Musing on Writing vs. Writing Well


I’m starting to wonder if well-written prose is enough to kill a book. A quote I’ve used here previously,

People do not deserve to have good writing, they are so pleased with bad. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

seems to be truer and truer all the time. If we look at the books that hit commercial success (Twilight) good writing seems to be the least of the requirements. I know others have been saying for years that ‘literary fiction’ doesn’t sell. I guess it’s true.

So, I was in Target yesterday evening, and thought I’d take a gander at the books that are the basis for the HBO series, True Blood, Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries.  I had been thinking about getting them to try to wean a certain person off the Twilight series but thought, hmm, p’raps I should read them first and see if they’re worth it. I found the series, figured out which was the first one and started reading. I got through the first two pages standing in the aisle there, and put the book back on the shelf and walked on. Were these supposed to be young adult books? The writing was so juvenile, I was really confused. Maybe two pages isn’t a fair sampling to make a decision but dear dog, I thought the openings were supposed to be slam-bang these days? And I keep reading comments on various sites about how spooky these books are but it seemed more like humor.

If anyone has read them and would like to try to explain to me the appeal of a narcissistic cocktail waitress, have at it. I understand Harris spends a great deal of time describing the characters’ clothing in minute detail which is always a yawner. I’m going to quote Philip Athans again, because this is one of the things he mentions in the interview over at Clarkesworld Magazine:

Athans:  One of the easiest ways to spot an inexperienced author is what former Wizards of the Coast editor Mark Sehestedt described as “weather report, fashion report, travel report.” This is when a book begins with a lengthy description of the roiling gray clouds traced with ominous flashes of lightning then slowly but surely moves on to what the character is wearing—exactly—and how long and what color his hair is, before finally resting into several pages of the history and customs of the realm and the difference between a flugle tree and a tizzleberry bush, so that you’re most of the way through chapter one before anyone says or does anything.

The fashion report. The excuse I’ve heard is that the characters in question are obsessed with fashion. They are apparently written in the first person and right there on page one the narrator, Sookie, tells you just how cute she is. I so wanted to like these books but I already hate Sookie.

I don’t think reading the series is going to change my mind much. And yet these books are selling like hotcakes and have spawned a tv series, much like the Twilight books and movies. Maybe I’m just expecting too much after just finishing Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.

I’m still reading through that collection of vampire stories by women. My favorite so far was by Freda Warrington, (who, by the way, lists an e-mail address on her page and invites readers to contact her) very nicely written. Not all the stories have actual classic vampires, some are simply humans who prey on others for various reasons which to me is kind of disappointing. Psychopathic murderers wasn’t really what I was looking for. I’m sort of flipping back and forth between that and the ghost stories by Edith Wharton which finally arrived in late July. Very subtle, the first story kind of lost me, I wasn’t quite sure what happened. I guess I’ll have to re-read it.

My own vampire story has slowed in its progress, but is still uppermost in my mind. I’m getting new ideas for where to take the story, plot twists and so on, so it’s going, however slowly.

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29 thoughts on “Musing on Writing vs. Writing Well

  1. Hey DD,

    I haven’t read any of those books, so I can’t comment on them.

    But I can say, as a reader, personally, something must be well-written. My parents send me the National Geographic every month. There have been some articles on subjects that I *never* thought I’d ever be remotely interested in. But the writer will approach it in such an engaging style that I find myself engrossed. On the other hand, there have been times when I’ve thought- how can anyone make such a fascinating topic, boring?

    It’s the same way with novels. I’ve read the backs of some and thought, “wow! this sounds great”. Then I started reading. And stopped.

    I think things get frustrating for us writers because we hear over and over again about “rules”. Then a book will get published that not only breaks every rule, but most everyone agrees isn’t written that well. Of course that’s confusing, and frustrating when you spend so much time on the craft.

    All I know is that I want to be a great writer and a great story teller. That’s what I strive for. I can’t control what anyone else does- but I can put my butt in the chair and practice, practice, practice my craft. And maybe one day, someone will read my novel even if it’s not their usual cuppa tea, just like I read those not-my-usual cuppa tea articles in NG.

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  2. It is frustrating and confusing, after listening to agent after agent, and editor after editor talk about the standards they expect. Then you find stuff like this. Maybe it gets better as the story progresses, but I thought it was such a lousy way to open the book. I don’t know what I expected, but clearly it wasn’t that. But I guess like MJBlog says all the time, better people read anything than nothing. It just baffles me that people think these books are so great. Maybe I should read an entire one before passing final judgement on them, but the idea is so unappealing now.

