Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sounds simple, and yet...

Thanks to a tweet from Maureen McGowan, I read this most excellent blog post by Allison Brennan about writing and marketability. Basically, AB's talking about the fact that best-selling books aren't necessarily the best written, but the author's doing something right.

I believe that the author of any book that's a best seller has indeed done something right - whether it's tell a really good story about really good characters, just have really interesting characters, hit the market at the right time with that particular type of story or caught the attention of an editor who got major publisher backing.

Something - but not necessarily what is referred to as "exceptional writing."

But what exactly does "exceptional" mean? And this is what really caught my eye - a comment on that term by John Dishon:

"However, "exceptional" doesn't mean necessarily mean big words or complicated sentence structure, or anything else. Exceptional means the right words, in the right order, at the right time. If you don't do that, you're not telling the story well."

I have to say, that's about the best definition of good writing I've ever heard.

I also think it explains why so many people think being a writer is easy, because "the right words, in the right order, at the right time" sounds simple.

But we who write know that it's not easy. What words? When? Is there a better way to say that? Show that? Should that bit come before this? Or after? And if after, how does that affect the words I'm using?

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Our work means we are constantly making decisions, and questioning those decisions, and making new ones. That's what makes writing mentally exhausting, and what the non-writer will never understand.

Sometimes, the decisons are easy, even subconscious - that's when the work seems to just flow. Dialogue comes, actions happen, all without agonizing.

Other times, though, the need to make decisions is crippling. I'm sure that one cause of writer's block is the inability to make a decision. Something has to happen, but you're not sure what. If you do that, then this might happen. Or that. Or some other thing. If you make a different decision, it'll send the story in a completely different direction. Which one is better? Which one is "right?"

Yesterday, I discovered a major plot development I'd decided to move later in the story won't work in the new location. It has to come earlier. But as early as I'd originally set it, or can I still delay it some? Why move it at all? Because it "lightens up" the story, and I didn't want the story to "lighten up" just then. But now I realize that the heroine simply has to say what she says earlier, because if that comes later, it's going to throw her motivation for the dialogue into question. At least, it would make me wonder and since at this point, I'm the sole arbiter of events, if it won't work for me, it ain't going to work.

Yet after all this work and worry and moving and revisng and editing, at the end of the day, when we finally consider our work "done" or as "done" as it can be, we should have made it look easy, as if there were no dark moments of staring at the screen or page and wondering if we've totally blown it. If we've used the wrong words in the wrong order at the wrong time. We just sat down and typed and voila! A story appeared!

The right words in the right order at the right time. Easy, peasy.

If only.


Maureen McGowan said...

Great post, Margaret.

I think literary academics, for too long, have equated exceptional writing with complicated writing. The kind of writing where the metaphors and subtext and symbolism are the most important things. The kind of writing where you have to read some paragraphs or sentences, or entire books, over a few times to really "appreciate" them.

I admit, I sometimes love this kind of writing. But it's so annoying that great storytelling is discounted. Right words, right order, right time. Love that.

Kaye Manro said...

This is a great. I've said it before. I think your methods are spot on, and I like the right words, right order and right time idea. It just seems to fit.