Monday, October 12, 2009

The Writer's Writer

Recently, I passed an excerpt of my current WIP, Bread, to Scott and Michelle for their feedback. I was happy to hear that this new story was working for them both, but one thing Scott mentioned in his review was that he appreciated that I was "following ideas for longer stretches" than I did in Rooster, which is composed mostly of short chapters (as usual, I blame Tolstoy for this).

This comment thrilled me, but it also got me thinking about the idea of being a writer's writer.

After all, Scott and Michelle can appreciate that I'm following ideas for longer stretches because they know how hard it is to do that themselves. But, would the average non-writing reader feel the same way? Would they care at all?

For me, writing longer chapters was a challenge I gave myself. At the same time, I have no idea if longer chapters makes a better book. Even with Rooster, my last book, one of the things I'm most proud of is that I was able to write from the point of view of multiple characters. But this again could be something readers don't care about...or even get annoyed by! Let's face it, a lot of the things we do as writers get unnoticed by readers.

Okay, okay, we hope that readers still pick up on these skills, even if they aren't aware of them. Perhaps, they can detect that something is better about a book, though they can't quite identify what that something is. But, is it possible that a lot of what makes writing great can only be recognized by people who have done a ton of reading, who have dissected it, who have compared it to other works?

Is there a benefit to being a writer's writer beyond the favorable pat on the back by our colleagues?


  1. Davin --

    I don't know that there's any benefit besides the proverbial pat on the back. Granted, I write genre fiction, so the pat on the back is less important for my work.

    I worked as a page designer for a newspaper for two years, and one of the things I noticed is that people always know when they see a bad image -- they just don't know why it's bad or how to fix it.

    It's the same thing with novels I think. The average reader might not notice the tricks, but they know when they like a story and when they hate it. They just don't have the knowledge of how precisely they'd fix it to make it better.

    I also don't think what makes writing great can only be detected by people who are writers themselves. Is it easier for them? Of course it is. That goes almost without saying. But the emotions, the joie de vivre, and the power of prose can and are recognized by the non-writers among us. They only don't know the names.

  2. Davin, you ask great questions. I've been wondering about the multiple POV issue for awhile. I feel like you're right about it seeming to reflect a more complex novel (which I am inferring from your pride in having done it)--a lot of the books I've read that make me stand in awe of how events/themes are all pulled together--White Teeth, The Emperor's Children, The Corrections--do that. They weave different subplots and stories and POVs together in brilliant ways. So I feel like that is one meassure of a "brilliant" novel.

    But as a reader, I often don't like the starting and stoping that comes with the shift in POV. I tend to get very invested in what is happening to the person about whom I am reading and then all of a sudden I have to leave him or her and get invested in someone new. This is more bothersome at the beginning of a novel--each time a new POV character is introduced. But still, unless very well done, it could give someone a "good point to put the book down" kind of a moment.

    On a different note relating to a recent post, I read a book this weekend that was in first person, present tense, and I thought it was extremely well done. It was "Rooftops of Tehran" by Mahbod Seraji. The tense did not bother me at all, not even at the beginning (like it did in The Namesake). In fact, it seems to me that it was perfect for the voice/story.

  3. Great Post.

    Multiple POV - I have six POV in the manuscript I'm currently tidying up for query. I don't lump all the POV together. The book is broken into two parts. Part I has three POV, as does Part II. Each chapter presents the three POV, but they are clearly separated into sections so the reader knows who is telling the story in each section. This works for me and is hopefully less confusing to readers.

    Long vs. Short Chapters - I once read that chapters in a novel should be of equal lenghth. Chapter 1 shouldn't be 10 pages and Chapter 2 60 pages, and Chapter 12 2 pages. As with most rules, I interpret them liberally.

    Mary Higgins Clark is all about short chapters, as is Janet Evanovich. George R. R. Martin does fairly lengthy chapters. As for me, it depends on the project.

    As a reader, and a writer, chapter length really doesn't matter to me. I think what matters most is the content of the chapters.

    As for your final question, aren't we, as humans, conditioned to want the pat on the back by our colleagues? Don't we want people to notice our snazzy new clothes and nifty haircut? The new car? The brilliant writing? Well, of course, we are, but I think the pat on the back from our writing colleagues carries more weight than the casual reader of our brillliance . . . because our fellow writers have been there, done that, and know what the heck (for the most part) they're talking about!


  4. Davin, I wouldn't worry too much about what get's the reader annoyed as of yet. Write from the heart, that seems the most honest work to me. It sounds from your critiques that you're improving your methods, so congrats on that.

    BTW Michelle,love the new picture.

