What makes for good writing? There are a thousand ways to go about answering this question. One might offer examples—Shakespeare, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. These are writers who have produced good writing. But listing them doesn’t get at why they are good. And it offers no help to the writer who is wondering how to produce something striking, original, and moving.
A better approach is to turn the question around: What are the things that if they are missing make a piece of writing not good? Three essential elements jump out right away: practice, trust, and judgment.
In a recent interview, the Australian writer, Helen Garner said:
“…you’ve got to practice every day. It’s like practicing an instrument if you’re a musician or keeping your tools sharpened. After many years of daily practice… you actually build up a competence.”
Cormac McCarthy said something similar but more laconically: “If you’re going to be a writer, then writing is what you have to do.”
These successful writers are on to something. Daily writing is the place to innovate, experiment, try on other voices. It’s daily exercise, like jogging, swimming laps or working out at a gym. It keeps you fit, trim, well-trained.
Be disciplined: set a goal—one hour, so many words—and do it everyday. A lack of daily practice will show in a piece of writing.
If practice is like daily exercise, trust works as the metabolic centre of the writing process. It’s what fuels good writing.
This element is about having a good relationship with your creative self. It works in several ways:
- Knowing when to listen – Certain ideas and themes resonate for a reason. It’s because you have something to say.
- Believing in the inner work – If the time is not right, forcing it won’t come to any good. There is a really important purpose to writer’s block, and this should be listened to.
- Drawing from the well – Having a notebook on hand to jot ideas down as they occur is one method. Some writers never do this, however. They test the value of an idea by letting it surface over and over.
- Communicating honestly – Find your voice; be authentic. Write what you know. Find a way to put yourself and your experiences into the story.
Attempting to control the process, writing prematurely or in the wrong genre, and being inauthentic in any way will show in the quality of the writing.
Everyone’s heard the saying: One part inspiration, ten parts perspiration. Inspiration comes from trusting in the writing process; judgment is the ‘ten parts perspiration’. It’s the conscious grind, bringing the intellect to bear on each and every aspect of the process.
If practice is what keeps one in shape as a writer, and trust is the inner work—the metabolic system—of writing, judgment is involved with the actual performance. It’s the ‘big game’, where a writer gets to apply training, draw from the well of creativity, and produce a fine piece of writing. It requires rigour, energy, stamina: How many drafts are needed to get it right? How much reshaping? How much editing?
Hemingway said: “The mark of a good book is how much good writing you cut out of it.” Stephen King said: “Be prepared to murder your darlings”.
It’s a good idea to read your work out loud. Wherever you stumble, make a change. I heard a story about a writer who holds herself to account in the following way: Before she submits any piece of writing, she performs a ritual. She goes into the bathroom, takes off her clothes, stands before the mirror and reads it out loud. Asked why she does this, she says: because if I’m there naked in front of the mirror, I can’t hide and I can’t lie.
The more one practices, the more one trusts in the process and the more one exercises experienced judgment, the better the writing will be. It’s a simple approach that will lead to honest, living prose.
1. They take souvenirs of Important Evenings for their “mother.” This is like taking leftovers home for the “dog.” Of course, some mothers do get the souvenirs and some dogs do get the scraps. However, it is not likely.
2. If they find a copy of Richard Yates’s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, they buy it. It is as if they’ve found a baby on the front step. They peek inside, examine the dog-earing, the marginal scribbles. Or perhaps it’s a clean copy, which carries its own kind of sadness. In either case, they embrace it, though they already have multiple copies. Those are irrelevant to the one they would be abandoning if they left the book behind. This is a hostess gift you can give any fiction writer, guaranteed to delight her even though she already has it. Regifting becomes an act of spreading civilization.
3. It makes the writer’s day if he or she can include the opinions of a truly stupid character or text in the story, punctuating those announcements with exclamation points, which are the icing on the cake. This situation is to be found in novels, too, but novelists are less likely to be immensely flattered if you have noticed their needle in the haystack(!). For particularly adept and judicious uses of the exclamation point, see the works of Joy Williams and Deborah Eisenberg.
4. Without these things, many contemporary American short stories would grind to a halt: fluorescent lights; refrigerators; mantels. They are its gods, or false gods. In that it is difficult to know Him, these stand-ins are often misspelled.
5. Poets go to bed earliest, followed by short story writers, then novelists. The habits of playwrights are unknown.
6. Writers are very particular about their writing materials. Even if they work on a computer, they edit with a particular pen (in my case, a pen imprinted “Bob Adelman”); they have legal pads about which they are very particular—size, color—and other things on their desk that they almost never need: scissors; Scotch tape. Few cut up their manuscripts and crawl around the floor anymore, refitting the paragraphs or rearranging chapters, because they can “cut” and “paste” on the computer. As a rule, writers keep either a very clean desktop or a messy one. To some extent, this has to do with whether they’re sentimental.
