There’s No Such Thing as “Good” Writing

I mean this very literally, and it’s something I tell my students all the time: there’s no such thing as “good” writing. Sometimes they’ll nod and say something like, “Yeah, it’s all subjective. Every person likes different stuff and interprets things differently.” But that’s not what I mean. Writing does have quality norms, and those norms matter. A lot. But norms are not the same as “good” and “bad” as essential labels.

Here’s what I mean. We all know what I’m talking about when I say “writing,” but it’s actually not all that practical to think of writing as a single thing. In actuality, writing is contextual, situational — it’s writings, plural. Business writing is quite different from literary writing, which is quite different from a cell-phone text, which is quite different from journalism, which is quite different from scientific writing, which is quite different from ad copy. A piece of writing that’s labeled “good” in one of these areas might be considered “bad” if it gets uprooted and plopped down in another. This specificity explains why it can be so difficult to transition from one kind of writing to another: writers internalize the norms of the kind of writing they usually do and then bring those norms with them to new situations in which they may not work so well.

Sure, you may say, the big things may differ, but the same basic mechanical rules apply across the board.

That’s reasonably (though not entirely) true, but mechanics are not the most important stuff when it comes to writerly success: if the mechanics of a piece of writing are a mess, it’s not going to be readable, but a piece of writing can be mechanically clean and still suck. In short, reasonably solid mechanics are essential for a high-quality piece of writing, but they’re not what make a piece of writing high-quality. The more global features are what do that, and global features are highly contextual.

Why does all this matter? Pragmatically speaking, it matters when you try to write in a new discipline or genre. If you import norms from your old genre, you might get burned, so make sure you analyze your target genre and pick up any important differences. Also, it means new kinds of writing come with learning curves, so you shouldn’t feel bad if it takes a while to get into the swing of things. Philosophically speaking, it’s nice to recognize that talking about writing as “good” and “bad” (which we all do) is merely a shorthand for what you really mean: “good” writing is writing that satisfies or exceeds the needs or expectations of the target audience within its genre or discipline, and “bad” writing is writing that fails to do that.

So, what does it mean to be “a really good writer”? In my book, a really good writer is someone who can identify and adjust to the norms  and expectations of different kinds of writing. That means the essential characteristics of a “really good writer” are perception and flexibility.

MM: Words That May Not Mean What You Think They Mean, Part 2

Here’s a quickie, and it’s actually about prefixes, not words: bi- and semi-. The old way, now dying:

If you wanted to describe something that happens every other year, you’d say it’s bi-annual or biennial.

If you wanted to describe something that happens twice a year, you’d say it’s semi-annual.

Bi-annual (and other bi- words … bi-monthly, bi-weekly, etc.) is replacing semi-annual, which is too bad, since the word is also retaining its original “every other” meaning. That means we’re losing the ability to distinguish quickly and easily between two rather different temporal characteristics. Nevertheless, it is happening — c’est la vie.

But it hasn’t quite finished happening yet. Some people still follow the old ways, so think before you bi-!

MM: Words That May Not Mean What You Think They Mean, Part 1

Today’s topic: words that are experiencing definition drift, but aren’t yet fully unmoored from their original meaning. That means you can “misuse” them without most people realizing it, but some pedantic subset of readers/listeners will snicker up their sleeves at you.

Here are two prime offenders:

1) Nauseous. Most people think of this word as synonymous with “nauseated,” as in, “I’m feeling nauseous this morning.” What does it/did it actually mean? “Nauseating,” as in, “I passed a nauseous car accident on the way to work.” So every time someone says, “OMG, I’m so nauseous today!” the pedants might think, “with that kind of vocabulary, you sure are!”

2) Disinterested. Many people think of this word as synonymous with “uninterested,” but it actually means “unbiased.” This one isn’t as far gone as “nauseous,” so beware.

That’s all for now, but I’ll probably rinse and repeat as I think of new examples.

