Friday, May 29, 2009

"Literary" Writing Techniques

Marisol asked a question earlier in the week: "What literary writing techniques do you feel are missing from genre fiction? It's part of your welcome message, and I infer that you feel pop fiction is missing something in that way."

Hot on the heels of yesterday's debate, I might feel a bit too exhausted to broach that subject again, but I'm going to attempt a manifesto of sorts. I haven't received my co-hosts' imprimaturs to say any of the following, so they have every right to distance themselves from this manifesto if they like.

Marisol's basic question seems to be "So what's wrong with non-literary fiction?"

My answer is: Nothing that isn't wrong with a lot of literary fiction. Let me explain.

Writing, as we all should know by now, is hard work. Writing well is very hard work. And most writers don't work that hard, even a lot of published and successful writers. There, I've said it. J.K. Rowling is a good story-teller, but she's not a good writer. Her prose is clumsy and unmemorable even if her characters and settings are very memorable. Ms. Rowling could do better. She could work harder. What would be the point? Her books would be better written, and reading them would be more rewarding for her readers. Yes they would, you boys. The same can be said of Mr. King, Ms. Steele, Mr. Hornby, and a raft of other writers. Their writing, their prose, is simply not very good, nor do they expend much effort on creating depth or multiplicity of meaning. Their books remain enjoyable. They just aren't that well written. And it's not just popular writers. Booker Prize-winning beloved literary author Salman Rushdie? He's written a few books I thought were unreadable, too. He owes me a refund for "The Ground Beneath Her Feet." Not because I didn't like the premise, but because it was badly written. Sorry, Sal.

The same goes for all of us, I am strongly tempted to believe. Writing is hard. Readers have no idea. Agents have no idea. Publishers have no idea. It's HARD WORK, even to write a bad book. 80,000 wrong words fitted into clunky sentences telling the story of cardboard characters doing boring things? That's still a lot of work. 80,000 perfectly-placed words in beautiful, effortlessly-read sentences telling the story of believable, compelling characters caught in imaginitive activities? Well, that's nigh impossible. And most of us don't work at it as hard as we should.

So here's the thing: Writing is as much craft as it is art. Writing is not just a creative endeavor, it's also a nuts-and-bolts, get-your-hands-dirty and change your own oil kind of undertaking. Whoever we are, we can all write better. We can all become more expert craftsmen. Davin, Michelle and I don't claim that we are experts. We do claim to be deeply interested in exploring the craft of writing, and we think it could be a great thing to explore, to discuss, to learn about, with a big group of people from the whole spectrum of the fiction-writing world.

So to get back to Marisol's question: Are there specific literary techniques that pop fiction seems to be lacking? Yes. But, as I say, it's not just popular fiction that needs to work on its technique, it's all fiction. Every writer can grow. Goodness knows I expect my next book to be better-written than my last. And I will only write a better book by thinking about the craft of writing, and trying to learn some good lessons from my fellow writers. That means you all.

And Marisol, the question you ask? The answer is this blog itself. Look at our old posts and keep reading the new ones.


  1. Scott, after yesterday's can of worms, I'm a bit exhausted myself. You've brought up Harry Potter. Good. And I'm not ashamed to say that I agree with you on the point that it could be written better. Most everything I read could be written better. Some more than others. But Reason has a good point in her comments in the "On Literary" post about writers trying to sound smart all the time. You know, most of the time we're just trying to entertain.

    However, I do think that much writing can be on a level where not everybody understands it - and it's just fine. In fact, it's wonderful. I. Like. Variety.

    Yep. The three of us here just like exploring the craft. And yesterday's debate certainly explored something that got me thinking. Not pointless at all. And it made the point I wanted: that literary, or any other genre, is impossible to define. I think this what makes writing, for me, a great place I can spend my time and exercise my talents and ideas.

  2. Scott,

    I forgive you for your last paragraph, because, as you said, we are "cold on the toes" of yesterday's debate.


    Since you directly asked for my opinion of your opinion, have at you! I believe one can, and should, define literary fiction and all other genres, as long as one allows for rare exceptions. In a time long past, definitions weren't necessary, but now we must know; how else can we live by tired stereotypes?