7. Writers wear atrocious clothes when writing. So terrible that I have been asked, by the UPS man, “Are you all right?” An example: stretched-out pajama bottoms imprinted with cowboys on bucking broncos, paired with my husband’s red thermal undershirt (no guilt; he wouldn’t even wear such a thing in Alaska) and a vest leaking tufts of down, with a broken zipper and a rhinestone pin in the shape of pouting lips. Furry socks with embossed Minnie Mouse faces (the eyes having deteriorated in the wash) that clash with all of the above.
1 Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.
2 Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, “how to” books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.
3 Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.
4 If you have a good story idea, don’t assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.
5 Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.
6 First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?
7 Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don’t notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they’re trying too hard to instruct the reader.
8 Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.
9 If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.
10 Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules. Except number one: you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.
From The Guardian.
1 The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
2 Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.
3 Never use the word “then” as a conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.
4 Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.
5 When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
6 The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more auto biographical story than “The Metamorphosis”.
7 You see more sitting still than chasing after.
8 It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
9 Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
10 You have to love before you can be relentless.
From The Guardian.
1 The first 12 years are the worst.
2 The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.
3 Only bad writers think that their work is really good.
4 Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.
5 Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”: what matters is its necessity.
6 Try to be accurate about stuff.
7 Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.
8 You can also do all that with whiskey.
9 Have fun.
10 Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.
From The Guardian.
1 Finish everything you start.
2 Get on with it.
3 Stay in your mental pyjamas all day.
4 Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
5 No alcohol, sex or drugs while you are working.
6 Work in the morning, a short break for lunch, work in the afternoon and then watch the six o’clock news and then go back to work until bed-time. Before bed, listen to Schubert, preferably some songs.
7 If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane.
8 On Saturdays, you can watch an old Bergman film, preferably Persona or Autumn Sonata.
9 No going to London.
10 No going anywhere else either.
From The Guardian.
Last year, The Willesden Herald announced that there would be no winner in the 2008 short story competition. Zadie Smith, the final arbiter after the panel of three judges made their recommendations, could find no story good enough to win. The £5000 prize money was donated to charity.
Understandably, there were a lot of disappointed writers. After the outcry—weeks of bloggers’ complaints, in fact—Steve Moran stepped up and offered a list of the most common reasons for a short story to be rejected. He likens an open short story competition to a talent contest—think American Idol—and states that the “bum notes” and ineptitudes in short stories are just like those in auditions. With around 850 entries, there is no doubt the judges need to be brutal through the elimination process.
Writing expansively, Moran lists twenty-seven common faults, but these tend to fall into the following categories:
- Failure to Follow the Rules Competitions are serious about rules and deadlines. Follow them exactly or your entry will be disqualified. Poor grammar and spelling errors signal lack of professionalism.
- Openings and Endings Over-elaborate beginnings and endings weaken a good story. VS Pritchett describes a short story as “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye in passing”. Allow some mystery, but don’t be cryptic. The false start and the tacked on ending are also clanging notes.
- Subject Matter If a competition is genre specific, submit only a story of that genre. Do not send a crime story to a literary competition or a literary story to a speculative fiction contest. Do not be trivial: choose a subject that is capable of transporting a reader to a different place and mood. Do not be overly sentimental: we have TV dramas for that. Do not be obvious: the short story is a form that lends itself to raising questions rather than giving all the answers.
- Characterisation Too many characters, undifferentiated characters, and miserable characters are all common failings in short stories. Moran quotes Seán Ó Faoláin as saying that a short story is to a novel as a hot air balloon is to a passenger jet: a novel takes a long time getting off the ground, carries a lot of people and takes them a long way from where it started, while a short story takes off vertically, quickly rises, carries only a couple people, and lands not far from where it took off. Each character must come to the story with an individual and unique backstory. Just like you wouldn’t want to spend the evening with a miserable bore, characters need to be interesting.
- Dialogue Clunky dialogue is always a mistake. All dialogue must be essential to moving the story forward. It must also be something people would actually say. Be careful not to use dialogue as exposition. You can reveal a lot about a character in what they say and don’t say. Too much dialogue is just as bad as too little.
- Style As you draft and redraft the story, question each word, sentence, paragraph, passage. Are you showing or telling? (A judicious combination of the two is okay.) Is the pacing uneven? Have you digressed from the original idea? Have you included any clichés? Is the whole story a cliché? Is the tone consistent? Is the story too sketchy? Long-winded?
- An Experiment The short story is actually an excellent form for an experiment. Be cautious, however. You are drawing attention to yourself. Give extra consideration to all the above points.
A writer has some degree of control over every item listed above. Moran also mentions something a writer has no control over:
- Subjective Opinion of the Judge Something may be well-written, but the judge simply does not like it. Or he finds it boring, commonplace, banal or unconvincing. Or she’s in a bad mood or sad or slept badly the night before. Or his wife just ran off with the milkman, and your story is about adultery. There is really very little you can do about this, except to write your story honestly and hope you are judged honestly in return.
The Willesden Herald incident provoked a widespread discussion about writing competitions, judging, literary standards, and the nature of the short story. Maybe this is a prize in itself.