No, this is not an article on fowl perversion. Slog on, gentle reader.
Recently I read an excellent book titled Incognito, the Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine where he directs the Laboratory
for Perception and Action, as well as the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. One of its sections I found particularly fascinating, the sexing of baby chicks.
I sense a bit of explanation is required at this point.
'Sexing' is a term used in the poultry business for identifying the gender of a baby chick. Males are pretty much useless to this industry, so it is more cost effective to separate them from the more desirable females as early on as possible. The problem here is the difficulty in doing so. As chicks, males and females are practically indistinguishable to the naked eye. And while there are a few rare individuals who can tell which is which, these same folks are unable to articulate how they are able to do what they do. This being the case, how does one train more baby chick sexers?
This is how it is done. A trainee is paired with an experienced chick sexer. The trainee will pick up a chick, examine it, then identify it as either male or female. The trainer will then say yea or nay. After a sufficient amount of time, the trainee learns how to distinguish between the males and females, even though the trainee cannot explain the how of it any more than the trainer can.
Here's another example of this curious phenomenon. During WW II, London was constantly being bombed by the Germans. As this was going on it was learned that a few rare individuals existed who could, upon spying distant planes, distinguish between the English and German ones. Once this was discovered, the authorities immediately put these folks to work as plane spotters. But there were not nearly enough of them, so the spotters quite logically were put to work training others. However, like the chick sexers, the spotters were unable to articulate how they could tell the difference between the planes. After fruitless attempts at training, the spotters began teaching new trainees just as chick sexers do, by letting the trainee guess whether a distant plane was English or German, and then either confirming or correcting the guess. After a while the new trainees learned to tell the difference as well, though they had no more idea than their trainers how they were doing it.
So what does this have to do with writing? See below. And please understand that the following is an opinion derived from my musings on the above phenomena:
There are some rules (or guidelines, if you will) on how to write best-sellers. Dean Koontz wrote such a text for Writer's Digest once upon a time titled How to Write Best Selling Fiction, though it has long been out of print. And then there are the basic elements of the craft, such as a competent knowledge of grammar, etc. This being so, it seems logical that any writer who has written a best seller should know how to write another one. Right?
Of course that is not the case. While best-selling authors, having reached such a lofty status, do tend to sell well, this does not mean that each novel they write sells just as well (if not better) than their previous efforts. Some even watch their careers and sales decline dramatically.
In short, it would appear there is no magic formula one can follow which will guarantee even steady, much less steadily increasing, sales, or else editors around the world would be following it to the letter while raking through their slush piles. This being the case, how can a writer improve his or her craft, if past a certain point there are no rules detailing how to do so?
Here's where the chick sexing comes in, the type of learning which (when it takes place) cannot be articulated. If we follow the chick sexing model, then we simply write. When success follows, we learn on a subconscious level. Not only that, we learn when we fail as well. Our 'trainers' are the readers. By buying, or not buying, our work, readers are teaching us how to write. As goes the old joke, how does one get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.
Well, gee, thanks for the useful advice. Write your (eventual) way to success. And I thought you didn't have anything useful to share.
To which I say, be of good cheer. For while this process cannot be avoided, I believe it can be abbreviated.
Example: I have listened to any number of writers refer to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels as (and this in moments of kindness) "that dreck". And every time I hear it, the first words which come to my mind are not 'literary perspicacity' but 'low sales'.
Not for Ms. Meyer, whose sales figures at one point eclipsed (no pun intended) the Harry Potter novels. No, the low sales I see are the ones for (at least some of) the writers who disparage her Twilight series.
Now understand, I am not referring to readers here when commenting on Ms. Meyer's storytelling skills (or lack of same). Literature is a highly subjective art form, and the reason we have everything from James Joyce's Ulysses to Stan Lee's The Amazing Spider Man is because of this. If a reader would rather chew broken razor blades than read the first page of Breaking Dawn, then that is perfectly legitimate. I'm not talking about readers here. I'm talking about authors.
So let me get this straight. You're saying that I can write the great American novel by reading populist tripe written for tweens?
If this is your question, you misunderstand me. For one thing, tweens were not the only passengers on the Twilight train. Which is my point. Meyer's novels jumped the tracks of a readership of teenage girls and began pulling along a number of others in its wake, adult women, and most likely a decent number of men as well (though most of them would prefer to chug bleach rather than admit it, methinks.)
Writers can attempt to reduce the popularity of certain best-sellers to a few superficial and easily grasped cliches, but for those who extend their reach outside of an obvious target audience, there must be something else there. I hate to break it to folks, but the Twilight books were not the first vampire novels aimed at the teen market, as authors such as L. J. Smith, Christopher Pike, and Meredith Ann Pierce (among others) can attest to. And Fifty Shades of Grey, by British author E. L. James, wasn't the first soft core bdsm porn novel ever written either (The Story of O anyone?).
Now, these books (and myriad others) may not be any given writer's cup of tea as readers, and that's as it should be. But no one gave these writers their commercial success. No one made any deals with the devil. So how did their work reach such lofty sales pinnacles?
Well, odds are that, like the chick sexers, they don't know either. The only thing I'm willing to bet on is that these authors, and others like them, wrote the kind of novels they wanted to read, but which no one else was writing, or at least not writing in precisely the same way. So, how to emulate their success?
Okay, maybe not them. But read the works of those writers within one's genre who have achieved the kind of success we seek for ourselves, whether it be financial or critical acclaim in literary, genre, or whatever type of fiction. Or nonfiction. For within those pages I believe can be found the secrets of the chick sexers, knowledge which cannot be articulated, but which can be absorbed.
Then again, as Dennis Miller was wont to say once upon a time, "But that's just my opinion, I could be wrong."
And because this would not be a proper blog post without some self-serving content, here is a link to my interview with author Jade Kerrion: http://www.jadekerrion.com/2012/09/03/walter-spence-house-of-shadows/.