good writing

Musings on Writing as Art and Craft

I suspect that this post may turn out to be a bit random, disorganized and inconclusive. That’s why I’ve called it “musings,” which I think of as half-baked thoughts that dance around a subject without properly engaging with it.

Ever since I published my three novels, I’ve read a lot of discussions and blog posts about writing and publishing. An ever-present theme is whether self-published books are inferior to traditionally published ones. A few weeks ago, another blogger wrote about a negative critique of her self-published young adult science fiction romance by a professor of English. Last week I was working with library catalogue records for romance books, reading brief plot descriptions that began to blur together and sound increasingly inane, reiterating the various formulas for bringing together the distressed/spirited/shy/sultry heroines with the tough/wounded/dashing and of course always gorgeous dudes in order to create the necessary hot or happy endings.

I imagined a serious, literary critique or review of one of these books. In fact, I may write one myself some day, just for laughs. Because surely that would be a chuckleworthy thing. Surely no reader who likes romance would change their preferences because of such a review. Which is why the writer I mentioned earlier ultimately decided to put the professor’s comments in context and didn’t let them destroy her.

That brings us to something I keep bumping into when I think about writing and reading. Writing is an art. There are rules, certainly, but success is achieved by going past the rules, creating something despite the rules. It’s impossible to define, but readers know a “good” piece of writing when they encounter one, judging it by their own standards. They can’t stop reading, don’t want the book to end, but when it does, they want another one just like it. I think it’s impossible to create a good piece of writing simply by following rules, no more than one can produce a good painting by following exactly the outlines and colours specified in a paint-by-numbers set.

The reader’s experience results from expectations and their fulfillment or lack thereof, surprises pleasant and otherwise, and ultimately a kind of bonding with the book, or failure to do so. It’s a lot like becoming acquainted with another person. Sometimes you become friends, other times an irrational antipathy develops. There are so many inputs it’s impossible to come up with a formula for success — the cover, the jacket blurb, the paper (if a printed-on-paper book), the typeface and, of course, the subtleties of narrative voice. But the circumstances under which the reader meets the book — living room, bedroom, airport or hospital room —  have a huge impact on the reader’s reaction and are totally beyond the author’s control.

The controllable inputs — cover, blurb, writing style, etc. — are all signals, however they are processed by the reader’s (or the critic’s) mind. They label the book as to genre and type:  light, fluffy romance, sexy paranormal mystery, serious literary, quirky literary or… Yes, some fiction is impossible to categorize, and in the absence of a traditional publisher willing to take a chance on something out of the norm, these books often end up being published by their authors.

A while ago I decided not to use this blog to offer advice to writers — never do this,  always do that. Who am I to make up rules for writers? I can’t claim any but the most modest success, and I have a personal tendency to quibble with Rules. I resolved to confine my screeds here to my own experience. And it’s from this experience that I say this with confidence — if you want to write, above all, read. Read anything and everything — genre fiction, literary fiction, fan fiction, nonfiction, magazine articles, how-to-do-it and self-help books, biographies, collected letters, poetry, owners’ manuals, recipes, the Bible (or other sacred books). Read and absorb. Wallow in words.

Several years ago I was invited to give a talk to my local writers’ society on the topic of doing research. (I actually plan to write a blog post on this someday). One of the research techniques I recommended was to read widely on whatever topic was relevant to your writing, whether historical period, cultural phenomenon, place or technology. The objective isn’t to amass a bunch of facts, but to immerse yourself in the subject so that when you write, your writing will be subtly informed by this background reading and therefore display the necessary authenticity. Applying this to writing in general, I think that writers must do a ridiculous amount of reading before they ever begin to write. Those 10,000 hours we hear about as being necessary for success? I think 10,000 hours of reading are necessary to prepare a person to write. Then another 10,000 of actual writing.

Fistfights in the Salon, or, What is Good Writing, Really?

The Fiction Writers Guild at LinkedIn has the best discussions about writing — mostly articulate, no obscenities but a lot of hot zingers. Even the trolls are civil. Like most of my recent posts on writing, this one was inspired by (mostly) lurking on these discussions.

Self-publishing is a kind of salon des refuses of the literary world, populated by writers who have been rejected by traditional publishers or decided to bypass them. Lately it has been full of turmoil about “bad” writers churning out inferior prose that makes everyone look bad, even those who have diligently honed their craft. Online discussions about writing almost always come down to this — what is good writing, and why don’t those bad writers ever listen? People jump in wielding metaphorical fists and philosophical razors, the action gets frothy and eventually peters out, exhausted. The following week it all starts up again from a different angle. Recently, there has been a vigorous discussion as to who should write reviews on Amazon — not self-published authors, some say, because they are self-serving. Not just any old reader either, but — get this — only “professional critics” who have been endorsed by editors (those all-knowing editors again!)

From the vantage point of this obscure blog, I offer my thoughts. Entering a minefield here — strap on flame-proof armour!

Before I was a writer, I was a reader (and remain one), so I approach the question from that point of view. I think it’s impossible to define good (or, for that matter, bad) writing in technical terms, but “good” books have specific effects on readers.

A good book leaves an imprint on the reader’s mind, generating longings for it between reading sessions. Especially good books have this effect long after being read, resulting in re-readings, sometimes many of them. The characters become friends whose company the reader misses, and the settings they inhabit are dream-places the reader wants to revisit.

This is irrational stuff, or perhaps “sub-rational.” As a reader, I relate to books in an emotional way. Some generate positive emotions, others are repellent. When reading a book that delights me, I’m not consciously aware of technical issues. I may notice them after several re-readings, but by then I don’t care because that book has become one of “my” books, sort of like a friend whose minor flaws I am willing to overlook. It’s entirely possible to become attached to books that are technically imperfect, although too many obvious typos or other errors jolt the reader out of the story on the first reading, preventing the bonding process.

If readers’ attachments to certain books are emotionally-based, no wonder it’s impossible to come up with a definitive set of criteria for good writing. A rational approach lends itself to creating such a list, but that belongs in the realm of academic literary criticism, which is not what most readers engage in when they give an opinion on a book they have read. This is actually a good thing for writers because it broadens the realm of action, throwing open an infinity of creative possibilities. Think of a blank canvas and a full spectrum of pigments as opposed to the outlines and little paint pots in a paint-by-numbers set. Why would writers want to fence themselves in with a write-by-numbers set of rules?

This is why discussions that try to define “good writing” frequently become heated and are never conclusive. For writers who are looking to do something other than write, they can be amusing, and for bloggers in need of topics they are useful.