Thursday, May 11, 2017

This novel seems very weak

I absolutely love the Harry Potter series. I've read it 15 times and I never get tired of it. I wish I could live in those worlds. So I'm not coming from a spot of jealousy — at least I don't think I am — but either way, it's not relevant to my question.

My question is actually related to the writing within however. I'm only going to use the first book, Philosopher's Stone, as an example. All throughout I notice many examples of what professors, teachers, and editors often call weak writing.

1) The use of filter words such as — seemed as an example:

As he sat in the usual morning traffic jam, he couldn't help noticing that there seemed to be a lot of strangely dressed people about.

It seemed to be a silver cigarette lighter.

It seemed that Professor McGonagall had reached the point she was most anxious to discuss, the real reason she had been waiting on a cold, hard wall all day...

It seemed to be coming from a large metal tub in the sink.

All in all, there are 72 instances of seemed used in book one, most of which "seem," to be acting as a filter word. That's without addressing any of the other common filter words.

2) The extensive use of adverbs: There are too many examples to cite, and I personally like adverbs anyways! When there is enough plot, they don't slow down the story for me, but editors generally hate them.

3) The overuse of exclamation marks and ellipses: Once again, a faux pas when taking writing classes and studying literature — I don't personally mind them and I think in a children's book they convey meaning easily.

4) Writing in passive vs. active voice: He bent his great, shaggy head over Harry and gave him what must have been a very scratchy, whiskery kiss.

There are many other examples of this in "he was, she was type sentences.

5) Use of weak words like very: Harry found their way into the house, rolled up and hidden inside each of the two dozen eggs that their very confused milkman had handed Aunt Petunia through the living room window.

It was very cold outside the car.

He was in a very good mood.

6) Show don't tell:

For a famous place, it was very dark and shabby

He pushed his trolley around and stared at the barrier. It looked very solid.

There are countless examples for telling instead of showing, above in this email, as well as all throughout the book.

Obviously JK Rowling does more things well than she does poorly; the plot all throughout is incredible, the underlying story, the world she creates, her characters and her conflicts are excellent.

My question is: As writers should we be more focused on the story, than on "good," writing? By good I mean technically sound writing that editors, agents and teachers often ask for.

How much credence should we give to the general rules about what constitutes good and bad writing?

Have you ever watched an episode of Law & Order with a lawyer? Or a cop? Or CSI with a forensic technician? Or The Proposal with an editor? Or The West Wing with anyone who's ever worked in DC?

Mostly they scream at the TV. There is often throwing of objects, stomping, and mass consumption of liquor to ease the pain.

Those TV shows get so much wrong it's really painful to watch for some folks. I loved The American President the first two times I saw it. Then I paid attention and I can barely watch it now. (Although "I'll be in the Roosevelt Room giving Lewis oxygen" remains one of my favorite movie lines of all time.)

My point is this: you're a writer so you look at things with an expert writing eye. Most readers don't even come close to seeing what you see.

James Patterson will never win an award for beautiful sentences or complex plotting but by god the man makes more money writing books than I'll ever see (and is very generous to libraries with it I might add.) While he hasn't sold more books than God, I think he might be second on the list.

We have this discussion in the office a LOT. If something is compelling but not great writing, do we take it on, hoping it will sell?

JK Rowling didn't sell despite "weak writing." I doubt most of her readers even noticed. She sold because she had, as you point out: incredible plot, compelling story, an enticing strange world, and characters we couldn't get enough of.  Give me that, and I'll spot you how ever many extra verys and seems you've got in your ms.


CynthiaMc said...

For me, Robin Cook is the King of Clunky Writing, especially dialogue and preachiness. I still read just about everything he writes because his stories are fascinating.

The only Jack Reacher novel I sent along to Goodwill was the preachy one. It's the only one where I said "Yeah, you're an idiot." But the other 8 zillion were fabulous.

I would love to have 1/10th the success of any of these authors. I wonder if part of the reason why I'm reluctant to send stuff out is because I worry too much.

kathy joyce said...

Periodically, I think a book is "too perfect." (I can't think of an example without checking, as I don't find these books very memorable). It's noteworthy to me that these books almost always mention the author's MFA. Nothing against the education, but I think that books can be so "scrubbed" that the story gets lost.

Kitty said...

Our oldest granddaughter devoured the entire Harry Potter series. Her father waited with her in the loooong line at B&N at midnight, as she clutched the gift certificate we had given her, so she could get the latest HARRY POTTER BOOK!!!!! She didn't care about the seems and the verys because she loved the story and its characters.

Here y'go, Janet: I'll be in the Roosevelt Room giving Lewis oxygen.

Stephen G Parks said...

One thing I noticed with the Harry Potter books is how much the writing improved with each one. Practice makes perfect, and I guess if you buy into the 10,000 hour theory, she must have been getting close to that mark by the end.

Janet I'd be interested to know what you dislike about The American President. Haven't watched it in years, but remember it kindly. Also, regarding The West Wing, if you believe the political guests on the podcast (West Wing Weekly), Sorkin got a heck of a lot more right than wrong.

I remember there was exactly one episode of Castle where Detective Beckett had to go to court to testify. Once. In seven seasons. But then, it doesn't even try to claim Law & Order's level of 'authenticity'. And I'm fine with that.

Bronwen Fleetwood said...

