Monday, June 06, 2016

So, how do you know if you're a good writer?

If you made a list of the reasons I pass on queries, weak writing is right there at the top.

I see it all the time.

A colleague's recent blog post about a fellow who objected to her not reading the whole book to make a "fair assessment" drew the ire of the writer, who wrote a comment on the post that showed me in no uncertain terms that his writing was, in fact, very weak.

People who write well in novels also write well in the comment section. And in Facebook posts. And Tweet streams. And they write good queries. They may struggle like hell; they may fuss over commas and whether to invest in a font app that includes an interrobang (yes you should if only so I can get that query!) but they know how to string sentences together in a way that leaves me thinking "there's a writer." It may not be a book I want to read, but the writing is good.

So, now that I've terrified every single one of you, (and isn't that a good day's work!) how do you know if this applies to you.

It's really really hard.

The only way I know to have confidence in your writing is to learn to recognize good writing. And you learn to recognize it by reading it.

Thus: read books that really hold your attention. These may not be the same books people say are "beautifully written." And forget "bestselling" cause that will get you James Patterson and Dan Brown. All due respect to those gents cause they know their readers, and they have the sales to prove it, but these guys are not the standard by which to measure good writing. They're not BAD writers, they know how to write, but that writing isn't going to get you out of the slush pile and onto my desktop in this day and age.

So: read. That's the first thing.

And the second is: write. Write as much as you can. You get better with practice. You don't have to be working on your novel to practice writing. Write in a journal, write a pithy comment, write a scorching letter of complaint to me (I'm sure you'll think of something) all count as writing practice.

Write for contests like we have here on the blog. Write for lots of other contests too. Get feedback (or listen to the vast silence and know you're NOT getting noticed.)

Keep a writing journal.  Analyze a book closely: what makes a paragraph flow? If you can't see it, you can't write it.

And don't forget to look back at your earlier writing. When you look at it now, can you see ways to improve it? Did you think the manuscript was pretty good when you finished it? Can you make it better now?  Obviously, this is easier to do with short form work (like blog posts).

One of the things that helped me was Chum Bucket. When I actually had to write a specific response to a writer about what worked (or didn't) it forced me to focus and think, and try to write very clearly.

You can run your own version of Chum Bucket here: when the next writing contest comes along analyze each entry to make your own assessment of the writing.  And don't just look at the entry and think about it. WRITE the assessment.  Write as though someone on the other side of the correspondence is going to read it, and remember it.

Write your own book reviews even if you never post them. Write as though someone is going to publish it. Focus on clarity. 

Going to a writing conference will not help. I will no more tell you that your writing sux at a conference than I will give you my whisky bottle and say "here, I don't need this anymore, I'm joining up with the WCTU."

What a writing conference will help you with is introducing you to fellow writers, some of whom may be good crit group partners for you, or who have reccs. on books with terrific writing. (Not everyone agrees on who should be on that list. MY list includes my clients of course.)

Bottom line:  If you want to be a writer, I assume you want to be a good one. Improvement is learned. No one is born at the top of their game, not even Lee Child, not even Stephen King.


nightsmusic said...

I play a variety of instruments. I am darned good at them, but I was not a prodigy (some people are of course, and eternally envious) and it's taken practice, practice, practice, practice and more practice to get there. Writing isn't any different. For those few prodigies that exist, there are thousands of us who need the practice. Nothing happens overnight.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Amazing how all we woodland critters hang around the Reef when the Shark terrifies us. What's that about?

I just received my copy of Barbara Baig's Spellbinding Sentences that Janet recommended a while back. And I really appreciate the first chapter because it speaks to what nightsmusic wrote up above. Each art or sport requires complex skills. And we need to break those skills into small steps to practice each simple skill before we can hope to coordinate all of them to be proficient at the complex art of writing an excellent novel.

I've been studying the craft of story structure through various blogs and books but this is the first book I've found helpful about word skill.

Brigid said...

It's funny timing for this post. Yesterday I responded to an author who wanted his query critiqued (stranger on a writing site), and I greatly offended him, because he didn't believe I had enough information to make the judgment I made.

In that case it wasn't the writing (which was pleasant enough), but the plot. There wasn't one, just a string of character-driven events. I told him I thought he had a literary plot told in a commercial way, which would be hard to sell. Kinder than saying "you have a really long vignette, buddy" but it still went over like a bag of rocks.

In retrospect I should have kept my mouth shut. But I'm a sucker for responding to advice requests on the internet. I should have been an agony aunt. (Wait, I was an agony aunt for a while there.)

I'm not an expert, though I certainly aim to become one if I plug away for a few more decades. But it seems to me that one of two things is true. Either the writing is consistent in query/synopsis/manuscript, so the sparkling/mediocre/clever writing and plot points and voice are able to be judged with a small sample. Or if not, it's likely too soon to sell it anyway, because there's work to do.

Stephen G Parks said...

One of the educational charities that I used to work for made all new employees read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. There were many interesting ideas in that book that related to our work, but the one that’s appropriate here was that almost any “prodigy” that you could name (Mozart, The Beatles, Bill Gates, and Wayne Gretzky were all referenced) had a long period practicing that skill before they were suddenly recognized as an “overnight success.” Gladwell champions a concept of needing “10,000 hours” practice to become a master of a skill.

As for books that are well written, Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was the first book that I read where I put it down and thought, “Damn, I wish I could write like that.”

And yay me, I guessed three of the four letters in WCTU before I clicked the link (guessed Catholic for the C).

Susan said...

I love this post so much because it emphasizes that being a writer is really a state of mind. You don't have to be published to call yourself a writer, and even though it's validating, you don't have to win awards or be a best-selling author to know that you write well. It's so easy to second-guess yourself when you play the comparison game (s/he has published x number of books, has won y awards, has z as an agent), but while you're chastising yourself for not being good enough, your words--blog posts, social media, stories, etc--can be impacting people without you even knowing it. I learned this the hard way, when my confidence was shot and I had to remember why I write and that writing was and always will be a part of me, no matter what that looks like in the end.

I second the recommendation on journaling. It's also a great way to find and maintain your writer's voice because it's just you, your thoughts, and the page. There's no audience and no pressure--unless you're Sylvia Plath and your journals get published posthumously, to which I say hell no.

Janet: Is the interrobang an acceptable punctuation mark in publishing/print? I don't think I've ever seen it, especially in fiction.

Donnaeve said...

Dear God.

When I read writing shows up in just about anything (recipes?) I almost didn't post this comment. Because - it's a comment and my writing might be judged. Haaaaa

The thing I think about most when writing is voice, what do my characters sound like when they're talking/thinking? But you have to be careful here too. Trying too hard for voice shows. It's a subtle turn and choice of words, it's not simply using regional dialect to the nth degree.

