Friday, 26 April 2013

What is Good Writing?

As I'm thinking about which project to work on next and begin to work on getting over the hump that is starting a new project, which I'll work through eventually, I thought I'd talk about what makes good writing in my view.

These days, the internet is full of people always ready to lend a 'helping' hand and 'guide' you with your writing. People also seem to think there's a magical formula that guarantees success. And said formula normally involves following generic 'rules' that someone, at one point or another, spouted. What is forgotten is that these rules are all advice and they are simply something that works for the author in question. There's nothing worse than a novice writer trying to pass all of the things such as 'show, don't tell' etc. off as rules either.

So, I'm here to tell you that there's no magic formula for success. And to tell you that when someone starts mentioning rules, you are to discard the notion that rules exist.

Actually, there is one rule that exists. What is it? Do your best to make sure the reader gets something from your book, even if they don't particularly enjoy the story.

That's the only rule there is that needs to be followed. Even grammatical rules can be bent. Grammar is just a tool for communicating and where one places a comma, as an example, will be subjective a lot of the time.

Right, so what makes good writing?

I believe it's one thing. The ability to make readers feel something other than 'this is shit'. Even if someone doesn't enjoy your story, I'd still consider it a job well done if the person felt something for the characters etc. or questioned things.

See, what people don't tell you when they're spouting all this stuff about rules is that you can follow every guideline out there and still end up with a polished piece of crap. For instance, I'm not sure this is a piece of advice that is passed around often at all, but have you heard that short stories are supposed to only have one point of view character? I've seen it mentioned once at the very least. Though I think the words used were mostly 'they generally have one point of view character only'.

Anyway, I don't subscribe to that notion. A short story is between 1,000 - 7,500 words and my short that was recently published is 3,597 words. In that story, I change point of view 'three' times. And there are six scene 'breaks' overall in the narrative.

Next, let me show you something of mine that breaks grammatical rules. Please note it is very rough, hasn't been edited really and will not be published. If it ever is, the story will be rewritten.

I walked out into the yard, area miserable an wet. Teens stood all around. With back against wall, I watched an it seemed like they'd not noticed me. Or that they'd grown bored of me. Found myself hoping. Would life be easier now?

I looked down. Been noticed. Had hoped too soon. Any moment now.

'Oi, fatty!' yelled mister popular.

Kept head down. But the yell came again. Closer. 'Talk to me when I speak to you, fatty.'


'No?' Heard him laugh. Shoved. Head banged against wall. I winced. Didn't fight back. Didn't look at him. 

Then leant forward, after being hit in stomach. Could hear laughing again. Then a teacher shouting. 'You're lucky, fatty.'

Found breathing hard, but was glad. He ran off an teacher helped me up. 

The above piece I wrote in an effort to accurately capture how someone who's slow or mentally ill might think. The punctuation marks on 'an' to show a letter was missing were left off intentionally as well. And the sentences are choppy to try and capture the character's thought processes. I think the words 'mister popular' took me the longest to write. I think I must have sat there for about twenty minutes, thinking about how the person would be referred to.

So, never ever be afraid to experiment with things, no matter what anyone says. Experimenting is how we improve as writers and you'll be stronger because of it. I don't believe following formulas is the way to become a strong writer, no matter what the writing gurus say.

Oh and while I've talked about opening hooks before, don't think you always need to start with a bang in the first 1 - 3 sentences or paragraph. I remember being treated as someone completely new to writing because I didn't do so once, even though if I'd finished the project, the beginning would have made perfect sense. In the first paragraph of that project, a character had moved to a new village and is shown staring at his new home in the distance before grabbing a coffee (the intrigue would have started as soon as he got inside the cafe, about three or four paragraphs in say, and may have started around the fifth sentence actually), thinking he's going to be able to keep to himself and hide from the rest of the world. At the end? He'd have been staring at that same house and reflect on how he never did achieve peace (most likely, the house would have been burnt down), after so much death had happened around him. 

The lecturing I'd received was 'what's interesting about the house?' 'If it's not interesting, you've chosen the wrong starting point.' 'Trying to rearrange words is no good, because you're trying to prevent the titanic from sinking. It's a boring opening no matter how you slice it'. (This from 3 sentences)

My reaction to that? I simply walked away. They can have their rules and short attention spans. You always have the story description to fall back on too, which people tend to forget. And well, I sincerely hope a lot of readers would give your story a while at least. So, good writing isn't always about catching the reader's attention in the very first sentence, either.

The above isn't to say getting an opening hook in straight away is bad though. But the thing is that some pieces simply don't call for it. It is important to try and catch a reader's interest as soon as possible though. (It's just that I don't believe it has to be done in the first sentence/paragraph)

Whenever I hear the hooking advice as well, I sincerely question how many great pieces of writing have been abandoned because the opening wasn't 'hook'ish' enough for people with the attention spans of a gnat. Or been passed up by editors for that reason. I'd ask how many of the great classics open with a bang as well. I think I showed the opening to a fair few classics in the post about opening hooks and I don't believe the opening hooks were that strong at all, if I remember correctly.

Incidentally, I am actually continuing to work on that project, but it's taken on a different form, with the basic idea remaining the same. It's just that some aspects weren't working. The beginning's changed as well, but not because of the feedback received. But I think the project is going to be a long one (as in lengthy, like novella - novel length) and, as such, I don't wish to discuss it in case I don't finish it.

