What Makes a Great Writer?

 

In my almost ten-year career as a writer/editor, I have helped more authors and wanna-be authors than I could ever presume to count. I have edited thousands of short-stories and innumerable novels. So, to make a long story short, let’s just say I’ve had A LOT of writers cross my path. When one has known as many writers as I have, it becomes pretty easy to see patterns emerge. What makes the difference between a hobbyist, a writer, and a great writer?

*rubs palms vigorously*

I am going to tread into dangerous waters here, but hey, why not? If I make some people angry, maybe they need to be shaken out of their comfort zone. In the end, this is all just my opinion anyway.

I believe that creative fields (like writing) will reveal the best and the worst about your character. One of the biggest “sins” I have witnessed in my career is pride. Make no mistake, as I point one finger toward you, then there are three pointed back at me.

When I first decided that I wanted to become a writer, I had a terrible pride problem. Why I didn’t need to study. I made As through school on all of my writing. And there really wasn’t any good writing out there anyway. I mean, these best-selling authors just churn out books like some assembly line, and I could do far better. My story was fresh, innovative…different.

*rolls eyes*

Plain fact of the matter? I wasn’t teachable. My pride got in the way of me growing in my craft. It was probably made worse by the fact that I was a paid editor (by the way, editing and writing are two totally different skill sets as I would eventually figure out).

So you want to know the difference between the hobbyist, the writer, and the great writer? Reading. Look to others and learn from them. Like actors study other actors, we are wise to study other authors.

I have run critique groups and novel workshops for years and the single greatest indicator I have seen as to whether a writer will succeed or fail is how much he reads and what he reads. I can even look at a writing sample and, very often, tell you if this person is an avid reader or not. My single greatest frustration with many wanna-be writers is that they make a zillion excuses for why they do not read. (Hey, I made them all, so there is nothing I haven’t heard). They will cite time constraints, children, learning disabilities, family interference, ADD, ADHD, DMV, plague, planetary alignment, and voo-doo. Yet, strangely, these are often the very people who e-mail me five things a day griping about the government or send me inspirational angel kisses…which if I do not forward to my closes 250 friends I won’t get my fondest wish. *scratches head* Um, if their fondest wish truly and sincerely was to become a published, best-selling author, then maybe they should spend more time reading more productive works of fiction. Just saying.

Hobbyists often do not read. They will rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic because they are relying on their own limited knowledge to construct a highly complex structure known as the novel. They are hobbyists not because they lack talent or will, but because they have limited their pool of knowledge. That is like wanting to become a famous dramatic actor, but you have only watched episodes of I Love Lucy. Could you reach your dream? Sure. Luck always counts for something. But, unwittingly, you could be sealing your fate to remain unpublished. The writers I have seen who refused to read very often submitted the same tired manuscripts and stories (with shoddy retread) over and over and over until they got so discouraged they gave up.

Writers read, but they read mainly within their own genre. This is good. We need to read everything we can in our genre. How can we write an effective chase scene? Read a book written by an author who wrote a great chase scene. How do we create romantic tension? Read works by authors known for creating romantic tension. How did they do it? Study them, break down their stories. How did they describe a certain setting?

Great writers read everything.

The problem with not reading at all is we have no literary pool to draw from (think gene pool). Kind of a no-brainer. You marry your sister and you’re taking chances with your children.

The problem with reading just our own genre is that, granted, we get a much wider pool, but we still can risk losing the great innovation that often comes with grafting in other elements. Our work just starts sounding like every other person in our genre. There is no je ne sais quoi to make it stand apart as something special.

I feel that if we want to be great writers, then it is a good idea to stretch out of our comfort zones and read works we normally would not have considered. Last week I read The Aloha Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini. Now I generally like at least one dead body in the first ten pages. The Aloha Quilt didn’t have a single autopsy or car chase or explosion. Shocking, I know. It was part of the Elm Creek Quilts series (and not even the first one, for that matter).This is a book about a fifty-something-year-old female who goes to Hawaii to start a quilting camp in the midst of a nasty divorce from her husband of twenty-eight years. NOT the kind of novel I would have normally picked up…which is exactly why I did. This week, I am reading Twilight. Stop laughing. Again….not something I would normally have chosen to read in my limited spare time.

I cannot speak for you guys, but I, personally, am not satisfied with being a regular writer. I want to become a great writer. These two ladies are on best-selling lists for a reason. There is something they can teach me.

