Ironically, the big literary story of July, and probably of 2013, has been the real-life whodunit over the authorship of a novel about a private detective. Even those who don’t follow book news with my keen interest will know the story of how the sleuthing instigated by India Knight and the Sunday Times uncovered the ‘real’ identity of debut crime novelist, Robert Galbraith as being the phenomenally best-selling J.K. Rowling.
‘Harry Potter Author ‘s Pitiful Sales Figures’ seemed to sum up the tone of much coverage – the implication being that books that Rowling puts her name to sell on reputation rather than merit. However, one of the most sobering facts one learns about the publishing industry from a writer’s perspective is that Galbraith’s hardback sales of 1,500 before the unmasking (as the BBC reported) are relatively impressive for a debut author. The book industry’s sales volumes are very polarised, weighted towards a tiny number of best-selling titles — not so much the 80-20 principle but probably more 99-1.
The story has been well publicised about how a lawyer’s wife’s indiscretion on Twitter caused the secret to be spilled. Yet how Galbraith’s ‘debut’ novel managed to attract enough interest to merit such investigation into the author’s identity is less clear. India Knight’s attention was aroused by a review in the Sunday Times — but it’s a very lucky debut author who gets that kind of coverage from the critics.
To many yet-to-be published novelists – from whose ranks Galbraith was meant to have emerged – there seemed to be a red herring in the detective story. It was reported that the unusually high quality of Galbraith’s debut, The Cuckoo’s Calling, had set the antennae twitching of some big name authors and literary establishment figures. In her Sunday Times column India Knight qualified this by pointing out Galbraith made observations she thought would only be perceived by a female writer.
A work by an unknown author has enormous odds stacked against its chances of publication. Accordingly, to mitigate the risk of rejection, much of the most sensible advice to the aspiring novelist is simply to ‘make it the best that it can be’. To ensure that manuscripts are suitably honed and polished there’s a multitude of courses, writing groups, conferences, magazines, mentors, manuscript assessment services. (And that’s before the publisher’s expert professionals get to work on a title.)
To those working on a putative debut novel, it seems that the bar for acceptance of a manuscript is set exceptionally high. A number of unpublished writers I know are also going through the soul-destroying process of submitting the product of their hard work to agents, or through agents to publishers (a process which appears at least equally frustrating as acquiring an agent in the first place, although difficulties at this stage are less well publicised.)
So it seems puzzling that someone might say: ‘We must investigate that Galbraith ex-army chap because his book stands head and shoulders above the rest of those so-so debuts.’ Unsurprisingly, the explanation that The Cuckoo’s Calling was a beacon of assured writing in a sea of emergent mediocrity didn’t go down too well with several first-time novelists I know on Twitter – who ironically began to refer to their work as ‘mere’ debuts.
I was reading Into the Woods by John Yorke when the controversy erupted, a book recommended to me a fellow student from the City University course who’s been part of my workshopping group for the last year or so. As well as being a fascinating read in its own right, some of the insights in the book may offer a more persuasive explanation of why Rowling’s work – rather than being subjectively better – may have stood out from the crowd because of the its unique path to publication.
Yorke is a TV executive who has been responsible for many of the most successful and innovative programmes of the last decade or two (e.g. Life on Mars). Into the Woods is a book on the fundamental importance of structure in storytelling and to all literary and dramatic forms.
The book references other well-known works on story and plotting, such as Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. At times I found it irritatingly dismissive of others’ theories, with Yorke claiming more fundamental insights.
However, the book is less about originality of analysis than stripping back well-known concepts to expose their basis in some universal truths, common to all humanity. In places this reduction appeared to have been abstracted to a level of almost meaningless generality — every event has a beginning and an end and something happens in between or that things change over time (and Newton’s Third Law is cited as the a root of character interaction).
The structure of the book itself also ignores its own advice. Rather than build revelation of its conclusions over a narrative arc, the main points are stated upfront in the first chapter and to a large extent repeated and refined in later chapters – a fairly common trait in non-fiction books that don’t have the momentum of a plot to carry the reader through to the end.
On the other hand, I was intrigued by the breadth of research. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was referenced — a psychological model of human motivation that I studied on my MBA and that I’ve used to some extent to explore characters’ motivation in my novel.
The book also touches on the importance of story in non-creative writing and other types of communication. The book has made me realise that the aspects of my ‘day job’ which I gravitate towards usually involve some sort of narrative. Typically, I examine the underlying structure of interactions and consider root causes of conflict and risk. I then create narratives which transforms a situation as is it now into some future current state, breaking it down into sub-components and their impact on individual ‘actors’. Conceptually, it’s not hugely different to novel writing.
When the underlying concepts are interlinked to create the template of a classic three or five act story, the book’s arguments become very persuasive. Most of the many examples Yorke uses to demonstrate his arguments are films or television programmes (Thelma and Louise is a particular favourite) but he also references Shakespeare’s plays and some novels.
The emphasis placed on symmetry throughout a story is fascinating. The mid-point of a well-constructed plot is pinpointed as the pivot at which the most fundamental change occurs. This complements the more traditionally taught theory of a pair of inciting incidents (the call to action and the precipitating crisis) at the ends of acts one and act two/four (depending on whether a three or five act structure is applied).