MM: Countable Nouns

Language changes. Distinctions that were once important fade, becoming esoteric, then vanishing. Many people don’t notice such losses. Others do notice. Complaints about the current sad state of writing or the language are no new thing. For instance, Harvard started its expository writing program in 1897 because faculty members were so distressed at their students’ abysmal writing. One of their complaints: students seemed unable to keep straight the distinction between will and shall. The faculty was trying to hold back the tide on that one: the will/shall  distinction has since been lost to American English. And a hundred years from now, the who/whom distinction will probably have gone the same way.

This post is about another fading distinction: that between adjectives appropriate for “countable” and “uncountable” nouns. Have you noticed that many supermarkets have changed the signs on their express lanes to read “10 items or fewer,” rather than “10 items or less”? That’s because the pedants were getting on their cases. You see, items are countable, and you use fewer with countable nouns. Less is for uncountable things, such as rice. (Tip: Uncountable nouns generally don’t have a separate plural form — rice, flour, sand, air, gasoline, music, advice, etc.)

So, let’s take beans as our countable noun and rice as our uncountable one:

This burrito is too big! I’d like less rice and fewer beans.

This burrito has a greater amount of rice and a greater number of beans.

I don’t have many beans or much rice. I need to go shopping!

The less/fewer distinction is the most abused, but you’ll also see amount attached to countable nouns. The linguistic trend seems to be the replacement of countable with uncountable forms. In a hundred years, fewer and number might sound precious or archaic, as shall does to modern American speakers. But for now, I think the distinction still holds. By a single, countable thread.

Can I Just Be Annoyed for a Minute?

You know, critics of indie publishing are very fond of pointing out that most indie authors don’t make much or any money. Proponents usually respond that the vast majority of traditionally published authors don’t make much money either — many traditionally published books “fail.” While that’s certainly true, I don’t think it’s the most effective response.

In judging the money-making potential of  indie authorship, the real question is this: “How many authors who could publish their books through traditional routes but who choose to publish independently end up making as much or more through self-publishing, compared to what they would’ve made if they published traditionally?”

Books that could’ve gone the traditional route are the only books that can be used in comparing indie success rates to traditional success rates. Why? Because all the other books — all those that were rejected by traditional publishers or would’ve been rejected, had they been submitted — could only ever make exactly $0.00 through traditional publishers. If those “not good enough” books, when self-published, make a single red cent, that’s 100% gravy because they never would’ve gotten the chance to make anything if indie weren’t an option. And boy have some of those “not good enough” books made a whole pile of red cents.

Given the fact that you have to remove all the foolishly-rejected-by-traditional-publishing, Mill River Recluse-type books from the scale before you weigh indie vs. traditional, it seems very likely to me that authors are more likely to make good money as self-publishers, especially if they write in the genres that tend to sell well as ebooks. But we’ll never know for sure because every book that could be traditionally published has to go one way or the other, and it’s impossible to know how it would’ve done if the author had chosen the route he or she didn’t choose.

FYI, this is the weak analysis that ticked me off. Thanks to Kindle Boards for the link.

Review: The End Is Near, by Harry Ramble

The End Is Near (2010)
By Harry Ramble
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.

The End Is Near is a work of literary fiction focusing on the sad-sack character of Nathan Huffnagle — his tragic past, his weird present, and his mysterious and possibly very short future. The novel opens with Nathan in the hospital. He’s landed there following a botched attempt at suicide by shotgun. Left without the lower part of his face, Nathan has been reduced to writing down everything he wants to say. If this sounds macabre, it is, but that’s not the novel’s only mood. At turns appalling, funny, sad, and uplifting, The End Is Near is far from a one-trick pony.

Ramble’s narrative artfully weaves Nathan’s story out of three strands: his present-day interactions in the hospital with visitors, doctors, nurses, and what Nathan believes to be ghosts and Death itself; the “suicide journal” he kept leading up to his attempt; and a new document he writes at the behest of his ghosts, one in which he tries to uncover a truer account of why his life has turned out so badly. These three sources work wonderfully together: the suicide journal tells the story of Nathan’s wretched childhood — his dysfunctional family and his sadistic torment at the hands of a bully named Randy Trent. The new narrative tells the story of how Nathan took Randy and several others hostage in an auto-parts store and came to the point of suicide. The hospital interactions provide motivation and reveal Nathan’s changing states of mind and self-understanding. Ramble’s ability to bring these different strands — each with its different tone — together so clearly and productively is extremely impressive. This is novel-crafting at its best.