  5. Great post Davin. I don't know that some readers can recognize what it is we do within a particular work of literature. But perhaps this is what happens when a reader expresses joy in a book without knowing really specifically why they liked it. They may not be able to tell you why the writing is superb other than a general feeling that the book is better than most. It's the same thing as really enjoying the way a car drives without knowing (or being able to express) what makes it so enjoyable. Either way, it's good that you are improving your writing in the ways you want to. That by itself is cause for a pat on the back.

  6. Once again, I relate all this to photography. I used to never know what made a portrait look PROFESSIONAL... until I started doing photography myself. Now I know. There are so many things that go into it, from what lens you use, the poses, the clothing and hair, the focus, and all the different things you can do in post editing as well.

    I always knew when something looked professional vs. amateur. Writing is less visual, so it's harder for me to tell. But I do know when I'm reading something by the hand of someone who knows what they're doing. It's almost like the goose-bumps factor, if you will. Much of it can be subjective. Much of it is just evident in how everything works together, even if the reader doesn't know how it's working.

    I don't think, number one, that you should compare Rooster with Bread. They're completely different. And you're in a different writing phase, too. You've learned and grown since you wrote Rooster (not editing...)

    As for multiple POVs, it's something that either works or it doesn't. I sure hope it works in Monarch. I feel strongly that it does. It wouldn't be Monarch without that element.

    You know, it's all like a car. I know it's working and getting me to where I need to go, but I don't know exactly how the engine works. A genius designed that. :)

  7. On the ‘if you’re only tool is a hammer’ principle, I can’t see a downside to writing for writers.

    I do it for practice. I doubt my efforts will ever win a prize, but they have honed my skills. I have more options now, more techniques. I feel more assured that my words have the intended effect.

    I don’t know what writing longer means in your case (more description? subtler plot arcs?) but now you have a choice and can pick the length that best serves your story and appeals to your target audience. How can this not be good?

  8. MattDel, Thanks for your thoughts. I hope that what you say is true, that for the average reader, they are able to pick out different qualities of writing. I think some elements in writing are more important than others, and it may be that different readers prioritize different elements, like plot over language, for example.

    Jennifer, You're describing something that I've picked up on from a bunch of readers. Thanks for explaining it to us. This is a good example of when being a writer's writer and writing for a reader can be in conflict with each other. And, thanks for the book recommendation!

    Scott, really interesting points. I will say that for me personally, a compliment from a writer carries a lot of weight, but then I wonder if it matters when we get down to the larger number of people who aren't writers. I guess it is a matter of what we are trying to do.

    T. Anne, thanks. The Rooster book is out to agents at the moment. So, I feel like it is done and that I've written from the heart. Now's the time for me to think about the readers! And, yes, that new pic is nice, isn't it?

    Eric, thanks. I think you're right. And, reflecting back on some book reviews that I've heard from non-writing friends, I remember that they often comment about the quality of the writing. It doesn't always bother them if the quality isn't as high, but they at least tend to recognize it, or have opinions about it.

    Michelle, another car example! Great minds think alike! I think I'll probably always be comparing my works with each other. I think it's just in my nature to compare things. But, at the same time, I can appreciate Rooster for what it is, even though I feel like I've improved since then. Good examples with the photography. I sense that in writing too, and I often wonder what that quality is.

    Brenda, well said. I do feel like I have more tools in my toolbox at the moment. And, maybe over time I will learn how to better use them so that their "point" becomes more essential to the story. Perhaps there are two stages to this, one involving learning how to use the tool, and one involving using the right tool at the right time.

  9. Davin, great question. I think MattDel put it best. Its not so much that the reader (non-writer reader that is) will care about the length of the chapter. For the reader to connect, everything has to be aligned.

    p.s. I have noticed that in literary fiction, the chapters tend to be longer. If I recall correctly Philip Roth's "The Human Stain" had never ending chapters. I could be wrong though. So I wonder if chapter length is sometimes tied to the type of fiction being presented.

  10. This post reminded me of what my filmmaker friend once pointed out when we were watching Goodfellas. When Ray Liotta takes his girlfriend into a night club, the scene goes on uncut for about 2 minutes. It is a continuous, uncut shot following them entering the club, going through a side door, through a busy kitchen, up some more stairs...the shot finally ends when the couple is seated in front of the dinner-show. If you don't understand filmmaking, you probably wouldn't be able to appreciate how difficult it would be to execute such a long uninterrupted shot with over 100 extras perfectly cued and choreographed. Some parts of our craft might never be appreciated by anyone other than another writer. I guess you could think of it as a secret handshake or knowing wink to insiders. - G

  11. Chapter length doens't mean much to me. even in books with longer chapters there is usually some form of break in time, POV, setting, etc. Some authors make that a new chapter, some leave an extra line break but include it in the same chapter. It's only too long if you go on a tangent the reader is not interested in.

