Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How does a writer know a piece is good?

So, here’s the anecdote. Someone found out I was writing a book. That someone then says, “You’re writing a book?” There’s a pause. “Is it good?”

Honestly… I don’t know.

I’m not sure if any new/unestablished writers can ever really know if their work is “good.” Sure, there are basic things like a decent plot structure, invoking the reader to care about the main character(s), believability, and decent grammar/correct spelling. But, still. Is it “good?” Do readers want to finish the book? Does the story communicate your point? Do readers find their own meanings in your words? HOW DO YOU KNOW? Well. I’m not sure.

I’ll use a recent short story I wrote to illustrate examples of problems I think authors run into getting decent, unbiased, feedback.

The story is called “Count Down” and in a sentence it is set in a dystopian future where people are controlled by an internal watch that clocks them in and out of consciousness. It’s a little less than 2,000 words.

I wrote the story in an intense two days and had high hopes for it, but I wanted to make it the best it could. I still needed some direction, some focus, so I edited it over a period of two months.

My first move was to ask some people to read it, as readers. I have a lot of friends who are into sci-fi. I posted an inquiry on my Facebook and got five responses. I sent the story out. That was 6 months ago. Only one person read it, a fellow writer, and most of her suggestions, coming from a writer’s standpoint, I was already aware of. Which brings me to problem one. It’s hard to find readers. I don’t think that my friends intentionally didn’t read the story, or thought it was so terrible they couldn’t face me. They were just busy. I’m guilty of this, too. I have a few pieces still sitting in my email I told people I’d proofread. Life is hectic. And that’s just a short story of 2,000 words. A novelist can’t just put aside a book for five years waiting for someone to read it. And if they do, likely the person that will read it is a writer themselves. The help I get from fellow writers is great, but I believe an author really needs reader feedback. I think that writers get caught up on things readers don’t. But, maybe the readers thought my story did suck that bad, but I wouldn’t know it because they never told me.

My next thought was to give it to my mom to proofread. She’s a professional editor after all. She has an MFA and everything. But, I didn’t. She’s great at technical editing, but our ideas about… well, ideas… are very different. She doesn’t like sex in writing. (Side story: I bought condoms with her at the store once and she built a little condom-hut around the box with other items in the cart. It was awesome.) I’ve gotten to the point where my technical editing is pretty good, when I take the time. I just felt that any feedback I’d get from her would be a metaphorical condom-hut over the sexy parts of my story, which aren’t graphic, but an important part of the theme. I needed to focus my theme, not cover it up. Which brings me to our next problem. A writer might have a well read person eager to read his/her work, but that person might not know anything about/be into the genre of the piece. I try to be versatile, but I know there are some genres that I can’t offer the best advice I have, because I’m not familiar/it’s not what I do. I especially know I can’t give decent feedback when I’m turned off by the content of the story. And that’s not fair to the author, or the story since there is an audience out there for the piece somewhere.

So, I went ahead and submitted the story to a lit journal. It was rejected. The editor said, “It just didn’t work for me.” That’s fine. The way editors and literary journals work (and how authors should work with them) is a whole other blog entry, and something I won’t get into right now. But it brings me to another problem: Editor feedback is rare and even when editors of lit journals make it a point to give feedback, it is generally vague and sometimes not helpful at all. If you’re in school, feedback from your English professors can be great, but if you aren’t in school you’re probably not going to be graded on every piece you have. Even if you are in school, professors can’t read everything you write. You can pay an editor, but right now I can’t even afford to join my local writer’s guild, let alone an editor for every short story and novel I put together. I went to school for five years for writing, so I try to trust my own skills, but I can’t deny the value of a fresh set of eyeballs. And for authors that never studied writing primarily, this self-resource might not even be available.

So here I am with a story I love and I have no idea if it’s “good” or not. I plan to tap out a few more reader resources if I can, or maybe submit the piece to another journal.

At any rate, when an author does get feedback, it’s important to consider the context of the feedback just as much as getting feedback. Don’t let an editor or reader make all the decisions. I strongly believe an author should be a good editor, on other people’s work as well as their own. On the other hand, don’t be so intent on your magical vision that you throw away good advice given by readers or editors. Reflect about what changes you make and understand why you make them.

Also beware of people that just love everything you write. I thought I was super awesome until I realized I had ZERO negative feedback that I desperately needed to hear. Saying “Your story is interesting and I liked it a lot!” is the worst feedback ever, unless it is backed up with reasons. Even then, interesting ideas don’t always equal good writing. It’s great that readers like your ideas, but make sure you give the mechanics and structure just as much thought as your ideas.

I’m not sure I’m closer to an answer after mulling this over. My best advice is to study writing, study the kind of poetry or prose you want to write, and be open to considering feedback wherever you can get it.

Further reading at Better Writing Habits and Write For Your Life.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Typing is not productive. Sort of.

