What makes a piece of writing something you want to keep reading? What makes it intriguing and puzzling and yes, welcoming? Why do we slip into some stories and keep going through without fatigue? Clear, easy writing has that effect, but I think there’s something more–it’s fresh.
“Fresh” is not easy to define. It’s easier to explain its absence—when an article goes too long, no matter whether it’s in the New York Times, a novel or Yahoo News, I find myself skipping ahead. Not a good sign. It usually means that unless my eye hooks onto something interesting soon, and I mean SOON, I will X out (if on the screen), scroll away (on my phone) or close the book. The piece had my attention, and alas, lost it.
Fresh writing keeps me interested. It STAYS fresh. While teaching myself to write fiction I pored through craft books, working diligently through a dozen or more, doing EVERY exercise, working my way carefully through them, digesting the examples, even reading the books the examples came from.
When I began to write novels my reading changed. If I found a book that had me grinning with satisfaction when I set it down, I said a mental note, “How does she DO that? I’ve got to look at it again.” Sometimes, on the second go around the effect was difficult to see. The element of surprise was lost, the flow, the rhythm was already known. But I’d try. How did Dashiell Hammett manage such a compact plot in ‘The Maltese Falcon’? To study this, I examined the plot by creating an outline
utline for his book. First, I summarized each chapter in a sentence or two. Then I put it all together and examined how it links and holds and echoes, and warns, and surprises and explains. That’s brilliant plot, brilliant writing. It’s fresh and it stays fresh.
Reading hundreds of novels, and dissecting some, gives us an appreciation of that special ether, that ‘freshness’ that Ken Follet calls “the turn”. He points out in his brief Masterclass: The plot must turn every four pages, to move the action ever forward. The story delivers meaning, emotional impact.
Reading his novel Pillars of the Earth and its sequel World Without End I found myself utterly engrossed—multiple protagonists each with a set of problems and multiple antagonists! How does he do that?
“How good does a work of art have to be, to be good?” famed science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard asks, in his essay “Art, More About.” The answer surprised me: It takes “Technical expertise adequate to produce an emotional impact.”
Huh? Adequate technical expertise? I feel as though Beethoven just waved me off with, “Practice, my dear!”
Yes, Hubbard claims, before the audience sees the message, they notice the expertise of the artist. That in itself, draws a
positive reaction. The artist “knows what he is doing. And how to do it. And then to this he adds his message.”
Wait—that’s it! The message! But no, a message without the technical expertise to carry it, is boring, preachy even. Hubbard points out artists need the expertise “to produce an emotional impact.”
But how? How does one craft words into garlands of sentences that do this? It has to do with feeling the emotion as one writes, I think, remembering, imagining, and then burning that thought into the page with words. Feeling empathy for the character is not enough. A writer must be deeply engaged, to
figure out why and how the character experiences that emotion, and how they react. And yes, she must write it all down in compact language. That’s the technique Hubbard is talking about, the skill to paint word-picture that move and live like movies, only better, because the reader is inside the character’s head.
Hubbard says, “A lot of artists are overstraining to obtain a quality far above that necessary to produce an emotional impact. And many more are trying to machine-gun messages at the world without any expertise at all to form the vital carrier wave.” He’s saying the very mastery
of technique forms a “carrier wave” that reaches a reader—the closest thing to telepathy, perhaps, a carrier wave of language and emotion.
So how do we keep generating fresh ideas? Reading books in different genres helps. Reading poetry also fuels the engine. And I find that mysteries come in many different styles. When I read Sue Cox’s The Man on the Washing Machine I had an immediate sense of place—the tiny San Fransisco suburb, almost a village in the middle of San Fran’s hilly st
reets and corner cafes. And there was more: how can a murder mystery where the body count keeps rising be terrifying and thrilling and even contain moments of side-splitting humor? Somehow Sue Cox manages to achieve this intoxicating cocktail.
Joanna Schaffhausen’s All the Best Lies, is book three of her Ellery Hathaway series. “Ellery, however, stalked death like it owed her something. Like they had unfinished business. Maybe that’s why the bullets came flying every time Reed got near her—he was always in the way.” I felt a frisson of alarm run over my skin as the pair search for his Reed’s mother’s killer, on a trail that becomes deadlier by the page-turn. Now that’s suspense, that’s emotion.
When I wrote and rewrote chapters of Murder in Old Bombay, I reviewed alternatives the way an actor says his lines a hundred times, trying out different tones. My early readers, bless them, helped me see which version had an emotional impact. Writing is something we learn to do around the age of five. But writing well? Writing fresh? Ah, now that’s a skill. And writing with sufficient expertise that our message delivers an emotional impact? Now that’s the goal of a professional author.
In 1892, Bombay is the center of British India. Nearby, Captain Jim Agnihotri lies in Poona military hospital recovering from a skirmish on the wild northern frontier, with little to do but re-read the tales of his idol, Sherlock Holmes, and browse the daily papers. The case that catches Captain Jim's attention is being called the crime of the century: Two women fell from the busy university’s clock tower in broad daylight. Moved by Adi, the widower of one of the victims—his certainty that his wife and sister did not commit suicide—Captain Jim approaches the Parsee family and is hired to investigate what happened that terrible afternoon.
But in a land of divided loyalties, asking questions is dangerous. Captain Jim's investigation disturbs the shadows that seem to follow the Framji family and triggers an ominous chain of events. And when lively Lady Diana Framji joins the hunt for her sisters’ attackers, Captain Jim’s heart isn’t safe, either.
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