After finally passing the two Microsoft exams to upgrade my Systems Engineer certification to Windows 2003 (in preparation for the upgrade to 2008) I was thinking that I could get back to writing. Not. Well, sort of not.
You see, I often volunteer to judge writing contests. I found contests very, very useful to help hone my skills before I got published and I like to help out with them now that I am published, to sort of give back to the community. So I'm trying to get those entries read, think about them, formulate some reasonable comments, and then return them.
One of the things I'm reminded of whenever I do this is how much you can learn from reading other people's writing. In fact, you can probably learn more from reading not-quite-publishable than you can from reading published work. If a pre-published author makes mistakes, they are usually easier to find and easier to see how you might fix them. And avoid similar mistakes in your own writing. I can't tell you how much I've learned this way.
I occasionally go back through my favorite books to try to extract similar how-to information, but a lot of my favorite authors are so good, it is nearly impossible to dissect their writing. It's too smooth and unobtrusive. In fact, it's often hard to read more than a sentence without getting hooked into the story and forgetting why you were looking that the writing, anyway. That is the mark of a very skilled writer. Their writing is so unobtrusive that it does not get in the way of the story. You get sucked into the characters and plot to the point where you almost can't even see the writing.
This is something that may be more true of popular, commercial fiction than literary fiction. Literary fiction often showcases the writer's way with words or poetic voice—sometimes sacrificing story for the writing form itself. Some speculative works also do this—where it's more about the style of the vehicle than about the message it carries. And that's cool. I've been known to really enjoy fiction that is "out there" and uses weird language or a strange style. It's fun.
But if you are writing commercial fiction, then as a writer, you really need to make one critical decision before you start: Is your voice and "way with words" more important than your story?
It's okay to answer yes. But if your voice or poetic style of writing is more important to you than the story, you need to be prepared for a hard sell. You may be writing literature—not commercial fiction. And maybe someday, they'll include your books in "English 101."
Anyway, I was reminded of this issue because of some of the contest entries I've been reviewing. At least two of them had very strong, distinctive voices. One was very poetic. Lovely, really. But the voice and poetry was louder than the story, so the story failed to grip me. I was enjoying the play with words—I could not have cared less about the characters or plot. And I realized after reading the first two chapters that there was no way I would ever read more than 50 pages or so. It was too tiring. Evocative, but tiring because you never got emotionally invested in the story. It was all pretty surface with no soul.
For a story to be compelling and gripping, the reader has to forget they are reading a story. They have to sink into it. And readers can't do that if they are constantly paying attention to the writing or if they have to stop and figure out what the writer "meant".
Unobtrusive. Smooth. That's what you're looking for when someone describes your writing. Don't make the reader go, "huh?" And don't let them see your technique. If they see your technique, they're not into the story.
So, I've got to get back to the contest entries.
Good luck and sweet dreams!