Is there such a thing as quality in writing? Sure there is.
Is that quality something in the turn of a phrase, the careful copyediting, the creation of realistic characters, a resonance on social problems that will enlighten us for the ages?
Well… those are nice to have.
Is it how it sells? Well, sometimes. The selling system has been pretty gamed in the last thirty years, and anyway even in Indie I bet you there will be good stuff that doesn’t catch and stuff that is eye-crossingly bad that hits it for no reason anyone can figure out. Word of mouth. Rumor. A detail that catches someone influential’s eye. Who knows?
So, what is that “quality”? What is that “special something?” What should you be striving to put in your books?
We’ve established, (right?) that tastes differ. It’s no use yelling at me I SHOULD like something, and even less use yelling at me I SHOULD like something because tons of people like it or because it’s studied in school. (I HAVE read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, thank you so much. Even if he weren’t Castro’s bosom buddy, I would find his writing … let’s put it this way – if I want to read pretentious stuff, I’ll read my own first six (unpublished) novels [before I shook the dust of an MBA in Languages and Literatures off my sandals].)
I’ve lived long enough not to be impressed by credentials, ambiance and accolades. Look, I can enjoy eating at a diner, and I can enjoy eating at a five star restaurant. My expectations are different. On the other hand, I’ve honestly found better food at some diners than at some five star restaurants, and the diners are more fun because I can people-watch.
In the same way, I’ve paid my dues, and I’ve read and still read much that people consider worthy, but there’s a time and a place. I will bow to no one in my enjoyment of Shakespeare. (Why I should bow is beyond me, anyway.) Or Austen. Or Dumas (which – my older son is right – is MUCH better in French.) On the other hand there are people who are probably good but who rub me the wrong way: of the classics, Dickens comes to mind. I don’t feel the need to admire someone just because everyone agrees he or she is good. (Much of the literary culture of the last fifty years is more squeak than wool, anyway.)
On the other hand, I feel quite free to read what others consider schlock or low brow and appreciate its (often more) authentic and thoughtful qualities (than the ones in supposedly great literature.)
Take Agatha Christie, for instance. It has become fashionable to deride her. She, herself, seemed to think she was writing puzzle stories, more than anything – but I love re-reading her and many of her characters strike a deep and resonant cord.
So – I wasted a page telling you that while there is quality, I don’t think it’s universal, and I don’t think it affects every one the same way.
What the “quality” of that quality is was clinched for me by two historical mystery series (I’m not going to name them because one doesn’t come off well from my evaluation, and this is probably unfair and the other one hit me probably because of rather PARTICULAR reasons, which are not for public consumption.) They’re both well written. Both are bestseller series, one by a writer who was a bestseller when she wrote it, the other by a writer who built that series up to bestseller.
Series A, though, was fun to read once, popcorn-like, and I refuse to pay hardcover prices for it, and in fact will not buy it unless it is the only thing I have to read at the time, or it’s deeply discounted/used. Nothing wrong with it. There’s tons of series I “like” but don’t love and that’s where they fall, because well… $12 for a paperback is for the birds and I’m not made of money.
Series B grabbed me and pulled me into the story and made me stay there every step of the way. I couldn’t do something else – I usually read while embroidering – while reading it, and an attempt to listen to an audio book while walking made me tear off the headphones halfway through, because even though I’d ALREADY READ THE BOOK it was going to make me burst into tears in public, and also the confusion of inputs was near-physically painful. Even though it was more expensive than the first, I bought all the books within a week for kindle because I couldn’t afford paper costs. (I have now also found a hardcover of the first book at the thrift store. – Does Victory dance!) I will re-read these books. I will give them friends. I will buttonhole strangers and put the books in their hands.
And then I realized what “quality” means to me right now, at this point in history (this is important – I’ll explain why later) – right now “quality” i.e. the quality that RIGHT NOW seems to ensure success, seems to mean the ability to engage the reader’s emotions.
If the book draws you in and makes you feel what the characters feel, that’s quality.
To an extent, it’s always been like that. I love it when literature professors (rolls eyes) go on and on about how Marlowe is a better playwright than Shakespeare. It might be true (waggles hand side to side) on a technical level. Doesn’t matter. Marlowe, possibly because he died very young AND was exquisitely well educated, didn’t GET the engaging emotions thing (okay, he was very good at horror.) His plays have a moral flatness, where you don’t really root for everyone because they’re all unpleasant people. You also don’t want anyone dead, because none of them is more unpleasant than the others. So, while the scenes and the dialogue might dazzle, you don’t feel the emotions of the characters. (Again, Marlowe died very young. Maybe in some other world he grew out of it.) Shakespeare on the other hand, makes you vibrate along with emotions: bigger than life emotions that you’ll never forget. [Because I like Kit; because something in his writing DOES appeal to me; and became he was an amazing craftsman, I feel compelled to say he PROBABLY would have grown out of it. There were signs that way. And my first novels had the same issue as his plays. You see, I thought I had to write “reality”)
As I said, to an extent it was always true. HOWEVER the difference is, until recent times, books were also ALMOST the only means for delivery of story. So, “quality” beyond the emotion stuff could mean a well constructed story. It could also mean – because of the means of delivery – exquisite prose.
