What Makes The Good Authors Better Than The Bad Ones?

Somewhat of a Speal.

Before we begin here I want to make it clear that I’m not referring to morals when I talk about good/bad authors. Dan Brown who wrote The DaVinci Code wrote a nasty book. Despite that, he’s an exceptional author (I’ve read most of the book except the places that went beyond reason). Tom Clancy is another highly acclaimed author for his books on war and mystery with accurate and vivid details –but his stuff does not depict high morals in any fashion. John Grisham writes novels about lawyers and cases and does a superb job at describing people and their motives –and yet many of his books contain strong language and often lurid scenes. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a trilogy that is perhaps the world’s most acclaimed epic but used magic, fantasy, and mystical forces within them.

High quality writing is not decided by morals, though morals in writing can hurt the story. Loose morals can (and probably should) deter Christians. But it is also fit to remember that extremely tight morals (I’m speaking about novels published by ultra-conservative publishers) can completely destroy quality writing. No names will be mentioned.

Let me also explain that I am not a educated English professor and nor have I studied the great details of writing and authoring to great degree. But I’ve always enjoyed writing and I’ve always read quite a lot and I can generally see a difference between good authors, beginners, and just plain ugly writing. Nevertheless, I am only opinionated on this matter. Also, just because I can see the difference, doesn’t mean that I can perform as a ‘good author’. I’ve tried at various times to succeed in writing a skilful story, but with little success.

Writing is like weaving. One of the most important things I see in good authors is their ability to write simply while weaving together a complex story. Weaving a design into a rug takes time and effort and detail, and when it is finished it will not take effort to discern it apart from the rest of the weave. One of the obvious mistakes I see in beginning authors is their great efforts to throw detail into the story, thinking that detail alone will make their story worthwhile. But when one tries to weave a pattern into a cloth, you can’t simply throw in some purple here and some red there and expect it to come out! When I read bad writing I come away feeling as if the author was using makeup in the story to make it look more interesting  than the real story, but instead it makes me feel sick in the stomach (or laugh hysterically). When I read good writing the details make sense and I begin to see an accurate picture.

For example, one book I recently read was written about Zebedee and his sons and their interaction with Jesus (The Crosses at Zarin; Mosley). The general thrust of the book was fine, but the writing was horrendous. Listen to this choice sample from the book:

Two finer specimens [James and John] of manhood were not to be found in all the land. Years of manipulating sails, dragging nets, and casting the shabaketh had developed and coordinated the muscles of their bodies until their slightest movement was a thing of silken grace…”

My friends, my dear friends! Okay, the first sentence isn’t horrible. The first part of the second sentence is better. But the last part of that second sentence goes down rapidly and ends like a turtle sprinting past a Ford Cobra. Moving with silken grace should not describe men. I’m not even sure it should describe women. The only sentence I can cull up using something like ‘silken grace’ is one with an assassin:

The shadows were  thick along the sea shore where the assassin now lurked. A fisherman lay some distance off, snoring soundly on the sand, sleeping off the effects of a ‘happy evening’. The assassin smirked behind his shroud. This would be too easy. Pulling a dark knife from within his cloak, he began his final approach –a shadow of silken grace that barred the first gray light from the eastern sky.

Now, I had some trouble getting that in there, but it works far better here than describing James and John.  The author should have written something like this:

Two finer built men were not to be found in all the land. Years of manipulating sails, dragging nets, and casting the shabaketh had honed their bodies until they moved with an ease and grace that clearly gave tell to their hours on the sea.”

In my opinion, this escapes the absurd and enters a reality that actually makes sense.

Simplicity and details that make sense will go a long way when it comes to writing. I think the mistake of most beginning authors is that they try too hard to sound like good authors by throwing in details, adjectives, adverbs, etc. Simplicity will serve you just fine until your story begins to grip you and you can begin to write with true passion –at which point you will be writing with your own style that’ll sound much better (being original) than if you sound like a Montgomery mimic.

Finally, let’s look at one of the great authors of the last age, J.R.R. Tolkien.

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of my favorite authors of all time. The first book of his that I read was the The Hobbit which he originally intended as a children’s story. As a result this story is simple and a bit humorous and silly and bit absurd as fairy-tails tend to be. But since it is meant to be this way, this sort of thing actually adds to the story.

With The Lord of the Rings (based from the same setting as The Hobbit) J.R.R. Tolkien aimed towards an audience of adults –and this can be immediately noted. But The Fellowship of the Ring (being the first book) is still written clearly and fairly simply and sets a tremendous base for the next two books. The Two Towers and The Return of the King become more and more infused with ‘passion’ (as I’d call it) as the book begins to reach a climax. And finally there is the huge battle of Minis Tirith where Sauron’s (the Dark Lord) army is defeating the men of Gondor when suddenly over the hill rides the entire Rohirem army (nation of horsemen). At this point the story reaches a climax and J.R.R. Tolkien waxes very near to becoming poetic, but one is so caught up in the action at this point he doesn’t even realize that the reading has become ‘difficult’. Then just as even the Rohirem are becoming pushed back, Aragorn (the returned King) arrives by ship with the armies of the dead (men who had long ago broken their vow to protect the king of Gondor and thus could not escape to the lands of peace). The next climax is reached when the Aragorn rides to the gates of Mordor with those who have chosen to follow him (to almost certain death). There they are hugely outnumbered by the forces of Sauron and there only cause is to give Frodo more time to destroy the ring. Just as all is about lost the ring is finally destroyed and Tolkien is once again rises to the challenge:

A brief vision he had [Sam Gamgee on Mt. Doom] of swirling cloud, and in the midst of it towers and battlements, tall as hills, founded upon a mighty mountain-throne above immeasurable pits; great courts and dungeons, eyeless prisons sheer as cliffs, and gaping gates of steel and adamant: and then all passed. Towers fell and mountains slid; walls crumbled and melted, crashing down; vast spires of smoke and spouting steams went billowing up, up, until they toppled like an overwhelming wave, and its wild crest curled and came foaming down upon the land. And then at last over the miles between there came a rumble, rising to a deafening crash and roar; the earth shook, the plain heaved and cracked, and Orodruin reeled.

From the Battle of Mt. Doom, The Return of the King; J.R.R. Tolkien

These are powerful descriptions, and they’re more difficult to digest. But J.R.R. Tolkien mastered this stumbling block and led the way to it by building a powerful foundation using simplicity and descriptions that captivate the imagination and lead the mind with ease.

What can I do to right better? First, I should never try to mimic (at least as a beginner), for that will hurt and hinder your own passion for the writing. Focus on using simple descriptions that are easily captured by the mind. You don’t have to use entirely new wording to be original. And finally, allow yourself to be captured by what you write so that your writing in itself with naturally pull you forwards.

It’s all easier said than done, my friends…