Irish thriller writer Laurence O’Bryan has just released a series of hints and tips on his own website on the holy grail of many a self-published or contracted author: “Get Your Writing Noticed: Writing fiction for the 21st century.” And unlike the David Gaughran approach to getting visible, this is all about writing style and technique. Some of it is just plain wrong. Some of it is on the button, and worth reading. Here’s my take on the points he makes.

“The first thing you have to do to get your fiction noticed is to write in a style that is up to date,” O’Bryan begins.  “I read a novel from a hundred years ago a while back and after page one I wanted to throw it away. The style was long-winded. Every sentence had thirty words.” He then follows that statement with a sentence of 27 words.

Still, read on: “Readers these days live in a world of constant interruption,” he continues. “Media, mobiles and madness lure people away from books all the time. Our job as writers is to provide fiction that can be assimilated between other tasks.”

O’Bryan is right in one respect: ereaders, mobiles and tablets provide great ways to read while doing or in between other tasks. But I can tell from personal experience that it’s just as easy to read works from 100, or 400, years ago in chunks on a phone or Kindle while on the subway or bus as it is to read condensed, modern styles with short sentences. If anything, it makes them easier to digest.

And Peter Ackroyd, to name only one, doesn’t seem to have had a problem getting visible with a style that adapts a Tudor character’s “own language and makes it accessible to the modern reader while retaining a rich vocabulary and style true to the original.” So draw your own conclusions about that piece of advice. Still, read on.

O’Bryan recommends four key qualities of compelling modern fiction. Accuracy is one. “Accuracy is now realistically attainable for fiction writers,” he says. “We can find out how the Welsh valleys look in December, how hot Paris is in the Spring and listen to the sound of a wren whenever we want because of the internet.” I’d agree. There’s no sense getting your facts wrong when, as he says, “reality has a power that can be used for good effect.”

Also, he says, be fantastic. “Absurd, exotic and imaginative novels can be seen on the bookshelves of all good bookshops.” Modern fiction has at least thrown off the dead hand of 19th-century realism and can engage the imagination as well as any genre piece, if done right. I suspect O’Bryan’s problem with 100-year-old novels is less about their style than their terminally stodgy subject matter. Plenty of space for more spice now. Which brings us to …

“Being Sensuous,” as O’Bryan recommends, though this is not so much about sex as simply about being tactile, visual, open-eared. ” Being in touch with your senses means being able to describe how something feels.”

Finally, he says, be gripping. “With all the distractions around us, it is an essential element of 21st century writing to be gripping. Something must happen. There must be conflict. There must be tension. There must be mystery. What keeps me, and millions of readers of crime, romance, mystery and the better literary novels interested is a desire to find out what is going to happen next.”

Maybe. For me, it’s more about the words. Amy Leach’s Things That Are, for instance, keeps your attention just by being amazingly well written, leaving you wondering what sentence and what phrase is coming next, never mind what event or plot twist. And you don’t need to be a scholar to enjoy that. Novels are written not with plots, but with words.

All the same, O’Bryan’s advice will help some, and his track record speaks for itself. He offers further support for aspirant writers on his website. Go check it out, if it sounds like it could help you.


  1. Actually, O’Bryan is dead right on all his points.

    Narrative has changed drastically over the last hundred years. Heck, it’s changed drastically in the last twenty years. (See my “Brief History of Narrative” for details: )

    If an author wants to be read by more than a few people, she’d darn well better use modern narrative techniques and grab the reader within the first page, or other books and forms of entertainment will take most readers away.

  2. If self-publishing and the internet between them allow a writer to reach just enough of the right few people to keep them going, then why should they need to change the style that comes naturally to them just to attract more? No disrespect to those who do, but it depends entirely on what you do what you do for. (And for an example, take Thomas Ligotti.)

  3. I haven’t read the books by the author, but I can say that I don’t usually favor the modern style of suspense novels. There is an essential lack of depth and meaning filled in with movement and speed that cause me to look away from much contemporary fiction. I enjoy the thirty word sentences above and beyond the unsatisfying short sentences that read like I was eating bland rice cakes. An interesting aside, when I was in HS the teachers said average sentence length should be twenty words. Decades I heard a student say the average word length had dropped to twelve. Tragedy.

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