Friday, March 18, 2011

How To Tell If Your Writing Is Any Good - Part 2

(Read Part 1 Here)

I have had the most interesting experiences with my writing as of late. The most exciting experience has been what I like to call THE RIFT in feedback. Among many, many other reasons why I self-published my novella, Cinders, one reason I did so was to get feedback on my writing - writing I felt was the best I had done up to that point. I knew without at doubt that by keeping the book unpublished and handing it only to people I had some sort of connection with, that I would never find absolutely honest feedback. My way of thinking was that I would never know if my writing was truly any good. I thought it was good, but what did I know? Readers are who mattered.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20.

I see now that my way of thinking was terribly wrong. Although I would have never put my own work out there without feeling it was really good, I still ultimately put all my hope in the opinions of others more than in my own. Every time I read a crushing review or received less than 4 stars, my heart sank and my opinion of my own work withered. Then, on the other hand, every time I read a 5 star review by someone who really seemed to understand the work the way I intended, my heart soared and my opinion of the book blossomed. Talk about a roller coaster.

This is THE RIFT, and it will happen with every single word, sentence, short story, and novel I ever share with others.

If I'm not careful, I'll fall into that rift and never emerge. This is one of the reasons I don't feel reviews are for writers. It's good for me to know how readers react to my work, but one of the things I learned very quickly - all those reviews were the exact same reactions I received from beta readers and friends who read the book, just on a much larger, more dramatic scale.

So, with no further babble from me, let's look at the paragraphs from yesterday's experiment. We're the Literary Lab, after all. We like to experiment.

#1
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.

This paragraph comes from a long short story I wrote in college titled "Sounding Light." I wrote it at the brink of my awareness with language, and decided to experiment with merging prose and poetry. I was really happy with the end product - a literary, quiet story, which oddly enough, was part of the inspiration for my spy thriller novel, Monarch. "Sounding Light" was published in the literary journal, Touchstones, in 2002.

Hmmm, there were 15 solid votes for this paragraph as the best written and liked. It came out as the winner. General consensus:

  • easiest to read
  • too generic
  • good imagery
  • both poetry and prose
  • strongest writing
  • grammatically wrong
  • good technical quality
  • sentence structure is strange
  • style over narrative
  • compared to several classic authors (not in a good way)

#2
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.

This paragraph was written somewhere between 1996 and 1997 while I was in high school. It's the beginning paragraph of my novel, The Breakaway, which I've rewritten more times than I can count. I am currently working on this novel to submit for representation. The paragraph above no longer exists, even remotely, and the beginning is now much altered.

This paragraph came in 2nd place at 12 votes as the best written and liked. General consensus:

  • felt like newbie writing
  • good sense of plot
  • felt flat
  • too telling
  • was in the character's head strongly (in a good way)
  • easy to read
  • immature
  • strongest story
  • immediate hook
  • author isn't trusting voice
  • confusing narrative

#3
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.

This paragraph was written in 2010 as part of Loren Eaton's Six-Birds prompt. It is from a flash fiction piece titled "True Colors." You can read the entire pieces on my author site, if you're interested.

This paragraph came in as the third best written and liked with 11 votes. General consensus:

  • strong voice
  • great sense of voice and confidence
  • too much description, sentences too long and run-on
  • felt flat
  • great sense of character
  • style over narrative (not good)
  • last line was cheap
  • last line was too cutesy
  • last line was a treat

    I think the most interesting thing was how several readers mentioned that they hated #1 or #3 because of the present tense or first person POV, yet didn't say that this bothered them in both of the paragraphs. This confused me. Did you not notice that both 1 and 3 were both in present tense and first person POV or was I misunderstanding what you said?

    Moving on, I think it's quite clear from the general consensus lists that feedback overall (on anything) is extremely subjective. I don't wish to focus on that today, though. I want to point out that each of these excerpts was taken from a different period of my life. #2 was from when I very first started writing novels, #1 was from college when I started experimenting with language, and #3 was from only a year ago when I was really starting to feel confidence in my writing. I think from the general feedback given in the comments that many of you picked up on these things in my writing. Many of you seem to favor plot and a good hook over technique or prose - at least in a small excerpt like this. All of this tells me that feedback is helpful to hone my writing, but I should never rely on it to direct my writing, or even worse, tell me if my writing is good or not.

