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How to Know When It Works

The reader who asked about chapter breaks a few days ago, Dana, just sent me a follow-up email, in which she says:

Many thanks Mary! I have been taking more notice of the pacing lately, both in my own writing and in what I read, and I think scenes and chapter breaks do weigh in. What I am realizing is that, if done correctly, few readers really notice the shift in scenes or the chapter breaks. It is just when they’re awkward that they require attention.

This emphasizes one of the biggest point I can make about writing in general. You know you’ve attained successful writing when, ironically, nobody notices. That’s when I know I’m in the hands of a master, at least.

When I’m caught up in your voice sounding inauthentic, or slow pacing, or awkward dialogue tags, or in grown-up language or phrases that sound like they’re better off in a business memo, or a character acting, well, out of character, or slang that doesn’t need to be there, or clunky sentences, or too-long chapters, or one-dimensional scenes…I know that the writer is still working on their process.

And that’s okay. We’re all always working on our process. But there’s a difference between an obvious work-in-progress and writing that has a publishable quality to it. In my line of work, I’m always seeking the latter.

How can I tell? Well, I can’t exactly tell you when and why something works, without question. But I can definitely tell when something doesn’t work, and that’s, as described above, when I start to notice the writing.

I often use this analogy when I speak at conferences. Great writing is like my shiny little iPad…it’s a well-oiled, good looking, smoothly functioning machine. The aim of good writing is to be unobtrusive, to be especially perfect in moments that catch my attention, but never to catch my attention in a negative way. My iPad works perfectly, and is always impressive and dependable. The only time I will ever be upset with it or disappointed is when one of the little magical gears or cogs or motherboards inside it stops working. Then, the chip or cable or circuit will catch my attention.

So it is with writing. If it’s working, it’s fantastic, it’s easier than it looks (come on, how many of us have read Meg Cabot, for example, or another compulsively readable author, and thought, “I could totally do that and still have time for breakfast”?), and it doesn’t call attention to itself.

It’s when I notice the writing, usually, that there’s something wrong with it.

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