwood Ltd, which was first published in 2011, for this new format and technology. It’s a little harder than I first thought, but it’s also fun.
And I’m learning a lot. Learning keeps us young. And makes us less afraid of the contemporary world.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) July 2, 2017
What about you, scriveners? Have you ever tried to justify a cliche or long description by quoting the masters? How did you learn to write for a contemporary audience? Which of today’s writers do you turn to for writing inspiration? Have you ever written for a phone app?
NOTE: I apologize if anybody’s having trouble making comments. I’m having them myself. We seem to be under attack with “malicious log-ins”. If your comment doesn’t go through, you can email me, or wait a bit. Usually the malicious robots go away after a while.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
The first book in the Camilla comedy-mystery series
The always-polite Camilla Randall meets murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong at a dodgy writers’ conference in the California wine-and cowboy town of Santa Ynez.
And it’s only 99c or the equivalent all the Amazons internationally.
Also available at Google Play.
The Golden Quill Awards. The theme is “Liberation.” $500 first prize. Short fiction, poetry and personal essay categories. Up to 1500 words for prose, 40 lines for poetry. Entry fee $15. Deadline September 15, 2017.
University of New Orleans Press Lab Prize. A prize of $1,000 and publication of your book-length manuscript by UNO Press for a short story collection or a novel. The selected manuscript will be promoted by The Publishing Laboratory at the University of New Orleans, an institute that seeks to bring innovative publicity and broad distribution to first-time authors $18 entry fee. Deadline August 15.
Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. Write Romance, Thriller, Crime, Horror, Science-Fiction, and Young Adult? Short fiction: 4,000 words or less. $20 fee. Grand prize $2500. Deadline October 16th, 2017
20 Literary Journals that publish new writers. Compiled by the good folks at Authors Publish magazine.
25 Publishers who accept unagented submissions for Young Adult books. Also form Authors Publish, a great resource.
Aesthetica Creative Writing Award Two prizes of £1,000 each and publication in Aesthetica. Winners also receive a consultation with literary agency Redhammer Management. Up to 40 lines of poetry ($15 fee), 2000 words for short fiction ($24 fee.) Deadline August 31.