Thursday, March 6, 2008

Theresa said:
And when I say bad, I mean bad enough to make you wonder how delusional the writer must be to think this should ever be shown to another human being. And is he delusional enough to come after you with a slingshot when you reject him?

I call this "The American Idol" effect. I was watching the early season, where dozens of singers who are worse than I am (and I can't sing, but at least I know it) stand in line overnight for a chance to audition. Now some just want to meet the celebrities and get on camera, and they figure the worse they are, the better. But others actually seem to think they "sing like an angel!" when they sing like a hound dog (one without rhythm). And almost always, they are shocked to be summarily bounced, and they protest that their family and friends LOVE their singing.

So anyway, I was watching, and I mentioned how delusional they seemed, and the dh said, "Aren't writers the same way? They think they're great writers, and they're terrible, but they don't know it?"

Hmmm. That's kinda true. I mean, we all (probably) think we're pretty darned good, maybe not James Joyce but a whole lot more readable.

What if we're WRONG??? How will we know?

And what if we're right? How will we know?

Boy, there's nothing more calculated to cause writer's block, I think.

Can we really judge our own work? I don't know. I know that I chortle and weep and marvel at my most self-indulgent prose-- I mean, really, the more self-indulgent, the more I like it. And I'm a pretty good judge of other's work (we all devoutly hope :), so... I'm right about mine, right? Maybe not. Maybe what I like most about it (you know, the alliteration in that line, and the very clever and personally meaningful villain name, and the total power of that blindness motif) is too precious, too obvious, too in-jokey to work for most anyone else.

And I'm always amazed at how so many terrific writers (by my measure) apologize for their work, denigrate it, call it bad names. Don't they know they're good?

Somehow it seems like we're never truly confident about our work... once we get pretty good at it, our standards just get higher and higher, and we think we fall short.

Anyway, it's a puzzle. How do you know you're writing well? CAN you know? Yeah, if you recently won the National Book Award, you probably have accepted your greatness, but short of that, how do you know? Feedback from others? How do you know whose judgment to trust?

It's not enough to say, "I'll know when I get published," because we know good stuff gets rejected and not-so-good accepted, and anyway, you have to improve and be pretty good to get to the point of submitting.

So... how do you judge yourselves?

I overheard a couple pre-teen girls in my family reading their stories to each other last Christmas, and one was very pleased with her writing, and one was mad at herself ("This is so bad!"). The latter (in my judgment) was better than the former, and yet the latter didn't think so.

Anyone? How do you come to an objective view of your own work? Can you tell when one piece you've written works and why, and why another doesn't work?
Alicia

19 comments:

Liane Gentry Skye said...

My best measure of my own writing is to let a project sit, untouched for a at least month after I've finished it. If I then can go back and read the piece without bursting into tears and/or launching the nearest projectile across the room because its so horrible, then chances are, its getting close to submission ready.

I'm a lyrical writer at heart. I always have a certain passage in my work that I'm in love with simply for the beauty of the language. Even when that niggling little voice deep down tells me it needs to be cut, I tend to turn a deaf ear.

Without fail, that passage gets cut in editing by either my crit group or an editor. Hrumph! :)

I'm trying to learn to be a brutal self editor. Oh, the pain....

makoiyi said...

This might be long....

How do we know if we are any good? I've been asking this question for ages. I don't think we can answer it ourselves. 90% of the time I think I write crap. Then I make someone cry while they read one of my stories, or the neighbor down the street rings me up to *demand* the next chapter, and I think, 'can't be that bad'.

No, I can't tell myself. The novel I like the most creates all sorts of bruhaha and everyone universally wants to rewrite it. The novel I tossed off as a challenge, everyone wants to see. I wrote it in first person - which I hate - and I wrote about fae - whom I dislike. Is that the difference? The fact that I could stand back far enough from novel two?

I judge that I can write, not by the amount of rejections, but if they say anything. And I've had more encouraging than discouraging, so, in theory, if I just keep practising maybe I'll get somewhere.

It *is* impossible to tell. Not so long ago I had a reviewer go blah blah over the opening of a novel. The next day an agent asked to see it.

It's because it's so subjective, I think.

How do I tell a little bit? Place it in a drawer for a couple of months. It is really surprising what comes out the woodwork then.

makoiyi said...

BTW, if you want to do an experiment. I don't want to er, 'push' my own writing, but I've just placed the opening of a novel on my lj - it's only 300 words or so so no biggie and no one has to go there, this was just a thought after I finished writing that post. I see it as 'not bad' Needs some work, needs some editing, but it's at the ideas stage. I'm used to harsh crits, so someone saying - this doesn't work for me doesn't bother me in the slightest (I'll weep alone later). But if you want to use it as an example that's fine with me. It's also fine if you don't. As I said, I don't want to push anything.

