Monday, June 25, 2012

What makes writing good?

Why do so many best-selling books fail the stylistic standards of commercial publishers?

How do EL James, Stephenie Meyer and Stieg Larsson get away with such bad writing when the very companies that publish their books turn down manuscripts on the basis of poor writing quality?

Many book reviewers at major publishing firms sneer at “self-published” authors for having poor editorial quality, and they’re not just talking about the mechanics of spelling and grammar. Major publishers and the “literary” crowd write about deep characters and themes, and castigate writers for using description or writing “suddenly.”

Last weekend, I heard Canadian writer Tom Gallant, author of The Lord God Bird, in an interview on CBC radio. He said he had gone through his book in advance of his interview with Shelagh Rogers and found no metaphors and only one simile. Is this necessarily good? Should every English-language writer try to emulate Hemingway?

There are a lot of places to get advice on how to become a good writer. There are any number of blogs, books, websites, courses, seminars and workshops that profess to turn you into a good writer.

With the number and range of sources, you’d expect to find a range of opinion. Yet, there’s a certain sameness to the advice. It’s as if everyone has decided to follow Elmore Leonard’s 10 famous rules, like never writing “suddenly” or starting a story with weather.

I have a lot of respect for writers like Elmore Leonard and Tom Gallant. They’ve shown mastery of their art, and have achieved success as authors. But there are a lot of best-sellers that defy these standards. Three come to mind immediately: Fifty Shades of Gray, Twilight and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Book fads

I haven’t yet read Fifty Shades of Gray. It seems to elicit two kinds of response: readers either love it or hate it. Some find it new, fresh and honest.

Writers mostly hate it. I don’t think that’s sour grapes—writers can’t begrudge every successful author, or we’d just be too depressed. But many writers point out that the writing style is heavy, wooden and unoriginal. The author, EL James, admits that she based the characters on Edward and Bella, the lead characters in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series (which itself has been criticized for its writing style). And I’m sorry, but as far as characters or personalities go, no one can tell me that either Edward or Bella is original.

Several reviewers have criticized James’ overuse of description and metaphors. “Someone needs to take this author’s thesaurus and hide it someplace safe” wrote blogger Jessica on Read React Review.

James’ inspiration, Stephenie Meyers, herself is no stranger to criticism of her writing ability. Apparently, Stephen King said Meyer “can’t write worth a damn.”

Last year’s book phenomenon was Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Each book in the series is far too long at over 800 pages. And they’re not filled with complex plots or deep characterizations. Instead, we read about what kind of sandwiches and Billy’s Pan Pizzas the characters eat, the details of laptop computer specifications and Ikea purchases.

Other than the girl of the title, Lisbeth Salander, and maybe her boss, Dragan Armansky, I did not find any of the characters at all believable. Instead, they’re flat renderings of roles in action movies: the thoughtful, plodding cop; the intrepid investigative reporter (in which role the author doubtlessly saw himself), the sexy female boss.

So what do readers want?

Why did these books catch on? I guess if I could answer that, I could rule the publishing world. Obviously, they each hit something the reading public was looking for at the time they were published, and could not find anywhere else. (Well, duh.)

I haven’t read Fifty Shades yet, and I don’t ever want to read a Twilight book. I’m not pre-judging either of them, and I’ve only quoted what others have said about them. But I have read two of Larsson’s books (unfortunately), and I found them ponderous, annoying and completely unentertaining.

What Larsson did right was create the character of the title (interestingly, that title was chosen by the Swedish publisher after the author’s death; he wanted to call it Men Who Hate Women). She is compelling: her pathological social inability is complemented by her tiny body. In other words, she should be completely helpless. Do you see Larsson’s oh-so-subtle social commentary, yet? Isn’t he clever? Salander makes up for it with a genius for hacking other people’s computers and savage determination for revenge.

