My Fiction Site

In the right sidebar are clickable images of the covers of my novels, which will take you to their Amazon listings. Other posts will link to available free works – mostly shorter ones – and assorted thoughts on the writing of fiction.

Friday, November 21, 2014

On Thrillers

As an indie writer, I take an interest in other indies, their achievements, and the degree of success they experience. Many indies craft thrillers by preference. That might be because that’s the genre they most enjoy; indeed, I’d say that’s the overwhelmingly most common reason. But sadly, most of those writers haven’t bothered to master fundamental writing skills – and that includes many who have plotting and storytelling gifts that their lack of writerly chops under-serves.

I’m not talking here about stylistic arabesques of the sort identified with “literary” fiction. Anyone who’s been reading my thoughts on fiction for any length of time will already be aware that I regard gratuitous verbal vermiculations as the writer’s equivalent to masturbation – and in public, at that. No, I’m thinking first of the sort of sins for which grammar-school children were once castigated, and second of some egregious sins against the reader’s patience that a really accomplished storyteller would instinctively avoid.

That first category is, of course, about slovenliness in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Such slovenliness is often made manifest in the writer’s promotional blurb, which once moved me to publish this mini-tract. For there’s no better guide to a writer’s seriousness than the care he puts into a length-limited bit of promotional prose intended to sell his wares. If that fails the grammar-school-kid test, I pass by his novel without a backward glance.

The second category is at a more advanced level, but not so advanced that its principles should be incomprehensible to a reasonably intelligent writer – say, intelligent enough to format a book manuscript for Amazon’s CreateSpace publishing subsidiary using Microsoft Word. Those principles are quite few in number:

  1. Maintain viewpoint consistency. (In other words, don’t “head-hop.”)
  2. Avoid the expository lump.
  3. Use description to tell your reader what he needs to know and nothing more.
  4. Show character; don’t “tell” it.
  5. Your reader is there for an emotional journey; respect him and it.

It’s possible that many of the indie thriller writers who’ve recently perplexed me have never even heard of those principles; there’s no way to tell from their novels. They certainly violate them often enough. The violations can turn an otherwise engaging adventure story, the sort that many men who read specifically seek and enjoy, into a trial of the reader’s endurance.

Gentle Reader, I could give classes on those rules. Many, many indies desperately need to learn them. Sometimes I think it would make for a good retirement career. Yet the typical indie thriller writer seems to think he’s “got it knocked” already. Many of them dribble on, novel after novel, repeating the same sins.

I assure you, the tragedy is more than superficial.

The reason the late Tom Clancy was an important writer has little to do with the overall quality of his novels. It’s far more about how his fiction drew men back into the fiction reading marketplace, which had largely become a women’s preserve. When The Hunt For Red October was first published, the trends in fiction were all feminine, politically correct, and dreary beyond words. Even my own long-time favorite genres (as a reader), science fiction and fantasy, had grown so tiresome that I’d all but abandoned my search for worthy new works in those fields. Nothing could be more distressing to an addict to the printed word.

Clancy’s first book was virtually an instant success. Despite being the offering of a small, virtually unknown press and the target of an ocean of critical contempt – when the critics deigned to notice it at all – it sold hundreds of thousands of copies in hardcover and millions more in paperback. The predominant buyer was one who had long been absent from the fiction marketplace: the adult American male.

The rush by the major publishing houses to “get in on the gravy train” was almost as swift. Thriller writers and their novels multiplied like toadstools after a rain. Most of them, of course, were nowhere near as gifted (and were received nowhere near as enthusiastically) as Clancy, but the sheer number of them was enough to imply that something important had it had.

It is a testament to the impact of that development that the proliferation of thrillers continues today, with indies pitching in as never before. But that merely sharpens my ultimate point.

I read thrillers. Indeed, these days they seem to constitute the bulk of my fiction reading. However, I don’t write them, which will cause many an indie thriller writer to shrug off this tirade as that of a “non-practitioner” whose opinions are of no value. That is as it may be; I stand by them nonetheless.

The ultimate determinant of success in entertainment is the “bottom line:” how many units one sells. In the indie-fiction world, that can be tough to determine; a single copy of an eBook is often passed around to several readers, yet only counts as one sale. That’s not really a negative thing, despite the near-term impact on the writer’s revenue, for “eyeballs today” engender “revenue tomorrow.” A writer who keeps on writing – hopefully growing more skillful and more confident as he goes – will ultimately benefit from eBook lending, just as writers have always benefited from lending libraries.

Nevertheless, the fundamental skills must be there. Should the thriller market be deluged with eBooks replete with the sins I’ve decried here, the “Clancy trend” will be reversed: male readers will abandon the fiction market once more. The PC crowd and the dreary, too-precious-to-be-borne litterateurs will regain dominance.

This matters more than you might think. What a nation reads with pleasure and enthusiasm is a barometer of its ethics, its convictions, and its overall attitudes...which suggests that this piece is about politics after all.

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