Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. ~Gene Fowler
Diane Holmes is my resident genius and she graciously allowed me to re-print an article she wrote over at the Free-Lance Zone a while back. When I say she’s a genius…I’m not kidding. Go make a cup of tea, put your feet up and have a good read! Take it away, Diane-
You can’t prove your writing is any good.
Not like you can in math or computer programming. Not with a result you can point to and say,
- That page right there is ‘always true.’
- It works ‘as expected” and is ‘fit for use.’
- My project requirements are satisfied. The glory is now mine!
You can learn and develop powerful skills. Mad Ninja writing skills.
You just can’t look at the end product and objectively test for “goodness.”
The comments are full of insight on the logic behind the readers’ choices. A must read on the topic of subjectivity. And Part 2 is a must read on the topic of reality vs. preference.
You can’t say that all writing is good, because it’s all subjective. Surely there is some difference between those who have developed mastery and those who… have room for improvement.
And surely you can evaluate your own work, right? Just you, alone in a room, evaluating your own work.
But as Nathan Bransford, former literary agent, points out, clear evaluation is not what happens. He wonders…
What is it about writing that makes people put on the blinders and fail to recognize their limitations and makes the talented unable to recognize their own goodness?
(The comments on Nathan’s post are worth the read!)
The “Someone Else” Solution.
Get someone else to read your writing. That’s often the advice given. A reader, a critique partner, a teacher, an editor. If they like it, then it’s good!
- Ah, okay, first there’s a quality issue. (Do they know quality when they see it or just what they like?)
- Then there’s a “good match” issue. (Are they a good match for your topic, style, or genre?)
- And finally there’s a “will it sell” issue that becomes some sort of defining determination of goodness. Everyone (especially editors, but even readers) has some sort of criteria called, “You can’t do that because it won’t sell.” Or alternatively, “It’s not done like that.” Or even, “Yeah, that seems like all the other books I read.”
Behind almost every single first book is a trail of rejections where readers, critique partners, teachers, editors, agents, and contest judges who thought it was or wasn’t good.
And then it sold.
The Touchstone Solution
Okay, here’s what I think.
- I think everything about writing and reading is, indeed, intangible.
- That you can recognize mastery, even if the mastery doesn’t equate to an excellent reading experience for you.
- And I think you can find touchstones to answer the Goodness question.
Here’s what I mean when I say touchstone. I mean someone or some specific works that hold the standard (Ideal Beauty) of where you want to be.
1) Specific Craft Touchstones
I think your touchstones should be narrowly defined if it’s to be of any value to you.
For example: I admire the dialogue of Elmore Leonard, specifically the way it captures very conflicting personality traits, takes sharp left-turns on subject so that you feel punched by the truth, and is often full of threat yet totally cool and hip.
As I progress in dialogue mastery, I can use the specific aspects of Elmore Leonard’s dialogue as a touchstone to help me assess my own writing.
Not to mimic Elmore Leonard, but to achieve that level of mastery (and delight) of “left-turns” in my own dialogue.
2) Reader Touchstones
Writing is about delighting a reader. So, yes, other people are involved in deciding what they enjoy reading, what they consider good.
So find the reader (critique partner, teacher, whoever) whose idea of goodness represents what you want your book to be judged against. Delight that one reader.
You might think this is nuts, but quit trying to please everyone, including those people who disagree with each other. Instead try to master storytelling for your one right reader.
How this is different from the “Someone Else” solution.
What I’m saying here is that all opinion is not equal. You should chose the opinion because you agree on quality (not that you agree on their career path in the publishing industry somehow equals goodness).
And that the opinion should become a touchstone for you as you write. “How much will this particular chapter delight this touchstone reader?”
This is about letting someone make a pronouncement about what you have written. It’s about writing to delight a reader who cherishes the goodness you’re reaching for. And then allowing you to evaluate if you’re reached that goal.
3) Vision Touchstones
One of the best things a critique partner (another writer) can do for you is to hold the vision of your story with you, to be able to see how great this story can truly be.
This is also the person who can discuss with you if you’re reached your own story vision.
And as you write, you’ll have some “other” out on the mental landscape who you know will be waiting for you to create “this page right now” in a way that fully captures that vision.
So you can get real feedback from the writer, but you’ll also have a sense, alone in a room, if you’re fulfilling your vision simply because you’re aiming at the story hopes of another writer.
And that is very cool stuff.
Diane writes two alternating columns for Freelance-Zone:Fiction-Zone: Leaps in FictionMastery and Marketing-Zone:Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.