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.

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