So, sickness has been running rampant through my house lately, which means I’ve been employing the benefits of Dr. Google. All I had to do was plug in the symptoms: coughing, chills, runny nose, sore throat, low-grade fever and I quickly learned that my family was either dying of tuberculosis or had some variation of the common cold. It was a toss-up really, which wasn’t the best of odds when tuberculosis is on the table, so off to the real doctor we went. One sinus infection and a bottle of amoxicillin later, life is returning to normal. Except for the horse pills, that is. Some unnamed person in my house must somehow manage to swallow them on a twice daily basis. Nothing normal about that. Honestly, it’s worse than giving my dogs a pill. At least then I can slather them in peanut butter.
But I digress.
This is all to say I’ve noticed everything in life — both good and bad — has symptoms. Life is symptomatic of whatever is going on. We cry when we’re hurt. It’s a symptom of pain. We laugh when we’re happy. It’s a symptom of joy. Our heart flutters when we’re in love. It’s a symptom of pleasure. Writing is no different. Quality writing has some basic markers of success.
The Symptoms of Quality Writing:
- Every quality house is built first on a strong foundation, and writing is no different. A quality book is founded on a great hook (wow, that rhymed, go me). A hook defined: the unique element of your story that makes it marketable; a strong premise. Querying authors take note: One thing I’m looking for in your queries is this hook. (And I always want to see the stakes of the novel included in the hook, because otherwise why would I care to read it?) Sadly, if you can’t lay out the hook for me in your query, then how can I hook an editor, and finally, how can your publishing house hook a bunch of readers for you? It’s just not gonna happen. So, please make sure you include a sentence or two somewhere in your query that is obviously the hook. You can’t imagine how many people leave this out or bury it. I personally don’t care if you give me this “sizzle” at the end of your synopsis or throw out an old-school “what if” sentence somewhere (though I hear some agents don’t care for them). As long as I can find it, I’m happy.
- There’s a central conflict that the reader cares about seeing resolved. It is the story problem that the protagonist must solve. This means there’s rising tension to the climax, and a satisfying resolution (unless maybe it’s a tragedy) at the end. Basically you as an author have a problem if your narrative doesn’t have a problem.
- There are stakes involved for your protagonist. Stakes are the reason your story matters and the reason your protagonist is willing to deal with the conflict around which your story is built. Stakes are what’s at risk for your character. Stakes are something that can be gained or lost. And stakes, maybe most importantly, give your reader something to care about. That’s why stakes are always part of the HOOK. There are three types: personal (directly affect the character), public (affect the world as a whole) and ultimate (when your protagonist’s convictions and motivations are tested). If you can manage to incorporate all three, then you’re awesome and I need to meet you. The higher the stakes, the better.
- With conflict comes tension. Tension impels people to keep reading. It is the rising action that tracks upward to the climax. Tension is created through a series of crises that get more and more intense as you build to said climax. Visually, rising action is not linear but a series of bumps as each crises should have its own rising and falling action.
- There’s character development. We fall in love with the hero and hate the antagonist, and they change over the course of the book, deepening our feelings for them, good or bad, as they react to or cause the conflict. Also, secondary characters aren’t just there to be pretty, but give meaning and add depth to the story and main characters.
- There’s a well-developed setting (which can almost be a character in itself) and world-building (especially for fantasy & science fiction pieces).
- There’s a healthy balance of action, narration and dialog in the writing.
- There’s structure to the work, which can take on various forms. The Hero’s Journey, Three-Act Structure, In Medias Res, Seven point story structure, etc. People like structure. They expect it.
- There’s rhythm to the writing, or sentence fluency, that makes us not want to rip our eyes out for having read 15 eight-word sentences in a row. (Kill me now.)
- Maybe basic, but it’s edited well. Grammar, punctuation spelling. (ha, did anyone notice I left out a comma?)
- The writer shows more than tells. (Telling: The blood moon was red and big in the night sky, and I felt scared when I went Trick or Treating with my friends. Showing: I imagined the blood moon dripping from the night sky, cascading down a red shower on all of the little ghosts and ghouls and even princesses running, scattered down the street. We hunted for candy in shadows, but something about that night made me feel like I was the one being hunted.) Feel the difference? I said basically the same thing, but one made you feel something. Also please note, it takes more words to show than tell.
- Quality writers (especially debut authors) follow publisher expectations for genre. In thrillers, someone dies. In romance, there’s a happily ever after. The protagonist is a sympathetic or likable character we’re willing to root for.
- There are publisher expectations for word count too — that incorporate age categories (children’s, middle grade, young adult, new adult, adult) with genre (romance, women’s fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, etc.). If you pitch me a 250,000 word sci-fi novel, it’s an automatic no. Yes, some writers write crazy big, but they’re established authors with built-in fan bases. See http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post.
- And then there’s voice. VOICE IS PARAMOUNT. You often hear agents say, “It’s all about the voice,” and really, it is. Voice is my main symptom of quality writing. What is it? Voice is the quality of an author’s writing that makes it unique. It is style expressed through words. It’s the difference between a Valentino evening dress (I’d image it written as lyrical, stylized, beautiful, elegant), Alexander McQueen (dark, brooding, edgy, loud, somewhat dangerous, sometimes clipped, sometimes flowing) and Betsey Johnson (colorful, snappy, humorous, fun). Voice is the attitude and personality of a work expressed through (according to Wikipedia) a “combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text.” That sounds rather clinical, but hear me, it’s more than that: Voice is a character in and of itself. Read what you write out loud. Does your writing have its own personality? Is it a character in and of itself? If yes, if you can feel it and it moves you, that’s quality voice. Quality voice grabs hold of you and won’t let go. I imagine that’s why agents and editors get all riled up over voice. It keeps us reading — and that’s the goal.
Well folks, the doctor was in today, and I hope you enjoyed the check up. I’m also quite sure I’ve missed something because a) I never really went to medical school and b) admittedly, I stayed up late bing-watching CW shows last night. (Ahem, don’t judge me. I rep YA. I must be a kid inside to some degree to do this and this requires me watching shows chock full of “chosen ones” and teenage angst.)
So, please my friends, comment away on your favorite symptoms of quality writing. Every reader has the right to determine their own markers of success!