I have to admit, I am rather kicking myself. I decided a few months ago that this was a valid lecture topic for my Novel III class, which starts in the not too distant future. But who am I to lay down Pronouncements on Literachurrr? Where does one even begin?
Well, it’s easy to say what makes a book bad, and it’s also pretty easy, in my opinion, to say what doesn’t make a book bad, and so I think I’ll start there.
First, I’ll dispense with the most obvious thing, the thing (I would hope) that goes without saying, but I consider a book superbad if it is hate literature. If its point, in overt whole or in sneaky part, is to portray some given slice of humanity as somehow less able, less noble, or less capable of goodness than another, it is propaganda, and evil, and I want no part of it.
Moving on, I consider a book to be not quite good if its line by line writing is clumsy, even if the story is compelling enough that I read it through with some enjoyment.
I also consider a book not quite good if its story or protagonist bore me, even if the prose is beautiful.
The above two points are important because as one develops as a writer, it becomes incredibly useful to know how to separate enjoyment from quality. We all have moments when we enjoy something that we know, objectively, isn’t all that great. And I will tell you something else… there is not one thing wrong with that. In fact, I’ve recently posted a review of a well-known Stieg Larsson book here, and in it I write about how I liked it an awful lot, even though it’s seriously lacking in the prose department.
This next bit is one of those things that should go without saying, but so many people demonstrate that in fact it does need saying: I do not consider a book bad if I have not bleeping read it. This is true even if if it is something I’m pretty sure I won’t like. Along the same lines a book isn’t automatically bad because it’s a literary novel, or porn, or mystery, or a teen gothic romance with sparkling vampires, or sword and sorcery with frighteningly cheesy cover art, or fanfiction, or entirely written in haiku. As a matter of principle, I believe there is every genre of fiction offers the potential for artistic excellence.
The above covers the bad and the ugly pretty decently, I think, but I’m back to the original question: what makes a book good? I like to think my judgment is pretty decent. Even so, as I’ve already said, the thought of setting myself up as a big ol’ authority makes me uneasy. Hey, everyone is wrong now and then, right?
Never mind that: here I am, out on the limb. How’s this for a proposition? A book is good if it is nicely written, tells a good story, makes you think, and if it makes you feel something, whether that something is recognition, surprise, grief, or hilarity.
Finally, it’s good if it is memorable. My annual books read lists are full of novels I cannot recall at all. Pixies might as well have erased them from my brain. I can go back to reviews of some of them, and with that kind of a prod in hand I can sometimes remember: Oh, yeah, I quite enjoyed that at the time. If it passed without a trace, I say no: it may have been fun, but it wasn’t good.
Critical judgment, the ability to separate our notions of what we like from the issue of what is good, is a tricky and subjective thing. It is the difference between a gut reaction and an informed opinion. Party of the sticky terrain here is that the issue of quality comes loaded with all kinds of emotional baggage. How many times have you mentioned disliking something–a movie, an actor, whatever–only to find the person you’re speaking to reacting defensively, or as if they’re hurt?
We are raised, generally, to think ill of snobbery, and we take it personally when people we respect don’t like our favorite things. And if you’re the person who didn’t like your BFF’s favorite novel ever, you sometimes want to apologize for having been judgmental in the first place. After all, telling someone their beloved thing isn’t good may diminish the pleasure they take in it, right?
Then again, it might make them think–you can’t know.
But I’m not suggesting you start mowing through your friends and family members’ various sacred cows, pickin’ fights and revealing their flaws to the harsh inner light of your critical judgment. I am saying that the more you can learn to discern whether a book is well-crafted, the more critical tools you’ll have to apply to your own fiction, and to the work of any writer you’re trying to critique.
So… this judgment thing. Where does it come from?
Alan Bennett says it far better than I could in his excellent novella The Uncommon Reader.
…saw in the corner of the bookshelf the book by Ivy Compton-Burnett which she had borrowed from the travelling library and which Mr. Hutchings had given her all that time ago. It had been hard going and had nearly sent her to sleep then, she remembered, so perhaps it would do the trick again.
Far from it, and the novel she had once found slow now seemed refreshingly brisk, dry still but astringently so, with Dame Ivy’s no-nonsense tone reassuringly close to her own. And it occured to her (as next day she wrote down) that reading was, among other things, a muscle and one that she had seemingly developed. She could read the novel with ease and great pleasure, laughing at remarks (they were hardly jokes) that she had not even noticed before.
