Trust me, I’m an author

I remembered being just sixteen, and kissing red-cheeked, fair-haired Callie Anders, who lived there, and whose family would soon move to the Shetlands, and I would never kiss her or see her again.

This sentence just doesn’t seem right to me. There are too many sub-clauses, the clauses don’t seem to relate to each other properly, and there are far too many uses of ‘and’ for my taste.

Read the sentence again for me. If you’re a writer, read it as a writer: be critical, and ask yourself if you’d be happy leaving it as it stands in your novel. If you’re a reader, read it as a reader: do your eyes glide through it, or do they stumble? If you’re an editor, read it as an editor, and then ignore all the subsequent errors in this post because, let’s face it, the easiest thing in the world is for an author to get lost in an extremely long and extremely complicated run-on sentence that, by the time you get to the end of it, seems to have lost all sense or earthly reason (but at least I didn’t use a semi-colon).

I think it’s the last part of the sentence: ‘and I would never kiss her or see her again.’ My brain is screaming that it should be something along the lines of: ‘so I would never kiss her or see her again.’ I don’t know. I’m writing this on a train. Maybe it should be something else.

The point is, there’s another problem with this sentence: it was written by a best-selling author, in a best-selling novel. And it wasn’t Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, or E. L. James. It was Neil Gaiman.

Now, I like Neil Gaiman. I like his writing. I like his imagination. I loved Coraline: I thought it was simple and beautiful. I loved The Graveyard Book for the same reasons. I think I’ll like the book this sentence is from (The Ocean at the End of the Lane).

But I just can’t get over this sentence. I’ve stopped reading the book just to write this post about it.

Here’s my issue: if this was a self-published book by an unknown author, there’s every possibility I might have stopped reading it by now. The prose, on severe reflection, is a little too stylised, a little too self-satisfied, a little too overconfident. Gaiman drops half-sentences all over the place, uses the word ‘randomly’ twice in the second paragraph (and not in a poetic way), and generally writes with half an eye on the rules without being overly worried about actually following them.

In an unknown author this could come across as cocky and overconfident. In Gaiman … well, we accept it, don’t we? It’s intentional, surely. It’s his style. The unevenness of the prose reflects the unevenness of the character’s emotional state.

Except … is it?

Look, I’ve gone on for long enough. It’s a busy day, and your break’s nearly over, or the train has arrived at your station, or you’re tired of reading this. My point is: how much do we overlook in a book because of the name on the front? Usually it’s a reassurance, a contract between reader and writer: we expect the person whose name is on the cover to have written something that is affecting, moving, funny, sad, exciting, or terrifying, and we expect it to be written well because, hey, they’re published and I’m not.

But I wonder how much difference there really is between those published authors and the struggling unsung writers populating the various corners of the internet? Maybe not as much as we think.

So here’s my challenge: next time you read a work by an unpublished author, or a self-published author, convince yourself it was written by Neil Gaiman. Or J. K. Rowling. Or Stephen King. Or whoever your favourite popular author is.

See if it makes a difference.

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8 thoughts on “Trust me, I’m an author

Add yours

  1. I used to love Terry Goodkind, thinking that Sword of Truth wasn’t quite as good as Wheel of Time, but close. Then I studied craft and wrote novels of my own. Now, I can’t read Goodkind at all. Literally gave away all my books by him.

    I see things in writing that I hadn’t previously, and SPA or traditional, it’s hard for me to overlook the flaws. I’m just as willing to throw down Gaiman as I am Joe Author’s first ever book.

    1. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just an author-y thing then? We can see the cracks, where others can’t?

      1. I saw a thread at the kboards writers’ cafe about this one time. A not insignificant percentage of authors seem to be like me (not able to get past horribly written prose). There are a lot of others, though, who just don’t care. Not sure what any of that means.

      2. It’s an unfathomable mystery … but I also know I’ll never let my writing go un-edited. I wonder if some extremely successful authors get a minimum edit in deference to their experience — but I’m sure all good writing benefits from a steady and honest editor’s eye.

  2. I have a pretty bad memory for most things, but I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane almost 2 years ago, and I actually remember that sentence. Because I stopped to think about its structure too.
    Writing an incredible sentence is actually a very easy thing to do. The hard part is writing an incredible paragraph, within an incredible chapter, inside an incredible book. This is what separates a good author from a terrible one, but for all the self-published authors whose amazing work goes unnoticed, there are probably a thousand others who are fooling themselves into thinking they’re not devoid of talent.
    Published authors are the same, but sadly, the market sometimes doesn’t care.

    1. I think this is it. And there are so many writers out there who are genuinely exciting and talented, who will never get exposure and never get any kind of financial reward for their work. I guess it’s not really a complaint. It is what it is. But I’m definitely going to be looking for more ‘underground’ fiction.

  3. It’s from the perspective of the narrator and in this case, it’s from Gaiman’s character speaking in first person POV. Makes all the difference, which is totally okay for me. It won’t have anything to do with whether a book is self-published or not, at least to me. The power is in the prose but only after you crack open the cover.

    But for self-publishing, as with traditionally-published books, catching my attention first with a good cover and blurb is what will get me to actually read it.

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