The second thing I think about is what do I want this story to "look" like - and by that, I mean, if someone is reading my story (and if they're like me, a movie is going on in their heads), what do I want them to see/hear/smell/taste/feel? I'm pretty persnickety about what I watch. There are very few movies nowadays I'll pay money to see. The next one coming up I can NOT hardly wait for is THE STATE OF JONES. (June 24)

And last, I think about the story I'd want to read, and I try to write that sort of book. I like what's called Southern noir, or Grit Lit, or dirty South. Dorothy Allison, Ron Rash, Wiley Cash, Rick Bragg, Kaye Gibbons, Daniel Woodrell, Larry Brown, Tom Franklin...and more. I've been wanting to get into Padgett Powell. Those are the writers I look to for inspiration.

Donnaeve said...

See? I was so paranoid I dropped an important word.

"When I read good writing shows up in just about anything..."

There. I feel better.

Unknown said...

Oh man oh man oh man. All last week I managed to avoid worrying about the content of this blog. But today? Holy shit. Talk about aiming a post right at our deepest, darkest, fears. It’s like discovering a Steven King cast of character in the basement. But I will get out of bed and face my fears!

I recently volunteered as a judge for the YARWA Rosemary contest. This was a fabulous exercise in reading, critiquing, and writing (hopefully my comments were positive and helpful.) After the contest, the entrants get the comments to read, which is a whole other exercise in and of itself, and one that requires a thick skin.

Colin Smith said...

NM: But even prodigies have to practice. The thing is, to a prodigy, it's not practice. It's having fun. :)

I *really* don't want to make this comment all about me, because I'm sure we all feel aspects of what Janet's talking about. But just to throw my 2c, for what it's worth (probably not that much), I know I can write. I've had enough people whose opinion I respect (and I think are qualified to make such an assessment) tell me so. My biggest insecurity right now is this:

Get feedback (or listen to the vast silence and know you're NOT getting noticed.)

That's the thing that Evil Colin (the one swirling his butt in the Gulf of Mexico right now) says demonstrates that while I maybe can write, I'm not good enough to be published. If no-one reads me now, why will they ever?

But that's enough about me. There's a whole lot of encouragement and good advice here. What you say about conferences I've really taken to heart. I want to attend a conference, but I wouldn't go so I can hear agents tell me how wonderful I am. Requests for pages and encouraging words at a conference mean as much as my Mum patting my head and saying "That's lovely, dear." (And I wish she'd stop doing that in public!) Of course, it's lovely to hear, but it doesn't mean you're the next Hemmingway.

Susan said...

MB: I recently picked up "The Brief History of the Dead" by Kevin Brockmeier at a book sale because I tend to like the macabre (symbolically, not the gruesome stuff--"The Book Thief" is one of my favorite books because it's written from the POV of Death, for example). I didn't have high expectations, but I gasped out loud several times while reading because the writing was stunning. Stunning. I don't even remember the last time I read a book that caused that kind of reaction.

The book has a place in my top ten now for that alone.

Kitty said...

There's a commercial running on TV that says (paraphrasing): Before you were good at something, you were bad at that something. It shows people of various ages starting to learn to do things and not succeeding right away. The boy who belly-flops into the pool instead of diving. The toddler falls down when trying to walk. The skateboarder who lands on his back. It's a good reminder for writers as well.

Subhead suggestion: "now that I've terrified every single one of you, (and isn't that a good day's work!)" - QOTKU

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

You know that wedding dress you searched for, the car you walked the lot for, the husband, the wife, the companion, the job, the house, the suit, saw, hammer and knew the right one when you saw it.
Good writing is like that, you know it when you see it, read it and take it in. It's like a breath of clean air free of superfluous particles.

Unknown said...

Okay. I'm ready. I'm motivated. I'm downright eager. When's the next prompt?

Colin Smith said...

2Ns: Then there's that scrumptious looking chocolate cake you see in the bakery window, and you walk in and lay down good money for it, and you take it home, you cut a slice, you sink your teeth in and...

... it's dry and the frosting's gritty, and it tastes like you just stuck your face in the kitty litter.

That's how I fear my first novel (if/when that happens) will go down with those who, right now, think I can write.

My goodness! Is this the psychiatrist's couch?! I hope Janet doesn't charge by the hour for this...

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I have read published books, even bestsellers that were turned into movies, which read like deranged dribble produced by a petulant and poorly educated adolescent. Maybe this goes with the “it matters who you know” theme that is just part of life so suck it up thing. In short, there is a subjective component to evaluating “good” writing.

In my estimation, Cormac McCarthy is amazing despite the fact that he makes my stomach turn. I still believe Stephen King is under-rated because of his popularity. That man can write. I remain in awe of Flannery O’Connor, but I think our own Donna Everhart may be on the same level. She, like O’Connor, has such a fantastic voice that gives true ambience to that silent, dark underbelly of the Southern culture and the human experience which is what you want in great literature. At least, from what I have read. I read a lot and have a real sense of what works for me. That subjective bit of evaluating writing, however, makes evaluating your own writing super challenging.

Inevitably writers are either too harsh with themselves, or blind to their own weaknesses.

Coming here to the Reef is the best thing that happened for my writing. It caused me to start putting myself and my writing out there. I started entering contests, starting with the one here, even won and made short list a time or two. I started a blog. I did the April blogging challenge which forced a 26 short stories out of me in thirty days. I found critique partners, delightful other writers who can actually understand my profound addiction to writing.

Even if I suck, I won’t ever stop making up stories, writing them down, occasionally putting them to song. I literally can’t stop. When I don’t write, I get scary depressed, like open a vein and want to die depressed. I must write so it would be nice to be good at it.

I have discovered new tools through writers I have met here, and found the courage to do some less anonymous workshops, all of which helps me improve. It is also the reason I spent twenty hours this weekend working on a rewrite instead of querying a “just good enough” novel. Sadly, or perhaps fortuitously, most of my efforts ended up in WIP 2 and 3. Still, I was writing and that felt good. This deep focus on writing also kept me away from the Reef this weekend which made me sad. I missed you guys. I hope you don't forget me.

Megan V said...

Point for the QOTKU for hitting the nail on the head once again. Good writing is about improvement. It's not just important to find the right people who will help you improve, it's necessary. Too many people will stroke egos in an effort to avoid confrontation. If you've got CPs or betas who always gush and refuse to give you the s*** sandwich, you've got the wrong people.

I spent way too much time with the wrong CPs and betas. I won't call myself a good writer now, but I sure as hell am better than when I started. And that's all thanks to finding the write people and the write sources. (including the QOTKU)

Colin Smith said...

