How much is good writing? And how much is subjective to what you like?

I’ve often told my writers’ group that being a really good writer isn’t enough.  There have been many times in my life when I got back notes from editors that said, “Great writing.  Great characters.  Great story.  I really enjoyed this, but not right for us.”

Okay, so how do you fix that?  You write something different.  Because when you’re writing the wrong thing at the wrong time, it doesn’t matter how good you are.  You’re going to be rejected.  No one wants what you’re trying to sell.

But, how many authors can you think of that you buy because of their great writing?  And what IS good or great writing anyway?

There’s so much competition these days, that I think that being a good writer isn’t enough to make you stand out.  You have to have something extra, something special.  Now mind you, you can be a best-selling author because you hit the pulse of what appeals to readers at the moment.  And really, isn’t that enough for most of us?  To be best-sellers?  And just to be a devil’s advocate, isn’t it a sign of talent when your writing DOESN’T call attention to itself?  When the story flows and the reader doesn’t realize how smooth the words and ideas move from one scene to another?  Isn’t that a skill in itself?

BUT, to have your use of language noticed, that’s an extra compliment, isn’t it?  I might be wrong, but I think there’s a difference between great storytellers and stellar artists.  I think of myself as a storyteller.  I hope my characters and ideas hold the interest of the reader and entertains him/her until the end.  I try to make myself invisible as a writer so that no one notices my words, just the story.  But some writers go beyond that.  You notice their words, their use of language.

When I got serious about reading mysteries, I felt that Nancy Pickard and Martha Grimes, Elizabeth George and Alice Hoffman were so eloquent, you couldn’t help but stop to admire their skill and the beauty of their words.  I felt the same way about William Kent Krueger when I started his series.  And Sarah Addison Allen and Mae Clair when I read their books.  I have a dear friend–Rachel Roberts–who’s never hit it big, and I think it’s because her language is so subtle, so poetic, that she’s often overlooked.  She wrote This Red Earth and a sequel, and I actually read those books more slowly just to savor what she’d said and HOW she said it.

So, I ask you.  What do you consider GOOD writing?  Here are my thoughts:

  1. Clarity–if the words and sentences confuse you or you have to go back to reread them, that’s a problem.  Words should convey what they need to.  Thoughts should be clear and concise.  If you confuse the reader, you’ve failed.
  2.  Characterization–characters should ring true.  They should feel real.  They should stay true to who they are and not be manipulated for plot purposes.  Very few people are one-note characters.  They have strengths AND weaknesses.
  3.  Plot–a big question has to be introduced at the beginning of the book and answered at the end of it with no extraneous distractions.
  4.  Pacing–no slumps or pages to skip to get to the good stuff.  The plot moves, gets more complicated, and builds momentum along the way.
  5.  Conflict–if everything’s too easy, the book’s a bore.
  6.  Setting–we need to see where we are so that we can picture ourselves in the story.
  7.  Emotion–Let’s face it.  We read books because we want to FEEL what the protagonist is feeling and feel like we earned a win at the end of the book (or a loss if it’s a tragedy).
  8.  A satisfying ending.  The saying that how a book ends determines if you buy the next book is real.  How dismal is it to finish a book and hate the ending?

There are probably more points, but I’m blanking on them at the moment.  But these, for me, make for a good book.

BUT, what do you consider a GREAT book?

I think language makes the difference between good or great.  And what makes for great language?  I’d argue that is has a lot to do with what you READ.  When I was in college, I read lots and lots of classics.  These days?  I’m happy to go with great entertainment.  And that doesn’t always equate to beautiful imagery and perfect word choice (although the two can go together).  You know the saying, “You are what you eat?”  (Every time I hear that now, I think of a book by Patricia Briggs about a vampire who proved that saying true.  Ugh.  And awesome at the same time.  It made for a great story.)  But back to the point, I think it also applies to “You are what you read.”  I’m not saying that anyone should try to write like a famous classic author.  You probably wouldn’t sell in today’s market.  But I think great literature begets great literature.  So does poetry.  The use of imagery and specific word choices, cadence and rhythm add a beauty to language that you notice.  They elevate the writing to a new level.

These are just my thoughts when I’m tired at the end of the night.  What are yours?  What do you think?  Are you happy being a GOOD writer (and lots of authors I love spring to mind) or do you want to be a GREAT writer?

Way, way back in the day, my friend and I watched the movie RICH AND FAMOUS with Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset, and she immediately wanted to be FAMOUS.  Me?  I’d be happy being an Agatha Christie, who doesn’t get many accolades for great writing but gets LOTS of accolades for great stories.  What about you?