The Aloha Quilt gave me great insight into how to write a book that is part of a series and yet can stand alone. I never felt lost or bogged down in backstory. Ms. Chiaverini dropped just enough information for me to stay grounded, yet not so much that it killed curiosity for the other books of the Elm Creek series. This book gave me great insight into the mind, heart, desires, and fears of a fifty-something year old woman. If I ever have a character in that age group, I believe my “voice” will be more genuine.

Twilight has taught me some tremendous lessons about writing. Whether you care a whit about vampires or YA, I do recommend this book. I’m very glad I chose to read it (and now understand why the movie was horrible). You guys will have to wait for my insights about Twilight  in that 1) I’m not finished 2) they are worthy of an entire blog. But, to make my point, I now comprehend some techniques that, before, were sketchy. Maybe I saw them more clearly because I was seeing Stephenie Meyer employ them in a genre I am unaccustomed to reading, thus they stood out more. I don’t know. I feel like it is the difference between you reading your writing aloud and someone else reading your work aloud. Your brain processes the words differently, and you’re granted fresh perspective.

So it is okay not to know everything. Learn from others. It will shorten your learning curve. Read as much as you can. There is always something to learn. If a book sucked eggs, then why did it suck eggs? How could you have fixed it? What did the author do wrong? What could she have done better? What did the author do right? How could you graft this innovation into your own work?

Hobbyists are unteachable and make excuses. If we want to be great authors, then we have to check the excuses and the ego at the door, roll up our sleeves, and dig in. We must be open to all the spice of literary life. Reading IS part of the job description, so there is no reason to feel guilty.

What are some books you guys have read that you might recommend? What did the book teach you? Inspire in you?

Happy writing!

Until next time….

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  1. #1 by Jessica Lemmon on August 30, 2010 - 4:46 pm

    A great post! I agree with all of this, and yes, Twilight had an impact on my future as a writer too, even though I wasn’t interested in reading what I referred to as a “teen-vampire-romance” at first.

  2. #2 by LS Murphy on August 30, 2010 - 5:11 pm

    This past spring, I struggled with reading anything. I’d immersed myself in YA lit for years, studying everything I could get my hands on. But I was burnt out. So I went outside my genre and read a contemporary romance. Not only was it refreshing to read something outside my own little world, I was able to study it without feeling obligated to do so. Reading outside the gene you write is absolutely necessary.

    The Hunger Games trilogy recently inspired me. Not because I thought it was great. In fact, I thought it was okay but I just couldn’t connect with the main character. Why did it inspire me? Because it reminded me that not everyone likes the same type of book.

    Great post.

  3. #3 by Julie on August 30, 2010 - 6:07 pm

    Great post, and I can’t wait for your post on how Twilight impacts you as a writer.

  4. #4 by cherrytreeediting on August 30, 2010 - 6:45 pm

    You hit it on the head. It’s all about reading. If you don’t read, don’t write. The two go hand in hand. Wish more authors would accept that.

  5. #5 by Jody Hedlund on August 30, 2010 - 7:16 pm

    Very true, Kristen! I think that those who really want to make beyond hobbiest really have to be open to growing and learning. And I think reading is a key part of that, including reading books about writing techniques. I’ve grown by leaps and bounds by implementing the various ideas that I’ve stumbled across in great writing books!

    Thanks for another inspiring (and funny) post! Love that picture! Not!🙂

  6. #6 by Lisa on August 30, 2010 - 7:29 pm

    This is a great post! I completely agree! I read the entire Twilight series in one breathe even though I really didn’t think they were that great. But you can see why people love her. She pulls you into the story and makes you care about what’s happening. How many writers can do that?

  7. #7 by patti on August 30, 2010 - 8:23 pm

    This was a great post. I write in the YA fantasy genre, but recently read One Day by David Nicholls. It was great. I love reading in all genres, because I think you learn from each book you read whether it was good or bad. I’m reading a sequel to a series right now that I’m having a hard time getting through because the pacing is slow. I’ve now learned about how to better pace my book.

  8. #8 by sharla on August 30, 2010 - 10:08 pm

    First, The Hunger Games. Way out of my reading style, but my daughter kept pushing it, and the writing was incredible. Made me WISH I could ever write like that. Second, Tender Graces by Kat Magendie. She can capture the essence of “real” like no one I know.

    Great post, Kristen!

  9. #9 by jasonamyers on August 30, 2010 - 10:10 pm

    Remember what Stephen King said: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

  10. #11 by John Austin on August 31, 2010 - 4:59 am

    A wise and insightful post…Reading is the fuel that runs the writing engine!

