Remember the elephant? The big fat cuddly one in the corner of our writing room that no-one talks about? In fact, he doesn't get talked about much anywhere in the writing blogosphere. And it annoys me. Which is why I'm about to launch into one of my rants. So hold on to your Thesauruses.
As you might expect, I spent far too much time reading blogs written by agents, editors and writers. They're all fascinating and some are essential. (I've got them listed somewhere on here.) Such blogs discuss topics such as how to catch the eye of editors and agents or the pros and cons of self-publishing. Much is written about how to write the perfect query letter or synopsis. Agents and editors moan, laugh and snark about the huge amount of schlock they get sent. They blog about writers who don't follow submission guidelines, who don't know basic grammar, punctuation or spelling, the ones who insult them, and/or show their own woeful ignorance of the way publishing works and the ones who regularly use their feet as target practise or are clearly in need of psychiatric care. Then the writers strike back and complain about elitist, snobbish, ivory-towered agents and editors and how they only want stuff from botoxed celebrities and why mainstream publishing is doomed and that the answer is a free-for-all jamboree where everyone deserves to be published. And so it goes on. It's all worth discussing and I love reading it. The more outrageous the better.
But sometimes enough is enough. So I'm going to stick my head above the parapet. Never mind all that crap. It's all about the writing, stupid.
So, let's pretend for one bright shining moment that every submission to every editor/agent is error-free and fits the requirements perfectly. That still doesn't mean that all submissions will be accepted. Why not? Firstly, it is true that what appeals to one editor will be hated by another. And thank the Good Lord for that. But what is it that makes an agent's ears prick up like a buck rabbit that's just spotted Miss Fluffy-Bunnykins of the Year across a crowded warren? What is it makes an editor want to perform handstands on her desk? Some call it voice, some authority; others style. It's what shows immediately that a writer knows how to shape words into something worth reading.
I call it good writing.
No, I'm not being snobbish here. I'm not saying all writers should write arty-farty literary stuff and not go for car-chases, shoot-outs, beautiful heroines and heroes in tight riding breeches. A bonk-buster or a simple saga has as much right to be written and read as a high-art-literary-mental-detox. Horses for courses and all that. Of course, some rubbish gets published and even the best publishers in the universe can rave about what the rest of us knows is as high as month-old Pollock.
What is it then I believe makes most traditionally published fiction worth reading and pretty much all self or vanity-published fiction and indeed, 99% of unpublished fiction unspeakably unreadable? Editors will talk about sharp dialogue, believable characterisation, showing and not telling, narrative flow, structure, pace and tension. I know I do. That's all part of it. That's the buts and bolts. But it's more than that. Agents, editors and discerning readers have a sixth sense for it. It's the ability to make words sing.
Sing? Has the woman gone stark-staring mad? No. I haven't. Not yet. And not about this. I reckon you need an ear for language to enable you to write something that is a joy to read. Ever heard a tone-deaf person trying to sing? It's excruciating. The same goes for tone-deaf writers. And funnily enough, they're usually the ones who complain about brick walls and a conspiracy of elitists agents and publishers ganged up against them. These are the people who can't see anything wrong with their clunky, ugly prose and shout loudest about no-one else being allowed to tamper with their genius.
If what I'm trying to say makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to you, then perhaps you're not cut out to be a published writer. But what about writing courses and creative writing degrees? I believe they're great for helping a writer who has already got a spark of talent to improve in the same way that a talented athlete will improve with the right training and coach. But there would have been no point, for instance, in my training to be an athlete because I've always lacked basic co-ordination and never could see the point of running. Never could. Can the tone-deaf be taught to appreciate music and to sing like nightingales? I doubt it.
