Posted in Writing, Writing craft

What makes writing great? The five “C’s”

You know it when you see it, but if someone were to ask you what makes a piece of writing great, what would you say? And not just in a single genre. In general, across all genres, what are the characteristics of great writing? Perhaps even more important to those of us who write is this question: How can I use an understanding of these characteristics to improve my own writing?

The question of great writing is often considered to be subjective. Many readers will suggest that it depends on the style. No, it really doesn’t. And just because you like a piece of writing, doesn’t mean it’s great. The reverse is also true. Just because you don’t particularly care for a piece of writing doesn’t make it bad writing. (I am really not a fan of Ernest Hemingway at all, for example, but I have to concede that the writing itself is pretty good!) The more I’ve thought about it and read what others more erudite than I am on the subject have to say about it, though, I can identify five features that are the hallmarks of truly great writing. And it occurs to me that if all of us who write focus our efforts on improving these aspects of our writing – regardless of whether we write medical nonfiction, romance, dystopian fantasy or anything in between – our writing is sure to improve.

Studying the characteristics of great writing can help you to become a great writer – or at least, a better one.

So here are my “Five C’s of Great Writing” …

  • Clear: Great writing is clear. Clear writing means that there is no misunderstanding between writer and reader. Some might say that it means the writing is “easy” to understand, but I think that’s too simplistic. Sometimes the writing is above someone’s reading level. That is hardly the fault of the writer. On the other hand, if the writer considers who might read a particular piece of writing, then readability is a component of clear writing. For example, way back at the beginning of my own writing career, I was a medical writer. Some of what I wrote was for health professionals (such as textbooks), other writing was for the lay public (such as women’s magazines). I might focus on the same content area, but my writing necessarily has to be at different levels if my audience is going to understand. This is a lesson I learned a long time ago!
  • Concrete: The use of concrete language in writing follows from (and could, arguably, be a part of) clear writing. This doesn’t mean that you can’t present abstractions, it only suggests that the words you choose and the style you employ to string them together, need to be precise and specific. Sometimes, new writers overdo the admonition to provide details. How many times have you read a piece by a newbie writer that describes a glass of wine as “ruby red cabernet sauvignon from the XYZ winery with the gold label”? Someone who teaches romance writing must have hammered this into the heads of romance writers because this kind of excessive verbiage is all over the place. Precision doesn’t mean that the reader needs every detail. Keep your research in the background! The bottom line is writing that isn’t concrete is overly vague and ambiguous when it should be precise and specific. It is this precision that begins to set your writing apart from the writing of others.
  • Correct: This is a big one these days. Since the advent of self-publishing, there seems to be an odious and increasing sentiment that writing correctly is unimportant. If you read a passage that is riddled with grammatical errors, typos, stylistic problems – this is assuredly not great writing, no matter how good the story idea is. Correct writing is tied to the number one “C” above: clear writing. Even something as simple as punctuation makes a huge different in the clarity of writing. Who doesn’t remember Lynne Truss’s terrific book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves? Or perhaps she could have said, “Eats shoots & leaves,” Or even “Eats shoots, & leaves.” Different punctuation, different meaning. My own personal downfall in the punctuation arena is my lack of commas. No breathing space! I’m working on it. Great writing is correct.
  • Creative: This seems to be a no-brainer. Great writing presents innovative ideas. It is often said that there are no new ideas. That’s nonsense. You better hope there are. Ask a scientist. If they had no new ideas, so many things in our lives would be very different. So, why would a creative individual like a writer accept that there are no new ideas? There are. And there are new ways of telling old stories. The uniqueness of the story and/or the voice in a book is a very important part of what makes it great.
  • Compelling: Great writing affects the reader. It makes the reader think, or laugh, or cry, or get so angry he or she tosses the book across the room. One of the things I’ve noticed as my own fiction writing has improved (at least I hope it has improved – just saying!), is that it seems to be more evocative. Recently, I’ve had readers say that they laughed and even cried a bit when they read my most recent novel. When they send me a note and say it “resonated” with them, that’s so much better, in my view, than simply saying they enjoyed it. I want to know how it affected them. That makes me feel terrific. But, and here’s the most important part from your perspective as a writer – if your own writing moves you to tears when you’re writing it, you will compel the reader to do so. If you don’t cry a little (or laugh, or get a bit angry) while you are writing, your readers won’t, either. It isn’t compelling enough.

Okay. I’ve said my piece. Now I have to get back to the new manuscript. But I’m going to think about these aspects of great writing, not necessarily as I write, but certainly as I edit. I’m not quite there on the new one, though! Happy writing.

BTW, if you haven’t read Lynne Truss’s book, maybe now’s the time!

Posted in Books, Journals, Writing, Writing craft

How to prep for writing a book sequel

Book sequels and a subsequent series seem to be all the rage these days – and not always for the better. The current conventional wisdom seems to be that the best way to sell books is to write lots of them. And what could be easier than a series of books where the writer doesn’t have to create new characters every time? Well, from a reader’s perspective, it’s a bit hit and miss. Just like with movies, the sequel is often forced and not quite as good as the original. And it’s worth remembering this…

…The only thing the easy way has going for it is that it’s the easy way…

So, why would I consider a sequel?

Unlike other so many other writers these days, my primary motivator in writing a particular book is not determining what can make money. My motivator is that I’m a writer. I’ve always been a writer (at least since I was about 13 years-old). I’m a writer because I write, and I have stories to tell. If those stories resonate with readers, then that’s just terrific. If they don’t, at least I’ve gotten the story out of my head and onto paper (or a computer). If this is the case, then why am I embarking on writing a sequel? Same reason as why I write in the first place – there’s a story there, and I have to tell it.

