Okay, I’ve spent weeks now telling you all what you CAN do. Yes, you can write that story. Yes, you can finish it. Yes, you can proof it. Yes, you can even convert it to ebook. You can do covers. You can do indie. You can work for traditional at the same time.
Now, are you all pepped up and squeeing with glee? Good, good.
Let me tell you what you CAN’T do. No, seriously.
You CAN’T evaluate your own writing. (And for a certain period of time, at least, you should be leery about evaluating other people’s writing too. We’ll talk about in a moment.)
No, don’t talk. Listen to me. You can’t evaluate your own writing. You just can’t. I know what I speak of. I’ve spent the last twenty years dealing with beginning writers and for at least five of those years I was a beginner writer myself. (We’ll CALL it five years. Hey, I’m a slow learner.)
What I’ve found for all writers – and no, not just beginners – is that when it comes to evaluating our own writing, our switch is stuck in one of two positions. One of them is “Everything I write is gold and I’m so good I make the angels weep.” The other is “I really should stop dirtying paper on one side or sacrificing innocent pixels when I can’t write anything worth reading.”
Both sides need to learn to temper this instinctive reaction if they EVER are to get anywhere.
Being solidly in the second camp, I wish to say that I think we make better writers in the end. I doubt it, though. I think it’s just that I’m wildly jealous of people with a shred of self-confidence and wish to hit them hard half the time. It doesn’t matter in either case, because my side of the evaluation matter is woefully under represented. Why? Because most of us – those of us who are compulsive enough to actually power through the doubt and finish novels – just fling them under the bed or into the closet. Because, well, we wouldn’t want to inflict our stuff on anyone else.
Frankly the only reason I ever sent things out is that I felt guilty. If I was going to live from my husband’s money and spend most of my day writing (instead of saying, cleaning or taking the kids for walks or whatever it is “just housewives” do) then I needed to at least give it a chance to make me money. So I sent stuff out out of a sense of obligation and in the serene certainty no one would ever buy it. Also, I seized on any excuse (oh, we don’t have five dollars for stamps. I’ll buy a paperback book instead) not to send stuff out, which means my marketing was sporadic.
You can usually tell people on my side of the equation because we have a hell of a time dealing with editorial letters. We come across as bipolar divas. That’s because we sort of are. Whenever someone tells me that I need to change ANYTHING in my book, my immediate reaction is to agree. Even if the person telling me this last read a book during the Eisenhower administration and has never in his/her life read a book in the genre I’m writing in. Also, no matter how absurd the suggestion is. However, I’ve learned – through, trust me, bitter experience – to doubt these suggestions and to try to look dispassionately at the person giving it. “Okay, so he’s a beginner writer and this is what he’s struggling with and he’s projecting.” (More on that later, too.)
This then makes you feel like you’re being defensive and makes you MORE insecure about rejecting the changes. All of which is sheer hell when it comes from an editorial house. They’re only used to – or always believe – they’re dealing with the OTHER type of writer, so they tend to think ANY resistence means you’re being a prima dona and think all your stuff is perfect. So, they also tend to give the suggestions in the form of snark or over-powered suggestion. You know, stuff like “This part really stinks” – when it turns out they want you to change a line. This type of thing makes people like me go in and scrape that entire part and write it anew, possibly in German (which we learn for the purpose) and leaves the editor in a screaming rage of “why did you change that? I loved the part with the girl. It was just that line.”
(If you’re ever in that position, do what I do. Send the letter unread to a friend who then distills the requests to what they’re really asking for, stripped of color commentary.)
Of course, if this is not a professional editor giving you that kind of commentary STOP USING THAT PERSON TO BETA YOU. (We’ll go into this later.) Pick your betas carefully.
So, do people whose self-evaluation is stuck on “sucks” have any advantage over the other type that causes me to think they’d be better writers in the end?
Only one. These people – we’ll call them the nail biters, okay? – tend to work really hard on their own stuff BEFORE they ever show it to a single living soul. In fact, they’ll study other authors to know what they’re doing. They’re always trying to improve what they think is dreadful dreck.