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  3. What helps me is to simply concentrate on my own work; and also not to obsess with reading agent blogs and such. At one point, I got really into reading them- but then found my work suffered because I was stressing over everything. Now I try to read just enough so I am knowledgeable about the business aspect, but not so much that it feezes my creativity.

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  4. I have only read a couple of agents’ blogs, and not on a regular basis. But I do read various articles and interviews with agents and editors when I run across them (like the Clarkesworld articles I’ve talked about here). I figured that was enough of a random sampling of the prevailing industry trends and attitudes. And then something like Twilight, or Sookie Stackhouse comes along and seems to blow it all out of the water. Whatever. Like you said, all we can do is focus on our own writing, make it the best we can, and go from there. It seems to be a crap shoot trying to find an agent anyway.

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  5. I’ve only read “Twilight”, and I have to say I agree with you. The writing is nothing outstanding, and seriously, the story is so overrrated.
    I watch “True Blood” but have yet to read the book, though I intend to. But according to what you said, Sookie is even more of a pain in the ass in the books than in the series (I don’t really like the character that much).

    And yes, you are absolutly right. I’m so worried that my writing could be better, that my first scene is not appealing enough, but everyday I go to the librarry I find something that is bellow my writing and still got published. Maybe I’m demanding too much of myself, or maybe some people just settle for less.

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  6. Hi Ana!

    Nice to see you again 🙂 I may yet rent the dvds to watch a couple episodes of True Blood since I don’t get HBO. Would you say the tone is serious, or is it humorous? From the little bit I read of the book I’m really having a hard time justifying laying out any money to buy one (or any) of the books.

    I don’t think we’re demanding too much of ourselves. I think we just know the difference between good and bad writing, and are aiming for the former. I think once you know what good writing is it’s hard to take a step back and settle for anything else, from yourself or anyone else. I may never achieve the level I strive for, but that won’t stop me from trying.

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  7. Oh, there are so many crappy books out there, always have been, and still, I can barely find time for all the good ones I haven’t gotten to. My niece, a big Twilight fan (I cut her a break b/c she’s only 15 and very articulate ) likes some y.a. series called The Vampire Diaries by JL Smith (or maybe it LJ Smith.) I read the first 2 pages at the B & N site, and while it’s not exactly Joycean, at least there’s decent English at work, as you say –

    http://search.barnesandnoble.com/The-Vampire-Diaries/L-J-Smith/e/9780061140976/?itm=1

    Is your Certain Person young enough to go for this sort of thing? Or how about those creepy mysteries by Harlan Coben – again, they are a touch formulaic after a while, but the first few you read are undeniably gripping. What about Wuthering Heights – too old-fashionedy? Part of my problem is I never read too many y.a. books – I skipped right from the children’s section to the adult section (mostly Agatha Christie novels in the beginning, as I recall) when I was about 12, except for a long-lived love for a series about a girl detective from upstate New York named Trixie Belden. Trixie was less famous than Nancy Drew, but less of a stiff, and more of a tomboy. I’m not sure what her equivalent would be nowadays, but they were fun, junky little books and I don’t think they did me any harm in the long run.

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  8. Oh, The Vampire Diaries is being made into a tv series coming this fall. It looks more “Dawson’s Creek”-ish than Twilight. I forget which network is airing it. It’s my son’s gf, who I believe turned 23 in June and is besotted with the Twilight series. I think Wuthering Heights would be over her head, frankly. Maybe The Vampire Diaries (I was going to abbreviate it, but couldn’t bring myself to do it…) will be a good stepping stone for her. I was heavily into sci-fi through most of my teen years, except for the diversion to the Regency romances we’ve discussed previously 😉 And lots of paranormal/supernatural gothic-type paperbacks. I don’t even remember most of them. I also saw in my searches for vampire-themed literature some weird series called “Vampire Academy” or something, like a knock-off of Harry Potter but with Vampires instead of witches and wizards.

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  9. Wanted to add, I’ve already made it through chapter 1 of the Vampire Diaries book online. Sure, it’s not Joyce, but it’s a YA series so no quarrel with the tone of the book or the writing. If you get a chance, next time you’re near a bookstore, just read the first couple page of “Dead Until Dark” (the first Sookie Stackhouse) and see what you think.

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    1. I found a random page from Dead Until Dark @ the Amazon site, and it seems like “adult” fiction written at the YA reading level; there’s a market for that, I guess. I wish I could like it more – I think the idea of vampires presenting themselves as sort of a put-upon minority is a little clever, but I see what you mean about Sookie going on & on about how goodlooking she is. I think that’s wish fulfillment, for both Charlaine Harris (did you see her photo on the inside flap? I don’t make a habit of judging peoples’ physiques, but she is most definitely NOT built like wasp-waisted Sookie) and her readers, and also appeals to the readers who were raised on TV and want to visualize their favorite celebs in the roles as they read.

