Some books exude confidence.
They don’t start off with a bang, trying desperately to impress you with whizbang pyrotechnics or by throwing you midway into an action scene. Those ‘hook’ openings, which we are advised to use in our books, can be great, but such openings inherently expect us to care what is happening to the characters without first being introduced to them.
(I had a literary agent compliment the opening chapter of a submission, but he then declared that ‘it was hard to follow the fast-paced action without knowing any of the characters.’ He did not request more after that.)
Other books—what I call ‘confident’ books—take their time getting to the plot. These rare winners, when done right, can make for very satisfying reads. These are the wise tomes you look forward to curling up with on rainy days. These are the endangered breeds wherein you implicitly trust the author to guide you down dusty lanes to quaint villages unknown, or up mountains to observe great and alien vistas, or through rusted gates into dark and gloomy castles filled with secrets and bizarre people.
These confident books are written with calm, brilliant patience.
Unlike their more ambitious but less disciplined cousins, these behemoths are in no hurry to ‘get to the point’.
They’ll show you around the castle grounds, have you follow the orphan boy through steamy kitchens filled with a bouquet of aromas, and shadow the heroine every wonderful step of the way as she is transformed from innocent maid to bold and complex heroine. There are no sudden (read: false) personal transformations. Everything is shown in rich detail. Events unfold naturally, in ways that lend the tale a fully-realized and convincing air, helping readers suspend their disbelief.
The opening to Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher is a prime example of a confident opening.
‘During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppresively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.’
Instead of throwing us into a whirlwind battle scene, he shows us a man who finds himself ‘as the shades of the evening drew on’ coming upon the melancholy House of Usher. The brilliant use of gloomy adjectives and adverbs sets the scene. You can feel the narrators’ mood as he describes the house and grounds and his own downhearted impressions. Just read that opening line. That is writing with confidence.
(Caveat: Unless you are a master wordsmith, like Poe or Lovecraft, you should probably not try to mimic their style. The word artists didn’t just toss in every synonym under ‘gloomy’ or ‘ancient’ and call it a day. They carefully selected their words and the placement of them. These confident creators of miasmic worlds learned how to use words, rather than just dropping a smattering of them into a soup mix and calling it shepherds pie.)
Prime examples of confident books would be:
- The Dragonbone Chair
- Gormenghast (the first two books)
- The Kingkiller Chronicles
- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
Many a brave soul has tried to read Tad Williams’ Dragonbone Chair, only to find it tedious, slow. They end up closing it without finishing it. That’s a shame.
If you go into this work with a love of world-building, and an appreciation of the art of characters, then you will adore it. I was fully absorbed by the descriptions and slow revelations of the castle as we followed the boy hero on his (slow at first) journey. It gets better the deeper you dive into it. The villains and heroes are not always straight cut black and white. They are realistic, complex. I had the impression while reading it that George R.R. Martin would approve.
Same goes for Jonathan Strange. This work starts off slowly as Clarke introduces us to her world. But, oh lordy, the characters are a treat. Her magic system is believable.
Seriously, for a few hundred pages there I kind of felt that I could summon a fairy if I read enough books from Hurtfew Abbey. Like the Dragonbone Chair, Jonathan Strange gets better with every page. You lose yourself inside this world; your world begins to fade as you walk with the characters.
Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles doesn’t really add anything we haven’t seen before in the fantasy genre, and yet I was riveted to every page. How does he make something familiar, engaging?
He does it by writing with confidence.
Patrick Rothfuss understood that his (familiar) tale would need to be written in such a way that if felt fresh and original. So he has his First Person narrator tell his story in Third Person! Or is it the other way around? And he writes as if he knows people will love the story; his sentences and style and tone and selection of words are all spot on.
Another confident work is Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I was blown away by this confident tale, written about a teen girl (rarely do we see tales of teens written so confidently), and displaying a world I had never imagined.
So what can we learn from these masters and their masterworks that we might write with confidence too?
- Don’t be afraid to try something new and original, whether it be a strange new world or a new PoV method or a bold new way of telling stories. As an author, you are a creator—so create something new, or create a new way of revealing the familiar
- Write your opening as if you know that readers will be drawn in by its subtle, calm brilliance
- Take your time in selecting the right words and their placement in each sentence, paragraph, and chapter. When done with a master’s hand, a single carefully optioned word, placed at just the right spot within the story can reveal a hidden truth, expose a character’s deceit, or help the reader deduce the ending
- Remind yourself that you are singularly qualified to write that story. You have what it takes.
Take control of the narrative.
If you lack the confidence, put on some inspirational music and write.
The more you write, the more confidence you will have in your writing, and your writing will begin to show this confidence.