I think that's about all I've got to say anyway. I've got about seven or eight projects I want to write and I need to figure out which I'm going to work on. I need to progress a fair bit, before I start feeling enthusiastic and the beginnings normally take me a while to get right. (I don't leave content editing till the end, you see, though I do sometimes remove/rewrite scenes in subsequent edits. I need it right, practically straight away.) Even short stories tend to take me a while to write as well, I'm afraid. I'm hoping I'll be able to get it to a point where I can get around several thousand words written in a day. Right now, it's more like several hundred.


  1. I haven't read all this article as it's quite long and I'm in a bit of a rush, but I get the gist and agree whole-heartedly with the first half, which I did read! It's my belief that you either can write or you can't, ie, that you can hold the reader's attention and make them think 'ooh, this is good!', or you can't, however many creative writing classes you go to and articles you read about starting the first paragraph with a punch. Which is why some indie books are just - well, adequate. You can get a book professionally edited, professionally proofread, get it formatted perfectly and have a wonderful cover, but it can still be just - quite good. Okay to read if you're on the beach and haven't got anything else.

    As for the rules - I say nuts to them. I AM wary of starting sentences with 'and' or 'but', and I am fanatical about punctuation and can't bear to read a book with grammatical errors, and half the people who advise you not to tell instead of showing don't actually know what it means, but as for stuff like 'you can't have chunks of backstory near the beginning' - who says? Works for me. Works for Jackie Collins, too, and she sells a book or three.

    One thing I am not fanatical about is proofreading blog commenbts before I press 'publish', as yo might have noticed :)

  2. Don't worry about typos, Terry. I'm sure I've got mistakes in the blog post as well. :) I don't spend a long time proof reading it and I'm normally catching things after hitting submit.

    Agreed, you can either write or you can't. It's one or the other, and following rules won't help people feel something when reading your writing. In my view, I'm not descriptive and I feel I have a simplistic style (at times, anyway), yet that doesn't stop people feeling something when reading my writing from what I've heard. I especially like to give food for thought after a story's end if possible.

    I touched on opening hooks near the bottom of the post. My thoughts are that it's sound advice, but it's not something that should be followed all of the time. For instance, if you're writing a thriller or action story, it's probably a good idea to get the hook in straight away. But a drama or more literary story? It might not be such a good idea. Some stories are just natural slow burners, I guess, but rewarding in the end. Still, it's a good idea to hook as soon as possible for the story in question.

    Regarding grammar, bad grammar and such can put me off as well, if it feels like it's not intentional. I touch on that near the end of the post. :) Nothing wrong with 'and' starting a sentence really, but I can understand people disliking it. Personal tastes and all.

    I appreciate the comment, Terry. :) I'll keep an eye out for future posts on your blog, too. Added you to my blog roll, so I'll catch them easily.

  3. Yeah, I write in quite a spare sort of way, too - I only describe, for instance, settings, in my novels if they are relevant to the scene, and I do so in such a way that they relate to the scene, not just flowery description using all the clever words I can think of! And yes, of course bad grammar in dialogue is sometimes more than apt, it's essential; that's a different matter all together. I don't have Lois, mother of 3 kids with different fathers and benefit cheat, talking like a 1950s Radio Four presenter!

    When you start writing longer stuff you might find that it works best to do a first draft of several thousand words before you start editing, as often you 'can't see for looking', and you can always edit more effectively if you haven't looked at something for a week or so; it may be that you find that it's obvious how a sentence should read, whereas if you've just written in you can't necessarily see it. :) Just my opinion, that's what works for me, anyway!

  4. I love this line: "You can follow every guideline out there and still end up with a polished piece of crap." Oh, my, yes. Yes, you can. When I worked as an AE, I remember receiving a submission once where the author made sure I knew her work had been professionally edited, perhaps to "up" the chances of her getting accepted. Professionally line edited, sure. But what lay underneath wasn't all that great; it didn't move me, make me think, make me . . . anything, really.

    As for rules, yep. Guidelines, all, pretty much. What works for one writer doesn't necessarily work for another. Learn these "rules," sure. And then break them effectively and successfully, and always entertain the reader. :D

  5. Terry,

    Good way to handle things. I'll eventually give your books a try, I promise. Just short on cash at the minute, and will eventually get to reviewing whatever I read.

    Agreed on dialogue. Bad grammar can be useful outside of dialogue though, when used on purpose. But you have to be prepared for people to dislike your work. I haven't read Trainspotting, but viewed a sample of it. From what I saw of it, I'd have a hard job getting into it because of the language use.

    I'm going to edit a few thousand words at a time, most likely, before continuing. :) It's the way I normally work actually at times, because I'm a pretty quick editor and I can edit previous work done on a project while still leaving room to write more, so progress is made. Definitely appreciate the tip anyway. :) And it'll be of use to others.


    Appreciate you stopping by! Me thinks that person had been reading too many 'how to' books and thought that they were ready, because they had the rules ingrained in their mind. Sod practising. Using a checklist and writing with 'rules' in mind can make for lifeless writing in my view as well. (Not always, but just sometimes.)

    To be honest though, I never had much use for rules at all. :) I remember one time on, when I was a newbie. I read that you weren't supposed to use a mirror to describe a point of view character. My response...? Yeah, you probably guessed it. Didn't work, but I tried to make it work! I could possibly make it work now though. (Split personality or something? Character looking at their other self, with them suffering from mental problems? Just brainstorming. Probably won't try it. ;) )

    I would have replied sooner too, but been busy looking at promotion tips, looking at people's views on shorts etc. Not to mention writing. 708 words done and I also deleted 250 or so on top of that. And the day is young yet, so a pretty productive day. :)