In other words, developing your judgment is a matter of practice… and of practicing something that, in theory, you ought to already enjoy. It’s the same process one goes through if you’re trying to learn to appreciate chocolate, wine, cheese or anything else: you taste a lot of things, you pay attention, and you think about the experience. You discuss it with other people in the know; you see what other people are saying. You taste some more. Lather, rinse, repeat.
There are aspiring writers who don’t read, and I cannot help but find that a shame. Love of books and reading, of stories, is–I hope–the thing that draws people to writing. And once you’re drawn, I hope you want to write good books. Not books of a certain genre, necessarily, not books that Tell Important Stories!, not works of propaganda, but well-told interesting stories that reflect, to readers, what it is to be human.
When I think about revision, there’s a big mental divide: I can actually see the Grand Canyon. On one side is storytelling stuff, the nuts and bolts of plot and character that I’ve talked about before, the stuff that addresses the question, does this story go?
Way over on other side of the divide is the paint job: the question of whether the language used to tell the story is, in any way, pretty. I’ve written about that, too, listing some of the qualities I expect to see in well-written prose.
This isn’t the way I usually revise, mind you. I move through a document doing both at once, at least until I’m on the last pass. But I also know when I am making a structural revision, and when I am tuning the words. The best way for a new writer to know, if they aren’t sure, might be to ask: did this change necessitate others? If I altered this one thing, in other words, did I have to go through the manuscript and work through the consequences of the change? Or did it just make the whole thing flow better?
Belaboring the point: if you decide to switch from first person present to past, you are gonna be changing a lot of verbs. Or imagine if you change your main character’s sex. If you decide to substitute ‘lazed’ for ‘languished,’ on the other hand, you probably only need check that you haven’t used six languid variations already.
The qualities of prose post I mentioned before is something of a checklist. If your prose is ungrammatical, it says, get yourself some grammar. If it’s all dialog, all the time, you might have a balance problem, so consider putting in some narrative. Now, though, I want to talk about the process of actually shaping prose.
I have the idea that polishing your prose is pretty intuitive, at least for most of us. We read aloud, or work with a printed manuscript and a pen in hand, or we just sit at the computer and tweak, tweak, endlessly tweak. The goal, speaking very generally, is to come up with something that reads well–that offers maximum clarity to the reader and also possesses some glimmers of what I’ll call poetic rhythm. After we get to the point where the story’s told and the words are doing the job, we can strive to imbue them with some specialness.
I realize this is a gross generalization. Some writers cannot work forward through a story unless or until each sentence has a bit of sparkle. But a fair proportion of writers–especially beginning writers–seem to start with figuring out how to put together a working story, and then they move on to luminous prose. (It might also be hoped that for most of us, as we get better at the former, our prose also improves at the draft level.)
For sake of discussion, let’s assume you you’ve written a nice bit of fiction: the characters are okay, the plot works, it achieves a clear emotional effect, and the fact is you can probably sell it. But you want to work on the prose, and you want some kind of roadmap on how to start. What to do?
One strategy is to work from the big to the small, the macro, in other words, to the micro.
With this approach, you start by dividing the piece into scenes, then ask yourself: do the events unfold in a logical order? What’s the imagery, and how does it fit in? Does the scene do everything I want it to?
Second, you chop the scene into emotional beats or passages and repeat the process. This is about the words, again, so you’re looking for clumsy bits, things that may toss the reader out of the narrative. You’re also checking how each thought leads into the next, because part of flow is about that–about giving the reader the information in an order calculated to achieve a specific effect. This is true whether you want to ease them through a little lump of character history or if you want to slap them sidewise with a surprise change in in direction.
The above stages are a bit like prepping to paint a room. You’re getting major obstacles out of the way: in a sense, you’re washing and taping your walls.
After passages, naturally enough, we get to painting our paragraphs. Does each accomplish what it’s meant to? Are there any sentences that echo each other, creating wordy redundancies? How do they sound when read aloud? Does the first sentence flow logically from the closer of the paragraph preceding it?
You can probably see where I am headed now. After the paragraphs, you work the sentences. Are they varied, or do they all have the same Character verbed the Subject structure? And after the sentences, you work the words. That means all the lovely fiddly things we think of as perfecting the piece: pruning the adverbs, making sure the pronouns aren’t ambiguous, looking for stronger verbs.