The Harry Potter books have a distinctly British voice, and most of what's taught to writers comes from a distinctly American sort of ethos. Get out of the way, get to the action, KISS. The voice is part of Rowling's charm, and was actually the first thing to really convince me to read. (I was resisting because of the hype.) Some of those 'seems' and passive voice instances are the British way of talking around things--a coy sort of cheekiness. It's not a bug, it's a feature. I don't know if an American writer could pull off the 'weak' writing with the same appeal.

DLM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DLM said...

Haha, Janet - I've often thought of writing a post like this about a certain author or ten, but would never have dared to name the names. The one who starts three sentences out of a five-sentence paragraph with "And". The one who disbelieves in paragraphs at all, so you get Giant Blocks O' Text. The many who misuse phrases, or historical fiction authors who throw around anachronistic props/speech willy-nilly.

OP, the thing about what you are doing is that it should be an exercise for YOU, not an opportunity to notice Rowling's successes - or literary failures. You use the em-dash a good deal, which I do myself, but there are a lot of readers who would find that distracting. Some would brand it wrong, but those are prescriptivists up with whom I shall not put. You're analyzing form, which is important for an author. So, focus on that and on learning and controlling your own habits.

I copy edit almost every book I read; commenting, finding exposition or wordiness or clunky phrases, even crossing out swaths of unnecessary verbiage. This is not, in my head, about the author's failings, it's a method for me to increase my own awareness. (This is also why I don't lend books; my marginalia would seem very self-superior, and be *incredibly* irritating to another reader. It may be necessary to burn my entire library before I die.) (And yes, "seem very"/use of adverb was a joke there.)

Use others' work as instruction for yourself, but keep it about yourself. Otherwise, there's this rabbit hole that leads down to terrible, dark places where we begin to resent others' success and/or find our own work too special.

Robert Ceres said...

Harry turns 11 near the beginning of the first book. The targeted audience for that book is really smart 8 and 9 year olds. To that audience, the writing 'faults' mentioned in the post are not faults. When you watch a really smart 8 year old read the first HP book for the first time you will realize why all those adverbs, ellipsis, and exclamation points are actually just a perfecting touch in what is otherwise a gob-smackingly amazing novel.

Amy Johnson said...

"I doubt most of her readers even noticed." This seems very, very big.

Colin Smith said...

Writing rules. The thing is, it's not ALWAYS bad to use adverbs, or to tell instead of showing, or to use the passive voice. Sometimes these things are necessary. Here's my 2c for what it's worth (and as an unpublished writer whose writing hasn't thus far paid for bubblegum, that's not a lot):

Treat the "rules" as guidelines to make your writing stronger. Ask yourself, "Am I showing or telling?" "Is this passive?" "Am I using too many adverbs?" and so on. Try changing the passage in question in accordance with the rules. Then ask yourself, "Is this really better?" If it's not, ignore the rule and do it your way. More often than not, the "rule" will improve your writing. But not always.

I also think Bronwen makes an excellent point. JKR's writing does very much reflect British speech patterns. Also, having read one or two British-written books, I've come to the conclusion that the kind of things we fuss over in terms of writing (adverbs, passive voice, etc.), are not as big of a concern over there. I could be wrong--I haven't lived in the country for a long time--but that's the impression I get.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

A bit OT, over the word limit, and way too personal.

I know this sounds odd but I find this post very sad. Even though all things here are not about me, this post cuts to my heart.

I have a fantastic story, the Queen actually said she’d read it when it was done. (That reveal has my ticket to Carkoon punched.) And yet, my journalistic writing style, I fear, cannot do it justice. I’ve nixed fiction because time to learn and apply the process, via a short like ‘Writing Fiction for Dummies’ just isn’t there. (I’m way past the spring chicken thing and journalistically comfortable.)

But this post today, has me looking at my manuscript and actually thinking that perhaps the story can supersede my fiction-writer’s shortcomings. And then again, perhaps not.

Lennon Faris said...

"Funny" will keep me reading almost anything. Humor is one of the big reasons I liked HP so much initially... but yes characters, bc they stuck with me like real people. I so wanted to meet them. And the pure imagination! it made the pages gleam, even with no real literary beauty.

I've come to appreciate beautiful writing, but in novels SOMETIMES I think it gets in the way. Just say what you want to say and move on, dang it!

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

As a writer I want to hate James Patterson (due to sour grapes and my personal opinions regarding the readability of his books). And even somewhat as a library clerk, but that's because of all of his Goddamn super simple one to two word titles. Seriously? Library catalogs are not set up to be smart or intuitive in any way (sometimes searching a singular when the subject trace is plural give you zilch). So when you've got a book by James Patterson, who has five thousand records in the database (think regular print, large print, audio, per title then multiply it by titles due to the extensive collaboration, and then later paperback releases and movie reprints and now these bookshots, which are not printed in quality to circulate at high volume and oh! What's that? They're doing omnibus editions of some of those bookshots?) you cannot search by author. You'll get five thousand things and it's too many to sort by date or alphabetically or any of it. So then you try to search by title. Rinse, repeat. Danielle Steele is also guilty of this. The Apartment? Come on here.

I have a hard enough coming up with titles just on my own, but then when I think of libraries? Sigh.

But James Patterson is very generous to libraries, and children's literacy, and those are very, very awesome things. Especially (and I saw an article on this somewhere recently) since people seem far less likely to just give their local library a whole bunch of money.

(no, instead they try to give us VHS's and old encyclopedias and National Geographics and dictionaries and grocery store paperbacks)

Susan said...

