What Makes Writing Great?

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Writing: Hard Work Isn’t Everything

Well, it’s a good question.

I’m not talking about proficient writing. Proficient writing can be accomplished easily–well-defined characters, a working plot, scenery described as much as it needs to be, a satisfying denouement. Good spelling and grammar. That’s all you need, for proficient writing.

But here’s the thing: there’s some strange and magical element that makes writing good.

I just read Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. It was a good book. It’s won and almost won a ton of prizes, so I know other people agree with me. It was…well, to put it mildly, it was heartrending.

Ishiguro never goes to great length to describe scenery. His characters, also, are never fully ‘described’, in the traditional sense. Though it’s technically sci-fi–the sort of book people in horn-rimmed glasses like to call ‘speculative fiction’–the world in which the characters move is never laid down clearly, either. The plot, which isn’t much of a plot, exists pretty much solely to offer a slow dramatic reveal (which I can’t reveal to you, because it would ruin the story).

There’s nothing special about Ishiguro’s prose. The tale is told simply and personally in first person, largely through flashbacks (which is, according to a lot of writing gurus, a big no-no). His language is almost childish.

None of what I just said sounds very good. And yet–and yet. This is a great book. And I’m not the only person who thinks so.

In the indie writing world, there are a lot of folks who’ll tell you (and, if you let them, try to sell you) the ‘secrets’ to good writing. I’d argue that, from what I’ve seen, there’s a good deal more money in ‘helping indie authors’ than there is in actually being an indie author. And most of the advice I’ve seen (but will never, by God, buy) focuses on the things I mentioned in paragraph two–well-defined characters, descriptive milieu, rock-solid plot, etc.

Those things are good things, and they’re important. But they aren’t the whole game.

To write well–to write a good book–there is a little bit of magic involved. That’s something nobody wants to hear, but hell, that’s how it is. In America, a supposed meritocracy, we’re afraid of magic–we’re afraid of things we can’t necessarily control ourselves, that we can’t achieve through hard work and stubbornness. The American Dream tells us we don’t have to be especially talented, or smart, or pretty, or lucky, to succeed. It tells us we just need to work hard, and good things will come to us–a very unique sort of intellectual laziness.

If you want my opinion, this is why there’re so many goddamn murders in this country. You can work hard and succeed to some extend just on that, sure. But hard work will never make you a geniusit’ll only make you better. This is true for writing, just the same as anything. The ‘hard work’ comes in from the fact that you’ll only ever know what to leave in and what to take out if you write a hell of a goddamn lot, and ignore all the ‘How To Write A Great Novel In 100 Days’ type pamphlets.

Good writing–truly good–comes from instinct, I suppose. It comes from knowing when to say ‘answered’ and when to say’ replied’. It comes from taking risks, when risks are justified.

It comes from failing, occasionally. Never Let Me Go, which seems like a simple enough story on the surface, would’ve been complicated as hell to write. Mr. Ishiguro plays with suspense and dramatic reveal like some mothers play with a two month old baby. And his simple, golden-days reminiscent prose is perfectly calculated against the horrors deep within the story. It’s the sort of story that took a master to write.

And those of us who aren’t masters are going to fail, many, many times, before we write something like that. As I’m sure Mr. Ishiguro did. And most of us aren’t masters, will never be masters.

But you’ve got to try, right?

You’ve got to take risks. You’ve got to try. To learn anything, you’ve got to sometimes get away from well-defined this and that, and speak with silence rather than words.

The hard truth about good writing is, simply, that no one can tell you how to do it. There are no secrets that can be revealed in a 40,000 word pamphlet, for only $1.99.

I could talk, at great length, about all the elements that came together to make Mr. Ishiguro’s novel. I could talk about how they play together, which element evokes which feelings. I could tell you, more or less, how the book works.

But could I tell you what makes this book great? No.

So take a small dose of humility. Accept that none of us–no, not even Stephen King (given the uneven quality of his work, I’d say especially Stephen King)–understand precisely what makes writing good. We can talk until we’re blue in the face about composition and format, point of view and allusion. We can get PhDs in it, spend a bunch of time paying back our student loans, and still not really understand it.

So let’s step away from some of the common criticisms I see around here, and focus on whether or not a story works. Just because something’s F/SF doesn’t mean the world has to be described down to the last mudfish in the castle moat. Just because something is written as ‘literary fiction’ (more on this term and how I hate it later) doesn’t mean you need showy prose. A mystery doesn’t always need a complicated plot.

Ignore the ‘proficient writing’ formula. Ignore it. Ignore everything, in fact, except for how well something works for you.

