“We are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.”
What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.
Conventional wisdom holds that all true artists abhor convention and delivering what’s expected. They’re just too creative for that.
Unfortunately, that notion is dead wrong. No one is interested in such “pure creativity.” Readers aren’t interested in books that are completely out of the box—what would be the point? No, we all want what’s conventional and unoriginal. Yes we do. Most of any paragraph, scene, or chapter should be expected. Anticipated.
Put another way, most of a story must follow the reader’s expectation.
When I was an acquisitions editor, I learned this was one of the important hidden keys to book proposals that sold. If the writer delivered what readers of that type of book expect, we’d be much more likely to be able to sell that book. That means a writer has to know the best books in their genre and how they met expectations.
Of course, there are uniquenesses to every successful book, and true, they break conventions and delight readers with creative surprises. But the total amount of those differences is less than 5 percent. The actual number may be higher, or even less, but most of the enjoyable parts of any successful book–fiction or nonfiction–are not new. Think about it.
In fact, if you want to know what made a particular book so successful, consider how that tiny amount of new, unpredictable material was actually a liability until it proved just enough to add to or improve on what was already available.
Higher purpose writers need to know good stories are built by following the conventions of good storytelling–a person we can identify with, a quest and settings we’ve experienced countless times, and plot developments that arise naturally from what the protagonist wants, and how they’re obstructed from it. You must see how your favorite author built their story with the existing material of their genre, the very same materials everyone uses, the traditional building blocks in the right sequence and with the proper attention—characterizations, plot points, descriptions, dialogue, strong verbs—then you too can use the elements to succeed–
Any artist brings particularities of expression. But more importantly, they satisfy expectations.
What’s too often missed is that a professional writer often allows readers to very nearly predict every single word because they’ve mastered the conventions so completely. Subtle nuances, and unique stylistic things notwithstanding, the surprises are secondary to everything first being perfectly placed.
And the proof is that a book can completely conform to your expectations to a remarkable degree, and somehow still convince you that writer is worthy of your attention.
In fact, the similarities between a new book and its established category may be what convinces you most.
What’s great about this is that it’s in the simple, expected ordinary elements of a story that we can give rise to the greater possibilities in any story. It’s just some colors blended from the primary three. Just eight basic notes in the scale. Just one alphabet, 3 acts, the same journey toward freedom. But when your readers are all desperate to get home again, they don’t want to be confounded at every turn. They want, first and foremost, to be comforted by what’s reassuring, and this is what makes an artist great: he has our best in mind.
Or as Pascal the restauranteur says in the film, Big Night, “Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want.”
Any writer can write something completely new. New ideas are literally a dime a dozen. Only a writer with a higher purpose cares what readers want and delivers it. What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.
With every professional artist’s work we talk about what’s special but only because it was built on the conventional foundation of perfection—that is, mastery—of every single element in that discipline.
All art is this way. Practiced conventionality is the work. It’s always been true and it will remain true forever: “creative” work is far more predictable than creative.
Or maybe the truth is that’s what creativity is. Learn what’s expected and how to deliver it. You won’t write other writers’ stories. But there are only a handful of archetypes and storylines. You’re offering an interpretation, much more than you even realize.
What you write matters. What you emphasize about the human condition and experience is a vitally important, needed perspective. But being different is inevitable. And when you get back to the work today, aim to be disciplined by the conventional and tradition.
Because that’s where you’ll prove you’re a writer: in the discipline that leads to freedom.
“The writer is only free when he can tell the reader to go jump in the lake. You want, of course, to get what you have to show across to him, but whether he likes it or not is no concern of the writer.”
Can that also be true? Maybe we just all have to try and find out.
For the tried and true higher purpose,