Long, time-consuming, fiddly? Perhaps. If you’re pretty sure you can sell the piece anyway, go on and send it to market, and see what happens. This is one of those exercises that can wait until you feel like a stretch.
Does anyone else do it this way? Your revision thoughts are always welcome.
In 2017 I refurbished the post that I sometimes call the car metaphor essay, and in it I talk about how teaching writing is a bit like taking a bunch of people to a junkyard and saying, “Okay, you all know what a car looks like. Build one out of what’s here. Or, you know, build a truck, plane or submarine if that’s your thing.”
In any case, that car metaphor post enabled some useful conversations with students, and I was pleased with the response to it, so when a new round of my Novel Writing II workshop began at the UCLA Extension Writer Program, I followed it up with this expansion, about some of the basic pieces of that metaphorical car engine.
If you were building cars and I were a mechanic, the fastest solution to “You need a spark plug” would be to research a spark plug, figure out what it is and how it works, match it to the piece you’re building and get your motor running. (Or, alternately, find a way to build a functioning vehicle without one.)
But in fiction, as with any art, there is no universal diagram of parts, no index to how they work, and no single way to plug them into the structure of your story. This doesn’t mean, though, that having a list of some of the key structural features of a story isn’t helpful. So, with that in mind, here’s a start:
–The novel forms a relationship with the reader. The book makes a first impression, progressively reveals more about itself, engages the person’s emotions and finally says goodbye. It affects them . . . whether for a minute, a week, or a lifetime.
—Emotional investment: the way that the novelist forms this relationship with the reader almost always involves making them care, about the characters in the book or the outcome of the main character’s journey.
–The reader is lured into a sort of narrative dream that pulls them forward with suspense, that fills their conscious mind with the details of the story or a compelling narrative voice. The vicarious experience of reading the novel can be successful whether it is direct, vivid and somewhat simply flavored (think vanilla ice cream) or as complex and layered as a four-course meal in a fancy restaurant.
–The book rewards the effort taken to read it. Let’s face it: reading is recreation, but TV, movies and video games render entertainment to many for what can be perceived as far less work. The mental effort of reading the book must therefore be overshadowed by the enjoyment the reader derives from it. Either the reader shouldn’t perceive that they’re doing much work at all when they pick up your story–because it’s that much fun!–or they should perceive the effort but feel the rewards are worthwhile.
—Vicarious experience: readers come away with a sense of either having been your characters, in some sense, or of having known them intimately. Reading offers us a chance to see life through another’s eyes. It lets us be cops and adrenaline junkies; it lets us be classical musicians, it lets us be saints and sinners . . . all from the comfort of a comfy chair.
—Comprehensible: readers could retell the story to a third party, describing it as they would any movie or TV show they were trying to interest their friend in. By the same token, they could easily tell you who the main characters are and how they differ from each other.
Bits and pieces
–The title sparks some emotion–interest, curiosity, humor, recognition, nostalgia, outrage, you name it.
–The opening paragraphs are intriguing enough to draw the reader into the story and to cause them to want to read further.
–There are one or more consistent points of view. (Not all readers will necessarily notice this, or care, but editors, other writers and savvy readers will . . . POV can be invisible, but it is also crucial.)
–The closing paragraph leaves the reader with some note of finality or closure; in some fashion, you’ve said goodbye.
–The book has a plot: the story relates a sequence of related events, in other words, told in or out of chronological order. These events, if arranged in chronological order, would make a certain amount of sense.
–The events of the story include an early incident which kicks off a series of attempts by one or more characters to solve a problem.
–The events of the story include a conclusion, usually near the end, that either solves the story’s problem or proves it unsolvable.
–In other words, the sequence of events has a beginning, middle and end.
–The protagonist’s attempts to fix whatever problem they’re tackling tend to make matters worse rather than better.
–At some point in this series of events, things reach a crisis point where it seems likely that things are going to end badly.
–This sequence of events is usually driven by a protagonist, a character who is trying (for good or ill) to change something about their life or the universe. Monkey wrenches may be thrown at them by an antagonist, who can be anyone from a loved one with misguided intentions to a competitor or an outright villain.
–Books are about the human experience, and so there are people in the book. This is true even if all the people seem to be talking dogs, androids, ghosts or telemarketers.
–Some of the characters are likable or, if not, at least one of them is so deeply intriguing that we want to know what happens to them.
–One of the characters is almost always the most important person in the book and is the one with the goal or problem mentioned above. This person is referred to as the protagonist, the main character, or sometimes the MC.
