Mark Terry

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Are You A Good Writer, Part II

January 27, 2009
I think many of us think of "good writing" as what I think of as line-by-line writing, or perhaps style. That is to say the writing has balance, it's grammatical, free of spelling errors, there are few if any word repetitions, etc.

The next step up for that is word choice. Verbs are a big freakin' deal in good writing. We don't "get the mail," we "fetch the mail" or perhaps skip it altogether and just "read the mail" or "skim through the mail looking for checks." A good writer uses active verbs, rarely uses adverbs, makes judicious use of adjectives.

The writing is, in short, efficient and effective.

What's the borderline between efficient and effective and where we wander into lush prose and poetic language? Is there that huge a gulf between the straightforward functional prose of Dan Brown and the lush, poetic language of James Lee Burke?

Brown takes a lot of hits for being a "bad" writer, although I think from a line-by-line POV he's more "pedestrian" than anything else. His writing style is functional, fairly efficient, and serves well to move a fast-paced story along at, well, a fast pace.

I used to adore James Lee Burke, but his writing style can sure slow down a fast story. His books are about something different than Dan Brown's--Burke's has "place" as a big, big part of his writing and his style suits the humid, swampy characters of the novels he's writing (at least in Louisiana, I'm not quite as convinced of his Texas novels). 

So, on a line-by-line basis, are you a good writer? Is your style and word usage lively, balanced, efficient and effective? Does it serve what you're trying to accomplish?

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

I've only read one of his books, but my only problem with Brown's writing is the non-transition into flashbacks. I'd be halfway through a flashback, completely confused that a bunch of new characters had entered the room. Half a page later, I'd realize we were in a flashback, and have to go back and re-read.

Every time. And he had a lot of flashbacks! At the very least, italicize or something.

But I'd definitely say it was great, because I kept reading, LOL!

7:58 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Where does the technique end and the art begin? I think I'm a decent writer. I can write a grammatical sentence. I can say what I mean. It may take a couple of drafts for me to iron out passive construction, or to make sure I have the best active verbs for the sentence.

The trick comes when a writer can match the technique to the character and the story. Dialogue, for example, doesn't sound like the characters spoke it unless the grammar isn't perfect.

Dan Brown is fairly utilitarian in his language, and can write a ripping yarn that keeps me up till three in the morning, but I find sometimes he gets bogged down in the details of all the research he's done.

It's all a matter of balance, and I'm not sure that sense of balance can be taught in a "good writing" class.

8:39 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

I think good writing is the mechanics of the thing, all the bits you mentioned in this post. But to transition into great, or even brilliant, you must have something to say. It must resonate with readers.

I think I'm a good writer. I have the mechanics down to what I, and apparently others, consider a professional level. I can produce clean, concise copy pretty quickly. But I (apparently) don't always have something to say that resonates with others. And that's so much harder to learn than the mechanics.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

--I would not call that a line-by-line issue. That's a structural issue. I'd have to re-read his stuff to see if it bothers me or not. It might, but I don't remember it bothering me.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Hmmm, I'm not sure I want to get into art versus craft today. I think craft can be learned. I'm a craftsman when it comes to writing. A word mechanic, perhaps, or word carpenter. When does a nice piece of furniture go beyond beyond functional and into being a work of art? Dunno. It has to do with what you bring to it, I think. It also has to do with what the observers/readers think they get out of it.

I used to have this argument with a friend of mine who was very artsy, and he has the very 1960s mindset that if the artist calls it art, it's art.

To my mind that's how you get a pile of bubblegum in the corner of a room called art, or sculpture out of excrement. You can call it art if you want to, but I don't feel I'm getting much out of it.

Balance, however, it a big deal. Writing is all about choices.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Sex Scenes
Today I'm talking about mechanics, yes. But there's more to it, which I'll get to tomorrow. I think "brilliant" or "great" requires something beyond mere mechanics, although it may be, like I commented to Chris, what the reader gets out of it more than what the writer actually does.

I don't tend to respond to really lush writing well. Norman Mailer drove me crazy (and don't even get me started on "Tough Guys Don't Dance."). Was he a great writer? Probably.

Was his prose? It certainly could be, but sometimes I think writers like that are the rough equivalent of fireworks. It's pretty, but what's it trying to accomplish? Is it beautiful for its own sake? Or does it help the story?

A cigarette boat is a very beautiful, high-powered thing, but if it's hauling a cargo of pigshit, it may not be serving its best purpose.

9:54 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I think that in determining whether writing is "good" people pay far too much attention to superficial style and not nearly enough to structure and substance which are far more important.I read only one book by James Lee Burke and won't read another. I found his style intrusive, calling far too much attention to itself. (But then again, whether you like a writer's style or not is largely a matter of taste.) Words can be a bit like paint -- if you keep mixing more and more colors together, rather than some complex color, you end up with mud. Of course I read one book by Brown and his place descriptions sounded like they'd been cut and pasted from travelogues.