      Speaking of starting w/the “weather report,” I just started John Updike’s “Toward the End of Time,” and here’s how one of the great ones did it, once again defining the rule by breaking it:

      “FIRST SNOW: it came this year late in November. Gloria and I awoke to see a fragile white inch on the oak branches outside the bathroom windows, and on the curving driveway below, and on the circle of lawn the driveway encloses — the leaves still unraked, the grass still green. I looked into myself for a trace of childhood exhilaration at the sight and found none, just a quickened awareness of being being in my chores and an unfocused dread of time itself, time that churns the seasons and that had brought me this new offering, this heavy new radiant day like a fresh meal brightly served in a hospital to a patient with a dwindling appetite.
      And yet does the appetite for new days ever really cease?”

      When it starts with language like this, does it even matter what the book’s about?!

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      1. I did see her photo… yeah. 😉 At the risk of sounding catty, you could be right about the wish fulfillment issues.

        As for the Updike passage: took my breath away. Wow. Just wow. I don’t even put that in the same class as “weather report syndrome.” It’s so much more than just a description of the weather. I think you know what I mean, but just for fun I’ll see if I can find a really offending passage in a book and post it 😉

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  10. Thanks for my laugh of the day 🙂 though sometimes it is enough to make one cry, too. I also have noticed that the fashion descriptions are a sure sign that I am not going to learn much else from a book. I used to enjoy a good cheesy read, (cheesy goes well with a glass of wine) but now I do not have time to read all the books I wish I could, so I am pickier. I may have missed out on a good one because they didn’t pass the 2 page test, or maybe they missed out on a reader.

    I have not made it past the first couple pages of Twilight, nor tried any vampire series since Anne Rice, so I cannot judge either, but I am surprised by some of my well-read friends who like them. I think of many of the new series as YA-pop. I try to give them a chance, and am grateful that books are still so popular among teens. And I admit to reading a lot of schlock in my younger years, between classics and mysteries. MaryJ- I LOVED Trixie Belden too…still have a few for my girl 🙂 But she was tough and smart. Great mysteries and friendships, etc.
    I do see the same link mentioned between today’s junk books and the trash TV. And they perpetuate the same old fashion/beauty= popularity/self-worth ideas that the Sweet Valley High-ish books did. There are of course a lot of strong female protagonists and girl-heroes in YA, but there are still way too many victims, “mean girls” etc.

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    1. Well that is one gripe I’d have with the Vampire Diaries, it’s Little Miss Popular that’s the main character. I have a hard time identifying with girls like that. Maybe that’s the appeal of Bella in Twilight, she’s described as some kind of terminal klutz and downright nobody. Much more sympathetic character. It’s easier to put yourself in her place, than the MC, Elena, in Vampire Diaries (I still can’t bring myself to abbreviate that).

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  11. Do we have to find your d-in-l vampire stories? Barbara Kingsolver wrote a wonderful novel called “Prodigal Summer” that has all the makings of a light little romance (headstrong young college professor marries big handsome lug of a student, he dies tragically before we find out if the marriage would have made it, she has to learn how to cope alone, out in the country,) except it turns out to be a brilliantly written rumination on the way animal magnetism – both the romantic and the real wild-kingdom variety – create and sustain the cycle of life. I’ll bet if you skip that last part and just tell her about the romance angle, you could sneak some quality fiction in on her. Another decent little, smartly written romance is “South of Resurrection” by Jonis Agee

    http://www.amazon.com/South-Resurrection-Jonis-Agee/dp/0140241728/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1250297599&sr=1-1

    It’s not as good as Kingsolver, but it sure beats Stephanie Meyer.

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    1. Interestingly, as I was typing my response to Jan up there, they (son and gf) walked in. She hasn’t actually read any of the Twilight books yet, I guess they just saw the movie. And in a preview for the Vampire Diaries series that I saw the MC has been changed from a blond to a brunette. Hmm. Guess they want to distinguish themselves from True Blood.

      :::::sidenote::: This is bad. I’m becoming something of an expert on vampires in pop lit/tv.

      I’ll look up those other books, I know GF is also interested in the Jodi Picoult “My Sister’s Keeper” so maybe we can lure her away from the truly awful to the mildly embarrassing. That Kingsolver book sounds intriguing, I may pick it up for myself.

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      1. I think you’d really like the Kingsolver; you’d like her book “The Poisonwood Bible,” too, but it is much, much darker than “Prodigal Summer.”

