Can you believe it’s August already?
This dates back to Jan 26, 2011. As I read through this I still think it is pretty much on the mark. Soon after I wrote this I read a book by Lisa Cron, called Wired for Story, that put an entirely different spin on what makes for a good novel. There is some distinction here, between good writing and a good book. I don’t think the two have to be aligned. In other words you can have a book that is written well but doesn’t tell a good story, and contrarywise, you can have a book that is written poorly that tells a great story. According to Lisa, the good story would trump the good writing. I personally have found this to be true to an extent. If the writing is truly bad it may be too much to get past. But as a general rule I think it is true.
It is a gift to be able to turn a phrase in such a way that we actually set back and go, “wow.” It does happen. I think of Laini Taylor, at least the first half of Daughter of Smoke and Bone was amazing. The second part of the story takes on a different tone. On the other hand I love it when I have read a bunch of pages and then realize that I was experiencing the story and it didn’t feel like reading. That is always my goal. I’m not sure you can be taught to be a “great” writer, but you can learn the craft of writing, and it is something that you can rely on when you don’t feel like writing or the muse is quiet. If you want to write for more than a hobby you can’t rely on the muse to strike.
I downloaded a free version of Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper on my iPhone Kindle app. I read the entire series many moons ago when I was a young man and my recollection of the story doesn’t match the reality I’m faced with reading it now. I remember the characters and the setting as being quite awe inspiring, and they are, but the prose are so heavy and overblown with description and obtuse phrasing that it’s very distracting from an author’s perspective.
I am starting to get the feeling that reading now is going to be like riding on an airliner is for me. I fly large jets for a living and I’m not a great passenger now, as I know what every noise is. I really don’t want the flight attendant to ask me if there is anyone onboard that can fly a jet. I find that spending the last couple of years writing and learning about writing has made me acutely aware of story and prose. I still enjoy well written books as much as the next person, maybe even more than before, but if the writing is marginal I have a much lower tolerance now.
I don’t think the Cooper’s books would sell today, at least not in their present form. Mr. Cooper would get a rejection letter that would tell him to keep trying, that his characters were memorable and the setting vivid, but his story just didn’t quite fit with their vision, and good luck. Does that make it a poorly written book? I don’t think so. The thing we have to remember about “the classics” are they were groundbreaking in their day and the rules for writing were different, as were expectations. Some of them hold up quite well, but idioms and commonly used words were often contrary from what we are used to now. I thought about trying to get my young son to read it, but I think it’ll have to wait a few years.
On average the populace is WAY more educated today and in this fast-paced, gotta-have-it-now world our expectations to have something user friendly and easily digested have dramatically increased. I think we all (well, most of us anyway) recognize good prose when we see them, and I really appreciate when an author has me feeling a scene instead of reading it. But even then opinions vary on what makes good writing. Some appreciate the sentence structure and rules of grammar as the gold standard of writing, while others want something that goes down easy and doesn’t bog us down with a lot of description or big words.
What sells? Is that important in your calculations of what kind of story to write and how you want to write it?
Ultimately I think you have to write for yourself. You can’t fit your square novel in the round hole of publication. You should write about things you have a passion for and in your own voice. You have to figure out what that voice is. And that is a blog for another day.