This is a post which I put on the Blogging Authors’ website a couple of weeks ago:
Having read plenty of good and bad literature, written five novels, observing myself as a writer, and thinking about the craft of writing, I have formed some opinions about the skills that good writers have. Not all the skills below are mine; some are still aspirational. But, I’ve progressed (somewhat painfully at times) from being a story-teller to an award-winning author.
First of all, a writer has to enjoy writing. Writing is a lonely, unsociable business – perhaps best suited to introverts, and it isn’t always fun, but one has a special feeling of creative accomplishment when a passage seems just right. Though, of course, one can feel pretty frustrated when one can’t seem to get it right. On balance, one should enjoy the work.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but one has to have a good command of the language in which one is writing: grammar, vocabulary, syntax, spelling. I think that, by definition, good writing is good literature which makes the most effective use of language.
I know that there are some writers who don’t bother to plan a novel: they have the whole thing in their heads at the start. That wouldn’t work for me. I have to create a time line, define the characters, their personalities, strengths and vulnerabilities, their interactions. If there is a message I’d like the reader to take away, I have to plan how I’m going to let him or her find it. Then there are settings and events; some of them should be surprising to keep the reader’s attention. And the whole package has to be completely believable to the reader, even if the synopsis sounds a little far-fetched.
A fertile imagination is essential to a writer of fiction, and it comes into play at every stage of the writing. The plan, the characters, the principal events should all be imaginative. The descriptions of particular events and characters’ actions should be slightly unexpected. It is the unexpected which keeps the reader’s interest. A novel where every turn of events is predictable is boring. But at the same time, the unexpected must be credible: if it’s not, the reader loses interest. I use a technique I call ‘leap-frogging’ to build up to what would otherwise be an incredible event. For example, in my latest novel, there a catastrophic fire in which several hundred people are killed. But before that catastrophe, there is a related fire in which only four people are killed, and before that, there are major concerns about safety violations.
The writer has to have real empathy with his characters – even the evil characters. As one writes, one has to feel what his/her character is feeling. Not just imagining the feeling, but actually feeling it. If one actually feels it, one can describe it more accurately. I remember that recently, my wife came home from work, and found me sitting at my PC with tears running down my cheeks. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Henry’s son was just killed,” I explained.
Finally, I think the author needs to think about leaving the reader with multiple levels of messages. If one thinks about examples from great literature, it is seldom just about human nature; there may also be sociological, philosophical, and religious messages, as well. One has to plan the development of those messages so that the reader gradually picks them up. Gradual assimilation is far more effective than being told at the end, “And the moral of this story is . . .”
I like these, more basic rules as well.
Especially: #19 “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”
Bert Oberholz (a colleague if Bill)