  3. May I be cursed with being as poor a writer as Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb.

    The writing in the latter Harry Pottter books grew more sophisticated. This may simply have been because J.K. Rowling improved with each book, but reading it also gave me the wonderful sensation that the story was maturing along with Harry. Certainly the themes matured as well, and that was on purpose. If I were to advise J.K. Rowling (ha!) I would say leave the more clunky and simplistic writing of the earlier books in place, because this effect of growing sophistication is awesome in its own way.

    I also have to say that while I can't read most of King's stuff (I've tried but get too scared), I think at the technical level, he's an excellent writer. I've greatly enjoyed his non-horror mainstream fiction because of the beauty of his writing.

    Still, though I vehemently disagree with your examples, I appeciate your premise. I think, however, any author you can name off the top of your head has actually already succeeded. It's the droves of books which slide like dust right past you, leaving no impression except a faintly distasteful grit, which are really what I would like to avoid joining.

  4. Justus: I'll try my hardest to define them, then. Oh, wait, that's just a bad idea. I think I'll define them somewhere not public. Wouldn't want to stereotype anything, heaven forbid. ;)

    Tara: There are lots of things I would change even in classic literature, but I respect where things are and leave them be without a fuss. Although I think Rowling could have written Harry Potter better, I don't think my life or anybody else's would be better for it. And the way it is WORKS, you know? Yes, she has succeeded, and I applaud her for it.

    Yeah, the books that slide by like dust are the ones I like to avoid. Fortunately, not many of them land in my lap by accident. I just hope to avoid writing one. :)

  5. Here is a link to a comprehensive listing of literary elements:

    To Scott's point, both literary and non-literary works are devoid of some of them. Which ones - and to what degree the work is deficient - is highly variable. As is the impact of the missing pieces. As it stands, the question is simply too open ended to provide a comprehensive answer.

    On the other hand, a work that was spit-polished to include every literary device will likely be overbearing and unreadable. Murphy once said "if you try to please everyone, no one will like it."

    I like popular fiction. I like literary works. Hell, I read the entire cereal box whenever I get the chance. Here are the books I've read this year:

    MY HORIZONTAL LIFE- Chelsea Handler
    TWILIGHT- Stephanie Meyer
    NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN- Cormac McCarthy
    WATCHMEN- Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (and yes, that counts!)
    THE NEW STRATEGIC SELLING- Robert Miller and Stephen Heiman
    THE ROAD- Cormac McCarthy
    THE RAINMAKER- John Grisham

    A mix of humor, business, literary, a graphic novel, and pop fiction (YA and Adult). No book was perfect. While some were better than others, I don't consider any of them trash or begrudge them their popularity.

    Read what you like. Write from the heart. Always strive to be better.

  6. There are definitely books where a good plot or intriguing idea simply wasn't carried through by the writing or characterization. I'll be the first to admit this is a particular weakness in certain genres. There was one sf story (Microcosm) which had an exquisite Idea as the premise, but egads, the characters were SO BADLY DONE that it was painful to make myself finish the book. I truly, truly wished the author had gotten some help learning the basics of characterization before ruining a good book with characters I only wish had been merely as bad as cardboard.

  7. Rowling wrote for young people, so her excessive dialogue tags might have helped children understand the story; as an adult, I don't need to see an exclamatory sentence followed by "screamed deafeningly," "ejaculated loudly," so on. Though I do admit that I often envy the word count of ba-, uh, "different" writers.

  8. Let's not just pick on recent genre writers. In "I, Robot", Asimov wrote the following: "'He was not no machine!' screamed Gloria, fiercely and ungrammatically." He sure liked his dialogue tags.

  9. Tara: I would argue that Rowling's ideas and themes matured, but that her writing didn't; it just became wordier and had she not been J.K. Rowling, she'd have been edited more ruthlessly to the benefit of readers.

    Rick: "Write from the heart" is fine as far as it goes, but I like to write and read from the brain as well. The most heartfelt work, if badly written, is still a badly written book. I agree that to use every literary device just to have used them all is foolish and pointless. What I do believe is that, if we're going to use symbolism (for example), do it right. If we're going to attempt to write believable characters, we should study how good writers have worked with character. We should, in short, work harder. All of us. Even successful, published authors.

