Advice, Craft, Fiction, Writing

Note to self: You ain’t writing literature!

This past week, I reached the dark woods, otherwise known as the dreaded middle of a novel in progress. I stumbled a bit. Suddenly, I hated my book. The writing seemed pedestrian. The language was too simple, the syntax too straightforward. This won’t do, I thought, I should start over and write like a real writer. And then …

I noticed, in my stats, that some visitor to my blog clicked on a category tag Literary Criticism. Really? I wrote a post on literary criticism? Of course, I clicked to see what I said, and I was glad I did. I wrote that post in 2009 while editing The Brevity of Roses. I came to a good conclusion then, and it’s still good now, so I’m sharing it with you.  Enjoy.

Blue Toes and Good Writing

Blue-toed tree frog.

I apologize up front because I might step on some toes today. Just know that mine are black and blue too. I am in editing mode—again—and I’ve recently discovered John Gardner’s book On Becoming A Novelist. I shared a passage from that last week and will share another below. Gardner has been stomping all over my writing toes.

I confess I’ve been a “literary” wannabe. In editing my work, particularly the passages that haven’t changed since the first version, I find a tendency to overwrite, to use ten-dollar words or syntax that only complicates the reading, not deepens the meaning. Or, when writing in a poetic character’s point of view, to let myself get carried away with imagery. Possibly the line drawn between good writing and overwriting is quite fine. Or else, I just leapt right over it.

John Gardner

Gardner writes:
“… as a rule, the good novelist does not worry primarily about linguistic brilliance—at least not brilliance of the showy, immediately obvious kind—but instead worries about telling his story in a moving way, making the reader laugh or cry or endure suspense, whatever it is that this particular story, told at its best, will incline the reader to do.”

Anne Tyler

If you’ve been around this blog for long, you know that one of my favorite writers is Anne Tyler. I’ve always thought of her writing as beautiful, but when I examine it, I see that rarely does she call attention to her word choices or phrasing. By this, I mean, not often do I stop reading to admire her clever writing. I admire her talent at story telling, her fleshed out characters, her ability to draw me into her fictive dream, which means she’s an excellent (Pulitzer Prize winning) writer, but she’s not a show-off.

I’ve read books in which it seems, as Gardner says, “the writer cares more for his language than for other elements of fiction.” I don’t enjoy those books as much and little of them stays with me. If those writers attempted to create a fictive dream, I’m too aware of their writing to fall into it. Obviously, there are people who read such books, literary critics generally love them, and creative writing classes teach them. I believed that I should aspire to become one of those “important” writers. But I’ve changed my mind.

I just want to tell the best stories I know how with beautiful, but understated, language to people who want, for a while, to dream of a different life, or place, or time.

11 thoughts on “Note to self: You ain’t writing literature!”

  1. A similar thing happened to me when I reached my midpoint not so long ago. I thought how horrible, how terrible, who cares about any of this? In addition I had no idea what would be my dramatic ‘parting of the veil’, and I still have no idea. Anyway, I went back to my beginning, came up with some new story that made me my like my midpoint, and although I still haven’t moved passed my midpoint (in fact I’m back in act 1) I feel ok. But, it’s cyclical, I’ll be back at the ‘this is terrible, garabge, horrible’ place, and then I’ll need to do something to make it all better again. Phew–what an exhausting process! Thanks for sharing this post!


    1. It is exhausting, Jennifer. 😦 I think I need to stop writing and go back and read from the beginning, so I “fall in love” again. I started to do that, then stopped and went back to writing.


  2. That is such good advice and I struggle all the time to take note! Clever-clever verbal acrobatics are dazzling – but only from the inside. From the outside, they look like those beat up old Fords covered in bling, stuffed with humungous speakers, and drooled over by boy racers in tight T shirts.
    Well, that’s my fantasy, anyway!


    1. You have no problem with imagery, Suzanne. 🙂 Sometimes I admire those acrobatics and then I think, but that’s writing for writers, and though I’d love to have the approval of other writers, I really just want to tell stories readers enjoy.


      1. I’m a sucker for it, but only my own – what a surprise! I have to strangle that muse and go with the other one that, hopefully, is permitting that imagery (thank you 🙂 ) to come through. I want what you want, and I’m long enough in the tooth not to care much about what the ‘establishment’ thinks.


  3. Oh, I have this fight with myself often, particularly after I’ve read a beautifully lyrical novel, as I just have. Then I remember reader comments about my characters and how they just loved them. That’s the point, right? To me it’s about the characters and their story. Beauty and lyricism is a nice bonus if it feels natural, but it’s a bonus.


  4. Perfect. Since I write for children I have to be very aware that literary writing will most likely turn them off and make them close the book, never to read another page. I will use the odd larger word, but only to encourage the reader sto broaden their voacbulary, but I will often explain its meaning in the passage.


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