tony mcmanus

On writing, writers, books and publishing.

What is it that drives some novels to the top of the commercial sales charts while other books wallow in poor sales rankings? What makes a blockbuster? Great writing? Maybe not.

A while back I published a blog, Bringing the Curtain Down, in which I speculated on when and why the author of a thriller series should call it a day and wrap it up. In the article, I mentioned that the writer, Lee Child, was about to publish his 22nd Jack Reacher novel, Midnight Line. Well that’s now history and #23, Past Tense, will be available in November 2018; great news for Lee Child, his publisher and for Jack Reacher fans the world over.

After I’d written the piece it occurred to me that I’d never read a Jack Reacher novel. And as Lee Child is an apex novelist, with his Jack Reacher Series a world block-busting top seller, I decided it was time to correct that anomaly and find out what all the fuss was about. I’d join the crowd and read me some Jack Reacher.

I headed into downtown Chiang Mai, to The Lost Book Shop, my favorite bookstore, and picked up five Jack Reacher paperbacks: Killing Floor, The Hard Way, One Shot, Bad Luck And Trouble and Make Me. Second hand, they were cheap but in good condition. Back home, I got into them.

I began with Killing Floor, the first in the series. And I have to say I enjoyed it and can see why it was a hit. Written in the 1st person, the story-line was sound, tense and exciting. But, like many of today’s novels, I found it inflated and overweight. My edition weighed in at 525 pages. I believe that good comprehensive editing would have cut it down to 350 or even less and delivered a tighter, more dynamic book.

Next up was The Hard Way followed by Bad Luck And Trouble. Both were disappointing and, in my view, poorly written and edited with awful punctuation. Written in the 3rd person, I found the narrative staccato, heavily padded and packed with redundant sentences and way too much description of people and places. So many sentences lack verbs. And for me the abundance of one word sentences and even one-word paragraphs is painful. I then read Make Me and felt the same. I had started reading Kill Shot when I picked up a copy of Personal which, like Killing Floor, is written in the 1st person. It was okay and I enjoyed it. I never went back to Kill Shot.

Giving it thought, it’s as if the series has been written by two different writers. And in a way it’s true. In the 3rd person novels, Lee Child tells the tale. In the 1st person stories, there are six, Child hands the pen to Jack Reacher. And Reacher delivers the better book.

Writing in the first person allows a writer a free hand, a chance to break loose from many grammar and syntax constraints and speak just as he feels through the medium of his narrator as Mark Twain did with Huckleberry Finn. The language can be crude or elegant. The narrator may be a gentle Dr. Jekyll or a brutal serial killing Mr. Hyde. The character of the protagonist is revealed through the narrative tone. And, naturally, Jack Reacher, the loner, the rugged individualistic drifter could care less about the niceties of English grammar and good prose as he tells his tale. Right?

This freedom, I feel, is one reason many writers choose to write in the 1st person. The 3rd person narrative is a different and more difficult arena with law and order and rules to which the omniscient narrator should adhere. Some writers can switch and write well in both. Child isn’t one of them. Lee Child is a free-wheeling writer who has rejected the discipline of grammatical rules and guidelines. I believe he should have stayed in the 1st person for the entire series. And that way he could have blamed Jack Reacher for any crude and vulgar anomalies.

The old advice “show, don’t tell” is sound advice in my view. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” (Chekhov). It was at the core of Hemingway’s ‘iceberg theory of omission.’ I believe it also reveals a writer’s respect for his reader. Of course, a good writer utilizes both; he shows and also tells. Lee Child prefers to tell not show. And it shows.

The lack of editing in Lee Child’s novels is chronic. You come across many unedited self-published books on Amazon, where lots of publications are not even self-edited. But Lee Child’s novels come from a publishing house! So why didn’t his publishers set their editors to work and rein him in? Could be that now he’s so established, they leave him be. He once commented that his editors are “afraid to piss me off.” Really?

Lee Child seems to be a great guy. He had setbacks and overcame them. I admire that, and his consequent success has to be applauded. I feel sure I’d enjoy a good chat and a few beers with him. In interviews, he’s open and honest. He’s said he’s not out to seek prizes; his aim is to deliver entertain;  his way. And his books sell like freshly baked bread in a famine. But how come? What gives?

A long time ago, time ago, ‘back in the day’, I had a sweet Toronto girlfriend. Clare was well read. She loved good books, and her bookshelf revealed a catholic taste in its mix of classics and contemporary writers. She’d read George Eliot’s Middlemarch in college and wrote an essay on it. She admired a host of fine writers. But she loved Harold Robbins.

Robbins was one of the best-selling writers of all time, he penned over 25 best-sellers, selling over 750 million copies worldwide in 32 languages.