  10. My fault has always been my deep and abiding love of adverbs. I find the auto de fe of the -LY words most distressful.

  11. I'm not sure exactly how to jump in here, because I have mixed emotions. I have to say first that I only read the first Harry Potter book, so I'm not an accurate judge of it. But, I think, like Tara, that there is something to be said for popularity. Clunky or not--I can't remember--the Harry Potter books were engaging to millions of readers. Those readers were able to enjoy the book and get meaning out of it. If the writing had been different, it's possible that the engagement wouldn't have occurred. Again, I'm not a good judge, but I just wanted to make that point. I think it goes back to the idea of contrast, and sometimes high concept, multiple storyline books might suffer from complex writing.

    For me, while traditional literary techniques (and I realize that this term really has no definition other than an intuitive one) can separate a strong writer from a mediocre one, what I strive to do now is to let go of the things I've learned after I have internalized them so that I can be truly inventive. The writers I admire the most partially relied on learned techniques, but their brilliance comes through when they struck out on their own. Maybe that's what literary means to me: groundbreaking. The "genre" in genre writing implies that a writer is following a set of preset rules. And, only when those writers build upon those rules, whether they call themselves genre writers or not, is when they become interesting, in my book. I think JK Rowling did that successfully, as did King.

  12. I'm just sitting here with my afternoon cup of coffee, listening to this conversation, nodding in agreement in some places, disagreeing in others. What I like most is that you are discussing this topic. :)

  13. I think it's true, Davin, that literaray is perhaps another term for experimental. Though too many wanna-bees fail to recognize this, leading to a glut of dry husks of attempted-literary stories which would have been better off just soaking in a genre. Sometimes it helps to prove you can follow rules before you break them.

    And of course, even when experiments suceed, they don't suceed for all readers.

  14. Still, I would be interested to know if certain literary techniques, such as switching to an unusual POV (second person, for instance) can enhance genre fiction.

    In my wip, I've tried to do this, just briefly, to highlight areas of high emotion. I don't know if it will fly in a genre story, or if the technique will call too much attention to itself *as* a technique. The last thing I want is to call the reader's attention away from the story and onto my prose. To me, that's failed prose.

  15. Here is my question: can brilliance be learned--achieved with enough hard work?

    Annie Proulx said in an NPR interview that writing stories, for her, is not hard. It is pretty quick and easy work. Arundhati Roy said "The God of Small Things" came out intact; she only edited something like two pages.

    So if we are going to call Rowling out for not working hard enough, or King, what about Roy and Proulx? They could have worked harder, no doubt, but they didn't. And what came out is certainly literary. And arguably brilliant.

    So this discussion still feels a bit like putting down genre, and I say that as someone who writes and almost exclusively reads literary fiction.

    I also feel like the flip side, the thing that we tell ourselves, is that anyone can write something brilliant and meaningful if they work on their craft hard enough and maybe that's not true. You might become competent, but to be brilliant, I do think there must be something less mechanical, something already lying within.

  16. Tara: "The last thing I want is to call the reader's attention away from the story and onto my prose. To me, that's failed prose."

    I agree. Sometimes I'll realize that the author is just showing off, and that irritates me. To paraphrase Salman Rushdie (now that I've already insulted him), sometimes readers don't care about your brilliantly-handled surrealism or whatever; they just want you to tell them a story.

    I paraphrase because Mr. Rushdie's original quote used foul language.

    All: One thing I have been meaning to bring up is that I think that how much a reader likes a book is based strongly on what a reader's expectations are when they read. Most of us pick up books because we think we'll enjoy the experience of reading them, and some of that anticipation is based on our personal history of readers, what we've enjoyed reading in the past and what we have come to expect. If those expectations aren't met, either because the book's poorly written or because it's just not the type of book we're in the mood for, then we'll think it's a bad book.

  17. Jennifer: Maybe. I haven't meant to genre bash, certainly. But I will say that, in my experience, the writing itself, the prose of the works, is of a higher standard in "literary" novels than it is in genre novels. That's not a popular thing to say and I know it, but I believe it to be true in the general case.

