Thursday, March 17, 2011

How To Tell If Your Writing Is Any Good - Part 1

(Read Part 2 Here)

A long time ago I wrote my first novel. It was so long ago that I was still sitting at a desk in a high school that smelled like that lemon-smelling stuff they use to wax the linoleum floors. My locker was an awful contraption that proved my horrible memory for remembering its stupid combination, and all I could think about was boys and writing. I wasn't popular. I had my little group of friends and one guy I crushed on for four solid years. I did kiss him. We never married. I did, however, stick with one thing I still crush on - my writing.

When I sat in class I had a little notebook I would write in with a mechanical pencil. I wrote so tiny that I could fit 15 pages on one sheet. I thought if I wrote that small nobody would be able to read what I was writing. I finished the book and let only my most bestest friends read it. I also let two of my English teachers read it. They said it was good. They encouraged me. They must have been dying with laughter inside. Seriously.

That novel was bad.

Still, if I were an English teacher today I would have said the same thing to someone like myself with a novel like I wrote. It had potential, and that's all that really mattered. To do this day, 16 years later, I still think my writing is bad 95% of the time. I give it to my most trusted friends to read. I even let real agents and publishers and editors read it. They say it's good. They encourage me. Things are a little different now because I believe in myself more. I have more confidence and more experience, but I still doubt my work. I have a novel coming out in September from a traditional publisher. They love my work. Lots of people seem to want to read the book, and I still doubt my work. I have learned a few things, however.

Here are three paragraphs I've carefully chosen for reasons I won't say yet. I would really like to know which paragraph you feel is the best written? Why? Is it sentence structure? Does it have the most confidence, more obvious experience? Does it speak to you more as a reader? Try and pinpoint those reasons as best you can.

I'll be putting up another post later this evening when there are enough comments here for me to draw my conclusions. I hope you'll join me to see my thoughts based on what you say! 

The owl lives behind my home in a tall pine that is bald on one side and heavy on the other with frost-laden boughs that groan with every snow fall. At night, when flakes gather in drifts and heaps against my back porch, the owl plunges from his hunting perch, his sooty brown feathers driving tunnels through snow until all that is seen are whirlwinds of white—feathers and snow creating silence in chaos. I strain to hear any sound at all, but only succeed in finding the crashing thumps of my own heartbeat. Solemnly, after I know the kill has taken place, I enter my cabin, assured in the warmth of my small, but necessary fire.

They questioned him the day after Naomi’s disappearance, although he didn’t know anything. Naomi hadn’t shown up to his house the night he asked her to, and that was that. “You were the last to speak to her,” the police kept insisting. “And you’re her best friend. Can’t you give us some clue to what could have happened? Would she run away?” Brad only shook his head, fear clawing at his heart. He was most likely more frightened than Naomi’s own parents, who believed she had just not come home for awhile. She was frequently away from home, but when that happened, she was with Brad. She was not with him now.

I buy a snakeskin bag today, lizard green and shiny patent leather and the silver accents catch the sun on a sunny day before the clouds decide to come. When they do, they split open and rain all hell down for five minutes, plaster my hair to my skin, soak through my white shirt so the boys on the corner smoking pot whistle and lick their lips and yell, “Nice tits!” and I roll my eyes and think immature and wish I’d remembered to bring my long jacket that goes down to my calves. At least my green bag looks good with my green skirt, my six-inch green heels and green toenails that are starting to chip and I need to schedule another pedicure tomorrow and pull out my phone to punch in a reminder. I feel like a walking lime tequila.


  1. I actually like #2 best, only because it is a plot that would interest me most.

  2. Hmm. A difficult test Michelle,as they're all good.

    Emotionally I prefer paragraph one. I like the imagery, the hint of danger symbolised by the kill and the snow and the need of the fire.

