11 May 2013

Losing the Edge

Lately I've been reading a lot of mysteries by James W. Hall. His series protagonist lives in the Florida Keys and enjoys, among other things, tying fishing lures. In Hall's fifth novel, Buzz Cut, the hobby has become sort of a business venture, and the lures don't seem to work anymore. They won't catch fish. Here's an excerpt:
His flies had lost their allure. He had always tied them for himself. Sold his extras. The compulsion behind each one was the simple desire to snag his own bonefish. To concoct his own bait so appetizing it would guarantee the thudding strikes and wrenching excitement he had relied on for more than thirty years. But he'd lost something, tying them exclusively for others. His fingers committing the same act, tweezers and scissors, Mylar and feathers, hackle and ribbing. Everything exactly the same. Identical to the eye. But now they were duds. Failures on some level so subtle, so subatomic that only the fish could see it.
That got me to thinking. Can that kind of unconscious burnout happen in other creative endeavors as well? Can it happen in writing?

Sure it can.

The Over the Hill Gang

How often do you find that certain authors whose work you've been reading for years suddenly don't seem to write as well or as compellingly as they used to? I won't call any names here, but I can think of at least half a dozen bigtime novelists whose latest work doesn't seem to be able to deliver the same punch that their earlier (and sometimes earliest) books did. The style and voice are the same, but the stories themselves just aren't as entertaining. They don't pull you in and hold you the way they once did.

If that's true--and I believe it is--then it's certainly a contradiction. One would expect a craftsman of any kind to get better the longer he or she practices that craft. So the question is, what could cause a writer to lose some of his or her appeal, and effectiveness?

Part of it could be the fact that doing something--anything--day after day, year after year, can grow boring for the person doing it. The old saying "familiarity breeds contempt" was probably meant to apply to relationships, but it could also apply to fields of endeavor. The quality of the product can be directly proportional to the level of enthusiasm of its creator. I recall reading someplace that the cars that go through the assembly line on Monday usually don't turn out as well as those assembled later in the week.

Or maybe, as in the case of the fly-tying fisherman, the artisan starts doing things more for the end user than for himself or herself. I realize we should all try to "write with the reader in mind," but we must also write in a way that pleases ourselves. I've said that even if I knew I would never publish another word of fiction, I would continue to write it anyway because spinning these tales is so much fun to do. For me it's therapy as well as recreation. The process itself is enjoyable and satisfying and relaxing.

But what if you're writing under a tough deadline? I once heard a well-known novelist tell a group of beginning writers that "your first novel will probably be the only one that's really fun to write--and might be the only one that you're ever completely satisfied with." The reasoning is that if that first novel is successful, your agent and publisher will probably want another book from you every year. Maybe more. And when that happens, what started out as play can quickly become work. All of a sudden you have responsibilities, your audience and your publisher have expectations, your hobby has become gainful employment, and your merry romp in the fictional clover is now a real job.

(By the way, when I say "first novel," I'm referring to published work. All of us have stories and novels that never saw the light of day, and for good reason. I suspect that many famous authors have a few unpublished books--truly first novels--stuffed underneath their beds or in the back of their closets.)

The Top of the Hill Gang

I can think of several ways that writers might prevent or recover from "losing their edge." Intentionally or not, some authors seem to have extended their popularity--and probably their careers--by writing in different genres (Larry McMurtry, Nora Roberts, Evan Hunter), writing both series and standalone novels (Harlan Coben, Elmore Leonard, Robert Crais), creating more than one series (James Lee Burke, Robert B. Parker, John Sandford), writing both novels and shorts stories (Lawrence Block, Stephen King, Jeffery Deaver), and collaborating with other writers (James Patterson, Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich). It might also be said that authors like Thomas Harris and John Irving stay at the top of their game by going more than a year--sometimes several years--between novels. However effective these kinds of things are, I suspect that they are done more for personal reasons than commercial reasons. Maybe they ward off the boredom we talked about earlier.

In closing, let me mention that some authors seem to have kept their ability to thrill and entertain throughout their careers. Lee Child, Carl Hiaasen, Greg Iles, and Dennis Lehane come to mind, and I think some of Michael Crichton's later books were as strong as some of his early ones.
As for Stephen King, his novel The Stand remains one of my favorites, but his 11/22/63, published 33 years and thirty novels later, was just as good, and possibly better. That's comforting news to me, in more ways than one: King and I are the same age--well, he's two months older--so maybe if he can still think clearly, so can I.

Hey, I'll take inspiration wherever I can get it.