When I was writing my most recent book, I didn’t have any plan to make a sequel (and no, it won’t be a series – at least I don’t think it will!). However, as I neared the end of the writing, as I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, I realized that there was another story that had to be told. There was another character – not the main one as in book one, but a character nonetheless – whose story was just aching to be told. So, I decided I’d have to tell it. But, because I am who I am, I thought I’d try to figure out how to go about this before I actually got myself stuck in, as my British friends say.

I have a kind of method for harnessing the creative process when I start a project.

  • First, I buy a new notebook that will stay by my side until the bitter end. Once I knew what the story would be about, I could choose a notebook. Hokey, I know, but it works for me.
  • Then I begin to fill it with my very first notions of how the story might unfold. This is usually in point form, identifying a kind of timeline. The I look for visuals relevant to the story that begin to speak to me. Then I need a title. Oh, yes, I cannot write a book without a working title.
  • After the title comes the hard-core research and character building. But for this sequel, I’m not quite there yet. And the process that I’ve been developing is a bit different.

I realized a couple of things.

  • First, sequels don’t have to – and probably shouldn’t – pick up where the first book ended. This is gong to be interesting for me since this book is, in reality, a prequel of sorts. We’re going back in time.
  • Second, there must be new characters. Although there will be a few familiar people, let’s face it: if I’m going back in time, there have to be new people and older characters seen in all new ways.
  • Third, there have to be all-new settings. This is a must as far as I’m concerned.
  • Fourth revelation: since this is going to be a prequel, there are actually quite a few details that were mentioned in the first book that will have to be introduced in the prequel. That’s where re-reading my own book and highlighting those details will be crucial.

When I created the new timeline in the new journal, I took up a new colour pen (hot pink in this case, if you must know) and wrote in those details from the first book that have to be included in the prequel. In fact, it was those details that truly propelled me to write another one – entirely ignoring the 25,000 words I’ve already written on a completely different story. That one will still be there when I’m finished with these characters who have gotten into my head.

Here’s what I know so far about prepping to write a sequel:

And I’ll remind you that this piece isn’t titled “How to write a book sequel.” It’s “How to prep for writing a book sequel.” I don’t ‘know squat about how to write one – yet. But I will!

Posted in Journals, Writing craft, Writing rituals

Datebooks, calendars, planners: A year in the life of a writer

daytimerI should have known it wouldn’t work for me. I know that everyone else has transitioned into the new world of technology, and I have to say that I thought I was right up there with the most tech savvy of writers. But there’s one area of my writing life – and life in general – where I am singularly unable to evolve. I cannot seem to give up my real-paper daily planner.

It all started two, years ago when I decided to try to wean myself off the expensive Daytimer™ I had used all throughout my academic career. When PDA’s (remember those Palm Pilots?) first emerged, I was one of the first adopters among my university colleagues. I do have to admit though; I never gave up that Daytimer. In fact, I even bought one of those Daytimer covers that included a paper planner as well as a slot on the inside of the leather cover into which to slide the PDA.  What that really amounted to was using the paper almost exclusively and only removing the PDA at meetings so as not to be seen as a dinosaur.  But I never really did get the hang of the electronic calendar ‘thingie.’. At least I could never figure out how people clung to it both physically and psychologically as if it were their very lifeline. Those early days of Palm Pilots have to be seen as the birthplace of the dreaded “cellphone elbow” that is so ubiquitous these days, soon to be followed by “smartphone neck.”

These days I do use the calendar in my electronic devices. Of course I do.  What would I do without that little ringing reminder of today’s dental appointment and tomorrow’s meeting at the bank? And a significant number of my friends/acquaintances/colleagues are joined at the hip to their devices so send messages that I can immediately add to my electronic calendar.

But what would I do without my leather-bound Daytimer lovingly stationed on the edge of my desk with its week-at-a-glance that not only tells me what appointments I have this week, but also contains notes about what needs to be written when? It also has an add-in page where I can continue to add items that need to be done before I head south on a vacation two weeks from today, as well as make notes on what I’ve accomplished each day. I’m sure that an electronic calendar of one sort or another (there’s an app for that) can do much the same thing, but I have no intention of finding out.

To be clear, I also use my devices for note-making – in fact I wrote the draft of this post on a mini-IPad, but it will never take the place of either my paper calendar or all those journals I love so much!

So, to justify my existence just this side of the Luddites of the world, I offer you my top five reasons for using a paper calendar.

  1. It enhances my creativity by forcing me to find innovative ways to remind myself about appointments without benefit of that annoying little sound effect.
  2. It gives me an opportunity to ensure that the lost art of penmanship is not entirely lost in my own world. Since I write longhand less and less, when I do have to write someone a note, it is usually barely legible.
  3. The sound of the pen or pencil on paper soothes my racing writer’s mind. This might be a throwback to a simpler time in childhood!
  4. It enhances my ability to see the bigger picture of my week/month/year. Maybe others can do that with the electronic calendar, but I can’t.
  5. It requires me to physically connect to the notes I write. As dumb as it sounds, I have long been a person who remembered something more easily if I wrote it down. Tapping on a screen doesn’t seem to have the same effect. So, if I write down that appointment, I’m more likely not to even need the reminder.

As I start a new year, I have a new calendar and it’s a bit like having a clean slate that is actually physically present. I’m going to use it and stop feeling like a Luddite for not being able to wean myself off!