What Does a “Good” Writer Write?

Back when she was Carol Lynch and I was Lisa Torcasso, before married names reversed our alphabetical order, making her a Williams and bumping her to the rear of the alphabet while I, as a new Downing,  leaped forward, we briefly shared a BYU ward.  She may not recall this because we didn’t interact much, but I remember Carol Lynch clearly for a few reasons. She knew sign language, which I thought was very cool; she had long blonde hair, which I thought was very beautiful; and she was very bold about her ambition: Carol would graduate and become a writer. It was this last point that cemented her and her name in my mind because we shared that drive in common, though I was much less free, less confident, in declaring it out loud. I worried that my lack of confidence indicated a lack of ability and I very much admired her  attitude.  And yet, Carol’s self-assurance intimidated me, so much so that, in the only conversation I recall us ever having about writing, I, in my nervousness, accidentally made a declaration of belief that became a guiding light.

But, Dear Reader, before I attempt to recount that conversation, I must confess I make no claim to accurately represent Carol’s feelings, ideas, or opinions, either of yesteryear or now. I attempted to write this post by leaving out her name, but it just felt awkward. Please understand that I haven’t spoken with Carol Lynch Williams in decades and, when we shared ward boundaries, we didn’t even live in the same apartment complex. We were mere acquaintances. I offer only my skewed remembrance on a conversation that became a turning point for me, the moment I inadvertently began to lose my condescending attitudes about literature, readers, and writers. It’s been on my mind so I share it with you.

Basically the conversation proceeded thusly. I found myself standing with Carol in the hallway before Relief Society began. I bravely told her that I, too, wanted to become a writer. She asked me who my favorite authors were, and being nervous and, as I confessed, intimidated by her, I didn’t offer much of an answer. Honestly, at the time, I didn’t focus on authors, but on books. I could’ve answered what my favorite titles were, but when she threw the author question at me, I stammered, saying something like, “I like too many to isolate a favorite.”  Actually, that’s probably a generous recantation of what I said. It’s more likely I answered, “Oh, I like them all.” I was that nervous. She then spewed out the classic list of great American authors, naming her preference for Flannery O’Connor and someone else, though I don’t recall precisely who that would’ve been. What I do remember is feeling like an idiot. I realized instantly she’d given a much better, more writerly, way smarter answer than I had. If I’d felt intimidated going into our conversation, I was downright emotionally destroyed by now. But I wasn’t going to let on. Next she very patiently and politely asked what I like to write.

Once again, I fumbled for an answer. In truth, I wasn’t sure what she was asking, so I responded that I like to write fiction. She pressed for more clarity and, stammering under the pressure, I said that it didn’t matter much to me  precisely what kind of fiction I wrote. Keep in mind who I was back then: I was a literati-in-training. The only kind of fiction that ever filled my brain was literary, was art, the kind of story that begged scholarly analysis. So no, I didn’t care what “kind” of fiction I wrote—but it would be literary. Of course. Duh. What did I care if my stories were the “kind” about boys at a swimming hole, or women in the grocery store, or couples on the brink of divorce?  Such was my thinking.

Of course, I knew by Carol’s flummoxed expression that I had answered her question all wrong. I was making myself look foolish in the eyes of the one ward member with whom I’d most like to strike up a friendship. I wanted to crawl under a rock. How could I fix this?

One of the strangest things about me is that I often don’t know when to cut bait, accept surrender, and go home. I do it less now that I’m older, but sometimes I lead my brain with my mouth. In other words, I start talking until I talk myself into something. That’s what I did with Carol. Too proud (and stupid) to admit I was nervous and intimidated by her and had screwed up my answers, I pressed forward verbally, trying to talk my answer into being acceptable. In so doing, I ended up making a statement I’d spend 30 years living by even though, in my mind, it was utter rubbish.

I listened to myself argue that a “good” writer is a writer who can write anything and write it convincingly. A good writer can, yes, write a Harlequin that satisfies any fan of the popular series, and then turn around and write a short story that wins a Pushcart Prize. A good writer can write a campy mystery and then, the next day, a lyric poem, or ad copy that sells a millions toasters. The words coming out of my mouth had the strange ring of truth to them, even if I didn’t believe a single word of it. Still, what I said sounded good, felt shocking, and based on Carol’s expression, may have seemed as crazy to her English major sensibilities as it did to mine. After all, good writing wins awards and scholarly attention.  The rest is dross. To say an ad writer is as good a writer as a publishing writer of literary fiction? Ridiculous. Bring on the straight jacket.