    I haven't read the two authors you mention, and perhaps their works do spring forth fully formed and brilliant. All I'm saying is that most of us--no, *all* of us--could work harder at our craft, and we should. Brilliance is probably unattainable for most people in any field. But I believe this because I value literature highly, and I value the future of literature, and I love reading well-written books and wish there were more of them.

  18. Tara, I think what Scott just said about expectations is what we've discussed about the book you beta read for me. Expectations can play highly into our likes and dislikes, I have to agree! But you also pointed out so many other things about the actual writing that needs to improve. So I had two things against me there when I handed the book over. *grins*

  19. I'm going to contradict myself and say that there are times when I do read purely for the joy of the words and sentences themselves. Some prose reads as elegantly as poetry. I don't mean it is purple, but frequently it is metaphorical, it is lyrical. And I do want to point out that it is easier to achieve this kind of stunning beauty in certain genres than others.

    As a speculative fiction writer, I have to be very careful about how I toss around my metaphors. If I say, "planet poisoning monsters belched the dead citizens of the city into their respective dungeons for the day" to decribe white collar workers going to work in New York, the reader will understand I am being metaphorical, but if I describe the same scene as taking place on Proxima 4 in the year 3000, the reader is going to wonder if aliens are spitting zombies into literal prisons.

  20. Lady Glamis, you and I both agree, I think, that is is fair to ask much work of a reader. But I you can also agree the writer is first obligated to tell the reader what kind of work it should be.

  21. Which I didn't do at all when I handed my book to you. *cringes* - well, lesson learned there! :D

  22. Er, no. :) But I'm looking forward to reading it again. I have a feeling you're going to craft it into something really unique and beautiful by the time you're satifisfied with it.

  23. Scott, I agree. The prose is often better in literary works. I think my issue was with the notion that some writers work harder than others. I think it's more than that, or maybe different than that, for something brilliant.

  24. Tara, thank you. Yes, that's my goal. I'm not sure how long that will take. I have a feeling it will be quite awhile. :)

  25. Jennifer: I have no first-hand experience of being brilliant, so I can't say anything intelligent about it! I do think that we all should want to be better writers. I think that some successful writers aren't very good, regardless of their success. Using commercial success as a measure of quality is a slippery slope. Which is not what you said, I know.

    So here's the real point of this post: Davin, Michelle and I all think that one good way to learn to be a better writer is to discuss writing craft with other writers, hence this blog. The "statement of purpose" isn't meant to say that we can make popular writers better by transforming them somehow into literary writers. What we mean to do is to talk about our craft in an open forum so that writers of any style--from literary to genre to experimental--can talk about craft back to us. We can all learn from each other, but the point of it all is to become better as writers. The three of us learn as much from all of you as (we hope) you might learn from us.

  26. Scott, thanks for saying that last thing. I agree whole-heartedly. I think that's why blogging has been so fun for me.

  27. I agree as well, Scott. That's exactly the premise that Davin had in mind, I think, when he asked us to join him. Perhaps we could use some of your brilliant wording in our description in the sidebar, Scott? Although I think it should be pretty clear what our intent is.

  28. Michelle: "I think it should be pretty clear what our intent is."

    I don't know about that, especially when I'm the one posting. I can come across as an elitist, you know. Or a bully. But I'm a really, really nice guy. Honest!

  29. Scott: ["Write from the heart" is fine as far as it goes, but I like to write and read from the brain as well.]

    I covered that, see "read what you like" and "always strive to be better" ;-)

    For me, draft 1 comes from the hear. Re-writes and revisions come from the brain.

    I agree with you that from a mechanical perspective some prose is better. Even basic punctuation and grammar aside, syntax and rhetoric - the way we organize and present our thoughts - is what can define a voice.

    Syntax and rhetoric are subjective, though. Something can be off without being wrong. Again, this is where striving to be better comes into play. Don't settle for good enough when you are capable of greatness.

