What Makes a Great Writer?

Hello! Welcome to the first in a series of pieces about editing.

I’m hoping that these blog posts will be of interest not only to aspiring novelists but also to readers. I’ve realised, from giving talks, doing Q and A’s with reading groups, and appearing at festival events, that readers tend to be just as fascinated by the process of writing as they are by the finished product. And, sometimes, knowing what’s gone in to making the work that you’ve enjoyed so much actually adds to your enjoyment. (Or perhaps that’s only me…)

If you’re a reader, it’s common to hear other readers, or reviewers, commenting that Author X is ‘a great/brilliant/compelling/very readable writer’ but what does that actually mean?

[OK, before we get into the meat of that, names are really important to me as a novelist, so let’s give Author X a name. How about Wren Blackbird? Two of my favourite garden birds in a nicely non-genre-specific combination.]

There are several different things that Wren Blackbird’s being a ‘great author’ could mean, depending on the reader’s/publisher’s priorities:

1. Wren Blackbird [I’ve only just heard the name so I’m using the whole thing in the hope that it sticks in my mind so that I can recommend WB to others] might have a wonderful prose style: sparse and pared back like Hemingway, somewhat more expansive like Dickens (though, frankly, Dickens would be heavily line-edited these days – 180 000 word books aren’t popular with publishers) or something more amusing and wry, like P G Wodehouse, just to use some well-known examples.

2. Blackbird [now, I’m on instant-recall terms with Ms/Mr/Mx Blackbird] might write characters who leap off the page, take up residence in your imagination, and beg to appear on screen. Think of icons (some might say stereotypes) like Sherlock Holmes, Bridget Jones, Holden Caulfield or James Bond.

3. Perhaps they [I’m not yet quite enough of a fan to know Wren Blackbird’s pronouns so I’m playing safe] write books that make you laugh and cry with the sheer emotional power of their story; books that suck you in to the emotional life of their characters and make you care, deeply, about what happens to them. Books which, when you’ve read the last page, are going to stick in your mind for weeks afterwards because the emotional lives of their characters have affected you at such a fundamental level.

4. Or perhaps Wren [I’ve met the gender-fluid author at a signing now, so I feel daringly familiar] writes books of such pace that you can’t stop turning the pages and you worry for your blood pressure as you race through all the obstacles the main character faces in the pursuit of his/her/their goals and throw the book down as you read the last word, slightly breathless and unsure whether to be sad or glad that the wild ride is over.

5. Alternatively, Mr/Ms/Mx Blackbird [I’m writing an Amazon/Goodreads review and I’m keen not to mis-gender the author] might craft plots which blow you away with their sheer inventiveness or originality. The could be high concept plots like those of Sophie Hannah, in whose Haven’t They Grown the main character encouters an acquaintance she hasn’t seen for twelve years, only to find that the woman’s children, who were then 3 and 5, appear not to have aged a single day since she saw them last); or alternative histories like Owen Shiers’ Resistance where Britain has fallen to the Nazis in 1944. Or the plot might be complex and pacy, constantly suprising and with a twist that you genuinely didn’t see coming. Clare Mackintosh is excellent at those, as is my Crime Cymru pal, BE Jones.

6. Or perhaps the talented Wren Blackbird [who is winning prizes now and therefore goes back to being a whole name] is wonderful at world building, making you feel that you’re there, in the characters’ world, whether it’s somewhere you know and are made to feel at home in instantly, a place or time you’ve never experienced, or somewhere that doesn’t exist but somehow has been made not only plausible but real, on the pages of their book.

In my next post on this subject, I’ll be looking at which of these elements of ‘great writing’ are essential to any given genre of book. I’ll also be looking at some persistent urban myths which circulate among unpublished writers about publishers and editing.

Meanwhile, cast your eye over the different ways I’ve referred to Wren Blackbird and my rationale for doing so. Each use of the name implies something slightly different about the relationship between Wren Blackbird and the author, as well as the latter’s attitude to the former. Have a think about how you use that kind of detail in your own writing.

PS: In case you’ve not read previous posts, do scroll down the list for details of my editorial services, and how to contact me.

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