That’s the chord that Larsson struck. Salander does things we all wish we could do: she exacts revenge on anyone who ever hurt her. By using the latest technology in an age fascinated with digital technology, she grabs our attention even more firmly.

Admit it: you’d love to hack into the email of that bitch two cubicles over who criticized your idea at the meeting last month. Find out just what she’s really doing when she’s supposed to be working on company time, and get your revenge.

Not having read the book, I’m taking a big chance by analyzing Fifty Shades, but I’ll suggest this: James has answered the same urge in readers by creating a character that does what her readers would love to do: surrender sexually and have a dominant personality reassure them that, no, they’re not really perverts, that what they would love to do is all right, they’re not bad for wanting them, and ultimately, they’ll end up in control.

So what do we do with this?

Is that the answer to blockbusting books — characters and situation that play out the fantasies of millions? Okay. But the next challenge is always the biggest one: getting the word out to all those millions of people.


  1. I have to admit, I liked Twilight, and Fifty Shades even though some of the writing was not even close good. For me, it was about the characters, but more than anything, they are females fantasy. These are serious romance, even without the explicit sex scenes. It's like in movies when the ordinary guy ends up with the hot chic, it isn't going to happen, but one can dream about perfectly beautiful guys ending up with just ordinary girls. (Or just about mind blowing sex that goes on for hours.)It is an escape from real life, and escape is why I read.

  2. Great question and great commentary. And, it invites comments. I don't think there's any one answer. I've read many different styles all of which were great. How do I define great? Any combination of words and literary devices that evoke time, people, place, and events and tell a good story. Now we come to the important part: Good books and popular books are not necessarily one and the same. Why? That's a lot more complex issue.

    1. Re your last point, Jack, it's for the same reason the most popular television series are often the trashiest. Seems the world is dumbing down...

  3. I haven't read any of the books you mentioned, and have not intention of so doing. However, although I try not to use them too often in my writing, a good metaphor can really set the scene. Unfortunately, I suddenly remembered that the word 'suddenly' prefixes a sentence in my upcoming novel. I'm going to re-read that part and find another word.

    1. I know the feeling. I have "suddenly" a couple of times in my book. But I have always believed in using the right word in the right place. Sometimes, something happens in an unpredicted, instantaneous manner — suddenly. Sorry, Elmore, that's just the way it went down.

  4. I think, more and more, as the woes of the world close in on us by a media driven whirlwind of bad news, people will increasingly seek escape. My own personal bias (since it's what I write about) would be for them to seek a new paradigm, a new worldview. But that choice doesn't appear to be A, B,C, or D on the list of available responses.

    1. I agree with you, Christina. Escape is the reason I read, but I can only escape so far if the writing is poor, the characters flat, or the plot immobile. Life is short. I want to read what captures my imagination.

      I made my way through the Twilight series, trying to figure out what the fuss was all about. I still don't know. Different means of escape for different folks, I suppose.

  5. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the word 'suddenly' or any adverb, used sparingly and in the right places. Likewise, similes and metaphors. For me, the greatest lack in a lot of books (self-published or trad-published) is in the area of plot. Many also fail to paint fully developed characters. As for originality, Scott, that has got to be a pipe-dream nowadays. I look for a strong voice and a solid plot and those are what I aim for in my own writing too.

  6. Thank you for this post! I heartily agree! I especially appreciated what you said about all writers resenting those few who are uber successful. I read the Twilight series and, while I'm far from a "Twi-hard," I genuinely enjoyed it. I could totally see what Meyers did, what she'd tapped into that people were responding to. I think 90% of criticism against her is jealousy. Don't get me wrong, perhaps her style could use some editing, but if only a few hundred or even a few thousand people had read her book, no one would have had anything to say. People bash her writing style because she's so successful. This should give us all hope for our own writing, not make us bitter!
    I also agree about the Stieg Larssen books. I read and loved the first one, but mostly because the whodunit mystery was so well done. I wasn't a huge fan of the characters. The second and third book dissolved into semi-espionage books (and not well-written ones at that).
    Anyway, I'll get off my soap box, now. I'm a new follower via GFC. Found you on Twitter. And again, I really appreciated the post! :D

  7. "I think 90% of criticism against her is jealousy. Don't get me wrong, perhaps her style could use some editing, but if only a few hundred or even a few thousand people had read her book, no one would have had anything to say. People bash her writing style because she's so successful. This should give us all hope for our own writing, not make us bitter!"

