Sunday, July 25, 2010

Does Your Writing Shine or Stink?

By J. Scott Savage

WIP Update: One week to go. I’ll either finish Demon Spawn a week from today, or be within a few thousand words. It’s one of my favorite things to have a scene I’ve held in my head for over a year finally come out on paper. It’s even better when it arrives as good—or even better—than I expected. My agent will read it over and give me his feedback in August. Then, in September, when editors are back from vacation, we will begin shopping it. Next week, I’ll share a little history of how DS came from an idea that appeared pretty much full-fledged one night almost exactly a year ago, to signing an agent, to rewriting the outline, and finally . . . well, tune in next week.

Also, about two more weeks until “The Fourth Nephite” is released. For those of you who are not aware, as well as writing national novels as J Scott Savage, I also publish novels for a couple of LDS (Mormon) publishers as Jeffrey S Savage. Graham Bradley has a great review here.

A couple of weeks ago, agent Nathan Bransford wrote a blog post about why people know they don’t have the talent to be an NBA point guard, paint a masterpiece, or play concert violin. And yet when they write a book, they are sure it is the next bestseller.

He asked why people can’t tell whether their writing is good or not.

There were several great responses, including one where a commenter suggested that the problem is that all writing looks the same. A 90,000 word manuscript looks the same whether it is written by Stephen King (assuming he ever wrote a book as short as 90,000 words) or the guy who’s never even actually read 90,000 words. That’s not a bad idea. When I look at my drawings, it’s clear I have the artistic ability of a fairly untalented eight-year-old. But all writing looks pretty much the same on the page.

If you’ve been writing for long, you’ve probably had someone ask you to look at their work. 90% of the time, they aren’t actually looking for constructive criticism. They are convinced they are amazing writers and just want you to confirm it. It’s kind of funny because writers who have published are secretly sure that their own writing stinks, which is why criticism hurts so much. It’s outside confirmation of our inner fears.

Why is it so hard to judge our own work? Here are a couple of my thoughts.
  1. Easily 80% of a story takes place inside your head. If I want you to see a haunted forest, I give you a few clues. Moving shadows, trees that look like reaching hands, and spooky howls. You fill in the rest from your memory and imagination. So when you read your own writing, you see the stories you created as they appear in your head. It’s much harder to see how a reader new to your story will react. More experienced authors know that what they are trying to convey doesn’t always come through. That’s why it’s so important to get unbiased feedback, and use it.

  2. Ever listen to a recording of your own voice? It doesn’t sound like you expect it to. Part of that is because your voice echoes inside your head. But I think another part of it is because you imagine your own voice to sound differently. The same thing is true of your writing. You expect it to be good, so when you read it, it is. This is why it’s a good idea to put your work on a shelf when you get done. Giving yourself the distance of a month or two allows you to read your work new. The more you write, the better you get at knowing when your writing is working or not.

  3. If you haven’t attended writing conferences, or read enough books on writing, you make beginner mistakes without even realizing they’re mistakes. You can write an amazing description of the setting to begin your story. But no matter how good the execution is, beginning a story with a detailed setting it usually bad writing. It doesn’t hook the reader. There’s a lot to be said, for instinctual writing. But without knowledge, you are trying to build a house using only a hammer and a screwdriver.

  4. One more possibility is that you read for pleasure. You know what you like and you know what you don’t like, but you’ve never tried to break down a novel and analyze what works and what doesn’t. If you write YA romance, read Twilight. I don’t care if you like it or not. Millions of people did and do. You can’t call yourself a successful YA romance author unless you understand what Meyer did that worked for millions of readers. If you love Hunger Games, you need to analyze how Collins made you root Katniss & Peeta to get together even though Katniss was a jerk to Peeta for 90% of the book. And how she took the best of book one and made it work in book two.
How about you? Can you tell whether your writing works or not? If so, how? Why do you think so many people can’t tell if their writing is any good or not?


Juliana said...

"Outside confirmation of their inner fears" ... so true! The more I learn, the less I know with regard to writing!

Brytani said...

As a perfectionist, I have a hard time leaving my work alone and moving onto the next chapter. Even then, I still feel like it isn't complete. It boggles my mind to think someone could mistake their writing as greatness when it just isn't. I guess that makes me the minority among authors?