    I like long chapters because I can lose myself in them, and the rest of the world dissolves when I get engrossed in a great read.

    I like short chapters because they keep me turning the pages. If I'm thinking about stopping, and I see a long chapter with 20 pages of continuous prose, I'm more likely to stop then if there are 3-5 page chapters (or a long chapter with frequent breaks).

    is it possible that a lot of what makes writing great can only be recognized by people who have done a ton of reading, who have dissected it, who have compared it to other works?

    I don't think so. I am not the most well-read among this crowd. I hardly ever dissect a work, and I try to judge most books as stand-alone, not comparing them to others unless they are part of a series. However, I do think I can recognize the underlying mechanics (or lack thereof) in an excellent composition. To me, that's the difference- the ability to articulate what is good and why.

    I would hope that someone who told you your work is excellent will also tell someone else. If so, then the pat on the back is a form of marketing, and positive word-of-mouth is always beneficial (ego aside).

  12. Wow, my mind is beginning to need a break. College + thought provoking posts= Mariah zombie.

    I feel like I'm always craving the approval of other writers, almost expecting it to strengthen my skills. Then I have to remember that criticism can do the same thing even better most times.

    Um... sorry if that didn't even answer the question. Like I said, I'm a zombie.

  13. I don't know if the question is whether there are benefits to being a writer's writer. If you are aware of such behind-the-scenes criteria, then you have to pay heed to them. Maybe readers who are not writers may not notice, but you and a handful of other readers-writers will.

    It's that whole if-you're-gifted-in-something-you-are-to-explore- it-to-the-fullest idea.

    Michelle relates this question to photography, I relate it to music performance. A performer may do some highly sophisticated and difficult thing that nobody notices, except for those other performers who are working everyday to achieve that. Everybody else enjoys the whole performance, the performer and the other two musicians are thrilled with the subtle but exquisite touches.

    I'm sounding fiercer than usual probably because I am reading into this post that you may choose not to pursue those high level things that most of us may never be aware of, or if aware, may never to able, to achieve. You owe yourself, heck you owe humanity.

    (I am usually not so bossy, really. And if I've misread your intention, well then, just ignore my ranting.)

  14. Praise from me won't get you published, alas!

    I do think that a lot of the craft that goes into writing is only seen by other writers, and that readers mostly grade on a "pass/fail" level. They like it or they don't, and they like your writing enough to seek out other stuff you've done or they don't. Which is fine. To borrow Michelle's photography analogy and Yat-Yee's musician analogy, your own awareness of craft will make you better at your craft, and people who practice that craft at a higher level will be the ones who can see what you're doing at a technical level. That has its own rewards; I certainly like getting props from writers I respect, and there's nothing bad to say about that.

    Ultimately, the reaction of the reader is more important than that of other writers, if you're trying to be widely read. As MattDel says, the power of prose can be recognized by non-writers. They may not know the how of it, but they'll see the what.

    If you're asking something like, "Will anyone but another writer see that I'm writing longer passages that really work in this book?" The answer is "Let's hope not." I want the craft, the technique, to be seamless and invisible to the reader. I don't want readers to say, "look at the parallel imagery here," I want them to say, "This is cool. What else has Bailey written?" That's why you write and that's why you work on your craft.

  15. I'm not sure if there is an implicit benefit, for the book at least. While it's nice to know that any writer who reads your book isn't going to think, "Why was that not adequately foreshadowed?!" the average reader probably isn't going to be thinking about things like that. They may be subconsciously aware of a difference, but they probably won't be able to put there finger on it. At least, not on the first read anyway.

    As for chapter length, I don't if it's true that longer is better. While it'd probably help the reader to have them at a consistent length (I just found one in my manuscript that's a quarter of the length of the others, and I'm still not sure why I did that), I think this is one of those things that you do as much or as little as is needed to get the point across.

  16. The technique in writing is like a woman's makeup. Done correctly, most people will notice the woman's blue eyes, not her blue eyeshadow. Certain women may take notice, not because the makeup is done badly, but because they want to figure out just how she did it. The latter would be the equivalent of other writers.

    I also think there are different kinds of readers. When I hear someone say they read everything they can get their hands on, I assume that person isn't a very discerning reader. It's like someone who eats all the time. That doesn't make them a gourmet.

    There will be readers who don't care how your novel is written as long as the story is good. Then there are readers like me who find bad writing excruciating and no amount of suspense can make up for it. They'll appreciate that you took the time.

