“If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
– Toni Morrison
Take yourself back to third grade for a minute. Back then, nine long years ago, I was learning about finding greatest common factors. If anyone else learned these the same way I did, you probably had to take the numbers being compared and break them down with little trees, again and again, until you had them all reduced to 2’s and 3’s and other small numbers being multiplied together—aka, until you had a list of all factors. Then you found the greatest ones in each tree, proudly circled the answer, and got your sticker.
This was the best example I could think of to paint the simple picture in your mind of a chart where one thing is at the top, then it’s broken down into smaller increments, and smaller, until it’s all reduced. I could’ve gone the ‘family tree’ route, but those don’t exactly show one person being broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. At least, I hope not.
Get to the point, you clown.
Alright! The reason I kicked off this post with this example is because I think I’ve finally figured out what makes good writing—in strictly my opinion, of course. And I needed the tree breakdown example because one thing I think we can all agree on is that books (well, good ones, anyway) are complicated. It’s not just about having a good story, or concept…it’s about having good characters, and setting, and humor, and drama, and a satisfying conclusion, and oh by the way each of those have different amounts depending on what genre you’re writing for. We don’t want too much humor in a story about death nor too much drama in a children’s picture book. And no, I haven’t forgotten about nonfiction books, which are just as hard to write.
So, that’s the bottom of the “good writing” tree, and I’m not smart nor experienced enough to pick through all that. Instead, I’m zooming back up the tree to the very top, to the one thing (or two things, in this case) that envelops all others. The two things that, if you without a doubt have these, mean that everything else is or will be there in appropriate amounts.
Okay, let’s continue this abysmal math metaphor with an equation.
My personal, subjective equation:
Thought + Emotion= Good Writing
Now. Any officials in the publishing or agenting industry who just read that are most likely slapping their keyboard and/or about to commit a drastic crime. When it comes down to publishing, a book is about a million other things than good content. It’s about proper font, and formatting, and professionalism in editing…
Which is why I specifically said this equation equals good writing, not a good book. I’m just going off the assumption that if an aspiring author has good writing, they can figure out the formatting for themselves. And if they can’t, I’m sure not the person to ask.
So, since I have some time, I’ll examine these two elements under a microscope (ooh, we’re doing science analogies now!)
First of all, allow me to appease any grammar Nazis who are currently contemplating the best way to detach my head from my body. Yes, grammar is an essential ingredient in writing. I didn’t leave it out of the equation. It’s included, right here, under ‘thought.’ You’d better believe that in the English language, having proper grammar takes some serious thought. And one of the primary ways to inject thought into writing is to decide, with extreme care, how words are going to be linked together not only to make sense, but to convey the clearest meaning.
Writing where thought is most important is non-fiction, of course, such as with information books, instruction manuals, or personal memoirs. Yes, some memoirs are much more emotion-based, but not everyone who has an inspiring story or is famous can write well. Just look at Snooki, to name one example. She could have the most tear-jerking tale of all time (the world could also end next week; anything’s possible). But if Snooki’s book reads anything like she speaks, I won’t be able to make any sense of it. Probably a blessing in disguise, but that’s not my point.
Thought goes beyond just using words, though. It also means putting thought into your story. I can’t define this too well other than to say it. Putting thought into story. Things like the complexity of Severus Snape’s past, or the elaborate explanation of crimes in Sherlock Holmes. These required conscious effort on the authors’ parts, and it shows.
As for non-fiction, thought is still required beyond words. This is more deciding how to organize what you’re trying to say, and researching facts before you regurgitate them. I would rather be bound by my imagination, but that’s a personal preference.
It’s my belief that people are quite wrong if they assume emotion is strictly for fiction writing and memoirs. Fact-based books without even a drop of emotional appeal don’t read well, and while their information may be correct, there tends to be limited success in conveying said information to the painfully bored reader. My AP World History textbook, loathed even by my patient teacher, is a perfect example of this.
That being said, emotion is a much more important ingredient in fiction writing. A story without emotion is like a train that never shows up. Not every book has to be the next Harry Potter, but I think every story should at least make you smile, cry, laugh, or gasp in surprise. Good books like Harry Potter do all of the above, but that’s just icing on the cake.
Because if you think about it, isn’t that why we read fiction? Other than when our teachers make us, I mean.
Writing is difficult, which is why I only do it if my heart is in it (see epigraph). With these two ingredients, the whole writing process gets tricky, because thought and emotion go hand in hand. You need to think in order to feel and you need to feel in order to find the energy to think.
And those people who can think and feel in just the right way, in just the right amounts, while blowing us away with their cleverness?
Well, I like to call them storytellers.