    Okay, I'm going to rant a little, but please don't take it personally.
    If I was going to be jealous of someone, I would be jealous of Barbara Kingsolver or Margaret Atwood--people who can actually write AND be successful. I genuinely would not trade places with Stephenie Meyer for all the chocolate in Godiva, because I don't want to go down in history as having written the worst trilogy ever.
    If only a handful of people had read her books, of COURSE nobody would say anything, because nobody would know she existed. You can't talk about a writer you've never heard of.
    I bash her writing style because it's terrible. I couldn't even finish the first book. And I've read VC Andrews.
    You definitely have a point with the last bit. If something as poorly written and edited as Twilight can make a fortune, we ALL have a chance.
    Sorry, I don't mean to go off on a rant, but the "jealousy" thing just really burns me. My dislike for Twilight and 50 Shades are not driven by jealousy, but more by astonishment. I've read bad books before, but always I was able to understand the reason for their success. I thought I understood the system until those books came out, and now I've learned to my chagrin that there is no system.
    And it's true that readers as a whole don't care about writing style or quality; if they can read it easily enough to get sucked in, that's really all that matters. I've never stressed about my own style--except I do over-use "suddenly," but I'm working on it--and just try to tell a story. The feedback I get is generally good, so I think I'm doing all right.

    1. All that being said, I think it's important to point out that Margaret Atwood worked and wrote for several years in poverty before she became what we can call "successful." Sure, she's at the top of the market now, and she's recognized as being a skilled artist, respected in the literary world as well as for her saleability. But it wasn't always that way.

      Of course, she started when publishers were looking for and promoting new writers. Today, they only want proven commodities like authors who have already been published, or celebrities. New authors tend to already have a connection to the publishing industry-like Paolini (another with a poor writing style, in my opinion).

      What's most confusing for new authors is that critics and major publishers say that they want a smooth writing style, they want believable characters and professional writing, but the readers don't seem to care about that at all.

  8. Scott, I'd like to start by pointing out that the Swedish-language edition of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is still sold as Män Som Hatar Kvinnor - "Men Who Hate Women." Personally, I find the English title more appealing.

    I'm not about to launch into a defense of Stieg Larsson - I'm sure he's got plenty of fans willing to state his case more poignantly than I ever could - but unless you've read Larsson in the original, you haven't really read him. I'm told the English translation is sub par. No, that doesn't help you appreciate the author one bit and you are under no obligation to know this as a reader.

    Enough about Larsson.
    I often think about this seeming paradox: the industry wants beautiful, professional writing, but readers gobble up ideologically nefarious, reactionary and vacuous writing like there's no tomorrow. Maybe because beauty and style are overrated, I don't know. It seems to me that beauty counts for nothing in this present climate. The west is transforming into a culture where subtlety and elegance in intellectual discourse are despised. (Here I consider writing is a form/function of intellectual discourse.)

    We value classics for something we perceive as their inherent poetic qualities, but the truth is the passage of time adds poetry to any text. I'm not saying Meyer, James, or Rowling will ever achieve classic status but -- *gasp* -- that's not outside the realm of possibility.
    It seems that some agents and publishers are looking for the classics of tomorrow and others are looking for the next Twilight.

    Readers are a fickle bunch. (I should know, being one of them.) But they can be educated or, even better, educate themselves. The problem is, if all they educate themselves with is Fifty Shades of Twilight in the Land of Ice and Fire Where the Tattooed Girl Sits on the Throne of Azkaban...

