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Today’s guest is fantasy and science fiction author Katharine Kerr! Her work includes the urban fantasy series Nola O’Grady and The Runemaster, the science fiction series Polar City, and of course, the epic fantasy books in her bestselling Celtic-inspired Deverry Cycle. Her latest novel, Sword of Fire, is the first book in The Justice War—a new trilogy set in the world of Deverry!

Sword of Fire by Katharine Kerr Book Cover

What is Good Prose, Anyway?
Katharine Kerr

Both writers and readers love to discuss, and argue about, what constitutes “good” prose. The conclusion I usually end up drawing from these discussions is that the definition really comes down to a matter of taste—from the reader’s point of view, that is. Some people enjoy complex sentences and unusual words. Some people hate them. Some people hate short sentences and basic vocabulary. Others like them. And so on. No one definition of “good” writing is ever going to please every reader.

On the other hand, we might look at the problem from the writer’s point of view. What constitutes good prose?  I submit these definitions: prose that has the effect upon the reader that the writer intended it to have is good. Prose that doesn’t, no matter how polished, is poorly done.

Does the writer want the reader to zip through the story and enjoy it as an entertainment? That will require one style of prose. Does the writer want the reader to experience the story as an immersion into a strange and foreign place and time? That will require another. Is an incident supposed to be funny? Humor demands a certain choice of words. Is the incident supposed to make the reader get all teary-eyed? Then the writer had better avoid that distanced, ironic humor.

We can define “bad” prose as words that fail to do what the writer wants them to do. Really bad prose is so muddled that we can’t even tell what the writer had in mind, but such rarely does get into print. Usually the examples are less extreme. A strict-genre entertainment might be written in such complex, rambling sentences that a reader looking for a few hours of escape decides to throw the book across the room. A thoughtful, serious near-future SF work that sounds like a middle grade adventure story is not going to get much respect.

Here’s an example of how bad prose can wreck a story, one I remember from a writing class of many years ago. I’ve forgotten the writer’s name, and I bet he’d be glad I have. Anyway, the story concerned a Sensitive, Poetic Young Man who yearned for a certain girl at a high school dance. He asks her to dance, she makes fun of him, his pain knows no bounds. The reader does feel his pain and feels sorry for him until he rushes out of the dance into the parking lot, where

“in the glare of floodlights the pale trunks of the eucalyptus trees looked like cottage cheese.”

That, folks, is story-shattering prose.

Katharine Kerr is the author of the Deverry series of epic fantasies, the Nola O’Grady series of light-hearted contemporary fantasy, the “Runemaster” duo, and a few science fiction works, mostly notably SNARE. Although she spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city, she became a confirmed Californian at age nine, when her family relocated there. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband, his caregiver, and a cat.