The value of forgetting
The diaries you don't keep

Why should I bother?

One of the hardy perennial frets among aspiring writers is that they hear from various sources that something in their novel will get their submission rejected immediately. They mustn't put too much backstory in the early pages of their novel, or indeed anywhere; they mustn't start with (or use) a minor point-of-view; they mustn't keep the body back till page fifty or start with their main character waking up with a hangover. And then they pick up a favourite novelist's work, and discover any or all of those going on, and more lavishly than they'd ever dare.

Some aspects of this are relatively simple. First, don't believe everything you read online, specially if it's seventy-fifth hand, or springs from a different form and industry. Second, these are things which are often done well for good reasons, but even more often done badly for bad ones. (Or even for no reason at all. Prologues seem to be de rigueur in aspiring fiction these days, but there's usually a better way to do the same job. I saw so many at York that I'm beginning to think that writers feel a book isn't dressed without one.) It's not fair, because maybe you're doing it brilliantly for the best reasons, but the weary slushpile reader sees so many done badly, that the presence of backstory/minor PoV/prologue or whatever becomes for them a marker of something which is unlikely to be any good: your submission is starting off on the back foot. This too, I think, is the source of many of the comments from agents and editors about what puts them off and what they like, which get writers so confused: it's a rare agent who doesn't have several authors who do exactly what they've just said they don't like.

But there's something more complicated going on too. The aspiring writer struggling to learn their craft, to find the intersection between what they want to write and what the trade wants to publish, wants to know whether such things read and sell successfully, or not. And yet it seems to be that there are things you're 'allowed' to do if you're published, but are 'forbidden' if you're not. LeCarré sells hundreds of thousands by doing something you've just been told is 'wrong'; is it that LeCarré can't be bothered to get it 'right' - that he and his publisher don't have to try any more - or is it that there's one set of 'rules' for published authors, and another for writers outside the Pale? Why should we who are outside bother to write at all, the embittered writers (some of whom have good reason to be so) ask, when we don't get a fair hearing anyway?

Certainly it's not fair to established authors to assume that they can't be bothered to get it right, and their editor can't be bothered or doesn't dare try to make them, because they'll sell anyway. There are many reasons why a writer's book many not seem up to scratch: some of them entirely in a particular reader's eyes, others to do with the slippery business of creativity. I think it's extremely rare that a writer sets out to do a less-good job than they're capable of. For one thing, we are craftsmen, and at the core of craftsmanship is the drive to do a job well for the sake of it (goodness knows we're not doing it for the money...) Second, a big name may sell well, regardless of the quality of the new book, in the literary equivalent of the opening weekend, but long-term esteem and sales still depend on word of mouth. And finally, established authors may seem to be treated more fairly, but they're also fair game: reviewers are usually more than happy to put the boot in if they don't think the new McEwan, or whatever, is up to scratch.

So, can it be that there's one set of 'rules' for established authors, and another for the rest of us, at least when it comes to what a seasoned professional thinks of the first three chapters? Well, to a degree I think there is, but it's not snobbery, or a desire to keep the non-Oxbridge/working-class/MA-free/non-friend's-child writers safely outside the bastions. It's about how readers read.

At the beginning of a book the reader hasn't yet bought into the characters and their predicament, and so, fundamentally, anyone starting to read a book is asking themselves at some level, 'Shall I keep reading?' They're working out who's who, what's going on, and how this book needs to be read (structure, language, plot), and that takes effort, so it had better be worth it now, and promise to be even more worth it soon. And various things can work together to make it worth it and keep them reading, and most books that succeed will use several. Some of them are:

  • A character you like from page one
  • Characters you already know (as in a sequel, or those based on real historical people)
  • A character's voice you just can't help wanting to listen to
  • A authorial voice ditto: perfect writing you'd want to read even if there was no story (only at the lit end of the spectrum)
  • Situations which are comically/ruefully familiar to you (the newspaper columnist's novel)
  • Situations which are fascinatingly Other to you, while echoing/mirroring our own
  • A predicament that really makes you wonder how they're going to get out of it
  • An unstable situation which is clearly about to blow up ('Bond, it's M here...')
  • A mystery 
  • A world you immediately want to inhabit, and experience through the characters
  • An author who you know and love, whose voice you already like reading, and who you trust will soon be delivering any or all of the above by the truckload, because they (almost) always have in the past.

The point is that there may be very good reasons, say, to withold your main character for a while, but it has disadvantages which you need to overcome by other means: the evocation of the Seoul marketplace had better be remarkable well structured and written if you're not going to introduce your thwarted lovers, or your terrorists, for a while. Backstory had better be very compelling and full of landmines we'll be waiting to see trodden on, if we know what we're reading at the moment is all in the story's past. And the first point-of-view had better be full of wit or threat or sheer human interest, if we're going to forgive the author for whisking us away from it when we've been reading it as a major point of view.

And of all these ways to get and keep us reading, as a new author that last way just isn't available to you, as it is to an established author: you're going to have to earn our trust that we'll be gripped, by gripping us. So you'd better make bloomin' sure that you're gripping us by every other means in your toolkit. Otherwise, why should we bother?