Well, that lasted about a week. My personal attempt to keep up with the Nanowrimo writing 1,600-some word a day to get to 50,000 in a month. The first day I started out at negative seven words because I edited. The second day I typed a little over 1,000 words because I had peach schnapps. After these first eleven days of November, I went back and averaged my word count and came up with 500 words typed a day, which has been my working goal for a couple months now. So, I haven’t gotten faster. But I’ve maintained. And I’m pretty much happy with that.

However, the attempt did raise some points about productivity.

I find personally that the days I spend typing are the “least” productive. Yes, typing is important, anda big piece of the process. But other really important parts include but are not limited to:

1. Getting ideas/filling plot holes. This means that one day, one minute, even one second, I won’t know how to end a scene, and the next second I will. Sometimes whole new characters, scenarios, or themes will come up this way as well. (Sometimes even whole new storylines for that matter.) This doesn’t require any typing at all. This goes the same for filling plot holes. I might scribble down ten different ways to stitch a scene together, but that doesn’t get typed either.

2. Rough drafting. I might be in the minority here, but I have to handwrite everything before I type. I usually double the word count when I type it up, but without the material to go on, I just look at a blank screen and a blinking cursor.

3. Editing. Yes, this does include typing, but a lot of times it includes deleting. I took 20 pages out of my first novel. I edited a 10,000 word story down to 2,000 and it was much better. Again, no typing.

4. Final editing. For me, so much of a book actually gets written in the final stages. And it’s not typing a lot. It’s scrutinizing over one word at a time in a paragraph because it will strengthen a theme, or communicate an idea better, or just be more reader friendly.

So, I guess that’s the main hang up I had with trying to make the word count. It wasn’t productive for me. I didn’t change my process, either. I still wrote pages by hand, researched, studied words in the dictionary, and wouldn’t move on unless I was happy. And 500 words a day at that rate is fine by me.

Would it be awesome to have 50,000 words at the end of the month? Yeah, but I know the process will get slowed later (…beta readers… formatting… cover design… ) so I’d rather not rush junk when I can be consistently productive now.

I also tried to keep a “Nanolog” but I only wrote down things that got in my way:

Got called into work.
Was scheduled at work.
People in the break room making me feel awkward while I wrote like a lunatic on the crumpled paper I had shoved in my pocket.
Dishes/laundry/cooking/grocery shopping.
Being a good wife/sister/daughter and helping people I love and all that.
Did I mention sleeping?

In summary: A pot fills one drop at a time. Write every day, even if it’s only a sentence. And peach schnapps helps. Good night.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

For serious writers only!

All right, I gotta say it, and I mean it. Everyone is a serious writer. It doesn’t matter if you write two hundred bajillion words in a day, or just think maybe sorta writing a book would be cool. All writers are serious. I’ve never met a single person who identifies as a writer that wasn’t serious.


I’m tired of the limitless barrage of egotistical forum and blog posts asserting how much more serious of a writer someone is because s/he’s doing something other people aren’t or not doing something other people are. And how there’s a difference between real writers and amateur writers. No, it doesn’t have to do with money or publication credits or education. It’s about how serious you are. How many words you type, how often you think about writing seriously, how you comprehend plot structure and character development.

Not like those posers who start blogs and don’t keep up with them, that pay other people to format their books, that don’t understand publishing contracts or have stupid pen names or write cheap, flat, lurid, pasted together stories for mere entertainment, or self publish their books without an online platform (the humanity!) or don’t use spell check because they’re so dumb.

But writing is a process. When my Dad barely survived two heart attacks, I didn’t exactly keep my word count up. I barely did any writing the months when I changed jobs, the plumbing in our house blew up, or when I got married. I ditched a “literary” endeavor to write a zombie book because A) it’s zombies, that’s awesome and B) I’ve gotten a massively better reception from potential readers from this set of characters and storyline. I’ve launched my blog seven times. It took me five years to get my bachelors degree and six to write and edit my first novel, still unpublished. I wrote a play and it’s terrible. I kept it, but I fear it’s unsalvageable. I don’t have enough money to pay anyone to format my book, though I might do naughty things for someone to teach me (but that’s another story). Anyone can stumble upon a writer that has a lot to learn and a lot of ground to cover, but my guess is everyone’s been there. I know I have, and still am.

I understand there being a separation between “serious” writers and those they deem as… uh… “un-serious.” I have a list of people that irk me to no end with their delusional plans of literary grandeur, that swear they don’t have to read or listen to feedback, that everything they write is EPIC and everyone else is just so sub-par and books they like are good, but books they don’t like are horrible and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But there are some people that aren’t writers that are all talk and no action, lest it be mediocre or least-effort action which usually ends up being useless anyway. It’s not a curse restricted to writers.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be proud of the hard work you put into studying the craft of writing and working on your own. But the person using much less work and thought energy is just as proud and enthusiastic about his/her book as you are. You shouldn’t judge the quality of your work to how crappy someone else does theirs.

In summary: The term “serious writer” can be beneficial in some cases, but there are poser scrub newbie people in every field, including writing, and there always will be. So be a serious writer… just don’t talk about it.

And this is pretty much awesome.

Have a nice day.