This is the greatest weakness of the self-satisfied set – we’ll call them the Jack Horners, shall we (“What a good boy am I!”) – they are perfectly happy with the stuff they write from the very first line they put on paper. There are degrees of course, but from my vantage point (here, under the bed, braiding my hair) they are varying ranges of smug. They go from the person who comes across as perfectly normal but thinks his breaking in is assured if he just learns to work the system because, duh, his stuff might not be the best thing in the world but “is best than all of that” to the ones who think Shakespeare should bow down and kiss their muddy boots.
I can’t tell you how these people get good enough to break in. Maybe there is a way critics can get to them. As a mentor, I have yet to find it. You can stand in front of them and shout what they’re doing wrong and the reaction will be one of three things: a) you don’t understand my style/substyle/subgenre. I write what I’d like to read. I bet there are more people like me than people like you. b) You’re just jealous of my talent. c) You’re talking about OTHER people, not me, right? Because I don’t make any of those mistakes.
I know, because I’ve met these people as published – as bestselling – authors, that they CAN break in. They can get at least good enough to sell. Some of them are even quite decent. So there must be a process by which they see their flaws. Perhaps it just takes a meaner, nastier critique than I’m ever willing to give. Or perhaps it takes a truckload of sugar per spoon of medicine. Or perhaps they ARE better at the beginning. Perhaps they never evolve. Perhaps one in a hundred really are as good as they need to be to break in, right the first time. (I’d rather not think that, though, because it makes me think lovingly of cyanide and I’m not sure if it’s for them or me.)
I’ve met incredibly talented Jack Horners, but I’ve never succeeded in mentoring one. So we’ll just assume “something happens here” and they learn to improve.
Once they’re in, though, they have a huge advantage over us nail biters. PARTICULARLY in the old system. I hate to say it, but most publishers took you at your word. (Why? I don’t know. I suspect because there’s no objective evaluation standard for writers.) If you come in, all big, telling them how great you are you stand a much better chance of being believed than if you timidly slide up and reluctantly admit you wrote a book. It also helps, still, in the new world of publishing, because the Jack Horners are out there, pushing their book at unsuspecting strangers, while we, the nail biters, hide in a corner and hope someone will discover us. (Or in the beginning, when we’re afraid of being read, hope NO ONE will discover us.)
You can always tell one from the other in public situations. Say, at panels, at a con. ALL the Jack Horner talks about is his books. The Nail Biter will mention them at the beginning, then talk about OTHER PEOPLE’S books.
Okay, it’s important for you to know which you are. Either style can be compensated for IF you know that you are one or the other.
If you’re a Jack Horner, you need to remember that art requires practice. Yeah, you might be all that and a million dollars, BUT even if you are Shakespeare, Austen and Walter Scott rolled into one with a dash of Dumas peppered in, at the beginning there are things you won’t know how to do. They might be LITTLE things like “how much description is appropriate.” BUT in certain places they are enough to stop you from being accepted/bought.
You know better than I what it takes to make you accept critique. Choose your betas carefully for being able to give it, and choose people you HAVE to trust.
Also, on behalf of the Nail Biters of the world, stop telling us you’re the best thing since sliced bread. It will stop us glaring at you. It helps if you realize it’s not your talent we envy (necessarily) – it’s your self confidence. Go ahead and do your spiel for the public and the editors (A lot of us learn to fake it to a degree, anyway) but don’t do it among us, in private. And don’t ASSUME you’re better than us because we’re mousy about our stuff.
If you’re a Nail Biter, be aware that you’re judging yourself more harshly than anyone else would. In addition to betas, pick a couple of support people. These are not bullshitters. They can’t be, because you have to trust them. They’re just people who like your writing most of the time, even if they’re willing to tell you when you’re going severely wrong (which all of us do at times.) Then rely on them when you scare yourself and can’t go on because you think you suck like a Dyson. Make sure they’re patient. There will be times they’ll want to brain you for your bottomless pit of lack of self confidence. (Mine are all long distance because ah ah, it’s too far away for them to throw rocks at my head.) THEN TRUST THESE PEOPLE. When they tell you it’s good stop oscillating. TRUST them. That’s why you have them.