–The book has enough characters, ‘enough’ being a vague number that is setting appropriate, gives a sense of the main character’s social world, while limiting the field enough that we know who the important players are.
–At least some of the characters in the book know each other, and have relationships that may also create emotional engagement with readers.
–Characters’ emotional reactions to the events of the plot and to each others’ actions are believable, neither too muted nor too big.
–Characters have characteristics: physical traits, emotional qualities, history and background. These qualities will affect how they talk, move, think, act and behave on the page.
–Characters all have their own agendas, motivations, and expectations and the tension between character agendas may help to create interest in a scene. (added by Kelly Robson)
–The characters in the book are different from each other and their various qualities make them seem like unique and interesting individuals.
–Finally, characters evolve. At least some of your characters will change in some fashion by the end of the book. In western fiction, for example, it is often the case that the main character will struggle mightily against some personal failing and in the end overcome it.
–The novel usually takes place at some specific place and time (or several places and times) and readers understand where and when it is.
–This setting is conveyed with confidence and sensory detail. If it is somewhere readers may know, whether a real place or a documented historical period, the details are correct. The author clearly knows that Manhattan has a big park in the middle of it, for example. Even if the setting is wholly invented, the author ensures that readers believe in it by providing everything from its sights, sounds, smells to its social landscape.
–The setting usually affects some of the character’s options: a novel set at sea brings with it the risk of sinkings and storms; a novel set in a prison might raise the question of escape. A novel set in a convent may not have many male characters, and those it does have might be clerical in nature.
–The setting is appropriate to the characters and content of the book, in other words, and the content and characters fit with the setting too.
–Setting affords an opportunity for readers to travel elsewhere, to imagine life in places and times they have not seen or cannot see.
–Books are about something. Admittedly, sometimes we write theme without thinking too consciously about it. But there’s some thing you keep returning to, in one way or another. A reviewer can reduce this to a phrase: “YOURBOOKHERE is about loyalty, family, love, death, or betrayal.”
–Whatever your book is about, the theme develops. Different aspects of the topic turn up in different contexts: if the author is making an argument–“Cheaters never prosper,” for example, they might show that the question is more complex than it seems on the face of it.
–The characters’ actions, especially those of the main character, are going to relate to this theme in some way.
–Themes can be big or small, important or frivolous, heavy or light-hearted.
–Characters talk to each other. A lot! Whenever two characters have an exchange that matters in some way to the story or their character development, readers get to hear the actual words exchanged.
–Individuals have their own voices, so dialogue showcases the differences between characters’ personalities, outlook, nationality, social class, education, background.
–The dialog works, by which it means that it reads in such a way that readers ‘hear’ the conversation as they read.
If you’re struggling with a novel rewrite, you might find it a useful exercise to compare this list with what you’ve got on the page. Where does what you’ve done diverge wildly from the above? Is that something you’ve chosen to do, and is it working? If not, is there something there that, if revised, will make the piece stronger?
I have been thinking about an excellent post by Jeanne Cavelos of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop on a common beginner trap in writing:
Many authors overuse words involving looking and eyes. They describe their characters looking, glancing, gazing, staring, studying, seeing, surveying, scanning, peeking, leering, ogling, noticing, watching, blinking, glaring, and just generally eyeballing everything. Characters’ eyes flash, burn, linger, darken or brighten, and even change color. Characters’ eyes drop to the floor (ouch!); they roam around the room (eeek!). Or characters may raise the ever-popular eyebrow.
The original link is gone, but the above is its heart, and over time I’ve started referring to the eyeball phenomenon as “Eye Bookisms.” This is, of course, a reference to “said bookisms”, a term I first encountered in the Turkey City Lexicon when I was preparing to go to Clarion West in 1995.
Look words were popping out at me this December as I worked through a number of student manuscripts. As a result, it occurred to me that with the said bookisms, writers are essentially trying to squeeze in variety while adding a tone to their characters’ utterances: “He snarled, she wept, they ejaculated.”
But we use eye bookisms to imperfectly do a number of different things… so when you go to write them out of your drafts, it’s useful to identify your intentions:
There’s the Description Ahead! sign:
She looked down the road. Wrecked cars were crushed into each other on the ice. The continuous stream of mashed metal ran all the way down the hill and onto the frozen lake.
