There is no doubt today that the publishing paradigm is changing. The electronic book is replacing the paper book. The influence of major publishers is waning in favor of an intellectual property model – even as some continue to argue whether intellectual property exists at all. Barriers to entry to some form of publishing, self-publishing or online self-promotion are lower now than ever. Our culture is changing and, with it, the ways we entertain ourselves change apace with technological evolution.
What many forget, amidst the flurry of e-books, podcasts and countless sites hosting and offering for sale the electronic work of a legion of aspiring authors, is that driving all this change is … a legion of aspiring authors. I thought, then, we might take a break from identifying emerging technology trends, discussing their import and debating their effects on society, culture and individual liberties, in order to help those operating from within that trend. To this end, and for all of the aspiring authors across the Internet, I offer the following three principles for good writing.
It isn’t personal. The first rule isn’t a rule of writing so much as it is a rule of having your writing analyzed and criticized. When you write non-fiction, if somebody reviews your work negatively, it’s easy to tell yourself that they said they didn’t like your book because they don’t agree with you. You are free, then, to assume you expressed yourself well but your message was objectionable.
When you write fiction, you don’t have that “out.” If somebody doesn’t like your fiction, they are telling you very explicitly and without ambiguity that they do not like your prose. They are disappointed in your skill as a writer. They are telling a parent that his or her baby is ugly. They are insulting you as a person because they are criticizing your ability to do what you do.
Get over it.
Most of the time, when somebody criticizes your writing, they’re simply being honest. Writing is indeed subjective. You cannot please everyone. Even your best work will have detractors. The most popular books in the world draw plenty of praise – but they also draw plenty of criticism, not all of it deserved.
More importantly, if you are ever going to get better as a writer, you have to be willing to listen to feedback regarding what you may be doing wrong. Every writer is arrogant about his writing abilities; this is a fact of human nature, especially among those of us who define ourselves in terms of what we do. You must keep learning and improving if you are to be truly great, and you can’t do that if you won’t examine, honestly, where your shortcomings might lie.
Plot it and pace it. Plotting is determining your story – its details, the actions taken within it, the plot points that make the story “work” as a whole, and so on. Plotting can be as simple as a series of paragraphs that explain what major actions will occur within the novel. Pacing, however, is another matter.
Pacing refers to coordinating the flow of your story, causing it to move slower or faster for the reader in a way that keeps the reader entertained and manipulates his or her emotions. All writing, no matter how simple, is a matter of manipulation. The reader wants you to manipulate him. He is asking you to do so, giving you the chance to entertain him by guiding his emotions and his mind from opening A through sustaining action B to conclusion C.
Your task, as the author, is to take him where you want him to go and make sure he enjoys the ride. If plot points are the musical notes in a song, pacing is the meter to which these notes are played. It’s more than that, however, for the way you choose to group your “notes” changes the melody and thus the feel of the piece.
A well-written novel does not feel forced. The reader does not find himself bogged down in seemingly tacked-on chapters that feel like padding. In the radio industry we used to call it “vamping” – blathering on to fill time without really making a point because you were waiting for something (a cart to rewind, a hard commercial break to arrive, a technical issue to be resolved).
At the same time, a well-written novel should not feel rushed. The reader should not get to the end of the novel and feel like a door has slammed shut in his face, that the story is just suddenly over without warning because the author ran out of pages. The way you solve the problems of plotting and pacing is purely mechanical, although there is an element of experience involved.
Keep it simple. I’ve long believed that the spirit of brevity and the spirit of verbosity haunt every writer. Truly great authors manage to be poetic and descriptive in the fewest words possible. Robert E. Howard and Ernest Hemingway are widely regarded for this; they manage to convey a great deal with very few words, often leading the reader where they want him to go through what they don’t describe as much as what they do.
Beginners will find it very, very hard to say what they want to say with very few words. The tendency and the error to be wordy – something with which I still struggle – will bog down their prose, make it seem torpid and unwieldy. If you can simplify what you write, by all means do so.
I can’t teach you to write in just a thousand words, but if you want to be a better writer, start by following these guidelines. So equipped, you will be better prepared for a world in which it is easier than ever to publish your fiction and bring your work to a global audience. As I wrote before, the e-book is the future … but that e-book has an author.