Substance with Style

Many of the people I follow on Twitter, and who follow me, are writers. So I thought it would be good to write a post for you all.

I have been a writer for only eight years and it was less than a year ago that I finally had a novel worth publishing, so I am not about to offer any words of wisdom as an author. However, I have been an obsessive reader since before I started school and I am always in the middle of several books at one time.

The arrival of the ebook reader has been a huge blessing to me. When books were only available on paper, I would pick a book from the shelves of my local bookstore and read the first few pages. If I liked what I saw, I would buy it. But I can not tell you how many times I was disappointed (and between twelve and thirty dollars poorer) by the time I got to page fifty. With my trusty ebook reader, I can download the first 30, 40 or 50 pages and really try before I buy.

This puts a new weight on the shoulders of all you writers. At every writers’ conference, there is always a presenter discussing the importance of the first chapter; how it will make or break your book on the shelves. Well now, you have to carry that ‘first chapter’ quality throughout the first fifty pages if you want people to buy your book. (And throughout the entire book if you want us to buy your other books.)

I download a lot of sample chapters from Amazon without ever buying the books and here is where they fall short in substance:

  • Lack of excitement, surprise, mystery or tension. This one is the big killer and it is avoidable. Don Maass’ books Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction provide fabulous blueprints for the maintenance of tension;
  • Flat characters. I recently read the opening chapters of a book in which the protagonist was in a horrendous situation. I didn’t care. The writer had not given me one reason to relate to, like or empathize with the character, yet there are countless books on the subject of how to write engaging characters whom your readers will fall in love with;
  • Scenes that wander or meander. I often feel that the writer has given me a whole pointless scene in order to impart one piece of information. A few enjoyable hours with James Scott Bell’s book Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure would help to solve that problem.

But if you really want to wow me as a reader give me substance with style. Find your own unique way of presenting me with the words. I think this is what writing teachers mean by ‘voice’.

A handful of great authors, including two of my all time favorites, John Steinbeck and John Le Carre, write with a characteristic style such that if you were to be given a page of their text, you would immediately know who had written it.

I don’t know if you can be taught how to find your own unique, recognizable style but it is worth delving inside yourself to find, because it might just be the one thing that makes you stand out from the masses of traditionally published and indie authors who are vying for the reader’s time.

The jury is still out on whether I will make it as an author but as a reader I will pay a lot of money to hear your unique voice.

—— o ——

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2 Responses to Substance with Style

  1. colleen says:

    I would like to start by saying I absolutely enjoyed reading junkie. I, like you, have been an avid reader since I was a toddler. I remember books from childhood, not toys. I usually am in the middle of several books at any given time as well. I know you said you have just began publishing your books but I hope you continue to write Cal Brogan mysteries so I can continue to read them.
    I have a huge desire to write a book as well so thank you for all the advise you post because without it I don’t think I’d know where to start. I’m so glad I accidentally came across your book junkie and got “hooked” and found your website looking for more to read. Thanks again and looking forward to more good reading material from you!

    • Robert P. French says:

      Thank you so much Colleen. I am delighted that ou enjoyed Junkie. Put your desire for writing into action; it is a wonderful ride and remember it is a marathon, not a sprint.

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