    One of the most important things I have learned over the years is that it is IMPOSSIBLE to judge a writer's worth or abilities from a short excerpt, maybe even from a whole chapter or short story, or even an entire novel. I have read absolutely amazing pieces by authors I truly admire, and then read something else of theirs that fell completely flat for me. Overall, though, I still admire their work because I have read enough of it. What does this tell me? Simply that I must turn this around and see if from the other direction. If I get feedback that rips me to shreds, does that mean I'm a bad writer? I think the answer is obvious, and it leads directly into the question: How can you tell if your writing is any good?

    If you can't answer that, go back and read this post again.

    24 comments:

    1. I see what you did there. ;-)

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    2. I'm so happy to read your conclusions from this experiment, Michelle. I agree with them, and hope I can keep these thoughts in mind during the next few weeks. Thank you.

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    3. Your writing is good when you darn well know it's good.

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    4. I think you're only a bad writer if you stop trying. I think you're spot on that reviews aren't for the writer. They're for other readers. And everyone sees the world in a different way so how can they say you write well or not? I personally think you write very well, but don't take my word on it. Keep writing! ;)

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    5. I think this is true also of the querying/submission process (should you decide to go the traditional publishing route). We might think that our work is either good or bad (and that everyone will agree), but if one agent passes on it, another agent might love it.

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    6. ...I think I can...I think I can...

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    7. To me, good writing is invisible. Much like a comfortable pair of shoes that don't pinch your toes, give you blisters and constantly remind you that you're wearing them, good writing does not draw attention to itself. Instead, it carries the story along without the reader noticing the author's presence.

      Incidentally, I think it's important to note that while we as authors feel like a single paragraph is not enough to judge our writing, the reality is that readers will not continue past that paragraph unless they like it.

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    8. I love what Ina said. "Great writing is invisible." What a beaut of a quote, and so true.
      I also agree that a single paragraph, and especially an opening one, can draw or repel a reader.
      What this experiemnt of Michelle's really goes to prove is that writing - and even great writing - is subjective. No matter how brilliant a writer you are, readers and critics will always find something they'd have done differently. That's what I love most about our craft.

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    9. Sorry, Ina, I misquoted you! It should have been "good writing", of course!
      :-(

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    10. Interesting couple of posts. I'm not sure i agree with your overall conclusion, i think the views of readers/critters have a lot of validity as long as you get to know those readers on more than a casual level. Read their writing, discuss matters back and forth rather than take a vote, ask them what they think you were going for, then explain what it was you were actually going for and delve into why you missed.

      All these things are hard to do with random people using small excerpts. However, i think even that can tell you something. I'd say the overall impresson I got was that each of the samples had good qualities, and each had areas that didn't quite work. That in itself is useful to know.

      Good exercise. Cheers,
      mood

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    11. Very interesting! I didn't vote on the first post because I felt like a cheater--I was familiar with two of the samples already. I loved the voice in #3. Very fresh and interesting. Actually, I would never have guessed that voice was yours, Michelle, if I hadn't known about the other two. I can see you've been up to good things.

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    12. Ina: In a way, those are the kinds of readers I'd rather not have reading my stuff. I've never stopped reading a story only after one paragraph. Maybe I'm too patient. :)

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    13. mooderino: I'm reposting this comment because I misspelled your name first. Sorry about that.

      One of my favorite quotes is from J.S. Chancellor: "Woe is the writer who mounts their merit on the masses."

      I don't think there is anything wrong with getting feedback on your writing and improving from that, but I write for art's sake, and if I am constantly striving to please those people giving me feedback instead of myself, I'm going to end up extremely unhappy. That's just me, of course. Some writers do mount their merit on the masses. In a way, it makes me very sad.

      Also, I wanted to add that I think you have a point about getting feedback from those who we know on a more personal basis. I have my little circle of readers whom I trust greatly. Without their feedback I would have a hard time with writing, that's for sure. However, at the end of the day, it is me who decides what's good about my writing, and it is me who makes those final decisions on what to change - whether or not others like it. It's delving deep into myself rather than putting too much stock in other opinions that is the bottom line here.

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    14. Hey Michelle,

      It's a matter of judgement. Some people find it hard to see their own work clearly (unless they leave it in a draw for six months) so fresh eyes are helpful — as long as they're the right pair of eyes (which goes back to judgement).

