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Writing Wednesday: The Touch

October 5, 2011

A couple months ago I was reading Ethan Cooper’s review of Nabokov’s “Laughter in the Dark” and one thing Coop notes is that “the Nab” was 33 at the time of writing it and so the work did not quite match up to his earlier works.

You can notice this a lot in authors who have been around for a while.  For instance when I read my favorite author John Irving’s books, I noticed his first novel “Setting Free the Bears” seemed far different than his later books.  It actually seemed more like a Kurt Vonnegut book than a book by the guy who wrote “The World According to Garp” and “The Cider House Rules.”  I suppose that made sense because Irving wasn’t even 30 yet when that first novel came out and he had learned under Vonnegut at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  It took him until his fourth novel (the aforementioned Garp) before he found his voice.

The same thing happened when I read Richard Russo’s first novel “Mohawk” after reading his other novels, including the Pulitzer-winning “Empire Falls.”  The pieces were all in place of dealing with a small town and its colorful denizens, but the “mature touch” as Coop called it wasn’t there yet.

This is something that a lot of people don’t understand about writing.  It takes time to find your voice, that storytelling style that may not be unique but is at least comfortable for you.  Naïve people think you can just sit down and start writing a great novel.  But really even with the greats (especially with the greats) it takes a few times around the block before they can come into their own.

That’s also a good thing to remember when you’re feeling beaten-down by the rejection process.  Maybe this novel isn’t the one, but maybe someday you’ll get it right and find that mature touch to make a great novel.  Though this grumpy bulldog would say that’s still not very likely.

Friday’s entry:  More inspirational posts thanks to Edward D. Wood, Jr…


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  1. Tolkien said writing is something that only comes with age. This is probably why.

  2. I’ve made the comparison before, I just can’t recall where, but first time novelists remind me of all those pop metal bands of the 80’s. Almost all their first albums sounded really similar to one another. That makes sense, because the acts that got signed to record labels had to conform to what the labels wanted, same with writers and publishing houses – we have to give them what they want, not what we want – once that author has a following, and more leeway from publishers (or record labels) they are free to write what they want to.

    In some cases, both in bands and in writers, sometimes the result isn’t so good. I’ve read where some authors, after acheiving a high level of success, are given the authority to reject their editor’s recommendations. I don’t know who gets to do that and who doesn’t, but it makes me wonder about why so many beloved authors churn out such crap when compared to their early works.

    My favorite sci fi author, Stephen Baxter, hasn’t written anything I like since the 90’s. Some of his stuff since has been, in my opinion, some of the worst published books I’ve read in the past decade. What happened? I’m guessing he was given freedom to do whatever he wanted after acheiving some success and, well, it hasn’t turned out so well for him.

    I actually enjoyed some of Anne Rice’s older vampire books, I haven’t read them in 15 years, but even then, towards the end, it seemed like her stuff was getting harder and harder for me to get through. I think I read later that eventuallyl got total editorial control over what was published, and she decided that she no longer required a story editor for her work. That may not be true, but that’s what I read. Again, given how tough it was for me to get through some of the stuff she was writing by the mid 90’s I believe it. Of course, she had some sort of religious experience in her real life too, which I’m sure changed the nature of how she wrote.

    Anyway, I’m rambling, for me, I think a few more books would do me some good, but again, working with a real editor would be good for me too. I mean, what I write now is radically different from what I was writing seven or eight years ago. For all I know, I’ve gotten worse.

    • I agree. It seems like after a certain level of success you get carte blanche to do whatever you want. The publisher will go along with it as long as you keep selling books.

    • Anne Rice went crazy for a while after the death of Stan Rice and became super Christian. She finally regained her senses, but has yet to produce a work that draws my eye like the Vampire Lestat did.

  3. Ethan Cooper permalink

    Hi BJ,

    Faulkner waited until his third novel to discover Yoknapatawpha County.


    • And I don’t know how many short stories Chandler wrote before he introduced Philip Marlowe. Quite a few.

  4. I’ve noticed this in my own writing. I finished my sequel some time ago and went back to my first book which has yet to be published and wanted to change things. I’m going to wait for Double Dragon’s editor to start working on the project with me but I think that is the problem too with editing. The longer something sits around and you go and work on other things, the more your voice changes so that when you go back and look at your earlier work, you want to fuss with it again. It’s kind of frustrating. I’ll be happy when I actually get a book finished and out there so I won’t be tempted to mess with it again as my “voice” (as you point out) is constantly changing and growing out of phase with stuff I thought was previously pretty good.

  5. Interesting thought. I just read a New Yorker article that said that surgeons tend to peak in their 40s, while CEOs hit their most productive in their 50s, as opposed to athletes who go downhill after 30. I wonder if there’s a time that writing is at its best — when you’ve mastered the skill but haven’t yet become self-indulgent.

    I don’t feel like I’ve found my “voice” yet. I find myself kind of sounding, in my mind, like others I read, and I’m not sure if my readers feel that way. (Do you?) Sometimes I try to write like a certain writer. I think the style I use on Thinking The Lions is the voice that’s most ME, which makes sense because I’ve been writing that blog for more than half-a-decade now and it’s about me.

    Then there’s the 10,000 hours thing: You need to do something for 10,000 hours before you’re perfect at it — but what you seem to be suggesting is that once you hit that peak, you could go downhill.

    And, you have to consider how much of this is what I think of as “The Joshua Tree Effect” — that you might never like what a writer does after reading their best thing. U2 released “The Joshua Tree,” and it was more than a decade before people forgave them for not making another “Joshua Tree” and admitted that some of what they did might be very good. Paul McCartney has done some brilliant stuff, but most people just relegate his post-Beatles/post-Wings career to the junk pile. So maybe if you read (as I did) “Garp” first, most of Irving’s books would suffer in comparison, which is rough because generally the best-received book is what gets new readers into an author’s list — and then nothing will ever measure up.

    Nice post, as always, Rogue.

    • When I wrote “Where You Belong” I read every John Irving book in chronological order and that was pretty much all I read during that time (book-wise, not counting blogs and stuff) so I wouldn’t have any other author’s voice influencing me. Since I was going for my version of a John Irving novel I wanted to make sure my head was relatively pure in that respect.

  6. What a deep conversation, Muttley! I couldn’t agree more with the comments about editors.

    It seems to me that there are really two things; one is the time spent actually writing, just racking up your odometer as with any given task. The proverbial “best way to Carnegie Hall.”

    The other is actual life experience. An immature voice is obvious and boring.

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