Throwback Thursday: What makes good writing? – Revisited

377b0-writingCan 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.

 

Clear Ether

5 Things I Love About Writing

  1. Pride in a job done well. It’s amazing when you write a passage that really sings. If5325-you-should-be-writing wouldn’t call it a muse thing or being struck by lightning, but craft, at its best. You have managed to really get into the head of your character and moment happens that shines on the page. We all aspire to that constantly, but truth be told it simply doesn’t. I read a book by Lisa Cron, Wired for Story, and she talks about how good prose are wonderful but the real trick is telling a good story. So, it’s not hugely important to be able to write amazing prose to be a successful writer, but you do have to be able to convey story well. All that said, it’s still a joy to write a good scene.

 

  1. Magic. There are moments when you write when magic happens. You are in the head of your character and you have a fence post you are traveling towards, assuming you have even a sketchy outline, and then the character goes in a completely different direction than you had planned. You didn’t see it coming, but it works even better. Those are the moments we all write for. It makes for more work potentially, because now you may have to replan the outline, but let me tell you, it is worth it. It happens with free-writing as well, when you characters do something that surprises you.

Continue reading “5 Things I Love About Writing”

Pimping a book: Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

Wired for StoryWired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every writer should read this book. It has great insight into how the brain and the written word interface and the avenue is via story. Fantastic learning tool for writers of all ability levels.

I was turned on to Wired for Story through an interview Chuck Wendig did with Lisa Cron in July 2012 for his blog Terribleminds. She gave us her views on developing story. Lisa has a very fresh take on the importance of STORY and how it relates to the human brain. She is a producer for Showtime and Court TV, a writer, and also teaches a writing course at UCLA, but spent the last ten years researching the connection between neuroscience and how the brain relates to stories. It’s quite fascinating and illuminating, allowing us to learn techniques that will make our story click with the reader. They can’t help themselves, the brain is hard wired for receiving stories and if we can strike the right chord it will resonate within the readers mind. Continue reading “Pimping a book: Wired for Story by Lisa Cron”

Wired for Story

 

Chuck Wendig interviewed Lisa Cron this week for his blog Terribleminds and she gave us her take on developing story.  Another great find for interviews by Mr. Wendig, he rarely disappoints.  Lisa has a very fresh take on the importance of STORY and how it relates to the human brain.  She has a new book out called Wired for Story, and I can’t wait to read it.  She is a big time producer for Showtime and Court TV, a writer and also teaches a writing course at UCLA.  She has spent the last ten years researching the connection between neuroscience and how the brain relates to stories.  It’s quite fascinating and illuminating, allowing us to learn techniques that will make your story click with the reader.  They can’t help themselves, the brain is hard wired for receiving stories and if we can strike the right chord it will resonate within the readers mind.
            On Lisa’s blog she touched on why books that get panned by critiques can still sell at amazing rates.  It answers the question as to why books like 50 Shades of Gray can sell millions of books.  I remember picking up The Hunger Games, because my wife and daughter love it, and reading the first couple of pages and saying to myself, the prose just aren’t all that, but next thing I knew I was 100 pages in and couldn’t put it down.  Stephanie Myers Twilight books have been criticized for not having elaborate prose also, but the one thing all of these books have in common is they tell a great story and in a way that touches those chords in the mind.
            The concept has already had an impact on my writing.  I think it helped me frame the true story for my WIP.  CJ Cherryh had a recent rant on her facebook page (5 July) about the difference between plot and story and now that I have this new frame of reference I can see that she was saying basically the same thing.  The plot is not what drives the story.  The plot is just a tool to get the characters to create the story you are trying to tell.  The plot elements are moveable and malleable. 
When I deal with libraries and such, people who appreciate books, I often get asked questions about the creation of ‘plot’ — in the sense of the sort of book reports we used to have to give in school. These usually amounted to a recitation of what happened in the book. And these always confused heck out of me—I started writing at 10. I had been wrestling with ‘plot’ and ‘theme’ and this sort of thing on an intimate level for (at my young age) years, and the definitions of those terms that I had to memorize for tests just didn’t ring true with the way I did things. There was a wrongness in the basic assumptions that was bugging the life out of me.// Took me twenty years to figure what WAS bothering me—and to this day I really can’t define those terms, because they may shift with every type of book—but I came to a very basic conclusion: there IS no such thing as ‘plot’ in the sense most of these analyses deal with it. Plot is NOT the sequence of things that happen in the book. Those are the ‘things that happen in the book,’ and they actually are the most replaceable, ephemeral, rearrangeable things about the book. If you could lean over my shoulder while I work, you’d see me move things about, put events in different order, yank something I don’t want, put in something similar but ‘else’, and in sort, work with the causality and the chain of events, but these are not the plot. They are gears that need to mesh correctly, these are pieces that need to operate smoothly together—to PLAY OFF the ‘real Plot’ of the book, which is much more of a three-dimensional diagram of the lines of tension between the characters. You arrange events to tweak these lines of tension and cause a chain reaction, and figuring out how to do that may require you to change the events, change the people involved, change how the news travels, change the order of things—you see what I mean? The Real Plot is that 3-d constellation of characters and alliances and relationships, and these Actions are nothing but a set of triggers that could be ANY trigger. Finding the most logical order of triggers is head-work. Theme? I’m not sure what the hell that is. I think it’s the answer to that basic question a writer may want to write down on paper and pin to the wall above his desk: What’s this book about, anyway? And very often there’s no one word answer, or there is—say—like Loyalty; but that doesn’t say much. It takes the whole book to say what there is to say about that item, the way you see it, the way it affects the Real Plot, the feeling it generates. That’s why my teachers sometimes ticked me ‘wrong’ about certain answers, when I’d really thought long and hard about the answer and didn’t agree with the expected answer. That’s because when you start pushing those buttons on my personal console, you just may come up with a different book. Different answers. You may now realize that I’ve just answered that persistent groaner of a question “Where do you get your ideas?” —with the observation that ideas are no problem, so long as a writer has a pulse rate—but that Execution, ie, getting those ideas to assume a good constellation of tensions and then tweaking those lines of force to create a natural cascade of reactions leading to a satisfactory ending—that, THAT is the hard part.
                                                                                     –CJ Cherryh
 
Keeping STORY in the forefront of my mind as I revise the WIP is really helping me focus on the things that can stay and the things that need to go.   It also helped me refocus my Query letter.  I know what the essence of the book is about and was able to better articulate it. Here is the core of my new Query Letter:
 
What does an immortal bajillionaire have to complain about?  That’s what Remie La Jeunesse keeps reminding himself.  It’s how he’s managed to get by the least few decades, but he’s reached the end of the line.  He’s young by Nemesi standards, at 786, but he can’t find happiness anymore.  Weary of the death and despair he’s suffered for the last several centuries, Remie is ready to end his life, but he has one last obligation to fulfill.  He’s just received the call that the plan he’s spent 240 years meticulously planning is finally ready to trigger.  Will carrying out the plan be his demise or will it reignite his passions?
 
Anneliese Trahan is a damn good pilot and a rising star for Nobloquy, the military arm of Nollevelle Corporation.  Her career path seemed to be on the fast track after leaving the comfort and security of her family trade ship, but the intervention of a past lover derails her plans and puts her on a collision course with a man determined to destroy Nollevelle and any chance at a captaincy.  Will she be the one to end his life or save his soul?
At any rate, I ordered Wired for Story and should have it by the end of the week.  I’m maybe a 5th of the way through my 3rd rewrite and hopefully it will be ready for submission soon.
Clear Ether!