Then again, it seems to me that if you've read voraciously and can't remember a time when you didn't, you will have unconsciously developed a sense of how to write well. I have yet to meet a good writer who isn't crazy about reading. Then again, I've met plenty of poor writers who are proud to tell me they're too busy writing to read or that they don't want to be influenced by others. Have you ever heard anything so stupid? Can you imagine a composer or artist working today not being interested enough to learn about past masters? How can you develop your own style or break the mould if you have no knowledge of what you're breaking or what tradition you're following? It's like a hermit who, having lived alone in his little cave all his life, rushes out from the darkness, blinking in the sunlight of 2009 shouting, 'Hey everybody! I've just invented the wheel!'
But, I hear you say, I never got the chance. My parents discouraged/failed to encourage me. I went to a rubbish school, with crap teachers. We travelled a lot so I was sent from school to school and they all had a different way of teaching and I got confused and messed about and gave up. Or I was desperate to learn but I had bad problems with reading and writing that now would be called dyslexia but then classified me as stupid. Does that mean I can't ever be a good writer however hard I try?
Not at all. Such hard knocks are horrid and deeply unfair. Of course they are. They will hold a talented writer back at first but if that talent is there in embryo, all it needs is the encouragement and determination to work hard and succeed. I've seen it and it gladdens my heart. It can be suffocated or squashed but it cannot be killed. It will show itself eventually. And a discerning editor or agent can spot it even though they're not in a position to help. Which is why such writers have to find another way through the system. Tough but true. Learning to write publishable material is tough. Why should it be easy? But it can't be created if it's not there in the first place.
So, given that talent, why do some writers seem to get all the breaks and others don't? Luck? Elitism? Knowing the right people? Not really. These may get you closer but it won't take you all the way. It's still a matter of plonking your bum on a chair and writing for hours and hours. Then there's the rewriting, the revision, the scrubbing out and starting again, the redoing of what isn't quite right and perfecting what is worth perfecting. And learning to recognise what has to go and what can to stay.
Alas and alack, there are far too many people out there who think they can sit down and scribble it all down and do a quick spell-check and that's it and then expect publication at the end of it. They are angry when rejections start rolling in and they blame everybody but themselves. Then they find a publisher who says they deserve a chance and hey presto. They're a published author. Never mind that the publisher is not what the trade recognises as a 'proper' publisher because there's no quality control, ignore the fact that the end product is shoddy, that it doesn't look like any book you've ever seen in a bookshop, won't ever appear in a bookshop or that they have paid for services a 'proper' publisher will provide as part of the contract. They don't know any better and if they get a book in their hand at the end of it, what does it matter? Why is everyone against them having their share of success?
Stop me right there...I'm allowing myself to wander off at a tangent. Don't get me started on vanity publishing. Not now. Not here. No. I'm talking about that indefinable je ne sais quoi that is quality writing: the elephant in the writing room, the huge presence that no-one likes to talk about for various reasons, the most likely of which is that it's not easy to describe in one short rejection letter. Agents and editors (who are on the whole experienced and have a talent for such matters) know it when they see it. It's what makes them sit up, it's what makes them turn the page and forget they're supposed to be analysing a submission for its marketability (although they are doing that as well) and before they're aware of it, they're hooked.
The same goes for readers. They may not have the technical vocabulary to discuss structure and pace, dialogue tricks or characterisation but they know what bores them or what puts them off and they certainly have known those occasions when they keep turning the pages long after midnight because they can't bear to put a book down. They know it when they discover a book they want to tell their friends about. Or even feel inspired to write a fan letter to the writer. Or they look forward to the crowded tube journey home because they can lose themselves in someone else's world.
So how is it done? I could give a glib reply and say that is you don't know, then forget it. You won't ever get it. It's a darn sight easier to define bad writing. It's everywhere--especially on peer review sites. It never ceases to amaze me why some of it gets such favourable comments. Too many people these days seem prepared to put up with the mediocre. I suspect (sorry, I know) they're not avid or intelligent readers and haven't read enough good writing to develop the necessary critical radar. And of course, they don't really care about the other writers on such sites; they're making sure they get to the top of the tree so critical comments are out and lavish praise is in.
