So, everyone says that for a book to get agented and published, it has to be "well written." I'm not sure that is 100% true - we can all think of people who have made the best-seller lists whose books are competently, or borderline-competently written, but not WELL written.
However, I think it's fairly safe to say that if you are an unknown (i.e., non-celebrity, non-politician, non-sportstype, non-CEO), your manuscript has to be well written. This is one of those terms, I realize, that is bandied about without ever being quite defined. I suppose we could say it's like pornography - we know it when we see it - but I thought I'd try to come up with a more specific definition.
So, in my opinion, well written means the following:
1. Properly spelled, grammatically correct, with punctuation in the right place. This is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for good writing. I think a lot of us can put up with an occasional typo in a manuscript. Everyone's human, and God knows that after looking at the same manuscript every day for a year, a writer can be forgiven for a misspelling or a missing comma. I do think most of us see beyond that. But multiple errors in the first few pages signal a generally low level of competence and cause us to tune out. (Case in point, so that I can get down off my high horse - in Meredith Phillips' guest blog from last week, I had several typos in my introduction and conclusion that Meredith herself pointed out to me! Slightly embarrassing, to say the least.)
2. Good variety in sentence and paragraph structure. I sometimes see manuscripts that are 300 pages of simple declarative sentences. That might be OK for children's or YA adult books (though I doubt it), but it won't fly in an adult novel. Please give me some dependent clauses, some participial phrases, some gerunds or infinitive phrases. Ask a rhetorical question or two. Vary sentence style and paragraph length (especially paragraph length! 300 pages of 3-sentence paragraphs makes your book look like it suffers from ADD. 300 pages of multi-page paragraphs makes it look as though you've channeled James Joyce, most likely not on his best day.)
3. Simple, effective description. I always feel that the best writers evoke a scene, a character, or a characteristic in a minimum of space. I like a sentence or two of description--and then get on with it. For more complicated locations or items that are intrinsic to plot, longer description is fine. I like to see similes, etc., in descriptions--something other than telling me how big the thing is, and what color. I also feel that, from a reader's viewpoint, a simple sketch lets readers fill in the details and makes the book more absorbing.
4. Sentences that stop you cold. You might think that a sentence that stops me in my tracks is a bad thing--that it would kill the suspense or slow down the pace. And yet I find that the books that I acquire always have sentences (usually on every page, or in every chapter) that make me think, "Wow, that was a great sentence." Margaret Millar had hundreds of these. I also recently read Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn, and there is a woman with the ability to write killer lines. I think that what informs these killer lines is a sort of authorial perception or intelligence that engages my own--a way of putting an idea or description into writing that would never have occurred to me. And I am impressed by that.
5. Good dialogue, in the appropriate places. This is a real problem spot for first-timers. Oh, the thousands of pages of banal dialogue I have read in my lifetime.... Dialogue should provide important information or reveal character. It shouldn't be useless banter, a phenomenon I call "mother and daughter syndrome" (hope my wife isn't reading this). My oldest daughter and my wife talk on the phone at least twice a day, for half an hour, about absolutely nothing. They seem to enjoy it in life, but in a novel such conversations are useless and even annoying. Another problem is stiff dialogue that sounds phony, or having all characters speak in the same way, which makes everyone sound the same. The opposite problem specializes a character's way of speaking to such an extent that s/he sounds like a caricature.
6. A sense of control. I really want my author to be in charge of the manuscript--in charge of my mind. By giving myself up to a manuscript, I relinquish control over my time, and I want to make sure I am in the hands of someone who is using my time properly. Writers who have a sense of control are excellent self-editors. They can read what they've written and slash entire paragraphs or pages because they see that the cut material doesn't further the story, or develop character, or serve any other purpose. In other words, a well-written book partakes very little in self-indulgence. And yet some self-indulgence is to be expected and even encouraged, as these flights of fancy can really capture your imagination and make the author's unique voice stand out. The best writers know when they can get away with it, and when they can't.
7. An awareness of the novel as story. I really can't stress this enough. A well-written manuscript has the reader in mind from page one. From the outset, the reader thinks, "This is a story I want to read" (and, one hopes, "These are characters I find interesting"). A well-written book parcels out information, knowing that at its core it exists to reveal secrets little by little, rather than in huge chunks of backstory or chapter after chapter of exposition. Someone who reveals backstory just about perfectly is Louise Ure. Her books should be required study for how to handle backstory.
8. And, finally, a sense that the author is an interesting person whom I would like to meet. When I read a really good manuscript, I always feel that I want to meet the author. Now I may be somewhat disturbed by their vision or find their world view bleaker than my own, but I still want to talk to them, to see what makes them tick. The same may be true of a cozy writer. While I can't say that I am a huge fan of that sub-genre, I think an excellent sense of humor is a must in a cozy writer, and I imagine that having dinner with that author would be full of laughs and wry observations. It's that sort of je ne sais quoi that builds a devoted readership. The problem is that many of today's authors think that becoming email friends with readers is a substitute for this, when they are two very different phenomena. I come from an era where I think writers should be slightly apart, slightly admired by their readership, rather than posting thousands of Tweets all over the Internet in a desire to expose themselves as much as possible. Now, of course, that has been done successfully, and our publicist is always encouraging writers to do exactly these sorts of things, but I have never claimed not to be a man of contradictions.