Aspects of novel writing

At some point we’ve all sat through a class or read a news article that discussed the three/seven/nine/twelve kinds of intelligence. Some people are good with numbers. Others are good with words. Some are really good at moving their bodies. Others are good at music, or at interacting with other people.

The point is, there are multiple and completely unrelated ways to be smart. Novel writing, I have found, is the same way. There are multiple dimensions to writing, and while a writer can improve in all of them with practice, a writer will inevitably be better at some than at others.

Right now, I see three major aspects to constructing a novel.

1. Writing the words. This is about having a good vocabulary, a good turn of phrase, flowing sentences, and all of that. A person who writes well is a person who can produce smooth, flowing verbiage that is a pleasure to read, and who can edit to the point where irritating snags and clumsy pitfalls don’t exist. It’s also about spelling, grammar, and poetic talent.

2. The action mechanics. This is about having a gripping, exciting plot, and manipulating people, actions, and objects through space and time in a believable and interesting way. It’s very easy to lose track of details; it’s also very easy to get mired in the details and cease to move the plot along, at which point the story stops being interesting. I hope I needn’t say that being able to come up with an exciting plot in the first place is no mean gift.

3. The emotional mechanics. This is about exploring the characters’ reactions to the action in a believable and poignant way. It can be followed at a shallow level, such as “Arya saw her father executed and now she’s mad about it,” or at a deeply nuanced level that changes with each word of a conversation. The deeper you go, the better the reader’s experience, but as you delve deeper you’re also more and more likely to make errors, here. Paradoxically, while editing often makes things better, I find that editing an emotionally deep scene is more likely to create errors than fix them, because your reactions are evolving along with your characters’ the first time you write, and interfering with that progression subsequently.

One magical thing about writing is that, once you’ve done it yourself, you thereafter read other authors with a critical eye–and one very interesting thing about these three aspects of a novel is that you find out that popular, widely-published authors aren’t always strong in all three of these. Many popular romance novelists, for example, have #2 and #3 down but struggle with #1. George R. R. Martin, I find, is more than competent with #1 and a true wizard of #2, but shies away from #3. Diana Gabaldon varies from “good” to “bloody brilliant” with #1 and is pretty well unparallelled with #3, but sometimes gets ragged at the edges with #2.

And you know what? I love all of these books anyway. It’s a rare author who excels in all three areas, and I’m not saying that every author, or even most authors, should. When they do, they get prizes and awards. Personally, I am in this game to write fiction that people enjoy reading, so I don’t need to be a master of all three (though of course, I do my best in all areas).

What are your strengths and weaknesses? Have you noticed the strength and weakness profile of your favorite author?


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