Hey, guys, you remember that E.M. Goldsmith character that used to hang out around here? Yeah, the one that wrote the concentration camp flash story that won?

What was it Janet said? "Write as though someone on the other side of the correspondence is going to read it, and remember it." Good ole Elise--she really nailed that one. :)


nightsmusic said...

Colin I disagree. Idiot/Savants (which is a horrible label and one we've not seemed to find a better one for) sit at the piano and play what they've heard. There is no practice involved. And often play the piece better than what they heard as well. Three, four and five year olds who sit down and play have no practice. They play. There have been prodigies who can sit at a piece of music and play it without instruction. No, they don't all have to practice. The same with some writers. They're natural writers. For whatever reason, their grasp of the beauty in the written word along with the grammar behind it is just...there. There is no practicing for them. But all of these examples are very few and even farther between. For the rest of us, we practice.

Colin Smith said...

NM: I play by ear. Been playing for 30 years. I could play stuff after being taught a few scales and some chords. But I loved to practice. Practice time for me was play time. My schooling and social life all suffered for the hours I would spend in my room throughout my teens playing along to records, trying to master riffs, etc. None of it was a chore. And as a result, lo and behold, I got better. My technique still sucks because a) I taught myself all my bad habits, and b) I'm not gifted in the dexterity department. But 30 years of practice and a bit of natural musical intuition later, and you can sit me at a piano and I can play for hours. And some of it might be enjoyable! :)

Yes, there are savants who instantly play what they hear. But they're just playing what they hear. If they have the inclination to practice, they will improve. I don't know the psychology of the savant, but if there is capacity to develop skill, they will. Someone with an exceptional memory may be able to write down an entire story verbatim after just reading it. That doesn't make them a great writer. Learning from what they've read and constantly writing and practicing is what will make the difference.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

And what would I do without Colin? I would still be lost on Carkoon somewhere beyond the boundaries of Panda's map no doubt, and stuck in a very unfavorable contract with Fuzzy Print Literary.

Even now I am sneaking comment time away from dread day job. The Reef really gets me through the day. Everyone of you. Keep writing. Keep reading. It helps. Janet is right about that. Our queen usually is.

Linda Strader said...

Thank you, thank you, for throwing in the tidbit that just because someone sells many books, doesn't make them a stellar writer. I used to read those kinds of books. Now I can't get past the first chapter because I'm so busy critiquing it in my head, I can't enjoy the read. I agree: read good books. I learned more about writing from reading (especially how NOT to write) than I did in the class I took, my writer's critique group, or with books on how to write.

Kitty said...

Just a reminder: Today is D-Day.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

"A man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." - Mark Twain

Cindy C said...

E.M. Goldsmith said, "Still, I was writing and that felt good."

Ten days ago I started my summer push to "get in shape." I've been watching what I eat and exercising. (By "exercising" I mean walking--nothing fancy.) In less than a week, I stopped gasping for breath two blocks from home. I felt stronger, more energetic. Obviously a few days hasn't make a huge or lasting difference, but I feel good and wonder why I don't do this all the time. Plus, these small improvements are keeping me motivated. As I type this I'm eager to take my morning walk, which is NOT the norm for me!

This post and the comments knocked me upside the head with the realization that I need to do the same with writing. No need for anything fancy, just write. For several months I've pushed writing lower on my priority list--right down there with exercising and eating well! Time for that to change.

Colin Smith said...

Kitty: Thank you for that reminder. :)

Timothy Lowe said...

The voices in writers' heads are quite loud sometimes. I suppose that's why we do it. That's why EM feels like opening a vein when not writing. That's why so many feel they can't stop. Those voices want out.

Now, to have those voices pinned to paper, to see the ink dry, to see the words stop moving - there you have the hard part. How will other eyes translate them? How will other brains hear their echo?

There are not enough readers.

Craig F said...

Do you really hold a comment up against a considered and edited work?

I might be archaic but a comment is just that. Something tickles a response and you comment. It is not something you spend time working on. I know that my comments can be obscure and disjointed. That is because they are an attempt to verbalize an abstract thought.

If such an abstract thought interrupts the tempo of my fiction writing I will take a week or two to define it properly. That is different than the process of a comment.

I know that I can write well. I know because others have told me so. I do struggle at times but I am getting better. Hopefully it will be impressive to an agent or three when I storm the trenches of Queryland.

Colin Smith said...

Craig: If someone calls themselves a writer, I expect them to be able to write. I expect that skill to show itself whenever they take to the keyboard (or pen, or pencil, or stylus, or other writing implement). No, a comment or blog post is not going to be the same as a novel, either in style, or in the amount of editing and consideration. But if the person writing it has any skill, and is passionate enough about writing to identify as a "writer," then I expect they will give care to the words, grammar, and sentence structure even in an off-hand comment on a blog.

And I hold myself to that same standard. I proof every comment I write, and try as best I can to at least sound like I know what I'm doing with these words. And I know I'm not alone (see Donna's 8:18am comment).

I'm commenting too much again. Sorry. Clearly I don't get much other writing practice at work... ;)

Colin Smith said...

(And now I'm sitting here wondering if that was an appropriate use of "themselves" when referring to a singular "someone." It's that whole non-gender-specific thing. There is no "themself" so I'm going with what I've got.)

Donnaeve said...

Jumping back in cause I'm late to leave for my what I call Monday's With Mom, and I've only skimmed...but funny, in my WIP, I have a character who is an "idiot savant." (it's set in 1940 so that's what it was called)

Today, it would be autism, although there are varying degrees and reasons for all of these terms and too detailed to go into here.

In my character's case (MC's sister), she was born with a "true knot," in the umbilical cord...causing a lapse of oxygen/blood flow to the brain.

InkStainedWench said...

People who write well in novels also write well in the comment section.

I am paralyzed with fear and self-doubt.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

My mom was a piano teacher when I was in high school, which was a mixed blessing. I learned a lot about the nature of talent and skill, but I was also treated to the theme song from Peanuts enough times to drive me to the edge of insanity. (That song is cheerful madness.)

My mom had a student who put in hours of practice every day. She tried really hard and she was able to play a lot of different pieces perfectly adequately.

There was another student who practiced for fifteen minutes maybe twice a week. This student had natural musical talent, but only took piano lessons because his mom made him. Oops - this comment is too long. Sorry! :)

Long story short, guess who's version of the Peanuts theme song made me cringe less? It didn't seem fair, but the truth of it was, talent is indiscriminant.

Here's the upside: After three years of practice (and lack thereof), the hardworking student played a beautiful, complicated piece that was lovely to listen to, and the 'lazy' student was falling behind. Eventually, hard work makes a difference. A big difference.

