It came to me after reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code first, his preceding novel Angels and Demons second––this awareness of author growth. I found both books enormously entertaining, yet the greater sophistication of the former in contrast to the latter was clear. I suppose I had not previously thought in terms of author growth when reading a favorite author, the journey from journeyman to master, until that moment.
But of course the work of a writer, as the work of any craftsperson, is like the arc of fireworks from their explosive, exciting beginnings, however crude, to the final arching display of beauty. The digital revolution has made this arc more apparent. We may now see an author’s works from first to last.
When a publishing house was the single option, first novels of authors might not have made the cut––with some exceptions––and unless the famous author is back published, as some have been, we are unaware of their earlier works. Modern authors of a popular series, say Clive Cussler, John Sandford or David Baldacci are more likely to be back published; the aim in the case of a series is quantity. No doubt the earlier works are subject to rewrites and new edits before publishing. Clive Cussler broke in with Raise The Titanic, his third or fourth book, yet we can read the prior books because they were consequently published. Does Mr. Cussler have even earlier works? who knows…possibly in a drawer somewhere. But the temptation to rework, publish, and cash in on them must be strong.
There is something special about a first novel. Whatever the author’s motive for writing it, the excitement is high. All those thoughts and ideas the writer has stored away for so long can now be released. Crude, awkward, unsophisticated a first work may be, but it is also likely to be explosive and exciting. After that, the author continues the journey, that long arc into the sky, culminating in a final burst of magnificence…or a dud.
If you enter an author’s collection of works midstream, you may meet a different writer. An author’s growth process often involves experimentation with various points of view, genres, writing styles. Had you handed me Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, followed by Intruder In The Dust, and finally Light In August without any indication of the author, I would likely believe those novels were written by three different people. Furthermore, I might tell you I loved the first, did not at all like the second, and am feeling ambivalent about the third. Faulkner was an experimenter.
One of my favorite contemporary writers is Elmore Leonard. I read Hombre again and again. One or two of his earlier works, however, seem to me the scrawlings of an amateur: revamps of plots, simplistic dialogue, non-engaging to the extreme. But then he gives you Get Shorty and Valdez is Coming. What can I say?
I think about this journey as I look back on my own writing; I certainly see an improvement from first to last, a growing style, a clearer voice. I have experimented very little, yet there are differences in voice and point of view from book to book. I know there will be more experimentation…and hopefully growth.
Indie books take this craftsmanship journey to a new level. With indie publishing, first works are published and available to the consumer from the start. It is possible for the reader to join the writer on the journey, observe the changes, see the growth. There is excitement in this for the reader, rather like buying a piece of art at a local auction, then years later see this artist become popular, and your art increase in value.
I suppose the lesson here is when you go to an author with high expectations, only to find them dashed, do not give up. Revisit that author further along the arc of growth. Perhaps then you will meet the author you were expecting.