But, the reason I'm even suggesting this is that you asked the question - how do we know? I don't know if it's any good - simple as that.

Equally, please feel free to ignore.

Sue

srgruber said...

I don't know that objective is possible, but I do tend to rely on my critique group for reality checks. Even if I disagree with specifics, the group's assessment generally fits.

I had a moment this week where I knew I really had the story right. I sent a sci fi short story to the group for review, and a scientist in the group approved not only of the words but the science. I'd been worried about stretching the facts, but I tugged them in the right direction that time, at least.

CM said...

There is actually a scientific explanation:

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2000/01/18/MN73840.DTL

Summary: Competence in a field is determined by your ability to criticize it. You can't get better at something if you can't critique yourself. So the people who are the least competent are the ones who are more likely to think that everything they write is genius, and the most competent will tend to be overly critical.

If you can't critique your own work--in any field--you'll never get any better. Of course, the inverse is not true: Being critical doesn't automatically imply competence.

But it's a good start. If you read your work and can say, "This isn't good" and you can come up with a reason why, you're probably ahead of the game. Identifying mistakes and understanding the reasons for the mistakes, and learning to work around them and do better, will make you a much stronger writer.

green_knight said...

Writers need to be editors; and it's probably easier to judge one's editorial skills (by comparing one's judgements against those of other editors) than the writing itself. If I can see the same good points and the same problems in somebody else's text that more experienced editors can, then I am probably able to recognise them in my own writing.

And I need that editorial distance, because even my earliest, crudest writing is wholly mine; and it pulls my heartstrings because these characters and their plights are part of my life story, too - I cared about them _then_, and I care about them still. Even if the writing is five or ten or fifteen years old and illustrated a developmental stage.

And outside feedback helps. Not, strangely enough, the 'wow, I loved this, I want to read more, I can't wait for the next chapter' kind - I'm never quite certain how sincere and how well thought out such comments are - but the occasional comments, particularly from people who are sparing with their praise. As well as a lack of 'huh? I couldn't follow that. This feels far too rushed. Too many coincidences' - if people have to work to find something to say, then it's either abysmally bad or at least competent.

Maybe the oddest measure of progress has been to read superbly crafted books. Over the years, I've gone from 'wow' to 'I wish I could write like that' to 'oh, that's clever, *that's* what she's doing, I wish I could know when I use x'. Hopefully, one day I will be able to _use_ X, and to wield that tool in superb precision, whatever that tool might be, but having insights into what makes wonderful books so outstanding is a fair step on a long road.

And if I can work out how exactly Alma Alexander writes not about eight closely-connected people, but about a sisterhood that happens to be made up of eight closely-connected people, I can hopefully lift that technique and mold it to my brother-and-sister-and-half-tree shapeshifter protagonist-instance who achieves more together than the individuals would.

Ian Thomas Healy said...

I'm extremely critical of my own work and my own worst enemy. I'll obsess over the most minor things because I'm a perfectionist. When I learn something new (and thanks to this blog, I'm learning new stuff daily), I have to go back and start editing my projects all over again to fix them and make them better.

I cringe when I read things I wrote a year ago, just because I'm that much better at it now. But I find the more I learn about writing and the art of the craft, the more critical I am of my own work. Critiquing other writers' work has been an invaluable tool for me, because just as I'm pointing out recurring problems in their stuff, I'm realizing that I'm equally as guilty of the same transgressions. I recommend critiquing to everyone as the best way to find your own flaws.

Ian

PS: Don't you just love the internet? I sent out ten email queries this afternoon and received two rejections within MINUTES!

Dave Shaw said...

My day job is writing and changing computer programs. I've been doing it for 25 years. One of the differences between programming and writing is that in programming, if you get the syntax wrong (the equivalent of grammar and pronunciation), the compiler or interpreter will kick it out and tell you it's wrong, so you have to fix the code before you can run the program. Even when it runs, if you have a serious logic error, the program won't do what it's supposed to, and you'll have to fix that before it will run correctly.

Now, if it runs correctly, is it a good program? Maybe, maybe not. It may use more of the computer's resources than it should for the work it's doing; the source code may be difficult to change without breaking it; it may be 'fragile', meaning that it crashes if it's subjected to circumstances that weren't considered in its design; it may use non-standard algorithms that are difficult to understand and maintain; etc.

Am I a good programmer? My peers and managers say I am, I get a steady stream of people asking how-to questions, my programs work and perform reasonably, and no one has complained to me about my code, BUT--I know that I could write much better code than I do, and I've seen code by other people that is much better than mine. Too often I take the 'good enough' approach rather than the best approach. Am I better than average? Well, I'm more experienced than average, so I make fewer mistakes, but better? Beats me.