    Technically, I'd say paragraph 3 is the most dynamic, because it's fast paced and the writer is definitely more confident - the writing is freer and thus stronger.
    Judy (South Africa)

  3. #3 for me. Easiest to follow logically. the sentences flow into the next, and nice personality

  4. I like the second one best. It is the type of story I would want to read. It's a straight forward paragraph. You know the gist of the story & can easily decide if you want to continue reading.

    But #1 invokes a mood amd really sets the scene of silence and alone-ness.

    I honestly can't stand #3. I don't like writing that crams in too many details in so short a paragraph.

  5. I prefer #3 because it has a clear, strong voice. From the outset there is something interesting about the narrator. I like that.

  6. #1 felt a bit flat. Long, descritpive stc's without context made it feel like a random observation.

    #2 has more obvious plot going on, but it was quite vague. Needed more of a hook for this kind of story, imo. Good last line though.

    #3 although also using long sentences this one felt like it came from a definite voice. I got a much stronger sense of the narrator, not just from how she dressed but from the way her words were strung together.

    I'd say #3 was strongest.

  7. They are all three well-written.

    I like the detail of the first. I enjoyed hearing of an owl's hunt but I felt it was describing something that I had no connection to. The owl is pretty generic therefore I didn't care for it as much as if it said, "The owl I'd been watching for weeks..." Something to make me care about what happened in the next few sentences. Once we got to the person watching, I started to feel that person's excitement but up until then, it was just an owl. (Does that make sense?)
    The second one let me feel what Brad was feeling and I like that. I want to know where Naomi is after reading that excerpt.
    I didn't care for the third as much. I felt the sentences were a little long, especially the second. The third sentence felt like a cheap way of describing what she wore or looked like. Kind of like saying, She looked in the mirror and her eyes were green.

  8. To me, #3 has the strongest voice. #1 has almost too much description.

    When I read the beginning of this post, I thought, "Hey! Who's been reading the story of my life?"

  9. I loved the imagery and mood of #1 and the tease of trying to figure out what could possibly happen next, but I was left wanting. We're seeing great imagery, but we're left not knowing how to feel because the character hasn't given us a clue why this scene is important.

    I didn't care for #3. It felt flat to me. But very fitting for St. Patrick's day - all that green!

    #2 was my favorite, however. I'm a sucker for a mystery and this one came with an emotional punch in the last line. We're also in a character's head (and heart) strongly.

  10. I prefer #3 for its strong voice and striking imagery. I think the last line is great--that she chose to describe herself as a "walking lime tequila" says as much about her as a person as it does her appearance.

  11. I like #2 because it was the easiest to read. Both #1 and #3 seemed to cram too many details in one place, which made me trip over the sentences. #2 worked because I didn't have to do the work.

  12. In order of preference: 1, 3, 2.

    Both the owl sequence and the green segment created a sensual experience for me. The second seemed to be more plot-driven and, since I had not yet connected to the characters I was not drawn in. But #1 is both a piece of visual art and also an effective story-telling paragraph in that it is suggestive of both the emotional core of the narrator and the riveting action that has or is about to take place. #3 has very nice visuals, and it is immediate and effective. Still prefer #1, though. It's both poetry and prose.

  13. I'd say #1 is the best. Interesting and well-written. The second feels too choppy and immature to me, so I'd say it's the 3rd best. The last one falls in the middle for me. With a little polish it could be pretty good.

    My 3 cents (adjusted for inflation)

  14. I feel #1 has the strongest writing, #2 has the strongest story, and #3 has the strongest voice. In terms of which is best, it all depends on what the reader is looking for.

    I'll give the edge to #1, since #3's rambling voice didn't give me time to breathe (and #2 did a little too much telling).

  15. Oh my goodness, all of your comments are fantastic! Please keep them coming!

  16. I like #2, because it sounds right when I read it. #1 had good descriptions but there was something missing from it. #3 was interesting but it seemed to be written wrong somehow.