Second, make sure you pick your betas carefully. If you’re like me, a bad or wrongly worded comment about the last book can stop you working on the current book. And if you are like me, you have stuff out at betas while you start the next book. So, for instance, a beta who sends you comments piecemeal whenever he/she hits something he/she doesn’t like can be truly destructive, because it stops you in the middle of writing something else, and can cost you a day per comment.
Okay, I’m not being clear, let me explain. I usually ask my betas to send me a report at the end. What I do is collect ALL of those and then, when I have the first draft on current book done, or I come to a logical stopping point or what we call around here “the weekend” I take two days, read all the reports one after the other. I’ve trained myself not to obsess on anything that two or more of you don’t hit on. Unless it’s an obvious one, like when the reader reminded me suits of clothes don’t last fifteen years. (DUH.) The rest, things that confused Jane but not John or vice versa (and I have twelve of you, at a minimum, at all times, and I have a minimum trigger of three echoing each other for “take seriously.” Correction – three I KNOW don’t talk to each other.) I just go “okay, whatever” particularly if they’re minor nitts.
Now, let’s suppose Jane, instead of sending me a report which I can then just go “I’ll open next weekend” thinks her stuff is SO VITAL, so IMPORTANT that I must hear about it RIGHT NOW when she’s having a problem with it, and keeps sending me one-line emails, of the sort I can’t even delete without reading. (Or worse, and yes, people have done this, calling me to tell me this. One at a time like Juan Valdez.) Even if – and usually that’s what happens – her “insights” are such earthshaking stuff as “you use the word good too much.” Or “you changed the character’s hair color in chapter three.” it’s going to cause damage. First because it gets to the point I see the phone number or the email address and I flinch. Second, because even if it’s all a misunderstanding on Jane’s part, I’m a nail biter. I’ll wonder what I did to bring it about. Best case scenario, I waste three hours hunting typos on the old manuscript. WORST case scenario I become hyper conscious of, say, the word “Good” and become unable to write for a month. Yes, I know that’s ridiculous. But I yam what I yam and I work with what I yam.
So, if you’re a nail biter use betas who will work with you and who will work in circumstances you can manage so that you can continue to be productive. And if you are a beta for a writer and you don’t know which kind they are – well… do what they ask you for. And unless they specifically ask you to be “brutal” or other code word for “I need to be hit over the head with a safe before I’ll listen” present your critique as dispassionately as possible. Avoid stuff like “this part sucked.” Or “I hated how you dropped that plot on the floor” or even (if you’re that kind) “this didn’t work for me.” (Because some people use that with the ‘for me’ as an afterthought and the clear implication it wouldn’t work for anyone.) Instead say “this confused me” or “I didn’t understand why you did that.” Or… (grin) “wouldn’t his suit fall apart in fifteen years?”
Then pay attention to what comes back from the writer. And if the writer gets defensive, don’t argue. Look, if the writer is a nail biter, they’re really arguing with themselves, not you. And if your criticism is warranted they will accept it, it just takes a while and you’re really not part of that process. The more you argue, the more defensive they’ll get. OTOH if the writer is a Jack Horner, there’s a chance you CAN’T get through. So why argue? And as a beta, note when you get proprietary over something you “spotted” too. (This is only a problem if you’re Jane and keep asking the writer if they’re going to change what you said – usually. Normally my betas just tell me stuff and don’t ask if I’m going to change it or not. Those who do usually don’t beta more than once for me.) If the writer says “It wasn’t a problem for anyone else” let it go, unless it’s your area of expertise. (Like, you’re a gun expert, and there’s a chance none of her other betas is.) (Hell, sometimes even if it IS your area of expertise. I’m beta for a dozen people and sometimes I correct them, say, on foreign languages. Most of the time the reply is “Oh, thanks.” But if they say “That wasn’t a problem for anyone else” I SHUT UP. Why? Because those people are likely to be closer to the audience they’re aiming for. If, say, they have a pun in Portuguese (don’t ask. Culturally it doesn’t REALLY happen. Okay, in rare circumstances, but not nearly as much as in English) and I tell them “that wouldn’t be considered a pun” but none of their other betas did… well, how many native Portuguese people will read their book? See what I mean?) It’s not about your being RIGHT, it’s about helping the writer. No matter how right you are, if you find yourself browbeating the writer over a point that does NOT affect how the book will sell, stop. If you’re dealing with a nail biter, at BEST you’ll be cut off. At worst, you’ll cost the writer months of block. If you like the writer’s writing, that’s plain stupid. (And if you don’t, why are you betaing?)
