Good writing, bad writing

This whole defying Margo thing has led to much thought (which I usually try to avoid) and several long excellent convos about writing—especially the one I had yesterday with the glorious Holly Black1—about the ins and outs of writing advice, the different aesthetics of writing, etc. etc. So I decided to write a long and elaborate post, but, today I am tired and lazy. So instead I offer my quick and dirty method of becoming a fine writer.

    1. Look at writing you admire. Figure out what exactly is being done that you like so much. Is it the deployment of $100 words? Of adjectives? The way the rhythm of the writing reflects what’s happening? Employ said techniques in your own writing.

    2. Looks at writing you despise. What exactly about it is shitting you? Is it the deployment of $100 words? Of adjectives? The way the rhythm of the writing doesn’t reflect what’s happening? Avoid such techniques in your own writing.

    3. 2 is easier than 1.

Let me know how it goes!

Anyone else got any quick-and-dirty advice?

  1. How come talking about writing is always so much more fun than actually writing? []


  1. Barry on #

    My most smart-ass advice about writing:


    Good writing rarely happens when you’re sweating bullets, leaning forward with your nose pressed to the screen, hyperventilating, etc.

    Just chill out. Let it happen.


  2. Justine on #

    Wow, Barry, that is like the opposite of what I do and thus clearly bad advice. Ignore him everyone!

  3. Barry on #

    or, y’know, you could just panic and pound on the keys with both fists until something legible issues forth or the keyboard shatters, whichever comes first. that’s how i wrote my first novel.

  4. Justine on #

    See? Doesn’t follow his own advice!

  5. marrije on #

    barry, your first advice had me going ‘oh yeah? oh yeah? how the hell am i going to do that, then, huh? huh? Huh?’. so i guess i’m more in justine’s camp of writers. or yours :-).

    my current problem is that i don’t think i have anything useful to tell the world (yeah i know, don’t start with the big questions, bla bla bla). how would i go about finding out what my potential useful thing would be? or even my moderately entertaining thing?

    so i’m useless in the good advice department.


  6. Barry on #

    well, i never once said that i follow my own advice, now did i?

    see, marrije, stressing about “useful” and “moderately entertaining” and even “bla bla bla” is what’s holding you back. the universe doesn’t need any of the stuff we write. it’s all going to end in douglas adams’s prophesied gnaB giB anyway. so just have fun.

    or, y’know, freak out entirely and see what happens. i know this is incredibly helpful.

    as to justine’s original question of why talking about writing is more fun than writing itself: well, because it’s *not* writing. duh.

  7. marrije on #

    actually, barry, i think it is helpful, thanks. never heard of this gnab gib before, but having fun sounds good. hmn.

  8. Justine on #

    Barry’s dead right. All books wind up remaindered it’s just a matter of when. So never worry about whether you have anything to tell the world. Writing is about you, not the world!

    He’s also right that the occasional freak out is an excellently cathartic way to deal with the writing-breaking-your-brain thing. Try not to throw heavy things, though. Tiny cushions or stuffed toys are best.

    And this is prolly a good time to say that you should read Barry’s debut The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl. It’s a corker. It does not surprise me that he destroyed several keyboards in its production. And, no, I have never met Barry.

    Barry: Duh back atcha! Sometimes I think not writing is my favourite thing in the whole world.

  9. Little Willow on #

    I write what sounds right. Right write, write right. I love words. Why use the word ‘good’ when ‘fantastic’ is more appropriate? Likewise, why say ‘fantastic’ when something is merely ‘good’? Each and every word means something DIFFERENT. They sound different to me. They have different tastes.

  10. Barry on #

    “barry’s right.” surely the sweetest words in the english language.

    for me, at least. maybe not for you lot.

    not writing *rules*. not writing is awesome. not writing is xbox and movies and talking about writing and sending e-mails and bitching on the phone to your writer pals how no writing is getting done. all of which is vastly superior to the writing itself.

    of course, every now and again one must write in order to afford the continuation of not writing… 🙂

  11. Barry on #

    oh, and thanks for the plug, justine! just saw the book on a store shelf yesterday for the first time — it’s out early!

  12. Cecelia(C.C) on #

    Barry’s first advice is….good. but ya know barry justine has a point too. take me for example; i can’t get anything written unless i start panicing. it’s just a way of life. panicing, i mean.

    wait. what? it’s out? the third book is out? are you kidding me?!

  13. Sherwood Smith on #

    For me, it’s “See if your words are actually saying what you want them to say.”

    it’s easy to write, “her eye flashed magnificently” but what does that really mean? At the high point of your scene, if you choose to say “His eyes pierced to the very core of her being” don’t you risk sounding like a thousand forgettable romance novels you’ve read and set aside? Finding the words to get the reader not just to acknowledge signposts (severe emotion alert!) but to actually see—and better, experience—the emotions and actions of the characters is a toughie indeed.

    But if “effulgent” exactly describes what you see, don’t be afraid to deploy it.