    ...Those will become the defining boundaries of their taste.
    Most people don't realize they have no taste in art or writing because

    a) their parents were the same and were unable or unwilling to provide them with a well-rounded education (which is nobody's fault)


    b) they willfully pursue that which is easiest to absorb, the kind of material that raises no relevant question, opens no eyes, contributes nothing to the development of a mature adult psyche. (And here, assuming some people know better, they are to blame for their intellectual laziness. A little bit to blame.)

    Publishing is driven by the need to make money in an unpredictable marketing, so no wonder that writers get all these mixed messages. In the end, the best you can do is focus on the stories you really want to write, and try to write them well.
    If an agent or traditional publisher is what you're seeking, you're bound to find one who's a good fit for you. --Or you may not. I'm obviously not making promises. Just saying the world is full of possibilities.

    One of my mottoes is "dare to be literary."
    Because if you don't, nobody will. Maybe one of us is the next Elmore Leonard and you know what, he could be sitting beside the next Margaret Atwood right now.

    1. Thank you, John. You put it so well where I struggled: "this seeming paradox: the industry wants beautiful, professional writing, but readers gobble up ideologically nefarious, reactionary and vacuous writing like there's no tomorrow. Maybe because beauty and style are overrated ..."

      Yes, the agents and publishers say they're looking for style and grace. Then they seem to want to impose Elmore Leonard's style on everyone. Or Margaret Atwood's. Aren't they completely different, though - Elmore is fast and vicious, while Atwood has always made me feel like I'm dragging a heavy weight around. Under a dark, cloudy sky. Not that she's over-wordy, but there's this mood.

      Anyway, that's the dichotomy: style versus best-sellers. Well, I guess it's the same thing in all media: The Prisoner was a great TV series artistically speaking, but Big Brother still draws in tons more viewers.

    2. I think the answer lies with publishers and editors. While I worked in the publishing industry for a very short time and don't really know the industry, I do know that with good editing, both with book editors and copy editors and even proofreaders, writing could and should always be produced as literature first. And I don't mean they should produce boring, stuffy novels. Rather publishers should allow for enough time to get their writers to rework their literature. You've outlined in your post areas that seem obvious to me, deeper, more intriguing characterization, sentence restructuring and the like. Certainly publishers know good writing, at least you'd hope. So why, then? Yes, they want to reach a very broad audience. But it would seem to me that a few tweaks (and that likely means more time)could produce interesting writing and more intriguing stories. JMO.

  9. I've begun comparing writers with musicians, books with songs. At the end of the day, it's all about the audience and timing. There are many one hit wonders in both books and songs, writers and musicians. I hear the songs on the radio every day, especially the oldies channels. I remember many books that were awesome, but never another from that author.

    It's the timing, what's happening in the world, who's reading the most, how to tap into what's happening in a subtle or even not so subtle way. Those are the best sellers. Sure, I'm going to have a best seller sometime, but I want to be a best selling author, (different league) an author that turns out well written books with messages, an author that can captivate both young and old, men and women.

    As for traditional publishers and agents, they're locked into what's familiar. They really aren't looking for new, new is tough. You have to build from the bottom up, and that's a lot of work. It's much easier to accept what you're used to. Who wants to put in extra work if they don't have to. It's a great thing that we have indie authors. I, myself, am one. But it also takes way too much time, time better spent writing. After all, you can't publish air, (I don't think, anyway.)

    In the future, I will be curious as to new releases from all the most popular books/authors of this time period. Fads fade, but good writing? Never!