It’s not just fictional narratives that fit this basic structure. Like me, Yorke has noted the way the classic act structure is ruthlessly applied to reality television. Every episode of The Apprentice is a template of archetypal narrative clarity: the task is set, problems are overcome until a defining moment of crisis, then there’s the reckoning in the board room and the resolution of the firing. Its brilliant and ruthless editing is an example to anyone with an interest in storytelling: every shot and cut has significance and the viewer is challenged to piece together the subtext behind even the most apparently trivial details.
Yorke also argues that story structure exists in fractals — i.e. each larger unit of story is formed of a collection of similar sub-components down to the level of scene (and, arguably of paragraph or sentence). Each of these elements must also conform to the demands of a universal dramatic structure. Like the stunning geometric images that are generated from the aggregation and interaction of repeated fractals, the rich complexity of a great story is also formed out of tiny, similar components.
However, few (if any) writers plot such a low level in deliberate detail (chapters certainly but less so scenes and certainly not paragraphs). So, if the fractal argument holds, then writers must subconsciously arrange these small-scale structural elements. The better storyteller the writer is, then arguably the more innate is their mastery of these fundamental patterns. This aptitude then, perhaps, represents an essential quality that suffuses an author’s writing.
As with natural orators, these qualities might be psychologically rooted in personality, reflecting the way a writer interacts with the world as a whole – or something learned through cultural osmosis — and difficult, if not impossible, to teach.
This leads back to the Galbraith/Rowling identity question. While J.K. Rowling’s prose style attracts criticism – for its unfashionably frequent use of adverbs and adjectives as qualifiers and a tendency to be very heavy on description – it’s commonly agreed that she tells a good story and can handle a large set of characters. Yorke himself uses examples from the narrative arc that spans Harry Potter’s seven volumes.
Rowling’s success managing Harry Potter’s epic narrative may signify an instinctive ability to handle the fundamental building blocks of story. If this talent is combined with the experience of the adaptation of the series over eight films, then it’s hardly unexpected that she could master a highly structured genre, such as detective fiction.
I’ve not read any detailed accounts of the extent to which The Cuckoo’s Calling was offered around other publishers before being taken up by Rowling’s existing imprint. However, the circumstances under which the book was written would have been almost the opposite to those experienced by most debut authors (including Rowling herself in the past). The manuscript was almost certainly assured of publication (revealing the real author’s identity would have done the trick instantly) and the motives for using a pen name may have been to gauge the reception of the work when given a low-key launch without any attendant hype. The text may have been reflected these circumstances.
If you’re not J.K. Rowling or other writer with an established track record, then the first objective is to catch the attention of the professional reader who might give your manuscript little time to make its impact. Much advice to aspiring writers concentrates almost exclusively on perfecting a novel’s opening (I even have a book called The First Five Pages).
This is where the interests of the typical reader diverge from the professional sifter — the agent, editor or review short-lister. Someone who’s made an investment in cash and set time aside to buy and read a book contrast with those under pressure to convert the time they spend reading submissions into money. When we pay money up front for a book it’s after being influenced by factors other than the text itself — and our expectations are set to enjoy the read. It’s also why so many more readers will read The Cuckoo’s Calling now the real author has been identified.
The review by Cathy Rentzenbrink in the Bookseller is honest and very eye-opening for a writer. She quickly skimmed a pre-publication copy of The Cuckoo’s Nest to select titles for a crime ‘best of’ list, reading 18 pages before passing over the book. After Rowling was revealed as the author she read the whole novel and freely admitted that her initial judgement wasn’t able to reflect the quality of the overall book, because the opening hadn’t done it justice. Similarly, other reviews mentioned the slow opening and a ‘gentle pace’. An editor who admitted rejecting the book described it as ‘well-written but quiet’.
It could be argued that Yorke’s approach to structure is at odds with the advice to start in media res that is commonly given to writers. Of course, it should go without saying that a novel ought to open in a way that immediately engages the reader’s interest – every word in a novel should justify its place. Also, if you buy the fractal theory, the opening should be a hook into the first act, which ought to have a narrative arc of its own.
Nevertheless, the model of symmetrical story structure requires that characters, their predicament and the setting be properly established. It sets up the significant action of change or transformation which takes place at the inciting incident at the end of the first act – generally about a fifth to a quarter of the way through the story. This then allows a corresponding period for resolution at the end of the story.
If a writer jumps straight in at the outset with an inciting incident then the reader may become disorientated and to compensate the author may try to shoehorn vital missing information into clunky passages of exposition or the confusing overuse of flashbacks.
The writers and critics who read The Cuckoo’s Calling and formed a favourable impression may have unconsciously identified that it was somehow different to most debut novels. Perhaps debut novelists, assimilating all the advice on how to attract attention to their work, share certain traits — and possibly other authors with a long backlist can identify these. Perhaps Robert Galbraith was a notable exception? The idea might have be more plausible than the notion that debuts are inherently of lower quality.
I’ve spent much time concentrating on the opening of my novel. I know that it’s crucially important in demonstrating the complete manuscript’s potential to the time-pressed readers. The first three chapters have been professionally read twice. But as Yorke’s book argues and, perhaps the Rowling/Galbraith story demonstrates, the rest of the book also needs to perform as a coherent and satisfying whole. And it’s perhaps the writers who also understand and appreciate the fundamentals of storytelling that eventually stand out — once they’ve nailed those first five knockout pages.