Mark Terry

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Are You A Good Writer?, Part V

January 30, 2009
I'm going to wrap up this series with this post, although I'm sure it could go on ad nauseum. Back on Monday Eric Mayer made this comment:

"writing is only "good" insofar as it succeeds at its intended purpose."

Yup. I couldn't agree more. Once you get past the mechanics, the language, the music/rhythm, etc., what I look for in "good writing" is the answer to this question: Is it effective?

In other words, does it do what it's meant to do?

If it's all flowery, beautiful language, great. Unless it's trying to tell a hard-boiled story that moves along like a rocket. Or of it's a technical article about biotechnology or car parts.

I'm a good nonfiction writer. Maybe often a very good nonfiction writer and on particularly good days, maybe even a great nonfiction writer. For a certain type of nonfiction, at least, that depends very much on clarity and efficiency, on explaining complicated subjects in straightforward, easy-to-grasp ways.

I'm a lot less self-laudatory about my fiction writing. My style is functional, fairly plain, very effective for action, but less so for emotion (except possibly for fear or adrenaline, I suppose).

Fiction writers need to be able to create emotions in readers. It's a unique skill, one that's far more difficult than transferring information to a nonfiction reader. I have very little guidance for you on how to do this. Ask Erica Orloff, she's a lot better at it than I am. But I'll tell you what, "good writers" do this well. Ask Erica to write a 5-part post on how to do it, we'll compare notes.

In theory, as fiction writers our readers are our primary concern. It is in nonfiction, after all. The reason I say "in theory" is I sometimes have the disconcerting feeling that in order to break into the business you need to write for agents and editors, not readers. Agents and editors would have us believe that the two are the same, and mostly I think they are, or at least should be, but there is some disturbing evidence that what often appeals to agents and editors is not the same thing as what's being widely read by book buyers. (I base this on polls where editors were asked what they read for pleasure and how surprising it was that these were not usually bestsellers or genre novels--it suggested a real disconnect between what editors like and what they actually publish and that what they like to read is not what book buyers like to buy. Anyway, a different topic for a different day).

So most of all, does your writing do what it's supposed to do? A good writer makes the reader believe. A good writer makes the reader turn the pages. The good writer entertains.

Years back--in fact, it was my last post on DorothyL, a huge listserv for the mystery lovers' community--there was a thread on DL asking about the "rules of good writing." I posted:

The only rule of good writing is: don't be boring.

The reason it was my last post was somebody took the time and effort to personally e-mail me to say that my statement was a waste of good bandwidth. I decided life was too short.

I also stand by that statement.

So, are you a good writer?

Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Yes, "don't be boring" pretty much says it all. Keep the reader interested. Presumably that's what we want when we read, to be engaged. I do try not to write too many "empty" sentences, which is to say sentences that serve no useful purpose.

I also agree that the tastes of editors and agents do not always totally reflect the tastes of readers. I firmly believe that a lot of things that bother editors and agents, when it comes to writing mechanics and style in particular, do not bother readers at all. And in fact, much of the advice given by editors and agents is ignored by most published writers who have had even a small amount of success.

I do have my own personal preferences in writing and I often, carelessly refer to writing as "good" or "bad" insofar as it meets those preferences, but I do try to remain aware that if a reader enjoys some book that I detest, the book cannot be "bad" in any objective sense, since obviously someone else judges it to be "good." We have no ruler to apply to the quality of books aside from opinions. Whether our own, or those of an editor or agent, or of critics or reviewers...they are all just opinions. And if opinions were objective, people would not disagree with each other about books. One reviewer would not measure a book and find it bad while another found it good. Were there an objective measure being applied all reviewers would rate the book the same, just as they would all agree on the dimensions of the cover if they decided to measure it.

8:11 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

"Once you get past the mechanics, the language, the music/rhythm, etc., what I look for in "good writing" is the answer to this question: Is it effective?"

