I’m With Kitten: The Craft of Writing Matters

I’ve defended literary fiction before, and I will continue to do so: language is beautiful, and there is an art to using it well.

You don’t have to be Keats or Byron, and there’s nothing wrong with functional or “workmanlike” prose, but damn, why not try to get a little poetic if you can? Why not have a little Fitzgerald or Irving rub off on you? It doesn’t have to be purple prose, or pretentious Michael Chabon stuff, but it doesn’t have to be dry and plodding either.

Hell, J.R.R. Tolkien was a beautiful wordsmith, and nobody accuses him of overdoing it.

This might be where I differ from some of my pulprev brethren, who aver that nobody cares about your writing as long as the story is good.

I can agree to a point. Sometimes a story might be good, fantastic even, but the writing is clunky to the point of distraction and it’s a chore to read.

This is where I agree with writer and blogger Kitten Holidaythe art of writing does matter, no matter your genre or milieu. Otherwise, it’s solely product which. Of course your writing is a product if you’re trying to earn a living, but even a consumer product can have artistry and craftsmanship:

Have you noticed how many writers are publishing marketable books with mass appeal but it’s hard to find writing that really gives you a punch in the gut? I’m in writing groups that focus on publishing 2 books a year. The quality is shit. There might not be typos, but the writing is superficial and bland. You aren’t going to read a sentence in 300 pages that stands out and makes you think. It’s garbage in and garbage out.

When I fell in love with reading it wasn’t because I could consume thin books, one after the other, with the story brushing past me like walking through a crowd. I fell in love with reading because of the books that looked me right in the eye, shook me by the shoulders and said, You need to know this. Or the books that grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into a journey I couldn’t stop following even if it frightened and worried me. Or the books that made my heart feel so full, I never wanted to stop reading. Or the books I had to read through tears, blinking and squinting to read the next line.

Those are the books I want to read, and those are the books I want to write.

A thousand times yes.

Look, say what you want about J.K. Rowling and the ubiquitous Harry Potter, the woman can write. Ditto George R.R. Martin. Ditto Stephen King (when he puts his mind to it). And ditto the aforementioned Michael Chabon. Conversely, and I know she’s a bit of a scapegoat, but I can’t say the same about Stephenie Meyer.

Guys like Brandon Sanderson get slagged with the “workmanlike” label, but his writing exemplifies that appellation in that you don’t even notice it because it works. But there are few, if any, clunky sentences or awkward turns of phrase.

You know what? Arthur Conan Doyle was a hell of a writer. So were pulp legends Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs–their works were far from workmanlike and clunky. In fact, they are downright poetic in their own ways.

And I’m not using this post to proclaim myself some masterful writer. You might think my forthcoming novel A Traitor to Dreams is sci-fi/urban fantasy garbage. But you won’t be able to say I didn’t polish it until it shone.

Yes, I’m one of those people who does several read-throughs, drafts, and typo checks, even after a manuscript has been professionally edited. There are reasons for this:

  • I want to eliminate awkward sentences.
  • I am always on the prowl for clunky dialogue. Your first thought is usually a 5, at best. Your second is maybe a 7. I go through and try to turn those 7s into 8s or higher.
  • I aim for zero typos. None. Misspellings, improper punctuation, incorrect subject/verb agreement–I want to eliminate all of it.
  • Rhythm is important. Sentences need to flow, and they need to sound good. Repetition and redundancy must go.
  • Characterization and inner monologue can be improved 99 percent of the time. (I’ll have a future post on this.)
  • Less is more. I’m always on the lookout for eliminating needless words, sentences, and paragraphs.

It might not be “pulp speed” or conducive to a crank-out-a-book-every-three-months pace, but I’m fine with that. I work fast enough, and I put out things when I think they’re ready.

To each his own. I’m not trying to say my attitude is best. But I’m with Kitten: I want to write the kinds of books that made me get into reading in the first place.

11 comments

  1. Hear hear!

    I don’t know that I’d class Burroughs with the likes of Howard, but he was certainly no dunce. As for Howard, it’s been pointed out many times how fluid and poetic and lean his prose is. Clark Ashton Smith wrote beautifully, as well, and Jack Vance has become my favorite author not only for his creativity, but for the mastery with which he wielded the language.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The little Vance I have read left me impressed. These people weren’t hacks! They were artists. I honestly don’t know why “artist” has become a dirty word.

      I need to read some C.A. Smith. There’s been a lot of talk about him lately, and I am intrigued.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can see that! I thought he was going to get into the WHY literature is dead part. He hints at it (electronics, technology, and the usually litany of attention-deficit youth) but doesn’t dig deeper. I thought that was the direction he was going.

        You’re right: read what you enjoy and enjoy what you read. Not a bad message.

        Like

      • Just read your latest article Writing Traps and I think your friend’s comment that you reinforced about complexity not being clever is also what this author was getting at, but obviously, writing for the Paris Review he had to try to sound smart and ended up falling into the same trap he was pointing out:

        “How, I wondered, could William Golding have seeded his narrative so consciously and still have managed to write? How could he have kept track of it all? Even then, I knew I wanted to be a writer, had begun to read with an eye toward how a book or story was built, and if this was what it took, this overriding sense of consciousness, then I would never be smart enough.

        Now, I recognize this as one of the fallacies of teaching literature in the classroom, the need to seek a reckoning with everything, to imagine a framework, a rubric, in which each little piece makes sense”

        Because many of us have been taught in school to read looking for metaphor, foreshadowing, ambiguity, suspense, and all the other literary devices we see our heroes using, we think that to write an amazing book we need to include them all as well. But instead of letting the flow of the story bring these out in the story, we try to sound smart by shoving them in, sometimes forcing as many devices (and complexity) as we can to prove we are worthy.

        Kitten

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes! That is a great point. I remember arguing with my English teacher about this—particularly in 10th and 12th (I had the same teacher both years) about the same book! I thought the idea was laughable that Golding intentionally crafted every single sentence with a hidden subtext, and she thought it was 100 percent planned out.

        This spilled over into discussions of other works, of course.

        Later toward the end of my senior year, she told me that, while I didn’t get the best grade in the class, she thought I was her best student since I actually seemed to care about stuff like this and argue with her about it. Plus ça change . . .

        Liked by 1 person

      • Another minor point: Much of the stuff professorial types aver Tolkien included in the Lord of the Rings was disputed by Tolkien himself. I don’t know about you, but I’ll defer to the author 10 times out of 10.

        Like

    • Very true. “Workmanlike” gets bandied about like an insult. As I said in the post, I liken it to “being so good you don’t even notice it,” and I mean that as a high compliment. We should all strive to write that way.

      Liked by 1 person

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