I read the first Harry Potter book when it came out and wasn't moved in the slightest to read more. It was an OK read. But, for fear of tempting the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing (I can never get enough of WW Toby), I didn't love it until I watched the movies. I think it's because fantasy isn't a genre I naturally gravitate to, and I have a hard time imagining these magical worlds.

BUT. This past winter, I borrowed my brother's books and movies and read the book, then watched the movie, then read the book, then watched the movie. It was thoroughly enjoyable. I still had a hard time getting into the books, but by Book #5 I was hooked.

Someone above (Robert?) mentioned that the first book is essentially middle-grade.
I think that's evident in the writing, which maybe is partially what's being picked up on. As the series goes on and the characters age, not only does the story grow darker but the writing immeasurably improves. This could be due to experience and craft, but I also tend to think other factors come into play: audience, development, someone else mentioned Britishisms.

I think we also have to remember that there are writing styles that are different than our own. Like OP, as Diane points out, I use em-dashes ALL THE TIME in my writing because I like that abrupt break--that interruption of thought that presents itself as voice. Does it constitute bad writing in some circles? Probably. But that's where writing style comes into play.

I also like Diane's suggestion. Don't let that critical eye keep you from enjoying the story. Instead, use it to your advantage for your own work. What do you like about this writer's choices (and with edits and revisions, our writing is a conscious choice, isn't it?)? What don't you like? How will or won't you apply that to your work?

I feel like I just lectured. Didn't mean to do that.
Sometimes I find myself surprisingly passionate about certain topics. I guess this is one of them. Looking forward to seeing how this discussion evolves!

Sam Hawke said...

All the perfect grammar in the world won't help you if you don't have an engaging voice. The HP books have that in absolute spades, and part of what creates that voice is the word choice. Strip out all the 'seemeds' and adverbs and Harry's way of thinking and you'll strip out the colour and life and tone of the books. These aren't errors, they're part of the voice (though I'm Australian, so perhaps I'm more attuned to a British style voice than Americans are?) and it's not just the plot and the characters that makes HP engage readers, it's the voice that makes the books absolute magic, even if you're not recognising it when you're parsing over the 'rules'.

You don't really think you'd read a book 15 times if it was really weak writing, do you?

DLM said...

Susan, I'll admit, sometimes I end up enjoying my analyses more than the books, but I still try not to make it about the author. And especially not about "How does this dreck get a book deal and I'm still unpublished!?" because that way madness lies.

Or should I say that way lies madness? Or that's no road to go down? Edits welcome. :)

Matt Adams said...


We go to conferences and take courses and spend all our time on the writing, but more than anything else, it's the story that sells. It's the premise, the idea that catches someone's imagination and then that idea gets fleshed out on the page. Rowling had an original, compelling idea (Neil Gaiman might disagree with the original part, but WTH) that radiated with her market and it caught on. Especially in the first two books, she kept the intrigue high and the pages turning. And you can't ever underestimate the desire to find out what happens next as a selling point for any story.

She's also writing for tweens. You can't overlook that when criticizing her stuff.

And for what it's worth, Philospher's Stone is at least tight. Look at what happened after she made a zillion dollars and no one dared question anymore. Those last five books are LONG and as overwritten as anything since Melville. But people want to see what happens next, and how it all ends.

You can't get away from terrible writing, but great writing almost never salvages a bad or uninteresting story.

Colin Smith said...

2Ns: I'm not at all surprised Janet would want to read your work when it's finished. I would expect the same with a couple other of the regulars here. And I don't think she would say that just to be nice. This is Janet we're talking about, remember? ;) She wants to read it because she enjoys your writing. So just be you, your lovely, journalistic, 2N-y self. Sure--edit, proof, and try to get your work as good as it can be. But don't sweat trying to change your style to fit "the rules." Just write your story the best way you know how.

Susan said...

Diane: I hear ya. I love critical analysis. It's one of the reasons I miss college so much--not only would we have to analyze books on our own, but we could discuss and debate to our heart's content. Sometimes it really was a simple "I hate this book" (I'm still looking at you, William Faulkner), but then you dive deeper and discover your dislike is all about the style of writing rather than the story itself. I think we're on the same page where we're both cautioning against criticizing story/author versus writing style. Please correct me if I'm wrong. Knowing me, we're on the same page but I'm in a different book altogether! ;)

Colin Smith said...

Matt: I'd say Book 3, PRIZONER OF AZKABAN, which is my favorite of the series, was the last well-edited Potter book. I'm sure JKR would argue that the story became more complicated after that, and the length of the books reflects the increased number of plot threads and story. But you have to admit, there's a lot of fluff in those latter books too. Fun fluff. Entertaining fluff. But fluff nonetheless.

Donnaeve said...

When I find myself wanting to critique another author's work, I come back to one word. Karma. I'm suspicious like that.

Now, I'll be off to word search "seem, very," and do a lookup on other filter words so I can try to kill them now.

Cause I'm paranoid like that too.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I rely on a close friend to go over my manuscripts. She has a brain full of higher education and she's brilliant with grammar and punctuation. She has graciously provided invaluable feedback.

I do not, however, heed all her advice. Those edits in red will produce a technically cleaner story, but some of it would scrub away the voice.

Speaking of voice... Carolynn, I spent some time on your blog a few days ago. I couldn't stop reading. You are talented and unique.

Em-Musing said...

Entertain me BIG time, and I won't care about the small stuff.

DLM said...

Susan, yes. I look at mechanics. Not the mechanic.

