The Journal: What Makes for Good Writing

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Even though
* Topic: What Makes for Good Writing?
* Adios for a While
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Quotes of the Day

“I can repeat Mr. Heinlein’s advice to writers. If you pay attention to his dictums, you don’t need to know much else.” Dr. Jerry Pournelle, upon being asked his advice to new writers

“The only opinion that counts of your story is whether or not someone will pay you money for it.” Dr. Jerry Pournelle

Even though I haven’t written anything for almost two months, I still have a new book coming out. The second book in the Othgygnrk Invasion series, For the Good of the Galaxy: The Battle Begins, will release on July 1.

Topic: What Makes for Good Writing?

That’s a question I’ve heard for decades both in and out of academia. I’ve finally come up with an answer, at least as far as fiction is concerned.

Over the past few days I was thinking about the novelists whose work I read and study regularly: Stephen King, Lawrence Block, Joyce Carol Oates, James Lee Burke, Isabel Allende and Jack Higgins. There are a few others, but these are the main ones for me.

All of these are what I call Stage 5 writers. (Dean doesn’t mention a Stage 5 but admits these are writers “on another plane.”) These writers’ level of mastery is what I aspire to. Note that all of the writers on this list pull the reader into the story with the opening and then keep the reader invested with the appropriate use of cliffhangers, hooks/openings, and depth of setting through the rest of the story.

For writers at this level, that should be a given. But it also dawned on me that they all have three other things in common.

The first and most important is that they’re masterful storytellers. Which of course led me to wonder what it takes to tell a story masterfully. And I finally got it:

A story is masterfully told when no single element of the story — word selection or juxtaposition, sentence structure, setting, pacing, characterization, style, plot, etc. — calls attention to itself and thereby diverts the reader’s attention from the story.

In other words, a story is masterfully told when the reader pretty much has no choice but to continue reading. When the writer gives the reader very few if any “outs.” And that is something that can be learned.

Don’t get me wrong. Even Stage 5 writers occasionally do something to draw the reader’s attention from the story, but only very, very rarely.

The other two things those writers have in common is that they’ve been around a long time, and they’re prolific.

Of course, they’re masterful storytellers BECAUSE they’re prolific. It’s called practice. And they’ve been around a long time because they love to tell stories.

Oh, and one other thing: their stories most often contain strong elements of more than one genre. Thus romance can exist in a horror novel or a western; a mystery can be set in an SF world; and so on.

For me, this was a major epiphany concerning a question I’ve been chasing and trying to answer for half a century, so I thought I’d share. I hope it helps. And now, I have to say

Adios for a While

I finally understand it’s become necessary that I take a leave of absence for a while. I might be back and I might not. At the moment, I just don’t know.

Because I consider you my friends, I feel like I owe you an explanation. But don’t clasp your hands over your ears and race out of the room just yet (grin). I promise not to bore you to death. After all, we all have our demons to deal with.

Suffice it to say I’m dealing with an overwhelming, multi-faceted life roll. At last count, my personal hydra had ten ugly heads, so it might take me some time to figure out how to clear it. When I do, you will be among the first to know.

Two suggestions —

1. If you’ve enjoyed the Journal in the past, I urge you to leave your subscription intact. You won’t receive an email anyway unless I post to the Journal.

2. Those of you who are patrons, if you want to discontinue your monthly donation, I completely understand. If you want to discontinue an automatic payment and don’t know how, email me to let me know and I’ll discontinue it for you.

Finally, thanks for being there all this time. Talk with you again when I can.

Of Interest

See “Dr. Jerry Pournelle’s Advice” at

The Numbers

Fiction words yesterday…………………… XXXX
Nonfiction words today…………… 740 (Journal)

Writing of (novel)

Day 1…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX

Total fiction words for the month……… XXXXX
Total fiction words for the year………… 309655
Total nonfiction words for the month… 6120
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 122240
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 431895

Calendar Year 2020 Novels to Date…………………… 5
Calendar Year 2020 Novellas to Date……………… X
Calendar Year 2020 Short Stories to Date… 12
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 50
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 208
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

12 thoughts on “The Journal: What Makes for Good Writing”

  1. I hope you feel better soon.
    I’ve learned so much from your journal and am very grateful for your writing.

    Thank you, Harvey.

  2. Do what you need to, my friend. I already miss the Journal and I’ll keep sending good thoughts and energy your way.

  3. Hi Harvey,

    I check The Journal every day hoping for new content. I will continue to do so, even if takes you a while to find a way back to us. I love the phrase “life roll” because it implies movement. Things always change.

    In the past, I’ve been helped by two powerful quotes:

    “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same taken, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.” Viktor Frankel.


    “In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.” Epictetus.


  4. Take care of yourself Harvey. Even if you don’t come back, it’s been a gin ride. I have been encouraged. Prayers for you.

  5. Harvey, it’s been an honor to receive your wisdom. I’ll continue to send to this blog and your books anyone I know who’s hung up on the writing process. Best of luck with your current situation. I’ll miss your nearly daily words of wisdom and your shared bounty from the interwebs, but as I know to well, sometimes you gotta shift the focus to chopping off some of those hydra heads.

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