  10. Anonymous1:09 PM

    I read the first two Twilight books, then I couldn't read another word of them. I think S.M. succeeded with the trilogy because the story struck a chord with tweens. Good story telling. Bad writing.
    I read the next book S. M. put out. I think it was called Chosen, or Possessed or something. Standard alien story, no big deal, maybe to be made into a motion picture, I don't know or care. But it was written by someone who could write. Blah story, good writing. Too bad her publisher couldn't have edited the Twilight trilogy so the yoing people wouldn't be reading it as an example of a book/literature.
    Then, along comes,
    The 50 Shades... captures a certain kind of reader. I'm not smitten by the story of the 20something who meets and captures the gorgeous billionaire who makes her do bad things. And like them. Again, a certain kind of good story telling. Not so good writing.
    The mystery here is, if trad pubs are so exacting when it comes to good writing, how do they get through the first page of the above stuff.
    I guess, like the readers, they're sucked in by the story.
    I read half a page of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. That was all I could manage.
    I like Elmore Leonard. But I think not because he writes well. You don't notice the way he writes, because he's a good story teller.
    It bolis down to three kinds of writers.
    Those who can tell a great story, those who can write well, and those who can do both.
    But no one writer can please everyone.
    I'm going to write my stories. They'll come out fairly well written, and I'll be lucky if they're interesting to a few people.
    I'm not going to sweat it.
    Louise Sorensen
    louise3anne twitter

  11. Great post as always, Scott, and a fascinating subject. I haven't read 50 Shades either (people whose views I deem worthy have called it misogynistic pap, which is good enough for me), though I did look at the first few pages on Amazon ages ago, and I thought - I write better than that. I agree with what a couple of other people have said; 'knocking' such books doesn't necessarily indicate jealousy but frustration. Browsing Amazon yesterday I saw that one of the many, GHASTLY 50 Shades bandwagon type efforts has 1 & 2 star reviews - but is higher up the UK charts than any of my books, all of which have masses of excellent (and genuine, I hasten to add!) ones.

    The problem is that the reading public is not always discerning. As I said in reply to Jack Durish's comment - you only have to look at the most popular programmes on the telly. Yes, you'll find some gems in the weekly top 10, but also some real rubbish.

    I don't listen to all this 'should and shouldn't' about this and that word. I write my books in the way that is right for me and them. I don't use 'suddenly', or start with weather, or over use adverbs, etc, but that's because it suits my writing style, not because I've read 'the rules'. One review for one of my books said that I broke many of the rules but it still worked. Maybe that IS good writing? Or maybe 'good writing' is hitting on something that will spark the interest of millions of people, as EL James has done.

    I think the best thing any of us can do is just not to think, worry or read about this sort of thing too much, and just get on with producing the best books we can. Thanks for this interesting discussion, Scott!

  12. Sometimes I really have to scratch my head over some of the bestsellers. I think "what the heck?" Yet readers are flocking to bookstores, digital and brick & mortar, everywhere. Some types of stories just capture us. I think you make a good argument about Dragon Tattoo and 50 Shades. Maybe it's the idea of the story that's so compelling.

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  14. I agree with Terry. There is a definite dumbing down going on. I did read Twilight, and enjoyed them because I was able to see more symbolism within the storyline and tend to joke about it. As for 50 Shades, I watched a video review of the book by a blogger that summed it up rather quickly as being poorly written tripe. As I just replied to you on Twitter, Scott, almost everyone with a book these days is claiming to be a best-selling author. Funny, I don't see most of these people on the NY Times list, so I'm wondering by whose standards they are able to claim the title. Perhaps I should research this as I may be missing my own opportunistic chance at fame?

  15. Anonymous12:48 PM

    Sorry to be late to this post but I think it's worth mentioning for anyone that may read it.
    As far as big time publishing and getting your work out of the slush pile, Stieg Larsson had a serious platform. Larsson did not send his manuscripts out to every big publisher. He was a known journalist, who had a person on the board of his magazine bring the manuscripts in person to Norstedts. This got them read immediately (Three manuscripts of a completed trilogy). If it didn't happen this way it is likely we wouldn't know his name. It is also the reason that his great story trumped his writing ability. BOTTOM LINE: His protagonist was completely unique and his manuscripts got read from connections. Two points not to be lost on any writer reading this.