Theresa said...

A great way to kick start the work week, Janet, this strong reminder that writing is work.

As to your point about writing conferences, yes they are great for networking and picking up tips and information. Writing workshops--at least for me--provide both the necessary incentive to get the work done on a timely basis and the desired feedback on that work.

Like Donna, I'm having a Monday (and Tuesday) with Mom this week. I still have to autograph a copy of my book I sent to her a while ago. I was soundly chastised for not doing so. Though I know she doesn't have the patience for or interest in reading books anymore (an age thing--she was always reading when we were growing up), she likes to show off my books to her friends and her doctors.

Have a wonderful start to the week, everyone.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Back again. (I can tell my day job has shrunk back to it's normal part-time hours.)

I've been athinkin' about what Janet might mean by "weak" writing. (ok, ok, I'll admit it. I'm on the woodland critter hamster wheel.)

So, might weak writing (focus on the words themselves) consist of:
*over-reliance on -ly and -ing words to prettify our prose
*monotonous sentence patterns
*noun stacking
*mismatched verb tenses
*dangling or misplaced modifiers
*unintentional use of fragmented or runon sentences
*too many passive sentences
*long-assed sentences (especially in a query letter)
*forgetting to read our words/work aloud in an attentive manner

And there are probably more examples of weak writing that I've missed, I'm sure, because I'm no English grammarian.

And this list doesn't even take into consideration weak story points or plot structure.

Dena Pawling said...

>>A colleague's recent blog post about a fellow who objected to her not reading the whole book to make a "fair assessment" drew the ire of the writer, who wrote a comment on the post that showed me in no uncertain terms that his writing was, in fact, very weak.

If it's the post and comment I'm remembering, it was VERY OBVIOUS the writing was weak. I don't think folks in this comment column are even close to qualifying.

>>The only way I know to have confidence in your writing is to learn to recognize good writing. And you learn to recognize it by reading it.

Bank tellers are taught to recognize counterfeit bills by continuous exposure to legitimate bills. Same principle as stated here. You know bad writing by reading good writing. Altho James Patterson might not be the best example of a best-seller who might not qualify as "good writing." He doesn't write his own stuff much anymore.

Jenz said...

In addition to reading good writing, reading and critiquing unpolished writing really helps in learning to recognize what works and what doesn't. After reading dozens of waking-up openings, I now have a much better understanding of why that's worth avoiding, and what it takes to make a cliché opening like that stand out.

When it comes to queries, I think I learned at least as much if not more from reading weak queries on QueryShark than from simply reading successful queries. It's especially great when someone keeps at it and revises their query until it works. Reading that final polished query would never give you as much insight as being able to follow the steps from bad to great.

John Davis Frain said...

What the heck is an interrobang?!

You know that annoying interview question, if you were a superhero, what would you want as a super power? I finally discovered my answer: I'd read and comprehend at super speed.

Super speed, you say?! (You say it that way because you're an Interrobanger.) By definition, means you read a book an hour. Remember, though, I can still go back to being Clark Kent when I want to stretch out in the hammock with a new Alan Furst.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Colin my friend, the cake you write will be tasty and moist. I'm thinking the frosting will be buttery and sweet. It's the sprinkles Colin that will make your cake really special. (To borrow) will be a little bit country and a little bit-brit rock and roll.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

As for poorly written comments...

Someone who is a strong writer has things they just won't do. Similarly, there are some grammatical mistakes a native speaker just won't make. I feel like text-speak is something that a writer may dabble in (imo,lol,brb), but will never fully adopt. I may (MAY) use 'u,' 'I,' or 'ur' in a text if I'm in a hurry, but never in a comment.

I could be wrong, though. Evolution of language, here we come!

Sherry Howard said...

I know I'm tempting exile to that lonely island, but I have to say there are some benefits to some conferences-benefits that you can't get from regular critique groups. SCBWI (kiddie lit pro org) offers many mini-conferences where first pages are critiqued. These feedback sessions are priceless, in the way focus groups must be to product developers. When a diverse group (sometimes including agents) hears your first pages, and gives positive feedback (they don't always) you have the confidence to move forward. And when their feedback is constructive criticism, tools are added to your revision toolbox. Personally, these sessions have been some of my best experiences with writing. Writer hive mind can be a wonderful thing if you only use the honey!

Off topic: be sure to read Donnaeve's chapter openers on her blog. You'll be pumped up to read her book!

April Mack said...

"What a writing conference will help you with is introducing you to fellow writers, some of whom may be good crit group partners for you, or who have reccs. on books with terrific writing."

If I'm not at a stage in life where I can make attending a writing conference happen, how do I find good crit group partners? Between finances and toddlers underfoot, I can't go right now. Hopefully someday.

The only people I can find in my greater community who are open to crit partners are either not interested in/don't follow the genre in which I write (YA fantasy), or are very eager but are weak writers. I'm not saying I'm a great writer (still practicing), so much as at least I have some experience—and the only people who want to join a crit group with me are still novices.

Examples: I had to teach one of them that you don't make a hard return at every line, because Word wraps text for you. A different person wanted to write a story and send it to Hayao Miyazaki to have him make it into an animated movie. She was quite upset when I told her that's not how it works. Still another writes long and complicated sci-fi novels solely with run-on sentences, wooden dialogue, and an odd fascination with unimportant-to-the-plot details. :/

I've heard that you should try to join crit groups where others write as well or better than you so you can be challenged and grow, so I like to give them a hand with their work. But they can't really help me with mine beyond finding typos. When I give them my writing to look over, they can't even see the stuff that obviously needs work. They read it to enjoy it, which is nice, but I need someone to read it with a critical eye.

I had heard some good things about so I tried it out, but it's hard to get feedback on a novel as a whole when you have to submit it a chapter at a time with different critiquers reading every time.

Sorry, this whole comment sounds whiny. I'm just discouraged about finding someone whom I can help and can also help me. I haven't had people to bounce my work off since I was taking writing classes in college over ten years ago. I feel very isolated (being a stay-at-home mom probably doesn't help), and unsure of where I stand in the quality of my writing.

Elissa M said...

Reading good writing is definitely one of the best ways to improve your own. Another thing that's helped me immeasurably (aside from amazing feedback from excellent critique partners) is critiquing other writers' work. Analyzing what's working and what isn't, and then clearly communicating my observations in writing, has pushed me forward like nothing else.

Believe me, I was horrible at it when I started. I'm only acceptable now. Almost anyone can tell when the writing isn't grabbing them, but it's much harder to figure out why. Hardest of all is explaining it to the author in a way that makes the issue obvious without offending them. And all of it makes the rough spots in my own work stand out like an elephant on a pool table (when the elephant forgot its green sneakers).

