Friday, September 07, 2012

Three for Greatness

Hello, friends! I hope you are all well--I myself am recovering from a surfeit of summer vacation. Guests and reading and sloth and eating and ... whew. I might need a nap just to get over remembering it. But in truth, it feels good to be back to work.

The other day someone was talking about good writing, and I started musing it over. When you're actually writing, it's often difficult to pin down just what good writing means, but it's easy to see when you're reading a good (or hey, even bad) book. Good writing is a balance between three components:

Appealing prose. Yes, knowing how to write a readable sentence is important. To be reasonably readable as a writer, you need to string together words in an appealing way. To be a good writer, your words need an element of beauty. Ray Bradbury, for example, wrote sentences that read like poetry. They took your breath away when you read them. He was a great writer.

Well-constructed story. It's hard to pin down what makes for a good story, but I think most people would agree that story is all about trouble and the characters' responses to that trouble. For most writers, they learn about piecing together bits of trouble and human behavior while they're learning to read, with a heavy dose of cinema thrown in. It seems instinctual, and a lot of people think this part of writing should be a piece of cake. I know--I was one of those people nine years ago, when I wrote my first novel. But for some of us, managing all that trouble and making it believable is like juggling kittens. Wiggly, wiggly kittens with very sharp claws.

Insight. It's hard to believe, but insight is the key to wrangling those kittens. Even the crappiest novel needs a certain level of insight into human behavior or it simply isn't believable. Great novels are great because the author has managed to probe deep into human affairs and used their work to shed light on some kind of human truth. For example, Twilight is a successful book, because the author uses her knowledge of teenagers' quirks to make the plot stick together. The Pilgrim Hawk, by Glenway Scott, is a great book because it plumbs the secret depths of marriage and class and alcoholism. (Neither book may be to your taste, but I'll confess to enjoying them both!)

So far I know that I am a functional writer. I've always been able to write a neat sentence and the occasionally pretty poem, and I'm finally beginning to develop the skills needed to juggle those cats (thick gloves help, as do lots of kitty treats). It's insight that really holds me back. It's hard to plumb the depths of human existence when your personal philosophy is primarily spun out of fart jokes, but I keep hoping I'll grow up. ;)

But what about you? What are your strengths as a writer? And what have you been doing to strengthen your weak points?

1 comment:

Jeffrey Petersen said...

I'm pretty good at the writing bit. The story-making bit is a struggle at times. Why can't I just talk about pretty things, and let someone else figure out who is doing what where?