I was on a panel once that was taking questions from the audience, and a guy raised his hand and asked how to know when to start a new chapter. He said he’d written hundreds of pages, and it was only chapter one. A silence fell over the room as the audience waited with rapt attention and those of us on the panel had no idea how to respond to that. Without seeing that guy’s manuscript, I was certain his problem was he hadn’t found the beginning of his story yet.
To the guy’s credit, he’d started writing his novel, and that’s admirable. Moreover, he’d started doing the work, and that’s progress.
I don’t remember how we, the panel, responded to him, but the point here is, again, without seeing that manuscript, I would expect to find pages and pages and pages of world building and information about characters, places, customs, traditions, etc. That stuff is important, but it’s not the story.
Finding the starting line is a very common problem for us writers because we are (and this is true—unless you’re using generative AI, which is bad and I’m going to get to someday) human beings, and it’s natural for human beings, when beginning any creative process, to search for information. Even legal cases start with a discovery process. As storytellers, we begin by asking questions like, Who is this person? What is this place? We build a foundation.
I’m here to tell you, while that stuff is incredibly important and you need to work on it because everything rests on it, the story starts elsewhere.
My tips, generally speaking, will be broad or even unbearably mechanical. Some might consider them vague or esoteric. Others might consider them unhelpful.
Without turning this post into one about creative writing pedagogy, I think it’s vital to grant writers the space to be themselves, to explore their own tastes and desires in literature, to become the writer they were meant to be not the writer the world thinks they should be. (I acknowledge there are writers who want to write to market, and that’s great, but I’m not the best teacher for those writers.)
Which is to say I’m never going to tell you what to do. I’m going to try to guide you toward figuring that out for yourself.
So when I was asked how I see the lines between bad, good, and great writing, I felt a little wary of defining bad, good, and great writing for others. I think saying the lines between them are subjective is a bit of a copout, and I think it’s wrong. I think we can define good art, though importantly, I think the bar for what constitutes good art should be set perhaps shockingly (to some) low.
I think it’s important to know your strengths as a writer. That way, you can embrace them and lean into them but also challenge yourself to grow in other ways.
One of the most common pieces of positive feedback I get is about my prose. It’s nice to hear, because I’ve worked very hard to develop that as a strength.
Now, I’m not claiming I am the best proser that ever did prose. I’m simply saying I think my ability to construct a sentence is one of my strengths. I have many weaknesses. Believe me, no one knows my weaknesses as a writer better than me.
I attribute some of my prose acumen to one of my other artistic loves: music. There was a time in my life when I considered myself a musician, and for many reasons, I shifted focus to fiction. However, I think the time I spent studying, composing, and thinking about music tuned me toward the melody of words. Some writers struggle with voice and tone in their writing. Those are elements that come naturally to me. I often tell people I can’t write a character until I hear them speaking to me. I usually get a funny look for that, but it’s true. Every character, at least the way I write them, has a voice, a musicality that gives their personality color. Once I hear them, my job is to help readers hear them, too, using text. That’s the goal, anyway.
I do think some writers are naturally inclined toward writing good prose. Writers are, and this is true, people, and every person has natural abilities. That isn’t to say I believe in the “it” gene for anything, really. I think everyone can write good prose if that is what they want from their writing.
What are your strengths? What are your goals? How can you leverage your strengths to achieve your goals?