Those who have taught, or lectured on creative writing, specifically the novel or short story, will remember being asked, at some time or another, that pertinent but most difficult of all questions: What constitutes good writing?
The question is pertinent, of course, because that’s what teachers of the craft purport to teach. It is difficult because people have been trying to provide a definitive answer to it since first picking up chisels and quills.
As this blog is primarily aimed at giving advice on how to get the structure of stories right, I thought I’d offer my five cents on the topic of good writing in order to avoid giving the impression that structure is all that’s important to the craft.
Level 1: Spirit, Heart, and Mind
In teaching the craft, I like to separate it into three areas. The first concerns learning about the spirit, heart, and mind of the times and our part in it. It concerns sharpening our powers of observation, being alert to contemporary ideas, ideals, and issues, bringing compassion to our social critiques, and learning to address old themes in new ways while acknowledging the value of the old in the new. These insights stem from our level of maturity and can not be hurried. They grow at their own pace, although they may be shepherded.
Level 2: Story Structure
The second area concerns the structure of the stories. Does your tale have a beginning, middle, and end? And if not, why not? Are the turning points, pinches, midpoint, climax, resolution, and so on, crafted in a way that encourages interest, suspense, and surprise? The trinity of spirit, heart, and mind without structure is like a ship without a rudder. The ship may be loaded with treasures, but it will eventually crash on the rocks and sink.
Level 3: Words and Sentences
The third area has to do with mastering the craft at the micro level. Are we using vocabulary and figures of speech appropriate to our subject? Are we invoking powerful textures, pictures and sounds with our words—using all five senses to do so? Words with an Anglo-Saxon origin, for example, are grittier and more tactile, depending on the context, than their Latin counterparts—so, ‘gut’ instead of ‘stomach’, and so on. Are we using short snappy sentences or long and mellifluous ones? It all depends on how we want to render our tale.
In my opinion, these three levels constitute the overall craft of writing. In different hands they give rise to the individual ‘voice’ of the author. Although most authors don’t ordinarily map out their novels in levels, this approach is, none the less, useful when it comes to studying the craft of creative writing.
Excellence in writing involves mastering three levels, the spirit, heart, and mind of the times and the self, the macro, and the micro level of the craft. Together they give rise to the ‘voice’ of the author—the mark of his or her individuality.
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