Traction and Spice

Mike Duran’s Thread on Textual Density got me thinking about what I consider “good writing.”

First off, let’s put it in context. For non-fiction – say, Apologetics or History – while Readability is required, I expect accuracy and depth. Information not entertainment is the goal here. I expect clarity and continuity from the likes of Os Guinness, C.S. Lewis, and Harry Blamires, Dorothy Sayers and I place a high value on the structured delivery of information, insight and perspective. There has to be substance – or density – here because when we’re dealing with historical facts or Biblical precepts and principles, truth and accuracy is critical.

With Fiction however, “density” is a whole other matter. If you mean florid, freighted, pretentious prose, I’m not interested. Shoe-horning every detail and sensory cue into descriptions, or psycho-analyzing every tick and intention in the characters can ratchet up a novel’s pressure so much that it feels more like submarine crash dive off the Atlantic shelf than a journey to a world of the author’s imagination. I’ve tried to read these books, and by page 10 there’s rivets popping like bullets, arterial-jet leaks, and so much creaking and groaning, (cue Start Trek Scotty voice) “She canna take much more o this, Captain!”

If I ever taught a class on Writing, I think I’d make Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual required reading. I’m not going to get into details here, but suffice it to say this little book deals directly with most of the mistakes Noob writers make in any genre.

CAUTION: Now Entering Hugely Subjective Area!

In my opinion good writing is like good poetry. Words, Scenes, Story Elements all have to have Traction and Spice. Traction in that they’re there for a reason. They contribute and move the story along. Precision and Efficiency are critical. No detail for the sake of detail alone, and please don’t use two words when one will do. And select the right word. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said “The difference between a good word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.” ?

By Spice I mean interesting. Back when I was shopping Running Black to literary agents, one of them blogged about “Pedestrian Writing”: Writing that plods on and gets the job done. The reader knows Who, What, Where and When, but without flair or creativity. I don’t mean show-off “Aren’t I clever? Eat my Verbal Dust” vocabulary, but prose and perspective that engages your attention and admiration.

Obviously this varies according to genre, audience, author voice, etc, but I respect Mervyn Peake as much as William Gibson or Cormac McCarthy. There are so many other variables like world-building, characters, themes, but if I detect both of those dynamics in a book, chances are very high I’ll keep reading, regardless of what type it is.

Enough for now. I’ll end with what is in my opinion one of the best opening pages in the history of Science Fiction.

They sent a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT. He didn’t see it coming. The last he saw of India was the pink stucco facade of a place called the Khush-Oil Hotel.

Because he had a good agent, he had a good contract. Because he had a good contract, he was in Singapore an hour after the explosion. Most of him, anyway. The Dutch surgeon liked to joke about that, how an unspecified percentage of Turner hadn’t made it out of Palam International on that first flight and had to spend the night there in a shed, in a support vat.

It took the Dutchman and his team three months to put Turner together again. They cloned a square meter of skin for him, grew it on slabs of collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides. They bought eyes and genitals on the open market. The eyes were green.

— Count Zero, page 1. By William Gibson

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