  11. #12 by Pam Laux on August 31, 2010 - 2:24 pm

    I agree. My nightstand is stacked with two or three books I am reading at ALL times. I not only read outside my genre, but I listen to books being read to me. I run for a half hour every day and listen to a book on my ipod. I also will have a free book CD from the library playing in my car when I’m running around town. Of course, I can only do this alone, since it drives my kids batty when they have to listen to a book in the car, unless it’s a road trip. I am always open for new suggestions on books to read. I just finished this month; The Loin, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and Deadock. Still reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.
    Thanks for the blog.
    Pam
    PS Is buying books for studying our vocation tax deductible?

  12. #13 by Jamie Harrington on August 31, 2010 - 6:38 pm

    You want to read a book that will challenge everything you thought you knew about writing?

    The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins. — It was one of those books I never ever would have read…. and I am SO glad I did!

    • #14 by Kristen Lamb on August 31, 2010 - 6:46 pm

      Okay, well now that this is the second recommendation, I will have to read it next. Thanks!

      • #15 by jasonamyers on September 3, 2010 - 7:09 pm

        I’m reading Hunger Games right now. The start of it was slow, but once the action starts, I was into it BIG time. Should wrap it up tonight.

  13. #16 by MrShev on September 14, 2010 - 11:42 am

    Superb post – a literary agent told me the exact same thing, but to read within the genre: read the writers that he felt were brilliant, but didn’t sell; and the writers that do and try and see what is different – what made one more accessible than the other? Why does one writer capture the public’s imagination, and not the other?

    He also recommended reading an author’s first work and to try and see what the agent or publisher saw.

    BTW, I don’t know which category I fall within!

  14. #17 by Johan Vancaneghem on September 15, 2010 - 5:02 am

    What is logos to the definition of the encryptive concept? If a registration occurs it creates a wrinkle through time and conciousness by the interpretation. The code is the language, for it to hit emotion the reader has to become a relative to its effort to equal a stated value. My manager cannot afford me to give time here. But this is an interesting question, Kristen. PS: I wrote a text yesterday, but I didn’t quite know the structure of this site (after just having subscribed, my sincere apologies).