As Nathan’s new narrative takes shape, we get to know both him and Randy Trent much better. As expected, the situation is not as simple as the bully-and-his-victim cliché would suggest. I won’t say more, here, lest I spoil your read, except to admire Ramble’s utter refusal of easy answers and cheap redemption. His characters feel deeply real in their combination of understanding and lack thereof, in their ability and inability to articulate their thoughts and feelings. Even relatively minor figures, such as Nathan’s mother and sister, have a wonderful tangibleness — we don’t get to know them well but are left feeling as though they’re real people we glimpsed in passing. As with Ramble’s ability to construct narrative, his ability to create character it stunning. This is a book that reminds us to look for the admirable in unexpected places: in resiliency; in the halting growth of self-knowledge; in plain-spokenness; and in the ability to draw a moral line somewhere, even if it’s not in the most optimal place.

I also greatly admire Ramble’s work with setting. In writing his suicide journal, Nathan tends to visit the sites of his childhood miseries. Each of these locations is described with subtlety and realism, and they’re all set in the larger environment of a depressed post-industrial town, a hopeful Levittown gone to rot and despair. Ramble doesn’t have to overcook Nathan’s story by spelling out its questioning of the platitudes of family and community; his setting does it for him.

Ramble’s prose is excellent — clear, straightforward, and error-free. Formatting and editing are flawless. I would suggest adjusting the book’s cover for the electronic environment: the small, pale title and author name are probably fine for a paperback, but are illegible on screen.

Harry Ramble’s End Is Near is outstanding. I recommend it in the highest possible terms.

This review will be cross-posted to Amazon.

A Banned Sorcery Review: Nameless, by Dawn Napier

Bryce Anderson likes to swim the vast and deep seas of Amazon’s self-published sci-fi and fantasy, occasionally bringing back sunken treasure. Find his reviews and fiction at Banned Sorcery.

Nameless
By Dawn Napier
Genre: modern-day dark fantasy
Length: 67,000 words
Words per penny: 336
Available on Amazon.

Rating: +5 Awesome

Plot summary (spoiler-free):

A young woman named Sharon finds a strange little girl on her doorstep, and takes her in. The stubbornly nameless child is one of the fairyfolk, and is being hunted by dark powers, both fairy and mortal. When the child is kidnapped, she must go to the fairy world and rescue her with the help of her slacker brother, a sexy Catholic priest, and a magical granny with mad embroidering skillz.

Review:

It would be difficult to recommend this book highly enough. Writing, characters, plot, and dialogue are all top-notch, better than most traditionally published fiction. The story kept me hooked from beginning to end.

The book is full of adventure, with a good love story, and enough theological musings to keep your brain occupied, without ever slowing down the main story. Napier’s Underhill (the fairy world) is a strange place with a logic of its own, a place where everything is beautiful and anything can be deadly. The fairy kingdom is populated with beautiful, dangerous spirits who use magic and wiles to lure unsuspecting mortals to … well, everyone has their own deadly and/or sexy agendas.

It was with a heavy heart that I discovered that this is Dawn Napier’s only published work. Fear not, though. She’s working on another.

Write faster, you! Also, use more bigger words. Be obfuscatory, dammit! (Sorry. Inside joke. My first contact with her was during a brief online argument over whether Fifty Shades used inappropriately large vocabulary.)

Caveats:

The book deserves better cover art. A few stick-in-the-muds … er, I mean gentle souls … might find some parts blasphemous or disrespectful towards Catholicism. Jesus is pro-gay marriage, and he swears.

New Yorker Article

1) I let my subscription to The New Yorker lapse some years ago because I was buried in New Yorkers. Monthly, it’d be great. Weekly? Gah!

2) There was exactly one source of higher-brow periodicals in the 70,000-person town I’m living in right now. It was a Borders.

1 + 2 = I can’t read the interesting-looking article on the anti-trust suit by Ken Aulette in this week’s issue of The New Yorker. But if you’re a subscriber, you can. The rest of us will have to catch up next week.

Thanks to The Passive Voice for the link.