On this, and to save both innocent writers and innocent betas I HAVE to urge caution. If you’re a would-be writer, or even a pro, and you’re betaing… be careful. You tend to see the same problems you have issues with or had issues with at that point, whether they’re there or not. If you still think they’re a problem for the writer you’re betaying, put in a “save”. I always say something like “I might just be seeing this, because I’m struggling with it myself, but I think–” AND make sure you KNOW that might be all. For instance, right now I’m struggling with stage business, which means even in published books, I notice clumsy stage business, and I have to remind myself it’s just because I’m sensitized to it. Be particularly careful if you’re betaing upwards (someone more published.) The bane of contests are judges who are beginner writers and who assume any submission must be from someone junior to them. A couple of years ago, I entered a romance contest under a pen name. I was judged by someone who is a “veteran judge” but unpublished as an author. I got back a note telling me I was trying too ambitious a theme for my poor vocabulary (!) and grammar skills. This idiot had gone around changing words like stolid to words like solid and then complaining the sentences didn’t make sense. She was seeing the speck in my eye because she had a mote in hers… Beware of that. (And I’ll say RIGHT NOW I’ve only had that issue with contests, and never with one of my betas, but other people might.)
Okay, that’s out of the way and sorry for the ramble. I really am not awake enough to be brief.
Whether you’re a Nail Biter or a Jack Horner, there is one circumstance that will throw you for a loop in your own way… When you’re evolving. I call this being “in the air.”
You can NEVER judge your own writing (unless it was done anywhere from a one to ten years ago, when you MIGHT have an inkling) but when you’re changing then you REALLY can’t judge your writing.
All writing “growth” is saltational. I don’t know why. I bet some of the people on my blog do, though. What I mean is that you go along a long time, get comfortable with your style of writing. But all the time, something is happening. It might be a series of small accretions that suddenly change it completely, I suppose – though that never happens to me or my mentees – or it can be that SUDDENLY your writing becomes completely different.
Maybe the Jack Horners think they’re especially good then. I don’t know. I KNOW the Nail Biters immediately get the feeling they aren’t doing it “right”. They’ve managed to negotiate a truce with the inner critic long enough to write stories or books, but now the inner critic is going “this isn’t even as good as you usual cr*p. It’s really, really bad.”
Over the last week I’ve been dealing with two of my mentees telling me how AWFUL their current piece is and how they don’t know how to write anymore. I had a feeling they’d both taken a jump, but being mid rewrite in response to editorial letter (which to me is in itself a delicate psychological act) I couldn’t read them. I’ve now read one of them. Let’s say she’s taken the leap I’ve been praying she’d take for the last three years. It’s not a leap I could take for her, or even explain how to take it. But she’s taken it, and, of course, she’s terrified and wants to shove the story under the bed.
Fortunately she has me to tell her that her writing isn’t sh*t, but her judgement is.
If you’re a Nail Biter and you’re in the air, take a deep breath. If you’ve been writing what other people judge is competent prose for years, it’s unlikely the current effort is THAT bad. (It’s possible, but it usually correlates to illness, injury, extreme old age or extreme tiredness. If you eliminate those, you’re just probably “in the air.”) If it feels that bad, chances are you’ve taken a leap in style and proficiency. Take a deep breath and keep writing until your support system can reassure you.
Yes, I know how scary it is. I’ve been there and have bitten my nails. My last two books were huge leaps for me, and I cried moaned and (metaphorically) crawled under the bed biting my nails. But betas and editor agree that at least the last one is a huge leap.
Be of good cheer and force yourself to forge ahead. Stop biting your nails. You’re just getting good.