So how am I as a writer? Well, some people say they like my stuff, and I'm making an effort to learn how to do it better, but I have a long way to go. I'm still a beginner, in my own estimation, about where I was 20 some-odd years ago programming. I learned how to do that, and I'll learn how to do this--but I'm afraid I'll always have that tendency to settle for 'good enough' rather than best. Sigh.

This must mean that I'm just competent enough to recognize that I'm barely competent. ;-)

Edittorrent said...

Dave, I used to write computer manuals, and I was amazed at how similar in temperament and process programmers were to writers. Not that everyone had the same process, but the processes were the same-- that is, just as you have some writers who plot everything out, there are programmers who have to have everything outlined. And there are "fly into the mist" programmers too, and programmers who get obsessed with one module and keep tweaking it and can't move on... actually, most of the ones I worked with were the latter!

Do you notice a similarity in the process of creativity there?
Alicia

Dave Shaw said...

Alicia, yeah, there is a lot of similarity. When I program something new, I start with analyzing the requirements, then I research the resources that I need to meet them, then I design the structure, and finally I start coding with the intent of getting enough together to compile it and begin incremental testing. From that point on, I test it, fix anything wrong, add another piece, and test it again. I keep at it until I have the whole thing done and working.

I find that I write the same way - decide what I'm going for, research and develop the background, lay out a broad structure (rough outline in my head, really), then start writing, editing, writing some more, editing some more...

Fortunately, I'm not one who gets obsessed to the point where I can't move on - I get bored and have to move on. 'Good enough' syndrome, I guess. Maybe that's not so bad after all. ;-)

Dave Shaw said...

P.S. There's a classic book about managing the development of large software systems called The Mythical Man-Month, by Fred Brooks. Brooks managed the development of IBM's OS/360 back in the '60s. OS/360 was the ultimate mainframe operating system in its time: nothing like it had ever been a commercial success before, and it's still archetypal today. One of the lessons Brooks learned and passed on his book was this: Plan to throw one away! It seems to me that this applies to development projects of almost any kind, including writing, although it also seems to me that Brooks was overly optimistic, since I often see people throw 2 or 3 away before they finally achieve what they want, but IMHO he was on the right track.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I'm with Liane -- let it sit. Let some of that emotion fade away with distance. Once the emotion is gone, you can get a good view of things.

But comments like, "Wow, you're a REAL writer" don't hurt, either. *wink*

Ann Macela said...

I would suggest that it is possible to teach yourself how to critique yourself. Heaven knows, it's not easy, but it can be done. Distance in time from the manuscript can help. So can some other techniques that get you out of the story and looking at the pieces.

I firmly believe it is crucial to develop this skill, along with all the other writing skills. Start, perhaps, by taking apart the books of others. First the books you don't like (somehow it's easier to see flaws in those), then those you do, and finally your own work.

Good luck to us all.

Ann Macela

Edittorrent said...

Green Knight, that's a good point-- some of our early stuff is so primal, so close to us, that the mechanics didn't matter, and I suspect a lot of readers would think that too.

Is it possible to "clean up" the early work? Or does cleaning it up eliminate the passion?
Alicia

Patricia W. said...

Dave pretty much said it all for me, especially since I too an in IT and have done my fair share of programming over the years.

I don't know if one ever becomes truly objective about one's own talent. The more I learn, the more I realize I have to learn. That's probably a good thing. At the same time, I have enough hubris to think I'm a decent, if not good, writer. So I believe that as I learn, I'll become a better writer. Could be wrong but I'm going with that. Because if I don't, why bother to subject one's self to critiques, contests, submissions?

I'll get hate mail for this but I think that's why self-publishing gets a bad rap. It's like American Idol. Too many folks who believe they are lightyears better than they are, and can't or won't listen to reason. Screws it up for the few good ones.

Sherri said...

I don't even try to judge anymore. I can't tell. Perfection is the only acceptable end result for me, and we all know even most good books aren't perfect.

Someone earlier mentioned subjectivity. I figure if I like it, it's pretty close to something someone else would read. I let other people tell me if I'm wrong.

Enjoying the blog. :)

Edittorrent said...

I also think that if we love EVERYthing we've written, that's a sign that we're not really being critical... Even if we're very very good, some stories are going to be better than others, and we should probably have a sense of which.

Freelance Biz said...

I don't bother wondering if my writing is good anymore. I've been freelancing for over 30 years. People have been paying for my work for over 30 years.

I keep editing and re-writing until I am happy and it appears when I am happy, so are my clients.

Me thinks, that if you can't get a sense of whether your writing is any good, you should read more!

Freelance Biz said...

Oh my God ... I should have left that "that" out. Guess that means I'm not a good writer. The ANGST of it all!