        I read one Picoult book and although it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, I do know some educated people who dig on them – definitely a step up from Meyer (maybe even 2-3 steps up!)

        Janflora, I’m so glad to find another T. Belden fan! Even now, I love how Honey, the rich, beautiful friend was the secondary, “sidekick” character, while spunky, chunky little Trixie was the heroine.

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  12. The bad writing trend isn’t limited to Vampire novels, sadly. David just finished a thriller that he complained about from beginning to end, hoping that somewhere along the way it would redeem itself. When he read the last word, the book literally had a flying lesson and hit the wall, he was so frustrated by its total lack of anything worth reading. And yet, this person is not only published, but widely published. I don’t understand it, but I’m with Tasha on this one. There is nothing I can do but put my butt in the chair and write the best book I can. That, and buy good books to support the people who write them. My small drop in a very big bucket.

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  13. I forced myself to read a dreadful police procedural years ago because the author was the sister of a co-worker, had several books published, and several awards. Her book was chosen for our little book group at work. I was the only one who dared to criticize it. It astonishes me this woman continues to be published. The characters were two-dimensional caricatures, although Publisher’s Weekly described them as “beautifully realized.” I don’t get it. I keep it in mind constantly as I work on my own characters.

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  14. Regarding Wuthering Heights (my favorite novel of all time), I think I read it for the first time when I was a preteen. Couldn’t fully appreciate it at that time, but liked it, and I think one is never too young to read good literature. Often times, I think adults don’t give kids enough credit. You could always give it to her as a gift, and then discuss it with her afterwards. She might be really pleased that an adult wants to hear her opinions.

    Mary- I was the same. I started going into the adult section when I was about ten. And Agatha Christie was an immediate favorite.

    Jan- I’ve heard of Trixie, and that she was supposed to be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I never read her

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  15. It’s not that I think she’s too young at 22 to appreciate it, it’s more a personality thing. I could be wrong, I hope I’m wrong. At least she does read so that’s a good thing.

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  16. I’ve read a couple of Kingsolver books and thought they were wonderful. Poisonwood Bible, if I remember, is dark but beautifully written. And I think the other one I read was Pigs in Heaven, a romance, and I adored it. Not your typical romance at all, but a wonderful story that happened to be a romance.

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  17. Sometimes I can just smell the marketing around these clunkers trying to spin them into hits. “If we only print the most glowing ‘blurbs on the jackets, and try to make them a hit with our target demographic. Get some grass roots buzz going.”….that is what goes thru my mind when I try one and am sorely disappointed. I haven’t tried to write a novel so I won’t say I could do a better job, per se, but I do know good writing from bad.

    My most recent clunker was Admission (Jean Korelitz): the hook was giving the reader an inside glimpse of Ivy League college admissions. Unfortunately the protagonist was a mess and the plots/subplots close to ridiculous. And a sad-ass Cinderella ending it appears ~ my thanks to MJB for putting me out of my misery by telling me the ending. (I try to give a book a fair shot by reading at least half.) Am I a rare reader who can walk away from an unfinished read? Life is just too short to have to finish a bad book.

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  18. Nope, I’ve done it too. I’ve had people loan books to me, raving about how wonderful they are, and I gave up 60 pages in. It was another of those with fabulous blurbs on the back cover. I guess we know we can ignore those now 😉

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  19. The way I see it, if I stop after halfway through, I can always go back and finish the book if I’m in a different frame of mind down the road, or if someone I respect tells me the ending is worthwhile. However, if I finish a piece of crap the way I did with Wally Lamb’s “She’s Come Undone” or Robert Heinlein’s “Friday,” b/c I thought they were going to get better (they NEVER DID!!!) that’s time I will never get back, and in the long run I tend to resent that more.

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  20. Digital Dame,
    Sorry for the delay on this answer (actually I answered before but it did not get posted).
    I think the tone of the tv show is very serious, I just get bugged by the outrageous ammount of sex scenes (it doesn’t bother me when it’s once ina whiel, but three to four times a episode is just too much and totally unecessary), and a little by the blood, but not too much considering it’s about vampires. I really do believe some of the violence is also unecessary, but that’s just me, and believe me, it doesn’t usually get to me (the violence in movies that is).

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    1. Hi Ana,

      I’m so sorry, I don’t know what happened to the other post, I didn’t see anything in my spam folder :/

      I did see a clip online of one of the episodes that seemed very violent, lots of blood splattering all over the place. I read somewhere that there’s a lot of sex, and the girl who plays Sookie (Anna Paquin) was saying she was a lot more relaxed doing the sex scenes since she is dating her co-star (actually they are engaged now). This is HBO, they’re known for producing very provocative shows. I don’t know how much sex there is in the books.

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