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Friday, July 23, 2021

Talking Shop: Producing Good Writing • By Eric Dontigney

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Good writing is one of those topics that comes up a lot in relation to books and especially among writers, yet remains one of the more ineffable goals of the craft. I always think of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous declaration about pornography that “I know it when I see it” as the general standard for good writing for most people. Of course, it’s not nearly as simple as that. Brilliant writing truly is ineffable. There is a quality about it that transcends the trappings of whatever genre a piece of writing happens to find itself in.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol falls into that category. Depending on which edition you have on hand, it only runs about 100 pages. Yet, its ongoing impact is almost incalculable. It has been performed in theaters almost continuously for the better part of the last 60 years. It has been adapted for live-action films around 20 times and animated features around 8 times. It’s been adapted for live-action television 22 times and animated television 9 or 10 times. It’s had four opera adaptations and two ballet adaptations. Who knows how many radio adaptations there have been over the decades.

Just a few of the luminaries of stage and screen who took on roles in these many and sundry performances include Sir Laurence Olivier, George C. Scott, Orson Welles, Basil Rathbone, Jonathan Winters, James Earl Jones, Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Alec Guinness, Mark Gatiss, and Albert Finney. While you might not recognize all of those names, you probably recognize many of them as film, stage, or TV heavyweights of the past or present. It’s a list that includes people who have won Oscars, BAFTA awards, Grammy awards, Tony awards, Emmy awards, and Olivier awards. There is at least one certifiable genius in the person of Orson Welles. All of this for a 100-page, Victorian ghost story about a grumpy old misanthrope who goes on an involuntary redemptive journey. Yes, there is genius in those pages.

No, you are not likely to ever reach those dizzying heights of magnificence. Good writing, though, that is something that you can aspire to and reach. Unlike genius, which seems to come out of some fluke of genetic lottery winning, good writing comes out of practice and study. No, I’m not just saying that. I consider myself a decent to good writer, so let me offer what insight I can into how to one goes from a bad or mediocre writer (which is where we all start) to a good writer. To write well, you need to understand the craft.

Here’s a short list of the books I’ve read on the craft of writing that I consider worth the time.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

On Writing by Stephen King

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont

I’ve also read dozens of books on writing well for specific contexts, such as blogging, screenwriting, comic book writing, and copywriting/marketing. I’ve read hundreds, if not thousands, of articles and blog posts on the craft of writing in general and for specific genres or non-fiction areas. I still make a regular study of the craft. Up next on my reading list are Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting and Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing. At present, I’m also working my way slowly through Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass, The Art of Storytelling.

You shouldn’t just read about writing, though. You should read all kinds of things, all of the time. Let me say this now. If all you read is the genre you want to write, you will probably never rise above the okay-to-decent level of quality. Genres have tropes and tropes are really useful for placing your stories into a context that readers will recognize and accept. If those tropes are all you know, though, you can only be derivative. You aren’t armed with the information you need to do something special. Read novels from other genres than the ones you write. Personally, I like mystery novels. I also read books that fall more into the area of literature, such as The Shipping News, Jitterbug Perfume, Anne Hogan’s Mean Spirit, or any of Herman Hesse’s compact and occasionally haunting novels.

Reading more traditional novels is important for learning about character development because it plays a more prominent role. It’s closer to the surface and not obscured by fantastical or science fictional elements, so you can get a better look at it. Reading fiction also gives you a subconscious education in areas like plotting, pacing, and even style, although you will hopefully depart to your own place with style if you stick with writing long enough.

You should read non-fiction as well. Why non-fiction? Because a lot of non-fiction is written by some really stellar writers. Hit up some articles in a magazine like The Atlantic or The New Yorker. Some of those are as compelling as or more compelling than any thriller novel you’ve read. That’s all in the writing. Top-flight journalism will teach you things about concision in writing that entire semesters of college composition courses never will. Plus, you take in all those lessons at a nearly subconscious level. You won’t recognize where you learned these things as you’re writing. They’ll just sneak in while you’re thinking about plot.

Non-fiction also gives you a bigger imaginative palette to pull from while you write. Let’s say you write a scene in a graveyard. If you don’t know anything about headstones, your graveyard scene becomes generic. If you happen to know that sandstone and slate were popular headstone materials a century or so ago, you can talk about how erosion has triggered delamination (where layers of the rock separate) and obscured the writing on the headstones. That, in turn, can open up introspection about the impermanence of all things, or let the main character wonder about who the people were, or simply highlight the age or poor maintenance of the graveyard, depending on your narrative needs. All of that from knowing a little about headstones and how different kinds of stones weather or cope with acid rain.