BJ Muntain said...

I'm a huge advocate of writing lots to write well. I tell people that writing non-fiction - university papers, technical manuals, marketing materials - all help to improve your overall writing skills, including in fiction. Many don't believe me. They don't see how playing with rhythm and meaning can help. They don't understand that learning clarity in technical writing can help you learn clarity in fiction. "Those skills don't carry over." Yes, they do. How does playing scales help a musician? A friend of mine going into dentistry used to carve chalk (she has been a successful dentist for many years now.) Familiarity with the tools of the trade is so important in any trade. And words are our tools.

Conferences are good for learning new tools to practice. Ways to add tension. Character development. Aha moments, like new ways to see structure or the little details that you never thought of.

I'm going to be taking a master's class from Don Maass at the Surrey conference this year. Now *that's* a way to improve your writing at a conference. I've taken several from Mr. Maass. The man is incredible at getting you to think about what works.

Craig: Have you ever read the comments on a newspaper article? Compare those with the comments here, and tell me how the writing in a comment can't tell how well the commenter can write.

Colin: I have been guilty of using 'themself'. And I think it should become common use with the singular 'they'.

Elissa M said...


Have you tried OWW?

(I hope I followed Colin's hyperlink instructions properly.)

cleemckenzie said...

One of the worst reviews I ever got was a five star one that extolled (I think) my book. When I read that author's sample pages in one of her novels, I understood why the review was such a stinker.

I don't mind starting at the bottom when I'm new and uncertain. There's not a long way to fall. And just think of all the great stuff there is to learn.

BJ Muntain said...

I agree that critiquing is great at helping a person figure out what does and doesn't work. Once you have to put into words (as Janet has said) what isn't working, you can recognize it easier in other areas.

April: Critique Circle is good. So is OWW (online writing workshop - it's science fiction and fantasy focused.) With some of these groups, you can sometimes start whole novel critiques. You may need to work up to that point (get enough 'points', do enough critiques) or make enough friends there, but it can be done. You can also find private crit partners there, too. If you really seem to click, then you might be interested in reading each other's work. If you're able to get your chapters critiqued one at a time but in fairly close succession, people will follow your chapters.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

When's the scorching complaint flash fiction contest gonna be?

I agree with Susan, journaling will free your voice. Those words are for my eyes only.

Read outside your genre too.

Don't start your book with the dedication page. No one cares who you dedicate it to.


I've been devouring African American urban fiction.

Recently I discovered Carl Weber. He owns Urban Imprint and he wrote The Man in 3B. It's one of the best mysteries I've ever read. I love the plot structure. The characters are so well developed. Their dialog is distinct and entertaining.

Now I'm on the 3rd book of The Cartel by Ashley and JaQuavis. What I like about urban fic is the killers have hearts and though they do heinious stuff they are humans. Today tears came to my eyes when the worst of them all, Mecca, held his baby nephew.

What I don't like about this urban fic is the pornographic erotic parts. Though it's apalling (to me) I appreciate how it's written. It's completely different from white erotica.

Erotica is not my love but urban fic is my current favorite genre. The only urban fic I've read so far that has zero sex scenes is Kwan's Black Lotus.

DLM said...
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DLM said...

Loving Angie's idea for the next contest.

Janet and Colin, I got an email today inviting me to a church picnic at a farm. The sender happens to have an EXTREMELY similar name to Gary Corby's, and every time he sends out a note my initial reaction is charmed confusion. This was especially charming and confusing. "Picnic with Gary Corby!? How curious. But how intriguing! Oh. Wait ..."

There is nothing I can add to today's discussion which would be unique or worthwhile, so I shall go back to lurking now that I've gotten that out.

Colin Smith said...

Let me open Pandora's Box. Or an Adorable Panda's Box. :)

What do we mean by good writing? Writing that will get you through the SATs (or GCSEs for our UK readers), or writing that turns pages and heads? Do we equate "good writing" with technically correct writing, or with writing that is compelling in some way?

I alluded earlier to E.M. Goldsmith's winning contest entry from last November. I went back and re-read it (Contest Post, Results Post), and you know what? I found a grammatical error. Yet Janet called this entry "Perfect". How could she call a piece of writing with a grammatical error "perfect"? For the record, I agree with Janet. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that this is one of the finest examples of flash fiction I've ever read. We joke about writing worthy of the likes of Stephen King, but no joke here. If I was Stephen King, I would kill to write those last few lines. If you've read Elise's masterpiece, you may or may not have noticed the grammatical error. You probably didn't care. And that's what makes great writing.

DeadSpiderEye said...

What's that Audrey Erskine Lindop novel about gay cowboys, Singer not the Song? The title of which, reflects the focus here, the author not the work. Yes it can be said that publishers sell writers not books but I believe it's essential for creative to be aware of the division between promotional rhetoric and the more prosaic reality of production. The reality is, you're going to write something good, you're also going to write something bad and there'll be a glorious spectrum of relative beneficence in between. No one says; 'Yeah, I write the occasional good piece' but that the reality, creative continuity is an illusion, one we all hope we can foster in the case of success but if you allow yourself to believe it, you are in deep trouble.

Colin Smith said...

Diane: Picnic with Gary Corby! YES! Oh, please Miss Janet, can we? Please? Next time he's in the US. Can we? Huh? Huh?!! :D

Adib Khorram said...

Good news, everyone! The comments may in fact support the use of interrobangs‽ Though at this font size they are a little hard to truly appreciate.

One thing that gets me is when people who want to write well won't take the time to be well read. I can't imagine NOT immersing myself in as many books as I can—especially good ones. Last week I hit the 50-book mark for the year and it's been a really good one as far as reading goes.

I've also started listening to audiobooks, which has (surprisingly‽) given me a different perspective on good writing. But I only listen to audiobooks that I've already read in print before...somehow I can't follow a new book very well if I only hear it.

Adib Khorram said...

As an aside, the interrobang was incorporated into Unicode 1.1.0 back in June of 1993. The inverted interrobang was incorporated in Unicode 5.1.0, (March 2008) for Spanish-language interrobangers, and an ornamental dingbat version, the Heavy Interrobang Ornament, was added to Unicode 7.0 in June 2014.


And I've just reached a new level of typographical nerditry...which spell czech informs me is not a real word. But it should be.

Nate Wilson said...

Susan, I suspect the interrobang is acceptable to use in print, but I can think of reasons for its scarcity. Not all fonts have it in their character sets. Many people are woefully unfamiliar with the glyph. And the few writers who do use it likely don't have a reason other than personal preference, which may not be enough to win over the publishers.