    When I read TWILIGHT, there were a couple points where I hit a really bad sentence or paragraph and just put the book down because it frustrated me. Usually after Bella sighed for the third time in two pages, or when someone "sat motionlessly" (I swear it really says that).

    On the other hand, I savored almost every sentence of THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, which is lyrical in its flow but still had a great story.

    THE ROAD literally moved me to the brink of tears at the end because of the emotions McCarthy conjures up. I'm sure the fact that I have a seven year old son that I thought of as I read the book has something to do with that.

    THE RAINMAKER held my attention throughout, and I thought it was very well written. The characters were believable and sometimes eccentric, and the prose had a very natural wit. I chuckled along in many places even though it's a legal thriller, not a comedy.

    WATCHMEN dazzled my eyes and mind. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend you read it. It has literary merit.

  30. Scott, sorry. I meant that it IS pretty clear what our intent is in our description already. Or is it? It's Friday. My brain is fried.

  31. What an elitist bully! Who gave him the imprimatur (thanks, uncle) to spew madness?!

  32. Wow, what a discussion. Here I am, late to the party again.

    To me, 'literary' means something different than good or thoughtfully crafted. It has to do with the tone of the work. It has to do with the fact that it is a bit less plot driven and a bit more character driven. True, word crafting may matter more in that type of fiction -- but one can go overboard in that regard as well.

    I know I'm not adding anything new. Still fun to jump in :)

  33. Tess, I agree with you. I see literary as a genre. One can combine it with other genres, but one has to recognize there are always trade-offs.

    So here's my question. Let's say that Dan Brown could improve his diction. Would it actually improve his story? Or would making his prose too literary actually slow down the story? Could The Da Vinci Code work as an action thriller in that case?

    A counter example is Children of Men. This is a literary sf tale. It didn't have to be literary as well as sf. I think it works, but my husband was disappointed to find the story "bogged down" by long-winded discussions of a middle age professor's debates about English lit with his students and other such details.

  34. Scott, I was taking issue with the implication that literary fiction meant writing that was the product of worker harder. Felt like an insult to genre, and isn't always the case. If the standard were working hard, we'd certainly have to say Brokeback Mountain could have been "better" and if you said that we'd have to go. :)

    I think I actually agree with your larger point--that literary fiction often reflects a sometimes maddening struggle to find just the right word, just the phrase--that they way something is said can be of great importance.

    But on the point of whether Rowling or Meyer should have spent more time on this, I'm not sure. I can imagine that reading Twilight would drive me nuts. But I'm not sure that it should have been better written--she got grown women to stand in line at midnight to buy her later books. (I love, love, love Jhumpa Lahiri. But I didn't stand in line to buy "Unaccustomed Earth." I got it when I got it.) Meyer has a family with small children, she had future books to write, there is always an opportunity cost to every endeavor, and I'm not sure that I believe she should have labored over the prose. Whatever prose she used appears to have done it's job--imparted a story in a way that stuck a powerful chord with lots of people. Would it have struck more of a chord? Maybe. But I think we are getting more into art for art's sake at that point. My best guess from talking to people who read her books is that they didn't want to linger over beautiful prose; they wanted to know what happened next.

  35. Like Tess, I'm coming late to the party :( (a disadvantage of my strict new blogging regime!).

    But both this post and the previous post on the definition of literary were informative and interesting, so I just wanted to say thanks, I enjoyed them!

  36. Scott, although I agree that Rowling captivated readers, I'd like to point out that her creativity got her into trouble; at least, I never understood why she expected readers to believe that a world full of instant-kill spells and teleportation spells could function properly. Silliness.

  37. I should have typed "Scott:". Durn!

  38. Very, very interesting! I agree with you that writing well is hard work. I wonder how many of the authors you named had second thoughts about what they had written after the work was published. I wonder because I have them (second thoughts) about any and everything I have ever written that would be read by others. I always think, " I could have said that better, or that would be better written differently."

    Just my thoughts. This is a very thought-provoking post.

    I hope you have a wonderful week!

  39. great post, scott. I think a lot of writers share your sentiments and your lofty goals!

  40. My basic question wasn't what's wrong with non-literary fiction, but thank you for the kind topic post. :) I think you did a marvelous job answering.


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