Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Say what you mean to say....

by Miriam

The thing about publishing people is that most of us make a living being all judgy about other people’s work. For some of us, that extends to other areas of our lives. I find myself editing my friends when they start telling me about their job woes, their relationship problems, their kids’ lack of interest in homework, you name it. “If she’d started out with that information,” goes the internal monologue, “I wouldn’t be making a mental list of what I need at Costco and now have no clue what she’s asking me.” Most of the time, the editing also takes place in my head and I don’t actually ask for a stronger opening and a more concise narration.

Given that a large part of our mission is to tell authors how to ply their trade better, I’m often struck by how hard it is to give truly helpful advice on how to (a) write well and (b) be a successful writer. These “Writing Aphorisms” in the Huffington Post remind me that while we’re all incredibly preoccupied with the subject, analyzing and communicating the essence of great writing is as difficult as deciphering Gertrude Stein’s meaning…ever.

Can you share five elements that make up great writing for you? I’ll try to come up with my five and we’ll compare notes.


  1. In light of our most recent exchange, Miriam, here are my five elements:

    1. Honest emotion
    2. Accurate detail
    3. Clever use of language
    4. Skilled storytelling
    5. A way of making me see a subject/person in way I had never considered

  2. -Feelings or reactions done tightly in a sentence or two.

    -Dialogue that makes me laugh or tightens my chest.

    -A setting that is active.

    -Characters interacting, not just acting next to each other.

    -A voice that I would instantly recognize if I met the character walking down the street.

  3. * Smart, witty dialogue
    * Colorful descriptions achieved with minimal word usage
    * Unexpected twists and turns -- especially the emotional kind
    * Characters being real (warts and all)
    * Beautiful words sewn together to keep the story moving

  4. 1. First and foremost, characters that are multi-dimensional and make me feel deeply- that I quickly become attached to and really care what happens to them. Otherwise, no matter how creative the setting, I'm out.

    2. Detailed descriptions of the environment that truly convey mood- not in-depth descriptions of what the characters are wearing...

    3. Dialogue that is engaging and believable without being so everyday I feel like I'm overhearing people in line at Starbucks.

    4. Style of voice that is genuine and unique to the author- and that makes me want to read more work by them, specifically, instead of thinking "Oh, this reminds me of so and so..."

    5. Skill at that alchemy, whatever it is, that pulls me into a book and won't let me go at risk of damaging my fragile eyesight (not all books have enabled text to voice or are out on audio, still, sadly!) That intangible thing that makes you sad as you turn every page that you're getting closer to the end, because you don't ever want the book to end, at all.

    Happy Holidays, Ms. Goderich!


  5. Fun exercise. Off the top of my head:

    * Heart. Neither sentimental nor frigid treatment of characters and events. The reader's emotions are evoked.

    * Concision. Which is not to say florid styles are no good--au contraire in many cases. Every word and punctuation mark must achieve, or help to achieve, a specific effect.

    * Depth. There is an intelligence pervading the text, expressed in the themes of the work at the very least.

    * Delight. The text takes pleasure wherever and whenever it can be found, in wordplay (e.g, apt similes and metaphors), in ideas, through any of the five senses, in humor, etc.

    * Captivation. Through foreshadowing and rhetorical questions and other aspects of the art of storytelling the writer causes the reader to think s/he will die without knowing what'll happen next.

  6. Great exercise. This one's for all the YA lovers out there.

    #1 -- Characters with voices to match.

    Rachel Cohn's Cyd Charisse describing her boyfriend:"They take one look at his five-foot-five, surfer-shirt-wearin', baggy-jeans-slouchin', Pop Tart--eatin', spiked-hair-head self and you can just see confusion firebombs exploding in their heads, like they are thinking, Oh no, Cyd Charisse, that young man is not your homes. Dig this: He is.
    #2 -- Colorful language.
    Diablo Cody in CANDY GIRL, "Jack Frost is a liberal, rangy sadist with ice crystals in his soul patch." And, every word in Libba Bray's GOING BOVINE.
    #3 -- Tension.
    HUNGER GAMES. Need I say more?
    #4 -- Emotion and compelling relationships.
    Sara Zarr's Jennifer Harris and Cameron Quick; John Green's Pudge and Alaska; and yes, I'm going there, Stephenie Meyer's Bella and Edward.
    #5 -- Original idea, plot or way a story is told.
    Lisa McMann's WAKE trilogy; Jay Asher's THIRTEEN REASONS WHY; Ally Condy's MATCHED.

  7. I learned how to write a novel in sixth grade.

    1) Somebody has to want something.
    2) Somebody else (or something nasty) must get in the way.
    3) Our hero must continue taking action to reach his goal (sometimes he wins, sometimes he looses, but usually, in the end, he wins).
    4) Repeat as necessary.

    The more I follow these steps, the better I write--and the easier it gets!

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