What Makes The Master Writer?



Thumbing through the latest New Yorker issue (March 28, 2016) turned up a pleasant surprise: a short story, “My Purple Scented Novel,” by Ian McEwan, probably today’s most highly regarded English novelist. Predictably for me, the story proved as satisfying as cold watermelon on a hot North Carolina summer day.

Then I began to wonder: What attracts me (and scores of other readers) to McEwan’s work? His stories  and novels hinge to perhaps an excessive degree on narrative and his voice, while distinct, is not an elegant one. When dialogue does appear, it’s no great shakes, either. And his storylines seem all too familiar from one to another, almost formulaic on the surface. And almost all of his work over the last decade has to do with social issues of one sort or another.

In other words, the sort of writing some 25 year-old MFA instructor-editor would reject with the usual, “This work doesn’t meet our needs at this time, but we thank you for submitting” sort of trash.

Every writer, I think, who can be seen as a master has his/her own approach to story, characterization, style, voice, etc. With McEwan I believe it’s his characterizations. He’s able to place characters into social settings with such apparent ease. In his case, his offhand narrative style prevents polemics, his characters simply acting out bits of life in the author’s chosen social context. Too, he’s a master of the story twist that underscores these given social contexts. In this particular story a mundane friendship between two writers hinges on plagiarization as the two – one successful, the other struggling – find their successes reversed.

Every writer needs to know his/her skill with the many aspects of literary writing, but in the end, as always, it comes down to the gifts of storyline and characterization.


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The Thing About Novellas


Novellas, such as Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs, seem to be way more popular outside the U.S., and I don’t understand why.

What does a novella offer the casual reader?

  • a concise story
  • a quick read
  • a small but memorable cast of characters.

Think of the novella, then as a short, three-act play.


But if you don’t want your reading spoon-fed, if you want literary merit to go along with entertainment value, what does a well-written novella offer?

  • the depth of poetry
  • deceptive complexity
  • much for the reader to infer, i.e., offers the reader a place in the story.

The best novellas urge re-reading, peeling away the onion of meaning that lies before you, much as the best poetry begs you to read, and re-read, and re-read…


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Herding The Creative Thrust

The "creative thrust" mentioned in the last post has to do with the relative intimacies of one's writing. These may change from time to time – based on the writer's growth and on his/her intentions toward the text and the reader. For the most part, these intimacies can be summed up this way:

  • style – here the writer selects a mode of prose writing that fits either his/her personality, the tone of the era in which the story takes place, or a mode of writing currently in vogue. For instance, a romantic style might eloquently depict the natural world through narrative, or an almost poetic manner of depicting life and characters. Postmodern style then could be satiric and fragmented.
  • tone – it's hard to separate style from tone sometimes, but you might say tone connotes mood. John Steinbeck's writing is to me strong on tone or mood, implying in much of his writing the mysteries of life. Postmodern tone could be cynical, apocalyptic, nihilistic. 
  • voice – this is probably the most intimate nuance of prose writing. An accomplished writer will develop over time – and despite variations of tone and style – a manner of writing unique to the writer. Hemingway's voice is easily recognized, as distinct, say, from Ian McEwan's or James Joyce's.


A good writing partner will recognize these relative subtleties in one's writing, how one predominates, how they blend as distinctively into something as unique as one's signature. The partner won't monkey with these, nor ignore them – will in fact help this writerly "signature" virtually dictate everything else, from sentence lengths to story structure.

The writer's main problem is often one of big picture versus complementary details. With an eye on this big picture, the writer may omit details, or over-emphasize them. Conversely, a  writer preoccupied with style, voice, et. al., may allow the story to wander into blind alleys. An accomplished partner will note these and will strive to help the writer tweak them back into a consistent form.


"Forest or trees" syndrome is my term for the condition in which writers with skills not fully developed tend to write for themselves. The whole of editing and critique, then, is to make the writer more aware of all these technical elements on the reader. That's what the partner is: a first reader. It's been said that a writer will only depict through story some 20% of what he/she knows about these characters, the setting, this story. The writer's "focus group"," then is the writing partner: some elements may lead to the partner's confusion; some may enthrall, others may bore. Not that there's any right or wrong here – it's simply a learning process in which the writer slowly becomes aware of how the various elements of writing affect the reader's experience. Such awareness, then, adds a second edge to the writer's technical writing sword. The most coherent stories are those in which the writer's techniques clearly take the effect of these elements on the reader into account as he/she writes.

Finally this: I wrote last time that writing partners must have parity of skill set. If this isn't present, one will be preoccupied with bringing the other up to technical speed, and the manuscript won't improve. That, then, is the essence of critique, of writing partnerships – it's a mode of collaboration in which the manuscript will improve and in which those involved will grow, as they resolve these technical problems, in their understanding of and abilities with prose writing.