Sometimes you hear it said, "Sure, Author X can get away with that because he’s already established. No new author could get away with that."
I sometimes feel like the assumption is once you get your foot in the door, it’s not so hard, or maybe you get extra freedom or lenience. But I’m not convinced that’s the whole story.
Take, for example, the first sentence of Neil Gaiman’s and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.
"It was a nice day."
If you stripped away the author’s name and analyzed that first sentence with today’s standards of first sentences, you could call it one of the worst first sentences ever. But if you attach Neil Gaiman’s name to that first sentence, it takes on a whole new meaning.
First, it fits his voice. Neil Gaiman’s voice is nothing if not understated and humble, and that sentence matches. His characters are just ordinary guys thrown in weird situations. Knowing the author’s other work, a reader understands that "It was a nice day" is the understatement of the century. As a reader, I not only trust that this is going to get good, really good, but I also feel like I’m in on the secret. Because I know Neil Gaiman’s work, I know that such an understated beginning is just the beginning of a huge day of twists that will be fun and delightful.
And take John Irving. In A Widow for One Year, he says this about his protagonist, a children’s author:
"It was a Ted Cole story; you always see what you’re supposed to be afraid of; you see it coming, and coming. The problem is, you never see everything that’s coming."
Although John Irving doesn’t write stories you’re supposed to be afraid of, he does have a tendency to tell his stories by giving the ending first. And like he says about his character, you never see everything that’s coming.
Irving writes whole novels that way, whole scenes, whole parts of the book. He’ll tell you up front what’s going to happen, but we know his writing. We know his style and we know that when he says something that’s going to happen, we know that’s not the story. The story is going to be in the twists and details to come. The suspense is not in what will happen, but how it will happen.
I believe it all boils down to reader trust, to the relationship you’ve developed with a reader. It’s like a guy. My husband can smack me on the butt and I’m going to giggle and start kissing him and feel all good inside. If any other man dared, well, let’s just say I’d be kicking and punching and yelling and hissing.
It all boils down to the relationship, to knowing someone.
I’ve heard some writers say they can write a crappy synopsis because they’re established and because they’re proven. I think they miss the point, too. I can write my editor and say I want to write a story about a purple people-eater, and that’s all I say. They understand, not because I’m any good, not because I’m anything. It’s only that they’ve read my other stuff, and they understand that Me + X twist equals something they can envision. That’s it, nothing special.
I’m a big believer in the fact that we have to understand how our words are going to affect a reader. We not only need to take in account our story as it stands alone, but our story as it is seen by the colored glasses of those who know us and know our voice, style, and other stories.
You’d be surprised how much a reader who’s read a good portion of our work knows us. Like, really knows us. Pretty damn scary when you think about it. And also pretty cool. I always feel so weird with reader email, because they know so many intimate parts of me, so well that they could easily call me a good acquaintance or friend, but I know nothing of them. It’s a weird thing and it makes me kind of sad.
I suppose it’s not like that with all authors. We all bare varying degrees and parts of our souls in our stories.
The problem is, almost all of us need to find more readers, which means they’re coming to the story brand new. So we have to consider those readers that know us and give them something special, and those readers who don’t know us and will need to be seduced by cover, by blurb, by first sentence, and by first page.
Just some rambles today, no conclusions. What do you think?