  14. Barry on #

    well, damn — sherwood shows up and makes this all serious…

    in *total* seriousness, i think that “see if your words are actually saying what you want them to say” is probably the best advice you could give to a writer. not always the easiest to follow, but, yeah — do that and do it well, and you’re ninety percent there.

    and cecelia — if you can only produce when panicked, then it sounds like the panic should relax you, in the end! i win!

  15. Justine on #

    In Sherwood’s defence I did not stipulate that the rough and ready advice be bad. Yay you, Sherwood, on imparting actual pearls of wisdom. (As usual . . . )

    Cecelia: See right hand picture of Magic’s Child—it’s not out till next March. Sorry to have given the wrong impression.

  16. Diana on #

    Good writing = I don’t notice it, or if I do, it’s only because I certain phrase is so perfect or, you know, effulgent, that it leaps out to be cherished on its own, apart from story.

    Ex: “I’d seen brolgas taking off at sunset, their white feathers stained pink, purple, and orange by the light, making vast ripples radiate through the wetlands, sending lily pads rocking, frogs leaping from pad to pad, and lazy crocs slipping flash quick into the water.”

    was speaking to a fan of libba bray’s the other day and she was going on and on about the writing and I had to go home and pull out my copy of GATB to look at it, separate from what a fabu story it was. the writing was perfect for the story, so I didn’t notice it.

    Bad writing = gets in the way of the story. Doesn’t serve the telling of the story.

    Now I feel like a philistine.

  17. A.R.Yngve on #

    It’s a dualistic thing. *Writing* is necessary in order for *Not Writing* to exist!

    Writing is just an attempt to build a bridge, a communications link, between the writer’s brain and the reader’s brain.

    (And most of the time this bridge is creaky and collapses, or there isn’t much to communicate.)

  18. Maggie on #

    I would say the single-most thing that helped me to be a better writer was to hang around with writers that were better than me. Luckily, my first writers’ group was like that and those women taught me how to write.

  19. Barry on #

    maggie’s spot on. it’s very important to find someone better than you from whom you can learn. i’ve been very lucky in that regard — my friend robin brande is a better writer than i am and she’s also a terrific critique partner. works out very well.

    probably the toughest part is putting aside that strange writer’s ego (you know, the one that simultaneously tells you that you’re awesome *and* that you suck) and admitting when you’ve found someone better.

  20. Sherwood Smith on #

    mea culpa! i typed that [one] without having read the others because [two] i hand’t had my afternoon caffeine.

    sooooo . . . let’s see . . . bad advice. oh dear, it’s difficult to say without being snarky…. how about “Write it in a week and send it instantly because professionals don’t revise. They get it right the first time.”

    that is probably the worst piece of advice i’ve heard in my long career of mediocrity.

  21. Rebecca on #

    Good writing rarely happens when you’re sweating bullets”

    so. very. true. i write when i’m happy. if i try to write whilst (hee!) negative emotions are bumbling around my brain, i usually turn out negative writing.

    “it’s very important to find someone better than you from whom you can learn.”

    well, i try that, but mostly all i manage are annoyingly frequent posts on their blogs. 😛 my writer’s group is more of a sit-around-and-write group than a critique group, and i think this is mainly due to the fact that we all write completely different stuff. i.e. i write ya, but no one else does, so there’s only so much they can do since they aren’t familiar with a lot ya. i’m in a couple of online communities too, but i’m hesitant to put work online where just anybody can read it.

  22. Barry on #

    rebecca, try a writers’ conference or two. that’s where i met my writing soulmate. worst thing that happens is that you meet a bunch of people you *don’t* want to be, and even that’s valuable.

  23. Justine on #

    Sherwood: I actually think my advice above is good advice, just—as Diana points out—not exactly transparent and easy to follow.

    We were just pointing out that yours was instantly useful and smart and that you had shown us all up! But you have now inspired me to post on truly bad writing advice.

  24. ebear on #

    You must never talk about a story while it is in process, or you will destroy the urge to write it!

    (sez whooooo?)

    Sherwood, I think the thing you have identified in your first post is a lack of specificity and observation–wielding symbols rather than truth.

  25. holly on #

    Oh, Sherwood. You have conjured up the worst advice ever! I bow to you.

  26. Robin Brande on #

    Every now and then I have to self-google to see what kinds of lies people are telling behind my back, and here I come across Barry Lyga claiming I’m his critique partner (true) and that I’m a better writer than he is (the biggest fattest lie I’ve ever heard, and that includes the one about WMDs).

    I’m glad I stopped in, though, because this is a fascinating discussion. It’s always so interesting to see how other people work, and how we all deal with the various stresses of a life spent making up stories.

    That’s the part I always come back to when I feel all whiny. Even though some days I want to throw a shoe at my computer screen, or I feel all insecure and stupid and like my writing just stinks and everybody must know it, all I have to do is remember that this has been the life I’ve wanted since I was in fifth grade, and how cool for me that I actually get to do this for a job. A real life grown-up job.

    That makes me shut up real fast.

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