  15. #18 by Johan Vancaneghem on September 15, 2010 - 9:37 am

    I am having the same problem, I write and write, my FB notes are filled with characters. We ‘beat’ the Neanderthals because we had a wider understanding of symbolism and we didn’t like their appearance too much (symbolism, haha), so we hardly mated with them. That history repeats itself is obvious, but first you have to recognize and correlate, than evaluate and than differentiate (in a nutshell). You COULD suppose : “Hey, the above is the exact description of the current racism”. The other race being the Neanderthal, and Religion being symbolism, and money being the asset (cave, water, …). But that would be too short of a cut, as you already suspected. Yesterday I was in typing mode again and wrote the following (you’ll immediately understand how I suck as writer)
    To help a little, it was about PURPOSE
    “”””””
    The fun thing about ‘all things having a purpose’ is that what happens before is a need. Eg. a chair for being able to sit -that it is perfectly bisymmetrically designed, except out of need of purpose is sth else – but, ‘Art’ is than again made in order of ‘indirect purpose’, ‘purpose merger’ if you like. A leaf falling off a tree is considered following a ‘natural’ path, as I pick it out of the air and put it in my pocket it is an ‘atrificial’ path. If I had done this in order to describe it here, than it becomes a ‘conceptual example’. Than we go on:1.I had the experience once, and am now thinking about it in order to make my statement (purpose by random event memory).2. I simplify any idea of what occurs in nature (in this case, true: I see a tree outside the window here as I write) in order to give the example of the former (purpose by situational spontaneity) 3.I have contemplated about it whilst the event happening and am now elaborating my contemplation (half true, because I wanted to make another point, but I read the text above and picked a word ‘purpose’, read the short thread around it, and now I pick from my conditioned conceptual system of thinking, intercombined with spontanuous reflexion) 4. … x,… (meaning I will loose your attention and my lead).
    Purpose!, … it occured to me in 1989, very funny, everybody like the Cure or the Simple Minds or U2, … and so on, and I had already been in the pseudo experience of ‘Beatle-mania’ since 1985. In 1989 I came across a saying sth like : “The ones who remembered the sixties the best, never lived through the sixties”. I had emotional doubts about Paul’s “death” at that time (let’s say I had to ‘ketchup’ a little, 20 years or so – only since ’72 out of my egg). So, the re-experienced sixties were a lie?! Another guy said “Life imitates art”, and we all know the Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame”. I combined those, and something very strange started to happen to me (and maybe you had it too). “Purpose” turned around, and suddenly I was no longer sure if “Art imitated Life or Life imitated Art”! I had to pend on that, till 1996. My grand-father was a religious Polish man washed ashore in Belgium. He was 81 and was terminal. We talked for the last 3 months of his life, every Sunday. He believed in ‘fate’ and I was a ‘choice’ adept. He had evolved from a Catholic to a Christian, and I from a Christian to an agnostic athe-ist. He died. I contemplated and came to the conclusion that youth had the illusion of choice, and age had the illusion of fate. Being somewhere in the middle, that was ok for me for a few months. But I still like(d) the sixties, knowing that they were idealized after they happened (how this works in the mass mind, I will not elaborate on that here).
    Art imitates life or life imitates art in its purpose ?
    “Both” is the considered answer. Why ? Because of the leaf falling from the tree. Act and intention, intention preceeds acting, frequency dictates timing of the intention, (the slower, chemically induced)emotion links the experience to the reflexive reflecting when the act is considered as contemporary with the faster, electrically induced mind) and … spontaneity of purpose occurs! This is just a fraction of the description of ‘creativity’, but ok, a good start. So, purpose is interaction with nature (in its primal phase of the evolutionary stadium of lower primates – anyway), that complies through cause and effect, in an end result. Of course, as you all know, the higher this goal in Maslow’s triangle, the more profound the act becomes. That is why the hierarchy – a concept grown out of creatures spawn in an environment with a horizon, a gravity field, a ‘flat’ surface, stagging and defining ‘up’ and ‘down’, 3-dimensional relativity estimation, and a boundried embodiment (the body) that ostentively defines ‘the self’ as opposed to ‘the other’- is as much a mental process as a physical one. That is one of the reasons the supreme male chimpansee sits in the highest tree, … . Ok.
    Imagine (haha), we grew out of the former stadium. I jump a little forward in time, enlightment with Robespierre and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and… voila: Napoleon wants to know how far his canons shoot, and has the metric system introduced. So as from than it starts as a known concept to a mass (Europeans). It is like a domino effect, with an infinite exponent ). ONLY 70 years later!!! There is a ‘smartass’ (He’d even like that term), that says, “I am going to re-invent an astroligical metric system” and said “everything is relative to THAT system”. He used light as a rule. His idea put a square behind any given previously described (unknown) infinite exponent!!! ‘What a hell of guy that was!!’, I am sorry Dr. Einstein, I forgot how modest you were ). A. Einstein was so peaceful he had to be told in Switzerland, many years later, what a terrible ‘mistake’ he made. Germany was shooting protons, but only had to shoot neutrons – for details watch wiki!. US, gave the money, and could pick and save many Jews, after a 5-year war, and made it to the first A-bomb to smuther the last hard resistance in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To make that up, they put a cherry on top to provide for an economical counter part for the cold world order and organized a Marshall plan to save Europe. True heroes, the US, always have been, and their government will certainly always believe it. Anyway, the Common Wealth had never died, and STILL didn’t want to adopt the frog’s metric system;), the Jews got half their country back, and the Arabs started a cold and hot oil burned war. You know, history in a nutshell. The Americans told their soldiers to zero in on the Communist thought with a gun, and too many brains were blown, but thought never ‘left’ the minds. US adopted capitalism, Europe too, but fed it with a red sauce of Socialism, and the East isolated itself with Communism. TV came through and one-way multi -info was born, computer came through and global village became half a global city. The other half STILL couldn’t afford a computer, worse the weren’t fed at all, let alone by info. OK, everybody knows his history, as we weren’t taught in school.
    So, how DOES the interaction between the imitation of Art and Life happen ? Well, I don’t know how fast because of the primary described component (Napoleon and his canons), and second (E=mc square) is already fixed in photons. But as a primate…. hmmm… difficult question…
    Let’s give it a try. Intelligence is merely as important as creativity. A Chimpansee will drink water, and we drink H2O (and gave the elements a meaning). In the mean time another hydro power plant is built.
    So, Leonardo’s quest of Religion vs Science… 0-1 (for Science). But Leonardo would say : “That’s cheating, science came later!”, “Yes!”, screams the Pope. Hold on, 1 standard through measurement and 1 through imagining the observation of measurement before the measurement happened (A.E.)
    Wikipedia Free:”
    675 Rømer and Huygens, moons of Jupiter 220,000[76][99]
    1729 James Bradley, aberration of light 301,000[84]
    1849 Hippolyte Fizeau, toothed wheel 315,000[84]
    1862 Léon Foucault, rotating mirror 298,000±500[84]
    1907 Rosa and Dorsey, EM constants 299,710±30[89][90]
    1926 Albert Michelson, rotating mirror 299,796±4[100]
    1950 Essen and Gordon-Smith, cavity resonator 299,792.5±3.0[92]
    1958 K.D. Froome, radio interferometry 299,792.50±0.10[101]
    1972 Evenson et al., laser interferometry 299,792.4562±0.0011[98]
    1983 17th CGPM, definition of the metre 299,792.458 (exact)[102

