28 April 2012

But What About The Writing?

If you're anything like me, you've studied up on the craft, in particular on how to avoid all those little habits and mistakes which reveal an amateur. The literary internet is awash with articles on what to look for when you're revising, with everything from repeated words to those pesky adverbs. It's enough to make you think your manuscript will never be good enough to send out. All of those potential mistakes seem so important, the implication being that you'll never get published if you don't catch them all.

I'm writing historical romance (at the moment!) and I'm continuing to explore new authors. Right now I'm reading another best-selling author, and I've noticed a somewhat frustrating trend. Even though I'm reading it for enjoyment, my now-critical writer's eye is picking up so many craft problems I find it almost impossible to lose myself in the tale. There are plot holes, historical inconsistencies, repeated phrases, telling not showing, an abundance of adverbs and a profusion of "that"s. It's not the first time this has happened - in fact pretty much any book I read these days seems to disappoint me on some level.

I know this issue is not restricted to this genre. There are many high-profile (and mega-selling) books that have been well-criticised for their lack of craft. Yet the stories, or the characters perhaps, have taken route in the collective imagination.

It makes me wonder: how on earth do they get published, again and again? And why didn't their editors catch all of these supposed mistakes? (and definitely real mistakes, when it comes to historical accuracy or completely implausible plot tangents) It seems to fly in the face of all the advice we read so frequently. I work so hard to fix all the stuff, and yet these authors don't seem to have to worry about it. Problems with craft must not be apparent to the average reader.

So it's all about the story then, right? And that's the bit which sets us apart as writers: our unique interpretation of a plot idea. Of course, this is the bit that I personally find the most challenging. Even when I'm really excited about an idea, there's no guarantee I'll be able to execute it to its full potential. Teasing out an idea to a novel-length story is a hard, there's no doubt about it. And it seems pertinent to remember that this very challenge is what we should devote our energies to. Of course we should make sure our manuscript is as clean as possible, but ensure you spend enough time making sure your plot will your hook readers. Agents and publishers seem to accept work with less than perfect execution, as long as it has something special that will draw readers in. Can you summarise your plot in a few sentences and make it irresistable? If not, you might want to go back to the drawing board before you spend weeks on fine-tuning a story no-one will get excited about.

The story is what your readers will fall in love with.

Can you read without picking up on all the mistakes? Do you get frustrated when you spot craft problems? What are your favourite books which excel in both story and craft?


  1. It's funny, no matter how many times I go over a manuscript, I always find something.

    It's hard, but we must learn to turn off the internal editor and just enjoy a novel, enjoy the writing. I used to do book reviews for a magazine. I stopped because I couldn't read for enjoyment anymore.

  2. Hi Charlotte, like you I read with a writer's eye and it can be irritating sometimes! One of these days I want to re-read all of the books which I thought were good before I was a writer. It would be interesting to read them from a writer's point of view.

  3. Indeed Anita, it would be interesting to re-read some favourite books from a decade ago, to see if they still live up to my memories. I'm not trying to be overly critical when I'm reading - the craft problems are pulling me out of the story!

    Thanks both of you for commenting :-)