Learning from published authors

I was lucky this morning, I caught John Grisham being interviewed on BBC Breakfast. The initial focus of of the interview was the fact that he’d sold 275 million copies of his books. But for an author, he gave some valuable insights into his success. He stated that he always knows the final scene before he starts writing a novel. He works it all out in advance, and even said the few times he cheated on the outline because he wanted to get onto writing the story then the book was a disaster and required a rewrite. That in itself was telling – he creates an outline, hones it properly and the writes it through from beginning to end. Bearing in mind that he started in 1989 and his latest novel is his twenty-seventh, he must be turning in one manuscript to his publisher every nine months more or less. That means he works phenomenally hard. In this interview he also said that his life was talking to lawyers and finding stories. He was quite open about the fact that there is a format for a suspense novel, you need engaging (not necessarily likeable) and strong characters, a plot with a surprise ending and sub-plots that you keep a track on and wrap up neatly. What impressed me most was that he is still working hard at his craft. He’s not only sold all those books, but he is a known name. Releasing his new novel in mid-November he’s instantly solved millions of Christmas present problems. But, he still took the time to come over to the UK, get up early and be charming on the Breakfast sofa. All this while turning out one book every nine months!

At the moment, I’m reading Resistance by Owen Sheers. He’s a local author and it’s set around where I live. He’s also a poet and this is his first novel. But what I really like about it is that you know where you are with him. He establishes straight off that this is an alternative history novel. The language is beautiful, descriptive and poetic. In the first few pages we learn that we’re going to have three points of view, and so far he’s stuck to all those rules. Also, he has a very neat trick. Somehow, he manages to twist the timeline, so he can drop in back-story and show you flashbacks. But it’s not clumsy – there’s no “She thought of how it all started…” followed by clumpy paragraphs full of the word “had”. To borrow his metaphorical language, it’s like a brook that runs with eddies and whorls that double back but still manages to go smoothly forward. It’s probably the best literary fiction I’ve read in a long time. A lot of lit-fic tends to sacrifice plot and character to language and form. But, alongside all the beautiful language, there are engaging characters and a gripping plot. It’s not action packed like an American thriller but stuff happens and you want to know what happens next.

Finally, I was stuck for something to read and picked up one my wife’s chick-lit books. (I’m not going to say what the book is. I believe that you should praise in public and criticise in private.) Now, I have a lot of time for chick-lit it’s just another genre with the same rules and formats as any other and done well it can produce really good books. But this one started off in the first-person. I find this hard to read and difficult to get right. But the author had a voice that was interesting and it seemed OK. Then ten pages in was one paragraph of third person present tense before flicking back to first person. I re-read it with an editor’s eye and really couldn’t see any point to that paragraph. Then she kept flicking between these two styles, first person and third person present. In my mind they are the hardest two to get right. Unlike the Owen Sheers (OK, I know I’m comparing chalk and cheese) the reader had no idea what was going to happen next. The ground hadn’t been properly prepared. My wife persevered a lot more and told me there was deus-ex-machina and also the overall theme was hammered in with no subtlety (something I’d picked up in the first few pages).

So that’s three authors that I’ve encountered recently with my more experienced eye, and what I hope I’ve learned from them. Mainly it seems to be establish early on a voice and a set of ground rules and communicate them to the reader. And work hard and keep going. I know John Grisham is a genre writer but anyone who’s sold that many books has to be worth listening to.

Comments please? What are you reading and learning from right now?


  1. Being the LSW referred to above, in my own defence, once I finished the book Graham criticised above, I started re-reading Marion Keyes’ The Other Side of the Story. This is a chick-lit book about two women writing chick-lit books, and written in the first person from three different perspectives. It could have been horrendous – but it works, probably because Marion Keyes works as hard at her craft as John Grisham. (I’m also reading a non-fiction book about Six Sigma which is very badly written. Just because it’s non-fiction and the subject matter is dull, doesn’t mean the author should get away with inaccuracies and typos…)

  2. I’m not mad about “The Other Side of the Story”, oddly enough. “Lucy Sullivan” and “Rachel’s Holiday” are masterpieces tho, some wonderful writing there 🙂

    Good entry Graham, particularly about flashing back with the “she remembered” faffaboutery 😉

  3. Eleanor – you don’t need a defence it’s good to read all sorts of books. If you don’t wade through the dross you’ll never discover hidden gems!

    Susan – I think when I’ve read it for the story, I’ll go back and study how he does the flashback trick. I’ve picked up that he does use some “had” sentences but inter-spaced with much more immediate sentences too.

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