(And I know the comment someone is going to make to this. I can hear it, in my head, right now: ‘well, you have to play by the rules before you break them’. I couldn’t agree less. Sorry. Do you need to know the rules? Yes. You sure do. But if you feel that a story needs to be written in second person present tense, goddamn you if you write it any other way. You’re just churning out crap, and derivative crap, at that. You’re operating, like an animal Darwin forgot, against your own instincts, for the sake of perceived safety. Have some balls. Accept failure and make it constructive.)

We can’t define good writing, but we can try to do it ourselves. And, in the end, if we try enough–if we’re bold enough–we might just get there. If nothing else, we will’ve made a hell of an attempt.

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3 thoughts on “What Makes Writing Great?

  1. I couldn’t agree more (except the murder thing. Some people just need to die.)

    Writing goes from good to great when the author becomes aware.

    When I first started writing, I was able to write in an interesting and engaging way that readers enjoyed. It was partly my natural inclination for humor – being funny involves not letting the subject matter get boring. (I didn’t say I was always successful at that.)

    I was very young, so the topics were not super weighty to begin with. When I put out my first couple of books, the writing was good, the stories were engaging, but it lacked a few things. Better editing, better deleting, and some polish, for sure.

    My latest stuff has been told to me — by people who’ve been reading my stuff for a while now — as much improved. (It wasn’t a backhanded insult, either!)

    The difference is. I listened to and embraced the input from writers who were better than me. That’s what the meme “read more, write more” is all about.

    They weren’t better storytellers. Some were simply better at different aspects of a story than I was. And by embracing what they brought to the table, figuring out how to understand what they were trying to tell me and then trying to express it in my subsequent writing, my work improved. (I would say it improved dramatically. Sorry, early book buyers!) Some of the things they asked me to do were things that they knew a reader might not even perceive as being a problem, but when you get done with the book and you’re trying to decide if it was great or good or whatever, some of those little differences make ALL the difference.

    So I listen, I learn, I practice, and I employ. It’s hard work because we let it be hard work. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun.

    I don’t want to diminish the capacity of luck in the equation, either. I’ve talked about that. It’s a factor, plain and simple. (So are connections. If you have them, use them. And fuck you for having them.) But at the end of the day, if you write from your heart, and if you write true and honest, and if you write something compelling and interesting, you can be proud of what you did no matter what its “success” is.

    On the other hand, none of us would turn away being named a New York Times bestselling author, would we? So there’s that.

    But I believe it starts with the awakening, the awareness. Til then, it can never be great.

  2. An interesting column. Have you heard James Scott Bell speak about writing? He’s a successful thriller author and renowned writing instructor. He talks about when he was young (college age), he wanted to be a writer. But the things he wrote weren’t very good. And the consensus back in those days was that you were either born a writer or you weren’t one and never would be. Writing simply couldn’t be taught. He spent years believing that. Finally, he made a thorough study of books and movies he liked, looking for why they worked. He came to the realization that writing is a craft that can be learned.
    And now here you are, Emily, stating that good writing that works is done by naturally creative people and not something that can be taught. We’ve gone full-circle.
    Personally, I think it takes both natural aptitude and a lot of learning and practice to hit the top of the game. Many people enjoy skiing, get expert instruction, and spend hours on the slope. They never make the level of Olympic athletes, although they may get pretty darn good. All writers get better if they study and employ the craft (which can be learned from the many good books available and with mentoring by an experienced writer or editor). Some will have that extra bit of ‘magic’ that takes their work over the top.

    1. Oh, you’ll never hear me say hard work isn’t important, or that writing can’t be taught! Even with geniuses, hard work is what hones skill and teaches a person to use the tools of a trade properly. Even a genius in carpentry isn’t going to be good for much if she doesn’t know what a hammer is.

      But I have to say. While I think anyone can be a good writer with time and practice, good enough to publish and all that and do well and maybe even make good money, I just don’t think you can learn genius. I don’t think there’s a class in the world that can turn you into Hemingway or Proust or take-your-pick, even with years of hard labor and love. And the problem I have with a lot of writing advice out there, especially of the pay-for-it ‘how to become a bestseller’ variety, is that it capitalizes on exactly this romantic notion, and, by God.

      Most of us aren’t geniuses. And I feel like it’s wrong to lead people to EXPECT genius to come from hard work. At the end of the day, if you’re doing a little better than you were at the beginning–if you’ve done something you’re proud of–you’ve done enough. Genius isn’t a thing that can be attained–it’s either there or it isn’t. Hard work goes a long way, yes, but it can only go so far, and expecting it to go farther is just putting some unfair expectations on yourself and your efforts. There’s no shame in being good. It’s better than the vast majority can do.

      So, basically, I just wasted all that space to say I agree with you. 😛

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