Good Writing

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:

kadathThree 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:

greatOurs 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.


Why the Force is With Us

When Star Wars burst onto the scene in 1977, no one had seen the like. It reminded me of an old Errol Flynn movie, but with special effects that blew past the bar set by 2001: A Space Odyssey nearly a decade earlier.

There was the princess who’d been captured by an evil sorcerer; the young hero whose destiny lies beyond the farm on which he’s been raised; the wise old wizard; and there was the rogue, the mercenary, who, beneath the crusty exterior, was deeply human.

This is all fundamental stuff, elements as old as stories themselves. And yet the movie seemed breathtakingly fresh. Star Wars was all anyone talked about that summer. Then came The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and Return of the Jedi in 1983, and we breathed a sigh of contentment. It was over, and it was brilliant. But along with contentment we felt regret that it was all over.

falconTime passes. Thirty plus years. And now we have two teaser trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In the first, we see some people we don’t know, some X-wings, a cloaked figure who is presumably a Sith lord, and then, there it is: the Millenium Falcon, looking as if it’s just burst from its cage, reveling in its freedom as it twists and turns in the air, only to level off to face incoming TIE fighters. Was there anyone not at least a little misty-eyed at the sight of the Falcon?

The second teaser ups its game. There’s the awesome shot of the Star Destroyer, crashed in the desert, then Luke Skywalker’s voice-over. People are starting to get excited. Then we have more action shots, and finally, there they are, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Commence total freak out.

But why did the trailers have this effect on us? What makes Star Wars so good? Why do we care?

To answer that question, it helps to look at The Phantom Menace, painful as that might be. In particular, it’s well worth looking at the series of seven YouTube videos in which RedLetterMedia deconstructs that movie. It does so while making you alternately laugh out loud and cringe with horror, as a LucasFilm employee seemingly did at an early screening of the movie. The most telling part, and it’s been a while so I’ll try to get this right, was while interviewing Star Wars fans about the original series characters. They were able to describe Han Solo etc. and ascribe to each a unique personality. They were then asked to describe Qui-Gon Jinn. The interviewer was met with a blank face. Upon being reminded that he was Obi-Wan’s mentor there was an “Oh”. And they were stuck. They couldn’t say a thing about him. “Stoic” said one.

The reason we love Star Wars is that we love the characters. We know who they are and we care about what happens to them. What does happen to them is on one hand a simple adventure, but on the other a multi-level story of good versus evil, the capacity for both within us, and in the end, the possibility of redemption and forgiveness even if you have fallen to the dark side.

And let’s not forget one of the most beloved characters of the series: the Millenium Falcon, the flawed and faltering ship (“Would it help if I got out and pushed?” Leia asked. “It might,” said Han.) that nonetheless digs deep and always brings our heroes home. The Falcon has a most definite personality, and we rooted for her as much as for Han, Leia and Luke.

In another blog, while reviewing the rebooted Star Trek, I reported that it was like seeing an old friend you thought you’d never see again. After early showings of Trek, people were reportedly weeping as they left the theatre. They were tears of joy. Watching the Star Wars trailers had a similar effect, because honestly, most of us thought we’d never see these characters again. Now we can see them and hear their voices, and suddenly the world seems a brighter place. We walk around with smiles on our faces. And in this world where darkness seems to creep closer to us every day, something, even a movie trailer, that casts a warm ray of light is most welcome.

He Was Spock

Leonard Nimoy was many things, actor, director, photographer, author, even singer. But above all, for those of us who knew him only by his work, he was Spock.

SpockThe genius of Nimoy was that, when he played Spock, the actor seemed to disappear. There was only Spock. And we loved Spock. Spock was supremely logical, but let the mask of logic slip just enough to let us know when he was angry, bemused or exasperated. He, Kirk, and McCoy formed the perfect trinity of logic, intuition and emotion.

Nimoy made an appearance via Skype at last summer’s Ottawa Comiccon, an appearance that Karl Urban (McCoy in the new movies) crashed, to Nimoy’s amusement. I wish I could have been there. I recently visited Los Angeles, and saw the handprints left by the cast of the original Star Trek. Nimoy’s of course, formed a Vulcan greeting. Though at one time he wrote I am not TOS SidewalkSpock, he came to embrace the role for which he was so loved, and later wrote a  book called I am Spock.

My favourite Spock episode? The Menagerie, in which Spock, still loyal to his former Captain, risks his career to help return Pike to a planet declared off-limits by the Federation. Another favourite was his fabulous return to the role in Star Trek, the 2009 movie. Then there’s the the famous Audi commercial he filmed with Zachary Quinto. What a great sport he was.

What else is there to say except


And Now for Something Completely Different

I’ve talked about fanfiction in previous posts, and to date that constitutes the bulk of my writing. However, I have started to write original stories. One of them is making the rounds of publishers, gathering quite the collection of rejection slips. And so it begins…

I’ve dabbled in story telling before. In fact, I just stumbled upon something I wrote back in 2001 in which a little girl learns the secret her family has passed on for generations. I thought it would be fun to clean it up and post it here, but as it turns out, there was little I wanted to change.

So, here it is, Where the Dragons Sleep. Hope you enjoy it.

Romancing the (Heart of) Stone

Would someone please tell me what it is about romance novels? I mean, what is it about them that makes people actually want to read them?

My latest Castle fanfic is another light-hearted stab at the genre. There’s a lot of romance in the Castle group on Stuff like,

“Oh, Castle!”


“Oh, Castle, I…”

“I know. Oh, Beckett, I know.”

Researching the genre a bit, I purchased a popular Harlequin Blaze novel, Thrill Me by Leslie Kelly. I was pleasantly surprised by the opening chapter. In fact, I was hooked by the first three sentences:

Sophie Winchester was skilled at only two things. She could type 120 words per minute without a single error.

And she was damn good at committing murder.

Like I said, hooked.

romanceIt turns out Sophie only commits murder on paper. As Richard Castle says, a lot more lucrative, a lot less prison.

She lives in a town called Derryville, a nod to Stephen King’s fictional town of Derry, where Very Bad Things happen. And keep happening. Nice touch!

But all good things come to an end, and we get down to it. The romance part. At the sight of the new sheriff in town, Sophie finds herself weak and dizzy, unable to stand without his assistance, unable to take her hands off him after gripping his oh so manly shoulders for support.

You get the idea.

And people like this stuff? Admittedly, I don’t read a huge amount of romance, but this type of behaviour on the part of the female protagonist doesn’t seem unusual. What happened to the concern one hears about the lack of strong, female characters in movies and TV shows? Are romance authors trying to harken back to an earlier age, in which females waited for their Prince Charming to make them weak at the knees and fluttery in the eyes? If so, what age would that be? Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I would point out, was published in the late 18th Century. I don’t see the women in that novel behaving like silly, limp dolls. Well, except for Lydia, of course.

How about a couple of strong characters with a complex relationship, buffeted by forces outside of their control, having to make life-changing decisions where no matter what they choose, someone gets hurt? Or is that sort of thing not considered a “romance” novel, but just a plain non-genre novel?

Ah well. In the end, it’s easy to poke fun at the romance genre, but at least its got people reading, and that’s always a good thing.