What Makes A “Good” Writer?

I had lunch with a writer friend today, and as two writers inevitably do, we got to talking about books and authors we liked. Some books we liked were not written by authors we like. Which is to say we both know and like some authors whose work leaves us cold.

My friend said her husband will toss aside a novel the minute he finds an error of fact in it. He doesn’t care about the characters or the plot, it’s all about how realistic the details are. She and I, on the other hand, are forgiving about factual errors in a novel, but neither of us can abide slithery points-of-view, one-dimensional characters, or exposition presented as dialogue. The more we talked about it, the more we seemed to be saying that an author’s popularity has more to do with reader preference than with a writer’s skill. But that seemed uncomfortably close to the kind of thing that snob-authors say, those precious ones whose self-indulgent prose is read only by their students and three best friends, so we did some rethinking. The truth is that some readers care a lot about an author getting it all right, other’s don’t give a flip. So is a “good” writer one who gets everything right, or one whose readers can’t wait for the next flawed book to come out?

In a perfect literary world, every novel would be beautifully written AND have exciting adventures, three-dimensional characters, and accurate technical details. That’s what I’ll continue to aim for. But in the real literary world, authors who create great characters may goof on real-life details. Authors whose sentences sing with poetic perfection may have plots with holes so big you could drive a truck through them. And authors who put fictional scientists or space travelers in realistically described situations may write like clods. Judicious readers know they have to weigh strengths against weaknesses.

While my friend and I didn’t mean to, we may have talked ourselves into a realization that the publishing industry may not be as erratic as critics say. In fact, it’s probably doing a pretty good job of balancing author output with broad reader preferences. It’s literary democracy in action.

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One thought on “What Makes A “Good” Writer?

  1. That’s a tough question. I worked very hard to get all the details correct in my novel, An Island Away. That said, I “changed” some geography of one location and the structure of another building in order to make it possible for a plot point to work. A reader who grew up in the town where this takes place (in the story world) sent me a note and said, basically, “Hey, that’s not how that building is built and you couldn’t see from there to there.” I thanked him for his keen insight and asked if it ruined the story. He replied, of course not, he just wanted me to know how the building really was. I wouldn’t play fast and loose with big chunks of facts in a narrative. At the same time, sometimes you have to rearrange the chairs at the dinner party to make the conversation glow. In the mean time, I’m hanging out at http://www.bentpage.wordpress.com and writing another novel.

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