Sometimes, it is undeniably handy to grab the reader’s head and align it with your POV character’s, and that’s what this is, a way of shouting “Look downhill with me!” Handy or not, I see this kind of cushioning being overused a lot, especially by writers who aren’t confident in their point of view (POV) or their ability to keep things clear for the reader. In many cases, you can cut it entirely:
The view downhill revealed… OR: Wrecked cars were crushed into each other…
A second variation of the eye bookism is Mindreading. You’ve done it, I’ve done it. We’ve all done it, at least in draft:
She looked lonely / She had a look of loneliness / Her look was lonely.
Here, we’re filtering our POV character’s impressions of a second person. Unless they’re a telepath, they can’t know she’s lonely… but the point is the writer wants you to know, and so the POV gets that flash of insight. Again, there’s no great crime in this. We have empathy, after all; we can sometimes look at someone and have a mighty clear idea of what they’re feeling. And sometimes that perception of an emotion leads to some interesting reactions, or good imagery, and it all flows beautifully.
Other times, though, the mindreading verges on just telling, rather than showing. This may be a perfectly good phrase to stick in a draft:
She looked like she was going to fall apart.
But there are about a billion types of falling apart, aren’t there? So on the next go-round, give us the details:
Mary jittered as she walked, laughing loudly though nobody had spoken, and nothing about this situation was funny. From time to time she lunged at the edge of the boulevard, as if she meant to throw herself into the busy traffic on First Avenue.
Next, there’s the Empty Utterance:
Look comes up in an entirely other context in this one, and if I hadn’t been reading a big and varied pile of writers’ work this fall, I might not have gotten sensitized to it. But newer writers’ dialog can tend to be festooned by words and phrases we use all the time when we’re talking:
“Look, I don’t care about pro hockey.”
“Well, basically, hockey isn’t important to me.”
“Listen, I want to tell you something. Here it comes. Seriously, like, hockey sucks.”
The reason these utterances sound stale in dialog, even though they can accurately capture a certain aspect of the way we speak, is that in conversation their meaning is largely non-textual. They’re sounds that draw the other party’s attention and signal the speaker’s mood, attitude, and intentions. If I say “Listen,” in a soft, calming voice, it may be that I’m trying to soothe; if I bite the word off, my meaning may be more on the lines of “Snap to it here!”
One could as easily say “Oi!” And sometimes, of course, we do.
Try cutting ’em, folks. If the speeches then seem too abrupt–too directly to the point–it may be that you do need a preamble. But before you put the filler back in, look for words that create the breathing space you’re looking for, the sound of someone gearing up to something important, while saying something specific and appropriate to the character.
Finally, we get to Stage Directions:
Here is where we really get into an overlap between Said Bookisms and Eye Bookisms. The process goes like this. First we’re taught, as learning writers, not to remark, bellow, hiss, mutter, and sob all over our dialog. But then we find a “he said” and a “she said” at the end of every line, and of course that’s clunky. It’s easy to move from there to directing traffic with your characters’ eyeballs. If she looks at him, obviously she’s the one speaking. If he rolls his eyes in response, the sarcastic utterance that follows is obviously his.
The answer? Mix it up! Spice lightly using all the available options, including a bit of he said, she said. Here are just a few of the possibilities:
–Give readers two clear “Chris said,” “Pat said” utterances and then follow them with a couple unattributed lines. If it’s clear that Chris is in favor of eating Mexican, while Pat wants to go for sushi, we can follow the thread for a little while without too much trouble.
–Think about the rest of the body, and the world it’s in. If they’re in a car, there are seat belts and glove boxes and maps and GPS gadgets to fiddle with. People rarely talk in an actionless vacuum, and writing in some of that action also helps readers imagine your scene…
–There’s probably some conflict going on here, right? Is it clear? Do we understand it? If so, and using the food example above, sushi advocacy can become a perfectly good stand-in for “Pat said.”
–Got POV? A little interior monologue goes a long way. I’m going to die if I don’t get some salsa, Chris thought. “I have been dreaming about this dinner all day.”
–Fictional characters address each other by name more often than they do in real life: “Chris, there’s an awesome sushi place across from Burrito Heaven. Can’t we split the difference?”
Now of course I am hoping the salsa vs. wasabi battle has some subtext going on in it, but that’s a whole other blog entry, isn’t it? The point of the above list is that it is mechanical, but if you take an overly eyeballed passage and cycle through the above possibilities, you’ll cover a lot of conversational ground without a lot of awkward repetition of either ‘said’ or ‘look’. Once that’s done, you can focus on adding depth and making it sound pretty.