Under pressure from Clare, and to please her, I got into him starting with The Carpetbaggers. I moved on to A Stone for Danny Fisher and on and on. I didn’t read the whole Robbins corpus but more than a few. And yes I enjoyed them though I didn’t rate him too highly as a writer. Like Lee Child, Robbins wrote as he liked. It seemed he’d never heard of the ‘point of view’ rule, so quite often you didn’t know which character was thinking what.

One day, Clare was lying back on her couch flipping the pages of Robbins’ latest, The Adventurers. I teased her. I told her I thought Robbins wasn’t much of writer; a crappy one, really. I expanded on that and she agreed. “You’re right, Tony,” she said, laughing.

“You agree?” I said, surprised.

“Yes,” she nodded. “I agree.”

“Yet you read him?”

“Yes,” She smiled. “It’s crazy I know. I can’t explain it, but I just can’t out him down.”

Rick Gekowski is a writer, broadcaster, rare book dealer and former Senior Lecturer in English at Warwick University. In 2011 he held the Chair of Judges for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize for Fiction. The Guardian newspaper once stated that “Gekowski likes to be around a better class of book than the rest of us.” Impressive, right?

Yet, in an article published in The Guardian, Gekowski came out of the closet and confessed to being a Jack Reacher junkie who can’t wait to get his hands on the latest Lee Child novel and devour it. It’s a bit like discovering that a world-renowned cordon bleu chef sneaks out in disguise to a motorway transport café to nosh down on greasy burgers and fries loaded with red sauce.

In his article, Gekowski admits that, “. . . no one, I imagine, values Child for the quality of his prose. One can hardly find, in the entire corpus of the work, a single sentence worthy of independent admiration.” Yet, like Clare with Robbins, he can’t put Lee Child down.

One critic accused Child of writing ‘dreck.’ In my view, Child’s prose is dull, overwritten and uninspiring. In comparison with Lee Child, Harold Robbins was a disciplined literary genius. As a writer, Child is bloody awful and the Jack Reacher series is bad writing in essence. An English teacher might well use it in class to demonstrate what NOT to do. But does it ever sell. Over 70 million worldwide. Plus all those Amazon downloads. Wow. But how? It beats the hell out of me.

Here’s a question I ask myself. Would the Jack Reacher Series be the success it is if it were well-written and thoroughly edited? And the answer? Probably not.

Quite obviously there exists a vast market out there for this stuff, and Lee Child is delivering what it wants and getting rich in the process. Child is British and well educated, so I assume his bad writing and lack of respect for English is to some extent deliberate. It seems his readers not only don’t care, it appears they even love his literary dross. For me, it’s another sad reflection on the dumbing-down of Western civilization.

Writing was the first to fall. Think of those university graduates who can’t compose a simple job application letter and need to hire professionals to do it. Now it seems the ability to read well is withering away.

So there it is. Bad writing sells; big time. But don’t go there. It’s a swamp. A quagmire. Lee Child was lucky; chances are you won’t be. Keep your feet on solid ground and stick with good writing? It also sells though not in such a frenzy as the Jack Reacher stuff. But don’t lose heart. Respect the English language. It’s a great, rugged and virile language with a superb body of literature behind it that has no equal. Use it well and write your best. And make every word count.

 

PS.

Jack Reacher is becoming a small industry. There’s now a Jack Reacher online game. And Jack Reacher Custom Coffee is available: ‘Robust. Full Bodied. Battle Tested’ plus a matching coffee mug. What next?

 

 

I really appreciate good tips like this

Lit World Interviews

You get to choose two categories for your book on Amazon, and seven keywords. Your book’s title, sub-title, blurb, categories, and keywords all go towards producing its metadata – the stuff that Amazon’s search engine uses to make your book discoverable to buyers searching for something to buy. That’s the fabulous thing about getting your metadata as useful as you can. People who search Amazon are looking to purchase. They’re not wanting information like when they use Google. In fact, Amazon’s search engine is not the same as Google.

Amazon’s search engine actually has its own moniker – A9. Not a very romantic name, but it is individual nevertheless. Amazon wants to get a specific sale rather than direct searchers to information as Google does. So A9 works a little differently. You may have noticed a sharp zooming up the rankings when you have a couple of sales of your…

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Shakespeare was a master of it. Ernest Hemingway almost perfected it. George Orwell advocated it. And every writer should obey and apply it, particularly in editing and revision. Observe it when writing a memo, email, a Facebook post, a blog or a prize-winning masterwork. It applies to every kind of writing. It’s rule number one, the most important and never to be broken. Make every word count. It speaks for itself when you think about it, yet, it’s a rule regularly violated. Why?

It’s apparent to me that most writers today don’t apply it. Maybe they’ve never heard of the rule and its importance in good writing. I got it drilled into me at school from strict teachers. “Make every word count.”