    One Thousand Nine Hundred and Eighty Tree ‘solar’ cycles since countdown ;-((
    We are not only primates, but pretty slow ones too!
    “””””””

    That was yesterday, (feels like a month ago).
    As I read it again, I read a constant ego-tripping supression or showing of the ego of the writer (ironically being myself, only yesterday). So a character (conditioned correlation) in its relation to the other characters (words describing commonly preconcepted projections, a first array triggering mental correlation combined with a lower emotional correlation) and the gaps in between (elaborating and helping the subject with verbs, prepositions, etc.)- sentence – inter actively triggers the second array of correlations that are more emotional of nature.
    Lack of interest is defined in the subject, but provokes as much attachment in the frustration and/or need to find what you are looking for.
    Imagine browsing through the web for sth specific, entering more and more words till nothing complies (you know the feeling and mechanism, I don’t have to explain you that).
    Reading is a trained ‘serial’ mechanism through previously conditioned correlation.
    English is a captive language
    Chinese is a captive character
    English is capturing concept through evolutionary conceptual correlation in its tradition, with rules that can be stretched.
    eg. adverb, adverbial (‘having the same function as an adverb), adverbially (used as having the same function as an adverb)
    You want to keep your initial designation and adapt it to ‘la nuance’ you feel. You might just go to ‘adverbiallistically enhanced’ meaning : “stretched until it could have been used as having the same function as an adverb”
    I bet any of us probably didn’t feel the urgent need to do THAT, or did we ?!
    Mandarin (Chinese) will just add a few details in their character until they have the need for character 6 Thousand and….

    So you see, writing can be difficult, and maybe I can get a little help from my friends (?).

    Greets

    Johan

  16. #19 by Johan Vancaneghem on September 15, 2010 - 9:55 am

    An note ‘for the record’ here : “Maybe, reality is so funny that it is filled with irony”, and it works even playing it backwards (remember… the golden sixties hey)?

  17. #20 by Johan Vancaneghem on September 15, 2010 - 10:48 am

    Since recorded history, info has been matter, now it is a fluidium, and it evaporates until there is no more record of all history, because stone became wax, papyrus, paper, digits and went astray, adding mass to meaning, by human’s nature, which even puts its imaginary future into a theory that works before he grasped its consequence as much as his size, and than comes back on and to his former idea, when it was still an opinion.

    I am having a poetic episode, once in a while, because I am too lazy to type.

  18. #21 by Kerry Meacham on January 9, 2011 - 6:02 pm

    Starting in August as you recommended. Great post on reading. Three questions, keeping in mind I’m new to the novel writing game. What ratio of genre to out of genre should I strive for? What ratio of fiction to non-fiction should I strive for? How should these change as I mature as a writer? I know one size doesn’t fit all, but any advice is appreciated.

    Thanks,

    Kerry

  19. #22 by Deionna Maria Bradley on July 13, 2012 - 11:50 am

    Hi Kristen. I am a young person whom took a great interest in writing and reading.If you are looking for some suggestions on what to read, I could help you.
    YA author Sarah Dessen wrote realistic fiction.So did Ellen Hopkins. With Sarah Dessen’s books, I would start with Just Listen. Ellen Hopkins’s book,Crank, is also another book I would recommand to read.
    In Ya Fantasy/fiction i would recommand you to read Ameila Atwater-Rhodes’s books. One of my favorite series is the House of Night series by P.C. Cast. Love,betrayal,and jelousy take place in a plot to destroy evil. The supense will be unbearable.
    Thank you for taking the time to read this.

    From,
    D.M. Bradley

  1. What Makes a Great Writer? (via Kristen Lamb’s Blog) « Cherry Tree Editing

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