Instead of calling out any other author, I'll use myself as a probable example. The Ax and the Vase has some very nice scenes in it, the history is ripping stuff, the ramifications remain relevant and gigantic, and it had a lot of pretty, pretty words. It even had great voice, and interesting layers in the question of reliable narration. There's a lot of great stuff in there. I never managed to sell it.

The current WIP has borne two developments that are new. One, I discovered why this story needs to be told. Two, very recently, a THEME happened to it (entirely without my permission). Almost instantly, this ratcheted up the tension, and has lit a fire under my authorial patooty. I also had a callback occur; something happened during a murder scene which harks back to the first line of the novel - the scene in which this character was born. I did not do this on purpose; indeed, only discovered it in reading the scene aloud to someone else. He loved that, and I was a bit bowled over by it.

I would never have set out to write this woman's murder with a circle-back to her BIRTH. What a conceit, how on-the-nose. Its stealth occurrence, though, made for resonance. It thrummed. It willomied, it gupped and flolloped. What would have been impossible to "DO" ended up an unforced harmony because I wasn't trying.

It's like learning to fly. You have to learn how to fling yourself at the ground - fling yourself really hard and without caring how badly it's going to hurt - and then you have to get the knack for being distracted at the very last moment, and forgetting to hit the ground.

Okay, and that's my three bloated comments for today. Now to spend my wording on the WIP.

Rachel Neumeier said...

Colin is absolutely right. Most "writing rules" are thoroughly overstated.

There is nothing wrong with the passive voice -- which is not reliably signaled by "was" constructions -- if it is used appropriately. "My dog was hit by a car" is far clearer and less awkward than "A car hit my dog." Who cares about the car? The important thing in the sentence is emphasized by the passive.

There is nothing wrong with telling rather than showing; among other uses, the technique can be and often is useful for speeding up the pace of a scene that would otherwise drag.

There is nothing wrong with adverbs, not even "very." Open up your favorite books by the authors you consider at the very top and take a look. "At the very top" is a far cry from unnecessary adverbs in dialogue, such as "she declared emphatically."

There is nothing wrong with "seemed to" if you're writing in close third or first person. Unless your narrator is omniscient, how is she supposed to know for sure what another person is thinking or feeling? "He didn't seem to be offended" can be more accurate than "He wasn't offended."

I'll add that I have a dozen books out, mostly from Big Five publishers, and I have never yet had an editor or copy editor say a word about adverbs or passive voice or "seemed to" or any of that. If you use language effectively, you can break any so-called rules out there, mostly because the most-cited rules are not real rules anyway.

Michael Seese said...

In discussions like these, I like to compare and contrast Angels & Demons and Bright Lights Big City. IMHO, Dan Brown's use of language is pedestrian. But the plot was amazing. (Though he relies too much on deus ex machina.) I could literally see myself walking through Rome, scanning the sidewalk for the clues. In contrast, the plot of Bright Lights was meh. I could summarize it in 10 words: "Boy loses girl. Boy meets drugs. Boy meets more drugs." But the writing is breathtaking.

S Edwards said...

I've lurked on here for a very, very long time without ever responding. I've never responded because most of the time any light I'd like to shed on a subject has already been broached by someone else and I've never felt that it was necessary to be redundant. Today is also such a day, but as an ELA teacher for many years now and having read too many to count children and YA books I wanted to point out that Robert Ceres nailed the response. If you are so inclined, pick up many other juvenile novels from Louis Sachar to RL Stine, from Bonnie Pryor to Gary Paulsen and you'll see that many of the so called rules are broken for those categories. Let's face it, while many adults enjoyed the Potter series, its target audience definitely wasn't adults.

Colin Smith said...

Thanks, Rachel! My bubblegum stock just increased in value. ;)

Here, btw, is an Amazon list of Rachel's books, with apologies to everyone's TBR lists...

Timothy Lowe said...

Love the analysis here, both in the post and the comments. My first reaction about the "seems" was the same as Rachel's - important to the voice. I think her comment nailed it. The parts of the writing that were mentioned in the post wouldn't irk me at all. That said, I wasn't really riveted by Potter. Great world, but when she took a whole chapter describing how each student was chosen for each school my eyes glazed over. And when I got to Dobby in book 2, I had to stop reading. Sorry, Potter lovers. I get why you love the series. But that dumb little elf made me want to reach out and punch someone.

Carolynn, keep going! Some of the best writers were journalists first.

Julie Weathers said...

There is a critiquer on another site who helpfully points out in EVERY critique, "you have too many adverbs", "you started three sentences with I", "this is a to be verb, you should use something else", "try not using adjectives".

At first, I took his advice and did a search and destroy of everything that ended with "ly" as he suggested. Sorry, "only" it's not you, it's me.

Then I grabbed Dragonfly In Amber an Outlander book and went to babysit. I've found myself even reading those books with a, "Well, I might have written his differently", but often I pay attention to the way the whole word picture is painted as well as the story. And I realized there are quite a few adverbs and adjectives and there are some to be verbs and some sentences that start the same, but the story is there and I don't care because I wanted to know what happens next even when I know what happens next. And I eagerly turn the page.

Janet Reid said...

Welcome to the comments S Edwards Glad to see you!

LD Masterson said...

Hmm. I only tend to notice writing no-no's if they pull me out of a story. Assuming the story was good enough to pull me in. Even the infamous head-hopping doesn't bother me as long as I can keep track of whose head I'm in. I'm too busy enjoying myself.

