Wednesday, March 20, 2019

How can I judge my own writing?

Like most writers, I queried far too early. Since then, I’ve worked on my writing craft, so now I'm contemplating dipping my toe into the query trenches again.

But I’m hesitating: I don’t want to repeat my ‘query too early’ mistake. Instead, I’ve been pondering how to competently judge the standard of my writing, against a literary agent’s standard.

And your flash fiction contests sprang to mind :)

So my question - and yes, I realise your answer will be utterly subjective, and I’m okay with that - if the entries were queries, and assuming you repped the entry’s category, at which standard of writing (long list, short list, winner, none of the above) would you request pages?

I completely understand if you’d prefer to not publish this question/your answer on your blog. I can likewise understand why you’d prefer to not answer at all, because the asking of something so personal may be considered as cheeky. And if - even worse - you’ve found the question offensive, I apologise profusely! I vacillated for days before sending this email, but have finally clicked ‘send’ because I’d like to know, and there’s only one way to get that knowledge :)

Thanks again, for everything you do for us!

You're looking for guidance in the wrong place. You want
Queryshark has actual queries, and it often includes if/when I'd ask for pages.
It also includes a list of queries that made it to page requests on the left side of the blog. You may not be able to see it if you are using your phone. Here's an image of it.

The writing contests are a unique art form. They're more like skill building exercises than actual writing samples.

Think of it as the scales a musician plays to practice or warm up before playing the real piece.

QueryShark on the other hand: Actual queries, Actual chomping.


E.M. Goldsmith said...

As I too queried too soon last time, I have been swimming in QueryShark infested waters obsessively lately. OP, do this. It is quite illuminating.

Aphra Pell said...

I third going for a swim in the queryshark archives. I haven't queried yet (still polishing the not actually final edit), but reading the whole QS archives has been invaluable - not just because I've now got a fairly firm handle on a draft query but because it gave me new eyes in editing the novel.

PAH said...

QueryShark changed my life -- and I don't say so flippantly. It's the single best resource on the Internet for query writing.

Also, a flash fiction contest will really only show that you can command words, even if for just a short while before they mutiny on you in long form.

I was a copywriter by trade for several years and could write one hell of tagline; I could write a doozy of a jingle; I knew my way inside and out of a billboard headline ... none of this means I know a lick about character, plotting, pacing, twists, and keeping someone interested for 300 pages.

Mister Furkles said...

You might also try evileditor dot blogspot dot com. And some of the online critique sites have query forums.

It is especially difficult to write a 200 word summary describing your own 300 page novel. One thing Janet--I think it was Janet--suggested previously was to practice by writing sample queries for a novels you've read.

Relax and have a good time doing it.

Colin Smith said...

Kinda going along with what PAH said, let me share a few things I've said before but I think bears repeating:

A good query is one that gets the agent to read your ms. That it. End of. What all the "winning" queries on QueryShark have in common is not that they followed a particular pattern, or were witty, or were heart-breaking, or that they promised booze and cash to the agent. Sure there are tips and suggestions for writing a good query. But bottom line, the thing that made them winners was... they made the agent want to request.

Just because you can write a great query doesn't mean you can write a great novel. Your query might be the most excellent sales pitch for the worst novel. If you seem to write consistently great queries but your novels never get any attention, maybe you should consider a career in copywriting...? I jest. Seriously, though, if you're spending more time editing your query than your novel, you have your priorities wrong. A great query will get an agent to read your novel, but a great query will NOT get you an agent. Only a great novel can do that.

And just because you can write flash fiction, that doesn't mean you can write short stories, and it doesn't mean you can write novels. Nor does it mean you can write non-fiction. There might be some people who can do all these, or a mix of these, but they are each separate writing disciplines, each with their own challenges. Don't take success at one as being a guarantee of success in all.

That's what I've learned over the years, anyway. :)

Donnaeve said...

Nothing to add except I always ZOOM in on the queries that say "initial query" b/c I will never forget The One that still comes up periodically.

The One that became This Book

Julie Weathers said...

I'm finishing edit now so Rain Crow can go out to beta readers. Then a final polish and back to the query trenches. Of course, there's that dreaded query letter that I should be working on now because I am horrible at them.

To the OP, Query Shark really is the place to haunt.

Brenda said...

Congrats, Julie!

Craig F said...

Query Tracker also has a post on successful queries in their forum.

Beyond that is finding a good beta readers to critique your work. There are writers alliances that have critique groups in most major cities. Many of those, like the Tampa Writers Alliance, go chapter by chapter.

You might be able to find someone willing to be more helpful at one of their functions. That is also one draw for going to writers conferences.

Querying too early is about more than just the query and writing a good query is a different beast than writing a quality novel.

CynthiaMc said...

I highly recommend the flash fiction contests for skill building and also for future project fodder. Several of my entries want their stories told. It's also a good place to experiment with different genres and voices you may not normally use. Plus, you may win a book!

robinssis said...

Speaking of queries, I was reading the QueryShark newsletter and laughed out loud at this gem: “Themes are important. But, themes are things for discussion, not seduction. Have you ever gone into a bookstore and asked for a book by theme? ‘I'd like noir and ennui, and the futility of love, please.’
No. You ask for The Great Gatsby.”

As others have said, you can't do better than a thorough reading of The QueryShark blog. It's a masterclass.

KDJames said...

I've always thought of the query process as akin to a distance runner trying out for the track team and the coach saying they need to see a few sprints first. And then maybe some hurdles. When the runner says, "But . . . I'm a distance runner!" The coach replies, "Pffft. Running is running. Let's start with a 4x100 relay."

I find the premise of "writing is writing" to be comparable. I'm not sure it's all that helpful to try to gauge whether you're a "good writer" by evaluating your ability to write flash fiction or a query. Those skills are important and you learn a LOT by mastering them, but it doesn't really answer the question of how to self-evaluate your writing skills when it comes to novels.

Beta readers or a good critique partner can offer insight, provided you find competent people who are willing to be honest without destroying your will to live, er, write (ie, not family or friends).

Something that has helped me is to read books that are--- I don't want to say "bad," but books that are early attempts where there's clearly a lot of room for improvement. Read a handful of those and make note of all the things you find jarring or confusing, clumsy or inelegant. Think about how you'd have done it differently. Actually write it out. (DO NOT send this to the author in question. Or anyone else. This is solely for your education.) Now, this is the hard part, look at your own writing and evaluate whether you've made any of the same mistakes. This is not easy. It requires you to be brutally honest with yourself. I've encountered many beginning writers who are simply incapable of believing their writing has room for improvement. Fortunately, it sounds like you're past that stage and are open to self-doubt and growth. That's very good news. Best of luck to you.

KDJames said...

Coincidentally, Jane Friedman has a post on her blog today about beta readers. The results of a questionnaire about how/when different writers use betas. It's interesting.

(I deliberately did not make that a live link, in case Janet's not cool with it in this case)