I have a confession: I’m not a big Mad Men fan. I know, almost everyone else seems to be, but after watching a couple of episodes, I just didn’t like it. I couldn’t identify with any of the characters, didn’t like the way people behaved to each other, and definitely was not crazy about the surrounding vibe. Still, I’m happy to accept that those were the 60s, and the show depicts the atmosphere of that time in a very truthful and believable way. So what if I prefer a gentler way of life without the rougher edges of past times?
Having said all that, the series itself was great in catapulting us in the time frame of that period. I was born in 1970, so I missed all that, but Mad Men does give a fascinating insight into the decade before that (artistic licence not withstanding). It draws the viewer into the story and the era, in a way most series (or movies) can only hope to imitate.
If I translate that success into book writing, I will identify the setting, the writing, the plot and the characterization are wonderful. Then, I came across this blog post called “5 things Mad Men can teach you about publishing” on Authorculture. The pointers are spot-on because, just as Mad Men’s producers manage to successfully propel us into the 60s, so should a book!
How can we make our books believable, authentic and thrilling, then? Here are a few tips:
Don’t try to emulate somebody else’s style, just because it’s successful and he/she has a lot of sales. People value originality, uniqueness and authenticity, so you should try to find your own voice.
I was really concerned when I started writing because my writing style is quite simple, lacking detailed descriptions. I thought I was doing something wrong, but then realized that I couldn’t write any other way and remain true to myself! Uniqueness also qualifies for the book cover, art and book promotion – every aspect of the book should be inventive and creative as well true to you.
I had an interesting conversation with Chris Heath in the Comments section of my recent Writing Lessons You Need to Unlearn post. Chris has great description skills (amply demonstrated in the Dark Angel excerpt above), whereas I prefer to sketch out the surroundings, allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. In my comment, I likened our differing styles to comparing the style of one of the Old Masters with the broad strokes of an Impressionist.
So, much like Rembrandt, with his attention to detail, Chris’ descriptions are wonderfully intricate – far more than mine. Mine are more laconic, Monet-like, as I said. Do my readers miss a more complex description? Without a doubt, some have. The most frequent (and treasured) comment I get, however, is, “amazing how you capture the feel of a world with so few words.” On the other hand, I’ve also heard a couple of complaints about the lack of a more detailed description. Still, I can’t imitate Chris’ style and be true to me, so I’m happy to continue in my own style.
This doesn’t mean we can’t improve our writing, or imitate others, of course! Just that we should not lose ourselves and our voice while doing it.
Appeal to the personal side
You are an author, which means you are a person with a distinct personality and a life story behind you. Both writing and marketing has become more personal and more emotional (no, I’m not saying that you should build a whole drama around your book)! People like reading things that make them stir, think or experience something, and we all have pretty astute bull$#! meters that go off every time we encounter trivial or superficial publishing.
Still, to paraphrase the saying, people will forget what they read (or saw or heard etc), but not the way it made them feel.
Details are important
I know I said that I like to use a broad stroke when painting a picture, but that doesn’t mean that I skim on details. I just try to focus on the most important ones, the ones that will immediately give one the feel of the environment, character or situation.
Immersing someone into a whole culture –science fictitious one or a past one- involves creating a whole setting that places people into that time frame. Mad Men was fantastic at that: people smoking left, right and center shocked me, but that really was how people behaved back in the 60s. Making people smoke outside of a building would have been out of place. Sexism at work that would be taken for sexual harassment or females being given only secretarial work were just the norm. Women stayed at home and cared about children. The series depicts this reality with an impressive attention to detail!
A good story
Finally, that eternal quest; the good story! All authors want to write something that will get readers to ask ‘so what happens next?’ We want readers to sneak into spoiler websites to see what happens in our next book (my wife does that for many TV series; I hope that someday she will do the same with my books… after all, Martin has set a precedent).
The story holds the book together and it should be nothing less than gripping!
Get people to know your book
An obvious point, perhaps: promote, promote, promote! I used to think that a great book will inevitably become a hit. I now know better! When you think back to all the artists who were only recognized posthumously, it has always been that way. Even the greatest book need promotion (at least, if you want to reap the benefits while alive!)
The best kind of promotion is the one that combines this with your personal style, and will appeal to readers’ sense of fun. A few weeks ago, I read about an author who decided to promote his book by writing blog posts, where he would put sentences from his books with a few words missing and readers had to find the missing words. This approach is inventive and novel, and I confess to drawing a sigh in envy when I read it! Well done – I fully plan to copy that!
What am I missing? Be sure to let me know in your comments!