  1. John, I was relieved to read these excellent comments - as I read a lot of the big "bestsellers" and have found that in the last couple of years many of them simply do not hold my interest!!! This validates what I'd thought - thank you! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  2. Good morning, John,
    I don't see how you found time to write this insightful blog while on your book-signing tour, but I agree with what you said.

    One thing I'd like to point out. Stephen King has been one of my favorite authors since THE STAND, and I agree that 11/22/63 is just as good; however, even King went through a spell when his work wasn't up to the level of those two. In his case, it may well have been personal problems, health, and injury, but it sometimes happens to the best.

  3. Thanks, Thelma. You and I are probably thinking of some of the same names, right now. Although I do keep reading those folks, and buying their books.

    Fran, you're right about King's slump, which lasted quite a while. But he came out of it in fine style. And I love the way you make my "book tour" sound more grand than it is. I am having a lot of fun, though--today I'll be driving to a signing about 100 miles south (probably in the rain). Have a great Mother's Day tomorrow!

  4. John -- As you and I have discussed, we are both King fans. But I agree with Fran that some of King's middle works are disappointing. Insomnia, for example, I just didn't like. Overblown and not enough story. My theory on this is that King's need to write outstrips his creativity. I think sometimes he writes a novel before he has a great idea for a novel. 11/22/63 is a great example of an idea that just takes off, and becomes a really great read. I am hoping that can be said of the sequel to The Shining, due out this fall!

  5. John, you on a subject that I think about often. I haven’t yet found an answer to how some writers continue to produce entertaining stories into their old age while others just kinda lose their edge. Do their run out of material? But then they could change genres as some of the writers you mentioned. Are they unwilling or unable to change with the times?

  6. Louis, I think I qualify, at least in the age department, to address your comment. Speaking for myself, I have found it difficult in the past few years to come up with ideas that interest me enough to spend time writing about them. And I find that my current writings lack something--I don't know what exactly. Energy? Spontaneity?

    Changing genres is an option, and I have done that with a modicum of success. Westerns, nostalgia (a good one for seniors), even romance, (although in my case romance is not on the list).
    To those who continue to be productive and successful in their declining years, I tip my cap.

    It's not an unwillingness to change with the times, at least not in my case. But I find that writing mysteries is more difficult for me, what with smartphones, computers, and all sorts of crime solving technology that changes the playing field. Ine hass to learn a whole new language and for that matter, a whole new way of life. My way of handling that is to set my stories in the fifties and sixties. I don't know if that is what editors want.

    I could go on, but I think you get my drift.

    PS: I have often wondered why my posts always has a trash can under them. Is this site trying to tell me something?

  7. Hi John,

    Hope you're having a productive and fun day with the book signing. I enjoyed reading your column today. (I actually remembered to read it on the right day.)

    You mentioned Lee Child staying at the top of his game. I don't agree. A couple of his last few Jack Reacher novels have been a tad flat-just my opinion. It's left me thinking it's time to wish the character well and send him on his way. That's a tough one for me because I've been a huge fan of the series.

  8. It happens in other areas as well. I loved art all my life until I spent about 10 years doing it for pay, commercially. It was nice to have my work published, but doing it for other people and on a strict deadline changed something. The pleasure in the act of creating turned to ashes. I quit doing it for pay (changed my work) nearly 25 years ago now, and it is only in the last 5 years that the joy has started to seep back into it enough for me to pick up materials and just draw or paint for myself again. It's always made me wonder about the works of writers whose first few books are so good, but whose last few seem unpublishable -- except for the name on the spine.

  9. Excellent post, John. Lots of food for thought. You are so lucky that you find writing to be therapy and recreation. For me it has always been work, hard work. But I will continue to write until I decide that I am done "working." When that day comes, I'll step away from the keyboard. However I don't think that will happen any time soon.

  10. Just got back. Thanks, folks, for the comments and insights.

    Dale, you and Fran are correct. There were a few misfires along the way, in the Kingster's novel output. But I do find comfort in the fact that several of his latest projects turned out pretty darn good.

    Louis, maybe they DO run out of material. That's one thing I didn't even consider. I like Herschel's response to your question: maybe outside influences, like rapidly advancing technology, make it harder for ANYone to write good mysteries these days.

    Vicki, one reason I might have so enjoyed the Reacher series is that I didn't bother to read the novels in order, and thus didn't save the latest until last.

    Anon, I enjoyed your observations about creating your pieces of art. I only wish I had that talent.

    Terrie, you're right, it is work--but you must admit it's enjoyable too. Ah, play vs. work--I once heard someone say they're interchangeable: Shakespeare's plays were works, and his works were plays.


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