Unless there's a convincing argument for keeping the interrobang in a manuscript, it's probably easier for publishers to stick with the ol' one-two punch of the ?!. (Maybe my next novel will convince them; the ‽ is integral to the antagonist's character.)

DLM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BJ Muntain said...

The interrobang is a cool idea, but it's not really all that useful. We're already told that we use too many exclamation points in our writing, and strong writing doesn't need many. Terry Pratchett even goes so far as to say the use of multiple exclamation points is a sign of madness.

Since an interrobang is a combination question mark and exclamation point, is it really a good thing?

DLM said...

Adib, that was fantastic. Spell Czech doesn't like nerdlery either, but I use it in any case. I an not a Czech citizen.

And y'all FINALLY made me look up interrobang. I reveal myself once again as an old codger, because to my mind there's more flexibility in being able to choose between !? and ?! than in mashing them up. But I object not to others' using the mash. 'Tis a bit hard on old lady eyes, but my suspicion is that's a bit like the high frequency ring done people over 35 cannot hear. Anything that cannot survive the excision of the interrobang, I am okay with being weeded out of reading.

Colin Smith said...

Adib: Of course it's a real word. You coined it. At least some of us understood, by context, what you meant. The only thing it isn't is part of standard English vocabulary. But "nerditry" is as real as "dentistry." Though I'm British, so I'm not supposed to believe in that... ;)

Melissa Alexander said...

I lived in the writing world as a teen, channeling story after story after story. Good stories I enjoy reading thirty years later. When I entered college, I determined to be normal, and I set my writing aside.

I failed miserably at "normal," but I succeeded in leaving my writing behind. I didn't write another creative word until I was nearing 30. I wrote screenplays initially and found I liked the form, screenwriting is a game for young, starving, LA-based writers. So I began working on a novel.

Initially I had no idea whether what I was writing was any good. It read well to my ear. But what did I know? So I attended conferences, entered contests, sought out acquaintances who had published, and I got feedback. Feedback that hurt. Feedback that made me think. Feedback that frustrated me. Feedback that made me better.

It took me a long time to trust the quality of my writing and the skill of my craft. I do now. Most days.

(First time to comment. Long time reader, though. Hi!)

Melissa Alexander said...

Sigh. First-time commenter who has learned to proofread better. Sorry.

I wrote screenplays initially and found I liked the form, BUT screenwriting is a game for young, starving, LA-based writers

DeadSpiderEye said...

BJ Muntain: the problem with it, is it doesn't evoke what it's intended to represent. It just looks like someone who read the book before you, petulantly clapped the pages shut on a midge flying over the book, leaving a dry incomprehensible smut on the page.

Colin Smith said...

Melissa!! Hello! Welcome!! You've been lurking for a while, so I hope you know where all the amenities are (top right of the blog). If you find a flip flop in the toilet bowl, please return to 2Ns. And don't forget the Treasure Chest for more blog-related goodies! And be sure you pick up your complimentary kale and lima bean sandwich. Happy commenting! :D

Colin Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bethany Elizabeth said...

Welcome, Melissa! I make typos in my comments all the time. :) Colin, I remember E.M.'s flash fiction piece, but I had to go read it again after you linked it.

Man, that is some stellar writing.

Amanda said...

I've been thinking for weeks of how I'd review The Goldfinch. It's one of those books that is composed entirely of "beautiful writing", but the best part about it is that beautiful writing doesn't overwhelm or distract from the story. I'm going to write that review now. Thanks, Janet! Such an encouraging post.

Colin Smith said...

This is SUCH a big topic. We haven't even touched on this:

but that writing isn't going to get you out of the slush pile and onto my desktop in this day and age.

Fact is, what was considered publishable writing 100 years ago, ain't necessarily today. And just because it's not publishable, doesn't mean it's not good, does it? Good writing often goes unpublished. Which is why modern media (internet, self-pubbing) is such a boon to writers. Trad publishing isn't the only outlet for good writing that may not be mainstream, or even minor-stream.

Melissa Alexander said...

Thank you so much for the welcome! I've been reading on my blog reader, so I have some exploration to do on the site itself. Thanks for the reminder, Colin.

Susan said...

I don't think my comment went through, so sorry if this posts twice.

Nate: That's what I was thinking, though I feel like I've rarely (if ever) seen the double-punch (?!), either. I always thought publishers wanted their authors to choose one or the other and infer the rest through description or dialogue tags (ex. "You're going where?" she exclaimed). It would be interesting to know what a publisher's stance on it is; I'm sure I'll be keeping an eye out for both now, either way.

Colin: I can't copy and paste (stupid smartphone), but to your last line of your 1:18 comment: YES! Thank you! I respect the hell out of traditional publishing because that's the industry, but as I think we've learned, books are also chosen because they meet specific trends (or, in contrast, they're rejected because the market for a specific trend has passed). That's why I'm such an advocate for self/indie publishing if the writer's goals match that path. A good book with quality writing will always be well-received, no matter how it's published.

Hermina Boyle said...

April & BJ - OWW - Yes! A great group for getting feedback.

I joined last fall. My first post was selected for an Editor's Choice critique. The reviewer with TOR liked the quality of prose and development of voice and indicated that with some polishing, it could easily be fit for publishing. Woo Hoo!

Of course there were plenty of things to correct in that first chapter as well.

I know I'm on the writing continuum, somewhere in the middle, muddling along, trying to put this story together. I'm not a great writer, but I hang on to those positive nuggets, and review them especially when I doubt I'll ever finish my revisions.

I've posted critiques as well with OWW and think I've learned as much in reviewing other writers' posts as I have in the feedback. Still looking for more beta readers, though.

Celia Reaves said...

Coming kind of late to this discussion, but this discussion reminds me so much of a famous piece from Ira Glass about creativity (find it here on YouTube) in which he makes the same point as the comments here about needing to put in a lot of work (the standard figure is 10,000 hours) to get to mastery. So Janet is right (well, of course): you need to read, and you need to write.

I've gotten a lot better in my writing of fiction as a result of all the writing I do in my day job. None of it is fiction, or at least it's not supposed to be, although my students sometimes say that what I ask them to do for their assignments qualifies as horror. Still, I get feedback when I find out where other people are confused by what I wrote, or need to get a report under two pages and have to find places to cut, or tweak student feedback carefully to balance encouragement with correction. It's like practicing forms in martial arts; you might never use that exact pattern of movements in real combat, but you're training the muscles to serve your goals without having to think about every twitch.

And now I'm going out with a quote from that paragon of high art, Throw Momma From the Train: "A writer writes."

Megan V said...