Julie Weathers said...

In sixth-grade, I was having a heck of a time with my middle son. He detested reading. He hated school. He detested living in town. He was miserable. We all were.

Finally, a teacher who shall ever remain in my prayers gave him a Louis L'Amour book. He devoured it. I was at the library, the used bookstores, everywhere I could get my hands on those books to feed his habit. Then we got into Zane Grey who was told he'd never be a writer. Cody turned into a voracious reader.

A lot of people think L'Amour and Grey both are hack writers, but who among us wouldn't love such success?

I pointed out an author's work I think is gorgeous and an editor friend read part of the short story. He said, "I couldn't finish it. I kept imagining the author sitting in the perfect block of sunlight at her writing desk with her ostrich feather quill agonizing over each perfect word. The writing is lovely, but I lost sight of the characters and hoped they would die young so I didn't have to keep trying to care about them.

Cut out all the horse sh!t and tell me a story."

If it works it works.

Julie Weathers said...

Robert and S Edwards

Welcome to the comments S Edwards.

You hit the nail right on the head. The publisher who picked up Harry Potter did so because their 8-year-old child read the manuscript and said, "Daddy, you need this book."

Kids don't see those things. Most adults won't notice those things. It was an original world that appealed to children told in a manner they could identify with.

Now, to the rest of us more sophisticated word tasters, we might have taken a sip and swished the words around in our mouths, then spit it out or slowly swallowed, criticzing each note. They eargerly drained the glass.

Shaunna said...

I read aloud to my children. Each child usually has a different book or series from the others. And my youngest has finally graduated from Magic Tree House (shoot me now) to Harry Potter.

When I read out loud, I notice more about the writing style. This helps me see why the advice to read my own manuscripts out loud is spot on. MTH drives me nuts. I feel like it could just as easily been written my Siri or Google Voice or one of those two million chimpanzees who didn't turn out Shakespeare.

When I read HP, however, I feel like I'm cozying up with an old friend. She's such an intimate narrator, for all her verys and seems, so that even though I notice some of the broken rules, I am happy to overlook them. I trust her as a narrator.

On the other hand, I would cringe at the thought of sitting down to tea with the MTH narrator, and don't even mention the idea of a social engagement with Bella, the whiny, teenage narrator of Twilight (wait, you named your daughter what? vampires can produce hybrids?).

I believe it's a combination of voice and plot that pushes a book over the edge for me. If I trust the narrator--which trust stems from a combination of a masterful plotter and voice--I will accept the idiosyncrasies as part of the narrator's charm.

RosannaM said...

As a reader, the filler words don't stop me cold unless the story has flattened out like a drive through Nebraska. I want to gallop into a story, trot along with the MC and care enough to turn the page. I can't stand when the writer tries too hard to come up with perfect sentences, because then I sense the writer sitting on my shoulder, and I am taken out of the story.

My plans today, included a lot of writing time, but alas, the universe had different ideas. The refrigerator conked out last night, and while I thought we had dealt with the main mess last night, it seems there is still work to do, as a very disgusting brown ooze is creeping out from the bottom and threatening to cover the entire kitchen floor.

Rachel Neumeier said...

Thank you, Colin! I'm hoping to read your debut one of these days!

Sarah said...

I thought I'd pop out of lurking for just a sec... :)

I think it helps to imagine books as guided tours. (Bear with me!) The writing could be the bus/plane/tuk tuk you're in. The story is the landscape/destination.

I'll put up with a not-so-nice vehicle and take motion sickness pills if I'm traveling to a place I long to visit. But I won't stay in even a luxury bus if it's taking me somewhere I don't want to go or across a landscape that bores me.

I don't know if that makes sense, but it helps me think about it. :)

Casey Karp said...

While I agree with almost everything that's been said so far, I keep coming back to Janet's next-to-last paragraph.

If something is compelling but not great writing, do we take it on, hoping it will sell?

I think it's important to keep that sentence in mind. The greatest story in the world can be destroyed by bad writing. A great idea is not--cannot be--an excuse for sloppiness. Just as with querying, if you're going to break the rules, do it consciously and in the cause of supporting the story.

Colin Smith said...

S Edwards: Hi! Welcome to the comments. :)

Sarah: Thanks for unlurking, and providing more food for our TBRs: VALIANT by Sarah McGuire. :)

Casey: I was going to say something similar--all these excellent points about story over pendantic-rule-keeping do not constitute an excuse for bad writing. When to obey the rules and when to break them is something writers need to learn from experience. Until you know what you're doing, I'd say lean toward the rules.

Colin Smith said...

PS: I just updated the list of Published Works by Blog Readers in the Treasure Chest to include Rachel and Sarah's books. Wow, we keep some good company here... this list is getting long. Congrats everyone, even if you've been published for years. As we've all heard, staying published can be harder than that first sale.

BJ Muntain said...

What is 'good' writing, anyway?

All these 'rules' that authors fling about, around 'filler words' and 'weak writing' and such, are not what makes writing 'good'. They make the writing easier to read. They make it cleaner, clearer, and even stronger. They don't make the writing 'good'. They do, however, make the writing better.

That doesn't mean that authors who don't follow these guidelines (they're really not rules) aren't writing well. Good writing is more than words. It's cadence, nuances, meaning. Words are only tools. Meaning is the material we sculpt with those words. Writing is the art itself. Often, the most subtle meanings in the art are the most skilfully done.

