Sunday, September 13, 2009

Technical Topics -- Four Necessary Things

I was looking at an incomprehensible snippet of writing yesterday. Someone had posted the first 300 or so words of their novel for comment. A brave deed. Like the '300' Spartans, this sample had been sent out to die in the interests of the greater good. Got pretty much mowed down in the comments section, of course.

The snippet was not just unpublishable and non-commercial in present form, but literally unreadable.

Yenta that I am, I gave the author a basic on 'telling' and 'showing' in fiction. A small crit because this looks like a newbie.

But it got me thinking.

'How do I know this is not James Joyce?' asks I to myself, being in an introspective mood this morning before I drink my coffee.
'How do I know this is baaaad writing,
(or a joke, or madness, or possibly a Turing machine,)
instead of good-but-experimental stuff I'm too stuffy and stupid to understand?

Am I telling Bartok he needs a melodic line?'

So I sat and thought about the irreducible minimums of good writing.
I came up with four things.

The first is STORY.

In fiction, an aliquot of 500 words plucked anywhere out of a work is going to contain comprehensible story.

Lookit this passage pulled at random from Joyce:

Burke's! outflings my lord Stephen, giving the cry, and a tag and bobtail of all them after, cockerel, jackanapes, welsher, pilldoctor, punctual Bloom at heels with a universal grabbing at headgear, ashplants, bilbos, Panama hats and scabbards, Zermatt alpenstocks and what not. A dedale of lusty youth, noble every student there. Nurse Callan taken aback in the hallway cannot stay them nor smiling surgeon coming downstairs with news of placentation ended, a full pound if a milligramme. They hark him on. The door! It is open? Ha! They are out, tumultuously, off for a minute's race, all bravely legging it, Burke's of Denzille and Holles their ulterior goal.

Confusing? Wow, yes. But Joyce tells us a little bit of story in those 100 words.
(Though the posted snippet also tells story, so it passes the first test.)

The second requirement is PRECISION.

Good writing is words chosen with skill, set in place with care. The language is precise within a dozen parameters. Expression is economical. The good writer doesn't deal only with the definition of the words. Sound, connotation, and cadence all convey meaning.

Joyce, of course, is a master. The paragraph above is poetry. Not a syllable is laid down by happenstance.

The snippet posted for comment was filled with clunky language. Lookit one phrase:

she was gradually beginning to feel like the point of life where you wait for something to happen, was passing, and the best part was yet to come
This is not a poetic way to say,
'The time of anticipation was over. Now for the good part.'It's a wordy, awkward way to say it.

The third requirement is ORDER.

At the sentence level, at the page or paragraph level, at the whole-opus level, a good work of fiction is skillfully and intelligently structured. This is especially true in experimental fiction.

The snippet -- this is a first page -- commits several obvious sins of structure. It is an info dump. It has POV problems. The sentences are too long, too complicated and contain too many disparate thoughts.

So this is not a skillful experimental structure. Such basic faults do not add to the work in any way.

The fourth, irreducible requirement of good writing
is that it is INTERESTING.

Unless you are lucky enough to be a Dead White Man from the 1800s, no one will ever be forced to read you. Good writing need not be pleasant, intelligent, accessible, grammatically correct, or morally uplifting . . . but it cannot be boring.

Boring is the cardinal sin of fiction.


  1. I love lists.

    Those who can,

    Those who cannot quite settle down to doing this morning,
    make lists.

  2. And if we can't make lists, we read blogs, and are reminded that we really should be writing and trying to nail these four things.

  3. @ Meljean

    I will not waste my time blogging when I have a book proposal due.

    I will not waste my time blogging when I have a book proposal due.

    I will not ...

  4. Brilliant, Jo, as always. That last bit needs to be a quote on par with one by those Dead White Men of the 1800s.

  5. Hi Keira --

    The bit about not being boring?

    It's one of the 'questions' you ask yourself going through the last draft. Even if you're doing story and it's reasonably well written and it fills a useful role in the structure ...
    you have to ask yourself if a scene is just plain boring.

    I got a little four or five pages bit of business in MAGGIE (Forbidden) I'm going to go close up into a 'telling about it' because the action just drags on and on ...