A few weeks ago, while returning a book to the library, I happened upon a display that included Joanna Trollope’s re-write of Sense & Sensibility. I’d heard about this. It was part of a project wherein each of Jane Austen’s books was to be brought into the modern age. Curious, I opened the cover and read this:
It was a remarkable view of Sussex parkland, designed and largely planted two hundred years before to give the fortunate occupants of Norland Park the very best of what nature could offer when tamed by the civilising hand of man. There were gently undulating sweeps of green; there were romantic but manageable stretches of water; there were magnificent stands of ancient trees under which sheep and deer decoratively grazed. Add to all that the occasional architectural punctuation of graceful lengths of park railing and the prospect was, to the Dashwood family, gathered sombrely in their kitchen, gazing out, perfection.
I was hooked. No sooner had I read that paragraph then I checked out the book and proceeded to devour it. What was it that hooked me? The writing. I thought it was beautiful.
Which led me to wonder, what makes good writing good? By good writing, I don’t mean the plot, though having one helps, or the characters, though a book without at least one sympathetic, fleshed out character doesn’t hold my interest for long. What I mean by good writing is the ability to form a sequence of words that is pleasing to the reader.
Not having any formal training in writing, I’m afraid that I’m of the school that I simply know what I like. Expressing why I like it is challenging.
Consider J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, which grew thicker and thicker as the series progressed. People thought she was crazy, that kids would never read books that length. Well, they were wrong, weren’t they? In the later books, I found that essentially nothing happened for 100 pages or so, but I couldn’t stop turning the page.
Why was that? For one thing, there was a clarity to Rowling’s writing. The words practically read themselves.
Clarity is something I highly value in writing. To me, it is the ability to deliver knowledge to the reader in a succinct, unambiguous manner, whether the writing is descriptive, as in excerpt above, or a fragment of dialog. Even if you’re reading to yourself and not out loud, your internal tongue doesn’t trip anywhere. The meaning the author wishes to convey flows effortless from word to word.
Here’s another example of great writing from a book I loved, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane:
The old house, the one I had lived in for seven years, from when I was five until I was twelve, that house had been knocked down and was lost for good. The new house, the one my parents had built at the bottom of the garden, between the azalea bushes and the green circle in the grass we called the fairy ring, that had been sold thirty years ago.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon gave us the lovely The Shadow of the Wind. Note how much the following paragraph conveys about the father and child, and how effortless it is to read:
As a child I learned to fall asleep talking to my mother in the darkness of my bedroom, telling her about the day’s events, my adventures at school, and the things I had been taught. I couldn’t hear her voice or feel her touch, but her radiance and her warmth haunted every corner of our home, and I believed, with the innocence of those who can still count their age on their ten fingers, that if I closed my eyes and spoke to her, she would be able to hear me wherever she was. Sometimes my father would listen to me from the dining room, crying in silence.
A favourite author since my teen years has been H. P. Lovecraft, who has the uncanny ability to consistently make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. My favourite work of his is the mesmerizing The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath:
Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvelous city, and three times was he snatched away while still he paused on on the high terrace above it. All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harboring little lanes of grassy cobbles.
If you want an example of great writing, pick up any book by Charles Dickens and flip to any random page. You won’t be disappointed. Here’s something from Great Expectations:
Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
As a writer, you improve your craft in a couple of ways: By reading and by writing. No surprise there. Whenever I write, I look at examples of writing that I love, such as those above, and try, not to emulate them, but to write in my own voice with comparable clarity and effect. Do I succeed? Here’s an excerpt from my short story, “The Right Time”:
Although a fast walker, Michael slowed his pace as he entered the Arboretum proper. It was beautiful. The path meandered past deep green grass and all manner of trees, each labelled with its common and Latin names. Wooden bridges took him across streams, and further along he came to large ponds with greenish water dotted with toadstools and bordered by tall grasses.
Oops. I shouldn’t have included the “It was beautiful” sentence. I should have let the description convey that for me. And mention of the “deep grass” and “tall grasses” are too close together. I should have eliminated one.
Here’s an excerpt from a fanfic of mine called “Walk the Plank”:
The two boys, propped up on elbows, lay sprawled in the pasture of tall, red grass at the foot of Mount Perdition. Just beyond the pasture stood a dwelling, not large by Gallifreyan standards, but quite comfortable, with a garden, hedges, and flowering trees. Well beyond the dwelling, in the distance, was the Citadel, its dome catching the rays of the setting sun. It was warm, the heat baking their faces and arms, and it was one of their rare days off from lessons at the Academy.
Any better? I think so. At any rate, one keeps trying to improve. Any and all feedback, as long as it’s the respectful kind, is welcome.