It was a good thing Carol didn’t bother to argue back. Perhaps she deemed me a hopeless case. I suppose it’s possible she was equally unsure what to say as I had been moments before. I know I was as astounded to hear myself say what I was saying as she seemed to be hearing me say it.  In fact, my whole spiel was a conversation stopper. I couldn’t have argued in support of what I said because I didn’t believe it.

But I had said it and I couldn’t take it back. I also couldn’t defend it so from then on, I tended to avoid conversing with Carol about literature, a thing I’ve always regretted.  Instead, I had imaginary conversations with myself in which I evaluated the veracity of the statement that a “good” writer could write anything s/he set out to write.  The more I thought about it, the more accurate it seemed to me.  Certainly, a capable writer should be able to write anything. A good writer should be a disciplined professional, skilled at the craft, who has an acute sense of  audience.  This epiphany chipped away my arrogance.

I’ve heard it argued, however, that successful writers  are writers who learn to focus on one particular kind of writing and stick to it so that they become not only proficient, but exceptional. I can think of many, many writers who have succeeded in more than one category, but it does seem to me that most of these writers made their name through consistency, only branching into other genres or forms after they achieved publication success in one particular category/genre.  Either way, I’d classify anyone “good” who succeeds at any type of writing. Period.

Once I accepted this, it seemed my world opened. I learned to like diversity in reading material. I re-learned reading for pleasure. Maybe it’s true that some types of my writing are more successful than others.  Maybe that means I’m not “good” yet. Or maybe it means I’m “good” but need to practice more.  Maybe it means I should focus only on writing one kind of story. Maybe it means I still don’t know what good writers write.  Regardless, that single conversation with a young writer who went on to write beautiful Young Adult novels changed me. I hope Carol can forgive me for invoking her name as I reminisce about a moment that began the cultivation of who would I would become as a writer and editor.

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14 Responses to What Does a “Good” Writer Write?

  1. Angela H. says:

    Great post, Lisa.

    I think Stephen King is a good example of a “good writer” who can write all sorts of different stuff. Just the other day I was reading a review of the HBO miniseries _Mildred Pierce_ and found myself really enjoying the writing. I found the strong writing particularly pleasant because I’ve been quite unhappy with Newsweek ever since Tina Brown took over (I’ve subscribed since I was 22 and I think I’m letting it lapse now). Anyway: surprised and pleased by the quality of the writing. Then the reviewer mentioned he was the author of “several doorstop-size novels” and I think, hey, who’s writing this? Flip to the byline: Stephen King! Ha. I knew I liked him!

    King writes short stories and novellas and the previously mentioned doorstop-size novels, and he writes for all sorts of audiences: scifi/fantasy aficionados, Grandpas looking for a good book to take on a cruise, New Yorker readers, 14-year-old me (I read _Carrie_ in one gulp, on the beach on a family vacation in CA, and I got horribly sunburned). Truly, I think some talented writers are *afraid* to do genre stuff, afraid it will “taint” them — but I think more could cross over if they had the guts King does.

  2. Scott Hales says:

    I remember reading something by Roger Ebert in which he talked about judging the quality of a movie: his idea was that you have to hold movies up to the standard of the genre rather than one universal standard. So, for example, that is how he could give something like “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” or “Hellboy 2″ the same number of approval stars as a better-made, obviously more thoughtful film of another genre.

    I think it’s safe to say that we do that with fiction. Even though the writing in a work of genre fiction may not be as “good” (and I don’t know if there’s a way to define “good” here without sounding like a priggish elitist) as that in a piece of literary fiction, we recognize that it is “good” for what it intends to be (or, as the elitist might say, “for what it is”.)

    In this sense, I think Lisa is right: “good” writing is successful writing–writing that hits its mark.

    At the same time, part of me still clings to the Romantic/Elitist notion of a kind of writing that is far superior to other kinds of writing–even though I’m not against assigning students to read such hack-work as “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” in literature classes. I assume, though, that this is a disorder common to book people.

  3. Moriah Jovan says:

    Good topic, Lisa. I am conflicted about this. When I think of the phrase “good writers should be good at everything,” I think about form, e.g., essay, script (what kind of script? play? cinema? TV?), poetry (what kind of poetry? haiku? epic verse? sonnet?) storytelling (what kind of storytelling? novel? short story? flash fiction? graphic novel?), technical (what kind of technical? cookbook? …for dummies?), nonfiction, informational/persuasive (what kind of information? what are you selling? press releases? ad copy?) … The list is endless. (I thought of some more, but I am lazy.)

    Then you get into how you can twist and develop what you want to write. I have/had a friend who wrote a story in an Excel spreadsheet. A novel I was fixing to write is slowly, inexorably turning into a graphic novel.