    I'm new to writing and terrible at grammar, but I just think #2 reads the best. I do think that if #1 and #3 were rewritten differently they would surpass #2 because of their descriptiveness and emotion.

  17. #1 Had some nasty punctuation issues. The first sentence went on for days. It struck me as an early piece, written when the imagery was more important than the mechanics.

    #2 Was the best of the three for me. I'd say it was the form and structure of the thing.

    #3 Had more of the run-on descriptive strings, and a lot of repetition. Again, it reads more like a first draft written to provoke the visual image than something that has been through a polishing phase or two.

  18. For me, 1 & 3 were definitely stronger. The sentence structure in 2 needs's choppy and passive, IMO. Quite a few words could be cut and the whole thing should be tightened up. As it is now, the words get in the way of the story.

    I like 1 the best in terms of technical quality - and it's definitely got a more poetic feel and a very nice flow. I'd absolutely continue that story to see where it's headed.

    3 is a nice, strong voice & is wonderfully descriptive, but needs a bit of polish as far as structure and pacing goes, IMO (even keeping the literary feel). But I'm not generally fond of first person, so this would have to really be polished for me to continue reading.

  19. I feel like paragraph 3 is the best written, in terms of my own preferences. But, emotionally, I find myself engaging the most with #1. I think it's more unusual and it feels emotional.

  20. #3 reminds me of Faulkner's paragraph long sentences in As I Lay Dying. Good, but I felt like I needed to take a breather after I was done reading it. It was pretty edgy though, and I like edgy writing

    #1 Was beautiful, literary, and a good example of what would likely be a great novel.

    But #2 was my favorite. Why? Well, several reasons, but I'll only go into one of them: it was the easiest to read. It also created an immediate hook, which the other two didn't. There is something at stake there.

    Great post!

  21. I thought that number 1 was great. It was lush and literary but not self indulgent and set an awesome mood. I thought 3 was great IF it's for a short story, since present tense doesn't work as well in longer work.

    I thought 2 was the weakest even though 2 comes from my favorite book of yours and has some action and dialogue... 2 feels like it's got a lot of hesitancy like you aren't trusting your voice
    there are odd hiccups like "and that was that", and what was what?
    It feels tacked on and distracting
    So I think 1 and 3 are the strongest as far as snippets go. with 3 being conditional on being part of a short story.

  22. The first paragraph was too much. All long sentences, similar structure. The second one held my attention. It had something happening that made me want to read the next paragraph. The third paragraph seemed like it really wanted to be more than just one paragraph.

  23. I'm leaning toward #2. It's conversational but not just a stream of conscious thought. The plot that's developing really pulled me in, too. It dumped me into the middle of scene and I appreciate that technique. All of them were interesting, though. :)

  24. I'm going to go with #1.

    Both #2 and #3 seemed to be telling instead of showing. I don't know exactly. Also, #3 was very hard to read with those extended sentences with the 'and's, though it did have a stronger narrator.
    #1 speaks of the narrator's character also though, the way he/she watches the owl and waits for it to kill. All in all it's the easiest to read and I like the narrator the most.

  25. I like #1 the best. I like the imagery and the sense of being in a hanging moment, and it's a scene that's easy to picture and connect with. Put me a bit in mind of Jim Kjelgaard's works. I did, however, stumble a bit over a grammar mistake and some of the sentence structure seems a little strange (like starting a sentence with an adverb).

    #2 seems too confusing for me, possibly because it's a difficult situation to follow out of context. Feels like there should be an extra paragraph break after the police speak, too. It seems technically sound otherwise, simple enough to read with a nice and emotional hook sentence at the end.

    #3 is my least favourite. It reads like one giant run-on sentence to me, feels flat, and spends a big paragraph describing something I don't have any reason to care about. (And I have to admit, "catch the sun on a sunny day" made me cringe just a bit.) Like #2, though, the last sentence is nice and attention grabbing, and while short, the tone of said sentence gives a good indication of the narrator's opinion of her appearance. If it had been cut down to a brief description of just how much green she was wearing and that last sentence (plus maybe the mention of the male heckling), I think it would have kept the same message and been much better.

