How to Write Gooder (Part 1)

Writing is an art (if you didn’t know that – get out of here!). Like others of its kind, it comes with basic skills which have to be grasped before you can get down to the real business of creating your masterpiece. This includes a solid understanding of the Rules of Grammar.

“But I like to break the rules,” I hear someone say (probably the guy at the back of the class who spends most of his time lost in his smart phone).
“Well,” I say, “That’s excellent. Some of the most famous authors in history are rule-breakers. However. Be warned. If you don’t really understand the rules in the first place, then breaking them is more likely to create a dog’s breakfast than a work of art.”

When I published my first novel, I leaped, with the consummate enthusiasm of a newbie, into a wild attempt to sell it to a wider audience (see previous post: Marketing and Other Forms of Death).
One of my early blunders was to sign up for a forum which indulged in an authorial version of the “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine” approach, much beloved by males in teenage encounters. This involved reading (and I use the term loosely) a range of self-published novels and reviewing them on Amazon. It’s no exaggeration to say that I was traumatised by this process. However, I did learn a number of useful things.

  • NEVER agree to review someone’s novel in return for them reviewing yours.
  • A limited grasp of high school English is not required to self-publish a novel.
  • The potential for well-meaning people to create awful stories execrably told is very high.
  • Authors (especially new authors) are liable to be DEEPLY offended by anything less than a five-star review.

Later, I took a more measured approach to the review process and had more success, both in providing and in receiving reviews which were thoughtful and honest. The underlying problem of thousands upon thousands of badly-written self-published novels remains, but that’s a subject for another post.

There is, of course, no way of guaranteeing that you will be able to write a good novel (or short story, or memoir, or whatever). In the same way as there is no guarantee that you will be able to paint a fine picture, or play the violin like a virtuoso. There are, however, some basic guidelines which can help you in your quest to create that elusive best seller, killer short story, or sought-after memoir.

What’s What?
Can you spot a verb at fifty paces? Do nouns announce themselves to you? Can you tell your adjectives from your adverbs? Would you be able to spot the difference between a gerund and a weasel? (Okay, that last one was a trick question). If not, then you’re going to be toiling with that modern-day version of Anna Karenina you have in your head.

Tense? What Tense?
I once met an aspiring author who declared “I’m hopeless with tenses. I rely on the writers’ group to keep me right.” Aye, right (as we Scots would say). Your chances of becoming a decent writer are small to negligible if you can’t handle those tenses. Present, past, past perfect and on and on. You need to know ‘em all. Otherwise, it’s Grammar 101 for you. There is no escape.

Punct; tu? a-tion.
Writing afflictions associated with this include: the Gatling gun approach to positioning commas, addiction to one’s favorite punctuation device (ellipsis, semi-colon, exclamation mark etc.) and the dreaded comma splice (for which I recommend the use of a marlin spike).

Syntax, Schmyntax
Syntax (n.): the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language.
Along with tense, the ability to handle word order and sentence structure is crucial to the task. Most people who have passed high school English can make a decent stab at this. On the other hand, a novel written in high school English is likely to be a dreary beast. Developing a mature and innovative approach to sentence and paragraph construction is one of the first steps towards becoming an author rather than a dabbler.

Those may, or may not, be all of the basics. In any case, I must stop here and get on with writing my best-seller. In Part 2, we’ll move on to the meat of the matter and look at the gravy that’s going to give your story that special flavor that no other author can achieve.




Filed under Writing

10 responses to “How to Write Gooder (Part 1)

  1. An excellent and truthful piece, Stuart, but how many will believe you enough to take it to heart? After all, what you say must apply to others, for the story what they wrote was clearly perfect already.

  2. Chortle, chortle! Thanks, Clive. Very true. I’m running a writers’ group here in Maine and the art of writing has become even more front and centre for me as a result. Most of what we do is critiquing, but we also have sessions on writing topics (like POV, showing and telling etc). I thought it might be interesting to share some of that, starting with the basics.

    • All the very best with it, Stuart. The important thing is that all enjoy it. Learning the many skills of writing is for me one of the most challenging but also greatest rewarding of activities I’ve ever done – and I’ve done a lot.

      I remember deciding to learn how to ride a horse, in preparation for some hacking days; ten years later, and with a horse of our own, I was only beginning to learn how little I knew.

      I see close parallels there with writing.

  3. Very good advise. I enjoyed your first book!

    • Thanks, Dannie! I’m glad you enjoyed the book. How goes it with you? I’ve been checking out your blog, but the last post seems to be November, 2015.

      • I don’t have an excuse, but I do need to post a few things. Been spending a lot of time offshore– fishing in a small boat, but that still just an excuse. I think moving back to the States has taken a my muse by surprised. Hope she’ll stop by for a visit, ha.

  4. Stuart, thank you for starting this series of posts. You and the rest of our writers’ group have transformed me from hack writer to semi-respectable purveyor of prose. These are skills that can be learned.

  5. Cathryn Bonica

    So much I don’t know about you, Stuart, including this blog. I love the photo at the top, and I can hear your Gaelic brogue in my head as I read your post. Please continue to post these on the FB page!

  6. Hehe! My Secret Life As An Author by Stuart Haddon. The photo was taken on the Island of Canna, which was the most westerly point of my solo voyage. Its not a large island (4.3 miles x 1 mile), but it has one of the best natural harbors on the West Coast and a small, but active community. They have a beautiful wee community store which sells all sort of stuff, including island crafts and basic foodstuffs, as well as coffee and snacks. The amazing this about it is that there is nobody serving there – payment is all done using an honesty system. Oh, and there’s free wifi!

    I’ll keep posting blog links. The next few will be especially relevant on PWGM.

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