Holy crap, (sorry) isn't this what we all should strive for? IS IT EFFECTIVE?
I have to say, sometimes I write something on a blog that I think is literary garbage, but it is EFFECTIVE in providing a message that is meaningful!

10:03 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

When I was a book reviewer my primary focus or philosophy was to try and answer the question: does this book accomplish what the author set out to do?

And by doing that, I had to consider the readers as much or maybe even more, my taste in reading. If I was reviewing somebody who writes sort of fem-jep suspense, or romantic suspense, I suppose it's called, which isn't quite my cup o' tea, I had to consider what the readers were looking for. Presumably more romance with a little suspense thrown in. So did the author do that? Did the story still make sense?

I remember reviewing a novel by Iris Johansen and thinking that on a line-by-line basis she was really a terrific writer. Very smooth, effective writing. But the character's willingness to do the things she did just made no sense to me. So I ended up making a comment in my review that readers would probably be split on how they viewed the main character: that she was either a spunky, strong-willed hero with a mind of her own, or, a short-tempered nitwit with impulse control problems.

I then pretty much hinted that it was obvious how I felt, primarily because this supposedly suspenseful story about an attempt to track down terrorists seemed to involve the hero and the bad-guy/good guy male lead wandering around a Scottish castle trying to find a manuscript while pretending they didn't want to have sex with each other.

But was it entertaining? Well, it drove me nuts, but I don't doubt readers got into the fantasy of it, even if it made no sense at all.

6:32 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Blogs are probably a different animal entirely, but if you have readers, it's probably effective. (Unless they're all related to you!)

6:33 AM  
Blogger Richmond Writer said...

You know what Hillary Clinton said after the whole Monica Lewinsky thing came to light? (paraphrase) "One thing I can always says about Bill, he's never boring."

I believe a few Diva's and movie stars have said the same thing (including Barbara Cartland a romance author on her public persona). "As long as I'm not boring, because that's the kiss of death."

6:37 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I think what you said about emotion is key. If a book can make a large part of its intended audience feel something-- that is, if it can touch a nerve and resonate emotionally--then to me it is a good book. And, to me, that holds true regardless of what the highbrow critics might have to say.

6:55 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

She probably said that right before she canceled the order for her wood chipper.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Basically, I think most readers can forgive almost anything if the story's entertaining.

7:02 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

"Don't be boring" sounds like a good philosophy to me! I typically don't bother defining good writing from an analytical standpoint. You may as well create a list of what constitutes good sex!

12:15 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Hmmm, Spy, we tend to define "good sex" as "any sex."

I'm not sure that applies to good writing.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Hmmm, Spy, guys tend to define "good sex" as "any sex."

I'm not sure that applies to good writing.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi Mark:
I don't know how many pages a writer thinks they get with an editor or agent before they get a rejection. I can tell you this . . . a really good editor who has honed his or her skills over years might give you three pages. I've known in a PARAGRAPH. I have a friend at a huge house who has a ten-page rule "unless it's really unforgivable."

I know a VP at Dutton. Fifty pages unless he knows inside chapter 1 that's it's going to be a no.

And here's another thing. I am convinced I've been bought before people have read "the whole thing." BOUGHT. Deals. On less than the whole thing. And then the phenomenon of buying on proposal (I'm at 25 book proposal sales and counting) is BUILT on the very premise of nail it early. Don't be boring . . . yeah. I really think you have something. Make sure they HAVE to turn that next page. If you're not doing that, you're not in the game.

And like you and DorothyL., I have shared this before and had people write me fairly angry emails about "This is what's wrong with publishing today" or "I am willing to be patient with a book for a hundred pages" or "My story really gets going on page 12."

My answers to the three above? No, that's what's wrong with your writing. We are seeking to be ENTERTAINED.

Two, 100 pages? You have a LOT more time on your hands than I do.

Three. Then page 12 should be where you start and throw out 1-11.


5:34 AM  
Anonymous Zoe Winters said...

I think you just got under that person's skin. But I agree that life is too short.

And I agree with your "don't be boring" rule.

6:28 PM  

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