    Anyway, I’m always torn about this because I don’t think enough good writers want to venture outside of their “form” of expertise. For instance, in my creative writing program (short-story-based), I was a) the only novelist; b) the only one taking technical writing and playwriting; and c) the only one who could do it all with some level of ease.

    That, to me, was odd. If you’re learning how to be a writer, shouldn’t you at least dabble in these other things? Maybe you really just don’t like writing in that form, but if you don’t try and get some time in, how do you know?

    So there’s one. I don’t think enough serious writers try to write in different forms, much less subforms (literary versus genre).

    And the other one is less beneficent: Some people really can’t do more than one thing. Over at Dear Author, there’s a thread on the exodus of romance authors to YA (perceived as “that’s where the money is”), but the complaint is that some don’t make the transition well because they can’t capture teenage-ese. I know of one author who writes historical romance and contemporary romance, and have heard complaints that her voice is “too modern” for her historicals. Do I think there are authors who need to stick to their niche and don’t try any more stupid author tricks? Sure. But they’re good at what they do do, so I can’t really say, they’re not good writers because they can do X, but they suck at the rest of the alphabet.

    It’s kind of like I look at a violinist and a fiddler. I might expect Itzhak Perlman to be able to play “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” well and I might expect Charlie Daniels to be able to play Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” well. But do I expect every talented and skilled violinist and fiddler to be able to cross ectoplasm streams like that? No. Even if they were interested in and willing to do so, I don’t think the odds are in their favor.

  4. Scott Parkin says:

    Many years ago (mid-1980s, I think) a film called White Knights featured both the ex-Soviet ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and the American tap dancer Gregory Hines. In one scene, Baryshnikov basically says that as a classically trained dancer he could tap, but Hines could not do ballet. To prove his point, Baryshnikov watches Hines then emulates the steps.

    What followed was a fascinating exercise for me, because while Baryshnikov did in fact execute the steps with precision and grace, they also seemed flat and stiff. Perfect technique, but less heart and soul—unlike the less technically excellent but far more satisfying tap that Hines did with his looser, more comfortable movements.

    I think I was supposed to accept that one was a master and the other a hack, but I always disagreed with that idea because I saw both as masters of different forms. Specialization mattered in the totality of the details, if not in the specific actions themselves. Technical defensibility does not equate to audience connection.

    (I feel the same way about Stephen King’s sf, by the way. Solid work, but also oddly stilted in ways particular to someone crossing from one specialized genre into another. The words, constructions, and plot developments were not quite right as genre, even though they were perfectly acceptable as story. Does that make any sense?)

    I think a good writer can write anything with a high degree of competence. But to write excellently in an area does require focus—and a certain amount of exclusivity.

    Fun stuff.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Correction—that was White Nights. Oops.

    • Wm Morris says:

      On the other hand, his fantasy novel and his short literary fiction are both quite good.

      Your point is a good one, Scott, I just wanted to redeem Stephen King as a multi-genre-ed writer.

      • Scott Parkin says:

        I think King is an exceptionally talented writer, and mean to suggest only that his two key niches are horror and personal experience narratives, and he does all the little things in those genres that identify him as one of “us” to those audiences.

        I (personally) found his fantasy to have the same oddnesses as his science fiction (I lump both together under the generic sf moniker; horror is often referred to as dark fantasy)—fine work that any author should be proud of, but slightly off on the balance of some of the elements (and better by far than most stuff written by genre-only authors).

        Which I mean to suggest only that there is a stylistic smoothness that comes of long immersion in any form or genre that is actually more a feel or an interpretation than a specific skill or technique. A master carpenter can fashion most anything from wood, but one who focuses on structural carpentry tends to have different technical refinements than one who focuses on interior furniture (or turning or carving, etc.).

        I’ve been having a hard time recently with middle grade/YA fiction on exactly that basis. One series (middle grade) read quite a bit coarser to me than the first book of another series (YA) by another author, and I’m trying to figure out if that’s just the author’s voice, or if it’s a stylistic marker indicative of engagement with a particular readership. Because I’m not well read in either middle grade or YA, I don’t know. While I find the creativity of both series to be equivalent, I find the readability of the YA title to be much more pleasing.

        (As a blind, I’m going to read that author’s acclaimed YA series in an effort to narrow down whether it’s voice/style or convention. I also want to see if newer work is smoother than older work—the generic improvement idea.)

        King certainly requires no defense against me. I would be happy for both the audience and royalty of his least successful book of the last thirty years.