I recommend twitter's #CPMatch which is hosted by Megan Lally. It's a great way to meet potential CPs. You won't always find a fit, but when you do, it's brilliant. I met two wonderful CPs through that twitter event.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

April: and I've met two wonderful crit partners through Janice Hardy's Fiction University blog. Twice a year, she hosts a meet up on yahoo. Once crit partners find one another, we can move to directly emailing one another.

Anonymous said...

For anyone feeling panicked, keep in mind that good writing isn't necessarily "perfect" writing. I once worked with a woman of a certain age who had a perfectly modulated voice. I believe she considered it to be the epitome of genteel Southern manners. She didn't always speak that way, but when she did it literally made me sleepy. It was hypnotic and awful. Writing is the same way. There are writers whose work I love that I can objectively say aren't great at craft, but I'll read anything they write. And there are writers who do everything technically right and bore me to death.

Good writing has energy and a compelling voice. I've come to believe that derives from confidence-- you've mastered the language, know how to tell a story, can make characters come to life, know how to make a reader feel emotion. And, yes, that comes from practice. Also from getting reactions and feedback, not just through formal critique but also from blog posts and beta readers who are not writers. In other words, you can't be safely content to be your own and only audience if you want to learn and grow.

Welcome to the comments, Melissa! I think it's a requirement that you make a typo the first time. And second and third and . . . well, forever.

April, if you hang out in the comments of blogs, or on twitter, where there are communities of other writers in your genre, talk to them and make friends, you might find a really good fit for a CP. Don't be shy, the vast majority of writers I know are incredibly generous and friendly. Good luck!

Damn, I'm way over 100 words. Well, I've been AWOL so I'm making up for lost time. :eyeroll: My daughter and her husband were in town for an extended weekend and just left this afternoon.

AJ Blythe said...

Wowee, talk about nailing the deepest, darkest fears of woodland creatures, Miss Janet. I guess I need to spend more time on my comments instead of vommenting them like I usually do. No time for that today so...

Panda in Chief said...

April, if you are writing YA, you might consider joining SCBWI, as they have a list (or something like a list) (or maybe it's a forum,) for finding critique partners in your genre/category. So if you write YA fantasy, there are probably groups looking for new members. Having been a member for about 6 or 7 years now, I find there is a fairly high level of dedication and ability among the members who have stuck around for more than a year or two.

John, you asked my question! What the hell is an "interrobang" and am I spelling it right and what does it say about me that I don't know the answer to either of these questions? My hamster wheel is squeaking wildly! The Spell Czech and his pal Otto Korrect are mocking me! It's a typo typhoon!

EM, you will notice that the Fuzzy Print Literary offices are located in the kale processing plant. I believe all literary contracts include the provision that you must work in the kale processing plant at least 15 hours a day.

Colin, please stay out of the box marked "property of pandas". That is my cuppycake supply for the week and aren't enough to share with everyone, so I am eating them all. Or something like that. And why is it that the Spell Czech corrects words that I have intentionally "hand crafted" and does not correct the ones that are just typos?

Welcome Melissa. Not everyone here is crazy, but being so does help pass the time.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

I like reading various kinds of books. I do not stick only to my preferred genres, for this variety teaches me many things.

This is how I know I really do not like literary because of the sand endings. I've read enough of 'em. I really want to like cosy mysteries, but their characters and settings tend to be a bit staid for my tastes. (I do love Brother Cadfell.)

I've learned a few tricks that work really well for other genres and have incorporated them into my works. For me, this adds depth and complexity and a different feel which, I hope, sets my works apart from others in my genres.

Julie Weathers said...

Everything worth saying has already been said, but that won't stop me anyway.

All great writers have one thing in common, they read. Hemingway said that as soon as he finished writing he replenished the well by reading. Mark Twain made notations in every book he read and he read constantly. Faulkner: "Read, read, read. Read everything--trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it." Shelby Foote read Shakespeare over and over as well as Chekhov and Tolstoy. Odd for a man known for his historicals.

A person's taste does change the more you read.

I'm a snob about good horses. Every horse deserves to be loved. They don't all deserve to reproduce. When I see someone post a picture of their little pickle mare they're going to breed I think, yup because there's a shortage in the world of little pickle horses.

It's just like bad writing. You learn to recognize it and try to rise above it so you don't create another little pickle story.

I'll be one of the dissenters about the value of conferences.

I like them. They're like pow wows to me. They recharge my spiritual batteries. Writing, even if you aren't querying, can wear you down. Being around people who are excited about writing jump starts me again.

Some agents are closed to queries unless through referrals or conferences.

I always learn something new at a conference. It might not be something life changing, but it's always something useful.

Last year it was fight choreography, how to work in character timelines with historical timelines, weaving in historical details so it doesn't look like an info dump, focusing on items in description that set the mood, etc. I can't think of a workshop that I felt was a waste.

"Requests for pages and encouraging words at a conference mean as much as my Mum patting my head and saying "That's lovely, dear."

Not really.

Not everyone gets them. A lot of agents do request more at conferences in pitch sessions, but I can surely tell you that not everyone gets a pat on the head and an "atta boy". The blue pencil sessions and critique workshops are to help the person identify strengths and weaknesses. They aren't always encouraging. They would be worthless if they were just cheer leading.

Colin Smith said...

Julie: I was being a tad facetious, especially since I've not ever been to a writer's conference. But from all I've read, agents are more likely to request pages at conferences simply because you're there. Had they read your query in their inbox, and not seen your puppy dog eyes looking at them like they're holding your hopes and dreams in the palm of their hand, they might have passed. They might still pass after they read the pages. But, just to be clear, I want to go to a conference for the very reasons you list. Meeting people, networking, and learning.

Contender for sub-sub header of the week (I think Donna's is now a permanent sub-header, with no objection from me!):

"Everything worth saying has already been said, but that won't stop me anyway."--Julie Weathers... and all the regular vommenters. ;)

BJ Muntain said...

DeadSpiderEye, you made me laugh out loud. Loudly. Startled the little dog and all. Re: the interrobang midge.

Speaking of Little Girl Dog: She had her one-week checkup today, and the vet pronounced her healing. She is out of the cone and allowed to eat solid food once more.

Colin: "Agents are more likely to request pages at conferences simply because you're there." A big part of the reason for that is that authors who spend the time and money to go to a conference have proven they're serious about their writing and thus are probably better developed writers than the average querier. It doesn't mean you're more likely to be offered representation or publication than others who have sent in pages after querying, but it does get your pages in the agent's hands.

And no, not all agents ask for pages from all authors.

Lennon Faris said...

I only have time to skim comments but I will have to come back tomorrow and read through because this post hits home. Encouragement is always nice of course, but what I want right now is to know how to improve, even if it sucks along the way. Thanks, Janet.

kdjames' comment did catch my eye, though - that is a very good point, and I also reiterate that you should be a pep-talker. Is that a word?

