Friday, February 01, 2008

A page a day

I heard John Grisham on the telly the other day. he was being interviewed about his new novel, The Appeal, his first return to the legal thriller genre in four years.

One of the questions he was asked from an unpublished writer was "Any advice for a writer?"

He looked deadpan at the camera and said "Write a page a day." That's 365 pages in a year and a book. One book a year. It's the only way someone will get published. Writing a page a day.

Many people want to write but they feel overwhelmed. They begin a novel but eventually lose momentum and it languishes and then gets forgotten about. So Mr. Grisham gave excellent advice.

He was also asked if he starts a book and just lets things flow. He doesn't. He spends ages writing a detailed outline, knowing where every chapter begins and ends, and only begins when that's done.

That works for some writers. Myself, I don't write an outline. I've done it, but deviated from it so much that I'm not at all convinced it's the only strategy. I do character portraits so I know my characters very deeply before I begin, but that's about it. I allow them to breathe and talk as I write, let them take me to places they want to go in the story. But always I bear in mind that they cannot be allowed to control the story. Only I can do that, and they must be subordinate to the needs of the plot.

And I realize that subconsciously I have an outline in my head. I know where I want to begin and where I want it to end, but in between is open season so to speak.

Grisham's interview made me think about his books. I like them. He is a plot master, though I would not consider him a tremendous writer. I don't think that's his objective though. His goal is to tell excellent stories and he uses the prose that gets that done. Ergo, he is successful and I'm not just talking commercially.

When I compare his style to say McEwan, it is clear McEwan is a master of language. Some of his descriptions in Atonement are literally breathtaking, evoke a joyful "Yes, I've seen moss and colors like that on an old fountain and it does look like that" or "Wow, that's perfect." And yet, I have picked up Atonement twice now and cannot seem to get through it. I don't know if it's because the life of an upper-class English family no longer interests me or the plot is slow and, at times, a little unbelievable.

Either way, when you pick up a Grisham, you know you're going to finish it. So in conclusion, I guess the two writers have different objectives which they meet and are thus successful in their own distinct ways.

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