By all means, you should still strive for both of those, but if you don’t achieve it, and still have the big, realistic (realistic-feeling. They’re usually bigger than life on the paper, so they feel real to you) emotions and leave the person feeling like they lived through it – you’ll still do very well and some number of people will still consider you a superb writer.
On the other hand – trust me on this – you can have beautiful language, perfect plot, an exquisite little puzzle-box of a book, and if you don’t have the emotions, people will either consider you literary (which would be bad, since I have it on the authority of friends laboring in that vineyard that it never sells much) or midlist.
You see, people can watch movies or even play games for the story, but books are the only place they can experience another human being’s emotions. And THAT is what people crave: the experience of living through the grand emotions without the scars and the regrets.
No book will hit everyone – this is why we disagree so much on quality. I mean, it would be one thing to analyze sentence and structure and say “this is good” and “this is bad” but – when it’s emotion it’s by nature individual. What hits my personal buttons might leave you utterly cold or going “uh… it’s okay.” And stuff that pushes YOUR buttons might hit me with my different experience of life as “Oh, that again?”
So, what should you strive for? Is it hopeless trying to hit that point that makes readers remember you above all other authors?
Not at all. Look, if something does it for you, there’s a chance it does it for someone else. Ric Locke (may eternity rest light upon him) is no longer here to tell us that with ebooks, even if you’d never have reached more than half a dozen people in the old model, there’s potentially millions of readers who share your tastes. So I’ll say what he would have said. Write to the emotion. You know your favorite books and the feeling from them – the feeling like they overwhelm your senses and possess you for a while – that is what you should strive for as a writer.
It’s not as easy as it seems.
First, it is very hard if you were raised in a culture that didn’t hang its emotions on its sleeve (Oh, sure, Latin – but Northern Portugal is HEAVILY influenced by Great Britain, so stiff upper lip and all that.)
Second, there’s a fine line between hitting the emotions and self-indulgent. You have to remember your characters and situation are more special to you than to ANY reader. If you get to the point you’re just riding the emotion without end, step back and have someone evaluate it. Otherwise your reader might be going “Oh, geeze, Louise, your character must get over himself already!)
Third – you can fake that tingle. You can fake that tingle in a way that fools your readers. That’s fine. But sadly, you can fake that tingle in a way that fools you. This is one of the reasons it’s hard to put sex in books. If you put sex – particularly sex you, personally, consider transgressive – the emotion will hit you in the face and pull you in… Thing is, it might not hit anyone else the same way. If writing explicit sex remember the variety of turn ons and turn offs is mind boggling, and a turn on for you is someone else’s ick-button. Also, you might be so busy riding (look, stop giggling. There are no safe words with this topic) the sexual-tingle that you don’t realize there’s nothing else driving your plot. This is most often done by raw (oh, stop laughing already) beginners, but some old-time professionals do it too. A particular urban fantasy series seems to have lost the plot and just be piling on the sex to compensate. So, writing sex – or violence, or architecture if you’re mad about buttresses, or history if that’s your particular bend, or food, if you’re a foodie or anything else that engages you personaly but might not engage anyone else – requires a lot of careful work and seeing through it to the emotions. (I think I just realized why so many of the crazier paranormal romance writers look like withered up old virgins. They very well might be. They don’t feel the tingle, and therefore can keep the plot tension, unaffected by the sex they’re writing. Um.)
Fourth – no matter how great the “tingle” of emotion you can make your reader feel, you still need good basic grammar, proofreading and fact checking. I could be reading the most interesting, emotional story set in Shakespeare’s time, but the minute someone pulls out plastic toothpicks, I’m solidly in the present day and not in your story. See the problem? So, “I write for the emotion” is not an excuse to write sloppy or not to proof read.
HOWEVER once you have your plot in a row and it makes sense, and your English is good enough to pass muster, you must strive to put in not just emotion – please, remember the Kris Rusch admonition “If your character cries, your reader doesn’t have to” – but things that stimulate emotion in the reader.
You won’t hit everyone – but if you hit a significant number of people, your work will be read and reread, hand-sold by readers to other readers AND (if you care about that) remembered. And you’ll rise head and shoulders over other, similar writers.
So, learn to be a manipulative author. Your readers will thank you.
*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*