What makes writing great?
It’s a difficult and nebulous question. Writing means different things to different people. We take away unique experiences from writing and reflect on these experiences in various ways. Look at the reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and you’ll find many people criticising the novel for how ‘bleak’ and ‘unforgiving’ it is. One cannot help but think they’ve missed the point, on the one hand, but on the other, why shouldn’t they want more levity in the books they read? Yes, perhaps they chose the wrong book in choosing The Road if humour and a light-hearted love story was what they were looking for, but they are not wrong for wanting this from a story because we all want different things. My point? There’s no way to say that what I am about to recommend is necessarily ideal for everyone. But hopefully it will be good for most.
The thing I want when reading a novel is to have all the hair stand up on my arms and neck, to have that moment of semi-orgasmic realisation I’ve experienced an emotional, spiritual upheaval. I’m not being crude when I use the word ‘orgasm’: writing can be a form of emotional orgasm at its best (FYI I stole this concept from Tristine Rainer). Put another way, good writing is like listening to Stairway to Heaven (or if you’re a hip-hop person, Eminem’s Bad Guy). It builds and builds and reaches an electric, explosive finish. The ending is what gives us the catharsis, the emotional revelation and release, and contextualises the build up.
These may sound like broad, bohemian, hollistic concepts and they are. It’s all very well to talk about them and feel artistic in a vague kind of way, but they don’t really help you to write more effectively. What you want to learn is how to achieve this effect (or something similar). What can (hopefully) are the three concepts outlined below, concepts I learned from my studies under Richard House (author of Man-Booker longlisted quadrilogy The Kills), Elsa Braekkan-Payne (poet, editor and lecturer) and Luke Kennard (award-winning poet and author of Holophin) as well as from Stephen King’s essential tome On Writing and some of my own studies. The three lecturers listed above were instrumental in my development as a writer (and as a person if I’m honest). They continue to do fine work blowing student’s minds. You should read their work, which is mind-blowing too.
So, here they are: my 3 key writing tips.
Writing needs to be concrete. It needs to be real. It’s no good telling your reader ‘I miss her’ or ‘He missed her’. This is what’s called an abstraction. The sentence ‘He missed her’ does nothing to convey what missing someone might feel like, and if you want your reader to be interested, that’s exactly what you have to do. You have to convey what it was like to miss her through detail. Detail is the essential tool of the writer. Stephen King is the master of it. He will give you 200 pages of detail on how a character behaves, the way they dress, their home, their mannerisms to the extent they feeler realer than a historical figure. This detail not only draws the reader in and gives the story verisimilitude (truth-seeming) but also can set up important moments in the novel later by explaining why a character will behave a certain way. We know why. We’ve just had 200 pages of why. We ask no questions.
Let’s look at the example of ‘missing someone’. So often I see prose (and indeed poetry) full of unspecific statements such as: ‘He missed her hair’ or ‘missed her touch’.
Compare that with how Stephen King portrays missing some one in Mr Mercedes. Let’s see how he describes Janey Patterson, the love interest of the protagonist Detective Hodges:
‘She plucks the fedora from his head, puts it on her own, and gives it the correct insouciant dip over the left eyebrow. She wrinkles her nose at him and says, “Yeah.”‘
By giving us the detail of Janey, the way she takes and wears the fedora, her facial expression and playfulness, we can feel Hodges’ pain at a later stage in the novel when SPOILER ALERT she is killed. We begin to feel we know Janey Patterson personally. We can picture her (of course we all picture her slightly differently). If you are thinking about wanting to convey an emotion, think about the behaviours and imagery associated with it. Don’t write ‘She was happy.’ Write: ‘She bounced up and down on the balls of her feet, giggling to herself.’
This is also linked with simile and metaphor. It is surprising how much prose fiction is actually devoid of these two essential writer’s tools. One technique I use to ensure I do use metaphors and similes rather than resorting to a lazy exposition or descriptor, is to think: wherever you’d use an adverb (an ‘-ly’ word), use a simile or metaphor instead. Obviously this rule shouldn’t be followed to the letter, otherwise the writing would become too formulaic and dense, but it does work when you want a moment to stand out.
For example, if you wanted to convey that a character’s smile was particularly significant (perhaps implying secret knowledge or malevolent intent), then rather than saying it was a ‘sinister, scary smile’, you might say, ‘he smiled, his lips like the rim of a cut’. I’m not only giving a disturbing visual image here to convey that the smile was crooked (notice, I now no longer need to say that it is crooked, it is crooked by association), but I’m also linking the idea of a wound, bleeding and harm with the smile. The reader can put two and two together themselves.
The best writers are ‘warm’ writers (not just the most financially successful or most famous, but also the most technically brilliant). What do I mean by that? I mean that they genuinely believe in their stories, their characters, and give us worlds which we genuinely want to connect with. Sometimes when reading King, one can feel the pain and fear he is going through knowing that he is about to do something horrible to a character he loves. His fear and pain imparts a kind of dread in the reader too, because we sense his characters are not merely hollow pawns he is moving around a board, but emotional, warm, beings whom we relate to and whom he relates to.
It should be noticed that an awareness of the writer as an entity is not always a bad thing. J. K. Rowling has spawned a whole series of imitators in her style, which is an unobtrusive style. It is easy to read Harry Potter to the extent you are almost unaware of the prose. You are completely unaware of any writerly agendas as we move from one scene to another. It is fluent. It is liquid. We drink it in one swift draft. We then forget what we just read. I like Harry Potter very much but there aren’t really any passages which stick out in my mind. Scenes from The Stand however, I’ll never forget.
