What Makes Excellent Writing?
by Saralyn Richard
I’ve taught creative writing off and on for years. It was an elective for upper class students in a large suburban Chicago high school. Part of our curriculum was to produce a literary magazine each year, and we entered our work in a National Council of Teachers of English contest. Oftentimes we won awards for our content or layout, and quite a few of my students went on to become successful writers.
Now I teach creative writing to adults aged 55 or older at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. I’m finding the learners to be extremely motivated. The problem for them is not choosing what to write about, but choosing which of many ideas and experiences to write about first. My learners are serious, thoughtful, observant, experienced, and well-read. Their responses to assignments are creative and clever, worthy of being submitted for contests or publication.
I’m often asked what makes excellent creative writing, and when I consider possible replies, I find the same things apply to both high school writers and adult writers.
The first element of fine writing, in my opinion, is the ability to imagine and bring to life one or more relatable characters. These characters do not have to be alter-egos of the author who creates them. They don’t even need to be the same gender, race, creed, or age. They don’t need to be perfect; in fact, perfection would be a detriment to being relatable for readers.
How do authors come out of themselves enough to paint a realistic word-portrait of characters who are unlike them? The process for me is similar to what an actor does in assuming a role for a play. When I’m writing about a character, I immerse myself into the body and mind of that person. I lose my own identity as I write the scenes where my character speaks and thinks and acts.
Another fine point of excellent writing is awareness of theme. I use the term “theme” to mean the overall purpose for the story. When the author consciously crafts the writing based on a specific purpose, all of the narration, exposition, description, and dialogue fall into place, unifying the readers’ experience. I’ve read many sagas that took me across generations and geographical locations without tying the chapters and sections together, and they’ve left me wondering about the author’s intent. My favorite tales lead me to some truth, some higher awareness about life or people.
Of course there are many other important strategies and methods in a writer’s toolkit. As a creative writing teacher, I encourage my students to practice them all. As a writer, myself, I strive to do the same. The two books in the Detective Oliver Parrott Mystery series, Murder in the One Percent and A Palette for Love and Murder, have thoroughly imagined characters and (hopefully) articulated themes.
I’m excited to discuss these and other topics with the Stiletto Gang readers. Whatever questions you have about creative writing, I’m interested.
Award-winning mystery and children’s book author, Saralyn Richard, is a writer who teaches on the side. Her books, Naughty Nana, Murder in the One Percent, and A Palette for Love and Murder, have delighted children and adults, alike. A member of International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America, Saralyn teaches creative writing at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and continues to write mysteries. Reviews, media, and tour schedule may be found at http://saralynrichard.com.
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--William Kent Krueger, author of This Tender Land
“Delightful! Saralyn Richard weaves a deeply twisty mystery around vibrant characters that will leave readers looking forward to more.” —LynDee Walker, Agatha Award-nominated author of Front Page Fatality
“Smart, stylish and sexy, this art world caper delights with its verve and wit. The character studies are wonderful, and Oliver and Tonya Parrott are an irresistible pair.” – Ausma Zehanat Khan, author of A Deadly Divide