  26. All of these made my fingers itch to edit! Each para had something to commend it and much that needed fixing. (These are only my opinions, of course!)
    #1 had many punctuation issues, there were conflicts of tense and number, and the whole thing was too wordy. It did have some nice imagery and some of the descriptive passages could have worked had they not been trying too hard. There was a good sense of atmosphere in there but it needed bringing under control.
    In #2 the narrative was confusing and it wasn't well-paced. I'd say it was the best for structure, though.
    I found #3 to be very similar to #1in that it was in dire need of punctuation. Again, there was a ramble of over-description. However, I did quite like the way the narrative clearly conveyed a muddled way of thinking. It implied a teenager just on the verge of womanhood - I was instantly drawn into her head.

    This was great fun. Can't wait to hear your thinking behind this post, Michelle!

  27. I wanted to like #2 best because I detest present tense writing, but in the end I really preferred #1 despite the tense choice. It works well there, and I found the whole paragraph more focused than the others. One action, one continuous observation of that action, one connection to the observer by the reader via the last "small but necessary fire" image.

    The others were too scattered with people's names, multiple thoughts/actions, descriptions etc. The first has the best through-line.

    On the other hand, it might have something to do with my being a passionate birder...

    Alexandra MacKenzie

  28. #1 and #3 stick out most in my mind. I liked all of them though. The voice is different in all three and I feel like I'm reading 3 very different stories so it's hard to judge which one I like best. I will say that I think each voice feels right.

  29. #3 By far, took me right into the girl's life, event, and kept me there till the last word.

    The others, they sounded contrived, built carefully, attracting the stylist in me, the editor in me.

    I want to get lost in the story!

  30. I liked #1 for the beautiful imagery. I am drawn to this kind of writing, which is very Tolkein-esqu (at least to me).

    I couldn't find anything wrong with paragraph #2, and felt curious about the people, but #1 still drew me in more.

    I couldn't even get through #3. I don't like first person (just personal choice) and the run-on sentences are weird to me. The "feel" of it makes it seem like it's written by a teenager.

  31. I like #1 the best. The sentences are a good length and paint a vivid picture. #2 is too telly, instead of showing. #3 has too much description and runon sentences. I couldn't imagine reading that out loud. Just my opinion though!

  32. Shay: That's interesting since the first one is first person, as well. Is there a reason they felt different for you in that regard?

  33. I liked #2 best, then 1 then 3. I think 1 and 3 prioritized style over the narrative to a degree, 3 to a greater extreme than 1.

    Not to say any were bad, I liked them all...just stating an order of preference.

  34. #3 is very Modernist. I heart Modernism. Long sentences are da bomb.

  35. It's always difficult to judge these things as they are taken out of context.

    I'm torn between one and two which both have their good points. Number three reads like a paragraph that's been translated from a foreign language by a machine (I buy?).

    However, I have to make a choice, so I'll go for number one, purely because of its descriptive elements.

  36. Definitely para 3. It has a voice. The first was thivmck on prose. The second had story but also tended towards cliche. The third was the only one with character in my opinion. (haven't looked to see what anyone else said yet, hoping i'm not way off)

  37. I like #2 best. Not because it speaks to me, particularly, but because I don't really like the other two for a couple reasons, so that makes it the best.

    #1 is too heavy on description for me. Sets up the pacing for the story to be awfully slow and Dickensesque. Also very light on anything resembling plot, though the last bit about the fire could be interesting.

    #3, while entertaining, is too stream of consciousness for me. That has its place, of course, just not my forte. She does seem like a character I would enjoy, though.

    So that leaves #2, which has nice plot building, some character development, things that contribute a great deal to an overall story. It is lacking a bit in the detail department, but taken as part of a larger whole this would have to be my favorite.

