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Saturday, October 18, 2008

How Do I Know I'm a Good Writer? -or- Ghost of a Story

WAR REPORT: From the trenches
I've you've ever read books written by a prolific author you know that the more you write, the better you (should) get (a few authors defy this well known rule). Terry Pratchett is one of my favorite examples of this idea. I picked up the first book of his Discworld series in college, and I loved it. Color of Magic is fun, spontaneous, exciting, and absolutely insane. But you can't go back. Each book gets sharper, in every new offering Pratchett hones his talent, adds depth to his world, and gives the book a fullness that his earlier, sillier, offerings don't have.

Orson Scott Card writes the same way. So does Anne McCaffrey. They're early books are cute, but they aren't on the same scale of perfection as their later writing.

Does that surprise you?

Most readers aren't shocked at all. They know they're favorite authors get better over time. And they complain long and loud if the author slips.

Which brings me, by a circuitous route, to the question of How Do I Know I'm a Good Writer? The very question that seems to plague the unpublished masses as they go through the daily grind. And it's a demon to young authors who have only one book in their hot little hands and who are running, for the first time, into the savages known as a critique group.

Here's my though, and it's by no means law: If the feedback you receive is about pacing, plotting, or your character being "off" from how they "should" behave, you are a good writer.

Why? Because those are nit-picks. No one will notice your character being out of character if your writing is atrocious. If the editor is busy fixing spelling and punctuation they won't have a chance to notice the pacing is too slow or that you rushed a scene.

The rule for every art, be it music, painting, writing, poetry, or cooking, is that the better you get, the more noticeable your mistakes are. If you don't believe me, go listen to some high school marching bands. You won't notice a single wrong note if every note is flat and no one is marching in time. But, when the good band hits the field, and single wrong note will stand out to even the most tone deaf person in the stands.

Michelle, here's the story I promised you was coming....

I wrote my first story, Ghost of a Queen, in high school my sophomore year. I was bored in class and my baby had everything great science fiction needed. Aliens, space ships, explosions, a high body count, a super snarky heroine, and a soppy hero. I dropped the project during college, but after graduation, finding myself bored again, I transferred it to the computer, editing as I went. I ran spell check and then started to google ways to query.

My first though (feel free to scream in horror) was to find an agent who lived nearby, drive down, and hand over my manuscript. Blogfodder! Noooooo! Thank goodness I found Miss Snark's archives before I committed such a heinous crime.

Miss Snark led me to a critique group. I joined, certain I would win over a drove of adoring fans who would laugh at the one spelling error I intentionally left in, and encourage me to call an agent ASAP. Ha!

The first chapter I posted, they shredded. Not only was my punctuation wrong, but I had five million spelling errors that weren't intentional. I was telling, not showing. I was terrible!

I retreated, aghast. But I thought it was perfect! The scene is wonderful... in my head.

I've been with my current set of Critters for about a year and a half now. I still misspell things (unintentionally). I still have errant commas. I still don't have something I think is perfect. But I can look back over my writing and see the progress. I cringe when I open and older file, I know the mess that's waiting there for me.

But I'm finally to the point where I receive feedback for DoJ that says: "You missed a comma." "X's catch word is spelled wrong." "This scene is moving too slow, pick up the action." "Your tension falters here, remind the reader why they need to be worried."

Ghost of a Queen is shoved under my bed. A training novel is the jargon term for such work. Some people have them, some people don't. Some people start their training on short stories or in a creative writing class. It doesn't matter, as long as you've learned something from those first sets of feedback. As long as you haven't quit writing, you are a good writer. And you are going to get better.

*dons body armor*

I'm going back in. DoJ isn't up to spec yet, but I'm working on it. Good luck!


  1. L--

    Thanks a ton! I think Breakaway might "break" out of its training shell one day, but it'll be less of a burden now that I have the courage to step forward and write something different and new.

    You and the others helped me see that #1, I'm too wordy and can work things like adverbs, #2, I need to show more (I do okay, but I could do a lot better), #3, I can cut a lot and make the piece superific.

    So . . . even though I bled a lot yesterday, the wounds are healing. They'll take awhile to heal, but I in the end, they'll have created a thicker skin.

    Your situation sounds similar to mine. College book. Resurrected later. Googled agents. :)

    Love you tons for being honest and forthright!


  2. Nice. I love TP! I agree that he's gotten a lot sharper and better with time.

    I like your insights. *sigh* I'm not there yet, but hopefully will be there soon.

    Thanks for sharing your story. *grin* I love the part where you nearly hand delivered your ms. Fun times. :)

  3. Heh, ah yes, the infamous "training novel". I think I have several. More than several... O:)

    I've abandoned the early unfinished ones, and rewrote two (one for last year's NaNo actually works now; the second finished it's fifth rewrite and might be close to working)... and while I've got a long way to go I think I'm slowly learning. :P

    Anyway, good post.


  4. Can you just picture me, baby in tow, stopping at an agent's office with the printed out MS? I think they would have fainted! I would have, once I realized how off I was... thank goodness for Google!

  5. that would have been a sin hard to recover from. Does anyone know a good online critique group i'm trying to find one. Thanx!

  6. Ali,

    Check out Critique Circle :)

    And Liana, that would be a hilarious image... I doubt they would have forgotten you, though maybe not in a good way. %)


  7. Thanx Merc i'll check that out definitely :)not really sure my writing is good for anything at the moment but we'll see :)