I have a friend who loves graphic novels but hates a certain artist's style (and no, I don't know the name of the artist.) She claims his proportions are all off. She has a lot more art knowledge than I do. I don't see that problem. But I would if the overall picture looked wrong.

True students of art can look at great paintings and point out where this artist made a mistake or that one slipped a bit. Experts in anything know the details of their subject. No one else does. Non-experts just see the overall subject, and can appreciate it (or not) as a piece, rather than seeing how the tools were used.

And that doesn't mean others who want to be experts shouldn't study how the experts used the tools. It doesn't mean we shouldn't figure out how an author molded meaning in this way, or how the cadence makes the meaning pop in that way. Because in order to make a seemingly perfect piece like those studied, we have to know exactly what we're doing. If we don't, even the non-experts will see that something is wrong.

As for rules, I'm afraid I broke the 100-word rule. Sorry about that.

literary_lottie said...

"Writing rules. The thing is, it's not ALWAYS bad to use adverbs, or to tell instead of showing, or to use the passive voice. Sometimes these things are necessary." Colin's absolutely right on this. It drives me crazy when people blindly check-off all the ways a piece of writing breaks certain rules or gets it "wrong," without examining the how and why of the matter. Perhaps the author deliberately broke a rule to make a stylistic choice. Perhaps there really was no other way to say what needed to be said without drastically altering the meaning of the passage. Perhaps it is simply the writer's voice - Rowling employs a conversational tone in her writing (one reason it's so delightful to read out loud), and filter words, adverbs, and passive voice are all part of the way we talk.

Additionally, a lot of people who criticize Rowling's writing miss the fact that she's writing with a deliberately old-fashioned tone; compare the Harry Potter novels with classic British kidlit like Arthur Ransome or E. Nesbit, and you'll see what I mean.

That being said: I do identify with OP, in that I also have a hard time turning off my writer brain in order to read for pleasure. I've put plenty of books down because the writing was full of my personal pet peeves. I know a book is good when I start ignoring the construction and start paying attention to the actual plot and characters.

Mark: I heard on the kidlit publishing grape vine that there was very little developmental editing done on the last three HP books. May not be true, but it made sense to me because there's a noticeable decline in the tightness of Rowling's writing between Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix. GoF was long, yes, but it was necessary; there were no loose threads or extraneous plot. The final three books, however, are rife with unnecessary subplots, inconsistent characterization, and uneven pacing. At least now I know why, although I loved the first four books, the final three left me cold. (And why I haven't been able to connect with Rowling's adult novels.)

BJ Muntain said...

I just have to add (I'm sorry):

Despite Rowling's having written the first HP book for young folk, many people are still saying that 'it works because children don't know any better'.

No. That's not true. It works because that is how children read. That is how children understand books. That is how books are written for children. To a child, 'very' is a perfectly valid word of degree. It isn't vague for a child. When writing for children, Rowling wasn't breaking any rules. She was following them.

Lennon Faris said...

2Ns - get something written and published and I will buy it. Not because I like you (though I do) but because I adore your writing. It is quirky and funny and has a timeless ring to it. You once told me to 'write and finish the damn thing, Lennon!' (something like that anyway) and I did. Still working on revisions but I finished the first draft. Time ticks no matter how young or old you think you are. Don't let it drive you mad. Just write, damn it!

Elise Chidley said...

In the UK, where Harry Potter was written, adverbs are not regarded as 'bad writing'. The war on adverbs was, I believe, started by Hemingway, who was stylistically (ah, shoot me, an adverb!) a minimalist. Rowling is not a minimalist, and thank God for that! There is room in the world for different styles of writing. There is room for the embrace of adverbs, and for a more old-fashioned, cozy, traditional style that doesn't live or die by its avoidance of the passive voice or the word 'seem'. Some people like contemporary furniture. Others like big, fat armchairs with chintz covers. I hate to see how stylistic preferences have come to be trotted out as 'rules' by well-meaning writing instructors.

Steve Stubbs said...

Excellent question. I think OP has been misled by professors who have to pay to get their stuff published. This reminds me of a book I saw one time titled (I am not making this up) THE WRITING OF THE NOVEL. OP has great critical skills, IMO, which is good. She has a lot of potential. But the profs have misdirected her. Reconsider their advice.

The example given of passive voice is not passive voice (although my sentence has been written in passive voice. It contains what is known technically as Lost Performative. Or it seems to.)

The example of show v. tell is not tell. (If you can show it on a movie screen, either visually or in dialogue) it is show. If you need a voice over to tell the audience what is going on, it is tell.)

To OP's question, "As writers should we be more focused on the story, than on "good," writing?" I would reply, "Um, yes." Any book that can compel you almost against your will to read it 15 times and earn billions for the author is one you should study.

I understand mobsters scream at THE SOPRANOS, but it is damn good storytelling. The people who managed the Emmys awards had to exclude the show from consideration because it was sweeping the awards every year. Make room for mediocrity.

If you want to see a movie that lawyers do not scream at, watch THE VERDICT. The best movie Paul Newman ever starred in, and written by a lawyer. The plotting and characterization are superb. The actors are pretty good, too.

Peggy Larkin said...

LD Masterson and Julie Weathers are right on - it's storytelling vs. writing. One of my favorite, favorite books EVER is The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. Objectively, undeniable badly written... but that story! Those universal themes!! I've read it dozens and dozens of times and even though I roll my eyes at the fragments, the head-hopping, the clunky dialog... I don't put it down. (And the first time I read it, I was in middle school--probably too young to have been reading it--but I didn't notice that stuff then; that was before I was an English major and a high school lit teacher, of course.)

