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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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  1. Krista V.’s avatar

    What an interesting – but totally true – paradox.

  2. Ishta’s avatar

    Good post. It can be so hard to catch this in your own writing, but I guess this is where critique groups and giving yourself a chunk of time when you just don’t look at your manuscript come in. Thanks, Mary.

  3. Laura Marcella’s avatar

    I agree with this. I notice that many authors’ writing improves with each published book. I’ve read interviews in which writers say they wish they could rewrite their first or second novels! ti

  4. Melissa’s avatar

    I like your iPad analogy, although I hope the best authors out there aren’t planning obsolescence in their writing…

  5. A. Grey’s avatar

    Great post! Now I feel good that my beta reader apologizes for taking so long because he keeps forgetting to beta the manuscript and is getting lost in just reading the story. It’s not a deficit, it’s a huge plus!

  6. Ryan G.’s avatar

    This post sponsored by Apple

    :]

    I kid I kid.

    *buys shiny new Nano*

  7. Andrea’s avatar

    For me, one of the reasons writing is challenging is because as a writer yourself, it’s often hard to tell if it’s working, if someone else would notice the words or an awkwardness in the writing. I think that’s why critique groups and partners are so important!

  8. Elizabeth Varadan’s avatar

    Great post. I really appreciate the insights. I’m in the middle of a re-write right now, and it’s good information to have in mind as I return to the book.
    Thanks so much.

  9. Lisa’s avatar

    I too, know I’m onto something when my editor tells me she’s getting lost in the story and has to remind herself she’s got a job to do. That’s a yay!

    I discovered the other night, the best way to find clunkiness – is that a word? – is to read your manuscript out loud to a child. Stuff you never noticed before leaps out at you.

  10. Dana Levy’s avatar

    Thanks Mary, for corroborating my thought, which is essentially that certain structural components of writing are best done so seamlessly that the reader is free to ignore them and get caught in the story. Of course there are exceptions – talented and unusual authors – who play fast and loose with chapter breaks and scenes and other building blocks specifically to make the reader pay attention. But for most of us, like our computer operating system, we only notice pacing when it malfunctions.

    *strokes Mac Book lovingly, pets its ears*

  11. Megan Frances’s avatar

    I just participated in a Twitter #kidlitchat last week on voice – and this was one of the points I raised. I absolutely agree. Good writing does not get in the way of advancing the story.

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