The secret of writing a good book: aim to do it all

One of my favourite fantasy authors, Guy Gavriel Kay, has been interviewed in the September issue of Locus Magazine, and he has – as one might expect of such a talented and interesting storyteller – some wise things to say.

“I’ve been saying for years that good fiction is interesting things happening to interesting people. In a lot of the commercial bestsellers (any genre, any form, any field), you’re going to have interesting things happening to stupefyingly uninteresting characters, and in a lot of the lauded literary contemporary fiction you’ll have carefully thought-out characters with nothing remotely engaging happening to them. But it’s not a zero-sum game, not either/or. It’s difficult to deliver both, but that’s our mandate when we write.”

In the above paragraph, he really sums up what writing an interesting story is all about.

There is another element, of course, which most of us take for granted: the writer has to be able to write a decent sentence; you know, with the commas in the right places and the words in the right order.

[Here’s a bit of a digression:
Ask any published writer, and they will have tales of being approached by wannabe-published writers (often very young ones) shoving their stories into your hand or into your computer, when they don’t yet have the elementary tools to write a story.

Here’s a brief example lifted from the beginning of a story submitted for criticism that I read recently, and almost every sentence had an equal number of elementary mistakes:

“What did you just say”! He asked in a soft voice, “Marissa, you should ….” and so on. From the context, it is obvious that the “He asked in a soft voice” applies to the “What did you just say”.
Ok, so the capital H is probably a function of Word making an automatic change – but what kind of a writer then submits a passage for criticism with it (multiple times) still like that? And how can you think you’ll succeed if you don’t know that inverted commas (quotation marks) go outside the punctuation of the speech? Or that an exclamation mark followed by “in a soft voice” isn’t going to make sense? Or if you don’t know what constitutes a complete sentence in the first place – see the comma after voice?]

You may possibly get published with a book that doesn’t have interesting things happening to interesting people, but you will never get published if you don’t take time to conquer the tools of your trade.

The other element of a good tale, to me, is a plot that holds together and is believable. Now, the non-fantasy readers among you may raise an eyebrow at that. How can fantasy be believable? Well, that’s the function of a good writer: to make it so. (I could also add that the majority of the people of this world do accept the fantastic as real, on pretty little evidence, in their every day lives, but perhaps I had better not go there.)

And to tell the truth, I am constantly surprised at the number of novels that do get published even though they have plot holes so large you could sink a couple of oil rigs into them and still have room. The Da Vinci Code is a good example.

But anyway, here’s my formula for a good novel:

Interesting things happening
to interesting people,
with a coherent, believable plot.

Conquer those four elements and you might just have best-seller potential. The first two make a great story, the third makes the great story a publishable book, and the fourth turns the great publishable story into a great book.

What do you think?

Originally posted in Glenda’s blog on Saturday, 29 September 2007 (5 Comments).

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