While there is much to be admired in Rowling’s style (it is extraordinarily difficult to write like this for prolonged periods of time) and it is effective in its own right, not all novels should be written like this. Sometimes an awareness of the writer heightens the emotional involvement and immersion in the world, rather than reducing it. This may seem like a paradox, but it is much the same as watching the meta-theatrical, self aware moments in Shakespeare’s plays (in which the characters break the fourth wall and refer to the fact they are in a play). A classic example of this is in Twelfth Night where Shakespeare’s world-weary Fabian remarks: ‘If this were played on a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction’. The fact he is aware of the ludicrousness of events suggests he is not a fictional character confined by the boundaries of his role in the play but actually can think like we ‘real’ people do and question what he is witnessing.
There are many ways to achieve this warmth. Breaking the fourth wall is one (but only if it is done in certain ways; breaking the fourth wall can come across as pretentious, an attempt to be ‘clever’ rather than really feeling the story). Many writers achieve this warmth through the way they command the prose narrative. It is harder to pin down technically than the way writers use concrete details, but it is still clear when it is present in a story and when it is not.
A great example is the contrast between a novel like Wolves by Simon Ings and Virtual Light by William Gibson. Both novels are about a near-future world. Both are about VR technology (Ings even calls his technology ‘Virtual Light’ in his novel, deliberately alluding to Gibson). Both feature murder mysteries and romances mixed in with the complex, overriding political narrative. The difference, however, between the two novels, is staggering. Ings has a wonderful command of prose, a sense of imagery, and an intensity in the way he creates scenes. Gibson, however, is warm. His writing exhilarates and lifts the spirit. I don’t really believe in Ing’s characters. And if I do, they are cold and unlovable. At the end of Ing’s novel SPOILERS we discover that the protagonist’s father is the one who killed his mother. I didn’t care. At the end of Gibson’s novel, when Chevette and Rydell finally make it through and outmanoeuvre the corrupt officers gunning for them, I almost wept. It’s not simply because Gibson’s novel has a happy ending and Ing’s novel is bleak that I prefer it. I earlier mentioned The Road, which I love, and Gibson’s novel also contains many cold and terrifying characters, namely the alias Loveless, a killer so disturbed he makes a Arny’s first Terminator appearance seem compassionate.
But the difference is Gibson’s characters live and breathe and sing off the page. How is this achieved? My answer is slightly hippy-ish and vague (which I have encouraged you to avoid, but alas, the world is full of double think and contradiction). I believe it is through a love of life, an interest in people, an interest in our world. Only someone thoroughly passionate about existence (whether they are atheist or religious or neither is irrelevant by the way) is willing to so lovingly create their world, their characters and their scenes. So, if you want to write warm stories, the kind of stories that break people’s hearts, that make them jump for joy, that make them sleep with the light on, it’s not just about writing what you want to write about. It’s about observing and internalising life – the good the bad and the ugly – and then lovingly recasting it.
3. The Turn of the Screw
I’ve named this tip after the famous ghost-story by Henry James. Rather like the title of To Kill A Mockingbird, there is no information on turning a screw within this story, rather, it is a metaphor for what is going on in the narrative. The story is driving down to some deep, dark rotten heart.
Turn of the Screw does this in two ways:
- framed narrative
- breaking through the nadir
(1) The framed narratives of the story and what they mean are talked about to death by the critics. A brief summary of them is this:
a man is writing about his experience at a gathering in which people tell stories
another man at the gathering says that he can tell one story better than the last person, but he needs to get the manuscript for it
he begins to read from the manuscript which was written by a woman he used to know
It is the manuscript, this woman’s story, which is the heart of the narrative, but of course, it is a very unreliable heart! A friend of a friend of a friend told me. You know the rumours, the ones that everyone from every corner of the globe seems to have heard from a friend of a friend of a friend. Going through these frames (or doors perhaps) we go down another turn of the screw.
(2) We don’t all want to write framed narratives, of course (I love reading them but have never written one). But there is a second way the screw is being turned and this is the method I think is most applicable to modern prose and improving your fiction. Breaking through the nadir. What do I mean by that? Well, a ‘nadir’ is a lowest point. Rock bottom. When you are at a nadir in your life, you feel that it can’t get any worse. We reach this point in fiction often. Surely, it can’t get any worse than this? The lovers have split up. A killer is on the loose. It can’t get any worse. But then it does. The killer is the lover! The nadir has been broken through. Here’s the stages of Turn of the Screw to give you a more tangible example:
First, the woman believes there are intruders on the estate she is looking after
Second, she realises these intruders may used to have worked there
Third, she realises the intruders may be after the children
Fourth, she realises that the intruders used to abuse the children when they worked at the estate previously
Fifth, the intruders are actually dead – if they are on the estate they are ghosts
Sixth, the children want to see the ghosts – they have succumbed to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome
Seventh, one of the children dies – the ghosts effectively succeed and win
Eighth (?) This one is debatable, but there is a hint either all of these events are in the woman’s head (and she therefore killed the child; when she was supposedly ‘shielding’ him from the ghost she actually smothered him) or that the ghosts are her creation in that the ghosts represent some suppressed aspect of her sexuality, haunting her through her isolation on the estate.
Woah. Lots going on there. This doesn’t scratch the surface of what is a masterpiece of psychological insight and supernatural horror. But the core of what I’m saying is, that you need to keep turning the screw, keep making it worse, putting more at stake for the characters (without resorting to the rather clichéd the world is in danger motif).
Well, I think that’s enough for now. I hope you found the above tips useful. If you have any questions or want any clarifications on the points I’ve raised, please leave a message in the comments. God bless and have a good weekend folks. Thanks for reading.
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