      You said: "...and if I am constantly striving to please those people giving me feedback instead of myself, I'm going to end up extremely unhappy."

      Which is fair enough but you seem to be seeing things as an "either/or" of two extremes. either you have to listen to everyone, or you have to listen to no one. And you don't. You can use that judgement you have that lets you make decisions on your own work to make decisions about suggestions from others.

      You have to take time getting to know the person, being confident in them and showing them your vision, but once you do that it can be very rewarding to have someone to bounce stuff off of, who knows what you're going for and maybe has some approaches you hadn't considered. And who doesn't mind being ignored sometimes (or most fo the time).

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    15. mooderino: Let me repeat:

      I have my little circle of readers whom I trust greatly. Without their feedback I would have a hard time with writing, that's for sure.

      In essence, I'm doing exactly as you describe. I don't work in a vacuum by any means.

      If you read into the post that I was saying it has to be either/or, I suppose that's what you take from it. I intentionally left it open to interpretation because in the end it's us who decides, not anybody else.

      You have some excellent points that you state much more clearly than I did. I appreciate your discussion today!

      Anthony: Tehehe. :)

      Linda: You are embarking on a fantastic journey, I do believe. I wish you the best. :)

      Nevets: Exactly. It's up to us to decide who determines that. For me, it's myself who decides.

      Nisa: What a great way to put that! If we stop trying, we've certainly lost a fight.

      Tiana: Yes, it plays right into publication, I agree. It's important to go into publishing with great confidence.

      Bridget: That little engine really could!

      Cas: The thing is, yes, an opening paragraph can repel or draw, but isn't that the point? My aim certainly isn't to please every single reader on the planet. I want to attract the right readers, and the ones who like those beginnings will keep reading. Like I said to Ina, I've never put down a book because of the beginning. I'm always pretty patient, but I know some readers are not.

      Ben: Haha, you wouldn't have been a cheater. Either you like the paragraphs or not. It doesn't matter where they came from.

      And, thank you! That voice has been building up for awhile. :)

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    16. I like this type of exercise, it's fun and insightful.

      The responses to the qualification of "good" were pretty evenly distributed, but "good" is a very subjective term.

      You could re-vamp this test by changing the word good to any of the following, and use the same three examples for vastly different outcomes. Read the same three passages and decide which is:

      - Intellectually stimulating
      - Tense
      - Compelling
      - Dramatic
      - Literary
      - Evocative
      - Stimulating
      - Well-written
      - Artistic
      - Beautiful
      - Emotional

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    17. Rick: What a fun way to look at it! The question itself is extremely open, which made writing my post today extremely difficult. I had to ask myself a lot of questions as I wrote, and I realized much more searching on this subject I have to do. Writing is a fascinating world, that's for sure.

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    18. I ask myself two questions.

      One - is this something I would read?

      Two - is something others would want to read?

      At least, for plot and voice anyway. Grammar is fairly objective. It either feels/is right or not.

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    19. See I knew you were going to pull a rabbit out of your hat.

      Great great post! This was fun.

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    20. I think there's a difference, too, between working with a close circle of readers to improve my writing or a particular story, and depending on those folks for my stamp of approval.

      There are a few folks whose input I value greatly and a few from whom I am constantly learning how to improve both particular works and my craft in general.

      But at the end of the day their verdict about the goodness or badness of my writing is their own and I do not replace mine with it.

      There's a universe of difference between knowing that your writing is good and thinking that your writing is perfect.

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    21. Nevets: That's exactly it - not replacing my approval with theirs.

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    22. McKenzie: That's a great way to look at it. Grammar, for me, is up to my editor, but yes, it works or it doesn't.

      Anne: I like rabbits. :)

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    23. Strangely I liked #1 and #3 best (1 more so) and #2 the least.

      You're definitely right about how its hard to really judge good writing. Some will be good, some will be so-so. Look at Fitzgerald. Great Gatsby was great. The Last Tycoon was mediocre. I recently reread The Sun Also Rises and didn't care for it, though I really enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea.

      Certain parts of novels will be riveting, others border on amateur.

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    24. Interesting experiment. Shame I missed it. I like how it shows that good writing is in the eyes of the reader. The thing is, I believe that all writers, no matter how experienced and published, never think of themselves as "good". Writing is something where you learn on the job everyday, and you never stop growing and developing your skills.

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