I've said the same thing about Rowling--I see her breaking the rules. I just don't care.

And I have a beta who's always trying to make my characters speak with correct grammar, even when they're snotty teenagers who absolutely wouldn't.

Shaunna, I read the Twilight books when all my teen students were reading them. Yikes. Definitely badly written, and just dumb, and yet...

...I sure did read all four. :/

Angrily! And with moral support from Mark Oshiro! And borrowed copies, not bought! But... still.

Sometimes a writer's work is both beautiful and compelling, like Station Eleven or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But if you're trying to make truckloads of money, I suspect compelling beats beautiful.

JD Horn said...

The world is full of writers who enjoy telling other writers how to write. Don't be one of them.

Joseph Snoe said...

Random Thoughts Under a Hundred Words.

1. Weak and Willy Nilly – I think that’s my comfort zone.

2. Do you ever get the feeling the got-a-real-life-readers out there will love your story but agents and editors won’t because they know too much about writing?

3. I read the first three Harry Potter books and enjoyed them tremendously.

4. DLM, inexplicably I woke this morning wanting to read “The Ax and the Vase,” and now you’re saying it may never see the light of day. Say it ain’t so.

5. Watch the VERDICT, eh? Okay, I’ll try to round up a copy.

John Davis Frain said...

I'm not smart enough to add anything of value to this conversation, so I'll step aside and quote Lou Berney. BTW, have I mentioned yet today the incredible story, The Long and Faraway Gone? Read it! You will fall in love/hate in a most wonderful, memorable way.

Anyway, in Berney's list of advice to a younger self, he says this:

Don't spend too much time worrying about stuff that no one else will worry about. No reader ever said, "The characters sucked and the story was trite, but wow I really loved that one sentence on p. 321, so I'll recommend this novel to all my friends."

Sarah said...

Thanks, Colin! I haven't lurked enough to realize there was a list. : )

I so enjoy this blog- it's just that teaching often keeps me from getting to the comments section while there's still activity.

I think the best books include fabulous writing and take us wonderful places, but ohmyword, I like that quote, John Davis Frain!

Craig F said...

To me the most important thing I noticed was how well planned the whole deal is. To have an uber plot run over, under, around and through a series with subplots strong enough to make stand alone books does not just happen.

Once again I will drag out the watercolors. If you don't plan out a painting in watercolors you will end up with a page full of mud. The same thing can happen in writing.

If literary, or "good" writing is not compelling enough to make the pages fly by, it is no different than bad writing. Write a compelling story using timing, rhythm and voice. Those need to shine through.

I can't comment on Patterson because I haven't been able to finish one of his factory books in nigh onto twenty years. That somewhat ties into yesterdays 50 pages post. Patterson is one of those that I haven't gotten past page 50 in a long time. I don't feel like I am missing anything because they all seem the same, except for the town and the character names.

DLM said...

Joseph, I would be pleased to share it with you, Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli has read it. My email is DLMajor (at) verizon (dot) net. Though I will admit: that sure is inexplicable! :) And thank you.

Jen said...

I love the Harry Potter series, but when I was reading it out loud to my son, I had the same gut reaction, esp. in Book... 5(?) I want to say.

Overuse of certain words/ adverbs, etc. drives me batty as a writer. Convenient or unrealistic plot points in movies make me want to throw popcorn at the screen. I turned to my husband one day while watching t.v. and said, "I just can't enjoy entertainment the same way I could before becoming a writer." It saddened me. It's like I can't turn off my editorial brain.

But writing styles are always changing, and we have to keep that in mind. The same stylistic devices and ideas we think are absolute musts right now may be worthy of an eye-roll emoji by other writers in a decade or two. ;-)

Terri Lynn Coop said...

A while back I tried to create a drinking game for nerds. You had to take a shot every time there was a dialogue tag in Harry Potter. Everyone passed out by the end of the third chapter.

Harry Potter works.

It's also fantasy and British. There's a different cadence to both styles of writing. Her structure wouldn't work in a Jack Bauer style thriller.

An interesting question would be if James Patterson was trying to sell his books today, via the electronic slush pile, if his writing would sell. He has inertia now.


Joseph Snoe said...

I enjoyed “The Long and Faraway Gone.” It’s got a nice rhythm and balance to it. I had one criticism – okay two – but neither detracted from the book’s enjoyment. I guess it pays (in more ways than one) to teach Graduate Creative Writing courses (it certainly has for Lou Berney).

Ironically there is one line in “The Long and Faraway Gone” that I’ve been tempted to use here and elsewhere. It is such a cool line, and only six or so words. It’s worth reading the book for.

Claire AB. said...

Such an insightful blog today. Thank you for posting, OP, and for your insights, Janet and all you Reiders. I'll only add that I think we probably write our best stuff when it's intentional. If we choose that adverb for a reason, decide to write "seems" or the passive voice, or to tell and not show, we stand a much better chance of having our work resonate with the reader. At least that's what I tell myself!

Joseph Snoe said...

One last time

My niece tells me there are two versions of each Harry Potter book - the England version and the American version. She prefers the England version better. I don't accept everything my niece tells me. Is she correct on this?

Also, I've read a half dozen James Patterson novels in the past three years - all but one were Alex Cross novels - and enjoyed them. My favorite was "Along Came a Spider."

John Davis Frain said...



John Davis Frain said...