Panda in Chief said...

I second Colin's nomination for Julie's subheader. I was going to nominate it but he beat me to it, thus proving Julie's point.

I haven't been to many writing conferences other than SCBWI. When I was a complete newbie, they were incredibly useful, giving me good information and resources to find more. Since I have to watch where my $$$ go like a hawk, I started going to smaller venues, like the mentor program and illustrators retreats, since they were more geared to honing work, rather than general info grab.

But yeah, definitely a conference with good speakers can really recharge your batteries, as well as give you some opportunities that are harder to come by out in the world.

Kae Bell said...

What a wonderful post. I have spent the last month driving/moving to Texas from places that are not Texas and never will be.

Since on the road, I have missed much on this blog.

Thankfully, I caught this one, hot off the press. As others have said, this one, and especially this, resonates.

I kept diaries/journals from age 10.

I wrote letters to pen pals and notes to friends, pre-texting/email.


At age 32, I began to write fiction. Awful fiction. But fiction nonetheless.

I wrote awful short stories.

I wrote a boring novel.

I wrote a mediocre novel.

I noticed I was reading in a way different from my past reading efforts. As my eyes shifted from one sentence to the next, my mind categorized: "Action. Description. Description. Dialogue (note the conflict). Memories. Description..."

I started to write a third novel that sits, at 70K, waiting for me to finish/edit/revise.



This month, as I settle in to my new home, I am writing a short story.

I think: Am I better than 16 years ago?

Craig F said...

The biggest step to being a better writer is learning to read critically. Deconstruct the books of others and lean what makes them tick.

AJ Blythe said...

Craig, that's what I do. I buy second copies of (current) books in my genre I love - armed with highlighters and a pen I go through the book and break it down. I've learnt buckets doing that.

The hardest thing was the first time. I felt like I was desecrating a sacred thing.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Just realised how many fans of the OWW lurk here.

Am wondering about the correlation, as Her Sharkness doesn't rep full-on SFF.

Meanwhile, I'm spending the day finalising the last of my grant application. Yes, the Western Aussie government will give you money to write books if your application is pretty enough to win them over.

BJ Muntain said...

Duchess: I'm a fan of OWW, but not a current member. I had to leave when things got too busy in my life to keep up with everything. I already belonged to a private critique group which kept me pretty busy, and I started a new job that took more time and energy than I'd expected. I went on leave, probably ten years ago, but I do believe it's one of the better online critique groups out there. If I find myself with the time and energy to take on another critique group (I now belong to two smaller groups), OWW will be the first one I go to.

BJ Muntain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BJ Muntain said...

And Ms. Sharque's blog is for any serious writer, not just those seeking representation. Lots of good information here for anyone interested in the business side of writing.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

That is progress. I too have kept journals since 1983. Terrible sketches fill them. I had a pen pal after we moved coast to coast. My parents eventually threw away an entire suitcase filled with those letters. It was break-your-back heavy. Even the movers groaned when they carried it.

Recently I realized how I can combine writing into my top secret art project. I'm studying graphic novels and animé. Luckily the French love graphic novels, and the librairies are packed with them. They're commonly called BD for Band Dessiné. You can find any genre, thrillers, action, romance in the adult section. YA and MG sections, mostly superheros.

The interobang abounds in graphic novels.

Unknown said...

This is one of many reasons why it's tough to teach Creative Writing--especially in high school, especially when some number of the students are there against their will and have no interest in writing, much less writing well. And some of the ones who DO want to be there and DO want to--well, they don't want to write well; they want to be praised endlessly and flip out when the rubric indicates a low, low score.

Of course, that's the life I've chosen for myself, so I shouldn't complain (too loudly).

On the plus side, at least I have rubrics--so my little emerging woodland creatures can at least see exactly what I'm looking for--sort of. I end up grading mostly on mechanics and following "rules," and sometimes the difference in score between something inspired and something insipid is as little as the difference in the two words themselves.

Gypmar said...

This is absolutely going to sound braggy, but today on Facebook I posted a link to a story of mine that's just been published. One of my friends (fellow school mom, more of an acquaintance) commented "I knew you were a writer from your fb posts!" Made my day.

b-Nye said...

I never write well in the comment section. Never.

b-Nye said...

I never write well in the comment section. Never.

Patricia Harvey said...

April, While this reply is late in coming, I wanted to respond to your comment about unhelpful critique partners. I have SO been there!!

Now I just see them as "low-level" thinkers. Because they can't seem to wrap their heads around the big picture. That would require "higher-level" thinking skills (Which take place in a different part of the brain, from what I've read.)

For example, you ask them to critique part of your manuscript for concept. Maybe you want to know, does my concept work? Or you really want to talk about story goal, and whether your MC has enough at stake. Or you want to know if the narrative arc is strong enough through a certain scene sequence - or if it just sounds like a bunch of vignettes. Maybe you're having trouble weaving in background and description.

But instead, what you get is a nit-picker with a red pen who loves circling the word "was" because it indicates passive voice, and who draws little smiley faces wherever they find a simile or a bit of alliteration. They do this because it's all they know to do. It's what they've heard at a workshop or read in a book. They can't see inside someone else's box. Which is called having "contingency."

It's happened to me a lot. And I HATE it. Such a waste of time.

What you need are smarter critique partners. Or do what I did. My solution to the problem was to spend the past two years reading and analyzing authors' writing styles. I looked for good writing and set about learning all I could from it. I now have spiral notebooks full of "book notes" on the writer's craft. And a plethora of concrete guidance to apply to my own writing. Best of luck!!

April Mack said...

Thank you to all who gave suggestions or encouragement. I will explore OWW, which is new to me. And I'll soldier on without giving up!

Barbara said...

It's hard to know how good you are. That's why we all seek the validation of being published and reviewed. Writers are notoriously poor judges of their own work.

As a writing teacher, I've had the opportunity to follow the careers of (and occasionally lend a helping hand to) many aspiring writers. I can tell you some of the indicators that in my experience mark writers who will eventually publish.

1. Writers with a talent for language. I could practice basketball all my life and I guarantee I'd never make the NBA. Height and athletic ability are required.

2. Writers for whom good critical feedback is like rain on the savannah. They may not agree with or accept every note, but in general they open up, their work opens up, and all sorts of unexpected treats emerge. This is in contrast to writers who reject critique or respond to it with a box of bandaids.

3. Tough, stubborn souls. For the vast majority of published writers, there's a great deal of rejection involved early in the process. You have to have an underlying belief in yourself. Writers who are too sensitive or insecure will probably give up at some point before publication.