I wish I could demonstrate instances of god-awful prose by cutting and pasting here an example of the tosh that's out there. But I can't. After all, I can hardly ask someone if I can use their novel extract as an example of bad writing, can I? And to do it without asking would be morally wrong and hurtful. (To be fair, a lot of bad writing isn't as a result of stupidity.) And let's not forget that I have to watch my own back. Writing inspires great passions and an awful lot of spite and bitterness. Which is the main reason why most editors run scared of telling a rejected writer that he is crap. It's easier to say, 'our lists are full.' Agents' and editors' lists are never closed to anything they feel is good enough to publish. They may not like it, of course, but then again, they may not like it because it's not written well enough. I know. I know. A lot of good stuff gets rejected too but that's because even though there are already too many published books out there, that's only the tiniest tip of the iceberg of what remains unpublished. So it's true when an agent trans away a manuscript saying, 'I don't love it enough.' It's true. And an agent or editor has to sell the manuscript to others and a good editor or agent can't sell what they can't feel passionate about.
Here's my brief take on poor writing. Poor writing uses unimaginative sentence structure and vocabulary, sloppy phrasing, flabby cliches and is usually repetitive, long-winded, uninspired and unoriginal. Shape and structure is non-existent The imagery is off-target and/or strained. Sentences run on and much of it makes little sense or is ambiguous. The writer is often too concerned with telling the story to notice how it's being told. Words have texture and flavour. (Again, if you don't understand what I'm saying, stop writing and take up stamp-collecting.)
Here's an example of good writing. Don't worry. It isn't long. It isn't literary, clever-clever or obscure. It is, in fact, a young adult novel: Deathwatch by Nicola Morgan. (See my review on my book blog.)
The main character, Cat is being chased by someone who wants to kill her. She's a good runner but she's just swam across a canal; she's freezing cold and she's terrified. Here's the extract:
Cat was fast and fit. but she was wet and horribly cold. The path was pitted and slippery with puddles of rainwater. But she ran, because it was all she could do, pounding the ground, ignoring any pain, trying to use every muscle as she'd been taught, squeezing each iota of power, arms grasping the air, head down, body forward. streamlined, forcing the ground away with each footstep.
There's no fancy vocabulary, imagery or phrasing here and yet every word, every phrase, every sentence, even every comma does its job. (The long sentence in the middle is long for a reason, by the way. It works in the context.) Yet there's more to it than that. There's rhythm to the words, there's rhyme, alliteration and assonance. Words are deliberately repeated. The consonants are harsh and relentless in order to convey the sense of danger and pain. This skill with words is just as essential in prose as well as poetry. It's just not so obvious. The effect isn't at all what we think of as poetic. It's not meant to be. This is heart-in-the-mouth stuff. You can hear Cat running, feel her heart-beat, sense those tired muscles pumping away. Read the passage out loud and get a feel for the way the words match the sense. And it's not just this one passage. It begins on the first line of the first chapter and keeps going until the end.
Nicola may protest that she just got caught up in her story and got on and wrote it and didn't analyse it as I have. But that just shows what a good writer she is. Good writers know what they're doing almost without thinking although a lot more thought--and the input of a good editor--will have gone into this novel than you would ever know--and a lot more than goes into your average self-published novel and certainly more than into a vanity-published novel where even after a fee has been paid will be poor because vanity editors don't have an 'ear' for good writing either.
And of course, most readers of this novel won't be aware of the hard work that has gone into it. Nor should they. Good writing like any good workmanship (unlike a maths exam) should not show its workings. But I can guarantee that readers will be running alongside Cat, feeling her fear and pain. And when they've finished reading, they'll put her story down fully satisfied because it has held their interest throughout, entertained them, scared them, wowed them and made them think. But most of all because they were there. They experienced it. That os the power of well-written words.
And that's why Nicola is a published novelist and many of us (including me--I have a lot to learn)are not. It's the writing. Good writing. Conjuring worlds from words without making it obvious how it's done. But it should be crystal clear to members of that magic circle we call writers. And when push comes to shove (in that free-for-all that is the slush-pile) makes the difference between acceptance and rejection.