What Makes a Great Writer?
In my almost ten-year career as a writer/editor, I have helped more authors and wanna-be authors than I could ever presume to count. I have edited thousands of short-stories and innumerable novels. So, to make a long story short, let’s just say I’ve had A LOT of writers cross my path. When one has known as many writers as I have, it becomes pretty easy to see patterns emerge. What makes the difference between a hobbyist, a writer, and a great writer?
*rubs palms vigorously*
I am going to tread into dangerous waters here, but hey, why not? If I make some people angry, maybe they need to be shaken out of their comfort zone. In the end, this is all just my opinion anyway.
I believe that creative fields (like writing) will reveal the best and the worst about your character. One of the biggest “sins” I have witnessed in my career is pride. Make no mistake, as I point one finger toward you, then there are three pointed back at me.
When I first decided that I wanted to become a writer, I had a terrible pride problem. Why I didn’t need to study. I made As through school on all of my writing. And there really wasn’t any good writing out there anyway. I mean, these best-selling authors just churn out books like some assembly line, and I could do far better. My story was fresh, innovative…different.
Plain fact of the matter? I wasn’t teachable. My pride got in the way of me growing in my craft. It was probably made worse by the fact that I was a paid editor (by the way, editing and writing are two totally different skill sets as I would eventually figure out).
So you want to know the difference between the hobbyist, the writer, and the great writer? Reading. Look to others and learn from them. Like actors study other actors, we are wise to study other authors.
I have run critique groups and novel workshops for years and the single greatest indicator I have seen as to whether a writer will succeed or fail is how much he reads and what he reads. I can even look at a writing sample and, very often, tell you if this person is an avid reader or not. My single greatest frustration with many wanna-be writers is that they make a zillion excuses for why they do not read. (Hey, I made them all, so there is nothing I haven’t heard). They will cite time constraints, children, learning disabilities, family interference, ADD, ADHD, DMV, plague, planetary alignment, and voo-doo. Yet, strangely, these are often the very people who e-mail me five things a day griping about the government or send me inspirational angel kisses…which if I do not forward to my closes 250 friends I won’t get my fondest wish. *scratches head* Um, if their fondest wish truly and sincerely was to become a published, best-selling author, then maybe they should spend more time reading more productive works of fiction. Just saying.
Hobbyists often do not read. They will rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic because they are relying on their own limited knowledge to construct a highly complex structure known as the novel. They are hobbyists not because they lack talent or will, but because they have limited their pool of knowledge. That is like wanting to become a famous dramatic actor, but you have only watched episodes of I Love Lucy. Could you reach your dream? Sure. Luck always counts for something. But, unwittingly, you could be sealing your fate to remain unpublished. The writers I have seen who refused to read very often submitted the same tired manuscripts and stories (with shoddy retread) over and over and over until they got so discouraged they gave up.
Writers read, but they read mainly within their own genre. This is good. We need to read everything we can in our genre. How can we write an effective chase scene? Read a book written by an author who wrote a great chase scene. How do we create romantic tension? Read works by authors known for creating romantic tension. How did they do it? Study them, break down their stories. How did they describe a certain setting?
Great writers read everything.
The problem with not reading at all is we have no literary pool to draw from (think gene pool). Kind of a no-brainer. You marry your sister and you’re taking chances with your children.
The problem with reading just our own genre is that, granted, we get a much wider pool, but we still can risk losing the great innovation that often comes with grafting in other elements. Our work just starts sounding like every other person in our genre. There is no je ne sais quoi to make it stand apart as something special.
I feel that if we want to be great writers, then it is a good idea to stretch out of our comfort zones and read works we normally would not have considered. Last week I read The Aloha Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini. Now I generally like at least one dead body in the first ten pages. The Aloha Quilt didn’t have a single autopsy or car chase or explosion. Shocking, I know. It was part of the Elm Creek Quilts series (and not even the first one, for that matter).This is a book about a fifty-something-year-old female who goes to Hawaii to start a quilting camp in the midst of a nasty divorce from her husband of twenty-eight years. NOT the kind of novel I would have normally picked up…which is exactly why I did. This week, I am reading Twilight. Stop laughing. Again….not something I would normally have chosen to read in my limited spare time.
I cannot speak for you guys, but I, personally, am not satisfied with being a regular writer. I want to become a great writer. These two ladies are on best-selling lists for a reason. There is something they can teach me.
The Aloha Quilt gave me great insight into how to write a book that is part of a series and yet can stand alone. I never felt lost or bogged down in backstory. Ms. Chiaverini dropped just enough information for me to stay grounded, yet not so much that it killed curiosity for the other books of the Elm Creek series. This book gave me great insight into the mind, heart, desires, and fears of a fifty-something year old woman. If I ever have a character in that age group, I believe my “voice” will be more genuine.
Twilight has taught me some tremendous lessons about writing. Whether you care a whit about vampires or YA, I do recommend this book. I’m very glad I chose to read it (and now understand why the movie was horrible). You guys will have to wait for my insights about Twilight in that 1) I’m not finished 2) they are worthy of an entire blog. But, to make my point, I now comprehend some techniques that, before, were sketchy. Maybe I saw them more clearly because I was seeing Stephenie Meyer employ them in a genre I am unaccustomed to reading, thus they stood out more. I don’t know. I feel like it is the difference between you reading your writing aloud and someone else reading your work aloud. Your brain processes the words differently, and you’re granted fresh perspective.
So it is okay not to know everything. Learn from others. It will shorten your learning curve. Read as much as you can. There is always something to learn. If a book sucked eggs, then why did it suck eggs? How could you have fixed it? What did the author do wrong? What could she have done better? What did the author do right? How could you graft this innovation into your own work?
Hobbyists are unteachable and make excuses. If we want to be great authors, then we have to check the excuses and the ego at the door, roll up our sleeves, and dig in. We must be open to all the spice of literary life. Reading IS part of the job description, so there is no reason to feel guilty.
What are some books you guys have read that you might recommend? What did the book teach you? Inspire in you?
Until next time….