Writers disregard for it is especially evident in fiction writing, and more especially in self-published works on Amazon Kindle. It seems the opposite is now in vogue (see my blog: Padding it Out: Word Inflation in Fiction). We find writers deliberately inflating their work using a variety of methods such as redundant sentences, unnecessary sub-plots, overblown or meaningless dialogue, wordy descriptions of characters and places and, of course, vivid and gratuitous sex scenes.

I believe that writers often come up with a story idea that is essentially a good short story plot but doesn’t have the legs to be the heart of a novel or even a novella. Consequently they pad it out, often under editorial encouragement. It’s common; it’s sad but true.

The corollary of the rule is: that every single word should build sentences and paragraphs that drive the plot forward, establish the setting and develop characters. If it doesn’t, take it out.

I know a talented lady writer of short stories and novellas in the romantic erotica genre; not a genre I follow, mainly because it’s usually poorly written. But she writes it well, impressively so.

On her site she announced she was writing a novel; part one of a trilogy. A mystery thriller, set in an exotic Caribbean location, it opened well. But unfortunately, the story idea just couldn’t punch its weight. Consequently, the novel got the “padding” treatment; all of it, complete with an utterly gratuitous, and brutal, sex scene. I was most disappointed, but it’s par for the course.

The rule requires discipline and is not easy to apply. But if a writer keeps it in mind he goes a long way to achieving it. Reading good writing is also important as it shows how it should be done. In my view, a healthy literary diet is essential for writers and editors. It can, of course, be spiced it up with some literary junk with no harm done, but we become what we read. If a writer reads too much crap, he’ll write crap. If an editor reads too much crap, she’ll allow crap to pass her by uncorrected. The evidence for this abounds.

Shakespeare, as I mentioned, was a master of it. Go read him. Read a piece from one of his plays. Read a Sonnet. Then try to find a word you can take out. Here he is on Love:

                                           Let me not to the marriage of true minds

                                           Admit impediments. Love is not love

                                           Which alters when it alteration finds,

                                           Or bends with the remover to remove:

                                           O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,

                                           That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;

                                           It is the star to every wandering bark,

                                           Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

On Valour:

                                               Cowards die many times before their deaths.

                                                The valiant never taste of death but once.

                                                Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

                                                It seems to me most strange that men should fear,

                                                Seeing that death, a necessary end,

                                                Will come when it will come.

No redundancy there.

The rule also applies to the spoken word. Far too much meaningless verbiage comes out of peoples’ mouths and, no surprise here, politicians are especially guilty. Here’s a recent statement from British ex-prime minister Tony Blair pontificating on Muslim extremism.

The reality is that in parts of the Muslim community a

discourse has grown up which is profoundly hostile to

peaceful coexistence. Countering this is an essential

part of fighting extremism.” (Flabby and overblown)

“In parts of the Muslim community, a discourse exists

hostile to peaceful coexistence. Countering this is an

essential part of fighting extremism.” (Better)

“Among Muslims, discourse hostile to religious tolerance

abounds. In combating extremism, it is essential to counter

such discourse.” (Much better)

I think the last word must go to that wonderful text, The Elements of Style.

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no

unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences,

for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary

lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that

the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail

and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

So, let us cut the flab and do it. Here’s to better writing and better reading. Cheers.

Tony McManus

Chiang Mai

As a schoolboy I was fortunate to have a teacher who enjoyed reading stories to his pupils. Every Friday afternoon around 3.30 Mr. Cassidy would climb up on a desk and gather us boys in a close circle around him and for the final thirty minutes of the school day he would read to us.

Mr. Cassidy was from Ireland and had the God given gift of a beautiful voice. The first story he read to us was R L. Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island.” He didn’t simply read; he dramatized, taking us out of the cold Manchester grime and on down to the Cornwall coast to the Admiral Benbow Inn to meet Jim Hawkins, Dr. Livesey, Squire Trelawney, Long John Silver and the good ship “Hispaniola” and the heroes and villains who sailed in her. Spellbound, I would often close my eyes and listen as he read. I’ve since read that book several times and always enjoyed it, but never quite as much as listening to Mr. Cassidy’s captivating narration.

Next up was “The Master of Ballantrae” followed by “Kidnapped” from the same author, Stevenson; stories written for boys to be enjoyed by men. And just before that year’s Christmas break, we got Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” What could be a better way to end the school year?

From this experience I developed a love of radio plays such as BBC’s Afternoon Theatre, A Book at Bedtime and Appointment with Fear. For me, a radio play beats a television drama hands down, simply because you are able to use your own imagination. I also came to enjoy reading stories to others and have often done so.

It’s to Mr. Cassidy that I owe my love of books. And over the years I’ve often recalled him, sitting on his desk in his rumpled tweed jacket, hunched over his open book reading to us, acting out the character’s parts and transporting us boys as on a magic carpet to distant lands and fabulous places. Memories.