Thriller fiction can sometimes be art, but rarely can it be poetry. I’ve just coined a term for authors who try to do so: authorwank.
Take the line “A chock and a click as the slider snicked back.” By, er, me. It’s a writer playing with language when he should be advancing the plot. (And failing to get an obvious extra word, Glock, in there, which is probably the greater crime.) It belongs in a poem more than a chapter, and probably not a good poem, either.
Authorwank is characterised by assonance, onomatopoeia, and metrical feet that don’t so much stomp along as kick you in the face. When Raymond Chandler writes “I needed a hot bath, a dinner, and a place in the country. What I had was a hat, a coat, and a gun”, that’s not authorwank. When a Kindle indie author writes that a wine tasted like “chocolate and gold and sunsets” that’s borderline. (As, I hope, is my line above, because like most self-penned authorwank I really like it.) But when a thriller says a gun battle “rang with the ding of a thousand trumpets”, that’s authorwank.
To find authorwank, read any indie author’s second or third novel. That’s the point where they’ve got that hardest-of-all first book out of the way (and forgotten – look at how the Saint rereleases don’t even have a Book 1; the author himself banned “Meet – The Tiger!” from republication, ever.) Second novels are where the author feels ready to attack the page, without really having much of a plan. It takes most authors five or six novels to really learn the fiction trade, and those who get there faster tend to be those with millions of words written in other fields already.
Of course, there are writers like Cormac McCarthy who possess such genius they can authorwank all day, every day, and the result remains awesome. But McCarthy (and perhaps Twain, Faulkner, and a host of other mostly American authors) are the exception. Most of us are happy if we can just tell a bit of a story well enough for readers to make it to the last page.
Your favourite examples? Hashtag #authorwank to @chrisworth.