Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On Improvement, Part Two

So last week's post on Writer Unboxed generated some interesting comments and good food for thought. Not least because I spent the holiday weekend pouring through a new book, the kind of book that you can't believe you've been reading for hours because it seems like time stood still while you were flipping each page and the kind of book that you stay up waaaaaay past your bedtime to "just read one more chapter." The book was Barefoot by Elin Hilderbrandt, and man, I just loved it. (FYI: I don't know Elin, nor do I know her agent, editor, publicist or anyone even remotely connected to her, so I'm not just saying this to pimp her book! I really and truly loved it.)

Anyway, for those of you who didn't read my post last week, the general summary is this: first stabs at novels often suck, even if you don't see this at the time, and as a writer, even a published one, you should always strive to boost your writing each and every time you step up to the plate. I sincerely feel like Time of My Life makes leaps and bounds over The Department, and well, I don't even want to think of how crappy my (unpublished) book was before that. And Suzanne, a blog reader, posted an interesting comment - or interesting to me at least - was how she rarely heard published authors saying that they could improve their work. I guess the assumption is that getting published is enough.

Maybe for some authors it is. I think we could all name a few authors who churn out books year in year out in which the names are changed and maybe the plot is slightly varied, but more or less, the author hasn't cracked his or her success code. Hey, it works for him or her, and I don't have any problem with this.

But for me, I mean, what's the point of writing - whether you're working on your still-unpublished novel or your follow-up to your bestseller - if you're not trying to one-up your skill set each time? I think that this is where we, as writers, ideally all stand on the same ground, regardless of where you are in your writing aspirations and success. Look, it sucks when your first (or second) novel doesn't land an agent or doesn't nab a publisher, but I have enormous respect for people who can dust themselves off and say, "The experience was part of this ride; this career isn't a horizontal line; next time at the plate, I might swing and actually get a hit."

All of which leads me back to Barefoot. I read it on the recommendation of someone (I can't remember who now, because I sent a friend a note thanking her for the suggestion and it turned out she hadn't suggested it...so...if whomever recommended it is out there, thank you!), and I'm now interested in going back and reading Hilderbrand's other books (she's written six). And I'm curious to see if I can tell the difference between the first one and the sixth...because I hope that if I'm ever able to eke out six novels, that readers will be able to note the difference in quality in mine. That, to me, is what marks a successful writing career, and that, to me, is a big part of what this is all about. (That said, if all of her books are as good as Barefoot, I seriously might show up on her doorstep, kneel at her feet and ask her for her secrets!)

So tell me, have you read debut novels and been blown away by future books by the same writer? Or is this whole learning curve that I subscribe to overblown? Maybe you're just born with the ability to be a good writer and if so, each and every time you knock it out of the park? (As you can tell, I have a lot of thoughts and questions on this subject!)


Anonymous said...

I can't speak for other writers but personally, please add me to Team Learning Curve. At this point, I can't even look at my first book. There are so many things I did wrong in putting it together and I want to re-write every bit of it.

The flip side is because I write non-fiction, I realize I'm never going to be able to recapture the raw honesty of the first memoir.

My hope is as I become more technically proficient, readers won't mind my holding back a bit on the self-disclosure.

Kristi Holl said...

To be honest, more often I notice the opposite trend. Early novels (and the debut novel is often the third or fourth book the author has written) are often better than what follows IF the author gives in to the pressure of a publisher to start churning out books fast while their name is still hot. Or the publisher want you to do a series, with time lines requiring a book every two months. Quality takes time, no matter where you are in your career. The more you learn, the longer it takes to get a novel up to the level you want it--but the less time agents and publishers want to give you to write it. Plus you are also expected to take out writing time to publicize, blog, give speeches, do book signings, etc. Not sure what the solution is yet!

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Hi Jen!!! I totally know exactly what you mean.

Kristy-good point. Yes, I do think this happens, and it's always unfortunate...I wonder if it's the fault of the author or the fault of the publisher who is pushing him/her to get out the next book?

Larramie said...

I'm surprisingly on-the-fence here having read great debut novels that are followed by average 2nd and 3rd books and then there's the vice versa experience. Who really knows why?

Unknown said...

I fully agree with what you had to say at Writer's Unboxed. I like to think anything I write--even when it's already out in the world--is a work in progress. A novelist friend, who has a bunch of books under his belt, pointed out a quote from Louis de Bernieres recently: " One shouldn't just churn out a book. Try to write your best possible book." I think when a second book isn't as good as the debut it may be that the writer forgot why they are writing in the first place. Not to write a book, but to write their "best possible book." Scary, yes? But so much more fun.

bob said...

I seem to agree with Kristi. An example for me anyway would be James Patterson books.

I absolutely loved his early stuff - before any movies - before Alex Cross became known. They seemed richer.

Now, they seem to fit a formula and I've been turned off by reading them.

On the other hand, there are those who do improve or stay so original that I always read them. Like Elizabeth Berg or Jodi Picoult.

Anonymous said...

Lately I've seen a trend among authors who are working to improve their craft. I love that. Those in many other professions are expected to go to conferences, collect continuing education hours, etc. As a writer you may not be forced to do so, but it seems that there must always be room to improve on one's craft.

As for my first couple of novels, I never even bothered to try to have them published. They were just not that good, and I had learned so much from just writing them that I got out of them what I needed.

William Wren said...

do you beleive it is a good idea to publis a book to the net

Jen A. Miller said...

Hey Allison...I was probably the one who recommended it, yes? I named Barefoot my top fiction pick for 2007 (http://bookaweekwithjen.blogspot.com/2007/12/best-and-worst-of-2007.html).
I've read most of her books, interviewed Elin and written about her, too.

From our interview, she struggled with breaking out of a genre format box. Her first few books were a little thriller-ish, and she worked to break out of that with The Love Season, which I also recommend (it's not as mushy as the title suggests).

She's got a new one coming out in July. Stay tuned!

suzanneelizabeths.com said...

Hi Allison,

Thank you for mentioning me on your post today, what a thrill!

I'm seconding Kristi and Tammi, their point about the pressures of 'churning' out books according to a publisher's schedule is spot on. I too can think of a series author who started so strong and then just seemed to produce the same book over and over later in the series.

On the other hand, I recall Ann Patchett mentioning how her own writing had grown over the course of her books. Just this fall I read "Bel Canto" for the first time, (in fact, I'm going to write a post about it on my own blog tomorrow).

Now, that I think of it, I read it after I read "Run" a book she actually wrote after "Bel".

First I would now like to go back to read her earlier books, and as Allison posits, I believe I will find that Ann has developed as a writer.

On the other hand, I honestly think "Bel" is a better book than "Run". But that may be that it is 'the one' that one great book of a writer's career, against which all other books in her career will pale against.....

But that could be the subject for another post by Allison....is there such a thing as 'the one great book of a writer's career'????

Alllison, sorry for the long post, but your really do writer thought provoking blogs!



pamcl said...

Hi Allison,

I didn't think it was possible, given that Emily Giffin's second book was going to feature such a spoiled and obnoxious heroine (from her first book), but I actually liked Something Blue even more than the first, Something Borrowed.

Elin Hilderbrand is great. I've read a few of her books, and my favorite is Blue Bistro. Elin sets her books on Nantucket, and one of my best friends lives there with her chef husband, so it was especially fun for me to recognize so many of the sights and sounds, and just the overall feel of the restaurant world...she did such a great job of bringing to it life.