Sorry, Joseph, I forgot time expired while I was reading many comments and so my comment didn't immediately follow your bit about your two criticisms of Berney's Long and Faraway Gone. Plus, the one line you've been tempted to use.

Please, for the love of dog, use the line. I must know!

I'll trade you one of my three comments for tomorrow. (This is my third today; otherwise I'd give you one for today.)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Oh Lennon, you finished the damn thing. How awesome is that.
Such kind words. I'll buy yours if you buy mine.

I love this place, really I do, quirks and all.

Robert Ceres said...

Um, Julie, by sixth grade you already had (at least) 3 kids? Whoosh. I never would have guessed this about you! (Sorry, like Tom Cruise playing Maverick, "I had the shot, there was no danger, so I took it."

I typically write very very sparsely, taking Hemmingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” as the ideal. I warn my CP’s of this so they know where I’m coming from when I ruthlessly recommend deleting every sentence but one from their beautiful paragraphs, then recommend cutting that sentence by half. And my CP’s are always telling me Rob, it’s a little too brusk, I didn’t get it, you need to add a few more words. The combination of a loquacious writer and sparse CP (and vice versa) is a great combo. The rule we are always trying to follow is have as many words as you want, but make sure that every single word counts. In Rowling’s case the “extra” words are not superfluous. They set the tone. They make the magic jump off the page for the kids reading them.
This has been a great comment thread.

Colin Smith said...

Joseph: I own the Potter books in both the US translation and the original English. Aside from the title of the first book (UK: Philosopher's Stone, US: Sorcerer's Stone--because apparently, American kids are too stupid to figure out what the philosopher's stone is despite the fact it's explained in the story--don't get me started on that...), the other changes are primarily spellings, idioms, and terminology. Interestingly, the US editors changed fewer things as the series went on. There are tons of changes in Book 1, much fewer in Book 7.

Brigid said...

Very glad to see new names, especially Sarah—I loved Valiant!

Ginger Mollymarilyn said...

What a great question, and very timely. Janet, I really like how you cite examples of TV shows and movies; how they don't worry so much about authenticity. In my thriller, I'm writing and focusing on the crime scene, and though it's fiction, I'm strongly compelled to write it factually, considering every minute detail. I believe Janet's touched on this recently, the bottom line is that the most important thing is that a book should be a damn good read. RULES ARE MEANT TO BE BROKEN! Who came up with these rules, anyways?

Sarah said...

Wow, Brigid! Thank you!

I'm always surprised (but delighted!) if someone's heard of Valiant! Things got a little crazy with Egmont USA closing just before the release...

Laura Martin said...

I found this post really interesting. I feel like middle grade authors, in general, get away with using adverbs and breaking the rules a bit more in the vein of keeping a "middle-grade voice." Kids use adverbs, they tell instead of show, etc, so it makes sense that to keep a middle grade voice some "rules" get broken. You need to remember that the average seventh grade teacher still has a funeral for the dialog tag "said" and encourages kids to get more creative...yet as writers "said" is all we are ever supposed to use. Great Post!

S Edwards said...

Thanks for the warm welcome!

Joseph Snoe said...

John Davis Fran - I get yelled at when I talk about book specifics, but the line appears many times in the book. You can find an early mention on line 9 on page 39.

Colin -So you're saying my niece was trying to one-up everyone to show how cool she is. She does do that, yes she does.

GingerMollymarilyn - A writer at one of the Southern Voices Festival said he tries to be as accurate as possible because when he makes a mistake, readers (a) notice it and (b)write him long letters about it.

Colin Smith said...

Joseph: If the beloved offspring of your sibling was insinuating that the variants between the two versions constitute substantial alterations to the foundational plot, or their derivative story lines, then I'm afraid she has grossly overstated the literary divergence between these transatlantic cousins. Alterations were made merely to aide the American reader with the sometimes obscure but otherwise easy-to-figure-out-from-the-context variations between the two languages. Clearly, the world-weary middle grader is not able to figure out what it means for Harry's glasses to be held together by Sellotape, and what the "video recorder" is that Dudley got for his birthday, such that translations into the vernacular American form were deemed necessary.

Heaven forbid we use such literature to teach about other cultures... ;)

John Davis Frain said...

Hey Joseph,

I'm guessing you were familiar with that line before you read The Long and Faraway Gone. Genevieve didn't coin the phrase, of course, but it helped shape her character in the story.

So many things I loved about that book. I shot off an email to Berney and told him I had a friend who was my real-life O'Malley. I haven't told my friend that though. Probably never will.

Take care, Joseph, and use that line any time you want. Own it!

roadkills-r-us said...

So much to agree with here, both from Janet and the reef inhabitants. I've said all along that Rowling is a good writer, and a *great* storyteller. Which gives me hope; I am a storyteller even more than a writer.

Thank you, Colin, for the editing comments! I believe her editor (or someone in the publishing chain) was a bit scared to touch her work by the 4th book. "She's making us rich! Don't argue with her!" But the story is so good that we keep reading (and rereading) anyway.

And kudos to BJ for pointing out that the writing works not because children don't know, but because she's writing to who they are and how they read.

Joseph Snoe said...

John Davis Frain

That was the first time I'd ever heard that line. But I had heard two of his jokes in the book when I was a kid.

Morgan Hazelwood said...

I think the letter writer has a low bar for word overuse. 72 "seems" doesn't seem like that many, especially after I look at my original rough draft with its over 400 instances of the word "just"...