    Okay now tell me why we did that. I'm dying to know!


  38. I like #1 and #2.

    #1 because it's different.

    #2 because it seems to be leading to a more interesting story.


  39. which is better written? hmm- I think that would depend on how they fit into a larger structure. I like #3 - I personally find it the most interesting and like the style of writing (though I think it would be better without the last line- which seems- I don't know- too cutesy?).
    I like # 1 too- but it sounds a little dated. (and maybe the protagonist is an older man in which case the tone probably 'fits').I think if the word 'solemnly' had been omitted I would have liked the paragraph a lot more.


  40. Thanks for your comments, everyone! This has been truly fantastic. I will not be putting up the follow-up post until tomorrow morning. Scott handed over his Friday-Filler day. Thanks, Scott!

    So please pass around the news that I would still love more comments on these paragraphs.

  41. Fun! My vote - #3. Strongest voice, most original imagery without feeling like it's trying too hard. Plus that last line was a treat! I really did not care for #2. While the situation and the characters are interesting, the writing did not feel strong. ("that was that" and "fear clawing at his heart") The first paragraph conveys mood very well but it seemed a little over-done, with a lot of imagery crammed into a small space. (And would an owl hunt in the same place every night?) I look forward to seeing your notes, Michelle!

  42. They each have their strengths and weaknesses but I didn't think one was better than the others.

  43. One.

    I didn't even have to think about it.

  44. They all sound kind of similar to me. Perhaps that's because the voice is constant. I am a sucker for fabulous voice. To me, that's really the main thing that separates good writing from mediocre. You can fix grammar and plot and characters, but voice is tricky. It's difficult to re-think our entire way of writing. I think the most talented writers are those with unique voice.

  45. #1 was the best written.

    #3 had the best voice.

    #2 didn't do anything for me. It actually felt like newbie writing.

    And I know you're going to pull a rabbit out of your hat and say these were all written by famous people. Arent' you?

  46. Reading all of the comments didn't sway me from my initial impression:

    1 was too run-on wordy and over the top description-wise
    2 was a nice, bare bones paragraph that executed well
    3 was in first person present that distracted me to no end.

    2 by a length, at least.

    Of course, the reader is the final arbiter. If it sells, it's right.

    And that's *my* opinion...

  47. The new post is now up. Thanks for joining in, everyone!

  48. (I'm not looking at part 2 yet.)

    To me, #2 is by far the best. It's pacey, has tension and poignancy and characters I want to know more about.

    #1 is overwritten and self-indulgent (with errors) and #3 has far too many adjectives and again doesn't go anywhere.

  49. #1 was good because it focused on the owl and took that approach. I assume the owl has relevance later on in continued prose—if not, still an interest perspective to use.

    #2 seemed to move too quickly without proper description. Like it summed things up too quickly. Also used a lot of passive voice

    #3 is well-written in terms of personal experience, but not my cup of tea. I think for people who enjoy the 1st person narrative more its good, but risks giving only a narrow perspective.

  50. Why the aversion to the 1st POV? I like writing in that one the best, because I find myself using someone I know or some part of myself as the character, but without injecting myself too much into it. I don't know. I like the unreliability of 1st person narrators. It takes a little longer to figure out their agenda and I like that.

  51. #1 for flow. #2 for plot. #3 for voice. All equally well written.

  52. I agree that all of them have their perks and draw-backs. The comments section has been surprisingly inspiring to me as a writer. Instead of being worried about one mistake, the style has carried all of them through into someone's heart. Some liked 1 better because of the emotional ramifications but didn't lead anywhere vital, 2 was a favorite in the plot but short on the details, and 3 was good with a plot line and a voice but was lacking the emotional power the first and 2 had. The fact that people can still pick and chose a strongest according to personal taste is very revealing, and encouraging. As a beginning writer, it's good to know that even one successful element is a step forward that can call out to an audience.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.