I do try to write concisely and avoid piling up unnecessary words, but aside from that I wouldn't call myself much of a stylist.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I really think our friend Travis Erwin kind of nailed it on the last post. I've worked as an editor for 20 years. I can put together an efficient sentence with all the mechanics right, with those effective verbs you mention. I can do all that.

I am a better mechanical writer than most people out there. Having edited in the publishing industry for 20 years . . . I can swear on a stack of Bibles that is so. BUT . . . I also tell stories. If my quirky stories, very character-driven, are what you enjoy reading, then yeah. I'm a good writer. Better than most. I find it really, in all honestly repugnant when I see some writers, most of them unpublished and unproven in the "good writer" sense, who will just be so snobbish about commercial fiction, or this best-seller or that one. Dan Brown--I'm not a fan one way or the other, but the guy wrote a best-seller and a page turner that got people talking. "Good" is mostly in the eye of the beholder. And the reason I mention that it's often the unpublished writer who is the most vicious, is I think putting your stuff out there for rejection and review gives you an appreciation that writers are people . . . and that "good" is indeed in what you want from a story. It's easy to cast stone when no one is doing that to your book in the public square. Konrath had a great blog about that not too long ago.


10:24 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Absolutely. And that's my take on JLB, but particularly writers like Mailer, especially when he went after a mystery novel. I can appreciate the beauty of the writing, or at least the muscularity of it, but to me it often got in the way of the story.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yes. Absolutely. I spent a lot of time working on the mechanics of my writing. It took a lot longer to deal with other issues that, in terms of salable fiction, are probably a lot more important.

I think there are a lot of unpublished novelists that don't understand the things I'm going to talk about later and I think some of those things are the primary difference between published and unpublished--conflict, tension, transitions, etc.

But sometimes I run into aspiring writers who just don't have the mechanics down. And sometimes you'll hear, "But hey, I write a great story. It's the editor's job to fix that stuff."

Um, no. It really isn't. And it reminds me of Elmore Leonard's "Get Shorty" where the bad guys (and Chili Palmer) are saying, "You just write down your story and hire somebody to put in the commas and shit."

No. Learn the basics. Good punctuation. Spelling. Sentence structure. They're the hammers and nails and screws and screwdrivers of your craft.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I randomly grabbed one of his books from my shelf, and randomly opened to page 88:

We went through the door. It was a cheerless place where you could stay on the downside of a drunk without making comparisons. The interior was dark, the floor covered with linoleum, the green walls lined with pale rectangles where pictures had once hung. People whose race would be hard to define were at the bar, in the booths, and at the pool table. They all looked expectantly at the glare of light from the opening front door, as though an interesting moment might be imminent in their lives.
--from James Lee Burke's Burning Angel

That's good fucking writing, my friends. Period.

7:52 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

In the same way I don't think you can pull a single God-awful sentence from someone's book, yeah . . . it's good. I wouldn't say he's NOT good. But it will still boil down to . . . is that what you want to read about--a darkish, gritty world populated by questionable characters. If that's so, you are a lot more likely to read that.

If someone, in turn, posted a beautiful piece of prose about an 18th-century maiden, complete with details on her corset . . . you might think it flowery and awful, but for the readers who love that world, they could say, "Well, that's great writing." Their expectations are different.

I think Margaret Atwood---every one of her books--is a master class on writing. But that's because I love her stories. And I don't think anyone could say she's not "good" but the passion you feel for "good" or "bad" is often defined by story.


5:14 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I don't know, Erica. I think I can recognize good prose regardless of the subject matter. I might not want to read a book about an 18th century maiden, but I think I would be able to tell if the writing was good or not.

Not to pick on poor (hundreds of millions of dollars richer than me) Dan Brown, but I couldn't get beyond Chapter One of DVC because the writing itself was just...rather poor.

As writers, I suppose we naturally read differently than the "average" reader. I do like to read about darkish, gritty worlds populated by questionable characters, but only if the writing--the prose itself--appeals to me as well.

5:36 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I have no problem with Burke. In fact, when I first discovered him, I went nuts and bought all his books and devoured them. I think he's a great writer.


Something happened. I'm not quite sure what or why, but I was reviewing books and I got his first book off-series about a Texas Ranger. And I thought the book was good, typical Burke.


I began to wonder if he was just writing one book over and over and over again.

And I don't know why, but it spoiled the whole thing for me. Sometimes that happens. I grow out of a writer or they grow out of me, or whatever. Right at the moment I'm wondering if I've practically grown out of a whole genre!, but that's a different topic.

But I would point out that I've actually read reviews slamming Burke's writing, not just the book itself, and that can be a bit of a puzzle.

6:36 AM  
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