        As a frustrated fiction writer who’s managed to publish across a reasonably wide swath of forms and genres, but who has succeeded at none (short story, novella, flash, essay, personal narrative, review, technical position, white paper, marketing copy, media script; science fiction, horror, slice of life, inspirational, historical, fantasy, technical, absurd, journalism, analysis), I accept that a reasonably competent writer can indeed cross many forms and genres with fair facility. But that same author will tend to have a favorite, and that favorite will tend to show subtle refinements that resonate to that particular audience more deeply than the others.

        Or so it seems to me.

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          But that same author will tend to have a favorite, and that favorite will tend to show subtle refinements that resonate[...]

          I would agree with that.

    • Katya says:

      “I think I was supposed to accept that one was a master and the other a hack, but I always disagreed with that idea because I saw both as masters of different forms.”

      Agreed, which is why I take issue with Scott Hales’ offhand insult of the Hellboy franchise as being thoughtless and poorly made. The type of craft and thought which goes into making a film of that genre (or for that audience) may not be something which Mr. Hales understands or respects, but I assure you that it exists.

  5. When I attended college (at a university other than the Y), I took a philosophy of education class for my teaching degree (in math, in case anyone is interested), and one of the things that struck me about what was taught about the philosophy of education was that the idea behind a Ph.D. (at one time, if not any longer) was that in order to obtain a Ph.D. a scholar had to learn how to learn, and that it didn’t matter what subject area the scholar concentrated on, the very process of obtaining that degree was enough to qualify said scholar for being able to learn (and thereby know) anything the scholar desired.

    I suspect that Ph.D. programs have moved away from that philosophy as time has passed, and the specialization involved in some, if not all, such programs may have moved a Ph.D. obtainer from being a kind of “master of all things” (because there were fewer things in the old days to be master of, perhaps?) to being a kind of “master of some narrow and very specific thing,” even though the process of learning how to learn could still be part of earning that Ph.D.

    Can this really compare to what it takes to be a great writer? Can knowing how to write one kind of thing extremely well lead a writer to, if not being immediately able to write something else extremely well, also, at least being able to learn the specialized parts of whatever kind of writing is being attempted, and eventually being able to write anything a great writer might want to write greatly? (Did that make sense?)

    Maybe it comes down to what can be learned (and taught) about writing (and about the different kinds of writing). Maybe it comes down, instead, to something that has been referred to as “reading protocols” which have to do with reader expectations from particular kinds of writing. Maybe a great writer who can write more than one (if not all) kind(s) of writing extremely well is a writer who has some uncanny ability to write to whatever reader expectation is associated with whatever kind of writing–and if so, can that be taught?

    If you want to know more about the idea of reading protocols (and/or reader expectations), I would be happy to provide a link to a blog post on the subject. On the other hand, maybe I’ll save it for a blog post of my own on the idea of “educating the reader.”

  6. Jonathan Langford says:

    While many authors can and have written successfully in more than one form, I don’t think I accept the idea that a good author can write anything well, if sufficient effort and analysis is applied. Partly that’s because I don’t believe in the universality of good writing characteristics. What constitutes good writing in one field isn’t what constitutes good writing in another field. The things that make an author good in one field (for example, a lyrical voice in writing, or the ability to develop suspense) will not necessarily help with other forms of writing.

    It’s true that someone who has succeeded in learning one form of writing well has a potential base for learning other forms of writing. A lot depends on how analytical he or she is as a writer. While I doubt there’s any form of writing that doesn’t require substantial thought, I think that some writers tend to be less analytical and more instinctual about what they do. Such understandings might have more difficulty transferring to other types of writing.

    The point that Kathleen raises is an interesting one. I recall that there was a movement in education to teach problem-solving and thinking skills as a generic set. It didn’t work very well, largely because (as research has verified) the problem-solving strategies and accepted modes of investigation for different disciplines are actually different. Expertise in one domain doesn’t automatically transfer to other domains.

    The comparison that’s most apt, to my way of thinking, is learning a language. Knowing one language well does not necessarily mean that it’s easy to learn other languages. On the other hand, someone who has learned several languages tends to develop language-learning as a skill. I also accept that someone who’s a good user of one language is more likely to wind up as a good user of other languages — once having learned them.

  7. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    As I’ve read each comment, I’ve agreed–even when they contradicted. Ha! And so I still have no answer. It does seem over the top to expect a writer to be able to excel in all types of writing. Who has the time for that? I’ve had more success with lit fic of late, but I’ve dabbled in childrens and YA. I’ve written several YA novels and, even though those are not the works that I’ve succeeded in publishing, they are the ones that taught me to write. Truly. Everything I learned there I’ve brought forward to my lit fic and personal essay writing. Funny how that worked. Perhaps writers are wise to try their hands at any type of writing that fancies them, rather than all types. The experience will likely fill in holes. Thanks for responding everyone!

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