Of course, that’s all theory. Theory can tell you about writing or about how you can write well, but only practice will let you learn how to apply all those theoretical lessons. Hang with me here. Why do you think professional athletes practice nearly every day? It’s not because they love practicing. It’s because it’s the only way they can improve. So, how do I practice? I write, all the time, nearly every single day. I write non-fiction professionally and fiction as a very, very serious hobby. It’s been about five years since I last did it, but the last time I added up my estimated output of writing it came in at over 2 million words. That was just the stuff that had survived on my desktop computer. I suspect by now the actual number is closer to 4 or 5 million words.

I’ve ghostwritten thousands, possibly even as many as 10,000, blog posts and articles. I’ve written marketing copy, content for landing pages, and news briefs. I’ve written about medical science, DIY projects, software, cloud computing, alternative energy (ask me what I know about solar panels sometime if you really need a nap), business finance, personal finance, food, employee recruiting, and fashion. Writing all of that and writing it to deadlines is one of the big reasons why I don’t put much stock in writer’s block. If you walk into every day assuming that you will write (fiction or non-fiction), you’re going to find out that you’re right most days. If paying your rent and buying food depends on your writing, you’ll tell all that Romantic Era crap about inspiration to take a hike because you literally cannot afford for some ephemeral muse to go off and have a good pout while you don’t write.

I’ve also written dozens of short stories (most of them bad), four published novels, and a novel masquerading as a short story collection that come in at about half a million words. I’ve probably written about the same amount in either forthcoming (as yet unfinished) or never to see the light of day prior novel manuscripts. So, when I tell you that you need practice, I’m not just parroting something I read somewhere once. It’s what I’ve done and it works. As much as I love my first novel, Falls, it’s nowhere near as good as The Midnight Ground. Yeah, it reads like an Eric book, and it’s a passable urban fantasy, but it’s also chock full of weaknesses that I’d never allow in a book I wrote now. What’s the difference? About 300,000 words of practice writing fiction in-between the two books, along with a million or two million words of non-fiction, and reading a couple of hundred novels, and studying the craft of writing.

You can see the same kind of progression in other writers who have a steady output. Go read Jim Butcher’s first Harry Dresden book sometime, then skip ahead to book 8, then skip again to book 14 or 15. Sure, all the elements that make a book a Jim Butcher book are present in that first Dresden novel, but you can see the quantum leap in quality when you skip ahead. If you want a truly fair example of progress, read his first Dresden Files book and his first Cinder Spires book. There’s a 15-year gap between Storm Front (Dresden #1) and The Aeronaut’s Windlass (Cinder Spires #1) and it shows.

So, what’s the secret to good writing? There is no secret. It’s just work and a lot of it. You study the craft and glean what you can about the essentials of plotting, character building, and world-building. If you really want to punish yourself, you can delve into theme and symbolism, but I find those things tend to work themselves out without a lot of conscious input from the writer. You must also read whenever you get a chance. Read novels. Read piles of novels. Read piles of novels outside your genre or genres. Read piles of non-fiction, be it books, articles, think pieces or high-quality journalism. You’ll learn information that you can use in your books later and pick up some more lessons on structuring lean writing. Write all the time. Write on your lunch breaks. Write after work. Write all kinds of things. Write short stories. Write novellas. Write vignettes. Write flash fiction. Write bad novels that you don’t want to show anyone. Then write better ones that more effectively apply the lessons you’ve learned and the craft you’ve studied. Write a few million words aiming for a constant improvement and application of everything your conscious and subconscious have accumulated. Odds are pretty good that, if you aren’t producing good writing by then, you’ll be well on your way.

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Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at ericdontigney.com.

 

 

2 comments:

~brb said...

Absolutely spot-on. Especially this line, which I want to force-feed to every would-be SF/F writer whose work shows up in our slush pile:

"If all you read is the genre you want to write, you will probably never rise above the okay-to-decent level of quality."

Barbara V. Evers said...

Solid points! People often look surprised when I admit that I’m an eclectic reader. For some reason, they believe I will always write fantasy. I’ve written so much more and read most genres.