  17. I think chapter length is sort of a non-issue. Chapters are as long as they need to be. Peter Carey's "Oscar and Lucinda" has very short chapters for the most part, but some longer ones as well. In my last book, the chapters get shorter as the book goes on, and that's mostly for pacing. When I wrote it, though, it was in seven long chapters. I broke it up into 26 chapters during one of many revisions.

  18. Nannette: That's an excellent way to put it - with the makeup.

  19. Michelle: Nice new photo! Is that your brooch? It's pretty.

  20. Thanks, Scott! I have more up on facebook for your viewing pleasure, haha. Since I look so great. It won't happen a gain for a long time. That took way too much time, lol!

    It's a necklace, yeah. It's mine. I bought it at a convention a few months ago. Didn't think I wanted to spend the money on it until another girl just about bought it, and I was getting extremely jealous and sad. So I grabbed it a second after she put it back down. And I'm totally rambling about myself. I'll go now. :)

  21. I am constantly wondering very similar things. Getting beta feedback from writers vs. non writers is very different as well. You have to get feedback and think about who you are writing for, not just while it's a WIP, but also whose hands it will ultimatley be in. This is a constant struggle for me, too.

  22. Crimogenic, I tend to agree with you about MettDel's comment. Regarding the literary fiction, I'll stand by Tolstoy and say not every chapter has to be long.

    Georgina, I really like what you say about the secret handshake. It sort of feels like that, doesn't it? It's like we get to have two conversations at the same time, but one is in code.

    Rick, You're probably more well-read than you know. Well, at least you've read The Road! Good point bout the marketing. I'm counting on Scott to sell a couple thousand copies of my book based on word-of-mouth. He's in charge of Northwest sales.

    Mariah, I think you're just poking in to eat our brains. We're watching you!

    Yat-Yee, I liked your ranting a lot! Thank you for it. This is a topic that is still open for me. Honestly, most of the time I don't feel like Im' trying to contribute to humanity. I don't care that much about the bigger picture. I used to care a lot, but something switched in me a few years ago. Maybe it will switch back soon...I kind of think it might.

    Scott, some nice points. I was just thinking about the invisible author thing last night, probably while I was on the elliptical. I used to aim for that invisibility, but I'm not there at the moment. I am trying to be just a little bit visible. Just a little.

    Dominique, thanks for your thoughts. Hmmm. I wonder who's right. I admit that I personally want to believe in the idea that readers will like it, even if they don't know why. But, I can see that it could just get glossed over. And, for the record, I'm all for chapters of different lengths!

    Nannette, Excellent, excellent point about the different types of readers. Yes, of course that is true, and I could come up with examples in my own circle of friends. Nice analogy with the make-up too. This post is generating a lot of analogies!

    Jenn, I'm glad I'm not the only one thinking about this kind of stuff! I guess we should just try to consider as many people as we can!

  23. Davin-
    I think the only goal is to tell the story in the best way you can. I find myself drawn to the storytellers who are creative, who push the envelope in one way or another, because then I usually get more out of the story. It is probably a nice thing that other writers appreciate the difficulty involved in some techniques, but they wouldn't matter if they didn't make the story stronger.

    It is probably very nice to know that you took a risk AND it paid off.


  24. I'm currently reading Saga of Seven Suns by Kevin J. Anderson. The seven book series has a large cast of characters, and he switches around between them from chapter to chapter, telling parts of the story from everyone's POV. The chapters are pretty darn short. sometimes a mere two pages or less.

    This works well when he's describing action. It accellerates the pace and accentuates that feeling of momentum, if you know what I mean.

    It doesn't work so well for character development. There will be a few pages on So-and-so having an internal struggle over such and such, then before you can really delve into that character's problem the chapter is over and the story moves on to someone else's POV and doesn't get back to So-and-so for what feels like ages. It can be a little disorienting and also makes the passage of time a little muddled and confused. Especially considering that if I give a fig about the character, I'm sorely tempted to skim ahead and read their next chapter...

    Quite honestly, if the story is good enough to completely draw me in, I hardly even notice chapter breaks in my page-turning frenzy.

    And wow! I've rambled on way longer than I intended. Long story short, the length of your chapters isn't as important to me as the storytelling in your chapters. I most likely won't notice or appreciate the difficulty level of your writing, but I'll love you forever if you tell me a good story. <3

  25. Becca: Great point! If you tell me a good story, sometimes the other things just don't matter much. :)

  26. Congrats! Isn't it great to get feedback that you've improved? I love that. In my heart, I know certain aspects of my writing are miles above when I started, but it's really nice to hear it from someone else.

    I have no problem when authors write from multiple POV's as long as each character truly is important, and each is given a clear voice. Also, the transitions have to make sense!


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