Friday, March 11, 2011

Top Shelf Writing

Quality - we all want it. We want to be known for it. As writers, we would almost cry real tears and wet our pants if someone described our writing as quality material by a quality writer. That's something worthy of engraving on a tombstone.

But do we write quality without compromise? Is your writing top shelf quality? (That's Grey Goose for you martini people and Wild Turkey for bourbon folks. Maybe Makers Mark.)

Let's use the liquor analogy. A bartender asks you if you want top shelf or not in your drink. If you haven't developed a taste for quality alcohol, you don't know. Is it worth the extra cost? Would you taste the difference? And would the people you're drinking with know the difference to warrant making a good impression on them by ordering the good stuff?

Those who drink the best stuff appreciate it. They can tell the difference. They've experienced the bad and the good, sometimes even done their research, and can list brands and why they excel.

So, when someone asks if your writing is top shelf quality, what do you say? Can you compare your writing with a successful author name or two? Can you define your style? Would a reader marvel at the way you mesh words and ideas?

A top shelf writer, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. However, you have to admit that successful writers usually know what they are doing. I don't like Stephen King's plots but I love his character development. I enjoy the plot of a Lee Child's book. Nobody defines place like Pat Conroy. While her books a little lightweight for my taste, Janet Evanovich splashes a humor in her mysteries that I adore.

Some writers avoid conferences, classes, reading how-to books. They simply write their own material. I've actually heard them say, "I don't have time to read." It takes monstrous muscle control for me not to roll my eyes on that one.

If you cannot recognize quality in other works, by other authors, how can you ever see it in your own?

That's why people study the craft. That's why most MFA people write pretty darn well. When you dissect writing, practice writing, and read successful writing, the technique sticks in your gray matter. You get it.

That's why so many professions require accredidation, licenses, degrees, residencies and internships. Writing, does not. However, that does not remove the need for you to learn how to do it well.

Let's say you don't care about the difference between top shelf and run-of-the-mill brands. It doesn't matter, right? Maybe not to you and maybe not to a few other people, but guess what? A lot of people out there know what's good and what's not. And they'll pass you right by for the better tasting stuff.

Take your time. Learn the right recipe. Discover how long it takes for your story to age properly. It may not take generations to figure out the best quality, but it does take time.


Arlee Bird said...

I understand what you're saying here and it makes sense in theory and from the standpoint of common sense thinking, but I don't know if in actual life it always holds true.

The interpretation of quality is certainly in the eye of the consumer. What would be considered high quality by the person well schooled in literature might be boring crap to the person who is an avid fan of cheap pulp fiction or romance. Yet the latter group might have their own standards of quality within that genre. Sometimes bad taste from one person's point of view is salivating to another's. I guess it depends on your audience and how they define taste.

And when it comes to the top seller lists in literature I don't know that factors like notoriety, promotion, and the like don't often trump quality.

Tossing It Out

Unknown said...

Great stuff as always Hope!

Mary Ingmire said...

Great post! I suffer from so many insecurities that not reading, studying, and learning the craft of writing is not an option. Finally "getting it" tweaks my creative juices.

D.G. Hudson said...

Improvement in our writing is something most writers strive for, but as another commenter said, the quality is in the eyes of the reader and whatever genre one is writing in.

For instance, there seems to be many YA(espec. vampire fiction) writers out there who don't write with quality but do appeal to the intended audience (most of whom just want to read the book, not judge it).

I agree that most of us want to be called a quality writer, but these days, that definition is becoming a little skewed. We will always have the competitions and awards where true quality is honoured, but at one time genre writing wasn't considered quality writing, either.

Thought provoking post, Hope. As always.

Paul Callaghan said...

I agree that one has to constantly read and learn to become a quality writer. What has to be avoided is the idea that quality is some kind of static achievement. Language (our main tool) is a living entity, it is always evolving and changing. Words change their meanings over time (think 'gay'); punctuation rules fluctuate from country to country, sometimes even from magazine to magazine.
I have written some quality work for particular markets that would need serious editing for other markets. The idea that I have an understanding of what quality is and that I don't need to learn anymore is self-defeating. And it would be a terrible loss to miss out on the enjoyment of reading and learning.
Arlee, you are right when you say that a lot of the quality rating depends on the consumer's taste. But it has always been so. Read through the classic novels and I'll bet that you don't like all of them. Even back to Roman and Greek times there was spirited debate, often spiteful, about the quality of literature.

Anonymous said...

I think the liquor analogy is perfect, Hope. I drink single malt scotch and I drink the Famous Grouse. One is Shakespeare, the other is Tom Clancy. Both are great products, well crafted and eminently enjoyable in their proper context.

--> In contrast, I've read (published) books that were entertaining but honestly not top quality for their genre. Page-turners, which is why they sold so well, but with significant writing problems.

So I couldn't agree with you more. Quality is worth the effort. It isn't about genre or literary weight. I love light entertainment. But make it well-crafted, please.


widdershins said...

Way off topic here. but I just read your 'Editor's Thoughts' in your newsletter and I was wondering if you went out into that scary night and checked out the six foot owl?

Hope Clark said...

Not saying that literary is different than genre, or that one genre is better than another. Regardless of what you write, you can become top shelf quality. I just don't want people to use the argument that different tastes of reading material justifies not writing top quality work.

And nope...did NOT go out and check on the owl. LOL

Karen Lange said...

Good advice. I think it's so important to keep learning and observing.
Happy weekend,

Mike said...

I can relate to this. Have been studying the "craft" for over three years, and still feel like a neophyte. Yesterday was a funny example. Had a poem dissected at a local meet, and felt like I had major surgery - ouch! But that night, at another event, some guy said I was very creative and talented. I was flabbergasted, but of course pleased. persistence is everything, I guess.

Jenn Crowell said...

Thanks, Hope, for giving a positive shout-out to MFA programs. So often I hear them dissed as ivory tower, pretentious, etc., but as someone who's graduating from an MFA program in June (with a completed novel!), I can tell you that 2 years spent intensively studying literary craft isn't anything to mock!