Great Writing

I don’t know how to make the step from good writer to great. There’s an intangible quality to art that separates good from excellent and I yearn to discover it and apply it. I’m sure there’s a lot to be said for practice and dogged determination, but there’s also a magic that makes some writing sparkle. Where can I get me some of that pixie dust?

Recently agent Rachelle Gardner, in her blog, Rants & Ramblings, turned the tables and invited her readers to rant about the publishing industry, and quite a number of us did. Towards the end, however, thoughtful commenter Patty made the statement I quoted above.

I agree about the intangible quality, the “something” that makes good writing better and better writing great. Can it be captured? Isn’t that what all of us writers aspiring to publication would like to believe? I know I’ve been there. Just give me the five secrets, and I’ll work to get them right. And when I submit, if some editor could just please tell me which of the five I haven’t yet mastered.

The thing is, the more I tried to adhere to the five or ten or twenty-five secrets/rules/principles of writing good fiction, the more I saw my writing morph into blandness. And what did the editors want? Something fresh. Unique. Original. They want a story with a high concept. They want characters with depth. They want stories that hook you early and don’t let you go.

But great? If Patty really means great, which I have no reason to doubt, I don’t know that a killer premise, wonderful characters, and a page-turner plot adds up to great. Probably sale-able. Why, maybe even a best-seller. But great?

I think great writing takes what few Christian novelists talk about—time. Not just time coming up with a story. I actually think that can happen fairly quickly. I’m talking about time to craft a story, looking at the sentence structure and word choice as well as the character development and plot structure.

Mind you, I’m not saying there aren’t writers doing this. I can think of several off the top of my head. But I don’t think very many are talking about it. I suggest a good bit of our writing instruction is geared toward beginners and perhaps intermediates. I went to a particular conference some time ago and noticed that for the “advanced” and “professional” tracks, the topics were about marketing, promotion, spiritual substance. All good, but no craft. As if we in Christian fiction are content with average, not great.

Maybe if more of us asked the question Patty asked …

Published in: on May 9, 2008 at 3:23 pm  Comments (4)  
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  1. Becky, I think the message in this post is mixed. First of all, in publishing, either secular or Christian, there comes a point in time where the professionals concede that “great” writing can become irrelevant. But they don’t talk about that. The reason being if “great” writing doesn’t sell or can’t be effectively marketed, who cares? Sales/money is the goal of publishing.

    Secondly, regardless of all the claims about “great” writing, who is genuinely responsible for discovering it or pronouncing it “great”? You hear the pros discuss the “perfection” of the classics, and then admit in their next sentence that many of those “great” books wouldn’t be published in today’s market.

    I’m adding a third point here, 🙂 , and that is your aim of spending time on a manuscript, to truly labor over the words, etc. While serious writers do this, who’s to say that their labor will produce a “great” product? Once again, a book can be proclaimed as beautifully written, a masterpiece even, but if it has no large appeal, who cares? Few will read it.

    While craft is initially learned, there are those of us who discover at some point, early or late, that we are being groomed to write by our Creator. So we follow Him desiring to give Him our best effort(s) in all we do in whatever arena where He’s gifted us. Will our allegiance to Him form “great” writing or will it produce little stories that minister to the “average” reader? I wonder, if we are giving our best to Him in whatever form it involves for us as individuals, if it really matters . . .

    Sometimes there is a great story told without great writing to accompany it, and vice versa. What then?


  2. As a marketer and businessman who will have his MBA as of June, this question is something I often think about. I know, as soon as someone says “business” and “writing” in the same sentence all the writers in the audience start to freak out. But, let’s face it, business has a few things right. Yes, business is generally focused on generating profit. That’s one of the key measures of a business, but let’s apply the same thoughts to writing for a moment. What makes a great writer?

    Jim Collins, in his book “Good to Great” (a business book – *gasp*) presents a host of companies that have successfully made it from “good” to “great.” Strategists have studied the same thing for years. What has all this research presented us with?

    If a company (and I’m going to apply this to writers as well) wants to be great, he/she/it must be differentiated, focused, and the operations must support the overall goals of the company. In the business sense there are several ways of doing that. But what about writers?

    Why are editors looking for fresh, unique writing? They want something that’s differentiated. Something that stands out in a crowd. So, how does one do this? Becky brings up an excellent point: craft. But, not all writers are built the same. Some are better at plot, some character development, etc.

    My advice: shore up your writing with intentional focus on the craft, but utilize your talents. It’s more than “writing what you know.” It also means that you must be selective. You can’t be all things to all people. That marginalizes writing. Are you bad at metaphors? Focus more on realism and character development.

    Differentiate yourself. Choose your audience. Write to that audience. Become a self-aware writer.

    I could write about this for hours, though, so I’ll stop now. 🙂


  3. Interesting business twist on writing, J! I tried to start a business a number of years ago, and learned that this “can’t be all things” idea is especially important to new businesses. You have three areas:

    * Price
    * Service
    * Quality

    And you MUST differentiate your business on ONE of those. The others must be acceptable, but ONE must be EXCEPTIONAL. How does this apply to writing? Just like you said … like this:

    * Character Development
    * Plot & Theme
    * Language

    Obviously we cannot fall down on any of these, but we should probably try and pick ONE and make that EXCELLENT and UNIQUE. Much easier than trying to become great in all three simultaneously.

    I honestly haven’t given this much thought before. What makes my writing UNIQUE? What is my focus? Does the “brand” I am trying to promote for myself reflect this uniqueness / excellence I am trying to achieve?

    Thanks for the ideas.


  4. This is an excellent topic of discussion–and disagreement!–and I do agree that time is one element that should not be neglected.

    There is admiration for the writer who can produce a book or two per year–the man who wrote the novel on which the film “Open Range” was base wrote some 80 or more books–but some of the greatest works were written by authors who actually produced very few works in their lifetimes.

    When a story is set aside for a while then taken up again, the writer can see it with fresh eyes, find flaws, discover new approaches that can strengthen the material–assuming, of course, the writer is not too in love with his own words to alter them.

    In addition to providing a chance to improve one’s craft, time by its very nature produces an alteration in the writers’ circumstances, maturity, and goals, and those can be put to good use in one’s fiction.

    Patience, time, and a pursuit of excellence–even if one falls short of one’s ideal–are all necessary, I believe, in the production of great fiction.


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